Oral Answers to Questions

Thursday 8th July 2021

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Cabinet Office

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

Allan Dorans Portrait Allan Dorans (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (SNP)
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What public opinion polling his Department has collected since 2017 on attitudes to the Union in Scotland. (902385)

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows (Motherwell and Wishaw) (SNP)
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What public opinion polling his Department has collected since 2017 on attitudes to the Union in Scotland. (902397)

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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As you quite rightly point out, Mr Speaker, football is indeed coming home. I cannot possibly understand why attendance is so scant on the Government Benches this morning.

The Government regularly commission research across the United Kingdom to understand public attitudes in order to inform and help to deliver relevant policies, and to ensure that we have strong, UK-wide, cross-Government communications campaigns.

Allan Dorans Portrait Allan Dorans
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Last month, the first-tier tribunal on information rights ruled that the Cabinet Office must release polling information that it has gathered on attitudes to the Union in Scotland within a month. Will the Minister confirm that he will be releasing that information, as he has been ordered to do, and whether he will also release the details on how much that information cost to collect?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The hon. Gentleman refers to a case that was brought to the first-tier tribunal by the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). We are reviewing how we can comply with the first-tier tribunal’s judgment.

Marion Fellows Portrait Marion Fellows
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In the Chamber last month, the right hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) astutely summarised, speaking of his own Tory UK Government:

“When the Government do not publish something, it is normally because it is bad news and they are trying to hide it away.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 761.]

Will the Minister say whether that holds true for his Department’s intended-to-be-secret polling on the Union? If it does not and the Union is indeed as strong as he and his ministerial colleagues agree, what reason do the Government have for fighting the release of this information for years?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The hon. Lady refers to my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper). He is a former Chief Whip, and, as a member of that broederbond, I know that there can sometimes be a tendency to prefer discretion rather than transparency, but in my current role I am all in favour of transparency. Indeed, we do not need to look anywhere other than the current public opinion polls, which show that support for independence is declining and support for the United Kingdom is increasing.

Stewart Hosie Portrait Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP)
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The High Court ruling by Justice O’Farrell concluded that the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster acted with “apparent bias” in the “unlawful” action when he awarded contracts to his chums at Public First, who had previously worked as advisers to him, to the Prime Minister and, of course, for Dominic Cummings. How can the Minister justify siphoning off many tens of thousands of pounds from covid recovery work to fund this highly political research, which is obviously designed to inform the no campaign in the next independence referendum?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I hesitate to correct the hon. Gentleman, but Lady Justice O’Farrell did not find that I had operated with any form of bias—apparent, actual or otherwise. That is a misreading of the court judgment.

The Scottish Government have received more than £180 million from the UK Government in covid recovery funds and it is not yet the case that the Scottish Government have published how a penny of that money is being spent, so before asking for greater transparency from this Government, I think it would be appropriate if the hon. Gentleman were to ask his colleagues in the Scottish Government to publish accounts for every single penny that has been received and how it has been spent so that we can be assured—as I am sure will be the case—that the Scottish Government have used their resources appropriately to fight covid.

Stewart Hosie Portrait Stewart Hosie
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The question was about the Minister’s actions, not about anyone else. It would be better if he paid attention to his own work. Given that we already know attitudes, and that, over time, support for independence has risen considerably and support for the Union has declined, is it not more than passing strange that the Minister was so desperate to hand Public First these contracts without competitive tender, were there not to be a second independence referendum? But, more importantly, given that the contract was not restricted to immediately required work, is it not hugely suspicious that such subterfuge was used to funnel taxpayers’ money so quickly to Public First, effectively using taxpayers’ cash as a bottomless Unionist slush fund?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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A bottomless Unionist slush fund sounds like a great thing, but unfortunately it does not exist. I am afraid that I refer the hon. Gentleman again to the judgment. The contract was not awarded by me and it is not the case that I was found to have acted with any actual or apparent bias, because I did not award the contract. I recommend that he has a close look at what Lady Justice O’Farrell actually concluded.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con)
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What steps the Government are taking to improve (a) skills and (b) training within the civil service. (902386)

Julia Lopez Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Julia Lopez) [V]
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As we set out in the declaration on Government reform last month, we are deeply committed to investing in training across the whole civil service, as we have to do better at providing public servants with the skills they need to serve others and tackle future challenges. Our new Government Skills and Curriculum Unit is in the process of establishing a campus for Government skills and will be focusing on creating a cross-civil service induction, a data masterclass for senior civil servants and transforming the fast stream so that it remains among the best graduate schemes in the world.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman [V]
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Clearly, there is a time and a place for employing contractors and other consultants, but does my hon. Friend agree that alongside that we have to provide better training for civil servants and better recruitment of individuals with the skills that are needed by the civil service so that they can be retained within the civil service as a preference to its spending considerable sums of money on outside consultants and communication firms?

