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Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 616: debated on Wednesday 2 November 2016

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Voter Registration: Young People

The Government are building a democracy that works for everyone, including young people. Online registration has made it easier and faster to register to vote, and since its introduction a record 4.2 million applications to register have been made by people aged 16 to 24.

That was a very interesting answer. How can the Government be building a democracy when they have excluded nearly 2 million people who were allowed to vote in the referendum, and are going ahead with boundary reviews that will particularly affect young people in universities?

We are absolutely committed to taking account of the issues that matter to young people. As for the boundary changes, it is right for us to ensure that every seat is of equal value. It cannot be right for some constituencies to contain 95,000 people and others 38,000. We will ensure that every vote is equal, and that includes those of young people.

As my hon. Friend will know, next week the Youth Parliament will sit in this place. Does he agree that many 16, 17 and 18-year-olds are taking a growing interest in public affairs and what we do in the House—that is certainly what I find when I visit schools in my constituency—and that such initiatives will help youth registration?

It would be remiss of me not to note that the Youth Parliament will be sitting in this very Chamber on 11 November under your command, Mr Speaker. I am sure that we all look forward to hearing young people discuss the issues that matter to them. When it comes to “every vote matters”, we should bear in mind the fact that young people are interested in issues such as mental health and a curriculum that works for everyone, and those are the issues that are being debated in the Chamber. We look forward to working with young people to ensure that their voice is heard.

I hope that the Youth Parliament will be sitting under my encouraging chairmanship rather than under my command, but I am extremely grateful to the Minister for the sentiment that he has expressed.

The Minister will be aware that 16-year-olds in Scotland are able to vote for Members of the Scottish Parliament and for councillors, and that the plans for devolution under the Wales Bill might mean that 16-year-olds are allowed to vote for Welsh Assembly Members and councillors. Will he now give proper consideration to a full and positive report on the need to ensure that 16-year-olds can vote for Members of the House of Commons so that there can be full democracy for people aged 16 and over?

We discussed this issue at the previous session of Cabinet Office questions. We will not be lowering the parliamentary voting age, because since the general election Parliament has debated the proposal a number of times and repeatedly voted against it. It is important to recognise that most democracies consider that 18 is the right age to enfranchise young people. A person must be at least 18 to serve on a jury for similar reasons.

My hon. Friend referred to the need to ensure that every vote is equal. In the light of the number of spoiled ballot papers in elections for police and crime commissioners, will he think again about reintroducing the first-past-the-post system for elections of that kind in England?

My hon. Friend is right that we need a clear and secure democracy if we are to continue to have confidence in our system. In the elections for police and crime commissioners, about 8 million people voted and there were more than 300,000 spoiled ballot papers. For the EU referendum, in which 35 million people voted, there were just 25,000 spoiled ballot papers. There is clearly an issue that the Government will want to look into.

Has it occurred to the Minister that if the Government were not so aggressively making it difficult for millions of people to be included in the register, and if the previous Prime Minister had not so arrogantly dismissed the case for enfranchising 16 and 17-year-olds, the referendum result would have been different, and he would still be Prime Minister?

It is important to recognise that in the referendum a record number of people voted on one side—17.4 million voted for the UK to leave the European Union—and that a record 46.5 million people were registered to vote, of whom 3 million registered using the individual electoral registration system online. That shows that people have full confidence in the future of our new system.

Does the Minister agree that more young people might register to vote if they thought that it would make a positive difference to their lives, and that decisions such as trebling tuition fees, abolishing the education maintenance allowance and restricting young people’s housing benefit only act as a disincentive for them to become involved in politics?

The hon. Lady is right, but there is a problem with young people’s registration: we allow 16-year-olds to register to vote, but only 37% of them choose to do so. As I said earlier, we need to take account of the issues that matter to young people. Such issues will be debated by the Youth Parliament next Friday, but none of those to which the hon. Lady refers are on the agenda.

Voting Rights: Overseas UK Citizens

On 7 October the Government published a policy statement setting out our detailed proposals for votes for life, and explaining how we plan to meet our manifesto commitment to scrap the 15-year time limit for overseas voting. We intend the system to be in place before the next scheduled UK parliamentary general election.

I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply, but may I return to the subject of cutting the cost of politics? Can he tell us when the Government will be able to equalise the size of constituencies?

We are determined that by the time of the 2020 general election, the historic principle of equal seats will be in place. If we do not introduce that reform, we will be fighting our seats on the basis of data that go back to the year 2000, meaning that they are 20 years out of date. That is completely unacceptable, which is why we must press ahead with boundary reform.

Does my hon. Friend agree that by including British citizens living abroad who have previously been resident to vote, as well as those who have previously been registered, the Government are enabling more people to participate in our politics and delivering a democracy that truly works for everyone?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. Our proposal to scrap the requirement that an overseas elector must have been previously registered to vote when they were resident in the UK will mean that even more Brits abroad can vote if they so choose.

