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Cabinet Office

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2015

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

National Citizen Service

5. What progress he is making on increasing the number of places on the National Citizen Service. (900659)

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I first congratulate the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) on the birth of her son in May? I am sure that it is the reason for her absence today, as she normally shadows me.

More than 135,000 young people have benefited from the National Citizen Service in recent years. In 2015, more young people than ever will have the opportunity to take part. I have written to all Northern Irish and English MPs encouraging them to visit an NCS programme near them this summer.

I have seen at first hand how the NCS programme can give young people greater confidence, help them work in their community and build long-lasting relationships. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the Government will continue to back the NCS into the future, so that we can give increasing numbers of young people the skills they need to get on in life?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right in his assessment, which is why I am delighted that more than 1,100 people took part in his constituency and the surrounding area last year and why I am committed to continuing the rapid expansion of the programme. He will be pleased to hear that 92% of participants say that the NCS helped them to develop useful skills for the future and 76% feel more confident about getting a job in the future.

I welcome the Minister’s answer. I am a tremendous supporter of the NCS programme, having seen the work done in north-east Lincolnshire, where the programme is delivered by Grimsby Town Sports and Education Trust. Does he agree that encouraging football clubs and similar organisations in this area encourages our young people to get even more involved in the programme?

I join my hon. Friend in thanking Grimsby Town for the part it played in supporting nearly 200 young people taking part in the NCS in his constituency and the surrounding area in 2014. In particular, I pay tribute to Graham Rodger and Lee Stephens for leading an excellent team. I understand from my hon. Friend that it contains a former Grimsby Town goalkeeper, so it could be said that the NCS is in safe hands.

In my area, 831 young people participated in the NCS last year. Does the Minister agree that the NCS reflects this Government’s one-nation values by bringing together young people from all backgrounds so that they develop greater self-awareness and responsibility?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that. That view is supported by consecutive independent evaluations, which have demonstrated the effectiveness of the programme for people from a range of backgrounds. For instance, in 2013, 16% of NCS participants were in receipt of free school meals, which compares with a figure of about 8% of 16 to 17-year-olds in the general population. Despite this great success, I still want to go further in reaching out to more young people who face big challenges in life.

One of the Minister’s predecessors, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), said that he was “obsessively” monitoring the backgrounds of people taking part in the NCS. Can this Minister reassure the House that he is monitoring with equal enthusiasm? Are people from deprived backgrounds taking part in the programme to the same degree as others?

I think I just answered that question, as the hon. Gentleman would know if he had listened to my previous answer. As he is aware, we have a manifesto commitment on guaranteeing a place on the NCS for all young people. That requires commitment from across government. I am working with Ministers across government to ensure that the NCS benefits as many young people as possible, no matter where they live, what school they went to or what their circumstances in life have been.

The Minister will be pleased to hear that I will be visiting an NCS scheme in my constituency over the summer recess. Given that youth services in England have experienced cuts almost three times greater than overall cuts to local authorities, what is he doing to make sure that young people have valuable activities all year round, not just through the NCS?

The NCS is complementary to, not a replacement for, local government services. The NCS consistently demonstrates its positive impact on participants and value for money. I find it very disappointing that local councils are making the choice to cut youth services, but we in the Cabinet Office are supporting local authorities through programmes such as the Centre for Youth Impact and Delivering Differently for Young People.

Voter Registration

May I begin by wishing the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), who is sitting on the Opposition Front Bench, many happy returns on his birthday?

In answer to the question, as well as giving more than £50 million to enable local authorities to carry forward the individual electoral registration system, we have also given more than £10 million to enable them to take proactive steps to increase voter registration.

What actions will be taken against local authorities that have coasting rates of registration—those that have registered fewer than 98% of eligible voters?

I am happy to tell the hon. Lady that the Minister for constitutional reform—my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose)—is proactively stepping in to try to ensure that those local authorities do take further action. The Electoral Commission has also reported on this, and we are keen to see that every local authority ensures right away that it no longer has large groups of people who are unregistered and that it cleans its register.

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge the positive impact on voter registration of civil society campaigns and the campaign by the Church, Have Your Say, before the last election?

