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Cabinet Office

Volume 608: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2016

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Democratic Participation

Some elements of participation, such as polling day turnout, lie far beyond the powers of mere Government and depend on the importance of the poll and the brilliance or otherwise of the campaigns. However, Governments can help things such as voter registration, where we are about to begin canvassing pilots to make the registration process quicker, cheaper, and more digital. We are also working with groups such as the British Youth Council, Operation Black Vote and Universities UK to encourage under-registered groups to sign up, and partnering with our embassies abroad and the Electoral Commission to run registration drives in the run-up to the polls on 5 May and 23 June.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer. Nevertheless, in the week before the Scottish Parliament elections and the elections to the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, this Government have overseen the disenfranchisement of over 770,000 people by the introduction of self-assessment in terms of the registration process. How can this Government hold their head up and say that they are increasing participation?

The registers are being reduced by the entries of people who have moved house or who have died and are not therefore likely to turn up and vote. There is, however, a parallel problem of the missing millions of people who have never been on the register and need to be found. We cannot cross them off because they are not on it, but we all collectively, on a cross-party basis, need to get out there and sign these people up. If the hon. Gentleman wants to join in a cross-party deputation to do so, I would be only too delighted to help.

Does my hon. Friend agree that equally important as ensuring that those who are entitled to vote are able to vote is making sure that genuine candidates are not disenfranchised by people who get on to the electoral register who ought not to be on there because they are there through fraud?

Absolutely. It is crucial that we have a register that is both complete and accurate. I therefore look forward with great anticipation to the report on electoral fraud by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), where I am sure he will cover this, among other things.

What specific work are the Government doing with students and young people to ensure that they are registered to vote?

We are taking a number of different approaches. First, we are working with Universities UK and the Association of Colleges. A great deal of work is being done in universities themselves. We are also examining very closely the work that is being done in places such as Sheffield University to sign up students when they first arrive and enrol. We are doing a great deal, but there is probably more as well.

I congratulate the Government on driving up democratic participation in the EU referendum by publishing their leaflet, which I understand is up for the Pulitzer prize for the best work of fiction. Does the Minister agree that that is driving more people to take part in the EU referendum because they are so cross and want to leave?

I am glad that my hon. Friend enjoyed the read. I point out to him that some 85% of the population say that they want to hear more about the issues from the Government. If that serves to drive up participation among either remainers or leavers, then I am sure that both he and I will be pleased.

There is much concern about the Government’s new proposals for public appointments in that they might decrease social mobility. Sir David Normington has gone so far as to say:

“Grimstone’s proposals would enable ministers to set their own rules; override those rules whenever they want; appoint their own selection panels; get preferential treatment for favoured candidates; ignore the panel’s advice if they don’t like it; and appoint someone considered by the panel as not up to the job.”

Would the Minister like to answer that?

Before the Minister does so, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the appointment process in the context of the drive to increase democratic participation.

Indeed, Mr Speaker—yes. Social mobility in public appointments is very important for democratic participation.

I am not sure how I link any kind of answer to democratic participation, but I none the less point out that we adhere consistently to the Nolan principles in everything that we do in this area.

I appreciate the Minister’s answer to my creative question. I do not believe everything that I read in the papers, but this week it was revealed that the Culture Secretary had recommended five candidates for the position of trustee at the National Portrait Gallery. Three were Tory donors and one was a former Tory Minister. Is that a way of improving democratic participation for Tory cronies?

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is trying to raise a serious point, but this is an example of the principle of if you are in a hole, you should stop digging.

National Citizen Service

2. What plans the Government have to increase the number of young people participating in the National Citizen Service. (904713)

We have ambitious plans to make NCS a rite of passage for young people. We have committed more than £1 billion to grow the programme to reach the majority of 16-year-olds by 2021 and we would like NCS to benefit every young person, regardless of where they live in the United Kingdom. It is therefore extremely disappointing that there is currently no NCS programme in Scotland or Wales, despite the generous funding made available through the autumn spending review.

Last summer, I was invited to a highly successful lunch event for veterans and others organised by a group of young people through the NCS scheme. This year, those on that scheme are running a social action project, which involves creating a sensory garden for young adults with learning difficulties. Does the Minister agree that the skills learnt through the programme—confidence building and teamwork—are making a real difference to young people in getting them into work and closing our skills gap?

Indeed. It is absolutely true that NCS is creating a generation of more responsible and engaged young people. The skills that NCS participants in Taunton are developing are echoed widely around England and Northern Ireland. Indeed, 90% of participants say that NCS helps them develop key skills for the future. UCAS now recognises NCS, and taking part is becoming a sought-after addition to any young person’s CV.