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I thank my hon. Friend for his important and incisive question. The civil service, as he acknowledges, has historically used contractors to provide specialist skills and to manage short-term requirements. We really want to drive that down by improving our own capability. We are developing a pipeline of secondments into major organisations through a new secondments unit. We are building an in-house consultancy, we are creating a civilian reserve, and we are working with the Civil Service Commission to review how we attract entrants with specific high-demand skills, particularly scientists and engineers.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Maria Miller (Basingstoke) (Con)
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What steps the Government are taking to implement their levelling-up agenda. (902387)

Jacob Young Portrait Jacob Young (Redcar) (Con)
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What steps the Government are taking to implement their levelling-up agenda. (902393)

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling (Clacton) (Con)
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What steps the Government are taking to implement their levelling-up agenda. (902401)

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con)
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What steps the Government are taking to implement their levelling-up agenda. (902413)

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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Levelling up is at the heart of the Government’s covid recovery agenda, and I am in daily contact with Cabinet colleagues. Through the levelling up fund, we have already committed £4.8 billion of support for local projects that will spur regional growth and improve the lives of local people across the whole United Kingdom. Later this year we will publish a levelling up White Paper.

Maria Miller Portrait Mrs Miller [V]
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If you are in a low-paid job in our country, you are still more likely to be a woman than a man. That is no good for a country that values aspiration, no good for productivity and no good for our economy. Given the focus at the G7 on equal opportunity for women at work, will the Government’s White Paper on levelling up recognise this problem and focus on levelling up for women throughout the United Kingdom?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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As a distinguished former Equalities Minister and former Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: more must be done as part of levelling in order to ensure that women have the opportunities that they deserve and are paid fairly, and that we make use of everyone’s talents across the whole United Kingdom.

Jacob Young Portrait Jacob Young
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The Tees valley is already beginning to see the Government’s levelling up agenda in action through its plans for the northern economic campus in Darlington, the UK’s largest freeport in Redcar, and the continued work in collaboration between the UK Government and Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen. When will we start to see the civil service jobs relocated to the Tees valley, and does my right hon. Friend agree that it would be wrong to cut train services between Teesside and London at a time when our area is growing again?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to mention Ben Houchen, the Gareth Southgate of local government. It is appropriate that, as the Treasury and the Department for International Trade are recruiting new roles in Darlington and there is more investment in Teesside, we must make sure that we have proper connectivity, including first-class rail travel as well as improved digital connectivity.

Giles Watling Portrait Giles Watling [V]
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his earlier answer. The Government’s levelling up agenda is laudable, and in Clacton some progress has been made. I am doing the best I can to inform residents in the area of what the Government are doing. There is a feeling of being left behind locally, however, so what are the Government doing to communicate more widely what they have been and will be doing for the people of Clacton and other left-behind communities? Will my right hon. Friend come back to the sunshine coast and join me to raise awareness of the Government’s important work?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I absolutely will. There is nothing left behind about Clacton and Frinton and the communities that my hon. Friend so ably represents, and I look forward to visiting them. I understand that there is a fantastic local community theatre that he has played a part in championing, among many other local endeavours. Levelling up is about culture as well as connectivity. I look forward to coming to Clacton and making sure that it is firmly on the map and at the centre of our levelling up plans.

David Evennett Portrait Sir David Evennett [V]
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government’s ambitious plans for levelling up are for the whole of the UK, including London and its economy, which has been especially badly hit by the pandemic?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My right hon Friend is absolutely right. He is a brilliant advocate for south-east London and for business. I look forward to working with him to ensure that there is improved connectivity and that London, which has suffered particularly badly as a result of the pandemic, is at the heart of our plans for economic recovery.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab) [V]
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Labour believes that it should be an explicit priority of this Government that when it comes to public procurement we should be buying more from British companies. In the Government’s document, “National Infrastructure and Construction Procurement Pipeline 2020/21”, the procurement contracts in the pipeline are worth £37 billion. Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell the House how much of this was awarded to British companies? If not, what does that say about the Government’s priorities for British business?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I am delighted beyond words that the hon. Lady believes that we should procure more, buy more and invest more in Britain. All that is now possible as a result of our departure from the European Union and our liberation from its procurement rules. The procurement Green Paper brought forward by my noble Friend Lord Agnew will ensure that more UK businesses—more Scottish businesses, Welsh businesses and Ulster businesses—get Government pounds to do even better for all our citizens.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (Alba)
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What steps his Department is taking to increase transparency in the service delivery of public bodies. (902388)

Julia Lopez Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Julia Lopez) [V]
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Accounting officer system statements already set out which public bodies a Department is responsible for, and their spending is set out in each Department’s annual report and accounts. Public bodies data is also published in the public bodies directory. The recent declaration on Government reform reasserts our commitment to transparency in government. The declaration includes specific commitments on public bodies, including increasing the effectiveness of departmental sponsorship of arm’s length bodies.

