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Topical Questions

Volume 614: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2016

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.