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Topical Questions

Volume 681: debated on Thursday 1 October 2020

On Monday, the Paymaster General and I were in Brussels for the latest meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, which I co-chaired with my EU counterpart, Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič. We made progress on a number of areas, and specialised committees will meet in the coming weeks to conclude further work.

The Government have confirmed that they are adopting a public health approach to tackling youth violence. This involves a cross-departmental, multi-agency approach, and a long-term strategy over a minimum of 10 years. Can the Minister therefore offer any explanation as to why the serious violence taskforce has not met for over a year?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising this question. She has been a consistent voice in this House, and beyond it, for new, imaginative and effective ways of dealing with the scourge of youth and gang violence. Her attention and focus on this issue has helped to improve the work of Government and others. Some of the issues that she mentions are subsumed within the work of the broader criminal justice taskforce that the Prime Minister has set up. I will ask the Home Office to make sure that there is an opportunity for her to be briefed on its work, and if there is more that can and should be done, then we will benefit from her involvement.

We are told that the two sticking points in the Brexit negotiations are state aid and fisheries, but we have now learned from a leaked letter—not from Ministers—that cars made in Britain are likely to face tariffs from 1 January next year, deal or no deal. Detailed negotiations on automotives or on crucial rules of origin requirements are not on the agenda for the crunch talks taking place this week, and there are no further rounds of negotiations planned. So can the Minister tell the House at what point precisely do the British Government give up on the British car industry?

The hon. Lady, not least during the time when she was Chairman of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, was a strong champion for manufacturing, and indeed this Government are strongly committed to manufacturing, not least in the automotive sector. Of course we are fighting for the best possible deal on rules of origin and diagonal cumulation, and we are seeking a no-tariff and no-quota deal with the European Union. That has always been our consistent aim.

The complacency is staggering. It is the responsibility of the British Government to stand up for British industry. The letter from the Government’s chief negotiator says that they “obviously cannot insist on” tariff-free trade. But our Government should be insisting on the very best deal for car manufacturing and for British industry. There are 150,000 jobs that depend on car manufacturing. I can tell this House that a Labour Government would do that. Will the Minister get out of first gear and prioritise and protect the jewels in the crown of British manufacturing? Will he agree to urgently meet representatives of the automotive sector and the trade unions Unite and GMB to ensure that we do not do away with this vital industry and the vital jobs that depend on it?

The hon. Lady knows how to wound with her reference to getting out of first gear. I suspect that she knows, as many Members know, that it took me seven attempts to pass my driving test and therefore I am not an expert—

I took my final successful test in Aldershot, not County Durham, but still.

On the hon. Lady’s serious and substantive point, she is right and I will happily meet representatives of the manufacturing sector, including representatives of the trade unions. It is our aim to secure tariff-free access. Officials from the Cabinet Office talked to Ford Motor Company only earlier this week to make sure that we could support them through the end of the transition period. The hon. Lady is right to emphasise the importance of the sector, not least as we move from internal combustion engine manufacture and towards electric and other zero carbon vehicles.

We have heard from the First Minister of Wales in the past few months that he has had no engagement or meetings with the Prime Minister about covid. He is clearly trying to make out that there has been no contact with the UK Government. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there has been significant discussion between the UK and Welsh Governments? What discussions has he had recently with the devolved Administrations about the upcoming end to the transition period? (906930)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. As I said earlier, there was a Cobra meeting just last week at which the First Minister of Wales was an important and constructive participant, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister talked to the First Minister prior to that. I enjoy my regular conversations with the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. I think I have probably spoken to the First Minister of Wales more often in the past couple of months than I have to my own mum and dad, and that is a reflection of the high regard in which I hold the First Minister of Wales, not of any lack of regard for my parents in Aberdeen.

Last week the right hon. Gentleman told the House that the two IT systems that will be crucial to enabling goods to move across the border from 1 January—namely the goods vehicle movement service and smart freight—“are in operation.” Later that day, the chief executive of the Road Haulage Association wrote that these were “absolutely not in operation.” I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman would like to clarify what he meant. (906931)

Yes of course. I have found that the Road Haulage Association, valuable organisation though it may be, has not always necessarily been the most constructive partner at every stage in the conversations that we needed to have. Nevertheless, I think it is the case that we are having conversations with it and others to ensure that these and the other IT systems that we need for the end of the transition period are in place.

