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Cabinet Office

Volume 614: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2016

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Estate (Modernisation)

Working collaboratively with Departments and local government, we are delivering a public sector estate that is cost-effective, supports the delivery of better-integrated public services, and exploits surplus land and property to help build homes and create jobs. In so doing, since 2010 we have raised £1.8 billion in capital receipts and reduced running costs by £750 million.

I welcome the Minister to his place and congratulate him on his well-deserved promotion. Does he agree that at a time when the country needs to build more housing on brownfield sites, it is essential that the Government lead the way in this? Have the Government done any audit that has ascertained the amount of land available and the number of houses and flats that could be built on it?

We have done some partial work, as my hon. Friend suggests. It is in the nature of the work that we are doing that there is not sufficiently good-quality understanding of public sector land, and that is why we are seeking to make it better. Despite that, we delivered 100,000 homes on public sector land in the previous Parliament, and we aspire to build 150,000 in this one. I shall provide him with further details as and when we discover them.

I welcome the Minister to his post. He will know that in 2010 a report said that the changes to the civil service—the regionalisation of the civil service—would require political leadership. We have seen a reduction in the size of the estate in London but an increase in the number of top officials and civil servants in London. Under his tenure, will we finally see that political leadership and the regions actually having a voice?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments. In my previous ministerial post, it was a great pleasure for me to work with civil servants, especially in Yorkshire, including senior civil servants working there. I saw myself how it is possible to have senior civil servants around the country. I completely agree that the more we can get senior positions of all kinds around the country, the better we will be able to serve the people whom we were elected to serve.

The speed with which the new Brexit Department has been established from scratch since 24 June has been truly impressive. Is not the key to a modern Government who can respond to modern needs to have as much flexible, open-plan office space as possible?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. The way in which we have been able to set up the new Department and the other Departments of State so rapidly is a tribute to the work done by my predecessors as Ministers at the Cabinet Office in reforms to the civil service and to the Government Property Unit. He will have heard the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State of State for Exiting the European Union about the very significant support that he has received, in number and in quality, from the civil service so far.

Electoral Law Reform

The Government are committed to ensuring that our electoral system is as transparent, accurate and effective as possible. We are working closely with the Law Commission to consider what reforms might be brought forward in the light of its report on electoral law published earlier this year. The Government are also considering the review by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) of electoral fraud, and we will respond to his proposals in due course.

Smaller parties received almost a quarter of the votes cast in the 2015 election. While once 97% of the country voted Labour or Tory, that number is now less than 70%, and indeed falling, but none of that is reflected here. Is it not now time for a very serious and mature discussion on how we can make every vote count in UK general elections?

The Government believe that first past the post is the best system for electing a Government at the same time as ensuring that the vital constituency link between a Member of Parliament and their constituents is retained. This is clearly in line with the public mood, reflected in the overwhelming majority support for first past the post at the referendum held in 2011.

Many 16 and 17-year-olds feel disfranchised by Westminster. In 2007, Austria lowered its voting age to 16, and has found that turnout among 16 and 17-year-olds is higher than for older first-time voters. Will the Minister now commit to seriously examining the evidence for extending the franchise to our young adults?

The Government believe that it is absolutely vital to our democracy that young people should be engaged in the democratic process, and we will continue our commitment to increasing participation. The current voting age of 18, however, is widely recognised as the point at which one becomes an adult and gains full citizenship rights. I note that the question of lowering the voting age has been debated in this House on several occasions, when it has been repeatedly defeated, including three times during proceedings on the European Union Referendum Bill. The Government therefore have no plans to reduce the voting age.

I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box, and I thank him and his predecessor for the help that they have given in the compilation of my report. Is my hon. Friend alarmed by the fact that it is harder to take out a library card or collect a parcel from the post office than it is to vote or obtain a postal vote in our trust-based system? That places our ballot boxes at a peculiar risk. When will the Government respond?

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he has undertaken in producing his report on electoral fraud, which was published in the summer. It made an excellent summer read. The Government take electoral fraud incredibly seriously. His report highlights that important issue, and as a result we are currently considering his proposals and will formally respond to his report in due course.

I join in warmly welcoming the Minister to his new position. In the EU referendum The Daily Telegraph’s Charles Moore voted twice, spoiling the ballot paper from his second home, to show how the system could, in theory, be cheated. As the Minister considers proposals to strengthen electoral law against voter fraud, would he therefore also consider a new legal requirement for people with more than one residence to choose one of them in advance as the only place where they wish to be legally registered to vote?

I hope you do not mind, Mr Speaker, but I would like to pay tribute to my predecessor for the work he has undertaken. He has left me with a rich inheritance.