How will the Minister ensure that UK citizens living overseas in the EU have not only the right to vote, but the right to remain in EU countries?

We will ensure that we have a democracy that works for everyone, which is why we are determined to ensure that Britons living abroad will, regardless of which country they live in, be able to participate in our democracy, especially those who have lived abroad for more than 15 years, such as Harry Shindler, a Labour voter who lives in Italy and fought in world war two, but is unable to vote at the moment. It is right that we give these people who have served their country the right to vote.

Alongside extending suffrage for UK citizens living abroad, what consideration has the Cabinet Office given to extending suffrage in general elections to all EU and non-Commonwealth immigrants permanently living in Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

In terms of local government suffrage, EU citizens can already vote. For parliamentary suffrage, we are extending the franchise, as my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) rightly says, to an extra 3.7 million Brits abroad. When it comes to the question of those living in this country, obviously that is subject to future negotiations.

At a time when the Government are failing in any serious way to address the democratic deficit in the UK, they are, as has been mentioned, pursuing plans to remove the 15-year time limit for overseas voters and to hand a vote for life to an estimated 1 million expats. Will the Minister explain how that might affect Electoral Commission guidelines on “permissible donors”, and will he assure the House that under no circumstances will the proposed changes allow unlimited political financial donations from non-UK taxpayers abroad to be funnelled into the coffers of any UK political party?

First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place? It is great to see him across the Dispatch Box.

On the issue of overseas electors and ensuring that those living abroad for more than 15 years have a vote for life, the principle is clear: we must ensure that those who were born in this country, who have often paid tax in this country and have moved abroad are given a right to participate in our democracy. These include people such as Harry Shindler, a Labour voter who fought in world war two. We want to ensure that these people who have given something to our country are allowed to participate in our democracy.

House of Lords: Membership

3. If he will bring forward proposals to limit the size of the membership of the House of Lords. (906979)

The Government agree that the House of Lords cannot grow indefinitely. However, comprehensive reform is not a priority for this Parliament, given the growing number of pressing priorities elsewhere. Nevertheless, when there are measures that can command consensus, we would welcome working with peers to look at taking them forward.

A simpler answer would have been, “No, we will kick that into the long grass.”

It is clear that the House of Lords needs radical reform. In fact, we should listen to the new Lord Speaker, who said only last week:

“I don’t think we can justify a situation where you have over 800 peers at the same time as you’re bringing down the Commons to 600 MPs”.

Does the Minister agree?

This was raised at an important debate on 26 October, when the House agreed with the Government that this is not a priority. The Government agree that House of Lords reform is not one of the priorities of the British people: a recent YouGov study showed that just 18% of the public think House of Lords reform is a priority. I am amazed that the Scottish National party has chosen this issue to campaign on. Why not campaign on education or on health—why not campaign on the issues that matter to the Scottish people?

What an outrage to democracy that answer from the Minister was. We have the ridiculous situation that there are more unelected Members of the House of Lords than MPs living in the highlands of Scotland, yet this Government want to cut democratic participation. We will be left with three Members of Parliament for half the landmass of Scotland and the highlands. That is not democratic accountability. Cut the Lords, not MPs.

It was difficult to detect a question there, but the intellectual dexterity of the Minister will enable him briefly to reply.

We have proposals on boundary changes in Scotland, and there is a consultation that I commend to all Members. Some seats in Scotland are twice the size of others, and that historical injustice must be rectified.

The Minister is absolutely right that reducing the size of the House of Lords is not a priority, but neither is reducing the size of the Commons. As we are abolishing goodness knows how many MEPs and taking on their workloads, should not the Government look again at their proposal and equalise seats, which is quite correct, but keep the same number of Members of Parliament?

The previous Parliament passed a law to ensure that we could reduce the number of seats from 650 to 600, but a delay occurred because Opposition Members decided to kick this can down the road. The reduction in the number of seats will save £66 million over the course of a Parliament. It is right that we should make savings and put our own House in order.

It is absolutely right that there should be equal votes and that we should cut the cost of politics in the House of Commons. It is absurd that there are no Scottish National party peers in the House of Lords while the party has 56 Members in this House, and that there are 100 Liberal Democrat peers but a pathetic rump of only eight Members here. Does the Minister agree that this shows the need to rebalance membership of the House of Lords?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The historic campaign for the equalisation of seats was initiated by the Chartists in their people’s manifesto back in 1838, and this Government are determined to ensure that this historic wrong is righted.

13. There has been much speculation that a certain Nigel Farage will be joining the swarm of unelected bureaucrats in the House of Lords. Is Mr Farage to be rewarded with a peerage, or have the Government done enough damage already? (906989)

All appointments to the House of Lords are scrutinised by an independent Committee, and it is right that that process should be followed.

