House of Commons
Thursday 11 May 2023
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—
Ministerial Code: Civil Service
The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that Ministers are expected to maintain the highest standards of behaviour at all times in accordance with the ministerial code. Working relationships, including with civil servants, should be professional and appropriate.
Civil servants living in my constituency and across the country feel utterly dismayed that their professionalism and integrity are constantly being undermined by statements from serving and former Ministers, repeated attacks on them and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s failure to condemn what was exposed as bullying and intimidatory behaviour. Does the Minister agree that, given the importance of civil service and ministerial relationships and his role in upholding the ministerial code, phrases such as “activist blob” or a “blizzard of snowflakes” are not in keeping with that code, and what will he do about it?
I rather dispute the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. There is and always should be a professional relationship between civil servants and the Government. We should all ensure that we maintain the impartiality, objectivity and integrity of the civil service. We should support civil servants in doing the important job that they do, which includes upholding the impartiality of the civil service, about which the Opposition have a few things to learn.
Civil Service: External Consultants
My focus is on ensuring that the civil service has enhanced skills to provide all forms of advice where appropriate. However, there is also a role, as there is for other Governments and the private sector, for specialist expertise. Where this represents good value for money in delivering for the taxpayer, we will use it.
But with thousands of civil servants—hard-working, experienced civil servants—in the Public and Commercial Services Union having to strike for a fair pay deal themselves, how can the Minister justify hiring expensive consultants instead of using the in-house expertise that there evidently is across our wonderful civil service?
We do make use of that expertise. I am keen to see civil servants providing advice across the full remit of their capabilities. Embedded in civil service learning are modules about consultancy, and we ensure that we use civil servants where appropriate in that area. However, there is a role for specialist consultants and specialist expertise. That can add value for the taxpayer. I used to be the Minister for Defence Procurement, and we would not have ship designers employed in the civil service when there are real specialists out there who are up to date and effective. There will always be a role for expertise that comes from outside Government, as well as using the brilliant expertise of our civil servants themselves.
I agree with the Minister that there is a role for consultants, but the spending on consultants is spiralling out of control. After the scandal of spending waste on personal protective equipment the Government have not taken the action needed. Consultants cost twice as much as a civil servant, yet spending on consultants has been spiralling. The Paymaster General lifted controls on private contracts and on reporting them in February. The Cabinet Office itself is one of the worst offenders for spending on consultants, and Ministers are not enforcing public reporting of departmental spending so that we can find out how much is being spent on consultants, with the Treasury itself being one of the worst examples. Will the Minister commit to cutting the millions spent on consultants where they are not needed and where we can use civil servants instead, and to getting a grip on wasteful Government spending?
I will always endeavour to ensure that no consultant is ever employed where they are “not needed”, to quote the hon. Lady. We always ensure that we use the propositions that represent best value for money —that has to be the basis on which we operate, and we will continue to do so. I remind the hon. Lady that we managed to secure £3.4 billion of efficiency savings across Government last year. We did that by focusing on costs and making certain that we drove them down. We will continue to do so, and we are committed to ensuring that we get best value for the taxpayer.
One of my priorities at the Cabinet Office is strengthening our national resilience across Government. Last month we tested successfully the emergency alert system, a vital new tool to help us to communicate quickly with the public during life-threatening situations, and we will soon publish an updated national risk register to support partners with their resilience plans.
My hon. Friend is right to highlight this issue. We committed in the integrated review to publish a supply chains and import strategy so that we can strengthen our resilience in critical sectors. We have already developed several sector-specific supply chain resilience strategies and a supply chain resilience framework for the public and private sectors.
Our ability to pay for everything we care about as a nation depends on a strong economy. Nowhere is that more important than in our leading industries, such as semiconductors, quantum computing and artificial intelligence, where we have world-leading advantages. What more do we need to do to make sure that we keep that world-class technology and capability safe here in the UK and can pay for everything we care about?
My hon. Friend is right that economic security is an emerging challenge in the United Kingdom and across the world; that is why it was so prominent in the integrated review refresh. It is a big area of focus for me, which is why the Prime Minister asked me to chair a new national security committee on economic security to step up our efforts. That committee met last week.
Off the back of reports that Russia is content for its ships to sabotage northern European energy infrastructure, it is more concerning than ever that, despite taking up the majority of UK coastal waters, Scotland does not have a single armoured ship permanently based in its waters. Let us be clear: in an independent Scotland, Scotland’s defence force would recognise and fill those gaps in security. However, in the meantime, what is the Minister’s Department doing across Whitehall to invest in the maritime security of Scotland and Scottish territorial waters?
Of course the maritime security of the United Kingdom is the utmost priority for this Government. We ensure that Royal Naval vessels are available to patrol waters at all times. I would gently say to the hon. Lady that that kind of defence strength would simply not be available—[Interruption.]
In response to the National Infrastructure Commission and the Climate Change Committee stating that the Government must take steps to ensure our key infrastructure is resilient to the effects of climate change, what steps is the Minister taking with Cabinet colleagues to fast-track national adaptation planning?
Our efforts in that area are led by relevant Government Departments. Through the Cabinet Office, I chair the Cabinet Committee on net zero and energy security, which is designed specifically to co-ordinate all the different areas of Government to deliver on our national and international commitments.
There are increasing concerns about the pace of growth of artificial intelligence, with its potential to penetrate so many areas of our lives and dehumanise our world. It is difficult to see how bad actors will not exploit AI to do bad things, and it is already influencing the character of conflict. Given that there is a lag between the arrival of new technical developments and subsequent regulations passed by this place, will the Deputy Prime Minister consider creating a new role in the Government, a Minister for artificial intelligence, so that Government and Parliament can stay on the front foot in this fast-moving world?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. There are two elements: the first is ensuring that we are ahead of the game with artificial intelligence and exploiting its opportunities, and that responsibility sits with the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. There are also, as he says, major resilience challenges, which fall within my remit as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, ensuring that the United Kingdom is prepared for any threats that may emerge in that area. That is something I take seriously, and we are doing a lot of work on it.
Can the Minister further outline what steps are being taken to develop a measure for social vulnerability as an indicator of socioeconomic resilience and of how risks impact on communities and vulnerable groups, to further guide and inform decision making, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland, whose isolation leaves us more vulnerable than our mainland counterparts?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. This is a whole United Kingdom effort. As an example of that, a couple of weeks ago we held in Belfast a major cyber-security conference, bringing together partners from around the world and built on the strength of cyber-security not just in the United Kingdom but in Northern Ireland specifically. It is just one area where we are stronger working together as a United Kingdom.
The National Infra- structure Commission and the Committee on Climate Change have made it clear that there is a significant resilience gap in Britain’s key infrastructure. As we approach the summer, and water shortages loom once again in the face of intensifying climate change across the country, how many of the action points laid out in the resilience framework that the Government published in December have been achieved?
As the hon. Lady will know, we continue to make considerable progress on all the actions set out in that framework. She is right to highlight the challenges that we face in some resilience areas, particularly in relation to cyber-resilience. That is why I am conducting a programme to step up our cyber-resilience, for example by creating a new agency to ensure that we are across the cyber-resilience of all Government Departments and annually appraise them of it.
Speakers at Government Events: Social Media History
The Cabinet Office has drawn up guidance to help protect civil service values. Taxpayers’ money should not unwittingly be used to pay for speakers linked to abhorrent organisations or individuals who promote hate or discriminatory beliefs, which could bring the civil service into disrepute. We do not hold a central record of speakers identified as unsuitable, but as the guidance has been described to me as “codified common sense”, I trust that the number will be very few.
Well, if the guidance is common sense, the Minister will have no problem with publishing it, will he? At the moment, there is Government guidance to ban people from speaking at Government events, but we have not seen it. We do not know who is on that list, and we do not even know if the people on the list have been told that they appear on it. That is more like North Korea, is it not?
I have nothing to hide. If the hon. Gentleman would like it published, I will publish it. It is internal guidance, and it therefore tends to be internal, but I will lay a copy in the Library. He is a sensible person and will appreciate that there are certain abhorrent organisations that we should not pay or give a platform to and cause embarrassment to our civil service or our country. But I will publish the guidance.
