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Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 626: debated on Wednesday 5 July 2017

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Sector Pay

1. If he will hold discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on bringing forward proposals to review public sector pay. (900232)

Public sector pay policy has always been designed to strike the right balance between being fair to our public servants and fair to those who pay for them. The Government will continue to assess that balance.

I thank the Minister for that answer, and I ask the House to note that my wife is a primary school teacher in Scotland. According to an academic report published this week by the UK Government, average public sector earnings have fallen in the last decade by 6%, or up to £3 per hour for some people. With that in mind, will the Minister advise us on whether he supports, and wishes this Government to follow, the lead that the Scottish Government have taken in ending the 1% cap for public sector workers? Or does he support what the former Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday: that it is “selfish” to campaign for an end to the cap?

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman brings up Scottish education, which is, as he knows, the responsibility of the Scottish Government. I point out that in England, where this Government have responsibility for education, there are 15,500 more teachers than there were in 2010. As he knows, the Government have asked independent public sector pay review bodies to recommend what should happen in their respective professions each year, and the House may be interested to know that the Government have accepted every recommendation made by a public sector pay review body since 2014.

The Gray family have a monopoly on Question 1. Of course, we all have every sympathy with public sector pay bodies, and it is right that we listen to what they say. Nevertheless, does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to accede to every request, we will have to pay for it by either decreasing spending or increasing taxation? Which would he prefer?

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point. Everyone in this House wants to be fair to public sector workers, but Conservative Members also want to be fair to taxpayers. It is very important that we strike the right balance. If we do not strike that balance, we will wreck the economy, which is what would happen with the Labour party’s ridiculous uncosted policy proposals.

While cutting the real-terms pay of nurses, the police, fire officers and others, the Prime Minister has broken her own £72,000 cap that she advocated for the salaries of political appointees. A third of all her special advisers earn more than that, and her two ill-fated chiefs of staff earned almost double that amount. How can the Minister justify pay restraint for nurses when there is no restraint in No. 10? Will he put an end to the pay cap in the public sector by changing the guidelines that the Government give to the pay review bodies? Finally, will he reject the former Prime Minister’s disgraceful slur that wanting to earn a decent income in the public sector is somehow selfish?

Let me answer some of the hon. Gentleman’s questions. I hope he recognises that, as I have just said, the Government have accepted every recommendation made by a public sector pay review body since 2014. Striking the right balance between being fair to public sector workers and being fair to taxpayers must be the right way forward. The suggestions that were made during the election campaign, and clearly continue to be made, by the Labour party would lead to the situation that the Greek people have had to suffer: precisely because of irresponsible commitments made by their Government, they have had to slash their public services. Public services get worse under the sort of economic policy advised by the Labour party.

Prompt Payment Code

Since 2015, we have worked closely with the Government’s major strategic suppliers to encourage them to sign up to the prompt payment code. I am pleased to say that all 32 strategic suppliers that we targeted in 2015 have now signed up.

Will my hon. Friend explain to me exactly how we are speeding up payments to companies? Cash flow from Government contracts is so important. Also, is there a way to make sure that Government contracts are of a size such that small and medium-sized companies are more able to bid for them?

We know how important prompt payment is to smaller businesses, and we are committed to making further improvements to payment practice. We are working to remove all barriers facing small and medium-sized enterprises bidding for Government contracts, and we are committed to increasing spend with SMEs, both directly and through the supply chain. We have also opened the free-to-use Contracts Finder website for suppliers to advertise subcontracting opportunities.

Cash flow is vital to small businesses in Chichester and throughout the country. What are the Government doing to ensure that they lead the way and pay their suppliers properly?

I welcome my hon. Friend to the House. The Government are committed to paying our suppliers promptly. All public sector buyers must include a 30-day payment term in new public sector contracts, pay undisputed invoices within 30 days, and require that this payment term be passed down the supply chain. Our own payment performance is published quarterly, and the Government are doing brilliantly well in meeting our targets.

When my party becomes the Government of this country very soon, we will declare war on late payments, requiring companies bidding for a public sector contract to pay their suppliers within 30 days, and going beyond that with heavy fines for late payers. Will the Conservatives in opposition support us in passing the necessary legislation?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his optimism. In fact, this Government have made sure that undisputed invoices are paid within five days in many cases, and 96% of all contracts are paid within 30 days when the invoices are not disputed.

The prompt payment code simply has not done enough to address the scourge of late payment, with £26 billion owed and an average of 72 days being taken to pay invoices across the country. May I say to the Minister that she should stop paying lip service to the problem and take the action needed for smaller businesses, which just want to be paid on time?

The hon. Gentleman is of course right to point out what a problem this is for small business in particular. However, I want to draw his attention to the Government’s mystery shopper service, which has secured a positive outcome for the vast majority of companies that have brought disputed payments to our attention, and indeed to the signatories to the independent Prompt Payment Code Compliance Board, to which we would encourage all those who have not been paid on time to report such cases.

