Topical Questions

Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons on 31st March 2022.

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Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

This month we appointed Baroness Gisela Stuart, who is well known to the House, as the new civil service commissioner to oversee the body guaranteeing that civil servants are selected on merit, on the basis of fair and open competition. Baroness Stuart brings a wealth of experience, having been a Member of this House for 20 years and a Government Minister for the Labour party, and brings a non-partisan spirit to roles including her time at the University of Birmingham, the Royal Mint and as a non-executive director of the Cabinet Office. We have also been working on taking forward the Prime Minister’s work on Brexit opportunities; my right hon. Friend the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency has identified almost 2,000 EU regulations remaining in British laws, which he is reviewing in order to reduce the burdens on business and the public. I have also written to Departments across Whitehall to ensure that we make the necessary regulatory changes to ease the burden of the cost of living, and will have further meetings with colleagues to take that work forward.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

Events in Ukraine prove that the international rules-based order continues to be threatened by aggression and competition. What is being done to increase and improve the UK’s strategic independence and self-sufficiency for its needs?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

That is an extremely important point in terms of both our energy security and our wider commitments building on COP26 and net zero. That is why the Prime Minister, the Trade Secretary and I hosted a number of Australian investors, who collectively have committed £25 billion of inward investment in green technology to the UK, at No. 10 Downing Street last night. That is both an indication of our commitment to energy security and to ensuring that we learn the lessons of Russia and Ukraine, and a signal of the attractiveness of the UK for foreign investment, which reflects this Government’s commitment to supporting business and levelling up across the UK.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Contrary to the Prime Minister’s own promises last year, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has quietly shelved any attempt to limit MPs’ second jobs. He claims it is impractical. Since I was elected two years ago, I have received more than 1,500 emails a month, sent nearly 40,000 emails back to my constituents, spoken in this Chamber more than 380 times and tabled more than 500 questions. For me, what would be impractical is having a second job in the first place. However, more than a quarter of Conservative Members have second jobs, and I do not think many are NHS workers. That brings them an extra £4.4 million a year in extra earnings—so, colleagues, the post-Adjournment party drinks are on the Conservatives. I will ask a question being asked across the country: is it impractical finally to stop the second jobs bonanza, or is it simply inconvenient?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

It is slightly odd simply to say it is the Government side of the House. There are hon. Members on both sides of the House who have had second jobs, including with the NHS and in a range of public services; but equally, working with business is important as is ensuring that the House is aware of how we generate the prosperity to level up across the community and building on that £25 billion investment that we were discussing a moment ago. Perhaps she can enlighten the House on whether writing a book is a valid use of someone’s time, or indeed chairing a panel on “Have I Got News For You”, as one of her colleagues did recently, and on the distinction between that and working in areas that contribute tax and contribute to the country at large?

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

The Chancellor has asked businesses to think very carefully about any investments that would in any sense support Putin and his regime. However, this is pretty hypocritical given that he and his family are still making millions from Infosys, a company still trading out of Moscow. We need to be united in our opposition to Putin. It cannot be one rule for us and another for the Tory elite.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I withdraw it.

But I would like to ask if there will be an investigation, or there has been an investigation, into whether the ministerial code has been broken in this instance and what action will be taken given the Chancellor’s failure to declare his family’s huge shareholdings in this company.

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I am not going to engage with sweeping comments that do not address the record of this Government, which is very clear in respect of Russia and Ukraine. This Government have led in their actions on sanctions, in their investment in bilateral aid, and in their response to military support in-country. That is reflected in the response both of the Ukrainian Government and of the Russian Government. In respect of the ministerial code, Lord Geidt addresses those issues in the usual way.

Photo of Shaun Bailey Shaun Bailey Conservative, West Bromwich West

Local government procurement is an important part of ensuring that we get vital services to the most vulnerable in our communities. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the disgraceful procurement practices at Labour-led Sandwell Council, which has seen contracts handed to mates, dodgy land deals, and finally commissioners bashing down the doors to deal with these problems. Can he assure the House that as part of his reforms to local government procurement, he will prioritise value for money, and, more importantly for my constituents in Wednesbury, Oldbury and Tipton, prove to them that the actions of Sandwell Council are not the norm?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

My hon. Friend raises an extremely important point. It would be great to hear voices from the Labour Benches showing their commitment to tackling these issues. I can reassure him as to the Government’s support on the issue that he raises, and he is right to bring it to the attention of the House.

Photo of Afzal Khan Afzal Khan Shadow Minister (Justice)

This week I joined grieving families like mine to mark the anniversary of the covid memorial wall. On the same day, we watched in shock as the Met police issued 20 fines for the Downing Street parties. Right now, the chair of the UK inquiry is meeting the bereaved families on the terms of reference of the inquiry, and soon the chair will pass draft terms to the Prime Minister. Given the importance of this inquiry, will the Minister confirm that the draft terms will be published in full to guarantee that the chair’s recommendations are implemented?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. It is a deeply emotive point for the families affected. That is why we are committed to getting the terms of reference right. That is why, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office set out, this is shaped by the judge Lord Hallett and comes under the terms of the legislation passed by a previous Labour Administration. I know that Lord Hallett is committed to working with stakeholder bodies as regards reflecting the terms of reference in a way that meets the wider need.

