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Topical Questions

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023

Our economic security is more important than ever, which is why it was at the heart of this week’s integrated review refresh. As part of that refresh, we announced an ambitious programme to bolster our economic defences, which I am leading from the Cabinet Office. That includes a new body in MI5, the National Protective Security Authority, to give businesses the frontline expert national security advice they require, as well as a new supply chain strategy and improved export controls. Those measures will put us at the front of the pack for economic security and ensure that we remain one of the most attractive places in the world to invest.

The former Prime Minister has declared outside earnings of £4.8 million since he left office in disgrace—all of that, of course, on top of his MP’s salary. Why is the taxpayer now being hit for more than £220,000 in partygate legal fees on his behalf during a cost of living crisis? Is that fair?

As the hon. Gentleman may know, there is a long-standing convention that Ministers of either party—this applies to Ministers of both political parties who have been in government—are entitled to legal support in respect of decisions that they made in government. That is an important constitutional safeguard to ensure that Ministers can act freely in government.

T3. Can my hon. Friend assure me that all branches of the Ministry of Truth, which was exposed in the Big Brother Watch report in January, have now been disbanded, so that we no longer have Government and taxpayer-funded activity discrediting MPs who hold the Government to account? In answer to the earlier point that was made, can my hon. Friend explain why, in answer to parliamentary question 148802, which requested information on whether or not the Government were monitoring MPs, no answer was forthcoming? If it was so innocent, why was no answer forthcoming? (904128)

There is no Ministry of Truth; there is the Cabinet Office. The rapid response unit was disbanded in August last year, and I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about any of his concerns, particularly any parliamentary questions that he feels have not been answered properly.

The Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and promised to restore integrity, accountability and respect in Government. Reports this week suggest that concerns were raised at the highest levels in Government about the Deputy Prime Minister’s intimidatory behaviour, and yet nothing was done. Can the Secretary of State clarify here today, did the Cabinet Office warn the Prime Minister about the conduct of the Deputy Prime Minister before he was reappointed to the Cabinet?

The right hon. Lady will know that we have been through this process many times before. I thought the Labour party believed in due process. The due process is that Adam Tolley, a very senior KC, is investigating all aspects of that, and I am not going to pre-empt his report in any way.

Yet again, the Secretary of State hides behind the so-called independent inquiry and dodges the question. The reality is that he is protecting a corrupt standards regime upheld by the Conservatives for the last 13 years, with the Prime Minister as judge and jury. Can the Secretary of State say today, in no uncertain terms, when Adam Tolley’s fact-finding mission is complete, will the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser be asked to provide a judgment about whether there has been a breach of the ministerial code by the Deputy Prime Minister?

As the right hon. Lady will know, the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser is independent. It will be a matter for him to decide whether he wishes to take further action, in consultation with the Prime Minister. We see this time and again from the Labour party. They call on us to have an independent inquiry. As soon as we announce an independent inquiry, they ask us to pre-empt it. They ask us to have transparency, yet when it comes to transparency from the Labour party, they still have not provided details of the extensive meetings they had with a serving civil servant. It is in the public interest to declare that, and they have still failed to do so.

T5. I have heard from both my local authorities of the challenges that arise when the obligations placed on them by one Government Department may conflict with those from another Department. For example, the Illegal Migration Bill contains provisions regarding modern slavery and education, which may conflict with local authority legal duties under the Children Act 1989 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015. What proposals are there across Government to ensure that joined-up advice is provided, so that such conflicts do not result in difficulties for our public services? (904131)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have a number of structures in Government to ensure that Departments work effectively together. In relation to parliamentary legislation, there is the Parliamentary Business and Legislation Cabinet Committee, which is led by the Leader of the House. There is also the Economic and Domestic Affairs Secretariat, which ensures co-ordination between different Departments, and those are long-established practices.

T2.   Despite the inquiry by Adam Heppinstall KC beginning over a month ago, the Cabinet Office is yet to speak to Richard Sharp regarding his appointment as BBC chairman. He was appointed to the role over two years ago. Will the Secretary of State advise the House when this inquiry intends to speak to its own subject and when we can expect it to report back its findings? This is a matter of national interest and importance. (904126)

First, I should say that I oversaw that appointment process. I have every confidence in its propriety, and I am sure the inquiry will find that that was the case. In order to ensure that it is an independent inquiry, it is independent from the Cabinet Office, so I cannot give commentary on its timings; that is for the person conducting it.

As the country grinds to a halt once again and children are denied education at the hands of militant trade unions, we learn that the Labour party wants to repeal every anti-strike law in the country. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the public cannot afford or trust a Labour Government while they remain in the pocket of militant trade unions?

It may not surprise the House to hear that I totally agree with my hon. Friend. I am afraid we have seen more evidence of that in this House this year. When this Government brought forward legislation to protect hard-working people from disruptive strikes, the Opposition failed to support minimum service levels.

T4.   I refer to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a proud supporter of every single civil servant who took strike action yesterday. Civil servants have received correspondence from Government Members saying either that civil service pay should be resolved by speaking to human resources or that these decisions should be left to pay review bodies. Civil service pay is not covered by a pay review body, so will the Minister agree to meet the PCS urgently to resolve the dispute and to help his colleagues better understand how civil service pay actually operates? [R] (904129)

Civil service pay is determined at delegated levels between the Departments concerned. At the senior ranks of the civil service, it is more of a Cabinet Office responsibility. I have met the leadership of the PCS—I did so in January. There are ongoing discussions between officials in the Cabinet Office and the unions. We want to see this resolved, but I do not believe that matters are helped one iota by people going on strike and having an impact on the very people they are employed to serve, and I know do serve with great commitment and dedication.

