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Topical Questions

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 23 September 2021

I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for his leadership of the Cabinet Office over the last two years and wish him well in his new role. I also thank my officials at the Treasury for all their support during my time as Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I welcome the comments made by the Opposition Front-Bench team in respect of the new ministerial team and look forward to constructive engagement with them in the months ahead.

Mr Speaker, a theme this morning has been your recent G7 Speakers conference, and certainly for me, as someone born and bred in Lancashire, it is a particular honour to have the role of Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Cabinet Office is the strategic headquarters for the Government, supporting the Prime Minister and the Cabinet in delivering for the British people. I look forward to working with colleagues to do so, supported by an excellent new ministerial team.

I join in welcoming the right hon. Member to his new post.

Whereas the NHS infected blood scandal was the biggest treatment disaster in the history of the NHS, the covid pandemic has been the biggest public health disaster in a century. In March 2020, the chief scientific adviser said if the UK could keep covid deaths below 20,000 that would be a “good result”, and now of course there have been more than 135,000. If the covid public inquiry, which we understand will not start until next year, is to be a genuine attempt to look at the rights and wrongs of what happened, will frontline staff in the healthcare and social care sectors be involved in setting the terms of reference?

We have been clear that we will have an inquiry, and that will be next spring. Clearly, there will be consultations on shaping the leadership of that, its terms and how it will be conducted. The Prime Minister has been clear on his commitment to ensuring that we learn the lessons within the covid response not just in England, but across the United Kingdom. That applies in Wales, but in the other devolved Administrations as well. I think something we all share across the House is that the right lessons are drawn so that improvements can be made.

T3. I was very pleased to hear the comments from the Minister earlier on small businesses securing Government contracts. I have been contacted by a number of businesses in Warrington—specifically, one that installs street charging for electric vehicles and another that supplies CO2 monitors to schools. Both are trying to secure business from Government, but they have had no response from the procurement teams. Can he advise businesses in Warrington and across the country on how best to approach Government? (903628)

My hon. Friend raises a very good and practical issue about how such businesses benefit from the public spend. I would draw his attention to things such as the Contracts Finder, which is a free-to-use platform that publishes details of contracts above £10,000 and £25,000 exactly to enable businesses to have greater transparency on the sort of contracts that are available.

I, too, congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your chairing of the G7 Speakers conference and welcome the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the team to their places.

The next pandemic or major disaster could happen tomorrow. We have to learn our lessons from this pandemic and be much better prepared for it happening again. The covid-19 national foresight group has been capturing these live lessons, and it has concluded that a “strong and persistent theme” has been the

“lack of strategy and shared plan”

in the Government’s response. Its recommendations have spent nine months gathering dust. Will the Minister commit to implementing its recommendations, and would he meet the group?

The hon. Lady is right that we need to ensure that we learn the lessons, and that point was made a moment ago. It is why within Government we have been looking more widely at our resilience, with things such as the civil contingencies secretariat and the investment recently in the situation centre to enable Government to respond in a more agile and quicker way to issues as they arise. I am always keen to hear from whichever groups have contributions to make, and either I or one of the team will follow up on the point she raised.

I thank the Minister for that, and I will be following it up with him.

The latest allegations about the Home Secretary’s secret meeting with British Airways, a billionaire Tory donor and the then Business Secretary, but with no official present, should concern us all. She is a serial offender for breaking the ministerial code previously. Will the new Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster hold an investigation into these allegations and actually start enforcing the code, or is it just there for show?

There is a clear process set out in the ministerial code. I am not aware that any ministerial colleague has breached that. Obviously, a due process is applied through PET—the propriety and ethics team—in the Cabinet Office where concerns have been raised, but to date there is no evidence to suggest that that is the case.

T4. I welcome the Government’s speedy response and short-term arrangements with CF Fertilisers to ensure the immediate restart of carbon dioxide production. Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House and the people of Beaconsfield that everything is being done across Whitehall to ensure that we safeguard ourselves against global gas price increases? (903630)

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I reassure her that the Government are working to manage the impacts of gas price rises affecting the UK. We are confident in the security of supply this winter, and we are working with industry to address any potential risks in an appropriate way. Indeed, together with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, I had a call earlier this morning with those chief executives involved in our supply chain, looking at some of these issues and at how we can work closely together.