Electoral Fraud

The Government believe that electoral fraud is unacceptable on any level. We have a clear path to building a democracy that is both clear and secure, and we will work closely with key partner organisations to deliver a comprehensive programme of work for reforming our electoral system and strengthening electoral integrity.

Is the Minister aware that there is now clear evidence that many students boasted on social media of voting twice—once at university, and once by post at home? Surely this is straightforward electoral fraud.

The offence of double voting that my hon. Friend mentions is completely unacceptable. Indeed, it is nothing less than an abuse of our democracy. I am meeting Sir John Holmes, the chair of the Electoral Commission, this afternoon, and I intend to raise this with him as a priority. Let all of us in this House be clear: this is a crime. If anyone has any evidence of people voting twice, they should report it to their local returning officer and the police, who must take this issue seriously.

Will my hon. Friend provide more information about how the introduction of individual electoral registration has assisted in preventing electoral fraud? What checks are in place to ensure that a person is eligible to vote when they register online?

The IER digital service operated by the Cabinet Office checks the details provided by the applicant, including their national insurance number, against government data before passing on the application to the relevant local electoral administration teams.

It has been highlighted that all someone needs when they go to vote is a name and an address. In theory, someone could get hold of a telephone directory and vote all day in different polling stations. Does the Minister agree that it is time to use photo identification to prevent electoral fraud?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. People deserve to have confidence in the security of our democratic system of elections. Voter ID has been in place in Northern Ireland for decades, and the use of photographic ID was introduced in 2003 under the previous Labour Government. The Electoral Commission has consistently called for use of ID in polling stations to protect the integrity of the polls. The Government will conduct voter ID pilots in the local elections in May 2018 to enable us to learn what works best, and to ensure that we develop a system in which there is full public confidence.

Are we not supposed to have policy driven by evidence, and is it not significant that the Minister gave not one shred of evidence in his reply? Quite frankly, in every election there are one or two cases of people being convicted of fraud, out of tens of millions of voters. This is straight out of the Donald Trump disinformation playbook, because Ministers are again trying to suppress voter participation. The Minister cannot come up with any evidence—if anyone has such evidence, they should take it to the police—and he should be ashamed of himself.

I missed the last part of that rant, but this idea has the backing of the Electoral Commission and electoral authorities, so that we can deliver a secure democracy that has the confidence of the public. The last Electoral Commission report on the subject shows that 38% of people felt that electoral fraud was an issue. Since 2010, 2,394 alleged cases of electoral fraud have been reported to the Electoral Commission.

Electoral fraud, whenever it occurs, is a serious business. The fact that there were two successful prosecutions in 2016 shows the size of the problem. Does the Minister agree that the bigger crime is having 7 million people off the electoral register?

When it comes to the size of the electoral register, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will share my delight that we have the largest electoral register since records began, at 46.9 million people. A record 3 million people registered to vote at this election. The Government believe in a democracy that works for everyone. Tackling electoral fraud means making sure that people are not disenfranchised by losing their vote, and protecting the most vulnerable communities, such as those in Tower Hamlets.

But surely the time has come for automatic electoral registration. How can it possibly be fair that, according to the Office for National Statistics, in my inner-city Nottingham constituency, less than three quarters of adults are on the electoral register, but in the Minister’s constituency, over 97% of adults are? Is not the real electoral fraud those policies that stand in the way of citizens exercising their democratic rights?

The introduction of the individual electoral registration website has seen 27 million people register to vote using that system. We want to ensure that registering to vote is as easy and effective as possible, but voting and registering to vote have individual responsibility at their heart. We need to protect the integrity of the polls and, equally, all MPs have a duty to encourage registration in our constituencies.

In Eddisbury there was clear evidence of double registrations, even within the constituency. Does the Minister agree that we should have a central system that flags up people who are double-registered, wherever they are in the country?

The electoral register is held by 380 electoral registration officers. It is right that that remains locally accountable to communities. We do not intend to introduce any central registration system, which would cost upwards of £80 million, but we are interested in looking at this issue, which is a serious one. As I said, I am meeting the Electoral Commission and look forward to taking forward proposals in due course.

This new ministerial team would be wrong to pander to the near-obsession of their own Back Benchers with the idea that the principal problem of our electoral system is voter fraud. In fact, the biggest thing that undermines our parliamentary democracy is that more than 14.6 million of those who were registered to vote did not do so four weeks ago. Will the Minister make good on the promises, which I have received twice already in this Chamber, to bring forward proposals to increase democratic participation in our country?