On 25 April, I put in a written parliamentary question asking the Minister to publish the guidance. He did not publish it in response to my question. I came here today convinced that I would have to make a freedom of information request to get that guidance. Why, having refused to publish the guidance in his answer to me on 3 May, is the Minister now saying that he will publish it? What is happening here? Why was he unwilling to publish the guidance in response to the normal parliamentary method of putting in a written question?
It may shock the hon. Lady, and I apologise, but I cannot recall her exact parliamentary question. I recall the parliamentary question of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders), in which I believe he asked if it was my intention to publish the guidance. It was not our intention to publish it, but I have nothing to hide and am very happy to publish it. It is internal guidance; it will be adapted by different Departments. It is sensible to have guidance to ensure that civil servants know what they should be doing when invitations are issued to people who will be paid and given a platform in, and could cause embarrassment to, the civil service.
In the response to my written question last week, I was told that the due diligence and impartiality guidelines
“avoid invitations being issued to individuals and/or organisations that have provided adverse commentary on government policy, political decisions, approaches or individuals in government”,
in order to “retain impartiality” in the civil service. That is the opposite of what the Government are asking universities to do in the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill. Why is there one rule for the Government and another rule for universities? How is it impartial to only allow civil servants to hear speakers who agree with the Government?
I appreciate that the hon. Lady has not had the opportunity to do so, and I look forward to her having that opportunity, but if she were to read on from the phrase that she quoted, which I assume appeared in the press, it refers to “adverse commentary” on Government policy
“that could undermine the Civil Service’s position on impartiality and create reputational damage.”
The guidance goes on to say that it is entirely possible for contrarian views—views critical of Government policy—to be shared with those who are at the point of policy formation. I want my civil servants to be fully informed of the arguments against Government policy. What is not appropriate is to have individuals paid and given a platform to create embarrassment for the civil service and potentially for the UK as a whole.
National Emergency Test
Last month’s UK-wide emergency alert was the largest simultaneous public message in British history. We reached 93% of eligible phones in the country within three minutes of the test alert being sent from Cobra. The system is now fully operable in the event of a real emergency and is a vital tool in our toolkit to keep people safe.
I congratulate the Department on conducting a test. What will happen with the 7% who were not reached? Will there be a follow-up test? My right hon. Friend says that the system is fully functional. What kind of things will these tests be used for in the future? Will it be regional, national or local emergencies?
The whole point of having a test is to expose where there are challenges. Subsequent to the test, I met with the chief executive of Three, on which network the principal challenges lay, and I am confident that they have pretty much taken the actions needed to ensure that we will get the fuller coverage that is required. It was a one-off test. I do not see any need for a further such test in the foreseeable future. We will target the system as locally as possible—we can do so at the level of even a mast. It will be used in circumstances where people’s lives are at risk; it is a very high bar for usage.
During a national emergency, it is the most vulnerable who are likely to be the most in need, but they are also the most likely to be digitally excluded. In the absence of a digital inclusion strategy or even target from the Government since 2014, we do not know where those people are. In response to the test, what steps will the right hon. Gentleman take to ensure that those who are digitally excluded will be better included and reached in a national emergency?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. Even under the existing test, we reached 93% of people, so the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom did receive that alert, and by the time we have dealt with the Three issues, it will be a much larger number. We continue to engage with relevant charities and other organisations to ensure that people who still do not have access to mobile phone technology are able to receive appropriate alerts. This sits alongside many other measures that we take to inform people of risks.
Resignation Honours Lists
It is a long-standing convention present under successive Governments that outgoing Prime Ministers can draw up a resignation list. Any names proposed are subject to the usual propriety checks.
An Electoral Reform Society poll found that just 7% of people supported stuffing more peers into the Lords in the former former Prime Minister’s resignation honours list, after he had already bloated the Lords with his brother, a Russian oligarch, cash-for-peerages Tory treasurers and now his father. After just seven weeks in office, the former Prime Minister is seeking to anoint her Tufton Street supporters in the Institute of Economic Affairs and the TaxPayers Alliance as life peers. In a cost of living crisis, will the Government listen to the public and block both the Prime Minister’s predecessors’ resignation honours lists?
As I say, this is a long-standing convention that has gone on under successive Administrations. It continues to be a convention. It is typical, according to convention, that the Prime Minister forwards lists on having received them from former Prime Ministers, but only after they have gone through the necessary and relevant checks; that does take place. As the question is about trust in political institutions, may I take the opportunity to congratulate the SNP on finding an auditor that is prepared to work with it and wish the auditors the best of luck in the challenges ahead?
Civil Service Impartiality
All civil servants are required to follow the civil service code, which sets out the four core values, including impartiality. All members of the senior civil service are in the “politically restricted” category, which places additional restrictions on political activity. In addition, there is a requirement that contacts between senior civil servants and leading members of Opposition parties should be cleared with Ministers. The impartiality and perceived impartiality of the civil service is constitutionally vital for the conduct of Government. I believe it is the responsibility of everyone in this House to preserve and support the impartiality of the civil service.
It is, I believe, wholly unprecedented. It is particularly important that permanent secretaries, of all people, should conduct themselves in a way such that the impartiality of the civil service cannot be called into question. We should all support them in doing so. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Oliver Dowden) updated the House through a written ministerial statement, and I can assure my hon. Friend that consideration of this issue continues.
The principle of civil service impartiality is important to my constituents in Carshalton and Wallington, and indeed to many other Members’ constituents. I was therefore surprised to receive a set of trolling emails from someone using their civil service email address. Could the Minister outline whether that is acceptable, and—following up on the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant)—what reputational damage does he believe has been done by the actions of the Labour party?
The rules, which I have already set out, along with the fundamental principle that civil servants do not take actions that could lead to their impartiality being questioned by an incumbent Administration—or any future Administration, for that matter—are well known to current permanent secretaries, I am certain. I am sure that is also the case for ex-permanent secretaries, which of course includes the Leader of the Opposition. As I have said, in this House we all have a role in protecting the impartiality and perceived impartiality of the civil service. On my hon. Friend’s specific point, if he shares more details with me, I will happily look into it. It is very important that the impartiality of the civil service is maintained at every level.
Although, of course, impartiality and neutrality are important and conflicts of interests must be avoided from a national perspective, we do not talk enough about the situation in local government. Does the Minister agree that local government and local officers must also remain impartial and neutral, and how do we ensure that happens across the country?
I do not want to comment on the specifics raised, because I am unfamiliar with them, but I would say that, in carrying out procurements under public contract regulations, contracting authorities in both central and local government are required to take appropriate measures to effectively prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest arising, so as to avoid any distortion of competition and ensure equal treatment of all economic operators.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Minister feel that civil service impartiality was compromised in any way by having to deal with the fast track for covid contracts, or by the way in which the Government responded to the accusations of lockdown parties in No. 10 Downing Street?
As to the former, I do not believe so; my understanding is that all the rules were followed in that regard and it was done appropriately. In relation to the latter, that is subject to an ongoing investigation by the Privileges Committee, and therefore I would not seek to comment on it.
Mr Speaker, I’ve started, so I’ll finish.
The Secretary of State for Scotland recently wrote to the head of the civil service to say that no UK civil servant should work for the newly appointed Minister for Independence in the Scottish Parliament, even though we have a pro-independence majority in the Scottish Parliament and up to 50% of the people now support independence. Will the Paymaster General ensure that impartiality is introduced by making sure that no civil servant is engaged in any work defending and promoting the Union in the UK Government?
I will not be doing that. I am not familiar with the letter mentioned. We have a Government of the United Kingdom who are proud of the Union we serve. The Government are convinced that we are better together as a country, and I believe that is the view of the overwhelming majority of the people of Scotland, as was the case in the referendum, which I seem to recall was a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
Our civil servants are impartial, committed and hard-working professionals. They deserve our respect for keeping this country going during the pandemic. Instead, what we are getting from Ministers is unacceptable workplace behaviour and accusations of being responsible for Government failure. It is not civil servants who have put us through the Tory psychodrama and the disastrous Budget, so will the Minister take responsibility for the backlogs that constituents are facing up and down the country and stop shifting the blame on to hard-working civil servants?
