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Cabinet Office

Volume 605: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2016

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Political Engagement: Young People

7. What plans the Government have to encourage more young people to engage with the political process. (903290)

The Government’s new online electoral registration system has made it easier and quicker for everyone, especially young people, to register to vote. The process now takes less time than boiling an egg. We are also working with groups such as Bite The Ballot on the national voter registration drive, which is an excellent initiative to persuade more people to register to vote that runs for the whole of next week, in which I encourage everyone to get involved. The British Youth Council’s Make Your Mark ballot led to nearly 1 million young people voting throughout the UK and informed the Youth Parliament’s debates in this Chamber.

I welcome the Minister’s support for next week’s national voter registration drive. Last year’s drive helped nearly 500,000 young electors to register to vote. Would he support repeating last year’s projection of an image of a ballot box on to the Elizabeth Tower? I understand that you, Mr Speaker, are a fan of that, as am I, so we need to persuade Westminster City Council to allow that.

My hon. Friend deserves top marks for creative marketing ideas, but after the use of the Elizabeth Tower for unauthorised projections, including of Australian cricketers and various bits of Gail Porter, I am told that the subject excites strong passions in Westminster council and, quite possibly, the House authorities, so I should probably urge her to discuss her proposals carefully with them.

When I visited Harris school in my constituency recently to talk to its pupils about the role of an MP, I met bright youngsters who wanted to learn more about how Parliament works. Does the Minister agree that getting more public figures to talk and answer questions in schools would be a great way of engaging young people with the political process?

I do. My hon. Friend has set a great example and shown that public figures—even MPs—can stimulate interest and engagement in democracy.

What further Government or private sector databases are the Minister’s Department thinking of using to boost registration among young people?

The hon. Gentleman raised this point with me a little while ago and asked about credit reference agencies, among others. We might be able to use other sources of data, but some base a lot of their information on the electoral roll itself, so we would need to ensure that the process did not become circular. There may be things that other people can add, however, and all sources of data offer potential ways to reduce the cost, and improve the quality and speed, of our registration efforts.

During the 2014 Scottish independence referendum, a huge number of young people became politically active and engaged in Scotland, but the current generation of 16 and 17-year-olds will not have the opportunity to vote in the EU referendum, although they will have to live with its consequences for much longer than most people in the Chamber. Why do the Government not accept that the best way to encourage young people to vote is actually to give them the vote?

Since the general election, we have debated this particular question four or five times—perhaps more—and collectively decided against it, with healthy majorities, on every single occasion. We can go over this again, and I am happy to have further debates with the hon. Lady as needed, but the House has made its collective decision plain.

The Labour party’s initial analysis shows big drops in registered voters in many university towns. The figure for Canterbury is down 13%, while those for Cambridge and Dundee West are both down 11% on last year. Those universities that have enabled students to register to vote when they enrol have all seen high levels of student registration. Will the Government issue guidance to all vice-chancellors immediately to suggest that they adopt such a system in September?

It is not quite that simple, but I sympathise with the hon. Lady, in that several new approaches that are being trialled in universities throughout the country are extremely promising. We want to pursue those, so perhaps the hon. Lady and I can discuss that further at our meeting later today.

Social Mobility

Social mobility is mission critical to our plan to ensure that the civil service is fully representative of the nation that it serves and benefits from talent in every part of Britain.

I welcome that answer. May I ask the Minister to give the House an update on research by the Bridge Group on social mobility in the fast stream?

We asked the Bridge Group to look into social mobility in the fast stream and the people who are joining the civil service, and it will report very soon. I can tell my hon. Friend the number of new apprenticeships in the civil service: 884 since we introduced the scheme in 2013—another part of broadening access to the civil service.

Many young people from working-class estates across the United Kingdom lack the capacity and training skills to join the civil service. What are the Government doing to ensure that they have the greater skills required to get on the ladder into the civil service?

Great training is available for people once they are in, but I want to broaden the number of people from different backgrounds coming into the civil service right at the start, which means people from all over the United Kingdom: from all parts, from all groups, from all ethnic backgrounds, men and women, to make sure that we make the very best use of the talent that is available.

I see that the Minister’s right hon. Friend the Chancellor has his own mission critical approach to social mobility. His closest adviser got a 42% pay rise while most public servants got a pay freeze; he has five times the usual number of special advisers while 80,000 jobs have been cut in the civil service; and this week it was revealed by The Sunday Times that the permanent secretary in his Department has used a loophole to avoid paying tax on his pension pot. Is it the Minister’s view that that is an appropriate leadership approach in the civil service, and is it not true that when it comes to tax, the Chancellor’s friends in Google get special treatment, and when it comes to social mobility in the civil service it helps to be a friend of the Chancellor?