The incident involving Charles Moore is the subject of an investigation, and therefore it would be inappropriate for me to comment on it. I note, however, that the Law Commission report includes recommendations on electoral residence, which the Government will respond to in due course.

I welcome the Minister to his position, and I look forward to working with him. I think there has been a frightening complacency in the answers to this question so far. The Prime Minister spoke recently on the steps of Downing Street about the disfranchised. Does the Minister not realise that the voting system itself disfranchises many of our citizens, particularly 16 and 17-year-olds and those who vote for minor parties? Will he now commit, in this new Government, to reviewing our system to make it more fair and democratic?

The Government are committed to ensuring that we have a democracy that works for everyone. Already, the introduction of individual electoral registration has made it easier to register to vote than ever before, with 20 million applications to register to vote online since 2014. The Electoral Commission’s report from July 2016 found that thanks to IER, electoral registers are not only more complete than ever before, but, critically, more accurate than ever. The Government recognise that there is always more to do, and we are committed to a programme of boosting registration among certain vulnerable groups in order to build a more engaged democracy.

Constituency Boundaries

3. When he expects the Boundary Commission to publish its initial recommendation for new constituency boundaries. (906121)

The Boundary Commissions for England and Wales will be publishing their initial recommendations on Tuesday 13 September, and the Boundary Commission for Scotland will do so later this year. The Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland published its recommendations yesterday. The conduct of the boundary review is a matter for the independent Boundary Commissions. The initial proposals will be the subject of extensive consultation with political parties and local communities, after which revised proposals will be published at a later date.

I thank the Minister for his response, and I warmly welcome him to his position, where I am sure he will do an excellent job. I represent a rapidly growing new town with low voter registration, where an additional 5,000 new voters have hit the electoral roll in the past six months. Does the Minister agree that if the boundary review is to achieve constituencies of equal size by the next election, those factors need to be taken into consideration?

During every previous boundary review, Parliament has accepted that there must be a defined date and a set of registers to access. That was set down as a result of the delay to the 2013 review, which was voted for by Labour Members. Not only do those who now seek to delay the boundary review even further seek to overturn the accepted will of Parliament, but to delay the boundary review again would ensure that we have constituencies that are of dramatically unequal size, and that are based on data more than two decades old.

The boundary review next week is going to be a sham. Nearly 2 million voters have not been counted. Why does the Minister not start again, so that our democracy is not undermined by next week’s partisan gerrymandering?

Without the implementation of the reforms, legislated for by a majority in the previous Parliament, Members will continue to represent constituencies that were drawn up on the basis of data collected over 20 years ago, disregarding significant changes in the population since that happened. The status quo cannot and must not be an option. In future, boundary reviews will take place every five years to ensure that constituencies remain up to date, as they should be.

10. The number of electors in Welsh parliamentary constituencies varies hugely: Cardiff South and Penarth has more than 72,000 electors; Arfon has fewer than 40,000. My constituency of Montgomeryshire sits roughly in the middle, with about 48,000. Does the Minister agree that it cannot be right for each of these constituencies to elect one MP when the number of voters within them is so radically different? (906129)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We cannot continue with the historical injustice of allowing such unequal representation. That representation currently allows for the electorate of one seat to be twice the size of another’s or, to put it in other words, allows one elector’s vote to be worth twice that of another. This injustice, long recognised, must be resolved.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his well-deserved promotion to the Treasury Bench. In the past, Ministers have argued that cutting the number of MPs will save the taxpayer £12 million. That is exactly the same amount of money that the previous Prime Minister has just spent on his lavender list of resignation honours. Is it not the case that this boundary redistribution is proceeding on the basis of a register from which 2 million people are excluded, and is that not an absolute affront to democracy?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to recognise that cutting the number of MPs from 650 to 600 will not just save £12 million, but save £66 million over the course of a Parliament. At a time when many areas of public life have found savings, it is right that we should put our own house in order. Equally, it is right that we should finally establish the democratic principle of constituencies with an equal number of voters, which was first called for by the Chartists back in 1838 and recently endorsed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Cross-Government Departmental Resourcing

5. If he will make an assessment of the effect on cross-Government resourcing of Departments of recent machinery of government changes. (906124)

All Departments are currently reviewing their own structures and resources to ensure that we get the best deal for the whole of Britain. The Cabinet Office is helping to co-ordinate that effort.

The shake-up of Whitehall comes as insiders fear that Whitehall may simply be unable to face up to the scale of the Brexit negotiations if resources stay as they are. With the negotiations looming, rather than laying off civil servants and slashing budgets, is it not now time that our civil service was properly resourced and able to fight for the best deal for Britain?