T5. Further to the debate on the levelling-up fund, will the Minister discuss with ministerial colleagues the need to extend the delivery date and the first phase of the scheme beyond the end of the current financial year, due to the delay in announcing successful bids? (903631)

As I recall from my recent time in the Treasury, the levelling-up fund is not a one-shot opportunity and there will be future iterations and bidding processes. The first round is applied, but there will be future rounds as part of that. Obviously, that will also be shaped by the forthcoming spending review that the Chancellor will lead.

T6. People in fishing communities will have been interested to hear the Paymaster General assert earlier that we are taking back control of our territorial waters. May I invite him to clarify that? When he says territorial waters, does he mean water up to the 6-mile, 12-mile or 200-mile limit? (903632)

I think the right hon. Gentleman knows full well what is meant by British territorial waters, and I invite him to accept that it is this Government who do everything they need to do, and they will continue to protect our territorial waters.

T8. Will the Minister agree to meet me and my constituent Thomas Leigh, a veteran who was seriously injured during his service in the armed forces, to discuss Mr Leigh’s very serious concerns about the inadequacy of the compensation available for long-term back injuries sustained by servicemen? (903634)

T9. I listened with interest to the non-answers given to my hon. Friends earlier, and I wonder whether any more light could be shed on why this Government are so intent on applying a pre-crime approach, on thinking that people might try to commit voter identity fraud, and on suppressing millions, yet ignoring the actual evidence of dark money and large donations to political parties. Can more light be shed on exactly why they are taking that approach? (903635)

I invite the hon. Gentleman to read the court’s judgement in the 2015 Tower Hamlets case, and he will find out exactly the nature of the problem that the Government are seeking to redress. We will redress other problems as and when they become necessary.

May I commend the Government on their plans to move civil service jobs out of London? In welcoming my right hon. Friend to his position, may I invite him to visit Darlington and see the progress that has been made with the delivery of jobs in the Treasury, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Departments, which is real evidence of our levelling-up agenda?

I always look forward to an opportunity to visit Darlington, and I share my hon. Friend’s passion for moving more jobs. When I was Chief Secretary to the Treasury, one key thing I did was seek to front-load our previous commitment to moving 22,000 jobs by 2030 and bring that forward. We now have a commitment for 15,000 of those jobs to be moved by 2024-25. It is not just the value of the jobs themselves that moves, with the welcome diversity that brings in the civil service; it also drives further jobs in the private market.

I have been contacted by bereaved constituents who have lost their loved ones to covid-19, and I would like to pay tribute to all those families in Liverpool, West Derby today in this Chamber. My constituents want answers, and they should not have had to battle with the Government at every stage to secure the covid-19 inquiry. In his new role, will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster make a commitment, here and now, to prioritising the bereaved families, meeting Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice as a matter of urgency to discuss the terms of reference of the inquiry, and ensuring that the families get the truth and justice they deserve?

Every death from this virus is a tragedy, and our deepest sympathies are with everyone who has lost loved ones. The Government remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring that the families of whom the hon. Gentleman has spoken have the scrutiny of the Government’s response to managing the pandemic that they deserve. The Prime Minister made it very clear in his statement to this House on 12 May that bereaved families and others will be consulted on the inquiry’s terms of reference before they are finalised. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to write to me for more information, I will be happy to respond.

In 2014, the no campaign warned that, if Scotland voted for independence, it would lead to higher energy prices, an end to freedom of movement and empty supermarket shelves. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell us what the result of the 2014 independence referendum was?

In a session that has involved a new ministerial team looking forward, we see the SNP, as ever, constantly wanting to look backwards, yet when it comes to their own independence referendum, they seem to want to forget the past and the result of that vote. We have a plan for jobs that is working across the United Kingdom to get more people into work and upskill them. It is very appropriate, with the Business Secretary here, that we have a plan for jobs that is working, and that is what the Scottish Government and the SNP should be focused on.

Last week, a High Court judge refused the Cabinet Office permission to appeal against a first-tier tribunal decision that it should release information to me, under freedom of information legislation, in relation to the work it had been doing on opinion research in Scotland with regard to attitudes to the Union. Will the Cabinet Office now comply with that ruling and finally release the information that it has paid for with taxpayers’ money?

The Government regularly commission research in different parts of the UK to understand public attitudes and behaviours, to inform our campaigns and policies in development. The Scottish Government conduct similar research, for the same reasons. We will set out our response to the court’s decision in due course.