Does my hon. Friend recall the words of Sir Winston Churchill when he said that democracy was not a particularly good system but the best that we had? Does he agree that, until someone comes up with a better idea, the House of Lords is perhaps not that bad?

As I have said, House of Lords reform is not a priority in this Parliament; nor is it a priority for the general public. We want to establish a consensus with the House of Lords, and it must be for the House of Lords to come up with that consensus.

Could we not at least get rid of the by-elections for hereditary peers? Earlier this year, the House of Lords decided to remove the second Baron Bridges because he had not turned up for five whole years. There was then a by-election, in which the 15th Earl of Cork and Orrery defeated the 12th Lord Vaux of Harrowden and the eighth Viscount Hood. Under the alternative vote system, the Earl of Limerick was bottom of the list. Does not this bring the whole system into disrepute? Is this “Blackadder” or Gilbert and Sullivan?

When it comes to “Blackadder”, this was a Labour policy introduced by a Labour Government, so this is yet another U-turn from the Corbynistas.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I think that people watching this debate will be terrified by the complacency of this Government. Does the Minister not realise that the twin actions of increasing without limit the number of unelected Members of Parliament while reducing the number of elected lawmakers is seriously damaging this institution in the eyes of our own electorate and lowering the esteem in which we are held abroad?

The Government agree with the primacy of the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman made those points in a debate on 26 October, and at that time the House agreed with the Government that this was not a priority and that our priority should be to equalise seats and to ensure that the historic principle of boundary reform occurs.

Departmental Efficiency Savings

The Government are striving towards their manifesto commitment to achieve £20 billion of annual efficiency savings by 2020. Cabinet Office functions are supporting Departments by providing expert support and advice in all areas, including commercial property, infrastructure, fraud and error, and debt. In addition, I will be leading a review with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to see whether further savings are possible over that period.

I know the House will want to join me in congratulating the Minister on the recent arrival of his second child, a brother for Wilfred.

May I add my congratulations as well? I thank the Minister for his answer. How much did the Government deliver in efficiency savings over the last term and how much is to come?

I thank my hon. Friend and you, Mr Speaker.

We saved £18.6 billion in the previous Parliament. We hope to do better than that over this Parliament. We have made a good start with more than £1.5 billion saved by transforming how Government works, but there is more to do. It is a hard task, but we will complete it.

May I first congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on your energy efficiency saving this morning, on the bicycle in Portcullis House, for the poppy appeal? Is it possible for hon. Members and the wider public to track savings in various Departments to see the practical benefits of those savings?

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible suggestion. As we evolve the single departmental plans, I hope to be able make the savings in individual Departments far more transparent. He is right to touch on that subject; it is something that I want to do more with.

15. Government efficiency savings can be achieved through greater use of new technology, such as GOV.UK Notify. Will the Minister encourage its greater use by Whitehall Departments? (906991)

GOV.UK Notify is another excellent Government Digital Service product. We are putting more money into the GDS, which we are using more across Government. I hope that that will be one of many applications brought forward as a result of its success.

Given that the cost of special advisers has almost doubled in 10 years and that the Tory Government are spending more on special advisers than the new Labour Government, would not dealing with that be a simple cost-cutting measure?

On the contrary, we have kept the cost of special advisers under review and fairly flat. The list of responsibilities has been published recently and the hon. Gentleman will see that that cost is fairly constant.

Voting Fraud

The Government are committed to tackling fraud in UK polls. We have already taken steps to improve the security of polls through the introduction of individual electoral registration. We are currently considering the findings and recommendations of the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir Eric Pickles) into electoral fraud. The Government will provide a full response in due course.

In a democracy, we want as many people to vote and register as possible. In some constituencies, however, there is still too much electoral register fraud. What more can the Minister and Government do about that?

For democracy to work for everyone, we need to ensure that it is clear and secure. The Government are determined to ensure that the electoral register is as complete and accurate as possible. We note that the Electoral Commission has also made recommendations about ID in polling stations. We will reflect on the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar and respond in due course.

Does the Minister believe that lessons can be learned from the additional measures to tackle voter fraud in Northern Ireland?

Obviously, the electoral system in Northern Ireland is separate and has seen advances when it comes to security around polling stations and the electoral process. The Government are interested in all such examples and will be happy to respond when we publish our findings following the report of my right hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar.

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 the Government work better.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the work of the Minister for the constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), with my constituent Mehala Osborne and the domestic violence charity Survive, to reform anonymous registration to ensure that women silenced by the current registration process will no longer be denied the chance to express their democratic will?

I will indeed join with my hon. Friend. His commitment to the cause is well known, as is the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister for the constitution, who has really taken this on as something that he wants to achieve in his post. For survivors of domestic abuse, voting is more than just a cross on a ballot paper; it is a renewed statement of the freedom that is rightfully theirs.

