The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Union in Scotland: Public Opinion Polling
As you quite rightly point out, Mr Speaker, football is indeed coming home. I cannot possibly understand why attendance is so scant on the Government Benches this morning.
The Government regularly commission research across the United Kingdom to understand public attitudes in order to inform and help to deliver relevant policies, and to ensure that we have strong, UK-wide, cross-Government communications campaigns.
Last month, the first-tier tribunal on information rights ruled that the Cabinet Office must release polling information that it has gathered on attitudes to the Union in Scotland within a month. Will the Minister confirm that he will be releasing that information, as he has been ordered to do, and whether he will also release the details on how much that information cost to collect?
The hon. Gentleman refers to a case that was brought to the first-tier tribunal by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). We are reviewing how we can comply with the first-tier tribunal’s judgment.
In the Chamber last month, the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) astutely summarised, speaking of his own Tory UK Government:
“When the Government do not publish something, it is normally because it is bad news and they are trying to hide it away.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 761.]
Will the Minister say whether that holds true for his Department’s intended-to-be-secret polling on the Union? If it does not and the Union is indeed as strong as he and his ministerial colleagues agree, what reason do the Government have for fighting the release of this information for years?
The hon. Lady refers to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). He is a former Chief Whip, and, as a member of that broederbond, I know that there can sometimes be a tendency to prefer discretion rather than transparency, but in my current role I am all in favour of transparency. Indeed, we do not need to look anywhere other than the current public opinion polls, which show that support for independence is declining and support for the United Kingdom is increasing.
The High Court ruling by Justice O’Farrell concluded that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster acted with “apparent bias” in the “unlawful” action when he awarded contracts to his chums at Public First, who had previously worked as advisers to him, to the Prime Minister and, of course, for Dominic Cummings. How can the Minister justify siphoning off many tens of thousands of pounds from covid recovery work to fund this highly political research, which is obviously designed to inform the no campaign in the next independence referendum?
I hesitate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but Lady Justice O’Farrell did not find that I had operated with any form of bias—apparent, actual or otherwise. That is a misreading of the court judgment.
The Scottish Government have received more than £180 million from the UK Government in covid recovery funds and it is not yet the case that the Scottish Government have published how a penny of that money is being spent, so before asking for greater transparency from this Government, I think it would be appropriate if the hon. Gentleman were to ask his colleagues in the Scottish Government to publish accounts for every single penny that has been received and how it has been spent so that we can be assured—as I am sure will be the case—that the Scottish Government have used their resources appropriately to fight covid.
The question was about the Minister’s actions, not about anyone else. It would be better if he paid attention to his own work. Given that we already know attitudes, and that, over time, support for independence has risen considerably and support for the Union has declined, is it not more than passing strange that the Minister was so desperate to hand Public First these contracts without competitive tender, were there not to be a second independence referendum? But, more importantly, given that the contract was not restricted to immediately required work, is it not hugely suspicious that such subterfuge was used to funnel taxpayers’ money so quickly to Public First, effectively using taxpayers’ cash as a bottomless Unionist slush fund?
A bottomless Unionist slush fund sounds like a great thing, but unfortunately it does not exist. I am afraid that I refer the hon. Gentleman again to the judgment. The contract was not awarded by me and it is not the case that I was found to have acted with any actual or apparent bias, because I did not award the contract. I recommend that he has a close look at what Lady Justice O’Farrell actually concluded.
Civil Service: Skills and Training
As we set out in the declaration on Government reform last month, we are deeply committed to investing in training across the whole civil service, as we have to do better at providing public servants with the skills they need to serve others and tackle future challenges. Our new Government Skills and Curriculum Unit is in the process of establishing a campus for Government skills and will be focusing on creating a cross-civil service induction, a data masterclass for senior civil servants and transforming the fast stream so that it remains among the best graduate schemes in the world.
Clearly, there is a time and a place for employing contractors and other consultants, but does my hon. Friend agree that alongside that we have to provide better training for civil servants and better recruitment of individuals with the skills that are needed by the civil service so that they can be retained within the civil service as a preference to its spending considerable sums of money on outside consultants and communication firms?
