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Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the duchy of lancaster

Volume 631: debated on Wednesday 22 November 2017

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Sector Cyber-security

1. What assessment he has made of the level of investment required to ensure high standards of cyber-security in the public sector. (901965)

Our 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 cyber-skills. These include the creation of the National Cyber Security Centre and direct investment in central and local government, the health sector and the defence sector.

Our public services have been starved of cash for seven years, but cyber-security requires constant investment, so has the Minister advocated long-term funding to enable public services to protect themselves against all forms of cyber-attack?

Yes, indeed. That is the whole point not just of the National Cyber Security Centre, but of the very significant investment I have just mentioned—£1.9 billion—which is set to transform defences against cyber-attack across the public sector, for central and local government, particularly the health and defence sectors, as well as advising the private sector, because our defences obviously need to be mutually dependent across the public and private sectors.

Does my right hon. Friend not accept that none the less there is a slight lack of clarity on who within the Government has ultimate responsibility for cyber-security, both offensive and defensive? Is not it time we had a cyber-department that would be responsible for defending this nation against cyber-attacks and thinking about ways it could possibly be used abroad?

My hon. Friend is right that we need proper co-ordination. That co-ordination role falls to the Cabinet Office, but clearly there are important areas where the Home Office has direct responsibility for operational matters, and obviously the Ministry of Defence has responsibilities in purely military terms. I am happy to reassure him that the co-ordination comes through the Cabinet Office.

As we have just come to the conclusion that a cyber-influence was entirely invisible and beyond any mechanisms that the electoral college has to control it, and as the Prime Minister has said that there was cyber-influence in the elections and probably in the referendums, is it not time we decided that we should have no faith in those two results and that we should look for another referendum, because second thoughts are always better than first thoughts?

The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. There is no evidence of any successful attempt to interfere with our electoral processes. Indeed, it is particularly difficult to have a cyber-attack against an electoral system that requires voters to put crosses on pieces of paper using small pencils, so that undoubtedly old-fashioned system is very effective against cyber-attack.

To defend ourselves against cyber-attack, it is essential that we recruit and retain people with the necessary skills to take up the cudgels on our behalf in the cyber-arms race. What steps are the Government taking to recruit and retain people with those skills in the public sector?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The National Cyber Security Centre, along with GCHQ, has established a programme of assessment and certification. Some 20 degrees have been certified, most of which are one-year postgraduate master’s degrees in cyber-security, and 14 universities are now academic centres of excellence in cyber-security research, precisely so that we can maintain a pipeline of skilled people to help our cyber-defences.

We have learnt today that Uber’s suppression of a database hack involving tens of millions of people is to be investigated, but there were 9,000 data breaches by the Government in a single year, according to the National Audit Office, although they notified the Information Commissioner’s Office of only 14 of them. Such contraventions clearly pose questions about our personal privacy and security. Given the scale of what is happening with the internet, action is clearly needed for further protection of the public. But last year the Government spent only—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we are very pressed for time. We need a sentence and a question. We have to press on because we have a lot of people to accommodate.

Last year, the Government announced that they had spent only £230 million of the £1.9 billion allowance that had been made. Will the Minister get on with spending that money to protect our citizens?

We are absolutely getting on with spending the money to protect our citizens in the ways I have just set out. The hon. Gentleman will realise that that £1.9 billion is to be spent over five years, so the fact that we have spent £230 million-odd in the first year is about what we would expect. It is a continuous programme of continuous improvement.

The Queen’s Private Estate: Ethical Investment

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

I congratulate Her Majesty the Queen, Duke of Lancaster, and His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh on their platinum wedding anniversary, and I pay tribute to their decades of public service to our country.

Her Majesty voluntarily pays tax on all income received from the duchy. The duchy’s investment strategy is based on advice and recommendations from its investment consultants.

One of the revelations we saw in the Paradise papers was an investment by the royal estate in the shambolic and exploitative company BrightHouse, which preys on and exploits many of my constituents. Does the Minister understand the absolute anger in Glasgow East at that revelation, and what is he going to do about it?

The investment in BrightHouse was made through a third party, equates to £3,208 and represents 0.0006% of the duchy’s value.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that some of the investments that the Opposition have talked about were made in 2005, under the previous Labour Government?

Bearing in mind what the shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), said when a statement was made on the Paradise papers, perhaps he should have checked that out, because I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the last investment of this sort was made in 2005.

Donations to political parties show stark differences between our party and the Government’s. They are dependent on the ultra-wealthy few, while our party is powered by the many. In the light of the revelation in the Paradise papers that key Tory donor Lord Ashcroft was using offshore tax havens to shelter his wealth, will the Minister and his colleagues be accepting his donations to the Conservative party?