Neale Hanvey Portrait Neale Hanvey
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As legislators, we have an important and indeed necessary relationship with upholding the spirit and the letter of the law. However, in my experience hon. Members seem more likely to be sacked for their attempts to uphold such a principle. What message does the continued opacity, prevarication and law-breaking of this Government’s most senior Ministers and advisers give to our children, public bodies and industry, or does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster simply have no shame over his own unlawful conduct?

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. We do need to try to keep it calm and be more temperate in our language.

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I appreciate your comments on language in this House. I am afraid I disagree with the hon. Member’s characterisation of this Government. As the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has already set out, there is a nuanced judgment from the Public First case in particular which does not agree with the way the hon. Member has characterised how the Government conduct themselves.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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It would appear that my lack of donations to the Conservative party makes my chances of becoming a Government non-executive director rather slim, but my question to the Minister today is this: how many non-executive directors currently in post on those Government Department boards to scrutinise Ministers were appointed by Ministers? Will the Minister commit to overhauling that current system for appointing non-executive directors, so that these roles stop just being cushy jobs for friends of Ministers who are being paid over £1,000 a day each of taxpayers’ money?

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I can speak for the Cabinet Office non-executive directors. We have a fantastic team that is drawn from across party political affiliations. She will be aware that we have Baroness Stuart, who is a former Labour Member. We also have people with no political affiliation whatever, including people such as Anand Aithal. We have Henry de Zoete, and we have Lord Hogan-Howe, who is a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner. They were appointed because of their merit, not because of their party political affiliation.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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I think that made my point for me, thank you.

Last month, an Information Tribunal said that there is

“a profound lack of transparency about the operation”

of the freedom of information clearing house. Can the Minister confirm categorically that every single freedom of information request received has been treated in exactly the same way, with no different approach for certain journalists or campaigners?

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I can confirm that we treat those information requests on a case-by-case basis, and the background of who is asking is not a criterion for how we treat that request.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab)
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Which Minister is responsible for authorising the installation of CCTV cameras in ministerial offices; and who receives notification of the installation of those cameras. (902390)

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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The placement of security cameras in Departments is a matter for each individual Department.

Clive Efford Portrait Clive Efford
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This issue came to light because of a bit of kiss and tell, and I am not really interested in that, but it does bring out the question of just exactly who has access to this sort of surveillance and the security of Government. When can we expect some sort of a response from the Government to explain just exactly what has been going on?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The hon. Gentleman raises an important and serious issue. The permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and the head of the Government Security Group are looking at precisely this question because, as the hon. Gentleman quite rightly points out, it has a bearing on the security of Government business, and indeed on the possibility of malicious actors, abroad or elsewhere, who may wish to use information garnered in that way to work against the interests of all our citizens.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves (Lewisham West and Penge) (Lab)
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What assessment he has made of the (a) adequacy of the Government’s civil contingency plans and (b) preparedness for a potential future pandemic. (902392)

Penny Mordaunt Portrait The Paymaster General (Penny Mordaunt)
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We regularly assess contingency plans and preparedness for major risks, including pandemics. In December 2020, we updated the national risk register to include new risks. We are currently reviewing the Government’s national risk assessment methodology with external partners ahead of refreshing the internal national security risk assessment early next year.

Ellie Reeves Portrait Ellie Reeves [V]
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Exercise Cygnus, carried out in 2016, found:

“The UK’s preparedness and response, in terms of its plans, policies and capability, is currently not sufficient to cope with the extreme demands of a severe pandemic”.

Key recommendations from the exercise on surge capacity, school closures and protecting care homes were not acted on, which ultimately led to the Government’s chaotic handling of covid-19. Given that the warning signs had been identified in this report, why did the Government handle the pandemic so woefully, and what is being done now to prevent this from ever happening again?

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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The flaw with Exercise Cygnus was with regard to the risk methodology that sat behind it, and I have given evidence to a number of Select Committees on that basis. The hon. Member will know that we have rectified that now by changing the methodology, so rather than just focus on high-risk situations that would have an incredible detrimental impact and are likely to happen, we also look at situations that would have such an impact but are less likely to happen. It is not just pandemics we have to prepare for; it is a whole raft of possible events. I think that methodology and the new risk register put us in a much stronger position.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con)
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What recent discussions his Department has had with the Welsh Government on matters within his ministerial responsibility. (902394)

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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Cabinet Office Ministers regularly engage with the Welsh Government and all the devolved Administrations as part of the Government’s continued collaborative working arrangements. I have had recent discussions with Welsh Government Ministers on subjects such as covid-19, the G7 summit and, of course, elections. Since 2021, all ministerial engagements between the Governments of the United Kingdom are published in quarterly reports.