I thank my hon. Friend for his important and incisive question. The civil service, as he acknowledges, has historically used contractors to provide specialist skills and to manage short-term requirements. We really want to drive that down by improving our own capability. We are developing a pipeline of secondments into major organisations through a new secondments unit. We are building an in-house consultancy, we are creating a civilian reserve, and we are working with the Civil Service Commission to review how we attract entrants with specific high-demand skills, particularly scientists and engineers.
Levelling Up Agenda
Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s covid recovery agenda, and I am in daily contact with Cabinet colleagues. Through the levelling up fund, we have already committed £4.8 billion of support for local projects that will spur regional growth and improve the lives of local people across the whole United Kingdom. Later this year we will publish a levelling up White Paper.
If you are in a low-paid job in our country, you are still more likely to be a woman than a man. That is no good for a country that values aspiration, no good for productivity and no good for our economy. Given the focus at the G7 on equal opportunity for women at work, will the Government’s White Paper on levelling up recognise this problem and focus on levelling up for women throughout the United Kingdom?
As a distinguished former Equalities Minister and former Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: more must be done as part of levelling in order to ensure that women have the opportunities that they deserve and are paid fairly, and that we make use of everyone’s talents across the whole United Kingdom.
The Tees valley is already beginning to see the Government’s levelling up agenda in action through its plans for the northern economic campus in Darlington, the UK’s largest freeport in Redcar, and the continued work in collaboration between the UK Government and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. When will we start to see the civil service jobs relocated to the Tees valley, and does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong to cut train services between Teesside and London at a time when our area is growing again?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention Ben Houchen, the Gareth Southgate of local government. It is appropriate that, as the Treasury and the Department for International Trade are recruiting new roles in Darlington and there is more investment in Teesside, we must make sure that we have proper connectivity, including first-class rail travel as well as improved digital connectivity.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his earlier answer. The Government’s levelling up agenda is laudable, and in Clacton some progress has been made. I am doing the best I can to inform residents in the area of what the Government are doing. There is a feeling of being left behind locally, however, so what are the Government doing to communicate more widely what they have been and will be doing for the people of Clacton and other left-behind communities? Will my right hon. Friend come back to the sunshine coast and join me to raise awareness of the Government’s important work?
I absolutely will. There is nothing left behind about Clacton and Frinton and the communities that my hon. Friend so ably represents, and I look forward to visiting them. I understand that there is a fantastic local community theatre that he has played a part in championing, among many other local endeavours. Levelling up is about culture as well as connectivity. I look forward to coming to Clacton and making sure that it is firmly on the map and at the centre of our levelling up plans.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s ambitious plans for levelling up are for the whole of the UK, including London and its economy, which has been especially badly hit by the pandemic?
My right hon Friend is absolutely right. He is a brilliant advocate for south-east London and for business. I look forward to working with him to ensure that there is improved connectivity and that London, which has suffered particularly badly as a result of the pandemic, is at the heart of our plans for economic recovery.
Labour believes that it should be an explicit priority of this Government that when it comes to public procurement we should be buying more from British companies. In the Government’s document, “National Infrastructure and Construction Procurement Pipeline 2020/21”, the procurement contracts in the pipeline are worth £37 billion. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell the House how much of this was awarded to British companies? If not, what does that say about the Government’s priorities for British business?
I am delighted beyond words that the hon. Lady believes that we should procure more, buy more and invest more in Britain. All that is now possible as a result of our departure from the European Union and our liberation from its procurement rules. The procurement Green Paper brought forward by my noble Friend Lord Agnew will ensure that more UK businesses—more Scottish businesses, Welsh businesses and Ulster businesses—get Government pounds to do even better for all our citizens.
Public Bodies: Transparency in Service Delivery
Accounting officer system statements already set out which public bodies a Department is responsible for, and their spending is set out in each Department’s annual report and accounts. Public bodies data is also published in the public bodies directory. The recent declaration on Government reform reasserts our commitment to transparency in government. The declaration includes specific commitments on public bodies, including increasing the effectiveness of departmental sponsorship of arm’s length bodies.
As legislators, we have an important and indeed necessary relationship with upholding the spirit and the letter of the law. However, in my experience hon. Members seem more likely to be sacked for their attempts to uphold such a principle. What message does the continued opacity, prevarication and law-breaking of this Government’s most senior Ministers and advisers give to our children, public bodies and industry, or does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster simply have no shame over his own unlawful conduct?
