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Cabinet Office

Volume 603: debated on Wednesday 9 December 2015

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Individual Electoral Registration

1. If he will make an assessment of the effectiveness of the transition to individual electoral registration. (902468)

7. If he will make an assessment of the effectiveness of the transition to individual electoral registration. (902474)

The Electoral Commission will publish its assessment of the first full registers under individual electoral registration next spring. In the meantime, I am delighted to inform the House that the transition to IER is now complete. Ghost entries of people who have died or moved house have been removed. We now have a register that is clean, more accurate and less vulnerable to fraud than ever before. This is a vital foundation stone as we move on to the next big challenge: finding people who are legally entitled to vote, but have never been on the register, such as expats, students and people in private rented accommodation, and persuading them to sign up.

I thank the Minister for his response. University towns and cities are some of the areas worst affected by the Government’s rushed changes to IER. Will the Government allow universities to block-register their students this year?

I think the hon. Lady and I may mean slightly different things by block registration, but there is common ground, in that some very useful and effective new work is being done in places such as Sheffield, which is dramatically improving student registration rates. With any luck, we can take its example and persuade others to do the same.

The Electoral Commission states that 51% of 16 to 17-year-olds are registered, compared with 95% of those over 65. The Government have opposed votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in the upcoming EU referendum, and they will not even ensure that young people have a voice. Why are they so indifferent to a whole generation?

We addressed that issue at some length yesterday when discussing the European Union Referendum Bill. This is the third or fourth time that the House has addressed that idea, and each time it has returned pretty solid majorities against it. The vote yesterday was because we did not think it sensible to change such a fundamental piece of the franchise for just one vote. That would leave us open to the charge of trying to sway the franchise for the EU referendum to favour one side or the other—something that I am sure no one would support.

May I encourage my hon. Friend to consider postal voting? Leaving aside what may or may not have happened at the recent by-election, is it the case that registering for a postal vote is far too easy these days, which renders the whole system open to serious abuse?

My hon. Friend is entirely right, and large numbers of people are concerned about that issue. I am happy to tell him that my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) is at this moment considering a report, and if my hon. Friend has any suggestions about what should be in it, he is welcome to make them.

I am glad the Minister noticed that there was a parliamentary by-election in Oldham last week. When he carefully studies the figures he will see that there are 1,814 fewer voters in Oldham West and Royton than there were at the general election. If those figures are extrapolated across the country, they show that more than 1 million fewer people are registered than were a year ago. That was predicted; it has happened intentionally. By design, this Minister is responsible for silencing the voices of more than 1 million voters in Britain. How does he feel about being the only Minister in British history to disfranchise 1 million people?

I see that the conspiracy theorists are out in force this morning. The entries that will have been crossed off the register as a result of the introduction of individual elector registration—a measure that was supported in principle by the Labour party—will be those for people who have died or moved house. Anybody who is a legitimate elector and who has a pulse will have been confirmed on the electoral register. If anybody is worried that they may not be registered, they can register online before May—it takes under three minutes, which is less than the time needed to boil an egg—and they will get their vote.

Government Digital Service (Welsh Language)

2. What steps the Government Digital Service is taking to ensure that Government Departments treat the Welsh and English languages equally on their websites when providing services in Wales. (902469)

Mae’r fonheddiges anrhydeddys yn gofyn cwestiwn pwysig.

The Government Digital Service is committed to ensuring that the needs of Welsh language speakers are recognised and met. For example, the introduction of now gives every Government organisation the ability to publish web content in Welsh. GDS has helped to produce exemplar Welsh language versions of the new digital services, such as the “register to vote” service, and it has put forward its digital design recommendations for Welsh language Government services.

Diolch yn fawr iawn am y rhagymadrodd—roedd o’n arbennig o dda ac yn gynsail pwysig i’r Ty yma.

I thank the Minister very much for his introduction in Welsh. However, considering that not a single departmental website states on its homepage that services are available in Welsh, people do not know that they can use Welsh. When will the digital service stop preventing Government Departments from fulfilling their legal duty to Welsh speakers?

I acknowledge that the hon. Lady’s Welsh is more fluent than mine, and I look forward to her giving me a lesson or two at a future date. The Government are doing a huge amount to ensure support for Welsh digital services in Departments, and importantly, that is about quality, not quantity. She will know that every page of—the predecessor to—was translated into Welsh. That ran to nearly 4,000 pages, but 95% of them were seen by fewer than 10 people per month, and half received no visits whatsoever. For we are starting with user need, and working with Departments to ensure the best service for the user.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Mr Llywydd. May I congratulate the Minister on the positive sentiments he is echoing, both literally and figuratively, with regard to the Welsh language? May I remind him that as we are the party that set up Sianel Pedwar Cymru and passed the Welsh Language Act 1993, there is absolutely no doubt about our commitment to the language of heaven?

Tapadh leibh, Mgr Speaker, airson an cothrom seo a thoirt dhomh. May I ask that the respect being shown to Welsh also be shown to Scottish Gaelic?