I reject the hon. Lady’s assertions. The civil service is one of the finest in the world. It has already risen to the challenge of the immediate opportunities that, with Brexit, face us as a country. That is why I am delighted that we have been able to resource the two new Departments so successfully, and their Secretaries of State are very content with the support they are receiving.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Parliamentary Secretary on their appointments, and say how much we on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee look forward to working with them? As well as focusing on resourcing and machinery, our inquiry into the civil service will focus on civil service leadership. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to develop stronger leadership in the civil service to inculcate the right values, the right attitudes, and the trust and openness on which a high-functioning organisation depends?

I, too, look forward to continuing my long-standing relationship with the Chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, my near constituency neighbour. I agree with him entirely on his point about senior talent. We need to get as much talent as possible into the civil service at all levels. I have recently met the senior talent team in the civil service, a very impressive outfit, who have their work cut out to make sure that we can do even better.

In the context of the recent machinery of government changes, when will we know—or can the Minister tell us now—who will have responsibility for cross-Government co-ordination in respect of the work of the British-Irish Council, which relates to all eight Administrations in these islands?

I retain responsibility for the constitution as a whole, as does the Cabinet Office. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman with a detailed reply so that he can have the satisfaction of that.

Anonymous Voter Registration: Domestic Violence Victims

The Government are determined that those whose personal safety would be at risk if their details appeared on the register should be able to register anonymously. I have arranged to meet representatives from Women’s Aid to discuss concerns they may have over the process of anonymous registration and have also written to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities to set out our plans to look at regulations on this important policy.

I thank the Minister for the information he has just given me and am pleased with what he has said. He has to acknowledge that some domestic violence victims choose not to go to the police and do not have easy access to the qualifying officers or registrars at present. I am pleased that he is having meetings and look forward to his announcing the steps he is going to take—[Interruption.]

Order. This is very unfair. The hon. Lady is asking a question about help for victims of domestic violence who wish to register to vote anonymously. I really think the House should be attentive to this matter.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am pleased that the Minister has acknowledged some of the difficulties these women have in registering. They are victims. I look forward to hearing the steps he will announce in the future. A very real barrier to registering to vote at present is the limited number of officers. The women do not have easy access to those people, which disfranchises them.

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue with me. I recognise what she says. Those who have left domestic violence to seek a new life may be seen as some of the most vulnerable in society, but I believe that they are also some of the bravest. As I said, today I can announce that the Government will look closely at representations from Women’s Aid and other domestic violence charities. I am happy to meet the hon. Lady, since we are determined that no one should be denied the opportunity to vote.

I warmly welcome the Minister to his position. He will find that his letter is a reply to one I wrote on this topic when I was Minister for Women and Equalities. I warmly welcome what he has said, but he could speed things up by adding domestic violence protection orders and domestic violence protection notices to the list of evidence needed. I urge him to do that speedily.

I appreciated receiving my right hon. Friend’s letter. It was one of the first things in my inbox that I was determined to act on straightaway. The situation is slightly more complex, because changing the regulations would require a change to the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, but the Government will review all aspects of the policy.

Most victims of domestic abuse never report the abuse to the police. Will the Government commit to reviewing the regulations, so that those women are able to register anonymously?

Digital Technology

7. What progress the Government are making in using digital technology to transform delivery of public services. (906126)

The Government are investing £2.25 billion in digital services over the next four years in order to recast the relationship between the people we seek to serve and the state. There is more to come. We are doing a lot, but there is a lot more to do.

May I join in the congratulations to the Minister on his new role? How could we better use digital sharing services to reduce the number of events never and serious untoward incidents in the NHS?

My hon. Friend is entirely right that it will be a digital solution that brings the most advantage to the area of the health service that she identifies. I am glad that the close working of the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch, NHS Improvement and the NHS Litigation Authority, enabled through digital, will mean that we can reduce never events and serious untoward incidents.

In ensuring that use of digital technology proceeds at a pace, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that hacking of digital technology decreases and is eliminated?

The hon. Gentleman is entirely right that hacking poses a serious threat to our national infrastructure. I will be able to make more announcements in the next few weeks that I hope will colour the detail that he is seeking.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for delivering a democracy that works for everyone, supporting the design and delivery of Government policy and driving efficiencies and reforms to make government work better.

At a time when the Government are reducing the number of elected Members of this elected House of Parliament by 50, is it right that we keep 100 hereditary peers in another place when they owe their place in Parliament to patronage in the middle ages?

It is not for me to revisit the arguments over the House of Lords, and as our manifesto made clear, that is not a first priority of this Government. The right hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that, over the past few years, we have reduced the cost of the House of Lords quite considerably. [Interruption.]