It is disappointing that we do not have a cross-party approach to improving access to the civil service—who comes into it—to make sure that we have the very best people working for the common aim of delivering the Government’s agenda to improve the lives of citizens whom we serve, because that is the job that we focus on.

National Citizen Service

The National Citizen Service is helping to build a more responsible, cohesive and engaged society. The latest annual figures show a 46% increase in participation, making it the fastest growing youth programme for a century. Every £1 spent on NCS generates nearly £4 of social benefits—something that everyone in the House and the country should be proud of.

What success has the National Citizen Service had in helping to counter violent and non-violent extremism as part of the Government’s wider counter-extremism strategy?

My hon. Friend will be aware that NCS was not specifically designed to tackle extremism in our communities. However, the programme plays a significant role in promoting tolerance by breaking down barriers between communities. NCS helps young people to learn about other cultures and creates positive bonds between people from different backgrounds. In 2014, 27% of NCS participants were from non-white backgrounds compared with 19% of the general population.

Through my involvement with NCS in Cornwall I have seen first-hand the truly life-changing experience that the programme provides. Will the Minister join me in thanking and congratulating all those people across the country who deliver the programme successfully, and does he agree that NCS is a clear example that this Government are truly a one nation Government?

My hon. Friend is a strong advocate of NCS in Cornwall, where 580 young people have recently benefited from a life-changing experience on the programme. A one nation Government helps everyone to reach their full potential. That principle is at the heart of NCS. We support everyone who participates regardless of background, and provide bursaries to those who need financial support. NCS achieves a diverse mix of young people, working together to develop new skills and giving back to their community.

The Minister will be aware that many Labour Members are great supporters of the programme, but can we be sure that the content has real, hard substance, such as democratic values and the equality of women in British life? Are those emphasised enough to young people on the programme?

Yes, the hon. Gentleman can be assured of that. According to the figures, 72% of participants felt more confident about getting a job after they had taken part in NCS. A year on, people are still benefiting from taking part in the NCS programme, according to the research.

11. In Cleethorpes and north-east Lincolnshire the NCS programme has been doing a lot of work in the local St Andrew’s hospice, which has had a great impact on young people. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Lee Stephens, Graham Rodger and their team in north-east Lincolnshire, who do tremendous work? (903295)

Of course I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the people in his constituency and across the country who take part in NCS. To date NCS participants have volunteered an estimated total of 8 million hours in their local communities, developing vital skills in the process. The programme benefits the participants and the local community.

Freedom of Information Act

6. What plans he has to bring forward legislative proposals to amend the Freedom of Information Act 2000. (903289)

The Government are committed to transparency and freedom of information. The independent commission on freedom of information was established to review the working of the Act and we will consider the report when it is received.

There are any number of instances that we can all point to where the publication of information that the authorities would rather have kept hidden has led to significant public benefits. The expenses affair in this place was one example. I do not know of a single case where the release of information through the Freedom of Information Act has caused any significant public damage. Does the Minister agree that any change to the Act should be designed to make it easier, rather than harder, for citizens to find out what the Government are doing?

The hon. Gentleman is a softly spoken fellow but I want to hear him very fully—louder in future.

I am happy to hear more from the hon. Gentleman because I am a great supporter of freedom of information and the Act, and of transparency. We have to make sure that its workings are accurate and we look forward to listening and seeing what the commission comes up with when it reports in due course.

Is it not the case that introducing fees for FOI requests would reduce opportunities for exposing injustice and bad practice? Will the Minister take this opportunity to rule out introducing any such fees?

The hon. Gentleman tempts me, but I shall wait until the commission reports. We will respond in due course.

May I inform my right hon. Friend that the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee will be scrutinising those proposals very carefully indeed? We want to make sure that the judges are interpreting the Freedom of Information Act as Parliament truly intended, but I can tell him that there is no going back on freedom of information.

Indeed. The Freedom of Information Act has brought to light many things that it is in the public interest to have in the public domain. I have no doubt that my hon. Friend’s Committee will scrutinise the proposals very carefully, not least to ensure that the will of Parliament is the law of the land. I look forward to working with him on that.

I did not have to use the Freedom of Information Act because I went on to the gov.uk website to find out that the excellent Mark Price, managing director of Waitrose, is now a non-executive director of the board of the Cabinet Office. May I say what a wise choice that is? What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that similar people are appointed to other Government Departments?