Yes, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right about that. I am glad to say that we see a pattern of local authorities in many parts of the country doing what she describes and working with civil society partners to reach those people who might not otherwise be reached by more formal means to persuade them to register.

I think that we can all agree that electoral registration is desirable and that one factor that will affect that is the degree of faith and confidence that people have in our electoral system. One measure that could enhance that is the ability of people to recall their Member of Parliament in between elections. When will the Minister bring into force the remaining provisions of the Recall of MPs Act 2015?

The hon. Gentleman has indulged in what might be called an elastic interpretation of the question on the Order Paper. But just as I have been indulgent of him, I feel sure that the Minister will be similarly indulgent.

I am delighted to answer that question. The Recall of MPs Act, to which the hon. Gentleman refers, was passed just at the end of the previous Parliament. Two things now need to be done: one is to issue the commencement order, which is relatively straightforward; and the second is to issue the regulations that govern the conduct of the petition, which is more complicated. All of us in this House have a considerable interest in ensuring that that is done right. However, we are doing it at pace. I intend to bring the provisions before the House in September, when we return from recess.

Two weeks ago, the Electoral Commission published a report on the transition to full individual electoral registration. It expressed concern about the numbers that could fall off the electoral register if the Government brought forward the date of full IER to December 2015. Will the Government follow the advice of the Electoral Commission?

The shadow Minister is absolutely right that the Electoral Commission has made observations about that matter. We are now considering them very carefully, and we will think through the Government’s response before we inform the House what it is. In response to earlier questions, I should say that the Electoral Commission report has also indicated that we now have an increase in the total number of people registered compared with the situation before individual electoral registration was introduced.

Civil Service Pensions

We have reformed the delivery of civil service pensions by setting up MyCSP, which is part-owned by employees who administer the scheme. That will reduce costs and ultimately deliver a better service.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer. I know from corresponding with him on numerous occasions that he is aware of certain problems with MyCSP, but I am still receiving letters from constituents who feel that they are being let down. Will he assure the House that every effort is being made to ensure that MyCSP offers a good service to those who rely on it for the administration of their pensions?

Yes, I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for bringing the matter to the House’s attention. Work is under way to improve the performance of MyCSP. There has been a year-on-year productivity improvement of it since it started in 2012, but there is much work to do to ensure that we get everybody’s pension administered in exactly the right way.

The problem is that these problems have been going on for a long time. I have written to Ministers over the past 12 months about problems with my constituents and only last week I had a constituent who was given a pension estimate that proved to be completely inaccurate. They had based their future plans on that estimate. May I ask the Minister again to try harder to ensure that we get this sorted out? It has been going on for far too long.

Yes, I agree that this needs to be sorted out. When we brought the delivery of civil service pensions from an external provider in 2010, there was a larger backlog than anticipated. That means that there is an awful lot of work to do, but we are pushing it through.

Senior Civil Servants (Social Background)

6. What steps he is taking to ensure that people from all social backgrounds are able to become senior civil servants. (900660)

Background should be no barrier to success and we are committed to ensuring that the most senior ranks of the civil service can be reached by all.

Although 10% of the civil service are from a black and minority ethnic community, only 4% are in senior positions. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that each and every one of them can achieve their true potential without their background being a hindrance?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. This is true not just about ethnicity in the senior civil service but about gender and people with disabilities. We need to ensure that the senior civil service represents the country that it serves. Steps are under way to ensure that that happens and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend to reach that conclusion.

We welcome the Minister to his place and the Opposition support genuine efforts to increase the diversity of the civil service. He will be aware that 58% of permanent secretaries were privately educated, as were 53% of senior diplomats and 45% of public body chairs. Would he therefore support targets to increase the numbers from state education at the top of our civil service?

I certainly strongly agree that it is important that as well as considering gender, ethnicity and other characteristics we ensure that people from all backgrounds—whichever school they went to and whichever part of the country they come from—can get to senior levels in the civil service. We have a programme under way to ensure that that happens.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment as Minister for the civil service and assure him that the now Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will look forward to working with him on civil service reform, as we did with his predecessor, who did so much during his term of office. May I also give my fullest support to his objective of achieving diversity? That is a vital part of having an agile civil service and requires the challenging of attitudes and habits of behaviour as much as setting targets.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his re-election—unopposed—to the Chair of the Select Committee. I very much look forward to working with him, although I say that with some trepidation, knowing his depth of understanding of these issues. I entirely agree that this is about culture and agility in the civil service as much as it is about tick-box targets.