That is all very well, but unfortunately it does not in any way appertain to the Queen’s private estate, which is rather a different matter from the Conservative party. We will press on. Well done.

Leaving the EU: Civil Servants

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

3. How many full-time equivalent civil servants have been assigned work relating to the UK’s exit from the EU in the last twelve months; and what estimate he has made of the cost of that work. (901967)

The whole Government are preparing for the UK to make an orderly and successful exit from the European Union. We are equipping ourselves with the right people and the right skills across the Government to make that happen. Although workforce planning is primarily the responsibility of each Department to determine, the civil service constantly reviews its capabilities in this respect.

After a decade of austerity, it seems that £400 million and 8,000 new staff, including 5,000 for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, can be found to deal with Brexit. Will the Minister tell Treasury and HMRC bosses that it is more ludicrous than ever to propose to close Cumbernauld tax office, with its experienced and dedicated workforce?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Cabinet Office works closely with HMRC on workforce planning and, indeed, on Government hubs, with which we are seeking to make sure that we make the best possible use of our resources to provide an effective civil service that provides the best service for his constituents.

Given the additional burdens on civil servants from Brexit, does the Minister agree that the civil service people survey is important to Ministers for judging the working conditions, training and skills of our civil servants? Does she share my surprise that yesterday, in his evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, the Public and Commercial Services Union representative said that he actively encouraged members not to reply to that survey? Will she reaffirm how increasingly important the survey is, so that we can get feedback and ensure we have the right capacity and capabilities in the civil service?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct to say that the survey is crucial to Ministers, and I greet it with relish when it arrives on my desk. It provides invaluable information about our workforce, their attitudes and how they feel about working for us. I am very surprised at the PCS comments, but I reassure all unions that I continue to leave my door open to them and that I am as interested in their views as I am in everybody else’s.

Has the Minister seen the remarks made by the eminent former senior civil servant, Sir Martin Donnelly, who set up the new Department for International Trade? Will she take heed of his warning to the Government:

“We are now just 16 months from Brexit—the biggest shock to the UK economy in living memory”?

I am sure that it will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that the Cabinet Office works closely with those Departments most affected by exit from the EU, including the Department for International Trade as well as the Department for Exiting the European Union and, of course, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. I have seen those comments, but I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we are making sure that we have the right people in place to deliver the successful transition we need.

The Cabinet Office is supposedly co-ordinating this country’s exit from the European Union, so it really ought to know this stuff. The Minister has not answered the question. Will she clarify whether that is because she does not think that Parliament is entitled to the information about how many staff are working on it and how much it costs, or is it because the process is such a shambles that she is unable to provide that information?

We have already created 3,000 new roles, 2,000 of which have been filled. As I have said, further roles will be created and, specifically, the Cabinet Office is working most closely with those Departments most affected.

Voter Registration

The Government are currently considering the 256 responses to our call for evidence on the accessibility of voter registration and voting. I will soon lay draft legislation to improve the accessibility of the anonymous registration scheme for survivors of domestic violence, and I recently implemented the findings of an accessibility review on the “Register to vote” website.

A 2014 survey by Mencap found that 60% of people with a learning disability found the process of registering to vote too difficult. Registration forms are often complicated and not accompanied by an easy read guide. The Electoral Commission report, “Elections for everyone”, published earlier this month, agrees and calls on the Minister to act. Will he commit to improving the Government’s online registration process, and will he ensure that every local authority provides easy read information and a good helpline, so that no one with a learning disability is disenfranchised?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising the report by Mencap, which has been working closely with the Cabinet Office and is a member of the “accessibility to elections” working group. I do not disagree with the premise of her question: we need to do more, in the 21st century, to make sure that our elections are accessible for everyone and that we remove barriers for those who are disabled. I am absolutely committed to doing that. It is right that we now consider all the responses and we will publish our report later next year.

Millions of people are missing from the electoral registers, but there are high levels of support for reforming our electoral registration system—in particular, for automatic voter registration when a person receives their national insurance number. When will the Government implement the necessary reforms to ensure that our democracy works for the many, not just the few?

We believe that we need a democracy that works for everyone, which is why we are determined to introduce a democratic engagement strategy, which will be published in December. When it comes to those on the electoral register, a record 46.8 million people are now registered to vote. Actually, since the introduction of individual electoral registration, 30 million people have registered to vote, 75% of them using the online system. That is a remarkable success.