The hon. Lady will not find me criticising civil servants who are hard-working, who do their job, who are committed and who continue to provide tremendous expertise to our country, but I take issue with her earlier points. We take any allegations of bullying seriously, and we need to ensure that they are all followed up. I do not know if the same can be said of the Labour party—people in glass houses should not throw stones. I think there were more allegations even today about activity inside the Labour party. There was five years of antisemitism that was not addressed, and I do think the Labour party should sort out its own issues before trying to sort out the Government’s.
UK Genomics Databases
The UK’s genomics databases are not designated as critical national infrastructure. However, through our recently published resilience frame- work, we have set out how we will work in partnership across all sectors to ensure that they are individually resilient while also fully contributing to national resilience.
I recommend that the Minister reads the speech that Secretary of State Blinken made on Tuesday, in which he outlined the threat that the abuse of genomics databases poses not just to security, but to democracy as a whole. Contrast that with the situation in this country, where we now have a Chinese genomics giant opening a new lab. When are the Government going to wake up to the threat here?
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we take these threats seriously. The point about critical national infrastructure is that we designate it in relation to things that are important to the safe and secure day-to-day running of the United Kingdom—literally keeping the lights on. That does not mean that we do not take very seriously the threats he outlines. It is something that I am raising with the Department of Health and Social Care, which is the lead Department for genomics.
Public Contracts: Small and Medium-sized Enterprises
This Government are supporting small and medium-sized enterprises in a variety of ways, from transparently publishing contract pipelines to simplifying bidding procedures. The Procurement Bill, which is making its way through Parliament and will be on Report soon, will create a simpler and more transparent procurement regime that will further open up public procurement to SMEs. The Bill includes a new duty on contracting authorities to have regard to the particular barriers facing SMEs.
I am pleased to hear about the Procurement Bill, because small and medium-sized businesses are fundamental to the economy of Bristol South and for jobs. What steps will the Minister be taking to address gaps in the Procurement Bill to enforce payment deadlines and to make sure that filters down through the supply chain to help small businesses in my constituency?
I am glad to hear the hon. Lady refer to that, because the principles behind the Procurement Bill for SMEs were given to us by SMEs. We want transparency, simplicity and fairness. On that third point, we are keen to see people pay their bills promptly, so that SMEs throughout the supply chain can get their money when they need it.
The Government may offer warm words on SMEs, but small businesses need those opportunities to thrive. Let us look at the evidence to see whether those warm words are backed up. In Brentwood, SMEs missed out on £3 in every £4 of viable suitable Government contracts in 2022. In Hertsmere, they missed out on 79%. In Horsham, SMEs got less than 5% of suitable public money. That amounts to £8.6 million. The Tories may talk about being a party of small businesses, but this Government have had 13 years to help small businesses—why have they not?
I am very pleased that the hon. Lady has been paying attention in the Committee stage of the Procurement Bill, where she has heard that we have done a great deal of work to overhaul the archaic regime that the EU left us with. It is precisely because of that Bill that small businesses will get contract pipelines, a single digital platform, prompt payments and a single regime that reduces bureaucracy and administrative burdens. With transparency, simplicity and fairness, this Government are delivering for small and medium-sized enterprises.
Industrial Action: Support for Public Services
The Cabinet Office’s Cobra unit has supported Departments with developing their contingency plans. We have co-ordinated preparedness activity across Government to minimise the impacts of industrial action on public services, but the only way we can truly avoid disruption is for union leaders to return to the negotiating table and work constructively in order to reach a fair and reasonable deal.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Militant strike action causes misery for many people in East Devon, who just want to get on with their daily lives. Does my right hon. Friend agree that minimum safety levels are absolutely necessary to mitigate the impact of industrial action?
As ever, my hon. Friend is totally right. It is completely unacceptable that the people of East Devon can have their lives totally upended by strikes led by militant unions. We of course respect the right to strike, but we have a duty to protect the lives and livelihoods of the British people. That is exactly what this legislation does, and it is a pity that the Labour party will not support it.
My North Devon constituents would also like to get on with their daily lives. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be welcome if the Opposition also called on union leaders to get back around the table and work constructively to resolve these disputes?
I have great sympathy with my hon. Friend’s constituents. It really is incumbent on Labour Members, given their close relationship with the trade union movement, to encourage union leaders to come back to the table, and to support the minimum service legislation to protect our constituents, rather than kowtowing to their militant union paymasters?
When I spoke to Public and Commercial Services Union workers on the picket line in front of the UK Government building in my Glasgow Central constituency, they told me that they are striking precisely because they want to protect the public services they work in from erosion; to ensure that their colleagues do not see the erosion in pay and conditions that they have seen over many years; and to ensure that they have fair pay and fair wages that they can live on. What is the Minister doing to ensure that they do not have to go out on strike and they can get the fair wage that they deserve?
My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has just published the affordability for settlements for civil servants. Remember that this is devolved to each individual Government Department. Of course, I do not dispute for a moment the challenges that people face as a result of the war in Ukraine pushing up inflation around the world, and that is why we have taken action across the board. However, I would say that we cannot allow inflation- busting pay rises, the only effect of which will be to make it harder to meet our target of halving inflation and to make every single person in this country—public and private sector—poorer.
Public Procurement: Value for Money
It is Government policy to award contracts on value-for-money terms, as is set out in “Managing Public Money”. We always look for the optimum combination of cost and quality over the lifetime of any project. The Procurement Bill will drive value for money by providing greater flexibility to contracting authorities to design efficient, commercial and market-focused competitions, and it removes overly prescriptive rules contained in existing regulations that we would have been bound to if, as the Opposition wanted, we had stayed in the European Union.
I am fiercely supportive of the project to build a gigafactory on the Blyth estuary, which would provide much-needed jobs for my constituents. However, I also believe in due diligence when spending public money. Would my hon. Friend agree with me that it was a wise decision for the Government to withhold the release of a £100 million grant for this project? The Labour party wanted to release this large sum of public money without ensuring the financial stability of the business, once again spending other people’s money.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: taxpayer money must always be used responsibly. Unfortunately, the conditions of the grant were not met and therefore no funds from the automotive transformation fund were paid out. We are pleased that Britishvolt has successfully been acquired and we will continue to work closely with the local authority to ensure the best outcome for this sale.
Public Procurement: Net Zero
It is very nice to take another question from Bristol. Under our rules, Government suppliers are required to report their emissions and commit to the UK’s net zero target when bidding for contracts valued above £5 million per annum. If they fail to do so, they risk being excluded from procurement.
I thank the Minister for that response. Around £5 billion a year is spent on public sector food and catering services, and the national food strategy—Henry Dimbleby’s version—said that public food procurement is dominated by a quasi-monopoly, so very big companies are involved. How does that fit in with the policy note on carbon reductions, and are the Government looking to food suppliers through those contracts to reduce their carbon emissions?
The hon. Lady asks an important question. It is true that net zero is a big principle for Government and feeds through into all our work, including the public procurement contract. We have had some important debates around this during the passage of the Procurement Bill.
I want to begin by congratulating Their Majesties the King and Queen on a wonderful coronation weekend. The Government worked hand in hand with the royal household in planning for this historic event, conducting over 20 multi-agency exercises in preparation and hosting the unprecedentedly high number of 95 heads of state over the weekend. It really was a triumph of pomp, pageantry and pride in Britain. In addition, through Cobra we have co-ordinated the longest and largest evacuation of any western nation from war-torn Sudan. As with the coronation, this feat would not have been possible without our public servants, both the armed forces and our civil servants, who worked tirelessly to make both operations a success. I am sure the whole House will join me in thanking them.
I of course echo my right hon. Friend’s comments about the coronation and thank the dedicated servicemen, police officers and public servants who made it such a success. Does he agree with me and many of my Dudley constituents that we should never be shy about being proud of our country’s fantastic traditions and institutions?