It is always a pleasure to answer the hon. Gentleman. He will be pleased to know that the Cabinet Office does the same for the whole UK.

Were the Minister to go to the Llyn peninsula and do a six-week Ùlpan course, he would learn fluent Welsh, I can tell him. Having served in 1993 on the Welsh Language Bill, of which our party can be very proud, I know how important it is that it be clearly laid out whether things are in English or Welsh. Sometimes they are in Welsh and then in English, and sometimes in English and then in Welsh. May we have a systematic approach across Government?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are doing a lot from the centre to encourage Departments to support better the needs of Welsh language speakers. Earlier this year, together with the Wales Office, we conducted user research into their needs, and as a result we are helping Departments to identify a set of Welsh language end-to-end user journeys, such as online self-assessment, that could be better supported by

Digital Technology

3. What plans he has to improve co-operation between Government Departments on the use of digital technology. (902470)

9. What plans he has to improve co-operation between Government Departments on the use of digital technology. (902476)

The UK has made great strides in digital government, but there is much more to do if we are to remain world beating. We set aside a total of almost £2 billion in the spending review for work to be led by the Government Digital Service to make this happen.

I agree that Departments must work together to enable people to use digital technology safely and efficiently, but will the Minister also give an example of how Government are working together to meet increased demand for cyber-security, including by engaging with citizens and businesses?

Alongside digital transformation, it is vital that we have secure online activity, and our almost doubling of the budget for cyber-security over the Parliament will be a vital part of protecting not only Government services but the whole of the UK to ensure that people are safe online.

The social value portal is an innovative way to provide advice and insight for communities, public bodies and business about the best way to achieve social value. Will the Minister outline how his Department is encouraging other Departments to take advantage of digital initiatives, such as the social value portal, to ensure greater implementation of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012?

Digital transformation can not only improve government and the economy but strengthen civil society, and the social value portal is a good example of working across Government to deliver some of the changes in the Public Services (Social Value) Act. There are eight funded projects, and I look forward to working with my hon. Friend and others to make them happen.

Many of us on the Opposition Benches applauded the Cabinet Office’s innovative work in the last Government, but will the Minister comment on reports that the lack of resources and leadership in the Cabinet Office now means we are going backwards, rather than forwards, on digital innovation?

The hon. Gentleman obviously missed the autumn statement, in which we doubled the funding for the Cabinet Office’s world-beating Government Digital Service. We are providing £450 million over the Parliament to ensure not only digital transformation within Departments but strong leadership from the centre.

Given the recent media reports of cyber-security breaches in the private sector right across the United Kingdom, what steps are being taken ensure there will be no repeat of such breaches, particularly on data protection issues, in relation to Government Departments?

Our country, both in government and the private sector, is under constant cyber-attack. We need to make sure we step up our game to respond to that. We are bringing in a national cyber centre, a single place of expertise under the GCHQ umbrella, which will clearly be able to co-ordinate and talk to wider society and business. This will ensure that the expertise is all in one place and properly funded to take this fight on.

Electoral Register

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of methods used to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the electoral register. (902471)

The Electoral Commission will publish its assessment of the 2015 annual canvass in spring next year. In the meantime, there is a growing acceptance that while the annual canvass is an essential tool in maintaining complete and accurate registers, the processes and techniques we use to undertake it look increasingly out of date. They were developed from an analogue, not digital, world. As I said in my speech to the Policy Exchange in October, we will look to give electoral registration officers more discretion to adapt their canvass activities in order to make the canvass more efficient and effective in future.

Only 6.4% of homeowners are not on the electoral register, yet for those living in rented accommodation this figure is a massive 36.7%. The Government have made, and are making, it harder for generation rent to get on the property ladder, or obtain a secure tenancy. Is that why the Government do not want to hear the voices of private renters in our democracy?

We absolutely do want to hear everybody’s voice in our democracy. One of the things we are aiming to do with the new approach, as I said in the speech I mentioned in my initial response, is look at other ways to make better contact with groups that are under-represented, and to make sure more of them use their voice and their democratic right.

On the topic of using other ways to contact people to register to vote, has the Minister considered using credit reference agencies as a way to boost electoral registration?

That is an intriguing and, to me, new idea. I would be very interested to hear anything more the hon. Gentleman has to suggest on that.

Autumn Statement (Community and Voluntary Sector)

5. What assessment he has made of the effect of changes announced in the spending review and autumn statement 2015 on local services provided by the community and voluntary sector. (902472)

I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Lady that the autumn statement significantly increased the funding for the voluntary and social sector in the Cabinet Office. That has enabled us to expand the National Citizen Service and our efforts on social impact bonds. I am delighted to see that in the hon. Lady’s constituency, Kirklees Council has issued a very good compact with the voluntary and community sector, showing how the council can collaborate with them. I very much hope that the sector can take advantage of the extra funds now available.