Photo of Damian Collins Damian Collins Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee), Chair, Draft Online Safety Bill (Joint Committee)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that as the House moves after the Easter recess to legislate through the online safety Bill, there must be effective co-ordination on disinformation between the counter-disinformation unit and the RESIST programme at the Cabinet Office, as well as Ofcom, as the online safety regulator, to make sure that social media companies take proactive action against known threats to this country, including the online frauds and scams mentioned earlier?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

That is an extremely important point. Both the Minister for the Cabinet Office and I have chaired a number of Cabinet Sub-Committees looking at our wider domestic resilience and our response in the context of the conflict in Ukraine. It builds on the national cyber strategy launched before Christmas and the Government cyber strategy launched after Christmas. It is about working with relevant stakeholders to have a whole-of-society approach, whether that is in relation to the excellent communication from the Ministry of Defence in recent weeks in de-classifying key documentation around some of the Russian misinformation campaigns, or looking at the wider piece: getting in the right skills, the right training and the right product regulation so that we have that whole-of-society resilient approach, building on work through the situations centre and the Civil Contingencies Secretariat.

Photo of Alison Thewliss Alison Thewliss Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The Radisson RED, a hotel in my constituency, was promised full compensation by the UK Government for business disruption during COP26, but it has not received the full compensation it believes it was entitled to. It has been passed from pillar to post by the COP26 President, Alok Sharma, who committed in this House to meet me, but never did, and the Cabinet Office, which has been ignoring its emails. Can the Minister tell me how many other businesses in Glasgow have been similarly treated by the Cabinet Office? Will he meet me on this, because it has taken the shine off events that Glasgow was very proud to host?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I know that the COP26 President will have a strong commitment to addressing any issues. Rightly, Members across the House have recognised that the event in Glasgow was a great demonstration of the UK working together. It was an illustration of how we are better together. If there are some specific issues that Members of the House are rightly highlighting from a constituency perspective, I will ensure those are brought to the attention of the COP26 President and ask whether he will meet her as a matter of priority.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

The news that there will be legislation to ensure that we maximise the benefits of Brexit is incredibly welcome. Will my right hon. Friend comment on how that legislation, will enable and set free those companies in the thriving tech sector across my constituency of Buckingham to innovate in a more free manner than when we were in the EU?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Minister of State (Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important question. The Brexit freedoms Bill will modernise the UK’s approach to making regulations by enabling Her Majesty’s Government effectively to amend, repeal or replace any retained EU law. These reforms will help cut business costs by removing EU red tape and creating a UK-centric regulatory framework that encourages competition, innovation and growth. The Bill will also help accelerate the excellent work of my hon. Friend George Freeman to deliver the recommendations from the taskforce for innovation, growth and regulatory reform in the fields of technology and life sciences.

Photo of Andrew Gwynne Andrew Gwynne Shadow Minister (Health and Social Care)

Earlier, the Minister for Brexit Opportunities decried an Act of Parliament from 1972. There was a further Act of Parliament that year that also changed the face of England and Wales: the Local Government Act 1972. Much of that made sense for the delivery of public services, but the lords lieutenant have no role in local government. They are Her Majesty’s representatives in a county, and as a patron of the Friends of Real Lancashire, I can say that much damage was done to historic Lancashire. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster look at restoring the lords lieutenant to cover the historic counties for ceremonial purposes, so that the Duke of Lancaster’s representative can cover all the Duke of Lancaster’s county palatine, from the Mersey to the Furness fells, and from the Irish sea to the Pennines?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I fear it is not just me who has to declare an interest in this—Mr Speaker himself may have to declare an interest. Any question that starts with reinforcing the county of Lancashire is extremely welcome. Before the hon. Gentleman’s siren call draws me on to the rocks of constitutional propriety, I would want to take advice as to what the interaction is with the Palace and other quarters that may have a view on this. I take this moment—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree—to pay tribute to the incredible work that the lords lieutenant do up and down the country. They are at the heart of so much civic activity within our constituencies and make a hugely valuable contribution through their work.

