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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 11 February 2021

Cabinet Office

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Office for Veterans’ Affairs: Government Support

The Prime Minister set up the Office for Veterans’ Affairs because he, like me, is determined to ensure that this country becomes the best place in the world to be a veteran. In addition to excellent officials, the OVA benefits from expert advice from the Government’s Veterans Advisory Board and the newly appointed veterans adviser.

Local Elections: Covid-19

What safety measures his Department plans to take to help ensure the 2021 local elections can take place during the covid-19 outbreak. (912189)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will take the questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Blyth Valley (Ian Levy) and the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Matt Western) together.

In 2019, I think we all took for granted the ability to run election campaigns that could properly engage with the electorate. Campaigning for this year’s elections on 6 May will look very different, but now more than ever, there is a need to engage with our constituents. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that all those who stand for elections should be able to convey their messages to voters, and will he please elaborate on how he believes campaigning should go ahead in a covid-secure way?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: democracy should not be cancelled because of covid-19. The polls that are scheduled for May will go ahead, and it is important that he and others communicate with his constituents. Of course, social media provides one means of doing so. At the moment, door-to-door campaigning and leafleting are not allowed because of covid restrictions, but we will be reviewing how we can make sure that he and others can keep faith with the constituents who elected him so memorably just over a year ago.

The public will be expecting covid-safe and fair elections in May. Presently, households are receiving flyers for pizzas and takeaways delivered by individuals, but volunteers are not supposed to be delivering leaflets for political parties, although some are clearly ignoring that. In local elections, the public need representatives who will speak up for them and not for property developers such as the six leading Tory donors that have given £4.5 million, an increase of 400%, since July 2019. Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree that if only paid-for leafleting were allowed, that would be a disastrous disservice to our democracy?

The hon. Gentleman makes a series of important points. It is quite right that some political activists have been leafleting on the ground in a way that current rules do not allow for, and we deprecate that across the House. His broader point is right as well, of course; we must make sure that our democratic processes are free from any taint of interference. He is also right that the role of property developers needs to be scrutinised when we are looking at how we clean up our politics, and I know that he will be as eager as I am to make sure that Unite the union does so as well.

The advice that came from the Government this week on local elections was welcome; however, the most innovative idea appeared to be to bring your own pencil to the polls, so I would like to ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster two specific questions.

The first is on the use of schools as polling stations. Many schools are having to use school halls for teaching, which would not normally have to happen. What support will the Government give local registration officers to find appropriate venues with appropriate ventilation?

The second question is on the issue of elections falling into different areas of the tiering system, which may well be in place by May. Might there be an unfair political advantage to one candidate if the restrictions were lesser in one area than another?

The hon. Lady raises two important questions. The first is with respect to schools. The Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), will be writing to local authorities and schools today, alongside Ministers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to outline how schools can be used in a safe and appropriate way, but we are also making funding available to local authorities so that alternative venues other than schools can be used where appropriate.

The hon. Lady’s second point, relating to unfairness as a result of different restrictions perhaps occurring in different local government areas, is an important one, and one that we are taking into account as we plan for these local elections.

Government Contracts: Small Businesses

What steps the Government are taking to increase opportunities for small businesses to bid for Government contracts. (912176)

What steps the Government are taking to increase opportunities for small businesses to bid for Government contracts. (912179)

What steps he is taking to reform Government procurement to boost (a) local growth and (b) the small and medium-sized enterprises sector. (912195)

What steps the Government are taking to increase opportunities for small businesses to bid for Government contracts. (912202)

The UK spends £290 billion on public procurement each year. Now that we have left the EU transition period, we aim to make it simpler, quicker and cheaper for small and medium-sized enterprises and social enterprises to bid for Government contracts, as set out in our ambitious procurement Green Paper. We have already introduced a policy that will allow below-threshold contracts to be reserved for smaller UK suppliers, and we hope our new approach to social value will secure wider public benefit by allowing us to contract with firms that deliver more apprenticeships, local growth opportunities and environmental benefits.

I know that my hon. Friend will agree that our small and medium-sized businesses are the bedrock of our economy. I am sure that she will also agree that giving them the opportunity to bid for Government contracts will give them a significant boost and help them recover from what has been a very tough year. Will she lay out exactly how the Government will be promoting this opportunity to SMEs, so that businesses in Basildon and Thurrock can start to bid immediately?

I agree with my hon. Friend that the opportunities in this space are huge, and we think that our reforms will play a huge role in our post-covid recovery. For too long, complex and opaque procurement rules have benefited bigger and less innovative firms. Our reforms will simplify the current framework of over 350 regulations into one uniform set of rules, and move from seven procurement procedures to three. Our free-to-use digital platform, Contracts Finder, should make it easier for businesses in his constituency to find relevant opportunities. We want to make supply registration far simpler, so that data has to be submitted only once to qualify for any public sector procurement.