As the Minister will be aware, our country is in the grip of a growing social care crisis, with significant funding shortfalls projected by 2020. There are huge pressures on families, carers and the NHS in my constituency and nationwide. Will he say what specific plans he has to support those charities that are currently plugging the gap in terms of care, but are under enormous strain?

The charity sector as a whole has an income of about £40 billion a year, which is broadly stable. I have been looking at the council accounts for the hon. Lady’s area. It turns out that Kirklees Council has £200 million in useable and unused reserves. The problems to which she refers are not real ones.

Tackling complex needs effectively has been something of a holy grail out of the reach of previous Governments, so I welcome the commitment in the autumn statement to £105 million in social impact bonds to tackle complex needs and perhaps get us closer to that holy grail.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend, who has been a passionate advocate, as I and others have been, of social impact bonds. This is a huge change in the way our country is organised. We can get to the point where we are actually paying for outcomes, not inputs. We lever up the amount the Government put in on behalf of the taxpayer, with huge contributions from the private sector and from those double bottom line investors. We can see a huge transformation in public services.

Last week, the Minister said that the Government were committed to a flourishing civil society, but in the recent spending review it was exposed that the Office for Civil Society is to be hollowed out to just a handful of civil servants, and is now described by the sector as just a “name on a door.” Does the Minister agree that this is a clear admission that the big society agenda is now dead, was never anything but a cover for cuts to public services, has served its purpose, and is now to be wound down?

I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not take in what I said in my earlier answer. The funding for the voluntary and community sector increased significantly in the autumn statement. I pay tribute to officials in the Office for Civil Society, which answers to my hon. Friend the Minister for Civil Society. In my experience, those officials are among the finest in Whitehall. They will continue their work, and with that increased budget, they will be able to do more, not less.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for increasing the efficiency of government and for delivering the Government’s agenda. I am happy to say that, with the help of the fine civil servants to whom I just referred, we are doing just that.

Will the Minister outline the steps that the Government are taking to promote social enterprise, which is one of the fastest growing sectors in the economy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are totally committed to the social enterprise sector. That is partly about leading by example, which is why, in common with many of my hon. Friends, I serve in my village community shop—we all undertake these things. More than that, however, it is about creating the framework within which social enterprise can flourish. That comes back to the point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) that social impact bonds offer a whole new future for the social enterprise sector.

Many volunteers in the emergency services, particularly the fire and rescue services, were again heroically leading the rescue efforts in the flooded north-west region this week. The service has been at the receiving end of some savage cuts on the frontline, resulting in untold pressures. In Cumbria alone, 87 jobs have been lost. Is it not time that as part of a modern civil contingency and emergency national strategic plan, the Government agreed that flood rescue should be made a fully resourced statutory duty of the fire and rescue service? Can he say whether this issue of national importance was discussed at the Cobra meetings last week?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, and look forward to many exchanges with him on this and other matters. The fact of the matter is that we not only protected the budget for the police in the recent statement, but the fire service has done a fantastic job of reducing the amount of damaging fires over the last Parliament, improving its efficiency while all the time delivering its vital work to keep people safe.

T2. In the last year, there were 922 million visits to websites. Is this in line with the Minister’s expectations, and how can the service be further improved? (902499) is one of the first parts of the work that we have done to ensure that government is digitally enabled, making citizens’ lives easier by making it easier for them to interact with government. The number of hits is far higher than anybody expected, which is a tribute to the work of the people who put it together. [Interruption.]

T6. According to a survey this month by Tungsten Network, 12% of the UK’s 5.2 million small and medium-sized enterprises still have to wait more than 90 days to get paid by suppliers. Will the Minister update us on his Government’s progress on meeting targets on prompt payments to suppliers? (902503)

We changed the rules last year to ensure that when the Government buy from the private sector, payments must be made within 30 days—and that cascades all the way down the supply chain. I can also report that we have hit our target for a quarter of all Government procurement to go to small businesses, and we now want to increase that target from a quarter to a third.

T3. What plans does the Minister have to ensure that groups who are under-represented on the electoral roll register to vote? (902500)

We are fully committed to bringing more under-represented groups into electoral participation. That is why we are working with Operation Black Vote and other such groups to bring people in from the black and minority ethnic communities. I also draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the very interesting experiment being tried at Sheffield University to nudge the student population to sign up for an automatic registration system. We are looking very carefully at that.

T7. If it does indeed transpire that there are fewer people on the new electoral register after the introduction of independent electoral registration, will the Government consider that to be a success or a failure? (902504)

I think what the hon. Gentleman is missing is the fact that, as a result of the measures that have been taken, people who were not at the addresses at which they had previously been registered will be eliminated. The creation of an accurate register is an aim of democracy, not a defect of democracy.

My hon. Friend has asked a very important question. If the civil service is to work to support the whole country, it needs to reflect the whole country, so we are taking steps across the board to increase social mobility as well as other kinds of diversity. One of the most exciting aspects of that is the huge apprenticeship scheme that now allows and encourages people from all backgrounds to pursue successful careers in the civil service.