Alun Cairns Portrait Alun Cairns [V]
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The Welsh Government recently proposed the most radical constitutional change for the whole of the United Kingdom, seeking to change our Union of four nations to a federal structure. Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether he was part of those discussions in any way, in view of the impact they would have for every part of the United Kingdom? Does he share my dismay that the Welsh Government are focusing on constitutional change during a covid pandemic when our focus must be on recovering healthcare, improving education standards and creating jobs? Does he agree that our Union of four nations and constitutional stability offer the best prospect of delivering those outcomes?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I have the highest regard for the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, and I enjoy working with him. I do not doubt his commitment to public service, but we do disagree on this question. I think my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Welsh Government’s focus, as the UK Government’s focus is, should be wholly on the covid crisis and on economic recovery at this time.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker (North Norfolk) (Con)
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What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care on the potential implications of the road map out of lockdown for people who are immunosuppressed. (902395)

Penny Mordaunt Portrait The Paymaster General (Penny Mordaunt)
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The Department continues to work with the Health Secretary on these issues. When we set out the details of step 4 regarding those who are immunosuppressed, there will be new guidance that GPs will be able to use when working with those patients.

Duncan Baker Portrait Duncan Baker
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My constituent Sue Gresham is a tireless campaigner for all those who are immunosuppressed, and she has raised this many times. It was highlighted just last week that those with blood cancer feel there is little information being given about the efficacy of the vaccine being lower for the immunosuppressed. It would be very reassuring if my right hon. Friend could tell me that the Government will write urgently to everyone in the UK whose medical condition requires immuno-suppression to advise that they may not be protected and what precautions they can take themselves as we unlock.

Penny Mordaunt Portrait Penny Mordaunt
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I thank my hon. Friend’s constituent for all the work she has done on these matters. I can say to my hon. Friend that we are in a much better position because of the work that we have previously done on shielding and gathering data on people who might need further protections. In addition to the new guidance I announced for GPs, there is obviously work going on with the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation, particularly focused on that group to ensure that they are a priority for receiving booster injections.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson (Darlington) (Con)
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What steps the Government are taking to deliver civil service jobs outside London. (902396)

Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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What plans he has to move departmental civil service roles outside central London. (902398)

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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The Government are committed to relocating 22,000 civil service roles from London by the end of the decade. Our “Places for Growth” portfolio is a vehicle to ensure that between now and 2030 the civil service becomes better connected with the people and communities it serves. A number of Departments have already made announcements about relocation, and further announcements will be made in due course.

Peter Gibson Portrait Peter Gibson [V]
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I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Whether because of the 750 civil service jobs in the Treasury, the 500 senior civil servants from the Department for International Trade or the 100 Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy officials, the Westminster-on-Tees new economic campus is set to be a busy place. Does he agree that moving civil service jobs outside London is vital to ensuring that communities across the country are reflected in national policy decisions?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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“100%”, as they say on “Love Island”. My hon. Friend is completely right. We must ensure that we make use of the fantastic local talent that there is in the north-east and County Durham so that people whose voices have not been heard loudly enough in the corridors of power are properly represented.

Richard Holden Portrait Mr Holden
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I welcome the moves to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), but the new joint administration just up the road in County Durham has been left high and dry with a £50 million county hall bequeathed to it by the previous Labour administration. To prevent it from becoming an enormous white elephant—a totem to Labour’s hubris in its administration of County Durham for over 100 years—will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the new joint administration in Durham County Council to explore all the possibilities that this new facility might have?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I absolutely will. It is horrific that so much public money has been misused by the former Labour administration in Durham County Council and that the people of that county have been so poorly served. I will of course absolutely investigate that, but I should say that if it was a choice between Durham and Consett for the relocation of Government jobs, I would choose Consett every time.

Henry Smith Portrait Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con)
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What steps the Government are taking to increase opportunities for small businesses to bid for Government contracts. (902400)

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

Henry Smith Portrait Henry Smith [V]
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Many companies in Crawley and across the UK have been forced to adapt because of the covid-19 pandemic. Does my hon. Friend agree that they should have greater opportunity and access to bidding for Government contracts over outside competition?

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I agree with my hon. Friend. We want a much greater variety of companies, including those in Crawley, to deliver Government contracts from every corner of our country, not just because it benefits local economies and communities but because it helps us to diversify our risk, create a more resilient supply base and deliver some of our critical priorities. We are going to be requiring contracts to be divided into smaller lots, publishing contract pipelines more transparently, and improving our guidance to small businesses that are looking to bid.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins (Luton South) (Lab)
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What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of the introduction of voter ID on levels of enfranchisement. (902407)

Rosie Cooper Portrait Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab)
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What recent assessment he has made of the potential effect of the introduction of voter ID on levels of enfranchisement. (902409)

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
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Voter fraud is a crime that we cannot allow room for, and we must stamp out any potential for it to take place in elections. Strengthening the integrity of our system will give the public confidence that our elections remain secure well into the future, and everybody who is eligible to vote will be able to continue doing so.