Small businesses in my constituency would like the opportunity to bid for more Government and council contracts, but the current procurement rules are too complex and inevitably favour big firms. Can my hon. Friend assure me that we will be using our new freedom from EU procurement rules to deliver more commercial opportunities to innovative, dynamic SMEs in Penistone and Stocksbridge?

Absolutely. I know that my hon. Friend, as someone who has run a business herself, understands the bureaucratic frustrations that too many of her constituency businesses come up against. We want public buyers to divide contracts into more accessible lots and allow them to reserve contracts under a certain threshold for small, innovative firms. We are also pushing ambitious targets on prompt payment, and we aim to simplify the bidding process so that it does not favour big firms, which inevitably have greater resources to devote to form-filling and box-ticking.

I welcome the recent Green Paper setting out the freedoms that the UK now enjoys to create a new framework for public procurement, including a new exceptional power for public bodies to commission for wider public benefit. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to go further and make this exception the norm, ensuring more joined-up services and better overall outcomes for the public? Otherwise, we will be getting only half the Brexit dividend that we could in the field of procurement, with freedoms but not the actual implementation.

My hon. Friend is quite right. Our proposed procurement reforms will not in themselves deliver change unless commercial teams across the public sector actually understand how to deploy them to greatest effect. That is why we are introducing a programme of training for contracting authorities. On the matter of wider public benefit, I refer him to our social value model. We do not want to award only to those that make the cheapest bid; we also want to award to firms that offer value for money in a much broader sense, including to the community in which the service is being delivered. I know that is something he cares very passionately about, given his thoughtful review on a new social covenant.

I so welcome all that my hon. Friend has said on this. I am mustard-keen to see Government contracts open up and work for businesses and charities in Eastbourne. The latest feedback from one of my manufacturers, which has just ventured into this arena with a bid to the Ministry of Defence, highlights the absence of a published timeline on decision making for the contract, which the manufacturer says is essential information to allow it to plan for success, build capacity and ensure that it delivers for all its customers. Will she look at this situation, to ensure that the whole process is as transparent and as small business-friendly as possible?

I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting this; she raises an important point. I am happy to look into the specifics of the case and take it up with officials, or she might want to look at the public procurement review service. All Departments, including the MOD, are actively supporting the SME agenda, and one of the ways we hope to encourage more bids from SMEs is by publishing contract pipelines well in advance, so that they have much more time to plan and resource bids, and shorten the time in which contracting bodies make decisions.

Trade: UK and EU

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure goods can continue to flow freely between the UK and the EU. (912177)

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure goods can continue to flow freely between the UK and the EU. (912183)

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure goods can continue to flow freely between the UK and the EU. (912190)

What steps the Government are taking to help ensure goods can continue to flow freely between the UK and the EU. (912193)

Our trade and co-operation agreement with the EU is the first free trade agreement that the EU has ever reached based on zero tariffs and zero quotas. The agreement will help unlock investment and protect high-value jobs right across the UK. We will now take full advantage of the opportunities created by this deal, helping to boost productivity, unlock investment and safeguard high-value jobs in the UK. Goods are flowing freely through our ports, with levels of freight around what we would expect for this time of year, but we are also working closely with businesses that are facing challenges, and we are in regular operational contact with EU countries in order to smooth trade.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, and I know he is doing all he can to reduce the turbulence, but Grimsby fish exporters are reporting to me that despite the EU agreement on free trade, French ports are introducing additional paperwork and extra costs. They are even insisting that we hire EU nationals to do that additional work. Will he take this matter up, so that we can ensure that the people of the EU continue to enjoy the highest quality seafood in Europe, processed in Great Grimsby?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The highest-quality seafood in the whole of Europe is produced in Great Grimsby. Indeed, I remember my dad, when he ran a fish processing business, sending some of the fish that he bought at Aberdeen fish market to Grimsby for processing, and it was enjoyed on tables across Europe. She is absolutely right to say that there are still some bureaucratic obstacles that we need to negotiate and navigate. We have set up a specific seafoods export working group, which meets twice weekly, and we are engaging with our friends in France in order to ensure that we can continue to enjoy Great Grimsby fish.

Two exporters in Kings Lynn, Guy Raymond Engineering and Captain Fawcett, a gentleman’s grooming firm, have raised concerns about waiting up to 16 hours for HMRC transit documentation, delays in customs clearance in France and other countries as they interpret the rules differently, and each courier firm demanding different informational declarations. This is delaying the delivery of their products, so will my right hon. Friend take up these issues with courier firms, HMRC and our EU partners so that goods can continue to flow to customers?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that in order to ensure that we have a seamless flow of trade, each individual element in that chain needs to be working as effectively as possible, so we are working with courier companies to ensure that we can smooth any difficulties, HMRC is looking at easements and facilitations, and of course we are talking to our EU friends and neighbours to ensure that there is a consistent approach.