Order. We do need to try to keep it calm and be more temperate in our language.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate your comments on language in this House. I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Member’s characterisation of this Government. As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has already set out, there is a nuanced judgment from the Public First case in particular which does not agree with the way the hon. Member has characterised how the Government conduct themselves.
It would appear that my lack of donations to the Conservative party makes my chances of becoming a Government non-executive director rather slim, but my question to the Minister today is this: how many non-executive directors currently in post on those Government Department boards to scrutinise Ministers were appointed by Ministers? Will the Minister commit to overhauling that current system for appointing non-executive directors, so that these roles stop just being cushy jobs for friends of Ministers who are being paid over £1,000 a day each of taxpayers’ money?
I can speak for the Cabinet Office non-executive directors. We have a fantastic team that is drawn from across party political affiliations. She will be aware that we have Baroness Stuart, who is a former Labour Member. We also have people with no political affiliation whatever, including people such as Anand Aithal. We have Henry de Zoete, and we have Lord Hogan-Howe, who is a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner. They were appointed because of their merit, not because of their party political affiliation.
I think that made my point for me, thank you.
Last month, an Information Tribunal said that there is
“a profound lack of transparency about the operation”
of the freedom of information clearing house. Can the Minister confirm categorically that every single freedom of information request received has been treated in exactly the same way, with no different approach for certain journalists or campaigners?
I can confirm that we treat those information requests on a case-by-case basis, and the background of who is asking is not a criterion for how we treat that request.
CCTV Cameras: Ministerial Offices
The placement of security cameras in Departments is a matter for each individual Department.
This issue came to light because of a bit of kiss and tell, and I am not really interested in that, but it does bring out the question of just exactly who has access to this sort of surveillance and the security of Government. When can we expect some sort of a response from the Government to explain just exactly what has been going on?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important and serious issue. The permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and the head of the Government Security Group are looking at precisely this question because, as the hon. Gentleman quite rightly points out, it has a bearing on the security of Government business, and indeed on the possibility of malicious actors, abroad or elsewhere, who may wish to use information garnered in that way to work against the interests of all our citizens.
Civil Contingency Plans: Preparedness for a Future Pandemic
We regularly assess contingency plans and preparedness for major risks, including pandemics. In December 2020, we updated the national risk register to include new risks. We are currently reviewing the Government’s national risk assessment methodology with external partners ahead of refreshing the internal national security risk assessment early next year.
Exercise Cygnus, carried out in 2016, found:
“The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic”.
Key recommendations from the exercise on surge capacity, school closures and protecting care homes were not acted on, which ultimately led to the Government’s chaotic handling of covid-19. Given that the warning signs had been identified in this report, why did the Government handle the pandemic so woefully, and what is being done now to prevent this from ever happening again?
The flaw with Exercise Cygnus was with regard to the risk methodology that sat behind it, and I have given evidence to a number of Select Committees on that basis. The hon. Member will know that we have rectified that now by changing the methodology, so rather than just focus on high-risk situations that would have an incredible detrimental impact and are likely to happen, we also look at situations that would have such an impact but are less likely to happen. It is not just pandemics we have to prepare for; it is a whole raft of possible events. I think that methodology and the new risk register put us in a much stronger position.
Discussions with the Welsh Government: Ministerial Responsibility
Cabinet Office Ministers regularly engage with the Welsh Government and all the devolved Administrations as part of the Government’s continued collaborative working arrangements. I have had recent discussions with Welsh Government Ministers on subjects such as covid-19, the G7 summit and, of course, elections. Since 2021, all ministerial engagements between the Governments of the United Kingdom are published in quarterly reports.
The Welsh Government recently proposed the most radical constitutional change for the whole of the United Kingdom, seeking to change our Union of four nations to a federal structure. Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether he was part of those discussions in any way, in view of the impact they would have for every part of the United Kingdom? Does he share my dismay that the Welsh Government are focusing on constitutional change during a covid pandemic when our focus must be on recovering healthcare, improving education standards and creating jobs? Does he agree that our Union of four nations and constitutional stability offer the best prospect of delivering those outcomes?
Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have the highest regard for the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and I enjoy working with him. I do not doubt his commitment to public service, but we do disagree on this question. I think my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Welsh Government’s focus, as the UK Government’s focus is, should be wholly on the covid crisis and on economic recovery at this time.
Road Map out of Lockdown: the Immunosuppressed
The Department continues to work with the Health Secretary on these issues. When we set out the details of step 4 regarding those who are immunosuppressed, there will be new guidance that GPs will be able to use when working with those patients.
My constituent Sue Gresham is a tireless campaigner for all those who are immunosuppressed, and she has raised this many times. It was highlighted just last week that those with blood cancer feel there is little information being given about the efficacy of the vaccine being lower for the immunosuppressed. It would be very reassuring if my right hon. Friend could tell me that the Government will write urgently to everyone in the UK whose medical condition requires immuno-suppression to advise that they may not be protected and what precautions they can take themselves as we unlock.
I thank my hon. Friend’s constituent for all the work she has done on these matters. I can say to my hon. Friend that we are in a much better position because of the work that we have previously done on shielding and gathering data on people who might need further protections. In addition to the new guidance I announced for GPs, there is obviously work going on with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, particularly focused on that group to ensure that they are a priority for receiving booster injections.
Civil Service: Jobs Outside London
The Government are committed to relocating 22,000 civil service roles from London by the end of the decade. Our “Places for Growth” portfolio is a vehicle to ensure that between now and 2030 the civil service becomes better connected with the people and communities it serves. A number of Departments have already made announcements about relocation, and further announcements will be made in due course.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Whether because of the 750 civil service jobs in the Treasury, the 500 senior civil servants from the Department for International Trade or the 100 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy officials, the Westminster-on-Tees new economic campus is set to be a busy place. Does he agree that moving civil service jobs outside London is vital to ensuring that communities across the country are reflected in national policy decisions?
“100%”, as they say on “Love Island”. My hon. Friend is completely right. We must ensure that we make use of the fantastic local talent that there is in the north-east and County Durham so that people whose voices have not been heard loudly enough in the corridors of power are properly represented.
I welcome the moves to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), but the new joint administration just up the road in County Durham has been left high and dry with a £50 million county hall bequeathed to it by the previous Labour administration. To prevent it from becoming an enormous white elephant—a totem to Labour’s hubris in its administration of County Durham for over 100 years—will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the new joint administration in Durham County Council to explore all the possibilities that this new facility might have?
I absolutely will. It is horrific that so much public money has been misused by the former Labour administration in Durham County Council and that the people of that county have been so poorly served. I will of course absolutely investigate that, but I should say that if it was a choice between Durham and Consett for the relocation of Government jobs, I would choose Consett every time.
Small Business: Government Contracts
The UK spends £290 billion on public procurement each year. Now that we have left the EU transition period we want 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 that our new approach to social value will secure wider public benefit, allowing us to contract with firms that deliver more apprenticeships, local growth opportunities and environmental benefits.
Many companies in Crawley and across the UK have been forced to adapt because of the covid-19 pandemic. Does my hon. Friend agree that they should have greater opportunity and access to bidding for Government contracts over outside competition?
I agree with my hon. Friend. We want a much greater variety of companies, including those in Crawley, to deliver Government contracts from every corner of our country, not just because it benefits local economies and communities but because it helps us to diversify our risk, create a more resilient supply base and deliver some of our critical priorities. We are going to be requiring contracts to be divided into smaller lots, publishing contract pipelines more transparently, and improving our guidance to small businesses that are looking to bid.
Voter ID: Levels of Enfranchisement
Voter fraud is a crime that we cannot allow room for, and we must stamp out any potential for it to take place in elections. Strengthening the integrity of our system will give the public confidence that our elections remain secure well into the future, and everybody who is eligible to vote will be able to continue doing so.
At the last general election, 14 million people who registered to vote did not do so, and the Electoral Commission estimates that 9 million eligible citizens were not registered to vote. Do the Government believe that higher turnouts of eligible voters in elections is a good sign for democracy? If so, why are Ministers putting their energy into making voting harder by introducing voter ID?