The Minister will know that I am a great supporter of NCS, but is it not underfunded? At the moment, we must be honest and admit that it reaches mostly into more affluent communities and not those with kids from poorer backgrounds. That is the truth and the Minister should do something about it.

Two hundred thousand young people have been through the NCS programme so far and we are aiming to increase that number significantly by 2020. We have made £1 billion available to do that. We are doing extremely well on diversity: 21% of NCS participants are eligible for free school meals compared with the national average of 8%, and 27% of participants are from non-white backgrounds, compared with 19% throughout the country. We are therefore doing better than the national average.

Order. The Government should have grouped this question with Question 4. For some reason, they did not do so, but I will take that question now.

4. I am very grateful. The Minister is right that NCS is proving invaluable for young people across the country. In Dorset, there was recently a successful scheme called “From yard to garden” about replanting trees. I would be grateful if the Minister gave advice and guidance to Members of all parties about how they can get more involved in that excellent programme. (904717)

I know that my hon. Friend is doing all he can to support the NCS in his constituency. Every Member can help by visiting a local NCS programme to raise awareness and ensuring that local schools and colleges encourage students to participate. The Secretary of State for Education and I will shortly write to all Members to highlight how everyone can make a contribution to NCS.

Last summer, I visited an NCS scheme in Dukinfield in my constituency and I was hugely impressed by the work with young people, but many of those young people raised with me the wider cuts to youth services. Has the Minister conducted an impact assessment on how those cuts have affected the aims, ambitions and objectives of the NCS programme?

That question gives me the opportunity to say how disappointed I am that local authorities choose to make cuts in their service provision. We are investing more than £1 billion in NCS in this Parliament and the overwhelming majority of that funding will flow through delivery organisations, most of which are public or VCSE—voluntary, community and social enterprise—organisations. Beyond that, we are also investing more widely in the youth sector through programmes such as Step Up To Serve and the British Youth Council, and supporting local authorities to reshape their youth provision.

10. The Minister gave a statistic in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), but what steps is he taking to encourage NCS participation by young people from a black and minority ethnic background? (904723)

I thank my hon. Friend for asking about the participation targets. It is really important that every young person—every 16-year-old—gets the opportunity to take part in NCS, because the programme not only creates a more cohesive society and adds to social mobility and social engagement, but delivers value for money. The statistics that I cited earlier show that it is a programme of which we, the Government and the whole country can be very proud.

Government Grant Agreements

3. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of an anti-lobbying clause in Government grant agreements on the ability of charities to scrutinise Government policy. (904716)

6. What assessment he has made of the compatibility of the proposed anti-lobbying clause in Government funding agreements with the terms of the Government’s compact with civil society organisations relating to campaigning. (904719)

As set out earlier this month, we are continuing to work on this issue with charities, universities and others. The principle is clear: taxpayers’ money should not be wasted on Government lobbying Government.

Will the Minister not admit that this policy is a mess? The Government have been forced into a U-turn by research scientists, so the clause will not apply to them. Will he undertake urgently to review the operation of the entire clause and, at the very least, commit to an ongoing review so that we can be sure that the freedom of speech of charities and other organisations is not undermined?

As we have said, we are reviewing representations and we will take a decision on the form of the clause. We are pausing on implementation, but we are committed to ensuring that taxpayers’ money is used for the good causes for which it is intended and not wasted on Government lobbying Government.

Six years after the Government promised to crack down on lobbyists, the big corporate lobbyists are free to lobby, in secret and anonymously, but the worthy charities are having their lives made a misery by new bureaucracy. Why do the Government consistently dabble in the shallows, worrying the minnows, while the big, fat salmon swim by unhindered?

I am an enormous supporter of the work of charities, but I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman seems to be a supporter of lobbyists using money only when it comes from taxpayers. I think that taxpayers’ money should be put to better use.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when our constituents give money to charity, they expect it to be used directly to help those disadvantaged people whom the charity claims to help, and that if they wanted it to be used for political lobbying, they would have made a donation to a political party?

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when people donate money, they want that money to be spent on the services provided by the charity, and that most people in this country would be shocked at the amount of money spent on administration and lobbying?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, which is that charities play an enormous role in alleviating suffering, improving good causes and strengthening our communities. Let us make sure that when money is donated to a charity—as it is by many of us, possibly everyone, in this House and many people around the country—it is spent on the good causes for which it is intended.