Crikey! Where to start? Mark Price is, indeed, an incredibly impressive businessman and I look forward to working with him on the Cabinet Office board. That information was published on our award-winning gov.uk website, which has had billions of hits because there is so much good information to be found there.

Is the Minister aware that despite all his fine words, there are many, including me, who believe that the purpose of the review is to undermine the Freedom of Information Act introduced by a Labour Government? So many of the abuses that have been revealed have become known to the public only as a result of the Act. The Government should be defending freedom of information, not trying to undermine it.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening, but I said that much information is in the public domain, and it is in the public interest that it is public, thanks to the Freedom of Information Act. That is my position. I look forward to hearing what the commission has to say about the operational working of the Act to ensure that it is working in the way Parliament intended.

It is confusing to hear the Minister claim to be such a fan of transparency, given that the Cabinet Office has set up a commission designed to weaken FOI—an ex-coalition Minister has described that as a “rigged jury”—botched the release of Cabinet papers, watered down consultation rules, and is now being investigated by the Information Commissioner for withholding thousands of items of spending data. If sunlight really is the best disinfectant, why has the Minister now abolished every single senior civil service post with responsibility for transparency?

As a matter of fact, we are the most transparent Government ever. What is more, the hon. Lady will be delighted to know that only this morning the Cabinet Office published further spending information to ensure that we keep that mantle.

Major Projects Authority

The Major Projects Authority—now the Infrastructure and Projects Authority—was set up in 2011 to establish the Government’s major projects portfolio and ensure high-quality project assurance and support. Since 2012 it has produced an annual report summarising progress and delivery of major Government projects.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office talks about the Government being the most open ever. Will the Minister without Portfolio sanction the Infrastructure and Projects Authority to release more information about which projects are green, amber or red so that taxpayers know what is going on?

The hon. Lady will know, because the Public Accounts Committee, which she chairs, recently questioned the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, that we do publish the information she mentioned. She should be excited by the new Infrastructure and Projects Authority, because it brings together the experience of the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, it saves taxpayers’ money, in the light of spending review priorities, and it brings under one roof support for major projects such as Crossrail and the Thames tideway tunnel, as well as major transformational projects such as universal credit.

Does the Minister think that it is a matter of regret that one can still become a permanent secretary without being directly associated with a major project?

As I have said, the Infrastructure and Projects Authority will make a huge difference, transform the way infrastructure projects are done in our country and save taxpayers’ money, and it will do a number of other things as well.

Transparency Agenda

This morning we published further spending transparency data, which the Cabinet Office is committed to do as part of our agenda to be the most transparent Government ever.

I thank the Minister of transparency for that response, but does he not agree that it is very difficult for him to lead by example on the transparency agenda when his own Department is being investigated by the Information Commissioner for refusing to publish routine spending data?

It sounds like the hon. Lady wrote her supplementary question before she got the previous answer, because we published that information this morning. What is more, we are publishing Cabinet minutes at twice the pace that we ever saw under the previous Labour Government.

Chilcot Inquiry

13. What recent discussions he has had with Sir John Chilcot on the final publication date of the Iraq inquiry. (903297)

With no Chilcot report, no lessons learnt and seemingly none the wiser, will the Minister agree that the constant delays are unacceptable and are an insult both to those involved in the conflict and to those who lost loved ones?

We have had this debate many times. The Chilcot inquiry is rightly independent, so it would not be right for me to comment on the timings, but a timetable has now been published, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for efficiency in reforming Government and helping the Prime Minister to deliver the Government’s agenda. This Government have made huge strides in transforming online services for the citizen. I am glad to tell the House that we are now embarking on an ambitious programme to change the culture of public services by using online complaints to deal with problems and sort them out quicker.

Will my right hon. Friend provide more information on the Government’s plans for digital government?

I am very happy to do that. I do not know whether my hon. Friend has recently had the opportunity to use the gov.uk services, but the universal impression is that for the first time in our country’s history one can now quickly get hold of what one needs to online. The service is also hugely responsive and takes account of feedback—something from which previous Governments were not able to benefit.

T3. The Minister for transparency does talk some utter guff sometimes. How can he be the advocate-in-chief for transparency when his Department has the worst record in answering freedom of information requests? (903261)

We answer freedom of information requests all the time. What is more, we are not only publishing more information but making sure that it is published in a usable way so that people can benefit from it right across this country.