Yes, I do agree that turnout is incredibly important—and what is more, this policy will not affect it. The evidence of that is in the record from Northern Ireland, which Labour Members appear to be forgetting. The measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters. The Government have no intention of taking away people’s democratic right to vote. Mr Speaker,
“If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]
Those are not my words but those of a Labour Minister in 2003, introducing photo ID in Northern Ireland.
If the Minister, in spite of all the data, is determined that our elections would be made more secure by voter ID, does she not accept that the Government should provide ID free to all citizens of voting age, or is she quite content to price some people out of democracy?
The hon. Lady is a long-standing Member of this House and I am looking forward to debating with her enormously, but she simply has not read the papers. What she proposes is exactly what we are doing. I would like to make it absolutely clear here at the Dispatch Box that there will be a free local voter card. It will be free, it will be local, and it make sure that anybody who does not have photographic identification can still vote. I welcome that.
The Minister has previously advised me and the House that polling staff will be given appropriate training on checking photo IDs of individuals who wear headscarves or face coverings. Although the Government have apparently guaranteed the use of privacy screens at polling stations to facilitate private ID checks, many voters will not feel comfortable at the prospect of having to show their face or hair to a polling clerk of the opposite sex, and indeed may not vote. Will the Minister confirm whether her plans include provisions to ensure that there are both male and female staff all day at every one of the 35,500 polling stations across the country, to ensure that voters are not placed in an inappropriate position? How much would she expect that to cost?
The hon. Lady picks up on a very important point. We intend to do this properly. We are making sure that there is the right provision of training in polling stations, as she has already acknowledged, and with that, the right provision of communication to help voters be aware of this very reasonable and proportionate new requirement. All that is detailed in the documents that we put before the House this week. I look forward to debates on this subject, because we are being very honest and straightforward in our approach. We have put the documents there, we have done the research, we have done the pilots, we have done the modelling, we have done the evaluation and we have done the equality impact assessment. All that together will show how this policy is the right thing to do, and the elections integrity Bill protects our democracy, keeping it secure, modern, fair and transparent, as we would all expect it to be.
Covid-19: Ministerial Correspondence
As the Prime Minister has already confirmed, the public inquiry into covid-19 will be established under the Inquiries Act 2005, with formal powers to compel the production of relevant material and to take evidence in public under oath. The Government will, of course, co-operate with the inquiry fully.
Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm whether using private email accounts to discuss sensitive Government business is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Data Protection Act or the Public Records Act, which make requirements on the use of Government information? Will he guarantee today that all Ministers’ private email accounts will be available to the public inquiry into the Government’s mishandling of the covid pandemic?
Any information that the inquiry needs, it will receive.
Verify continues to work well and it supports 18 services. More than 8 million Verify accounts have been created, with over 2.6 million added since the start of the pandemic as citizens access critical online services. Building on the lessons and experience of Verify, and as we announced in last year’s spending review, the Government Digital Service is collaborating with other Departments to develop a new login and identity assurance system that will make it much easier for more people to use online services safely. While the new system is being developed, users and connected services will continue to rely on gov.uk Verify, so that means that the Government have decided to extend the current service until April 2022.
It has actually been a shambles—a huge waste of public money, an absolute Conservative failure. In the light of the recent report from the so-called regulatory reform taskforce sponsored by No. 10, which recommends reducing the protections for citizens under the GDPR, will the Minister assure the House that there will be no use of personal data for any purpose other than that which it has been explicitly given?
How we use citizens’ data is going to be absolutely critical to building trust in the new system that we are building. That new system will reuse parts of Verify, but we must have an open conversation about what we will do to protect people’s data. There will not be any data lakes, for instance, and we will be building a new Government data exchange that will look at these areas very carefully, because, as I say, any new system has to be based on trust between Government and citizen, and that will be key to its success.
Ministerial Code: Enforcement
Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code, and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. The Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards required and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.
Sadly, the Government have shown time and again that they cannot be trusted to work within the system as it stands. Will the Government commit to placing the ministerial code on a statutory footing and give the adviser on Ministers’ interests powers to instigate his own investigations?
We think it is the right thing, in the context of our constitution, that the ministerial code and its enforcement and expectations sit with the Prime Minister, because he is, appropriately, the appointer of the Executive and is accountable to the sovereign for that. That is the constitutional set-up that we are talking about, so we think it is the right thing for the code to reflect that and therefore not be based on a statutory system. I add that the Prime Minister appointed Lord Geidt recently as the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and spoke with him about the second point that the hon. Lady raised—whether there might be initiation for that adviser. The Prime Minister has set out his response to the recommendation that there might be the ability to advise the PM on the initiation of investigations.