Order. If the House were as courteous to the Minister as the Minister is to the House, that would be a great advance for all of us.

T3. Our electoral system needs to be both user-friendly and watertight if it is to command the respect of the British public. The Minister previously alluded to the report produced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles). Will the Minister commit today to implementing at least the broad thrust of the report, so that trust in our system can continue? (906047)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we must take electoral fraud very seriously. The April 2015 election court judgment in Tower Hamlets exposed worrying electoral fraud and corruption. The Government are currently considering the recent review by my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles), which provides a range of measures to tackle electoral fraud, and will give a full response in due course.

I welcome you back, Mr Speaker, and give a very warm welcome to the new ministerial team. I congratulate them all on their appointments. We look forward to a positive working relationship with them, holding them to account and making a difference where we can.

I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, for my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith), a new member of my team. She is on her honeymoon and cannot be with us today, but I am sure we wish her well in her marriage to Ben. My colleague may be on her honeymoon, but let me reassure the ministerial team that the honeymoon period for the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is well and truly over. I have asked a series of questions about his responsibilities, but they have not been answered after 56 days in office. I therefore ask any member of the team: where is he today and what does he actually do?

The hon. Gentleman has asked a number of questions and I will ensure that I relay them to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but I can say that he is responsible for the chancellery of the Duchy of Lancaster.

What departmental responsibilities does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster have, and how is he carrying them out?

The Chancellor the Duchy of Lancaster sits on a number of very important Cabinet Committees and has a number of responsibilities, which I am sure the hon. Gentleman will find out in due course.

T4. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Cabinet Office will play an important role in co-ordinating and helping to co-ordinate the Brexit negotiations and the activities of the three Brexiteers? Will the Cabinet Office ensure that it helps them to reach agreement, perhaps playing the role of a latter-day d’Artagnan, helping them with their exploits and their mission? (906048)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that my job is merely to serve. I will ensure that my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary, the International Trade Secretary and the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have all the resources they need to do their important job of work to ensure that we make a success of Brexit.

T2. The Bathgate office of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which serves my constituency, is to close by 2020 as part of the modernisation programme, with services moving online. [Interruption.] (906046)

Order. The situation is intolerable. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to be heard and Ministers are struggling to do so. I want to hear the hon. Gentleman—he can be assured of it.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

During the recess, the Government Digital Service lost its second director general within a year and the Government received the resignations of the chief digital officers of two other Departments. As services are removed from local communities, what steps is the Minister taking to get the Government’s digital provision under control and to ensure that people have access to reliable online services?

I am very proud of what the Government Digital Service has achieved in the past few years. That is why it is rated the foremost digital service in the world connected with a Government. I am pleased to welcome Kevin Cunnington as the new director general—it is the first time the office has had a director general. He has a fine pedigree in the private sector and will bring his expertise to the Government Digital Service.

T5. The Prime Minister set her Government on the right track with her very first words outside 10 Downing Street, with a determination to stand up against injustice and inequality. What progress has been made on the audit of racial disparities in public service outcomes? (906049)

I am very glad to hear my hon. Friend endorse the words, on the steps of Downing Street, of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. She will be glad to know that we have already had a substantial meeting to discuss the remit of the racial disparity audit. It will uncover uncomfortable truths, but unless we do that we will not be able to face up to the burning injustices that remain in our country.

T6. Does the Minister agree with the Lord’s Speaker that membership of the House of Lords should be less than that of the Commons? (906050)

The other place has an important role, as a revising chamber, in scrutinising and improving draft legislation. The Government are clear that an unelected chamber should not seek to block the will of the Commons. The Conservative manifesto is clear that reform of the House of Lords is needed and we have seen significant reforms, including the retirement of peers. Over 150 peers have left the Lords since 2010 and the Chamber is 400 Members smaller than in 1998. The operating costs of the Lords have also fallen by 14% since 2010.

T7. The Government recognise how vital small and medium-sized enterprises are to our nation’s fortunes. They are increasingly looking to see how they can open up Government contracts to them, last month launching a new webinar resource. What more can the Minister and I do, with the Government, to seal the deal for local businesses in Eastbourne and Willingdon? (906051)

My hon. Friend is entirely right: small and medium-sized enterprises power this nation. I hope that in the negotiations we are soon to begin we will unleash them even further into the global markets that Britain will now be able to exploit. She is also right to say that we should be giving more central Government contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises. We beat our target in the previous Parliament. We have an ambitious target of a third of all projects to go to SMEs in this Parliament. I hope to work with her to make sure we achieve that target, too.