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Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 623: debated on Wednesday 22 March 2017

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—


1. What recent assessment his Department has made of the effect of the government transformation strategy 2017 to 2020 on cyber-security. (909379)

Cyber-attacks are growing more frequent, sophisticated and damaging. The government transformation strategy will ensure that government protects all its services and products from cybercrime, and will ensure that all systems are designed with cyber-security and appropriate privacy safeguards in place.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Can he reassure us that as the transformation strategy, for very good reasons, puts more and more of our personal data—on our taxes, on our health and so on—online, none of those data will be at risk of ending up in the wrong hands?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. Central to what we are doing is protecting not only the information that government requires to be kept confidential, but, as importantly, the information that citizens require to be kept confidential. That is partly why Verify has been designed so that it protects citizens’ data in the inquires that they make of government.

Last night, I had a very pleasant evening, in Blacks Club, with Dr Helen Stokes-Lampard, the chairman of the Royal College of General Practitioners, who is my own personal GP from Lichfield. She was telling me that NHS data on patients will now be held on the cloud—and this system will work, of course, because individual programmes will access it. But how secure will the cloud be?

My hon. Friend has doctors in high places. All I would say to him is that specific inquiries about NHS digital services should be directed to the Health Secretary, but I shall ensure that my hon. Friend receives a proper reply from him. As for the Government’s general strategy, our purpose is to make sure that we have the most secure government information systems anywhere in the world. That is what lies behind the government transformation strategy and the Government’s cyber-strategy, too.

Is the Government’s strategy on big data not the wrong way round? It is concentrating on big organisations having a central repository of data over people, whereas this should be about an empowering state where individuals have control over their own data—they should not have them held by big organisations.

The Government are seeking to achieve precisely the latter of those things, which is why Verify has been built as it has. It is very important that citizens have complete faith in the data held by government and feel able to interrogate data in the way that is open to them. We are not quite where I would like to be on this yet, but as we design digital services in the future I want to arrive at precisely the point the hon. Gentleman indicates.

Will the Minister update the House on the action he is taking to ensure that businesses are aware of their responsibilities on cyber-security, particularly those businesses that trade with government, so that businesses are safe and government is made safe?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important matter. I direct businesses to look at the cyber essentials pack on the National Cyber Security Centre website, which details the essentials of what businesses can do to protect themselves. The NCSC’s purpose is to ensure that businesses that work with government adhere to the same high standards of cyber-security that the Government expect of themselves.

Domestic Abuse Victims: Voting

I published a policy statement on 3 March proposing reforms to anonymous registration and seeking feedback from interested parties by 26 May. I want to reflect the experiences of domestic abuse survivors so that they can more easily exercise their right to vote. This will help to ensure that we have a democracy that works for everyone.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and welcome any moves towards making it easier for both men and women who have suffered domestic abuse to register to vote. Will he outline further what changes he is making, and confirm that the names and addresses of those men and women who are registering anonymously will not be on the electoral register?

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that names and addresses do not appear on the electoral register as a result of the application to register anonymously. The Government are proposing to make it easier for an applicant to demonstrate that their safety is at risk by expanding the type of documentary evidence required and the people who can attest to this, and as part of the consultation process we are looking at every point of contact that the survivors of domestic abuse come across to make sure that they exercise their right to vote.

I warmly welcome the Minister’s efforts to make it easier for victims of domestic abuse to register to vote, and to have the all-important right to have their say and be heard, which has been raised in my surgeries by Wealden constituents who have survived domestic abuse. One part of the Government’s plan is to increase the number of attestors by lowering the seniority required of them in the police and social services, and possibly by expanding the number of professions they come from. Will training or guidelines be provided to help the new attestors when they are called on to adjudicate in a specific case?

The Cabinet Office will be working with the Electoral Commission and representative bodies to provide the relevant guidance that will be required.

I commend the Government on the work they have done with Women’s Aid and other organisations. Will my hon. Friend assure me that this work will continue to ensure that the victims of all types of domestic abuse are heard at the ballot box?

I have worked closely on this issue with domestic abuse charities over the past six months, including Women’s Aid, to explore what can be done to improve the anonymous registration process. I look forward to continuing this work with Women’s Aid and other domestic abuse charities.

For 26 years before I was a Member of Parliament, I worked in the field of domestic abuse. Will the Minister make sure that he considers the extent to which domestic abuse perpetrators will make efforts to track down their victims, often for many months and years after the relationship has ended?