My Department, along with the Leader of the House, has been reviewing the English votes for English laws procedure. The procedure has been suspended since April 2020 and, having reflected on the procedure, the Government believe that it has not served our Parliament well and that removing it would simplify the legislative process. It is a fundamental principle that all constituent parts of the United Kingdom should be equally represented in Parliament. Any changes, of course, would be for the House to decide and we will bring forward a motion in due course.
How would the right hon. Gentleman reassure a member of the public who thinks that a Minister using a personal mobile phone to conduct Government business is trying to evade scrutiny because they have something to hide?
I would reassure them by saying that all Government business is transacted through civil service colleagues, and that in order to ensure that a single penny of taxpayers’ money is spent, or that a single decision is taken, that might infringe, or enhance anyone’s liberty, it has to go through the process of review, legislation and action, which civil servants and Ministers do together in a way that is always clear, transparent and publicly accountable.
In the inquiry by the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs into the collapse of Greensill Capital, many of our witnesses so far have prayed in aid the advice given to them by Sue Gray, who at the time was director general for propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office. She was invited to attend our Committee on Tuesday; her office initially accepted that invitation, but I am told that she has now declined it on the advice of those more senior at the Cabinet Office. It is vital that the Committee be able to hear from Ms Gray, given that she was mentioned so many times by others. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to ensure that she will attend on Tuesday as planned?
My hon. Friend chairs the Committee brilliantly, but there are rules—the Osmotherly rules. They stress that serving civil servants act only in accordance with the wishes of Ministers and therefore it is rarely appropriate for them to appear to be questioned in the way that my hon. Friend would like. So I am ready, willing and able to appear in front of the Committee, but it is my view that it would be inappropriate for a serving civil servant to appear in the way that my hon. Friend requests.
Football is indeed coming home, but I also think that the chickens are coming home to roost for this Government. The Government’s spokesperson said last week that
“there was no high priority lane for testing suppliers…and there was no separate ‘fast track process’”.
Can the Minister for the Cabinet Office tell me what exactly the role was of the consultant to the testing procurement programme who described his role as
“to lead VIP stakeholder engagement with…Lord…Bethell”,
who is still somehow a Minister. If there is no fast track, why did the right hon. Gentleman’s own procurement director order officials to mark bids that came from Ministers’ email addresses as “fast track”?
There were lots of interesting questions there. The first thing that I should say is that Lord Bethell is doing a fantastic job in the Department of Health and Social Care. I think that it is quite wrong for the right hon. Lady to cast aspersions on his dedicated public service and the work that he has done as Minister for Innovation.
The second thing that I should say is that every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process in order to ensure that every single piece of personal protective equipment, or everything—[Interruption.] Useful commentary there from the Alan Hansen of politics, but the truth is that actually we have always been in compliance with the rules, unlike the Scottish Government. Audit Scotland has pointed out to the Scottish Government that they need to do better, and indeed they must.
I listened to the Minister’s answer, and I can tell him that Lord Bethell is no Sterling. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson stated last week that no Ministers had used private emails to conduct Government business. Surely the Minister now accepts that that is untrue. Will he tell us when the Prime Minister will correct the record?
I listened to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). We have already submitted freedom of information requests to seek the publication of emails, but will the Minister agree now to publish every such email about Government contracts? Can he make a guarantee to the House today for bereaved families—including my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who made a very passionate speech at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday—that every single one of those emails is secured for the public inquiry?
The right hon. Lady quite rightly refers to the very powerful question from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and I think all of us deeply sympathise with the family loss that he has had to endure, as so many others have had to. It is precisely because we take these things seriously that we took steps to ensure that we could source personal protective equipment as quickly as possible. Of course, we did so in a way that was entirely consistent with good procurement practice. We used the measures that were used by the Labour Government in Wales and by the SNP Government in Scotland to ensure that we could get things to the frontline as effectively as possible and in accordance with fair procedure.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we reflect on how public-spirited individuals such as Alan Halsall and Darren Grimes were treated, I think it was quite right for the new head of the Electoral Commission to issue an apology. The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission is a means by which parties across this House can ensure that the Electoral Commission does its important job, and the Elections Bill will ensure that the Speaker’s Committee and others play an important role in making sure that the Electoral Commission does its job properly.