I align myself entirely with the sentiments of my hon. Friend and the people of Dudley, and indeed the people of the whole United Kingdom. We witnessed the biggest military parade since the coronation of Her late Majesty, and it was a spectacular tribute to the values we all hold so dear. It is as true today as it was in 1953: only this country can bring so many people from so many different backgrounds together in celebration and such a shared uplifting experience.
First, may I offer my congratulations to the right hon. Gentleman, who is proving that being ginger is no barrier to becoming Deputy Prime Minister? I hope to take his example with me very soon one day, and in the meantime I look forward to facing him at Deputy PMQs to a bigger crowd in the future. I also want to offer my heartfelt commiserations to the right hon. Gentleman, who lost his local Conservative council this week. Those privet hedges of freedom were not quite as secure as he once boasted. Does he think that result is a reflection of the failure of his own local Tory party councillors or the failure of his Government and their Ministers?
The right hon. Lady started off so nicely—you never know, one day the Labour party might even allow a woman to lead it. In Hertsmere and nationally it is the same picture: while we in the Conservative party are focusing on delivering for the British people, Labour is working out grubby, dodgy deals with other parties. We are focused on the British people; they are focused on their own political interests.
The only grubbiness that I have seen over the last few years has been about dodgy personal protective equipment contracts. I hope the Deputy Prime Minister will start to get a grip of that, because the local elections last Thursday revealed a lot about not only the British public’s rejection of the mess created by the Conservatives over the last 13 years, but the impact of the Government’s new voter ID regulations, which caused chaos and confusion at polling stations.
Oona Preece, a 93-year-old cancer sufferer, was excluded from voting in the local elections last week. She first voted in 1950 and had voted in every local and general election since. Given that not a single person—not one —was prosecuted for voter personation last year, was the Deputy Prime Minister’s policy worth denying people like Oona her say?
Of course, I will look into Oona’s case, but I am not quite sure where the right hon. Lady and Labour Members have been, because I did not find any of the scenes that she describes in my constituency and nor did colleagues across the country. It was competently done, and actually it has aligned us with many other countries around the world such as Canada. It is a perfectly sensible reform.
As for the other invective thrown this way, I say to the right hon. Lady that she should perhaps take the log out of her own eye so that she can see more clearly to criticise us. Until the Labour party publishes the list of meetings that took place between it and Sue Gray, we will take absolutely no lectures whatsoever from it.
My hon. Friend knows the answer to this question all too well, having been on the Procurement Bill Committee. We are creating access to public procurement for small and medium-sized enterprises as never before. Alas, the Bill will not apply to Scotland because the Scottish Government refused to take part in it. That is a great shame, because it means that small and medium-sized enterprises in Scotland will be deprived of the opportunities that those south of the border will get.
One of the things that depressed me about leaving the Ministry of Defence was the fact that I would no longer be across the Dispatch Box from the right hon. Gentleman and his worthy campaign to make certain that, in defence in particular, orders go to UK companies. He is right, and the Government absolutely accept that many areas of our national life must, for defence and security reasons, be provided by UK companies. However, there are huge advantages to working internationally as well, including in the sphere of defence. He knows the answer: from Typhoon and F-35 to Type 31 orders, we can do both.
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. We constantly have efficiency reviews, and those will continue, and we work closely with the Treasury to make certain that the customer on the ground gets the right service and that that happens as cost-effectively as is humanly possible. That is how we managed to get £3.4 billion of savings through the system last year. We will continue to work at it. It is a huge task, but we are absolutely committed to driving those savings and good service for the customer.
I would like to highlight the hard work of local civil servants at East Sussex County Council, Rother District Council and Hastings Borough Council. I do not know their politics, and they have always worked with me in a positive way. Will my right hon. Friend join me in thanking them for their work locally to deliver services, especially during the local elections last week?
We are all struggling over the opportunity to endorse what my hon. Friend says, because it is absolutely right and we do not say it enough. A huge amount of hard work is done by civil servants at local and national level. We appreciate the work undertaken by them and I very much welcome her bringing it to the Chamber today.
I take enormously seriously what the right hon. Lady says on this issue, on which she has campaigned long and hard and very successfully. We are now in the final stages, as she knows. We have received the second interim report on compensation, which we did not anticipate until February, but it has arrived and I am delighted that it has. It is real stuff to get our teeth into while we wait for the final report. We are doing a lot of work at pace.
To reassure the right hon. Lady, I chaired a meeting with Ministers from across Government last week. I have a bilateral meeting next week and I anticipate having more ministerial meetings, which I will chair, the week after. She has asked me to set out every single internal meeting I have on this subject, which is not normal in the formulation of policy. I do not intend to list every single meeting that I have internally or with other Ministers, but I assure her that we are working at pace to come up with a constructive response to the report.
I join the Deputy Prime Minister in congratulating all those who participated in the magnificent coronation, not least the armed forces, who enjoyed a few rehearsals to get it right and absolutely did so. Will the Minister for Veterans’ Affairs kindly update the House on our manifesto commitment to support veterans who served in Northern Ireland?
I pay tribute to all those who were on duty last weekend. When it comes to looking after those who served in Northern Ireland, this Government are committed to fulfilling our manifesto commitment to them. The Government are working hard to ensure that legacy is dealt with in a way that has victims at the centre. The Bill has its last day in Committee in the House of Lords today. We made commitments to our veterans in respect of Northern Ireland and we are determined to see them through.
A month ago, the Minister came to the House and told us that he was dealing with the contaminated blood report “at pace”. A month later, he has just repeated that phrase. Can he say what “at pace” means and when he will tell us the timescale?
I came promptly to the House to make a statement after receiving the second interim report, and I said then that the Government have always been focused on ensuring a comprehensive response at the conclusion of the inquiry. I also said that that did not preclude steps being taken earlier, if possible. I cannot illuminate that any further, but work is continuing. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that five years of work has been done by an extremely eminent individual, who has produced an extremely good and interesting report. It is for us to work through that, but it does need to be worked through and considered, as is the case with all reports presented to Government. We need to make certain that it is given the attention it requires.
I think it was about 10 years ago that I said to the Government that we ought to have an emergency test and an emergency system, so I am very pleased that we got it up and running and that 93% of people managed to get a signal, albeit that some of us got it one minute in advance of 3 o’clock, which I thought was particularly good. The Minister identified, quite rightly, that there was a problem with the Three network, which is being resolved. Will there be another test to show that at least 99% of alerts are getting through?
I am very happy to grant this to my hon. Friend as his legacy project. I do not believe that we need to have another test, for the simple reason that following my meeting with the chief executive, I am confident that the network has taken the necessary steps to resolve the issue.
My constituent, Brian, lost his mother in 2020. His family is one of far too many who have struggled for years as a result of the contaminated blood scandal. Those families want to see action now, not “in due course”, and “working at pace” does not cut it when it is the pace of a snail. I ask the Paymaster General, when will compensation be paid to all those infected or affected by the scandal?
I sympathise hugely with the hon. Lady’s constituent. That is one of many, many—far too many—tragic incidences that we are aware of in the House. That does not alter the fact that the compensation scheme needs to be done properly and effectively. We need to come back with a solution and an answer to the report, and to make certain that it is done appropriately. As the hon. Lady knows, those who were infected were paid interim compensation last year of £100,000 per person. We still need to work through what the report envisages.
In response to an earlier question about the emergency test, conversations with the Three network were mentioned. What reassurance can be given to constituents in remote rural areas, including some of my constituents who never received their alert and who are not with Three? I declare an interest: I am a Vodafone customer and my alert went off the next morning, as I was coming up the M5.
All these things point to the reason why we needed to have the test in the first place, which was to iron out these issues. In more rural areas, there are problems with signal, particularly with signal penetrating older houses. The answer is to extend the roll-out of mobile technology further, and the Government have very good plans for that.
Data from 2022 has identified that serving military personnel and military veterans have a high prevalence of mental health disorders, with depression and alcohol misuse among the most prevalent. What steps are Ministers taking to ensure that those personnel have access to the tailored mental health support they require?
The data tells us that people are less likely to have a mental health condition if they served in the military, but of course we take every case seriously. Mental health provision for both those who are serving and veterans has completely changed in this country. Op Courage is the UK’s first dedicated mental health care pathway for veterans, with £22 million a year and 19,000 referrals in its first year, which shows the huge unmet need that the Government are now meeting. The message is always the same: “Come forward, help is available, people do care and you can get better.”