T2. Does the Minister agree that taking a public appointment is an excellent way for people across the country to play their part in shaping our society, and that it is important that people from different backgrounds have the opportunity to do so? (903260)

Right across the public sector, thousands of public appointments are made each year. It is vital that people from all backgrounds, from all ethnicities, and both men and women, from all parts of our country, put their names forward so that they can help in our great mission of improving the lives of the citizens of the UK.

T4. In the past year, one in seven peers did not speak at all in the other place, despite many of them claiming allowances. If the Government are so keen to reduce the cost of politics, why are they not doing anything about this? (903262)

The hon. Gentleman needs to recognise the invaluable role that the House of Lords still plays in vetting what we do in this House, reflecting on it, and sometimes forcing us to reconsider it. We want to maintain that valuable relationship.

T6. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Robert Holdcroft, who owns the McDonald’s in Redditch, for hosting “snack and chat” events in his restaurant that allow sixth formers to question their Member of Parliament and increase their interest in politics? Perhaps he might like to join me at one of these events. (903264)

I always love going to Redditch, and even more so if I can go with my hon. Friend. I pass on my congratulations to Mr Holdcroft and all the restaurants that hold “snack and chat” events. As for the idea of a McSurgery in a McDonald’s, I’m lovin’ it.

T5. Many people in my constituency have filled out one form for the whole household to register to vote, as happened under the old system. Their registrations are being processed, but will they be counted in the figures? (903263)

The hon. Lady will know that anybody who is not on the register as a result of the individual electoral registration exercise will have been approached on nine separate occasions to try to get them to register individually. Everybody now has the chance to register individually under IER on the rolling register in time for the elections.

T8. Will the Minister tell the House what plans the Government have to further reduce their property portfolio? (903266)

We have been making significant savings in Government property, and the estate is already 20% smaller than it was in 2010. We have saved over £750 million in running costs, but there is much more to do. We have far more work to do to make sure that we are as efficient as possible in the use of property, and I look forward to leading that work.

T10. Does the Minister agree that the Cabinet Office could be far more effective in running the Government if it did not have in another Department a Chancellor who goes out and agrees pig-in-a-poke deals with Google, which everybody knows does not pay its fair share of tax, at a time when millions are filling in their tax returns?

(903268)

The tax to which the hon. Gentleman refers was of course due from activities under a Labour Government. It was never paid under a Labour Government, but it has been delivered under this Conservative Government.

T9. Again this year, many tens of thousands of young people will benefit from the National Citizen Service programme. However, there are still too many young people who have never been introduced to the programme or had the opportunity to “Say yes” to NCS. Will my right hon. Friend work with colleagues from across the House to make sure that every young person has the opportunity to understand this project and can sign up for this summer’s programmes? (903267)

As my hon. Friend puts it, NCS is a fantastic opportunity for young people. It massively expanded during the last Parliament, and we have ambitious plans to make sure that every young person who wants to do so can benefit from NCS, which does so much to inspire and enrich people’s lives.

T7. New research has uncovered that there has been a greater fall in UK civil service employment in Scotland than in any other UK nation. Between 2011 and 2015, 5,000 civil servants working for UK Departments in Scotland lost their jobs. Will the Minister tell me and my constituents whether that is his definition of “better together”? (903265)

Of course we have had to make savings in the number of civil servants as we have reduced the deficit, but there are far more UK civil servants working in Scotland than civil servants working for the Scottish Government. It just shows that, for Scotland as well as for the rest of this United Kingdom, we are that much better together.

In supporting citizenship and volunteering, what lessons can be learned from the excellent Team Rubicon UK, led by my constituent General Sir Nick Parker? It involves recruiting veterans and ex-servicemen to do great work, notably during the recent flooding.

I want to pay tribute to Team Rubicon and all those who work with it. The role that veterans can play in shaping the future of young people and showing what it is to serve their nation is invaluable, and it is a lesson from which all of us can learn.

The Cabinet Office is responsible for the guidelines on Government proposals. As the Joint Committee on Human Rights discovered when we went to Scotland earlier this month, there is a strong feeling about the consultation on the Human Rights Act 1998. Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that the voice of people in Scotland is heard, and that they will not be gagged by the fact that the consultation will be issued during purdah following the dissolution of the Scottish Parliament? Will he give such a guarantee?

As the right hon. and learned Lady will know, the consultation principles, which we have recently promulgated—I spoke to the Joint Committee about them recently—have the effect that every Department should make sure that all consultations are proportionate, and that we make due allowance for any time during which it would be difficult for people to respond so that we get a full and adequate consultation on every occasion.