Rachel Hopkins Portrait Rachel Hopkins [V]
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At the last general election, 14 million people who registered to vote did not do so, and the Electoral Commission estimates that 9 million eligible citizens were not registered to vote. Do the Government believe that higher turnouts of eligible voters in elections is a good sign for democracy? If so, why are Ministers putting their energy into making voting harder by introducing voter ID?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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Yes, I do agree that turnout is incredibly important—and what is more, this policy will not affect it. The evidence of that is in the record from Northern Ireland, which Labour Members appear to be forgetting. The measures will tackle electoral abuse effectively without disadvantaging honest voters. The Government have no intention of taking away people’s democratic right to vote. Mr Speaker,

“If we believed that thousands of voters would not be able to vote because of this measure, we would not be introducing it at this time.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 1 April 2003; Vol. 646, c. 1248.]

Those are not my words but those of a Labour Minister in 2003, introducing photo ID in Northern Ireland.

Rosie Cooper Portrait Rosie Cooper [V]
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If the Minister, in spite of all the data, is determined that our elections would be made more secure by voter ID, does she not accept that the Government should provide ID free to all citizens of voting age, or is she quite content to price some people out of democracy?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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The hon. Lady is a long-standing Member of this House and I am looking forward to debating with her enormously, but she simply has not read the papers. What she proposes is exactly what we are doing. I would like to make it absolutely clear here at the Dispatch Box that there will be a free local voter card. It will be free, it will be local, and it make sure that anybody who does not have photographic identification can still vote. I welcome that.

Cat Smith Portrait Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab) [V]
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The Minister has previously advised me and the House that polling staff will be given appropriate training on checking photo IDs of individuals who wear headscarves or face coverings. Although the Government have apparently guaranteed the use of privacy screens at polling stations to facilitate private ID checks, many voters will not feel comfortable at the prospect of having to show their face or hair to a polling clerk of the opposite sex, and indeed may not vote. Will the Minister confirm whether her plans include provisions to ensure that there are both male and female staff all day at every one of the 35,500 polling stations across the country, to ensure that voters are not placed in an inappropriate position? How much would she expect that to cost?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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The hon. Lady picks up on a very important point. We intend to do this properly. We are making sure that there is the right provision of training in polling stations, as she has already acknowledged, and with that, the right provision of communication to help voters be aware of this very reasonable and proportionate new requirement. All that is detailed in the documents that we put before the House this week. I look forward to debates on this subject, because we are being very honest and straightforward in our approach. We have put the documents there, we have done the research, we have done the pilots, we have done the modelling, we have done the evaluation and we have done the equality impact assessment. All that together will show how this policy is the right thing to do, and the elections integrity Bill protects our democracy, keeping it secure, modern, fair and transparent, as we would all expect it to be.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab)
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If he will take steps to ensure that all ministerial correspondence relating to the Government’s response to the covid-19 pandemic is made available to the forthcoming public inquiry. (902411)

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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As the Prime Minister has already confirmed, the public inquiry into covid-19 will be established under the Inquiries Act 2005, with formal powers to compel the production of relevant material and to take evidence in public under oath. The Government will, of course, co-operate with the inquiry fully.

Andrew Gwynne Portrait Andrew Gwynne [V]
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Can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirm whether using private email accounts to discuss sensitive Government business is in breach of the Freedom of Information Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Data Protection Act or the Public Records Act, which make requirements on the use of Government information? Will he guarantee today that all Ministers’ private email accounts will be available to the public inquiry into the Government’s mishandling of the covid pandemic?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Any information that the inquiry needs, it will receive.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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What recent assessment his Department has made of the (a) viability and (b) value for money of the Verify scheme. (902412)

Julia Lopez Portrait The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Julia Lopez) [V]
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Verify continues to work well and it supports 18 services. More than 8 million Verify accounts have been created, with over 2.6 million added since the start of the pandemic as citizens access critical online services. Building on the lessons and experience of Verify, and as we announced in last year’s spending review, the Government Digital Service is collaborating with other Departments to develop a new login and identity assurance system that will make it much easier for more people to use online services safely. While the new system is being developed, users and connected services will continue to rely on gov.uk Verify, so that means that the Government have decided to extend the current service until April 2022.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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It has actually been a shambles—a huge waste of public money, an absolute Conservative failure. In the light of the recent report from the so-called regulatory reform taskforce sponsored by No. 10, which recommends reducing the protections for citizens under the GDPR, will the Minister assure the House that there will be no use of personal data for any purpose other than that which it has been explicitly given?

