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Topical Questions

Volume 748: debated on Thursday 25 April 2024

The Cabinet Office continues to play a central co-ordinating role in protecting our national and economic security. Last week, we published the response to the call for evidence on the National Security and Investment Act 2021, and I set out the steps we will take to fine-tune that system, including honing our approach to export controls, outward investment and providing more support to business.

Later, I will be convening a round table of university vice-chancellors to brief them on the security risks in research and academia, and to discuss how we address those. All of that complements our plans for a generational £75 billion uplift in defence spending, including a new national defence and resilience plan, setting out a cross-Government approach to security, preparedness and resilience as a nation.

It is often claimed by critics that the continual stream of ineffective and incompetent legislation we see from Holyrood is evidence of the need for a second, democratically elected Chamber to scrutinise properly. We have such an effective Chamber here and this week we have seen how important it can be in legislation. Would that Chamber’s position not have been strengthened by being a democratically elected second revising Chamber? Does the Secretary of State agree that the time has come when we need to look again at how we reform the House of Lords to make it more relevant to the 21st century and more democratic?

I am afraid that I completely disagree with the hon. Lady about having an elected second Chamber. This is the democratic Chamber for our nation. It is the principal voice of the nation. We do not need a second Chamber in conflict with this one, further burdening and complexing legislative processes.

The very welcome Windsor framework demonstrated a strong commitment to human and animal health by extending Northern Ireland’s access to veterinary medicines until 2025. I welcome the establishment of the veterinary medicines working group by the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Minister of State. I am pleased to be part of that group, which is working hard to find a permanent solution to this matter. Can my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State in the Cabinet Office, reassure the House that the Government will continue to strain every sinew in discussions with the EU to protect both animal health and public health in Northern Ireland and right across the UK with a permanent solution for access to veterinary medicines in Northern Ireland?

Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker, I can so assure my hon. Friend. I am very grateful to him for bringing his professional expertise to bear within the working group. We have met twice and we intend to report at the end of June. We will then have a consistent and coherent position with which we can go forward to blend a combination of adaptation and, I hope, productive negotiations with the EU to deliver a long-lasting, permanent solution to safeguard both animal and human health on the island of Ireland. I am determined that we should do that in a coherent and professional manner, and I look forward to working with him to do so.

May I begin with a moment of unity? The Deputy Prime Minister and I are both pushing for an early general election as soon as possible. I very much welcome his recognition that there is absolutely no point in this Conservative Government carrying on in office a moment longer.

Further to the question a little earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mike Amesbury), this week two people were charged in this country, under the Official Secrets Act, with spying for China, one of whom worked for politicians in this House.

Order. I must stop the right hon. Gentleman. It seems to me that he is about to go down a road on a matter that is sub judice, which cannot be discussed here in this Chamber. The Speaker made a statement at the beginning of business earlier this week, asking Members not to refer to this matter, because it is sub judice. Can the right hon. Gentleman ask his general question in a different way, and not refer to that specific issue?

Thank you for your guidance, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall ask a policy question.

The Government recently awarded a contract for a supercomputer to Lenovo, a China-headquartered firm that has been the subject of enforcement action by the United States on security grounds. This supercomputer will be used by critical Government bodies such as the UK Atomic Energy Authority. How will Ministers safeguard the public against any possible misuse of sensitive Government data as a result of the awarding of the contract?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that he has also written to me regarding that topic. I can assure him that we will be working with the National Cyber Security Centre and the National Security Secretariat to ensure that full checks and measures are put in place to prevent such abuse from occurring.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to his role as general election co-ordinator for the Labour party. I understand that he sits on the quad, which determines Labour policy, so perhaps he could clear up, for the benefit of us all, this question on an issue of national security. Does the Labour party support our £75 billion increase in defence spending? If he cares about these things, the answer should be plainly, “Yes, we do”.

When we announce a policy, we ensure that it is properly costed and funded, which I recommend to the Deputy Prime Minister. One other cyber-threat that modern states are facing is prepositioning: the planting of destructive software in critical infrastructure that can then be activated at a later date. The director of the FBI said that prepositioning of the Volt Typhoon type discovered in American infrastructure was

“the defining threat of our generation”.