Under the terms of the EU-UK trade deal, there is a requirement to set up a sanitary and phytosanitary trade committee as well as a committee on fishing. When will those committees be set up? If the EU does not adhere to the rules and the agreements that were made, will we restrict the licence given to any European fishing vessels in our waters?

My hon. Friend is a formidable advocate for the seafood sector; one of the largest fishing ports in England is in his constituency. He is absolutely right to say that there are means and mechanisms by which we and the EU can work together to smooth the export of high-quality seafood. There have been difficulties and challenges, but we are overcoming them and it is also important that we reserve our own rights when it comes to ensuring that the EU lives up to its side of the bargain.

Less than an hour ago, my office received a call from a haulier in my constituency who has been sending animal-based products to the continent for 40 years. The vet-checked lorry, which had its seal on, was held up at the Calais compound for 11 hours, even though it was on its way to Germany. It was eventually passed with just a cursory glance. In his meetings with his EU counterparts later today, will my right hon. Friend raise such issues and stress to them that it is not acceptable, and certainly not necessary, to do that?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Exporters have gone to great lengths to ensure that the products of animal origin that they are exporting meet the SPS requirements that are in place, and delays of the kind he mentions are unacceptable, so I will investigate that case.

Fishing exporters in my constituency are having problems exporting to the EU. We signed a deal that said we could export to the EU. What action is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that these exports happen without hindrance, and will he start boarding EU vessels in retaliation if we still see this obstructive action on the part of the European Union?

My hon. Friend has been one of the doughtiest defenders of the fishing sector in this House for a few years now, and she is absolutely right to say that we need to ensure that any bureaucratic obstructions that individual EU member states may still be applying are lifted. As I mentioned in response to our hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Anthony Mangnall), we will reserve our right as an independent coastal state to do whatever is required to ensure that our fishermen are backed up every step of the way.

The House of Commons Library described the EU trade and co-operation agreement by saying, as the Minister has:

“There will be no tariffs or quotas…provided rules of origin are met.”

However, it went on to say:

“There are increased non-tariff barriers, but measures on customs and trade facilitation to ease these.”

Given that 60% of companies have had difficulties importing from or exporting to the EU, and that 30% or more of companies have had their supply chain impacted in both directions, when will the measures to ease the problems at the borders begin to work?

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to his new role in the recent Scottish National party Westminster reshuffle, and look forward to working with him across the Dispatch Box. He is right to say that a number of facilitations and easements have been put in place, some before the end of the transition period on 31 December, but we are providing more support, particularly for small and medium-sized enterprises in order to enable them to take full advantage of their new opportunities.

I am struggling to see the advantages and new opportunities. A firm in my constituency, Wilde Mode Ltd, imports, among other things, rolls of printed fabric from Poland. Before Brexit, the cost of delivery was less than €40, but because courier and other companies are no longer shipping to the UK the owners of that company are now being quoted €2,000 for the same delivery. As the Minister will know, that is completely unsustainable. So I ask again: when will the measures to ease these problems be put in place fully and actually start to work?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the case of the firm in his constituency and will look specifically at that firm’s challenges, and the position of both the firm in Poland that supplies all those fabrics and the courier he mentions, in order to make sure that any interruption in the free flow of produce from Poland to Dundee is dealt with.

A Make UK survey shows that 61% of manufacturers are suffering disruption to their supply chain; one car company is parking hundreds of cars because of problems with its supply chain; road haulage in Northern Ireland is in chaos; the Road Haulage Association survey shows that more than one in two of its members throughout the UK are swamped by red tape; and Government officials are even advising companies to set up hubs on the continent, when we should be building British and buying British. What will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster do finally to ease such burdens on business on our great British companies, which are deeply damaging, at the worst possible time?

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman on the need to build British and buy British. The procurement Green Paper that the Cabinet Office Minister Lord Agnew produced enables us to do just that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned a number of examples of disruption. There have been some challenges, but there have also been some reports, including, I regret to say, in The Observer, that have not been wholly accurate in their depiction of the challenges our exporters face.

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster begin to recognise the scale of the mountainous problems confronting British business? The Government left them with one week between Christmas eve and 1 January to adapt to new rules running to hundreds of pages. Then, when companies all across the UK raised their concerns, the Prime Minister dismissed them as “teething problems”. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster take this opportunity to apologise to British business for the disruption the Government have inflicted on them?

I know the hon. Gentleman has dedicated his life, both before he came into this House and in this House, to supporting British manufacturing, so I take seriously the concerns he raises. We meet business representative organisations every week through the Brexit business taskforce in order to deal with any challenges and to explore additional opportunities. I should have welcomed him to his new role in the shadow Cabinet Office team. I look forward to working with him, because I know that he is dedicated to making sure that British manufacturers, the best in the world, have all the opportunities they need. I hope to work pragmatically with him to achieve just that.

