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Government Transparency and Co-ordination

Volume 729: debated on Thursday 16 March 2023

6. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on improving Government transparency and co-ordination. (904107)

The Cabinet Office plays a unique role in government, bringing together different Departments across Whitehall to deal with the most complex challenges facing our country. As a founding and current member of the Open Government Partnership, the UK remains committed to improving government transparency. The fifth national action plan for open government sets out the UK’s commitments, and work will start shortly on the sixth plan.

It is several years and, indeed, several Prime Ministers since we had the Union connectivity review. Thankfully, Boris’s bridge has crashed and burned, but, as with the Budget, there were good aspects within it. Sir Peter Hendy, a man who knows about transport, was important in emphasising the vital strategic actions of the east coast main line and the A1 not simply for Scotland, but for the north-east of England. Sadly, questions to the Department for Transport simply result in intimation that there are regular meetings with the Scottish Government, and I have to say that the same obfuscation seems to come from the Scottish Government. We seem to have had no progress whatsoever since Sir Peter Hendy’s Union connectivity review. Can the Government please provide some clarity about what their intentions are on upgrading the east coast main line and the A1?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will be happy to provide that, and that he will be able to report to the hon. Gentleman the record levels of investment made across our whole United Kingdom under this Government.

From partygate to VIP fast lanes, the level of sleaze we have seen under this Government amounts to a grotesque abuse of power, so transparency is surely necessary to restore public confidence. On that basis, does the Secretary of State agree with me about the need for a truly independent ethics commission, free from political interference, that brings together the various roles and responsibilities of the various bodies and committees responsible for upholding standards in public life to create a single, powerful entity that can restore public trust and confidence?

We have very high levels of transparency. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that Labour Members like to talk the talk, but they do not walk the walk. If they really want to restore public confidence through transparency, they should release now the details of the meetings that took place between the Labour party and Sue Gray. They continue to refuse to do so but are perfectly able to, consistent with the rules of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

The Fair Tax Foundation revealed that between 2014 and 2019, one in six public contracts were won by businesses connected to tax havens. That means that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is going towards those who try to avoid paying tax. It is fair that the public have a right to know how their money is spent, so will the Secretary of State support Labour’s measures to increase tax transparency in our procurement system?

We already have high levels of transparency, and the Procurement Bill is going through Parliament. The most important thing is to crack down on tax avoidance through tax havens, which is what we saw in yesterday’s Budget and what we have seen previous ones—for example, by addressing the double Irish issue.

In December, the Committee on Standards in Public Life said it was concerned that 18 months had been lost because of the Government’s failure to respond to its report “Upholding Standards in Public Life”, which recommended stronger rules and a better compliance culture for central Government. When can we expect a formal response from the Government?

We are working through the responses. Clearly, a new Administration came in in November, but we will shortly be in a position to publish all the responses to the report. I am working through it with the Prime Minister and publication will come shortly.

How can we be assured of transparency and integrity in decision making if we do not have a register of Ministers’ interests that has been published any time in the past 10 months?

The Government will publish the latest version of that register shortly. The House has discussed and considered this issue, and the hon. Lady may have heard the comments made by the Leader of the House. We are moving to a situation in which we both produce the transparency returns more rapidly and align them more closely with the parliamentary register, but it is important that we get the systems in place so that that can be done properly.