I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution to the field of domestic violence work. She is absolutely right that someone is a survivor of domestic abuse not just for two or five years, but for the rest of their life. When we give people the right to vote, we must ensure that they and their names and addresses are protected. We will carry forward that work as part of the consultation process, and given her expertise, I welcome any contribution that she would like to make.

It is great that the Government are showing bureaucratic flexibility to help domestic abuse victims to vote, but such flexibility should be put into all the Government’s voter registration efforts. Will they build “register to vote” links into all their online service application pages?

During the past couple of years, we have introduced the ability to register to vote online. It has been highly successful, with 24 million people taking the opportunity to register to vote online. As part of our democratic engagement strategy, which I will publish in the summer, I am keen to look at digital democracy and where it can work, and to see what we can do with other Departments to ensure that we have such points of contact and that we base democratic registration around individual users. I will be taking forward exactly what the hon. Gentleman mentioned.

Will the Minister ensure that the utmost application of secrecy will be adhered to for victims of domestic abuse who are severely traumatised and have found it difficult to apply for either postal or proxy votes.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We need to ensure that we learn from the experience of domestic abuse survivors. We must look at that particular journey and ensure that the registration process, when we have it, works for women who need extra protection. We must also look at refuge managers to ensure that we provide the support that they will need.

It is obviously welcome that the Government are seeking to protect the voting rights of domestic violence survivors by making anonymity easier—by the way, the announcement of a one-off cash injection for specialist refuges is also welcome, although much more is needed. However, people cannot easily vote if they have no fixed abode. The truth is that Women’s Aid estimates that one in six of all specialist refuges have closed since 2010, and, tragically, over 150 women plus 100 children per day are unable to find a specialist refuge. Will the Minister ensure that the inter-ministerial group now addresses the twin central questions: providing sustainable funding for refuges and ensuring comprehensive refuge provision in every part of the country?

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have increased funding for women’s refuges. The Prime Minister has set out very clearly that she wishes to make domestic violence one of her personal priorities, and a review is ongoing. When it comes to registration, let me be clear: this issue was raised with me, through Women’s Aid, by a lady called Mehala Osborne. She is a survivor of domestic abuse, and she has fought bravely by putting her name out in the public domain to campaign for other women. There are potentially 12,000 women who, by virtue of their circumstances, cannot take the step of registering to vote, and we are determined to give them their voice so that they are heard.

Voter Registration

3. If he will make it his policy to include in national insurance notification letters to 15 and 16-year-olds information on being able to register to vote from the age of 16. (909381)

4. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of promoting voter registration in national insurance notification letters. (909382)

Although this matter falls within the responsibility of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, I am pleased to confirm that the Cabinet Office and HMRC officials are working together to identify how best to promote electoral registration further in relation to national insurance numbers, including notification letters.

Clearly, any steps to improve voter registration have to be welcomed, but does the Minister agree that a far more efficient and cost-effective way to do so would be simply to introduce a system of automatic voter registration?

The Government have been clear in their determination to ensure that we have individual electoral registration. Voting is not just a right; it is a responsibility. I am delighted that the Electoral Commission said in a report published last year that the number of 16-year-olds registering to vote increased by 17.7%.

The national insurance registration process is one way to increase electoral registration and therefore democratic participation, but there are others, including education, auto-enrolment—as my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson) suggested—and, of course, online voting. When previously I pressed the Cabinet Office on this matter, it said there would be a plan in the spring to widen democratic participation. Spring is here. Where is the plan?

Indeed, spring has sprung, and my commitment to ensuring that we have a democratic engagement plan is still maintained and in place. We will publish that plan shortly, in due course. We are committed to ensuring that we have a democracy that works for everyone, and that includes young people as well.

We welcome the Government’s commitment to look at promoting voter registration on national insurance letters. We know how important it is to make sure that young people and students are registered to vote—they are often the people missing from the electoral roll. Will the Government commit to supporting the amendment from the other place to the Higher Education and Research Bill? It would allow universities to auto-enrol students on campuses.

I met Baroness Royall yesterday to discuss her amendment. I have been working over several months with universities, the Cabinet Office funded the University of Sheffield pilot that looked at this enrolment process with £10,000, and we are looking at other universities that are beginning to introduce it. It is right that we have a democracy that works for everyone and that we make it easier for electoral registration staff and universities to work together. We are determined to look closely at this process.