America’s cyber-defence agency said that Five Eyes allies were also likely to have been targeted. Have the Government looked for or found Volt-Typhoon-type infiltration of any parts of our critical national IT infrastructure, and if so what action is being taken to remove it?

The right hon. Gentleman has been around this place long enough to know that he is delivering a non-answer on Labour’s support for defence spending. The whole House will have noted that, although he raises an important issue in respect of prepositioning. He will appreciate that there are limits to what I can say from the Dispatch Box given that some of this relates to high-side intelligence, but I assure him that we are working with our Five Eyes allies, in particular the United States, since the US and the UK have exceptional capability in these areas, to ensure that we both have adequate knowledge and understanding of such prepositioning, and take effective steps in respect of it.

Eight weeks ago, on 29 February, at first order questions, I asked the Minister without Portfolio what the Government would do to assist people who are adversely affected by the statute of limitations as a result of having been injured by covid-19 vaccines. My right hon. Friend said in response that she had taken the issue to the permanent secretary. Will she update us on what has happened with the permanent secretary over the past eight weeks?

I thank my hon. Friend for asking that question. He is a tireless campaigner on this matter, on which he has met with me and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. As I said to my hon. Friend, I am dealing with this matter with the permanent secretary; he will know that we have a new permanent secretary in the Department, and we are working at pace to resolve it.

Last year, the UK Government promised to relocate hundreds of civil service posts to the north-east of Scotland. It has now been confirmed that the total number will be 35. Given the billions generated in energy revenues and the unparalleled potential of our area in powering our green future, can the Minister please explain to the people of the north-east of Scotland how hundreds and 35 are now the same thing?

I think the hon. Lady is referring to the second headquarters of the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero in Aberdeen, which I visited just before Christmas. I think that there was a misunderstanding about the numbers that were quoted in the paper. Some 18,283 jobs have moved out of London as a consequence of the places for growth programme. I will examine the number that have moved to Scotland, and write to her to clarify the Government’s position.

T2. I recently met with Emma Howard Boyd to discuss the interim findings of the Mayor of London’s climate resilience review, which she has been leading on. It involves the work of many different Government Departments at a national level. Will the Minister update us on whether we are conducting a similar exercise? The review is looking at what the impact would be of a similar heat- wave to the one we had a couple of years ago, flash flooding and all sorts of things. It is not just the responsibility of DESNZ or the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; it covers many Departments, so it is a Cabinet Office responsibility. (902504)

It is an important question. We are doing exactly that. Extreme heat is something that we have to increasingly plan against. That is why last year, for the first time, we introduced an alert system for extreme heat that matches the alert system for extreme cold. I disagree, though, with the Mayor of London that the way to deal with this is to start imposing 20 mph speed limits everywhere and an ultra low emission zone. I hope that the people of London will take the opportunity to vote against that next week.

Earlier we heard a number of statements from the Opposition questioning ministerial integrity, but perhaps they should look closer to home—to be precise, at the first Minister of Wales and his links with donations to his leadership campaign and the Development Bank of Wales. Can the Minister tell us when the Welsh Labour party will apply to itself the standards that Labour has called for in the Chamber this morning—[Interruption.]

Order. If you all shout, I cannot hear what the hon. Lady is saying, but I think there is some doubt: the hon. Lady cannot ask the Minister a question about what the Labour party will do. Would she like to rephrase what she is saying?

With reference to the links between the First Minister of Wales, the donations to his campaign and the Development Bank of Wales, would the Minister like to describe why this is such an issue for the people of Wales while the Opposition keep shouting that we are doing the wrong thing?

My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. If a devolved Administration receives a donation as part of a political campaign—if the leader of that Administration receives a £200,000 donation at the same time that the Development Bank of Wales makes a £400,000 loan to a subsidiary of that company—that is surely a matter of public interest. It will be for the First Minister of Wales to determine what is appropriate, but I would have thought some explanation would be the very least that the people of Wales would expect.