Let us take the Minister back to the boundary review, because interestingly the Government payroll is not being cut in this process. Ministers should therefore listen to the Members sitting behind them, such as the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), who has said:

“We are talking about reducing the number of people we elect at the ballot box, whilst stuffing the House of Lords with yet more people”.

If this is really not a partisan process, and in view of Brexit and the fact that we are removing 73 MEPs, is it not now time to have a fresh review, based on having 650 seats in this place?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman will start as he means to go on. I see that he has five Members on the Opposition Front-Bench, compared with our very modest two, which shows how we can cut the cost of politics just by being in power.

T3. After the referendum, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee wrote to the Government suggesting that they should conduct a review of civil service capacity in view of the extra workload being piled on Whitehall. Can the Minister give any indication of whether such a review is being conducted? Would he consider conducting such a review? (906994)

The review is going on at the moment, and I am leading it. We have started by looking at senior civil service capacity, but it will go through the entire civil service. It is a very thorough process, and I am making sure that I am talking to all the Ministers leading Brexit-affected Departments to make sure that they are happy with the capacity of their offices.

T2. I do not disagree with the Minister on equalising constituencies, but if we want equal constituencies based on proper data, surely the 2 million newly registered voters should be taken into account in that equalisation. (906993)

The hon. Gentleman talks about data, so let us go back to the fact that if we delay boundary reform even further, we will be drawing up the seats on the basis of data, in England and Wales, from 2000—20 years ago. That is clearly unacceptable, which is why we must ensure that boundary reform takes place. [Interruption.]

Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place, which is very unfair to Members who want to ask questions and Ministers who want to answer them. Let us hear the voice of the Vale of Clwyd, Dr James Davies.

T4. One benefit of devolution was meant to be that it would allow the comparison of different policy approaches to the same problems. With that in mind, will the Minister consider legislating to ensure the provision of comparable data across the UK? (906995)

My hon. Friend makes a sensible point. We are learning a lot from the devolved Administrations, just as they are learning from us. His point is well made, which is why we signed a concordat on statistical evidence a few months ago, ensuring that we are sharing the same methods of evidence gathering across all the Administrations.

Instead of using the single example of an expat war veteran to justify extending the franchise to UK citizens abroad, should the Minister not concentrate on those who live here and pay their taxes—EU citizens—and those who will have to live with the consequences, the 16 and 17-year-olds?

Giving votes for life to those Britons who have lived abroad for more than 15 years was a manifesto commitment that will be delivered by this Government. We are determined to ensure that British people who live abroad are given the right to participate in our democracy, which is absolutely the right thing to do.

T5. I welcome the speech by the Minister for the Cabinet Office to the Reform think tank, in which he made the powerful case for public service reform, to make it more tailored to individual needs. May I urge him to be careful to ensure that, in delivering it, Whitehall does not end up exposing or misplacing personal data, as has happened in the past? (906996)

I will, and I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. It is of course important that we take people with us on this, but at its core we must remember that the state is there to serve people, not the other way round. That is why this Administration are putting themselves at the service of the British people, and I intend to ensure that public services reflect that fact.

T8. This Department has estimated that cutting the number of MPs to 600 will save £15 million a year. Library figures collated for me have shown that House of Lords allowances alone cost £20 million a year, so does the Minister not accept that the cuts and savings to be made should be applied to the unelected House, not the elected Chamber? (906999)

This Government are proud of the fact that the cost of the House of Lords has been reduced by 14% since 2010.

T6. It is good to see the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his place. Will he perhaps set out what his priorities will be? (906997)

As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I oversee the administration of the estates and the rents of the Duchy of Lancaster. I contribute to the Government’s policy and decision-making process by attending Cabinet and attending and chairing Cabinet Committees. This role is not without precedence under both Labour and Conservative Governments.

I am pleased that the Government plan to audit racial disparities in public service outcomes, but may I ask Ministers that, in doing so, they ensure that every Department and agency uses the 2011 census classifications, which differentiate Gypsies and Travellers?

It is absolutely right that we make the system as efficient as possible and less expensive. To address both those aims, we are undertaking three pilots this year to test new approaches to conducting a canvass. I am also pleased to announce today that there will be 18 more pilots in England and Wales in 2017.

Latest assessments suggest that only 51% of 16 to 17-year-olds are registered to vote, compared with 85% of adults. In Neath, we have had successful voter registration awareness events to encourage under-18s to register. Will the Minister please explain the Government’s plans to promote young people’s registration?

As part of a democracy that works for everyone, we are determined that young people’s voices will be heard, which means going around the country, as I am doing in the coming weeks, to places such as Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool to talk to young people about their priorities and how we can ensure that they are fully involved in the democratic process.