One of the biggest barriers to accessing some senior civil service jobs is where they are located. What more can be done to ensure that jobs are located outside the south of England? Why not start by moving the Department for Transport to the north, which might bring some of the money it spends down here up there, as well?

As my hon. Friend knows, we are investing a huge amount in transport systems across the nation, not least in the north of England and in his area. It is crucial that we proceed in an efficient and cost-effective way. There are civil servants who work across the land, and we should not forget that, and we must ensure that they represent the whole country, too.

Franchise for London Elections

7. What assessment he has made of the effect of the inclusion of EU citizens in the franchise for elections to the Greater London Assembly and the Mayor of London on voter engagement; and if he will make a statement. (900661)

EU citizens resident in London are eligible to register and vote in local government elections and elections for the GLA and Mayor. I am sure that both I and the hon. Gentleman would encourage them to do just that. So far I have made no assessment of the effect on voter engagement, but if the hon. Gentleman has thoughts or insights he would like to share, I am very happy to hear them now.

The Mayor of London, now also the hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), once claimed that London was the sixth biggest French city in the world. Why does the Minister believe that it is right that all those French citizens who have made London their home should be allowed to vote for the Mayor’s successor, but not for whether this country should stay in the European Union?

The vote for staying in or leaving the EU will be based on the parliamentary constituency franchise, which is based on people who are eligible to vote for this place. British nationals living in EU countries elsewhere in the EU are not allowed to vote in equivalent referendums elsewhere—for example, in the Dutch referendum in 2005.

Does my hon. Friend share my fear that, with an air traffic control strike and transport workers on strike in France at the moment and massive unemployment in France owing to its socialist republic and with all these people coming over here, we could end up with a French-speaking Mayor?

Anecdotally, quite a lot of people are commenting on the fact that many of the French who choose to come to live in London do so because they prefer it here; they think that it is a more advantageous business environment and a better place to live and work. Therefore, perhaps they have imbibed and imbued themselves with some of the local colour and flexibility, rather than with the attitudes that my hon. Friend describes.

Electoral Register

8. What recent estimate he has made of the number of eligible voters not on the electoral register. (900662)

As we have heard, the Electoral Commission recently published an analysis, and I am pleased to tell the hon. Gentleman that it shows that parliamentary registers have over 400,000 more entries than a year ago. The last full assessment of the completeness and accuracy of electoral registers was published in July, and it showed that the decline in registration between 2000 and 2010 had stabilised since 2011. The next full assessment will be undertaken when the transition to individual electoral registration is complete.

I thank the Minister for that response, but the number of eligible voters who are missing from registers is a concern. I draw his attention to two specific groups: private rented tenants and the rising 18s. In my constituency, the rising 18s are down 50%. What action is he taking to try to address that issue?

As we heard earlier, almost £10 million has been spent on registration activities and drives since the start of this year, and we have made it a great deal more convenient and easier to register through individual electoral registration. We are looking at the report and recommendations produced by the Electoral Commission. In due course, when we respond to them, I am sure that we will have more to say.

What recent assessment has the Minister made of the number of ineligible electors on registers—namely, EU citizens who find themselves registered for parliamentary elections?

One of the benefits of individual electoral registration is that it has a built-in check for validity, which dramatically improves the quality of registers as a result. As more and more of the roll is completed using individual electoral registration, we expect it to have a beneficial effect in weeding out people who are incorrectly registered in the way that my hon. Friend describes.

10. Since March 2014, there has been a reduction in young people about to turn 18 registering to vote. Will the Minister not commit the Government to rolling out the Northern Ireland schools initiative, so that schools and colleges can work with local authorities to make sure that those people register to vote? (900664)

A number of interesting initiatives are under way to persuade and allow students to vote. Some interesting examples are going on in Sheffield. So there are a range of possibilities, many of which are very promising. We want to ensure that we have analysed them all properly, so that we can choose the best and most cost-effective.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for efficiency and reform, transparency, civil society, digital technology, cyber-security, constitutional matters and the delivery of the Government’s agenda.