The hon. Lady raises an important question. Action is being taken by the Transport Secretary, and the issue was discussed earlier this week at Cabinet. I am also working with Lord Frost to ensure that we can have free-flowing freight and that we get the goods that we need to consumers in a timely fashion.
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. In a former life he was a distinguished leader of West Sussex County Council and, as such, he knows how important it is to the delivery of public services to ensure that one has appropriate metrics, one shares data and that one uses digital innovation to improve service delivery. I look forward to working with him to improve Government delivery in just that way.
It is not my job to monitor the personal emails of all my colleagues. If I did, I suspect—[Interruption.] Well, it might be quite interesting, actually; quite entertaining. The key thing is you cannot conduct Government business from private email to private email. The only way you can conduct Government business is through civil servants.
And indeed Peterlee. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As we heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, it is a pity that the Labour administration in County Durham have squandered County Durham taxpayers’ money in the way that they have, but the point that my hon. Friend makes about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency’s potential location in the north-east and in Durham is a very good one, and I will discuss it with the Business Secretary.
We are only following what the Labour party does. It was the Labour party that introduced the requirement for voter ID in Northern Ireland, as the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) pointed out earlier. It is also the case that one can vote in internal Labour elections only by using voter ID. I do not know whether there is an internal Labour election coming up soon. The shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), will be better informed on that question than me—[Interruption.] Sorry! Anyway, to vote in a Labour election, you need voter ID.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We do not currently have plans to do that, but she makes a fair point. As everyone knows, for the remaining hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, when an hereditary peer in any one of the party or Cross-Bench groups passes away, there is a by-election among those who are eligible, but at the moment in nearly every case the franchise and candidacy is restricted to men. That is something we should definitely look at.
The hon. Lady raises an important point. There is much that we need to do to ensure the more effective inclusion in civic life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals. First, we must start with making sure that they receive a higher quality of education than is currently the case. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are among those with the worst educational outcomes and we need to address that in order to make sure that they play their full part in public life. But there is absolutely no evidence that the requirement for voter ID will do anything to discriminate against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals.
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. When I was in the north-east and the Western Isles recently, I heard individuals and businesses crying out for economic support. When I explained that the UK Government had given significant sums to the Scottish Government in the covid crisis to deal with the emergency, the question was, “How has it been spent?” Because there has been no accountability and no transparency on the part of the Scottish Government. We have no idea how that money has been spent and the Scottish Parliament does not yet have the powers necessary to get that information. However, Her Majesty’s Treasury can ask tough questions and require information to be shared, and unless the Scottish Government are more transparent, I will have to consider how I can work with Ministers and with my hon. Friend to make sure that Scottish taxpayers know where their money has gone.
No. This Government are committed to devolution. Like the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, we believe in a United Kingdom that gets the best of both worlds: a strong Westminster Government working with strong devolved institutions. Of course, I recognise that, in the spirit of providing the Scottish people with a choice, the hon. Gentleman decided to leave the Scottish National party in order to set up, with Mr Salmond, the Alba party. One reason he did so is that he believed that the Scottish Government were doing a poor job, that they were not making the case effectively for independence and, indeed, that the way in which they were discharging their responsibilities actually corroded the case for independence. On the final point, the hon. Gentleman and I are as one.
Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outline what collective approach has been taken by BEIS and the Cabinet Office to address some of the issues affecting small businesses with regard to the import of hundreds of products to Northern Ireland? I know that he has a particular interest in this issue. Businesses are being prevented from trading normally, as things were pre-31 December 2020; they are under stress and it has reduced their income. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree to grant funding for a loss of income, as business have been impacted through no fault of their own?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As a result of the particular interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol on which some in the European Commission have insisted, businesses in Strangford and elsewhere have faced additional costs. We have already devoted money through the trader support service and other means to support businesses, but I will talk to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Treasury and Lord Frost to see what we can do to ensure that businesses in Strangford and elsewhere in Northern Ireland are not further disadvantaged.
I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.