What steps are the Government taking to ensure that businesses in Basildon and Thurrock are ready for the end of the transition period, regardless of the outcome? (906941)

The Government’s campaign to ensure that businesses are ready for the opportunities and to meet and master the challenges that come at the end of the transition period has seen an uptick in the preparedness of UK business, but there is much more that needs to be done. We published our reasonable worst case scenario last week to demonstrate the consequences if we do not all work together to ensure that we are ready for 1 January.

Can my right hon. Friend outline what steps are being taken to deliver the much-needed Whitehall reforms that he outlined in the Ditchley speech earlier this year to ensure that the Government can deliver effectively for all corners and communities of the UK? May I welcome his call for the civil service to return to Whitehall? (906942)

We are undertaking a number of strands of work. One is making sure that we can more effectively disperse key decision makers across the UK—to Teesside and other parts of the UK—and my colleague Lord Agnew is leading work to ensure that new senior civil service posts are located outside central London. Work requires to be undertaken to make us more transparent and effective in how we deliver for all parts of the UK. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller), we are doing more to use data and digital tools to make transparent the work of Government.

    As was discussed in the blue collar Conservative session in Sedgefield, opportunities for UK growth post-covid and Brexit are aligned by doing everything that we can to support Made in Britain. Will my right hon. Friend support that agenda and encourage HS2 in particular to do so rather than placing orders for steel and bridges overseas? We have great companies in Sedgefield such as Ebac, Cleveland Bridge, Hitachi and indeed Roman showers, of which David Osborne, one of the joint chairs of Made in Britain, is the managing director. I invite my right hon. Friend to come with me to visit Roman and others to see for himself the passion behind a Made in Britain agenda? (906944)

Hon. Members for Sedgefield have always been powerful advocates for the north-east, but none more so than my hon. Friend the current Member. He is absolutely right that Teesside, with Sedgefield in particular and County Durham as well, is at the beating heart of the economic future of this country. We need to invest in the next generation of manufacturing excellence; it is the young men and women of his constituency who will be at the cutting edge of that revolution, and they have no better advocate for manufacturing, for growth and for smarter government than him.

I come now to the hon. Member for Bedford, whose birthday it is. Happy birthday, Mohammad Yasin.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has said that over his dead body would he accept United States food standards, so will he take the opportunity to protect our farmers and keep our food clean and safe in a post-Brexit future by enshrining our standards in law when the Agriculture Bill returns to this place?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question and I wish him a happy birthday. I also take the opportunity, while at the Dispatch Box, to wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) a happy birthday. It is her birthday as well today, and I hope that she has an enjoyable day and a relaxing weekend. On the broader question of food standards, it is already the case that in law we uphold very high animal welfare, environmental protection and food safety standards, and there will be no compromise on those.

Like many small and medium-sized enterprises, Hydro Cleansing in Carshalton and Wallington provides very specialist services that are not available on the open market, yet it still has trouble getting access to public sector contracts. What more can my right hon. Friend do to ensure that SMEs such as Hydro Cleansing can get access to those contracts?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Small and medium-sized enterprises are the backbone of our economy, and in Carshalton and Wallington there are a number of SMEs, effectively represented by him, who deserve a squarer go when it comes to getting access to Government contracts. We need to simplify the process of procurement, and outside the European Union we can do precisely that.

Given that today we have heard a number of very positive comments from Ministers about the effectiveness and the quality—sorry, I am trying not to laugh here—of the delivery of test and trace by the private sector, is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster aware of the recent survey that showed that 74% of the public want those services delivered by local public health teams, which have proven to be far more effective in stopping the spread of the virus?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. The important thing to say is that, when it comes to the delivery of all public services, what is right is what works. We need to ensure that we have an effective mix of public sector and private sector delivery. It is the case that we would not have been able to increase testing capacity to the current levels that we have without the involvement of the private sector, and it is central Government, local government and the private sector working effectively together that ensures that we can both test, and track and trace, in the way that is best guaranteed to keep our respective constituents safe. So we look at the evidence, but we also ensure that we do everything we can to have the innovation of the private sector and the compassion of the public sector working hand in hand.

Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is in the interests of both Unions—the EU and the UK—for the EU to return to the negotiating table, end its games of brinkmanship and sign the deal?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One reason that David Frost is in Brussels today is to seek to ensure that we can get the best possible deal. Progress has been made in a huge number of areas, but, as the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) pointed out earlier, there are still one or two sticking points—on state aid, the level playing field and fisheries. With good will on both sides, we can achieve resolution. I certainly know that the Government are determined to do that, but of course we have clear red lines that we will not cross. It is vital that we maintain our faith with the British electorate, and ensure that on 1 January we leave the European Union, single market and customs union, and take back control.

In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for three minutes.

Sitting suspended.