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Topical Questions

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 11 February 2021

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.