Transparency in Government Contracts: Covid-19

What steps the Government are taking to help increase transparency in procurement of Government contracts as part of the covid-19 response. (912178)

The Government already have robust processes in place for spending public money fairly and achieving value for money for the taxpayer. We recently published detailed proposals for new and improved procurement rules in the Green Paper that I mentioned earlier, and these proposals include specific measures to strengthen transparency through the commercial lifecycle, from planning through to procurement, contract award, performance and completion.

Last week, the Government’s own legal representatives admitted that they had breached procurement law by persistently failing to publish details of covid-19 contracts. The Good Law Project could also expose the wholesale failure to comply with obligations of transparency, and questions remain over the £500 million-worth of taxpayers’ money spent on personal protective equipment deals with companies that are Tory donors. Does the Minister agree that this is reflective of the Government’s failed response to the pandemic and that this lack of accountability has completely damaged confidence and trust in the Government?

I do not quite agree with that. It is fair to say that we do need to be vigilant when it comes to the use of public money and the awarding of contracts, but it is the case that, if we look at, for example, personal protective equipment and other goods that were sourced during the course of the covid pandemic, 99.5% of the goods that were sourced were operational and effective. We were also procuring at speed. There were suggestions from across the House as to some of the companies that we should have contracts with. Not all of those suggestions were necessarily absolutely spot on, but what we did do was to ensure that we prioritised those companies that were capable of meeting the needs of the hour.

The Institute for Government last week highlighted that 99% of the Government’s covid contracts had not gone out to tender. Does the Minister agree that this cannot continue and only leads to suspicion about the nature of the awards and who is getting them? Will he tell the House when the Government intend to wind down the extensive use of these extraordinary procurement powers? Can he give a date?

Again, let me welcome a new member to the shadow Cabinet Office team, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and congratulate her on her promotion. It is the case, of course, that we want best practice to apply in all procurement, and the recent Boardman report that the Cabinet Office commissioned emphasises some changes that we can make in order to ensure even greater effectiveness and transparency. At the beginning of the covid pandemic, when there was a global demand for personal protective equipment, we used perfectly legitimate, well-understood expedited practices. There were, as I mentioned earlier, a number of suggestions from across the House, including from Labour MPs, of companies and firms that could help. It was important that we looked at those with speed and expedition in order to ensure that those who were capable, as many were, of providing us with the equipment that we needed were able to get that equipment on to the NHS frontline as quickly as possible.

Voter Fraud

The Government are committed to delivering our bold agenda of electoral reform to strengthen our democracy and protect public trust and confidence in our elections. As outlined in our 2019 manifesto, the Government will introduce measures requiring identification to vote at polling stations and to stop postal vote harvesting.

The Minister will be aware that, during the previous election and, indeed, during the 2017 election, there was considerable concern about students potentially voting in more than one location. Is there more that my right hon. Friend can do to ensure that we prevent this from happening? Rather than just relying on retrospective prosecutions, can we look at improving the registration process to stop people registering to vote or potentially trying to vote in more than one location at a general election?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. My colleague, the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, is looking at exactly how we can ensure that we have effective voter registration so that either confusion or, indeed, an outright attempt to subvert the integrity of the poll can be dealt with, and we will be bringing forward more detail in due course.

Strength of the Union

The Government are committed to protecting and promoting the combined strengths of our Union, building on 300 years of successful partnership. It is vital that we continue to work across the United Kingdom on common challenges that we all face, such as the roll-out of the covid-19 vaccination programme. We also need together to focus on issues such as protecting jobs and supporting our NHS.

As the MP for a border region, I am acutely aware of the importance of our great Union, physically, economically and historically. I welcome the Government’s plans to establish 10 free ports across the United Kingdom—a move that will help to secure thousands of jobs and regenerate communities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the exciting Cumbria free port multi-centre proposal, involving Carlisle airport, Barrow and Workington, with its specific strengths in Union connectivity and clean energy, would help to propel our region’s economic recovery and play a key role in the Government’s levelling-up agenda by attracting investment and jobs to our region?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Carlisle, Barrow and Workington working together can ensure not just that Cumbria and the north-west of England benefits, but that the borders region as a whole benefits. The support that this Government have given to the borderlands growth deal is an example of the way in which the interrelations between Carlisle, Dumfries, Hawick and other significant parts of this United Kingdom mean that we are stronger together.

Dunlop Review: Publication

It is our ambition to publish Lord Dunlop’s review of Union capability as soon as possible. Of course, it is vital that we progress the joint review of intergovernmental relations as part of that.

I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for that answer. I look forward to the publication of the promotion of Union capabilities. The Chancellor boasts of his Unionist credentials. Indeed, he even boasted once in my local paper that he could sing “The Sash”. Today he has a chance to protect the Union in his meeting with Maroš Šefčovič. Will he make it clear that the protocol is causing societal and economic damage to the Union, and will he press on with the alternative arrangements that he previously supported and was signed up to?