T3. Last year the Government pledged to introduce a ministerial deed to legally commit Ministers to keeping to the after-Government business appointment rules. If I were cynical, I could think of a reason why the Government have not brought that commitment forward, but might the Minister give an idea of when he intends to do so? (902505)

The hon. Lady is right: in July, in response to those three reports from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Boardman review and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Government did say they would work up strengthening the rules on business appointments and developing that ministerial deed. I cannot give an update at this point, because it is work the Deputy Prime Minister and his team are leading on, but it is important work and we do need to get it right.

T4. I thank the Paymaster General for all his hard work on the contaminated blood scandal. However, as you would expect, Madam Deputy Speaker, I still urge him to go further and faster to get this situation resolved. If the infected blood compensation authority is to be established upon Royal Assent, can the Minister outline the timescale and process for the appointment of the chair and the other directors, and how those with lived experience will be involved and included among those directors? (902506)

I thank the right hon. Lady for her kind words and her constructive approach. It is absolutely right that she continues to press me, as she does at every opportunity. Reflecting on our conversations and what she has said to me, the key thing is to ensure that we maintain and reclaim the trust of the infected blood community in all its dimensions. She will know that I am engaging with them in depth over several meetings on 1 and 10 May. Sir Brian Langstaff made clear that the infected blood community and all those accessing the scheme should have a role to play in its delivery, so, consequential to listening to what they say to me, I will be thinking about how we build that in. As she knows, the Government have made provisions for committees and sub-committees to ensure representation of the communities, while also maintaining an independent, arm’s length body. I will need to reconcile those. I am sorry that I cannot give her a timetable, but I am working on it in some detail.

T5. If I may press the Deputy Prime Minister, Foreign Office officials have refused to say whether Lord Cameron has recused himself from parts of his role as Foreign Secretary, given his previous well-paid work in promoting the China-backed Port City Colombo. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Foreign Secretary has recused himself from any part of his ministerial duties? (902508)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, shortly before taking office the Foreign Secretary not only had all his interests properly reviewed by the propriety and ethics team in my Department, but went through them with the independent adviser on ministers’ interests. The independent adviser set out all relevant interests, and those have been published, so the information is transparently out there for people to be able to judge for themselves.

T6. Ever since the monster Cyril Smith, formally of this House, but initially mayor of Rochdale, the town has been blighted by scandals of grooming and cover-up. We currently have 64 men on bail on grooming charges in Rochdale. The previous Labour mayor of Rochdale and the next mayor of Rochdale—the King’s representatives—were both investigated on charges of sexual malpractice towards young girls in their employ, with all the power imbalances that that implies. Self-regulation, with no investigation by any outside party—how can this be right? What will the Minister do to help me to clean up Rochdale? (902511)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, any criminal allegations are properly a matter for the courts, and he would not expect a Minister to comment on them from this Dispatch Box. If he wishes to write to me in respect of the further allegations he makes, I will be happy to take them up myself or with ministerial colleagues.

What consideration has been given to the merits of making it illegal for public sector bodies to pay ransoms if they are the victim of a ransomware attack?

That is a good question; it is something the Government continue to keep open and under review. The argument against doing so is that it could discourage companies that are subject to ransomware attacks from reporting them, for example to the National Cyber Security Centre. Those reports help us to gather intelligence on the nature of those threats and to work with victims to resolve them. It is not something I rule out totally, but that is the reason that we have not imposed it so far.

The Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Moor View (Johnny Mercer), will know that many councils in Northern Ireland have appointed veterans’ champions. Will he join me in acknowledging the work that many veterans’ champions do? Will he also call on the wide range of political parties on councils in Northern Ireland to offer their unstinting support to those champions to help to deliver services to veterans?

Yes, of course. We have made extraordinary progress on veterans affairs in Northern Ireland. I recognise and have always recognised the unique difficulties of that. Veterans’ services, and ensuring that these people are looked after because of their service, should not be at the whim of different political parties. I am working at pace to establish an outpost of the Office for Veterans’ Affairs in Northern Ireland to create an environment where everyone can work together and pull together all the different services to get veterans’ care in Northern Ireland up to the same level as in England. I look forward to working with the hon. Gentleman and other elected representatives out there from all parties to make sure that we do the right thing.

With two former Conservative Prime Ministers having recently contravened the ministerial code—twice, in the case of Boris Johnson—and the Radcliffe rules, in the case of his successor, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), is it now Tory party policy to routinely ignore the rules? If not, what sanctions will they face?