Has the Secretary of State made any assessment or has he any estimates of the number of people who were turned away from the local elections last week? Does he have a number in mind that would suggest that the policy needs to be looked at again or to be abolished and scrapped, because people did not get the opportunity to vote?
This is a matter for the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I know that his Department and the Government will be looking at the after-effects of this major change. What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that in my constituency, and in the constituencies of many hon. Members, there were absolutely no problems at the polling booths, despite all the woeful predictions of people like himself.
May I return to my earlier question? It seems to me that the Cabinet Office is not taking enough interest in food procurement. I urge Ministers to speak to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, because we are still awaiting a response to the consultation that closed on 4 September. Part of that consultation was about how we can ensure that the Government procure more food locally and sustainably. Will the Minister assure me that he will talk to DEFRA and try to ensure that that is the trajectory of public food procurement?
The Secretary of State referred earlier to cyber-security. Bearing in mind the fact that Belfast is now known as the cyber capital of the world, will the Cabinet Office and the Secretary of State build on that strong foundation, invest in the existing industry, and allocate the funding to create more jobs and use the highly skilled based that is already there?
At the conference we had a few weeks ago, I was enormously impressed by the strength and depth of the cyber-security industry in Northern Ireland and particularly in Belfast. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government remain fully committed not only to the cyber industry but to Northern Ireland in particular. I am sure that further investment will be forthcoming.
Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill
Before we begin the urgent question, I note that it is highly regrettable that the Government decided not to offer an oral statement on this matter yesterday, given the importance of the announcement. On such matters, full engagement with Parliament and its Committees is essential. Before I call the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, I remind the Government that we are elected to hear it first, not to hear it in The Telegraph, and a written ministerial statement is certainly not satisfactory for such an important matter.
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Business and Trade if she will make a statement on her failure to come to the House before she made the written ministerial statement on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill and the article today in The Telegraph?
I am very sorry, Mr Speaker, that the sequencing that we chose was not to your satisfaction. I was—
Who do you think you are speaking to, Secretary of State? I think we need to understand each other. I am the defender of this House and these Benches on both sides. I am not going to be spoken to by a Secretary of State who is absolutely not accepting my ruling. Take it with good grace and accept it that Members should hear it first, not through a WMS or what you decide. These Members have been elected by their constituents and they have the right to hear it first. It is time this Government recognised that we are all elected—we are all Members of Parliament—and used the correct manners.
Mr Speaker, I apologise. What I was trying to say was that I am very sorry that I did not meet the standards that you expect of Secretaries of State. Forgive my language. I have been trying to make sure that I provide as much clarity as possible, so I am actually very pleased to have come to the House to speak on this issue.
I have published a written ministerial statement to explain that yesterday we tabled an amendment to the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill that amends the operation of the sunset in clause 1. It is a technical change that introduces to the Bill a schedule of retained EU law that will be revoked on 31 December 2023. The schedule includes around 600 pieces of legislation provided by nearly all Departments, and spans a huge number policy areas. We tabled the amendment in response to concerns raised in this House, and it will provide the legal clarity and certainty that has been called for.
I reassure my hon. Friend the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee that the 600 pieces of legislation in the schedule are not the limit of our ambition—neither the beginning nor the end—but over the past year, as Whitehall Departments have been working hard to identify retained EU law to preserve, reform or revoke, it has become clear that time constraints have led to the programme becoming more about preserving EU laws than prioritising meaningful reform. That is why we are proposing a new approach. Had I known the intense excitement that the House would feel about this issue, I would have come running to make sure that the technical details could be investigated by all and sundry.
As I have said, we are proposing a new approach, one that will ensure that Ministers and officials are enabled to focus more on reforming retained EU law and doing so faster. I am pleased to say that the Government have already reformed or revoked more than 1,000 pieces of REUL. In addition to the list of about 600 revocations in the schedule to the retained EU law Bill, about 500 further pieces of REUL will be repealed by the Financial Services and Markets Bill and the Procurement Bill, which means that we will have repealed not 600 but more than 2,000 pieces of REUL by the end of the year.
We are committed to lightening the regulatory burden on businesses and helping to spur economic growth, and our Edinburgh reforms of UK financial services include more than 30 regulatory reforms to unlock investment and boost growth in towns and cities across the UK. Our regulatory reform announcement yesterday set out a long-term plan to improve UK regulation over the coming months. As a down-payment on that commitment, we announced changes that will reduce disproportionate EU-derived reporting requirements and could save businesses about £1 billion a year. That is just the first in a series of announcements that the Government will be making on reforming regulations to drive growth, and in addition to the schedule the powers in the Bill will still enable us to revoke, replace and reform any outdated EU laws that remain on our statute book by 2026. This new approach will provide space for longer-term and more ambitious reforms. Members will no doubt be pleased to hear that it will also mean that fewer statutory instruments will be required to preserve EU laws that are deemed appropriate to be maintained.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend that we will still fully take back control of our laws and end the supremacy and the special status of retained EU law by the end of 2023. That will ensure that we are ending the shadow statute book and the inappropriate entrenchment of EU law concepts in domestic statute.
Under the Standing Orders of this House, the European Scrutiny Committee is specifically charged with examining the legal and political consequences of EU legislation. The Committee reported on 21 July 2022 after a five-month inquiry in support of the Bill, which was passed unamended by a large majority in this elected House and by the Public Bill Committee, all of which endorsed the Government’s policy on the Bill.
Since February, the Secretary of State has been asked three times, formally and personally, to appear before the European Scrutiny Committee. Why has she failed to do so? The amendments published today are not accompanied by any explanation to the House—apart from her very short written ministerial statement yesterday and her article in the press today—despite the utter reversal in vital respects of the Bill as passed by this elected House. Why not? The amendments have not been subjected to any analysis or questioning by this House, which is now essential given the fundamental change in Government policy. The House is being treated in a manner that is plainly inconsistent with clear promises already made.
Will my right hon. Friend specifically seek and make arrangements for the immediate deferral of the Bill’s Report stage in the unelected House of Lords, which is due to take place on the 15th and 17th of this month, so that she can come to the European Scrutiny Committee next week and answer our questions—as provided for by Standing Orders—and produce a Command Paper before that Report stage to explain the reasons for these fundamental questions of constitutional importance, which affect all our constituents, all our voters, and the coherence of our statute book and our legal system?
My hon. Friend has asked many questions, and I will endeavour to answer them. I think he knows that he has heard the answers before, but I am nevertheless happy to respond on the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend and I have had many private conversations in which we have discussed retained EU law. He wrote to me about attending the European Scrutiny Committee, and I replied that until the policy was settled I could not attend the Committee but instead could have engagement with colleagues, which is what I have done. I should, of course, be delighted to attend the European Scrutiny Committee. I attend numerous Select Committees in my role not just as Secretary of State for Business and Trade but as Minister for Women and Equalities, and I should be very happy to speak to the Committee, but—no doubt you will sympathise with this, Mr Speaker— there is no point having to talk about policy on the Floor of the House before we know exactly what is settled.
My hon. Friend claims that this is a change of policy, but it is a change of approach. The policy is still the same: we are ending EU supremacy, and we are ending interpretive effects. What we are changing is the way in which we are doing that. We could have ended up with a programme of 450 statutory instruments to preserve EU law. What I have done is respond to businesses in particular, but also to the parliamentarians—including many of those who are chuntering on the Opposition Benches—who have raised concerns with me about how we can have clarity and some transparency. I have shown exactly what we are doing. I have listed all the laws that we are removing. There is a key point to make here. We left the European Union not just to delete EU law from the statute book, but to make our economy better. To do that, we have to reform the laws. If we delete the laws from the statute book, we will be starting from scratch in bringing in the reforming primary legislation. This is a better approach. It was my suggestion to the Prime Minister. I am very pleased that he accepted it. I am very proud to be standing at the Dispatch Box showing that those of us who are Brexiteers can be pragmatic and do what is right for the British people. That is why I am very pleased to be explaining this change on the Floor of the House today.