The hon. Gentleman is right; I do have a formidable singing repertoire. I can also sing “The Fields of Athenry” and “Flower of Scotland”, not to mention “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, although the last of those songs was perhaps sung with a little less fervour last Saturday than is normally the case. I am a convinced Unionist. I do believe in the strength of the United Kingdom—all of us working together. I look forward to working with him and all representatives from Northern Ireland to ensure that our United Kingdom can flourish in the future.

Touring Musicians: Reciprocal Visa-free Travel

What offer his Department (a) made to and (b) received from the EU on reciprocal visa-free travel for touring musicians during negotiations on the future relationship with the EU. (912186)

What offer his Department (a) made to and (b) received from the EU on reciprocal visa-free travel for touring musicians during negotiations on the future relationship with the EU. (912188)

What offer his Department (a) made to and (b) received from the EU on reciprocal visa-free travel for touring musicians during negotiations on the future relationship with the EU. (912196)

The Government proposed to the EU that musicians and their technical staff be added to the list of permitted activities for short-term business visitors in the “entry and temporary stay” chapter of the trade and co-operation agreement. That would have allowed musicians and their staff to travel and perform in the EU more easily without needing work permits. The proposals were developed following consultation with the EU’s creative industries, but were rejected by the EU.

The UK’s music industry is worth £5.8 billion annually and supports 200,000 jobs, so for a Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Minister to suggest recently that a touring visa was not compatible with Brexit goals has caused huge anger and frustration to many of my constituents who work in the sector and are seeing no benefits of Brexit, only additional costs and red tape. What is the Minister doing to secure reciprocal visa-free travel for those in our creative industries whose careers and jobs depend on it?

We continue to work with the EU Commission and member states to ensure that we can have the kind of opportunities that the hon. Lady describes. In the meantime, we do want to support the sector, which is why the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has set up the £1.57 billion cultural recovery fund, which is currently supporting 75,000 jobs.

Radiohead have called this Government “spineless”. Whether it is Elton John, Ronan Keating or Brian Cox, there is a continuing all-star line-up of some of our biggest exports who are emphasising the importance of touring for musicians at all stages of their careers. How does the Minister feel about the prospect of major acts deciding that they need base themselves abroad because our parochial laws do not allow the movement needed to compete on the global stage?

It is not about our parochial laws. During the negotiations, the EU tabled text regarding paid activities that can be conducted without a visa. Those proposals would not have addressed our arts sector’s concerns; they did not deal with work permits at all and would not have allowed support staff to tour with artists. The only way we are going to get movement on this issue is to get the EU to agree to our very reasonable proposals. I urge everyone, whether they are politicians or from the cultural sector, to work with us to persuade our counterparts of our common-sense approach.

Brexit chaos is not just impacting bands and orchestras in the music industry. Given prohibitive new Brexit visa costs, they will need to begin hiring crew and equipment from European suppliers. What hope does the Minister offer those who face losing work because of Brexit?

We are, through DCMS, providing support to the sector. We want to get these issues resolved, but in the meantime we want to do all we can to support businesses and artists, whether they have been impacted because of travel restrictions or the pandemic. That is why DCMS has set up a new forum to work with the sector, to listen to its needs and to act on them, and obviously the Scottish Government are part of that.

Democratic Inclusion

This Government are committed to enhancing inclusivity in our democracy. We provide funding to a number of initiatives and organisations to encourage younger people, including the National Citizen Service, the UK Youth Parliament, and the British Council. Online registration makes it easier than ever to register to vote. We are also leading a programme of work to ensure that our elections are more accessible for people living with disabilities.

More than 2 million people in the UK have sight loss, and a recent RNIB report found that less than half of blind and partially sighted people are satisfied with their experience of voting. When will the Government introduce the RNIB recommendations?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We should do everything we can to ensure that people living with disabilities, including those with visual impairment, can be fully included in the democratic process, and we will be coming back shortly with thoughts about the RNIB’s helpful proposals.

Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people already experience low levels of democratic engagement, and racism, hostility and discrimination. With many lacking ID, the Government’s voter ID plans are set to systematically exclude GRT people. Instead of working to break down barriers and improve accessibility, why are Ministers putting their energy into creating barriers to voting for the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people?

We do not want to create any barriers to anyone voting. We take seriously our responsibilities to ensure that all groups within society, including Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people, have full access to all of their democratic rights.

Trade: Great Britain and Northern Ireland

What steps he is taking to support hauliers operating between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. (912191)

What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on potential derogations and flexibilities in the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. (912223)

Following my conversation with Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič last week, we have continued to work intensively to find solutions to outstanding issues that have to be addressed through the Joint Committee. I have taken forward our continued engagement in that constructive spirit, and I look forward to speaking to Vice-President Šefčovič later today.