Government Efficiency Savings

The Government are conducting an efficiency review to deliver savings and embed an efficiency culture into government. The Chief Secretary and I are leading the review together. Cabinet Office functions provide support, expertise and assurance, helping Departments to work together to cut waste and inefficiency.

What progress is being made with the single departmental delivery plans across every Government Department? How will they align cost savings and Government policy initiatives more closely to deliver our manifesto?

The House, especially those interested in plans, will be pleased to know that this is the first time in the history of Government plans that we have done a second iteration of a plan—that is an exciting point. We are aligning the plans with the efficiency review, which means that, amazingly, we are going to plan government with money at the same time.

The electrification of the railway from Paddington to Swansea has an overspend of £1.2 billion. The Minister knows that it is not an isolated case, with a number of infrastructure projects overspending. What is the Department doing to ensure, before the Government sign contracts, that the targets are not over-optimistic?

The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point. The Infrastructure and Projects Authority was set up to assess infrastructure projects rigorously, which is why we have been able to reduce the number of overspends he correctly identifies. The complex transactions unit in my Department also assesses transactions before they happen to make sure that we are protecting the Government. I hope the big projects that are coming down the line are going to be framed even better than others have been in the past few years.

Government Transparency

The UK is recognised as a world leader in transparency, and the Government are committed to being the most transparent in the world. We have published an unprecedented amount of data—more than 35,000 datasets, including data about the workings of government.

Will my right hon. Friend outline how the Government are being informed by international best practice to meet their manifesto commitment to be the most transparent Government in the world?

We must learn from each other, which is why we are members of the Open Government Partnership, which this country helped to set up. I have been to the OGP conference to learn from others, and we will continue to learn in that way, including from the OECD, the G20 and the International Aid Transparency Initiative.

Does the Minister believe that transparency should begin at home? If he does, can he please explain where the response is to my letter of 19 December, which is addressed to his Department and to the director-general of his Department’s propriety and ethics team, because I have yet to receive it?

I profoundly apologise to the hon. Lady if we have not responded in time. It is very important to me that we respond courteously and quickly to Members, and I shall chase up the matter immediately and make sure that she gets a proper response.

15. I welcome the Government’s steps to increase transparency and look forward to the final stages of my own private Member’s Bill, which aims to extend public access to local audit documents in local authorities. Does my right hon. Friend agree that increasing transparency at all levels of government—local and national—is a crucial step forward towards increasing trust? (909393)

It is worth remembering that it was Margaret Thatcher who made it possible for local councils to conduct their hearings in public, which is something that we now take for granted. That is why we need to continue this if we are to reinforce the relationship between citizens and the public bodies that serve them.

I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland how many meetings he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer to discuss the Ayrshire growth deal. His answer was that he has had lots of meetings in general, but that the details of ministerial discussions are not routinely disclosed. Does the Minister agree that the lack of transparency in his answer is a disgrace?

It sounds entirely transparent to me. The Secretary of State is on the Bench. He has heard the question and no doubt he will want to be caught afterwards to discuss it further. I know that he has almost daily discussions with the Chancellor about the interests of Scotland, which is why he was able to secure an additional £350 million for Scotland in the Budget. That shows the advantages of being in this Union of the United Kingdom.

Electoral Registration: Funding

The Cabinet Office committed to the funding of additional costs of individual electoral registration for the remainder of the Parliament. Local authorities maintain their previous statutory responsibilities to maximise the completeness of the registers and are responsible for the funding of the costs of the household canvas.

Research carried out after the EU referendum by Newcastle University’s Dr Alistair Clark on behalf of the Electoral Commission said:

“Alarmingly, concerns about levels of funding were raised with nearly half of local authorities claiming that they have insufficient funds to maintain the electoral register.”

Does the Minister not find that statement deeply worrying for our democracy, and, if so, what are the Government doing about it?

The Government have committed to fund local authorities to cover the additional costs of IER. In 2016-17, those costs came to £21 million, and a further £49.5 million is committed to the end of this Parliament. In particular, Newcastle City Council received £145,000 for 2016-17 to fund its delivery of IER and the register.

Voter Registration: Proof of Identity

10. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of allowing alternative forms of proof of identity for voter registration. (909388)

Where an applicant’s identity cannot be verified in the first instance, an exceptions process allows for a number of alternative forms of identification to be used to support that application. Finally, an attestation can support an applicant if they are able to provide any of the documentation required.

Last year, it was reported that only 25% of people knew their national insurance number, which is one of the key identifiers. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that that will have on voter registration?