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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How we use citizens’ data is going to be absolutely critical to building trust in the new system that we are building. That new system will reuse parts of Verify, but we must have an open conversation about what we will do to protect people’s data. There will not be any data lakes, for instance, and we will be building a new Government data exchange that will look at these areas very carefully, because, as I say, any new system has to be based on trust between Government and citizen, and that will be key to its success.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab)
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If he will take steps to help ensure the enforcement of the ministerial code. (902418)

Chloe Smith Portrait The Minister for the Constitution and Devolution (Chloe Smith)
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Ministers are personally responsible for deciding how to act and conduct themselves in the light of the code, and for justifying their actions and conduct to Parliament and the public. The Prime Minister is the ultimate judge of the standards required and the appropriate consequences of a breach of those standards.

Mary Glindon Portrait Mary Glindon
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Sadly, the Government have shown time and again that they cannot be trusted to work within the system as it stands. Will the Government commit to placing the ministerial code on a statutory footing and give the adviser on Ministers’ interests powers to instigate his own investigations?

Chloe Smith Portrait Chloe Smith
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We think it is the right thing, in the context of our constitution, that the ministerial code and its enforcement and expectations sit with the Prime Minister, because he is, appropriately, the appointer of the Executive and is accountable to the sovereign for that. That is the constitutional set-up that we are talking about, so we think it is the right thing for the code to reflect that and therefore not be based on a statutory system. I add that the Prime Minister appointed Lord Geidt recently as the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests and spoke with him about the second point that the hon. Lady raised—whether there might be initiation for that adviser. The Prime Minister has set out his response to the recommendation that there might be the ability to advise the PM on the initiation of investigations.

Steve McCabe Portrait Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab)
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If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (902355)

Michael Gove Portrait The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office (Michael Gove)
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My Department, along with the Leader of the House, has been reviewing the English votes for English laws procedure. The procedure has been suspended since April 2020 and, having reflected on the procedure, the Government believe that it has not served our Parliament well and that removing it would simplify the legislative process. It is a fundamental principle that all constituent parts of the United Kingdom should be equally represented in Parliament. Any changes, of course, would be for the House to decide and we will bring forward a motion in due course.

Steve McCabe Portrait Steve McCabe [V]
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How would the right hon. Gentleman reassure a member of the public who thinks that a Minister using a personal mobile phone to conduct Government business is trying to evade scrutiny because they have something to hide?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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I would reassure them by saying that all Government business is transacted through civil service colleagues, and that in order to ensure that a single penny of taxpayers’ money is spent, or that a single decision is taken, that might infringe, or enhance anyone’s liberty, it has to go through the process of review, legislation and action, which civil servants and Ministers do together in a way that is always clear, transparent and publicly accountable.

William Wragg Portrait Mr William Wragg (Hazel Grove) (Con)
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In the inquiry by the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs into the collapse of Greensill Capital, many of our witnesses so far have prayed in aid the advice given to them by Sue Gray, who at the time was director general for propriety and ethics at the Cabinet Office. She was invited to attend our Committee on Tuesday; her office initially accepted that invitation, but I am told that she has now declined it on the advice of those more senior at the Cabinet Office. It is vital that the Committee be able to hear from Ms Gray, given that she was mentioned so many times by others. May I therefore ask my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to ensure that she will attend on Tuesday as planned?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend chairs the Committee brilliantly, but there are rules—the Osmotherly rules. They stress that serving civil servants act only in accordance with the wishes of Ministers and therefore it is rarely appropriate for them to appear to be questioned in the way that my hon. Friend would like. So I am ready, willing and able to appear in front of the Committee, but it is my view that it would be inappropriate for a serving civil servant to appear in the way that my hon. Friend requests.

Angela Rayner Portrait Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
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Football is indeed coming home, but I also think that the chickens are coming home to roost for this Government. The Government’s spokesperson said last week that

“there was no high priority lane for testing suppliers…and there was no separate ‘fast track process’”.

Can the Minister for the Cabinet Office tell me what exactly the role was of the consultant to the testing procurement programme who described his role as

“to lead VIP stakeholder engagement with…Lord…Bethell”,

who is still somehow a Minister. If there is no fast track, why did the right hon. Gentleman’s own procurement director order officials to mark bids that came from Ministers’ email addresses as “fast track”?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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There were lots of interesting questions there. The first thing that I should say is that Lord Bethell is doing a fantastic job in the Department of Health and Social Care. I think that it is quite wrong for the right hon. Lady to cast aspersions on his dedicated public service and the work that he has done as Minister for Innovation.