The Minister will know that Manufacturing Northern Ireland has warned that the biggest challenge facing the Northern Ireland protocol is the lack of business preparedness in Great Britain. This is important for businesses on both sides of the Irish sea, and of course for hauliers in Wales and across the United Kingdom. Why has his Prime Minister—the Prime Minister for the Union—spent a year telling us that there will be no checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland when we can all see that that is simply not the case?

The protocol that was negotiated as part of the withdrawal agreement is there to ensure unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, but it also ensures that we can play our part generously in supporting the maintenance of the EU single market by making sure that there are processes. Those processes should be as light-touch as possible, and that is the aim of the conversations I am having with Vice-President Šefčovič and others.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will be very conscious of the tensions that are building in Northern Ireland and the need for some sort of creative solution. Does he recognise that the absence of a sanitary and phytosanitary or veterinary agreement with the EU makes the scale of the problems faced across the Irish sea much bigger than it needs to be? As such, will the Government consider going to the European Union to try to negotiate such an agreement over the coming months? That would go a long way to defusing many of the tensions and problems currently being faced.

The hon. Gentleman is right: there are a number of different ways in which these problems can be more effectively resolved. Thoughtful contributions from the Alliance party and others are very welcome. We want to look at a range of pragmatic solutions, and I am grateful to him and his colleagues for putting forward a potential way forward in a constructive spirit. There is no single right way forward, but, as I say, I am grateful to him and his colleagues for their constructive approach.

Government Procurement Policy

The end of the transition period provides an historic opportunity to overhaul our dated public procurement regime. We undertook an extensive programme of stakeholder engagement to identify where improvements could be made, and the recently published Green Paper sets out those long-planned proposals. The changes put value for money and transparency at the heart of the new approach and will cut red tape and unleash wider social benefits from public money spent on procurement.

Private providers of public services are excluded from freedom of information requests, which means that, for example, Serco does not have to reveal the 29 different businesses to which it has outsourced contracts. Does the Minister support the expansion of the Freedom of Information Act to the private providers of public services, or does she think that it is okay that that information should be kept hidden from the public eye?

Serco is an approved supplier on the Crown Commercial Service contract centre framework and gained a place on that through fair and open competition, but I accept what the hon. Lady says about freedom of information requests and I am happy to look into that further for her.

Civil Service Apprenticeships

The civil service will launch its new apprenticeship strategy next year. The first phase will have delivered 30,000 apprenticeships by next April, but going forward I want to focus not just on numbers, but on the quality of training on offer, so that Departments get much better at growing their own talent and plugging skills gaps. To that end, we recently published the curriculum and campus for Government skills, with the goal of setting the highest standard in vocational training for all civil servants, including apprentices.

As it is National Apprenticeship Week, will she please explain to the House what is being done to make the civil service apprenticeship scheme accessible to all, including my constituents in Meriden, who she will find are some of the most talented and hard-working in the whole country?

I commend my hon. Friend on his promotion of his constituents. I have spoken previously about our ambitions to move more and more civil service roles, including apprenticeships, out of London and to the regions. That programme is moving apace, but we have already created 1,911 apprenticeships in the west midlands over the past five years. I encourage the good people of Meriden to apply for some of the live vacancies that are on offer right now. We have also got a new relationship with the Birmingham local enterprise partnership that works with schools and colleges across the west midlands to help talented, dynamic people to understand just what an exciting and fulfilling career they could have in the civil service.

Regional Economic Growth: Covid-19

What steps he is taking to support the Government’s programme on regional economic growth after the covid-19 outbreak. (912199)

This Government are committed to boosting prospects for all communities, so that everybody gets the same access to opportunities in life. During the covid-19 pandemic, the Government have protected more than 37,000 jobs in Wolverhampton alone through the coronavirus job retention scheme. The spending review also announced longer-term investments to help level up the UK, including £5 billion to support UK gigabit broadband roll-out and £4.2 billion for intra-city transport settlements.

There is no one championing economic recovery more in the west midlands than Andy Street, and it is a pleasure to work with him in Wolverhampton. Will my right hon. Friend provide the great residents of Wolverhampton with an update on the potential move by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to our great city, and will the Department seriously consider looking at the possibility of the i9 as an office location to start with?

I thank my hon. Friend for his championing of Wolverhampton, alongside Andy Street’s for the west midlands. With Cannock Chase being not that far from Wolverhampton, I can understand his enthusiasm for that great becoming home for the MHCLG. Our Places for Growth programme is working with Departments to finalise relocation plans, as we work to ensure that our geographical locations cover as representative a distribution across the UK as possible, including the west midlands, and further details will be provided shortly.

Topical Questions

The nature of our new relationship with the EU outside the single market means that there are practical and procedural changes to which businesses and citizens must adjust. I can announce today that the Government are launching a £20 million SME Brexit support fund to help small businesses adjust to new customs rules of origin and VAT rules when trading with the EU.