The hon. Lady is correct to say that the book by the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), was reviewed under the Radcliffe rules. The Cabinet Office did not clear it. The overwhelming majority of books that are submitted do comply. We will have to keep these matters under review.

This is a very simple question to the Deputy Prime Minister: does the Foreign Secretary stand recused in any aspect of his job by virtue of his financial interests, either now or before he was appointed to his post—yes or no?

The Labour party keep on pushing on this point, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the latest list of ministerial interests, which was published in December and provides details of Minister’s interests, including those of the Foreign Secretary, that are judged by the independent adviser to be relevant, or could be perceived to be relevant, to their ministerial roles. All of it is there in the public domain.

With reference to the written questions that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office has answered, can he outline what the Government consider to be the difference between a foreign court and an international court?

The Paymaster General told my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) that he could not give a timeline with regard to the infected blood scandal compensation. This subject is raised on an almost daily basis in this House by Members on both sides, because our constituents just cannot understand why it is taking so long. Can he at least give an indication of when he thinks compensation might begin to be paid? It is especially important given that, as I understand it, one victim of the scandal dies every four days.

The answer to this is to be found when we issue the comprehensive response to the inquiry, as soon as possible after 20 May. Legislation is going through the other place to make good on the amendment that was passed in this House by virtue of the advocacy and leadership of the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson). We have announced that we will make some interim payments to the estates of those deceased infected who have not yet received any money, but the substantive response to translate 18 recommendations into meaningful and actionable responses for a wide community over 40 or 50 years obviously demands a lot of work to quantify and get the process right. We will update the House as quickly as possible after 20 May.

Just now, the Deputy Prime Minister raised the issue of the £75 billion public spending announcement. Would he care to tell the House why, after 14 years in power, it takes an upcoming general election for him and his party to make defence spending policies?

It may have escaped the hon. Gentleman’s attention, but Russia has invaded Ukraine and Iran’s proxies are attacking our allies in the middle east. That demands a response from the Government, and it has been provided by the Prime Minister. It is very notable that the Labour party is failing to match that commitment.

Papers at an employment tribunal last week reported that Rowaa Ahmar, a former civil servant, stated that

“the racism within the Cabinet Office appeared to be unrelenting and systemic”,

and that, despite having a role as head of policy in the Government’s illegal migration taskforce, she was made unwelcome at meetings about the Rwanda plan because of her views on the racist ultra-hostility of the policies. Is Ms Ahmar right that speaking up against racism in the Cabinet Office is a career death sentence?

I do not accept that at all. Of course, Ms Ahmar withdrew her allegations completely on the eve of having them scrutinised at the higher tribunal, so I do not accept that, and it is absolutely right that senior civil servants take action when there are performance issues with the staff under them, without fear of allegations being made against them.

Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) about the infected blood scandal, the Cumberlege report highlighted over three years ago the need for redress for victims of the sodium valproate, vaginal mesh and Primodos scandals. What progress has been made on redress for those victims?

I am sorry; I am not able to give an answer on those other scandals. There was a Backbench Business debate on redress schemes last Thursday, to which the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart) replied. I believe that work is ongoing, but I will have to write to the hon. Gentleman to give him a thorough answer on the matter.

On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I appreciate that standards may have changed since I was last in this place, but in answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Alex Burghart), rose to the Dispatch Box and said, “We have answered this question on a number of occasions.” Can that possibly be a legitimate ministerial answer? After all, that could be the answer to virtually every question that is ever asked in this House.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I cannot help agreeing with his final point, having sat in the Chair for thousands of hours and heard the same question answered again and again. He makes a very good point: Ministers are responsible, and have a duty to answer the question again and again. However, if the Minister thought—today or at any other time—that the appropriate answer in the circumstances was the one that the hon. Gentleman just quoted, that is not something that I can criticise, or a matter on which I can take action. As Mr Speaker has said many times, and as I am very pleased to repeat, what Ministers say at the Dispatch Box is not a matter for the Chair.

The hon. Gentleman’s point of order has brought us perfectly to just after 10.30 am. We can therefore proceed to the business question.