The second thing that I should say is that every single procurement decision went through an eight-stage process in order to ensure that every single piece of personal protective equipment, or everything—[Interruption.] Useful commentary there from the Alan Hansen of politics, but the truth is that actually we have always been in compliance with the rules, unlike the Scottish Government. Audit Scotland has pointed out to the Scottish Government that they need to do better, and indeed they must.

Angela Rayner Portrait Angela Rayner
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I listened to the Minister’s answer, and I can tell him that Lord Bethell is no Sterling. The Prime Minister’s official spokesperson stated last week that no Ministers had used private emails to conduct Government business. Surely the Minister now accepts that that is untrue. Will he tell us when the Prime Minister will correct the record?

I listened to the Minister’s response to my hon. Friends the Members for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) and for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe). We have already submitted freedom of information requests to seek the publication of emails, but will the Minister agree now to publish every such email about Government contracts? Can he make a guarantee to the House today for bereaved families—including my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), who made a very passionate speech at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday—that every single one of those emails is secured for the public inquiry?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The right hon. Lady quite rightly refers to the very powerful question from the hon. Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and I think all of us deeply sympathise with the family loss that he has had to endure, as so many others have had to. It is precisely because we take these things seriously that we took steps to ensure that we could source personal protective equipment as quickly as possible. Of course, we did so in a way that was entirely consistent with good procurement practice. We used the measures that were used by the Labour Government in Wales and by the SNP Government in Scotland to ensure that we could get things to the frontline as effectively as possible and in accordance with fair procedure.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Con)
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I was pleased to see the Elections Bill introduced to the House earlier this week. Like many of those who voted in 2016 to leave the European Union, I was concerned by the actions taken by the Electoral Commission following the referendum and the malicious way in which it treated individuals, completely casting into doubt its impartiality. Does my right hon. Friend share those concerns? Will he outline how the reforms in the Bill will seek to address them? (902358)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we reflect on how public-spirited individuals such as Alan Halsall and Darren Grimes were treated, I think it was quite right for the new head of the Electoral Commission to issue an apology. The Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission is a means by which parties across this House can ensure that the Electoral Commission does its important job, and the Elections Bill will ensure that the Speaker’s Committee and others play an important role in making sure that the Electoral Commission does its job properly.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab) [V]
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I have heard from a number of HGV drivers in Newport West who are deeply concerned about the shortage of drivers and the impact this shortage is having on the movement of food and goods from Europe to the UK. The Government have now announced that they will extend the driving rules from 12 July, which will mean overworked drivers working even longer hours and getting more tired, which is no help at all. What discussions has the Minister had with our European neighbours and his colleagues across Government about how to get this serious driver shortage sorted? (902356)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The hon. Lady raises an important question. Action is being taken by the Transport Secretary, and the issue was discussed earlier this week at Cabinet. I am also working with Lord Frost to ensure that we can have free-flowing freight and that we get the goods that we need to consumers in a timely fashion.

Henry Smith Portrait Henry Smith  (Crawley) (Con) [V]
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  Does my right hon. Friend agree that, alongside civil service reform in terms of places and personnel, digital and data reforms are also at the heart of the Government’s agenda to drive real improvement and deliver on the Government’s priorities, which will transform our communities? (902360)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely correct. In a former life he was a distinguished leader of West Sussex County Council and, as such, he knows how important it is to the delivery of public services to ensure that one has appropriate metrics, one shares data and that one uses digital innovation to improve service delivery. I look forward to working with him to improve Government delivery in just that way.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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A simple question: can the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster tell us how many Government Ministers have been using personal email addresses for Government business? (902357)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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It is not my job to monitor the personal emails of all my colleagues. If I did, I suspect—[Interruption.] Well, it might be quite interesting, actually; quite entertaining. The key thing is you cannot conduct Government business from private email to private email. The only way you can conduct Government business is through civil servants.

Paul Howell Portrait Paul Howell (Sedgefield) (Con)
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Does my right hon. Friend agree that that relocation of Government Departments is a key part of levelling up? Could I ask him to encourage his friends in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to consider placing the Advanced Research and Invention Agency in the new county hall being built in Durham, which the new administration are reviewing the options for, as stated by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden) earlier? This could be the perfect location, linking Durham University and the innovative businesses on NETPark in Sedgefield. Doing this could encourage the local team to share more of their staff around places such as Bishop Auckland, Consett, Crook, Newton Aycliffe and, of course, Sedgefield. (902362)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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And indeed Peterlee. My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As we heard earlier from my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham, it is a pity that the Labour administration in County Durham have squandered County Durham taxpayers’ money in the way that they have, but the point that my hon. Friend makes about the Advanced Research and Invention Agency’s potential location in the north-east and in Durham is a very good one, and I will discuss it with the Business Secretary.