The institutional framework within the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement provides the UK with an opportunity to rebuild its relationship with the EU, including through a civil society forum. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster say what progress has been made on establishing the civil society forum and when he expects it to meet? Will he commit today to a significant majority of participants coming from charities, social enterprises and trade unions, in the light of the central role they play in our society?

The hon. Lady is right that the civil society forum is one of a number of ways in which the UK and the EU can work together in the interests of all. She makes a very important point about the importance of involving not just the third sector but trade union participants in that work, which gives me an opportunity to thank the millions of trade unionists across the country who have contributed so much to our response to the pandemic.

I know that questions on the European Union have been done to death this morning, but they are important, not least to my constituents. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that the glitches we are currently seeing are nothing more than teething problems and that the European Union can be convinced to honour all protocols to ensure seamless free trade? (912239)

My hon. Friend and constituency neighbour is absolutely right. There are some specific issues that relate to our departure from the European Union that can be resolved in the next few weeks and months, as we adjust to a new situation, and they are a consequence of change. There are other aspects of our relationship that are a new normal, and the £20 million we have announced today is a way of ensuring that small and medium-sized enterprises can be fully equipped for those challenges and also for all the opportunities that our departure from the EU brings.

Earlier this week, the Public Accounts Committee revealed that the Government’s secretive VIP procurement fast lane had dished out contracts worth £1.7 billion, yet on 18 November, the Paymaster General claimed in the House that there was “no such thing” as a high priority lane. Given the scale of public money, concerns from the National Audit Office and apparent confusion at the Cabinet Office, when will the Government publish the names of businesses awarded contracts through this fast lane and, crucially, how they got on it?

The Cabinet Office and, indeed, the whole of Government moved as quickly as we could to ensure that those on the frontline received the equipment that they needed. Indeed, the hon. Lady was one of a number of Members of Parliament who wrote to me outlining firms that could play a role in this. Every single firm that was recommended to either the Cabinet Office or the Department of Health and Social Care went through a rigorous policy to ensure that they were capable of providing the equipment required. As a result of going through that rigorous policy, we were able to ensure that those on the frontline got the equipment that they needed.

Everybody understands the need for speed in a pandemic, but so many contracts delivered personal protective equipment that could not even be used by those on the frontline, and the National Audit Office has said that taxpayers paid over the odds. Those who are able to get on this VIP fast lane are 10 times more likely to be awarded a contract, leading to PestFix and the Health Secretary’s pub landlord getting contracts. If it is honestly about what you know rather than who you know, can I ask again when the Government will publish details of who was on the VIP fast lane and how they got there?

The first thing to say is that, as the hon. Lady knows, more than 99% of the goods that were supplied were capable of being used in the NHS and, as she also knows, the National Audit Office reference to paying “over the odds” reflected the fact that, in a global pandemic, when demand was dramatically outstripping supply, prices rose for every nation—every developed nation. That is one of the reasons why the Government asked Lord Deighton to ensure that we could have domestic PPE capacity, and his amazing work has contributed to making sure that our economy overall has become more resilient. Of course it is the case that, whether or not a recommendation was made for a contract from a Member of Parliament such as the hon. Lady or anyone else, every contract had to go through the same appropriate process of due diligence, and it is of course the case that every contract will be published and is being published by the Government so that there can be appropriate scrutiny of value for money.

Local elections are going to play an important part in this country’s democracy. At the end of play, after the polls have closed, there are the counts, which involve staff from the council, observers and candidates moving around indoors for hours at a time. How is the Department going to ensure that people fulfilling these roles will be kept safe from infection? (912240)

My hon. Friend raises a very important point, and my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution has been working with local authorities, returning officers and others to ensure that we can have counting carried out in a safe way. That will mean the results of elections will be a little bit later than we might normally have expected, but it is more important to be safe than sorry in these circumstances.

Postal votes in this forthcoming election will be more important than ever, as elderly and vulnerable people, even when vaccinated, might still be at risk of getting mildly ill from the virus. I understand the difficulty of an only postal vote ballot, but will the Minister consider directing local authorities to provide a postal vote application form with every polling card and ensure that every local authority has a freepost address for postal vote applications to be sent back to, so that people have the choice on how to vote at no cost to themselves? (912235)

I welcome the constructive approach taken, as ever, by the hon. Member, and we will look at his proposals. It is already the case that we are revising the way in which proxy voting can work in order to help those who may be suffering as a result of the pandemic, but I will look at the proposals that he has put forward, which do seem to be in the spirit of greater democratic inclusion and engagement.

As previous Members have said, these elections on 6 May are likely to see more postal and more proxy voting. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that all measures will be put in place to prevent voter fraud, given the likelihood of more postal and proxy voting? (912241)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We want to promote democratic inclusivity, but we also want to protect the integrity of the voting system. It is important, when we have elections being carried out in the circumstances that we will face this May, that we make sure that both requirements are met. Again, my hon. Friend the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution is working with local authorities to ensure just that.