The hon. Gentleman mentions a 14 million figure, and we heard a 7 million figure earlier from a Labour Member. What we know from the data is that there is a specific churn of people moving properties, particularly renters and home movers. The Government want to address that to make sure that we have better data, so that we understand where people are registering and why they are registering. That is why we will bring forward a democratic engagement strategy to ensure that we have a democracy that works for everyone.

Democratic Engagement

4. What discussions the Government have had with electoral administrators on promoting democratic engagement. (900235)

We have worked closely with electoral administrators across the country to make use of their experience and expertise when consulting on promoting democratic engagement. With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to take this opportunity, on behalf of the whole House, to thank our returning officers and registration officers for their hard work in ensuring that the recent general election ran so smoothly. They are the unsung heroes of our democracy.

British citizens living abroad want to engage in our democratic process here in the UK, but currently they lose that right after 15 years. What is my hon. Friend doing to deliver on our manifesto promise to give such people votes for life?

The Government’s principle is clear: participation in our democracy is a fundamental part of being British, however far people have travelled. We are committed to scrapping the 15-year rule in time for the next scheduled general election in 2022. Although the manifesto commitment to legislate for votes for life was not in the 2017 Queen’s Speech—the manifesto was a programme for the Parliament, not just for this first Session—we are determined to ensure that British voters, wherever they are, have the right to have their say.

In terms of democratic engagement, we had unprecedented problems in Newcastle-under-Lyme during the general election with late and missing postal votes, and with people being turned away from polling stations over registration issues. I have written to the First Secretary of State and Minister for the Cabinet Office about that, an investigation is under way, and I will apply for an Adjournment debate. In the meantime, will the Minister urgently remind council chief executives and returning officers of their responsibility to resource electoral services sufficiently to carry out their legal responsibilities?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will report that specific point on Newcastle-under-Lyme to the Electoral Commission, which will produce a review of the general election that the Government will look at closely. The Cabinet Office has provided funding for local authorities and registration officers over a five-year period. We are looking at those claims, but he is absolutely right that our elections are a centrepiece of local democracy, and local authorities should take this seriously.

Democratic engagement must be safe. Will my hon. Friend provide more information on the work being done to support sufferers of domestic violence in registering to vote?

Indeed. Next year will be the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote, and the 90th anniversary of women getting the equal right to vote, but there are still some women and groups in society who, by virtue of their circumstances, are unable to vote. Survivors of domestic violence are unable to register because they do not want to put their safety at risk. We are determined to take forward legislation to ensure that we expand the range of attesters and documentation to give those women the chance to vote in our democratic elections.

A Lancaster University study found that 24% of people with learning disabilities had registered to vote, but that only 9% of them used their vote. The survey also found that some voters were turned away from polling stations by clerks who perceived their learning disability to be the reason why they were not allowed to vote. What are the Government doing to ensure that all voters, regardless of their disability, have their right to vote in elections?

The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The Cabinet Office has established an “accessibility to elections” working group; its members include Mencap and the Royal National Institute of Blind People. I am concerned to ensure that in the 21st century, disability and sight loss are not barriers to voting. We will look at bringing forward proposals to ensure that we make our elections as accessible as possible.


6. What steps the Government are taking to ensure the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. (900237)

10. What steps the Government are taking to ensure the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. (900241)

14. What steps the Government are taking to ensure the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. (900245)

Our world-leading national cyber-security strategy, supported by £1.9 billion of transformational investment, sets out measures to defend our people, businesses and assets; deter our adversaries; and develop the skills and capabilities we need. Our experts in the National Cyber Security Centre provide advice and guidance to help both public and private sector organisations be more resilient to cyber-attacks.

There seems to be a misleading impression that IT and cyber-security are of interest only to boys. What are the Government doing to encourage women to take part?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Only 10% of the global cyber workforce is female. That represents a huge pool of untapped talent. As part of our ambitious plans to transform the nation’s cyber capabilities, we have launched new initiatives, such as the incredibly successful CyberFirst Girls competition to encourage young women to pursue a career in the industry—it has more than 8,000 participants. We also want business to do more to encourage women into that exciting and rewarding sector.

What steps can we take to ensure that we train young people to tackle the cybercrimes of the future?

I agree that it is important that our young people have the skills they will need to support the nation’s future security and economic prosperity. We are working with industry experts and organisations such as Cyber Security Challenge to reach out and inspire children, parents and teachers through a range of extracurricular activities, mixing teaching with real-world challenges and hands-on work experience.

Many of my constituents are served by Southport and Formby district general hospital, which was affected by the recent cyber-attack on the NHS. What steps are the Government taking to protect our health service from such attacks happening again?

My hon. Friend raises a really important issue. The impact of WannaCry was felt by the NHS as a result of a legacy of some unsupported IT systems and inconsistent software patching. NHS Digital is taking a proactive approach to ensure that security patches are applied promptly, and the National Cyber Security Centre has provided expert guidance to CareCERT and is supporting individual NHS trusts and organisations in their migration from unsupported systems.