What an absolute shambles. I think that the Secretary of State is the sixth different Government representative at the Dispatch Box on this Bill, and unfortunately for her she is the one who will have to hear from us the words that no Government Minister wants to hear: we told you so. We did, repeatedly, as did the Institute of Directors, the TUC, the Bar Council and a host of other organisations.
It has to be asked: why did not the Government listen to those experts in the first place? It was completely unrealistic, reckless and frankly arrogant to think that they could strike 4,000 laws from the statute book in the timescale set out in the Bill. It is no use blaming the blob, the anti-growth coalition or the BBC. This humiliating U-turn is completely down to Government hubris that has found them crashing up against reality, so will the Secretary of State apologise to the entire House, and to all the trade unions and business, legal and environmental groups that were told by the Government that they were wrong?
Will the Secretary of State also apologise for announcing this policy change not to the House but to her friends—or should I say now her former friends—in the European Research Group and to the press? Can she tell us at what point the Government decided on this change of course and on what basis they have chosen the 600 regulations to be removed—or is it 2,000 now, because she mentioned that in her statement as well?
Although we welcome the humiliating climbdown that sees the cliff edge go, the Bill still gives enormous powers to Ministers and at last the cat is out of the bag about what they want to do with them. We are concerned that, although the mode of delivery has changed, the destination has remained the same. That is revealed in the “Smarter regulation to grow the economy” paper released yesterday, which contains a clear plan to water down TUPE and working time rights. We have warned time and again of the threat to workers’ rights in the Bill and in response the Minister said:
“The Government have no intention of abandoning our strong record on workers’ rights, having raised domestic standards over recent years to make them some of the highest in the world.”––[Official Report, Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Public Bill Committee, 22 November 2022; c. 144.]
Well, we can strike that from the record, as we can strike the Secretary of State’s leadership hopes. How can a Government elected on a manifesto promise to
“build on existing employment law”
justify an approach that will water down workers’ protections? It just goes to show that you cannot trust the Tories with workers’ rights.
One of the things that I have found most illuminating about this process is how little those on the Opposition Front Bench understand what we are doing. They simply stand up and repeat their usual talking lines. We have made repeated commitments that we are not watering down workers’ rights in this House. If the hon. Gentleman actually read and understood what we have written, he would understand that we are maintaining workers’ rights but reducing the bureaucracy. That would save £1 billion and is something that both workers and employers want. I know that it is really tough and there are lots of words in it, but the truth is, I say to those on the Opposition Benches, that I can explain it but I cannot understand it for them.
This is a very simple change in approach. We are having the exact same effect that we were always going to have. We are removing more than 2,000 pieces of EU legislation. It is delightful to see those on the Labour Front Bench and the ERG on the same side for once, as they claim to be. If I am upsetting people on both sides, I am probably taking the pragmatic middle ground and I am pleased to be doing so.
There is so much opportunity we can take on EU law reform and that is what this programme is about.
May I say to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that I am not upset? Her description of this change of approach is useful, and it meets many of the criticisms of the unamended Bill. I hope it is successful, and I hope people on both sides of the House and in industry make sure we keep the right bits and drop the bits that are useless.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We are taking an approach that works for everybody, not just for a particular group. We have to do what is right for business, we have to do what is right for consumers and we have to do what is right for the entire country. I voted to leave, and this is exactly the sort of reform I thought we would make when we left the European Union. I am very pleased to be able to take this through the House.
I confess to being a wee bit conflicted this morning. I led for the SNP during our consideration of the Bill, and my key phrase was, “If you must do this damn silly thing, don’t do it in this damn silly way.” I am at least glad to see that we are doing this in a less damn silly way than we were, although I still disagree with it.
I share the anger that we have heard from Conservative Members. I respect their principle, even though I disagree with it. I do not like what the Bill is trying to do. I voted to remain, I enthusiastically committed to Scotland’s path back into the European Union and I want to see the UK have a close relationship with the EU, but I accept the majority view of this House. The Prime Minister made this commitment and he has questions to answer, because to describe this as a change of direction and a minor technical thing is to miss the point. This is a gross betrayal of the promises made to secure his election, and it is a key part of his personal manifesto. I do not think that betrayal should pass without consequence.
I am glad to see the end of sunsetting, which is a pragmatic change about which I should be glad, but I still do not like the Bill. It can still overrule the Holyrood Parliament on retained EU law, which is democratically offensive. We should also consider the costs of this exercise. What assessment have the Government made of the direct cost to the taxpayer of the work done thus far and now abandoned? I will be tabling parliamentary questions on this, but what wider assessment has been made of the costs to organisations such as the National Farmers Union of Scotland and others in dealing with this uncertainty?
Again, I think Opposition Members are very confused about what this change is trying to do. [Interruption.] They are confused. The hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) talks about certainty, and this is the certainty for which people asked. He talks about a change and a betrayal, and I do not understand where that emotional language is coming from. No work has been wasted. It is the efforts of civil servants that have identified which bits of law need to be repealed and which need to be reformed. There is not enough parliamentary time, given that we have only one full Session, to carry out all the reforms we would like to carry out. If we are to do that, we need to truncate the process to make it about repeal and reform, not about preservation. The Bill, which was meant to be about reform, has turned into a preservation exercise. [Interruption.] I can see the hon. Member for Stirling squinting and looking confused, so I am happy to give him a private briefing. This process is technical and complex. I picked up this task in February, and I buried myself in the detail. This will deliver on the Prime Minister’s promises and make sure that we generate the benefits of Brexit.
No one voted against it, Bob. Not even you.
On 18 January 2023, the Bill passed Third Reading with a Government majority of 59, and again not a single Tory MP voted against it. The Bill unified the Conservative parliamentary party on an admittedly controversial issue. It left this House without a single Tory MP opposing it. Why, after it has gone to the House of Lords, have the Government performed a massive climbdown on their own Bill, despite having such strong support from their own Back Benchers? Secretary of State, what on earth are you playing at?
I have already explained the reasons why we have changed the approach and I am happy to repeat them for my right hon. Friend. He should know that I am not somebody who gets pushed around lightly. The fact is that I went in, looked at the detail and decided that this was the best way to deliver this. I stress again that this was not the Prime Minister’s decision. As a Secretary of State, I have to be responsible and look at what we can make sure is deliverable. This is the best way to get my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) what he wants. It may be different from what was put on the Floor of the House, but if he wants what I want, which is ending EU interpretative effects by the end of this year, ending the supremacy of EU law by the end of this year—[Interruption.] He is not in the room. He is very welcome to send me the list of things that he wants repealed, but this is the way to get it done.
The biggest problem with this Bill is not the haste and chaos that has come with it, the failure to be able to identify what is EU retained regulation or the fact that it risks the Windsor agreement; it is that even with the changes the Secretary of State is now proposing, the Government are giving themselves power over 4,000 areas of public policy and taking back control from MPs over what happens next on them—that has not changed. The Secretary of State says that she is across the detail. Given the attitude that she has expressed today towards this Chamber, the process and the role of MPs, if she is serious about scrutiny and democracy, will she accept the amendment standing in the names of Lord Hope, Lord Anderson, Lord Hamilton, who is a strong Brexiteer, and Lord Hodgson, also a Brexiteer, that will give this place the ability to have the final say, whether laws are being revoked, rewritten or reformed? Will the Secretary of State accept that amendment—yes or no?
We can always discuss amendments. The ones I am supporting are the Government amendments, which provide the certainty and clarity that Members in both Houses have asked for. What I am doing is a more transparent process that provides a lot more clarity. The fact that everyone can now see all the laws on the dashboards and the things that we are removing shows that we are coming to this process in good faith. I would appreciate Opposition Members doing the same.
This is very bracing for a Thursday morning, and there is nothing I enjoy more than a good bunfight with a Secretary of State. I say gently that although many of us would have a great deal of sympathy with what the Secretary of State has outlined, it is important to make the point that the manner, tone and approach taken not just by her at the Dispatch Box now, but generally, is much improved, and the House tends to be much more receptive to it, when proper processes are followed and invitations to attend Select Committee are readily accepted. I urge that gently as a lesson that might be drawn from this. If she was at all concerned by the volume of statutory instruments that might be descending upon us, the attendance this morning proves that there are plenty of willing volunteers for such Committees.