The Government have succeeded in uniting the entire British voluntary sector against them, including household names such as the girl guides, Mencap and Oxfam. Indeed, their actions in trying to suppress debate and discussion are reminiscent of a totalitarian political culture. If voluntary organisations come across systemic child abuse or practices such as female genital mutilation, are you really saying that they should remain silent and not seek to influence Government, when a change in the law could outlaw such practices?

And nor are we. It is an absurd suggestion. The principle that taxpayers’ money should not be used to lobby Government is perfectly reasonable and one that most people support.

A leading board member of the Charity Commission has written an essay calling for the UK to leave the EU. That comes after the Charity Commission tried to clamp down on charities engaging in the EU debate. Is the Minister able to explain why the Charity Commission rule on campaigning appears to be, “Do as I say, not as I do”? I welcomed his clarification that charity voices should and could be heard on the issues that affect them, but it flies in the face of the Charity Commission’s recent gagging clauses. Will the Minister confirm that charities are now allowed to speak out, but only if they agree with him?

Electoral Reform

My hon. Friend will remember that in the last Parliament we held the alternative vote referendum, in which this country resoundingly rejected a proposal to abandon our tried and tested first-past-the-post system in favour of an alternative. I believe that we should respect that result and the clear democratic decision that it represents, and therefore we have no plans to change the voting system.

Given that the British people voted overwhelmingly for first past the post, does my hon. Friend agree that, as with all referendums, the vote is final and settled, and that the Government are absolutely right to push ahead with delivering their vital manifesto commitments?

When it comes to electoral reform, in Northern Ireland we are closing all our electoral offices. Surely, part of electoral reform is trying to get more people involved, and closing electoral offices is the wrong way to do it.

I will not trample on the purviews of the devolved Administrations and the Northern Ireland Office, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me with more details, I would be happy to respond.

Are the Government looking seriously at how the understandable security challenges of online voting might be overcome so that future generations of young people can vote online in this country safely and securely, thereby increasing voter registration and participation?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that online activity is an increasing part of our everyday lives, whether it be shopping or anything else. As technology improves and online voting becomes steadily more secure, it is something that we will need to continue to revisit. At the moment, the prospect of potentially stealing the Government of a country is too grave to allow online voting to happen.

Does the Minister agree that we must do everything possible to bring power closer to people in every part of the country, and that a good start would be to make it easier for people to engage in politics?

I absolutely agree. As I said in response to an earlier set of questions, there is a great deal that Governments can do, but there is also a great deal that political parties and others need to do, to engage the interest of the voters.

Social Mobility

7. What discussions he has had with industry leaders on increasing social mobility in the public and private sectors. (904720)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question and for his work in the House on social mobility. In our mission to increase social mobility, we are working with a number of leading businesses and organisations on our plans to improve life chances across the nations. That includes the civil service pushing ahead with the delivery of more than 30,000 of the overall 3 million apprenticeship starts by 2020, introducing name-blind recruitment and leading the development of new national common measures of socioeconomic diversity for employers.

As it is vital that the civil service reflects the society that it serves, will my right hon. Friend explain how the Government are acting on the recommendations made in the report of the Bridge group?

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are accepting every part of the recommendations of the Bridge report. He will know that we are the party of the ladder, the party of social mobility, the party of the living wage, the party of lower taxes for low earners and the party of millions of apprenticeships and millions of jobs.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for efficiency in reforming Government, transparency, civil society, digital technology, cyber-security and delivering the Government’s agenda.

I commend my right hon. Friend for releasing vast amounts of Government data, which will improve transparency across Government. What further action can he take to ensure that performance improves, transparency is available to the general public and data are in a manageable form so that people can analyse them?

My hon. Friend is right that this is not only about releasing more information, but about releasing it in a way that is usable. I can announce to the House that since 2010 the Government have released 27,000 open datasets—a new high—which goes to show that we are the most transparent Government ever.

T3. British troops served fewer years in Iraq than during the first and second world wars, and the first and second world wars did not take as long as it has taken to publish the Chilcot report. Will the Minister make an apology to my constituent Pat Long, whose son was killed in the Iraq war, for these unforgivable delays, and also give a commitment to her and other families that they will see the embargoed report, rather than getting the news—inevitably there will be bad news—second hand? (904704)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern and the concern of his constituents. He will know that the timing of the publication is a matter for the independent inquiry, which has set out a timetable. Checking for national security issues is very important, and will take place appropriately. Thankfully, we will get to the conclusion of this process soon.