The Cabinet Office rejected a Public Accounts Committee recommendation that it should set out a detailed plan for how the National Cyber Security Centre will enable those under attack to get help. We heard evidence from many people in large organisations who were very confused about where to go for that help. Will the Minister now reconsider the rejection of that requirement and look again?

Our advice is very clear: we have funded a substantial national cyber-security programme, which goes alongside expertise from the National Cyber Security Centre. That is directed specifically towards improving the cyber-security of Government and the wider public sector. Our collective focus is on ensuring we have the most secure systems, and that public services and buildings are kept up to date so that our information is safe.

Cyber-security is, of course, only as strong as it is policed. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure the police have the resources to enforce cyber laws without having to sacrifice neighbourhood policing?

The hon. Gentleman will have heard my comments about the National Cyber Security Centre. It is really important that we have specialists in place to address what is a very particular and high-tech crime.

Topical Questions

In their 2015 manifesto, the Government committed to sign up their major suppliers to the prompt payment code. This voluntary code commits signatories to fair payment terms across all UK transactions. Prompt payment can make a real difference to small businesses, boosting their cash flow and allowing them to invest in growth. Since 2015, we have worked closely with the Government’s strategic suppliers to encourage them to sign up. I am pleased to confirm that all the suppliers we targeted in 2015 have now signed up to the code.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that transparency is an effective way of changing the culture around prompt payments? What are the Government doing to ensure that businesses that regularly pay their suppliers late can be identified?

My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We recently introduced a new statutory duty for large companies to report on a six-monthly basis on their payment performance and practices. It is important that this protects small and medium-sized enterprises. We encourage businesses to report any instances of poor payment practice in public sector contracts to our mystery shopper service.

The House will be aware that we are currently having the first parliamentary by-election of this Session. It is happening over in the other place; it is the hereditary peers by-election, with just 31 electors. Does the Minister agree that that is a farce in a modern-day democracy?

The Government have been clear, in the previous Parliament and in their manifesto, that reform of the House of Lords is not an immediate priority. However, a Lord Speaker’s Committee in the other place is looking at the size of the House of Lords and we are determined to consider its recommendations. The situation relates to legislation passed by a previous Labour Government in 1999. We are determined to ensure, above all, that the House of Lords is an effective revising Chamber.

T5. Will Ministers assure the House that all relevant Government Departments will be consulted to ensure that the domestic implications of Brexit are properly considered? (900213)

The Cabinet Office plays an important role in ensuring that Government business is effectively co-ordinated, including on important issues around Brexit. Cabinet Office Ministers are working closely with colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union and others across Whitehall to ensure that we get the best deal for the whole United Kingdom.

T2. The Government’s coalition of chaos extends, unfortunately, as far as cyber-security, with responsibility shared between the Cabinet Office, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Can the Minister tell me the prevalence of XP machines in the Government estate, the public sector and the private sector, and what she is doing to reduce it? (900210)

We have made good progress on reducing dramatically the number of XP machines in the Government cyber-estate. The hon. Lady will know that the National Cyber Security Centre takes the lead on this issue and is co-ordinating work across government.

T7. Further to my earlier question about students fraudulently voting twice, may I ask whether, when my hon. Friend meets representatives of the Electoral Commission, he will ensure that the police are involved as well? (900215)

When it comes to the issue of electoral fraud and double voting, I will ensure that we involve all our electoral partners, including the police.

T3. If the Government are really committed to modernising the electoral register, will the Minister confirm that they will allow universities to block-register students during enrolment and re-registration, and ensure that schools and further education colleges give details of people who are approaching voting age to the electoral registration office? (900211)

No. We do not agree with block registration. What the Government have done is to ensure, through the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, that universities have a duty to encourage registration. We will publish ministerial guidance on the issue in 2018.

Now that the Local Government Finance Bill has been suspended, will the Minister tell me what additional revenue-raising powers mayors such as mine in devolved areas like Cambridgeshire will have?

I know my hon. Friend will welcome the fact that, through the devolution deal with Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, the Government have pledged up to £770 million of new funding to support local economic growth. I look forward to working with the excellent James Palmer, the new mayor, to support growth in Cambridgeshire.

T4. At the last general election, the Government made very little attempt to ensure that voting registration and participation took place, and large swathes of the electorate were unable to vote properly. Will the Minister outline the steps that will be taken to ensure—[Interruption.] (900212)

Will the Minister outline the steps that will be taken to ensure that people living with visual impairments are able to vote, and that voting is fully accessible both to them and to those with learning disabilities?

A record number of people are now on the electoral register. We have a democracy in which more people are participating than ever before. I shall be delighted to work with the hon. Lady on the question of visual impairments, which I believe is a cross-party issue, and we look forward to presenting proposals to ensure that elections are accessible to visually impaired people.