I do not disagree with that, but the statutory instruments that I would want us to be focused on in this House should be the ones that are repealing EU law; all those hundreds of statutory instruments that would have come through were for retaining and preserving EU law. That is not what we said we were going to do, which is why this approach is better. It is faster and it accelerates us towards reform. I do not think anyone in this House can accuse me of shying away from Select Committees, questions or the Dispatch Box. I am always happy, no matter how difficult the questions are, to take the questions here.
Despite this screeching U-turn, the Bill still includes a power grab over environmental protections. Living in a nature-depleted country, it really concerns me that the Secretary of State can still change thousands of environmental laws at will, through secondary legislation, without scrutiny. Many of those laws relate to sewage that can be dumped into our rivers and chalk streams and on to our beaches. Will she make a firm commitment at the Dispatch Box today that the Government will not repeal or change any environmental law without due scrutiny by this House?
Again, these questions worry me, because they show that the process we are changing is not fully understood by the House. [Interruption.] It is certainly not understood by the hon. Lady. I can tell that many others do understand this. The regulations that are being repealed are going on the schedule. If she has a specific one on that schedule that she thinks is environmental and should not be repealed, she should say so. Instead, she is speaking in hypotheticals. She should look at the amendments and what they are doing, and if there are specific things she has concerns about, she can write to me. Claiming that things are being removed without looking at the schedule shows that she does not understand what we are doing.
No, I do not think that it has come out of any idleness. If anything, I would say that the civil servants have been working feverishly on this, and what they have been doing is preserving, not repealing and certainly not getting the reforms that we want. This approach means that they can now do that. I know that it is disappointing, because it is not what my right hon. Friend had wanted; it was not his approach. I have spoken to him about it and explained my reasoning. I do not think that we will come to an agreement on this, but I would like him to understand that I am doing this because I genuinely think that this is the best way to deliver what those of us on the Conservative Benches voted for.
The Secretary of State seems to say that we have intense excitement about being here today and she is surprised. Our law is the basis of our democracy, and the flippant and ill-prepared way in which this has been brought forward is a disgrace; it is not worthy of our Parliament or, indeed, of our country. In the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, we are currently looking at international treaties. It is clear that our system for reviewing and monitoring international treaties per se is not up to scratch, and I hope that the Secretary of State will engage with that process. [Interruption.] She says that there is no time. She is in control of the time in this place as a member of the Government. It is not for me to speak for those on the Labour Front Bench, but I am sure that if there were discussions about giving the decision more time and perhaps to bringing it back, given the changes that are being made, that would be met favourably by Members on the Labour Benches. What lessons is she learning about the involvement of this place in the scrutiny of these treaties?
It is very surprising to hear the hon. Lady criticise the scrutiny process given that it was brought in by a Labour Government under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010. The CRaG process on international treaties, which is what she is talking about, was brought in, as I have said, not by a Conservative Government, but by a Labour Government. We are carrying out this process using parliamentary procedure and Government amendments in the House of Lords; we are doing things on the Floor of the House. We are making sure that Parliamentarians have transparency. That is the right way to do it and I will not apologise for that.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) for his question and the Secretary of State for her response. I recognise the balance that she is trying to strike within the timeframe. There is a very large number of EU regulations at the Ministry of Justice, and yet we managed to identify more than 60% that could be either repealed or substantially revised within the timeframe. May I gently suggest to her that it would help the House with its scrutiny if a Department-by-Department analysis of what has been identified so far is published? May I also gently suggest that she resist the resistance in Whitehall that suggests it cannot be done. If it can be done at the MOJ, I am pretty confident that it can be done elsewhere.
That is right. I have published the dashboard that shows all of the laws that have been identified. Some are still, even as we speak, being identified now. The MOJ has done a good job in identifying those that are likely to be on the schedule—the ones that my right hon. Friend is referring to specifically. This is a pragmatic and balanced approach. I urge Members across the House to look for the opportunities for reform. We can hear those on the Labour Front Bench chuntering, but they do not have any ideas. They do not know what they want to do. All they want to do is sit down and complain about what we are doing. They are completely bereft of imagination and any sort of direction or approach. We are the only ones who have a way of delivering for this country, and we will continue to do so.
What a guddle! This Government amendment does absolutely nothing to address the powers in the Bill for UK Ministers to act in areas that are devolved to Scottish Ministers without consent or scrutiny by the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament has made its views clear on the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill. It has already voted in favour of a motion calling on the UK Government to withdraw it. That is the only way to deal with all of the risks that this damaging, anti-democratic legislation poses. Does the Secretary of State see that, and does she see why it is ever clearer that an independent Scotland in the EU is the only way to secure the best future for Scotland?
I am trying really hard not to laugh at what the hon. Lady has said. She is in a party that cannot even decide who paid for a caravan and is falling into a complete shambles. How will it in any way be able to do the sort of technical work we are doing? I am working with—[Interruption.] The SNP makes a lot of noise, but the way it is running Scotland shows that Bills such as this are best left in the hands of UK Government Ministers to stop the SNP making a shambles of everything.
There is still a sunset, and it will end the interpretive effects of the supremacy of EU law. The same number of measures that we were likely to revoke by the sunset will be in the schedule. As I said, the process had turned from one where we were reforming, to one where we were retaining—I know that is what the Bill literally says, but its purpose had been subverted because of the approach originally taken, which these amendments should address.
There is only one reason the Secretary of State is here: because she was brought here by an urgent question. The idea she is open to scrutiny is for the birds. There is also only one reason she tried to avoid it: because her Back Benchers are so angry. She has managed to divide her party again over the issue of Europe. This change is not taking back sovereignty to this Parliament, which those in favour of Brexit spoke about; it is a power grab by the Executive, allowing them to make decisions on 4,000 pieces of legislation. What will she do to ensure that her proposal has proper scrutiny through Committees and on the Floor of the House?
The point that the laws that we are not having on the schedule will either be kept or reformed—the reform process will be scrutinised in the House—is one that I have explained before. I am happy to make it again a thousand times if necessary for Opposition Members who clearly had scripted questions, which they have not been able to adapt to the comments made on the Floor of the House. This is a pragmatic approach that brings together people not just across the House but across the country; it delivers on the promises that we made, and I stand by them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) has pointed out, the Secretary of State has been invited on three separate occasions to appear before the European Scrutiny Committee, but for whatever reason has failed to do so. Given the seriousness of the volte-face she has now performed, will she accept the invitation of the Chairman, made this morning, and appear before the Committee next week? If not, why not?
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) said, this Bill is a shambles and it is felt to be so by my constituents in Putney, for whom this is having real-world effects. Businesses in Putney have seen rising costs and less investment because of the threat of the sunset clause and still not knowing what will be in it. The Government have left businesses across the country high and dry and the Bill is far from oven ready. Can the Secretary of State explain how the £1 billion figure for business savings has been estimated—or is that more pie in the sky?
You can see a classic example of what I am talking about, Mr Speaker. The hon. Lady complains that the sunset would not allow her constituents to know what is being repealed, but the whole purpose of the amendment is for people to be able to see what is being repealed in the schedule. I ask Opposition Members to please read the amendment and wait until the schedule arrives. On what we want to do and reform, the £1 billion savings have been calculated not just by the Department for Business and Trade, but by multiple external organisations that have raised with the Department how the working time regulations could be improved. Those are the benefits we can get from Brexit to make things better, and we will continue to do so.
Replacing retained EU law is both inevitable and necessary now that we have left the European Union, but does my right hon. Friend accept that it is critical that we do so in a way that preserves legal clarity and certainty, which are vital for business confidence? Does she accept that some of us deliberately did not vote for the Second Reading of the Bill because of a flaw in its drafting that did not identify that which was to be revoked, and would have created precisely that uncertainty? Does she accept that some of us are better placed to support the Bill now that that gap is being sensibly and pragmatically filled in—if I may say—a very Conservative and pro-business fashion?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right: the Bill provides business certainty and legal certainty and removes interpretive effects and the supremacy of EU law, and it will do so by the sunset. Most importantly, it gives us the space to focus on the reform programme, which we announced yesterday and which will deliver the benefits of Brexit.