T2. The Government need to keep up with the digital revolution, and I applaud the Minister’s efforts to ensure that that is being done. Does he agree that as more interaction between citizens and Government takes place online, cyber-security must keep pace with that increase? (904703)

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right that cyber-security is increasingly important not just for communications between citizen and Government, but in a wide range of businesses. That is why we have laid aside £1.9 billion to improve our cyber-security during this Parliament, and why we are creating a new national cyber-security centre.

T5. We heard earlier about the anti-lobbying clause that the Minister for the Cabinet Office is determined to introduce in a drive to clean up politics. The Lobbying (Scotland) Act 2016 covers the lobbying of MSPs. Does he have any plans to expand the scope of the register of consultant lobbyists to cover the lobbying of MPs? (904706)

We brought in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-Party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014 and made progress on this issue during the last Parliament. The crucial point about tackling lobbying through grants is that taxpayers’ money should be spent on the things it is intended for, not on Government lobbying Government.

T4. The FIFA corruption scandal and other corruption scandals around the world have shown the need for a more integrated and international approach to tackling corruption. Will the Minister push for such an approach at the Government’s anti-corruption summit next month? (904705)

In short, yes. That is of course part of the global development goals, which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister led the world in establishing. One of the targets within those goals is precisely to reduce that kind of corruption, and we will emphasise that in our work to fulfil our part of those targets.

T7. What steps has the Minister taken to make Government colleagues aware of the disastrous impact that the Trade Union Bill will have on industrial relations with civil servants? (904708)

The Trade Union Bill, which is currently before Parliament, takes important steps to modernise the relationship between trade unions and their members. Although trade unions play a very important part in our national life and represent the interests of many, they do not represent the interests of all, and we must make sure that that relationship is modern and appropriate. [Interruption.]

Order. There is a lot of noise in the Chamber. The Minister must be very disappointed to have such an inattentive audience. Let us hear the words.

T6. To return to individual electoral registration and the question from the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin Docherty-Hughes), will the Minister give further assurances that all steps are being taken to reach harder-to-reach groups, such as private renters, of which there are very many in my constituency of Eastbourne? (904707)

Yes, indeed. We are determined to reach out to a new set of potential electors who have failed to register, as the Minister for constitutional reform, my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), made clear earlier in our proceedings. I should tell my hon. Friend that every single person whose name appeared in the old register but who has been discounted under individual electoral registration would have been approached at least nine times before their name was removed.

I appeal to Ministers to face the House because much of the right hon. Gentleman’s answer was lost on the rest of us, which is to our grave disadvantage.

T9. When I used to work for a charity, I was often called by the Ministry of Justice, the Home Office and the Department for Communities and Local Government to give expert advice, on one occasion to a very anxious Minister just before a sitting of the Home Affairs Committee. Under the new anti-advocacy clause, will charity specialists continue to be able to help the Government, or will the new rule apply only when it suits the Government, rather than when it suits the public? (904710)

Of course charities will be able to contribute to debate. They will be able to advise and researchers will be able to bring forward their world-beating ideas, but as for the idea, supported by the Labour party, that taxpayers’ money should be used for paid lobbyists, we are going to put a stop to that.

T8. I welcome the Government’s commitment to improving social mobility in the civil service. Will the Minister join me in encouraging more private sector employers to do the same—for example, through schemes such as Inspiring the Future? (904709)

I strongly endorse that approach, Mr Speaker. If you or any other Member have not already got involved in an Inspiring the Future event, I would encourage you to do so. Not only is it good for the country but it is an incredibly enjoyable way to spend some time.

From Cabinet Office figures, 67% of people in the senior civil service were based in London last year, the highest proportion in the past five years. Given that, and the decision to close the office of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Sheffield, does the Minister not accept that his policy of moving civil servants out of London and into the regions is failing?

We are introducing regional hubs for the civil service. Of course, many UK civil servants work in Scotland, supporting the people in Scotland. Inevitably there are a large number of civil servants in London because this is the capital of the United Kingdom, but we have to make sure that they represent the country that they serve.

We know that special advisers are required to submit their emails and telephone texts to public view under freedom of information legislation. What is the Government’s policy on the use of WhatsApp, which special advisers are using to conceal Government business from public view?

I hesitate to admit to my hon. Friend that I have never personally used WhatsApp in my life. I am happy to reassure him that all aspects of Government business are properly recorded and minuted, and are subject to FOI requests as normal, despite the rumours that he has heard.