Rosie Cooper Portrait Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab) [V]
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The Government tell us that voter ID will secure our elections against apparently rampant voter fraud. That is a worrying claim indeed, so as a matter of urgency will the Minister provide the Government’s data on how many ballots have been confirmed to have been fraudulently cast in recent elections? (902359)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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We are only following what the Labour party does. It was the Labour party that introduced the requirement for voter ID in Northern Ireland, as the Minister for the Constitution and Devolution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) pointed out earlier. It is also the case that one can vote in internal Labour elections only by using voter ID. I do not know whether there is an internal Labour election coming up soon. The shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), will be better informed on that question than me—[Interruption.] Sorry! Anyway, to vote in a Labour election, you need voter ID.

Harriett Baldwin Portrait Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con)
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I know that my right hon. Friend and his colleagues are all passionate feminists, and I am sure that he would agree that it is difficult to justify the fact that an eighth of the seats in the upper House are reserved effectively for men, because of the laws of primogeniture and the hereditary peers. Does he have plans to reform that anomaly? (902364)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. We do not currently have plans to do that, but she makes a fair point. As everyone knows, for the remaining hereditary peerages in the House of Lords, when an hereditary peer in any one of the party or Cross-Bench groups passes away, there is a by-election among those who are eligible, but at the moment in nearly every case the franchise and candidacy is restricted to men. That is something we should definitely look at.

Kate Osamor Portrait Kate Osamor (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op) [V]
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With many lacking ID, the Government’s voter ID plans are set to systematically exclude Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. Why are Ministers, instead of working to improve accessibility, putting their energy into creating barriers to voting for this already marginalised community? (902361)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The hon. Lady raises an important point. There is much that we need to do to ensure the more effective inclusion in civic life of Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals. First, we must start with making sure that they receive a higher quality of education than is currently the case. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller children are among those with the worst educational outcomes and we need to address that in order to make sure that they play their full part in public life. But there is absolutely no evidence that the requirement for voter ID will do anything to discriminate against Gypsy, Roma and Traveller individuals.

Douglas Ross Portrait Douglas Ross (Moray) (Con) [V]
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On his recent visit to Scotland the Minister will probably have heard concerns that the Scottish Government have not made full use of the additional funding provided by the UK Government to support businesses, individuals and communities through this pandemic. Will he outline what mechanisms are available to the UK Government to ensure that the Scottish Government make full use of the support available? (902367)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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My hon. Friend makes a very important point. When I was in the north-east and the Western Isles recently, I heard individuals and businesses crying out for economic support. When I explained that the UK Government had given significant sums to the Scottish Government in the covid crisis to deal with the emergency, the question was, “How has it been spent?” Because there has been no accountability and no transparency on the part of the Scottish Government. We have no idea how that money has been spent and the Scottish Parliament does not yet have the powers necessary to get that information. However, Her Majesty’s Treasury can ask tough questions and require information to be shared, and unless the Scottish Government are more transparent, I will have to consider how I can work with Ministers and with my hon. Friend to make sure that Scottish taxpayers know where their money has gone.

Kenny MacAskill Portrait Kenny MacAskill  (East Lothian) (Alba) [V]
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  Polled public attitudes towards the Union may be hidden, but the private attitude of the Prime Minister to devolution is clearly known and is hostile, as shown by his former senior adviser Dominic Cummings. Does that not confirm that the choice for Scotland is between an integrating Union under the Tories and independence? (902380)

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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No. This Government are committed to devolution. Like the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats, we believe in a United Kingdom that gets the best of both worlds: a strong Westminster Government working with strong devolved institutions. Of course, I recognise that, in the spirit of providing the Scottish people with a choice, the hon. Gentleman decided to leave the Scottish National party in order to set up, with Mr Salmond, the Alba party. One reason he did so is that he believed that the Scottish Government were doing a poor job, that they were not making the case effectively for independence and, indeed, that the way in which they were discharging their responsibilities actually corroded the case for independence. On the final point, the hon. Gentleman and I are as one.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster outline what collective approach has been taken by BEIS and the Cabinet Office to address some of the issues affecting small businesses with regard to the import of hundreds of products to Northern Ireland? I know that he has a particular interest in this issue. Businesses are being prevented from trading normally, as things were pre-31 December 2020; they are under stress and it has reduced their income. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster agree to grant funding for a loss of income, as business have been impacted through no fault of their own?

Michael Gove Portrait Michael Gove
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The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As a result of the particular interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol on which some in the European Commission have insisted, businesses in Strangford and elsewhere have faced additional costs. We have already devoted money through the trader support service and other means to support businesses, but I will talk to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Treasury and Lord Frost to see what we can do to ensure that businesses in Strangford and elsewhere in Northern Ireland are not further disadvantaged.

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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I am suspending the House for three minutes to enable the necessary arrangements to be made for the next business.

Sitting suspended.