I and many others are concerned about the Union. A convention or congress has been ruled out quite emphatically. With Scotland wanting more and more and Wales and Northern Ireland excluded from the process and, indeed, England threatened by it, too, what mechanism is the Minister’s office putting in place to properly preserve and plan the future of the Union?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s passionate support for the Union, which we on this side of the House wholeheartedly share. Like him, we seek a lasting settlement that strengthens the United Kingdom, and I look forward to further eloquent contributions from him to that debate and to working with him to make it happen.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on his plans to deliver efficiency savings across Whitehall? (900689)

As we try to bring the books back into balance and reach surplus, making the Government more efficient is crucial in ensuring that as much money as possible gets to front-line services where it is needed. We have a widespread efficiency and reform plan, which we are driving through as part of the spending review to ensure that every taxpayer pound is spent as wisely as possible.

May I welcome the new ministerial team to their places? The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is being a little sheepish and, if he does not mind me saying so, a bit disingenuous about the numbers on the electoral register. We all know that the last election was the high-water mark with people automatically put on the register, but with the Electoral Commission saying that nearly 2 million people will fall off that register, will he say today whether he will accept its recommendations on the early bringing forward of the IER scheme? Does he really want this Government to go down in history as the first to reduce the franchise in this country?

As I have already told the House, we will look at the Electoral Commission’s recommendations seriously and come back to the House when we have made our decision on them, but there is a clear distinction between those people who are on the electoral register who should not be on it because they are not resident in the place that they are registered for—that is what the cleaning is about—and what I take it is our joint endeavour to get all those people, estimated by the Electoral Commission at 7 million, who should be on the register but are not, on to the register. That is why we are spending money and helping local authorities to attract those people on to the register.

T6. A new cyber-security institute in Nelson in my constituency, sponsored by Training 2000, is due to be launched in the autumn. What support is the Cabinet Office offering to education providers to ensure that Britain is equipped with the cyber-security skills we need for the future? (900690)

My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important point. To defend Britain from cyber-attack, we need to ensure that we have the cyber-skills in the future. That involves not only university-level skills, which we are putting money into expanding, but cyber-apprenticeships and entry-level schemes to ensure that, at all levels and from all parts of our country, we can recruit people to work in that important defence of our nation.

It would assist us if the Minister looked towards and spoke into the microphone. That tends to assist amplification in these circumstances.

T2. The importance of students’ electoral registration was recognised by the Cabinet Office in allocating welcome if belated funds to the National Union of Students to get people on the register in the run-up to the general election. Will the Minister commit to providing similar funds to boost student electoral registration at the start of the new academic year to ensure that they are represented properly on the register on which the parliamentary boundary review will be based? (900686)

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious question about student registration. As he will know, we now have a system of individual registration, which people can do in about three minutes on an iPhone. We are going to make that even easier, and we will work with the NUS and others to try to encourage students to do exactly as he suggests.

T7. With the help of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), on St George’s day this year I launched a petition calling for English votes for English laws. I am therefore delighted to see a firm commitment by the Government to right this historic inequality once and for all. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on when we can expect the Government to introduce that important constitutional change? (900691)

I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. As she says, we are absolutely going to right this wrong, and there will be further details shortly.

T3. A report published today by Children’s Rights Alliance for England points to a dismal failure by the Government when considering the best interests of children and young people in their decision making. Bearing that in mind, does the Minister agree that giving 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote in the EU referendum would be a first, positive step towards greater inclusion of young people in the democratic process? (900687)

We have improved the life chances of millions of children by introducing 2 million apprenticeships in the previous Parliament, by having 2 million more jobs and by turning our country around. The consideration of whether voting should start at 16 or 18 is a balanced one. We think 18 is the right age, but, frankly, the best thing we can do for the future of the children of this country is improve and strengthen our economy.

Will the Minister for the Cabinet Office undertake to visit the Major Projects Leadership Academy in Oxford and see the excellent work being done to develop senior civil servants?

Not only will I undertake to visit the academy—I have heard very good stories about it—but I understand that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has visited it, and he has just told me that I had better go too, so I will get there pretty shortly.