Photo of David Duguid David Duguid Conservative, Banff and Buchan

Will the Veterans Minister join me in thanking the Department for Work and Pensions and other Government services that help veterans find work when they leave the armed forces? Will he consider visiting some of those services and the many veterans support charities in a visit to my constituency? Finally, will he also join me in thanking those veterans in Banff and Buchan and across the country who have been donating clothing and other supplies to those fighting for their lives in Ukraine?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (jointly with the Ministry of Defence)

Veterans make brilliant employees, which is why employment is at the heart of our veterans strategy. It is also why we have introduced national insurance contribution holidays for those who employ veterans and a guaranteed job interview for veterans who want to join the civil service. Of course, I join my hon. Friend in thanking the veterans in his constituency who have so generously contributed to our collective effort on behalf of Ukraine. I also thank him for the work he does in concert with his veteran community in Banff and Buchan. If time allows, I would be delighted to visit his very beautiful constituency.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Every one of the 65 million or so people in these four nations who has a mobile phone, tablet, iPad or Alexa-enabled device is a potential target for hostile nations seeking to damage our cyber-security, but the National Cyber Force budget amounts to 10p a month for each of those citizens. What representations has the Minister made to the Chancellor to raise that budget to a more reasonable level?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I have some exposure to this, having been Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Of all the budgets, the agencies’ budgets have increased more than most, if not the most. Significant funding has been put into the National Cyber Force as part of the cyber corridor in the north-west. There are sometimes limits to how much detail one gives on some of those budgets, but I am happy to interact with the Intelligence and Security Committee to provide any reassurance the House needs that significant funding is being provided on our resilience and our national cyber-response. That builds on a number of points raised this morning, including our work on the skills needed as part of that resilience and the situation centre in which we have invested.

Photo of Giles Watling Giles Watling Conservative, Clacton

We have exited the EU and regained control, but I fear we have lost a lot in trade and unity in these isles. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should explore new avenues of trade, and perhaps reinvigorate lost avenues of trade, such as through the Commonwealth?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I concur with my hon. Friend that the Commonwealth is of huge importance. He is right to highlight that, but it fits within the wider strategy of the integrated review as part of global Britain, including building on defence ties such as with the Australian and US Governments through AUKUS. This brings significant defence opportunities, as well as opportunities for Treasury policy such as freeports and for our wider work through the Department for International Trade on free trade agreements. This is all part of global Britain, of which the Commonwealth is a key stakeholder.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

My mother calls me James or Jim, so you can choose, Mr Speaker.

I thank the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for all his answers. On the recent fears of Russian cyber-attack, what contact and security support is there for our banking sector? What financial help or assistance can be offered to keep our institutions free from Russian cyber attack?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have rightly highlighted the importance of our cyber resilience in general and at this time. There is a host of excellent advice in the whole-of-Government approach set out in our national cyber strategy launched before Christmas. I specifically draw the House’s attention to the advice from the National Cyber Security Centre, which hon. Members can reinforce through their weekly columns and interaction with businesses in their constituency. The NCSC is a great repository of advice on how to take action on cyber resilience.

Photo of Richard Holden Richard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

In the light of the benefits of their pension schemes to public sector workers of all ages, can my right hon. Friend offer support for the idea of expanding pension auto-enrolment to workers of all ages in the private sector so that they can begin building a pension in the same way as their counterparts in the public sector?

Photo of Heather Wheeler Heather Wheeler Assistant Whip, The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office

Our ambition remains to enable people to save more and to start saving earlier by taking forward the core recommendations of the Department for Work and Pensions 2017 review of automatic enrolment, which the Government committed to implement in the mid-2020s subject to engagement with stakeholders and finding ways to make the changes affordable.

Photo of Desmond Swayne Desmond Swayne Conservative, New Forest West

Notwithstanding the earlier exchange, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will want to acknowledge my gratitude and satisfaction at the excellent job that he is making of his second job as a Minister of the Crown, will he not?

Photo of Steve Barclay Steve Barclay Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I simply pay tribute to my right hon. Friend. For a question of that sort, I think brevity is the best response in acknowledging the point that he raises.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I thought I would take advantage of an extra question. With our trade deals with Australia and New Zealand, which are to be welcomed, we will need to make a great drive to send food and drink across the world. Can we have more enthusiasm from the Government to drive our exports, especially food and drink?

Photo of Nigel Adams Nigel Adams Minister without Portfolio , Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Minister without Portfolio)

It is crucial that we do exactly what the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee says. The Cabinet Office works closely with DEFRA on our great campaign to promote food around the world and we do that through our trade commissioners and the great teams that we have in post. One example is that we worked closely with DEFRA to promote Scottish seafood in China, which contributed an immediate £1.5 million in export wins.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

May I ask the Minister for Brexit Opportunities whether he believes that we can maximise our opportunities as long as article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol remains in place?

Photo of Jacob Rees-Mogg Jacob Rees-Mogg Minister of State (Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency)

I thank my hon. Friend for his brilliant and inspired question. There are obviously difficulties with the Northern Ireland protocol, which was set out in the agreement to be amendable, changeable and alterable, and that must be done. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary is working on that and it is important to get it right, because nothing must undermine the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a single entity. That is the Government’s policy, that is the Government’s aim and that is what will happen.