The Secretary of State has explained that the issue is not her U-turn, but that silly MPs on both sides of the Chamber have not properly understood the legislation. Can she explain to this silly MP, in her wonderfully patronising manner, which she has used many times this morning, what would prevent her from making a U-turn on workers’ rights, including holiday and maternity pay?
The hon. Lady calls herself a silly MP; it is not my place to disagree. She asks about the changes to holiday pay. We are just making the bureaucracy easier; we are not taking away any workers’ rights—we have repeatedly committed on the Floor of the House to not doing so. What Opposition Members are afraid of is reform and any sort of change. They cannot envision a world in which anything could possibly be better than the status quo. We are different; we believe in the aspirational approach and ambition for this country. They just want to stay the same and ossify. I will not stand at the Dispatch Box and allow that to happen. We are making changes that will benefit the British economy, British businesses and British workers.
I am less concerned with process, and I am quite for pragmatism, but my right hon. Friend has shown a tin ear if she thought for one moment that these changes would not arouse interest in the House of Commons. It needed a UQ to bring her here this morning. Nevertheless, my key question is this: is she convinced that, by this new methodology, the same number of laws will be repealed in the same time as if the pragmatic change had not been made?
The answer is yes. I wrote back to and engaged with all the Members who wrote to me about this issue as soon as I became Business Secretary. The response had been so quiet that it felt to me very much like a technical change, which is what it is. I am very happy to explain as much as possible on the Floor of the House. But I emphasise that this was my decision; it was not that of the Prime Minister or civil servants. It was me looking at the detail and deciding that this was the best approach because it is how we will get to that number but create more time for reform. It is about accelerating the process. I do not think anyone in this House can claim that I am not a Brexiteer. I stood here less than a month ago talking about how we had successfully negotiated the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership, the biggest trade deal that we have ever done in this country since we left the EU. That is a benefit of Brexit. I am very proud to continue to do that. This is the best way for us to deliver more benefit over and over again rather than spend our time on parliamentary procedure, which does not mean much to people on the doorstep.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on working at height, I have been trying to get clarity for some time on the very specific Work at Height Regulations 2005. Can the Secretary of State tell me whether those regulations will be included or protected? The assurances that I have had so far have not provided the clarity that the sector needs.
The hon. Lady will know that I was not privy to those conversations. If she writes to me with the specifics, I should be able to provide an answer. What we have talked about changing is the bureaucracy around reporting, and that does not sound like what she raised.
As a committed Brexiteer, and having voted in the 1975 referendum to leave the European Economic Community, as it then was, I want to see the benefits of Brexit delivered as soon as possible. But I do recognise the concerns that have been expressed to me by businesses in my constituency, and I think the approach being taken by the Secretary of State is the best one. Could she give an assurance that if I or any Member bring forward recommendations for measures to include in the list, she will make those changes as quickly as can be arranged?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. That is exactly what this approach is trying to generate. We need to find the things that we know are holding Britain back, rather than just delete things because no one has found a reason to keep them. I think that if he speaks to businesses in his constituency, he will have many suggestions for measures that may require not complete revocation but reform, and if they are going to be reformed, we need to first keep them and then reform them, rather than first delete them then try to reform them. That is what this approach does.
The right hon. Lady is doing herself no favours at all this morning with her patronising and arrogant manner, not just to Opposition Members but also to her hon. Friends. I am all for upsetting her hon. Friends, and it looks like in the eternal struggle between the blob and the Mogg, the blob has prevailed. Is it not the case that, in their haste to create this hard Brexit utopia, reality has finally caught up with them? Does it not look like the Conservative party—this fragile Brexit coalition—is now starting to fragment into its constituent parts?
I respectfully disagree with my right hon. Friend that this is a technical change, given the different status that retained EU law has in our system, but I look forward to discussing that further with her when she appears before us at the European Scrutiny Committee. In the meantime, can she give the House an assurance that not one jot of the concessions given in the House of Lords over this Bill are anything to do with upholding any commitment made in the negotiation of the Windsor framework?
I am very happy to say that. I was not involved in negotiations on the Windsor framework, and I have said repeatedly that this is my plan. It is not the Prime Minister’s plan, and it is not the civil servants’ plan—it is my plan. This is me going into the detail and deciding that this is the best way to deliver it. What my hon. Friend says about the special status of EU law is right. That is one of the things that is not changing; that is still ending. The sunset is still there for interpretive effects—for the supremacy of EU law—by the end of this year, which is the big thing we are trying to deliver, rather than lots of redundant regulations, many of which we have already got rid of. I re-emphasise that we will get rid of about 2,000 pieces of legislation in total by the end of this year. The schedule is just the final 600, and another 200 commencement regulations go with them. I think he will be very pleased with the result.
May I respectfully say to the Secretary of State that I do understand the amendment, and I believe colleagues on both sides of the House understand it? We simply do not agree, and it is an important component of democracy that we respect one another’s right to disagree. If there is any confusion and uncertainty today, it has been caused by the chaotic manner in which this has been done and the fact that the House feels the Secretary of State has had to be dragged here to explain it to us. Does she agree that a situation where the House feels that there will not be an opportunity to debate something as important as this and scrutinise it properly is unacceptable?
I disagree, because we have debated it. The only change is the use of a schedule. The hon. Lady claims that she disagrees with the Bill. The Bill passed through the House. All that is changing is how we are listing the regulations. The intent has not changed. Of course, I respect her right to disagree, but she is still claiming that the amendment does something it does not, which is why I keep emphasising that I am not sure Opposition Members understand it.
I had the privilege of PPS-ing the Bill when it was in Committee, so I have seen the complexities, the ideologies on both sides of the argument, and the difficulties inherent in trying to get the Bill through. What my constituents and people up and down the country—the vast majority of whom did vote for Brexit—want to know is what the message is for them, as they now have concerns that this could be reneged on.
I have a very strong message for them. My hon. Friend can tell his constituents that the Prime Minister is a committed Brexiteer, the Secretary of State for Business and Trade is a committed Brexiteer, and we are making sure that we can deliver this on time but actually show the benefits of Brexit, not just parliamentary procedure and legislative activity. That is not the outcome that is going to be delivered for the country, it is the process. This urgent question has shown that quite often, we spend too much time on process and not enough on outcomes. This is an outcomes-focused Government, and that is why I have made this change and why I will deliver for my hon. Friend’s constituents.
It would seem that there can be movement regarding decisions on EU laws when this Government see fit. Can the Secretary of State outline whether this symbolises a change in policy that will enable the final work on getting the protocol solutions finalised, in order to enable business and trade and allow everyone in Northern Ireland—Unionists as well as nationalists—to operate on an equal footing with those on the UK mainland?
I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that this is not a change in policy: it is a change in approach, using a schedule to list exactly what we are removing. The purpose of the Bill was to remove EU law, and as the process was changing to one of preservation, we have just changed the approach slightly to make sure that we can conclude when we want to conclude, which is at the end of this year, and focus on reform. We are very pragmatic; we continue to listen to voices across the House and across the country. Many of the questions that the hon. Gentleman has raised are for my colleague the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but he will know that if he comes to me with a problem, I will always endeavour to solve it.
Between 2016 and 2019, the Procedure Committee heard regularly about the thousands of statutory instruments that either had to be translated into UK law, repealed, or reformed in some way. The problem that the Secretary of State now has is that by taking the pressure off that timetable, there will be a concern among Members on all Benches as to what happens, after the sunset clause kicks in, to the statutory instruments and other laws that we would like to see repealed or amended. What is the timetable, and how will it work?
The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that this change in approach actually helps with that. It allows us to continue beyond the end of this year, whereas the Bill as originally drafted meant that if we had not found things, they would just end up in UK statute with no mechanism to change that. I have now created a mechanism for us to continue, but I have also made sure that the time we spend in this House is about reforming and improving, not preservation, because that would just have swallowed up so much time and not delivered for our constituents.