Can the Minister outline what immediate plans the Government have to relocate civil servants out of London? Does he agree that my Cleethorpes constituency and neighbouring Grimsby, as major centres for the renewable energy sector, would be an ideal location for officials who oversee that sector?

The good news to share with my hon. Friend is that we have already got halfway to our target of 22,000 jobs moved out of London around the UK, and a huge number of those jobs have gone to the north of England. I am sure that my hon. Friend will make his case for his constituency in his normal, incredibly effective way.

T6. We had a local council by-election in my constituency last week, which the Liberal Democrats won of course, but it was a reminder of the challenges we face in encouraging high voter turnout at our elections. A recent survey by the Electoral Commission showed that more than a third of people are still unaware of what they will need to take to the ballot box with them in future to vote. When we add to that the number of people who will not have that, how are the Government going to address that shortage? (904132)

The hon. Lady will be pleased to hear that there is a major communications programme to address just that issue.

I thank the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer) for coming to visit the Veterans Charity in Barnstaple earlier this year. Does he agree that such charities run by veterans often play an excellent complementary role to the excellent work his Department is doing?

I of course pay tribute to the Veterans Charity—it was a fantastic visit—but I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s advocacy of it over many years. It has been extraordinary. It provides great services down in the south-west, and I pay tribute to it.

It has recently been revealed that the Crown Commercial Service in the Cabinet Office is planning to replace local buying and distribution agreements for food and catering services with what it calls a single national prime supplier. That will have a profound effect on many local and regional wholesalers in Cambridge and across the country. Can the Minister tell us what assessment he has made of that impact, and will he meet me and representatives of those wholesalers to assess the situation?

The Crown Commercial Service is always looking at ways in which it can save taxpayers’ money, but it is also mindful to protect small and medium-sized enterprises, which remain a priority for this Administration.

The global expansion of cyber-space is changing the way we live and work. Can my right hon. Friend outline what steps he is taking to advance our national cyber-security strategy and to bolster our defences against malign actors around the world?

Clearly the landscape in which we are operating is getting more risky over time, with geopolitical elements, as the House is aware. I am spending more and more of my time ensuring that we reach appropriate levels of cyber-security, working with the National Cyber Security Centre and other agencies.

I echo the earlier question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) about the contaminated blood scandal. The inquiry is coming to an end, and another interim report is due shortly. I just reiterate that it is so incredibly important for those affected, including bereaved parents such as the Smiths in my constituency, that we know that the Government are preparing now and are ready to act quickly on compensation for those people who have waited so long.

The hon. Lady has campaigned vigorously on this on behalf of her constituents. I am aware of her absolute focus on this matter of major concern. There is work ongoing; I think we will be helped a great deal by Brian Langstaff’s second interim report, which I believe will address compensation. That will help us get that underpinning. It is an incredibly complex issue, as I am discovering, but I can assure the hon. Lady that work is being conducted in Government to make certain we are ready for the second interim report, and then the final one.

In 2016, Hinkley Point C was estimated to cost £18 billion. The latest update is that it is going to cost £33 billion. The UK Government want to replicate Hinkley Point C at Sizewell C; why, then, are they still estimating the cost of Sizewell C at £18 billion? When are they going to come clean about the real cost of Sizewell C?

Some of the precision of that would be better answered by my colleagues in the relevant Department, but what I will say to reassure the hon. Gentleman is that the Infrastructure and Projects Authority learns with every single project that we do. I have discussed this with the IPA, and there will be a huge amount of learning from the planning that has already gone on as to how we can make certain that future projects learn from experience and are more cost-effective. That was the case with how we have built schools: right across the Government service, we are finding ways of learning and applying that more regularly.

I am going to have another go. Will the Paymaster General agree to a series of update meetings with those infected and affected by the contaminated blood scandal in the months leading up to Sir Brian Langstaff’s final report? That is a specific question.

The next point in this process will be the second interim report, and when that is published, I will meet the right hon. Lady and her colleagues from the all-party parliamentary group if that is helpful. That is about two weeks away, in the Easter recess.

Given that Brexit was all about this place taking back control, why are the Government using so many Henry VIII clauses and awarding themselves other delegated powers in the Brexit legislation that they are passing? Is it not about time that we had a proper review of how delegated legislation works, along the lines recently proposed by the Hansard Society?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman would appreciate that, given the sheer volume of European legislation that we accumulated during our membership, we have to move rapidly to establish sovereign control. That is why we have the provisions in that Bill. The provisions of the Bill have been approved by this House and are currently under consideration in the other place, so Members have had ample opportunity to make their views known and to vote on it.

The Veterans’ Minister and I recently met the hero, Ben Parkinson. I was certainly concerned to hear that there was not provision within the system to cover the cost of Ben’s wheelchair. Could the Minister say whether provision was made in yesterday’s Budget to cover those costs, and if so, will he take the opportunity to pay tribute to Ben and his family for their persistence in making the case?

The hon. Gentleman is referring to the veterans mobility fund. He is absolutely right: none of these individuals with these catastrophic injuries should be contributing anything to their specialist mobility equipment. That is why, yesterday, we managed to reinstate the veterans mobility fund, and I pay tribute to Ben and his family for their campaigning on that issue. It is an important piece of work, and we will make sure we see it through.

Figures show that 50% of female spouses of serving personnel aged 30 to 49 experience loneliness, in contrast to 27% of women of the same age in the general population. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that adequate emotional support services are available to the spouses and families of serving personnel?

That is a question for the Minister for support personnel, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), but I know that he would mention all the work that has gone into groups such as Recruit for Spouses, and all the work that those groups do. There is a massive unmet skillset in that space that we should take advantage of; there are some brilliant skills there, and I know the Ministry of Defence is working hard on that at this time.

Sitting suspended.