Recent polling commissioned by Scope has found that a quarter of disabled people are concerned that they will be unable to access a vaccination centre and a third of disabled people are concerned about catching covid at a vaccination centre. What action are the Government taking to ensure that the vaccine roll-out is fully accessible and safe for disabled people, and how will the Government ensure that no disabled person waiting for their vaccine is left behind? (912236)

The hon. Lady makes an important point. Our NHS has been working to ensure that our vaccination centres are safe and accessible, and the Government have overall been seeking to communicate to every group the importance of securing a vaccination as early as possible. We will continue to work with fantastic organisations such as Scope to ensure that the needs of everyone living with a disability are effectively met.

Last year, the people of Greater Manchester had the opportunity to vote for Laura Evans as the Conservative candidate for the mayoral position taken away from them. Will my right hon. Friend do all he can this year to ensure that people across the United Kingdom have the opportunity to vote for their chosen candidates and to engage in full and normal campaign activities? (912243)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Without taking anything away from the current Mayor of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, I would have to say that the Conservative candidate would be even better in that important role and, I think, more accurately represent the changing complexion of the north-west, where, thanks to effective constituency champions such as my hon. Friend, people are recognising that Conservative representation in our great cities is the best way of getting Britain moving.

Since December, Argyll and Bute’s shellfish exporters have been, in their words, haemorrhaging money. Last week, one small company even paid €1,400 to taxi prawns from Boulogne to Brittany to prevent losing a high-value customer permanently. This cannot be dismissed as teething problems—the industry is being destroyed. When will we see a long-term plan to help all seafood exporters withstand the impossible trading conditions they find themselves in? (912237)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. His Scottish nationalist party colleague, Fiona Hyslop, who is the Minister in the Scottish Government, is working with the UK Government to ensure that we do everything we can to support the seafood sector across Scotland and, indeed, across the United Kingdom. But I cannot help but observe that if the Scottish nationalist party had its way, we would be back in the common fisheries policy and we would not be able to take control of our waters in the way that we want to.

Scottish electoral officials believe that upwards of 2 million people could use postal votes in the Holyrood elections in May, meaning 2 million extra absentee voter registrations—nearly four times the normal number. The Electoral Commission believes that 3% to 5% of those votes could be spoiled by voters incorrectly filling out forms, which could invalidate up to 135,000 votes. With a similar trend expected across the UK, what steps are the Government taking to address that concern? (912238)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for drawing wider attention to this issue. It is one that the Electoral Commission and the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution are taking seriously in order to ensure the integrity of voting this May.

Pet owners who have always travelled to GB from Northern Ireland—many do it several times a year—face extreme expenditure on vet bills and additional paperwork. It affects not just those travelling from Northern Ireland but those from England, Scotland and Wales, as we are a closely connected nation with family members throughout the United Kingdom. Our veterinary standards match or exceed those in the EU. What measures are the Minister and his Government taking to address this injustice within our great nation by Europe and the Northern Ireland protocol? (912248)

The hon. Member makes an important point. It is vital we ensure that we can have travel for citizens across the common travel area with their pets, and we have been working with the European Union and indeed the Irish Government to ensure that that continues. I hope to be able to update the House on progress in the coming days.

[V] I thank my right hon. Friend for his tireless work to ensure free trade flows post Brexit. Will he join me in welcoming a fantastic proposal to boost trade? It is for a free port in the east midlands that covers key sites in Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire and will create 60,000 new jobs in the region. (912246)

My hon. Friend makes an impressive pitch for the east midlands, which we know is the commercial heart of the United Kingdom and so a very appropriate location for a free port. The ultimate decision of course rests with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I am sure he will pay close attention to the case that my hon. Friend and her colleagues make.

The right hon. Gentleman will agree that the contaminated blood scandal is a human tragedy. It has resulted in more than 3,000 deaths to date, and an astonishing 200 victims have died since the inquiry began. Justice has been denied and many individuals have not received any form of compensation. When can Sean Cavens, a constituent of mine, and the other victims expect the justice that they deserve? (912252)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the case of not just his constituent but all those who were affected by this issue. He has been a very effective campaigner on behalf of the victims, and a statement will be made in the House shortly on the Government’s response. Again, I thank him and other colleagues who have been so effective in making sure that we do not forget the victims of this affair.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The arrogance and intransigence expressed in Commissioner Šefčovič’s letter to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has caused many of us to conclude that the EU’s professed concern for Northern Ireland was only ever a disguise for its cynical negotiating objectives. Will my right hon. Friend take a tough approach with the EU on fixing the immediate problems of the protocol, but also develop a replacement so that we can remove it altogether in future? (912247)

My right hon. Friend accurately reflects the sentiments and feelings of many in the House and beyond. It is vital that we work constructively to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland recognise that the United Kingdom Government will stand up in every forum and in every way for their rights as integral members of this great nation.

I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements for the next business to be made.

Sitting suspended.