When it comes to the voter registration process, I am delighted that the Electoral Commission reported last week that we now have a record 47.3 million people on the register. Our democracy is more engaged than ever before. We have had 24 million applications online using the national insurance number, but, as I have said, there are alternatives for those who do not have national insurance numbers, including the attestation process, which works very effectively.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is the centre of government. The Department is responsible for the constitution, for supporting the design and delivery of Government policy and for helping government to deliver the finest public services through more efficient working and attracting and developing the finest public servants.

The House of Lords has amended the Higher Education and Research Bill to ensure that HE institutions give their students the option to go on the electoral register. What will the Minister do to assist that process as statistics suggest that only 13% of students are registered at present? It would save both them and councils money.

As I stated in an earlier answer, I met Baroness Royall to discuss her amendment. I am committed to ensuring that more students are able to register easily, which will save money for electoral registration officers. I am working on looking at this process. The Cabinet Office funded the pilot in Sheffield in the first place, and we are determined to ensure that we carry on this work.

The Cabinet Office has set up a centre of expertise that is working with public bodies to understand the overall problem, agree and monitor aspirations for a reduction of fraud, and put in place standards for organisations. As a result of that work, we had the benefit of savings of £733 million for 2015-16.

The ministerial code clearly states that former Ministers require advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments prior to announcing any new business appointments. ACOBA is unable to report on its advice retrospectively after a new post has been made public. Can the Minister explain why he gave different advice to the House during his response to the urgent question on Monday? Was it just a mistake, or have the rules conveniently been changed in the space of a week?

The hon. Gentleman has made his point very clear. ACOBA is coming to its determination and it will consider all the evidence in the round. It is important that it does so without my prejudicing its decision by passing comment.

Order. There is excessive noise, which is rather discordant and very unseemly. Let us have a bit of order for Mrs Sheryll Murray.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that local authorities should strive to be as efficient as possible? To that end, perhaps he can assist the Lib Dem/Independent-led Cornwall council in prioritising the interests of residents rather than political vanity projects. (909398)

I am very concerned that the Liberal Democrats in Cornwall are not seeking to use the One Public Estate programme, which is set up precisely so they can save public money and direct it to the frontline. That is where they should be directing their efforts.

Fortunately for the right hon. Gentleman, he is not responsible for the Liberal Democrats—either in Cornwall or anywhere else.

T3. What is the Minister’s assessment of the results of the British attitudes survey, which shows that only one in four people trust the Government’s use of statistics? (909396)

I am as concerned as the hon. Gentleman will be. That is why we need to make sure that the independence of our statistics machine, to which other countries look for advice, is shown to the public to be the best in the world. That is what it is.

We have made considerable progress. According to our original timetable, we will be able to release the results of the first part later this year. That will be a moment of reckoning for this country, as we face up to the serious challenges still ahead of us in making sure that everyone has an equal opportunity, no matter what their colour or background.

T4. Some £200,000 of election spending misreported or omitted from returns; an unwillingness to co-operate with the Electoral Commission; a £70,000 fine that the Tories can just shrug off because of their wealthy donors: does the Minister agree that there needs to be a greater punishment for political parties that break the election spending rules? (909397)

It is clear that on that issue the Electoral Commission has taken action against parties across the political divide. It is right, going forward, that we look at incremental ways in which we can reform party funding, but our elections are the most transparent in our democracy. They ensure the publication of spending and it is right that that should take place.

T8. What steps is the Minister’s Department taking to maximise opportunities for UK industry through cross-Government procurement? Does he have any early sense of how the new procurement guidelines are bedding down? (909401)

My hon. Friend is right to point out that it was this Government who introduced new guidance to make sure that we could support the UK steel industry wherever possible. That has been well received by the industry, and I hope to be able to write to my hon. Friend quite shortly with the results of where we have got so far.

Will the Minister for Digital and Culture recuse himself from decisions on Government media policy, given his close relationship to the new editor of the London Evening Standard?

My right hon. Friend the Minister is a decent and honourable man, and he will make his own decision about his ministerial responsibilities. It is wrong to impugn his motives in the House, if I may say so.

Does the Minister intend to expand the One Public Estate initiative? It not only rationalises our public buildings for financial reasons, but gives us the opportunity to create better and more streamlined services for our residents.

My hon. Friend has it in one: not only does this initiative allow us to save costs so that we can direct money to the frontline, but it means that public services are far simpler for our citizens to deal with, because they are located in one place.