Any form of electoral fraud will be taken extremely seriously by this Government. We have already stated that we intend to implement a number of recommendations made by Sir Eric Pickles’s report, “Securing the ballot”. Double voting is obviously a crime and we encourage anyone who has evidence of it to report it to the police. I recently met the Electoral Commission and the National Police Chiefs Council, and we will meet every six months to look at a strategy for tackling double voting. By introducing future reforms to postal voting, we hope that we will be able combat the issue.

The Electoral Commission estimates that some 40% of those who applied late to vote through the online system were actually duplicate registrations. Will my hon. Friend make sure that there is no unnecessary duplication of applications? That would also minimise bureaucracy.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The registration website has been incredibly successful: there were nearly 3 million applications to register at the last general election. Of course, there will be people who register having been registered locally already. There are local solutions to the issue. Local authorities such as Hackney have a look-up tool, and it is right that we explore further what solutions there may be, but I believe that a centralised database may be too costly.

According to figures published by the Electoral Commission, nearly 11,000 people tried to vote on 8 June but found that they were not registered to vote once they reached the polling station. Will the Government examine the use of Government data to place electors on the roll automatically and pilot the idea of polling day voter registration to ensure that every eligible voter is entitled to vote?

The Government sincerely believe in the principle of individual elector registration; we will not be returning to automatic voter registration. We want a register that is complete and accurate as possible. I am delighted that the Electoral Commission has demonstrated in a recent report that the accuracy of the register has risen from 87% to 91%.

Electoral Fraud

We are committed to providing a clear and secure democracy, and we continue to work with local authorities to deliver voter identification pilots for the May 2018 local elections in areas such as Woking, Gosport, Bromley, Watford and Tower Hamlets, as part of our programme to strengthen electoral integrity.

Many people believe that online voting may have potential for the future. What is the Minister’s assessment of online voting in the light of allegations of Russian electoral hacking?

I believe that the UK electoral system is one of the most robust in the world. It is difficult to manipulate through a cyber-attack, as we operate a manual counting and manual voting system. As the First Secretary mentioned in his earlier answer, that may be seen as old-fashioned, but it ensures that our system is protected and our democracy safeguarded.

Will the Government consider using credit reference agency data to improve the accuracy of the electoral register?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, which I will be interested to go away and consider. We are already looking at issues of tenant security deposits, for example—one of the largest groups not on the register are movers and renters, which causes that churn. That is why we are determined to ensure that we have better data to identify where we need to focus our attention and ensure that everyone is able to register to vote.

Is the Minister aware that at the general election in June, there was a 300% increase in proxy votes in the Foyle constituency, resulting in Sinn Féin winning the seat by 169 votes? Many people are specifically saying that that was a clear case of electoral fraud and the theft of a constituency in this House. What will the Minister do to ensure that that does not happen again?

On the general principle of electoral fraud, it is absolutely right that we look at future measures to tackle electoral integrity. It is important that we should have confidence in our democratic system going forward. We will be looking at absent voting arrangements and postal vote harvesting, and we will introduce legislation in future to tackle these issues.

Topical Questions

Following the Prime Minister’s July announcement that a public inquiry will be held into the contaminated blood scandal, the Government sought views from the affected community on how that should operate. I announced on 3 November that the inquiry will be statutory and sponsored by the Cabinet Office. My Department has now taken receipt of more than 800 consultation responses, which it is analysing thoroughly. I have agreed to meet the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood and will make a further statement before the House rises for Christmas.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm what the Government are doing to open up public sector contracts to small and medium-sized enterprises?

I am delighted to. We are developing a system called Contracts Finder—a free, online source for current and future public sector contracts above £10,000 in central Government and above £25,000 in the wider public sector. We are improving the visibility of supply chain opportunities available to SMEs via that site.

The Prime Minister has committed to reviewing the ministerial code to ensure that it remains fit for purpose, and she will update the House in due course.

T2. As we leave the European Union, public appointments will become more important than ever. What are the Government doing to make sure that we get a greater diversity of people appointed to public posts, especially from outside the south-east? (901981)

The Government are committed to having greater diversity on the boards of public bodies so that they better represent the public they serve, and that includes moving public bodies out of London when appropriate. We will shortly publish a diversity action plan that will focus on encouraging candidates from the widest range of backgrounds, including from outside London.

T6. The Minister is in charge of cyber-security. He knows that the Prime Minister is worried about Russian interference in our political system, so could he assure the House that the Russians have not already seen the Budget secrets? (901985)

I am as confident as I can be that that is the case. If the hon. Gentleman can contain himself, we will all share in the secrets of the Chancellor’s Budget in about 35 minutes’ time. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) had to strain to make himself heard. Let us hear the voice of North East Derbyshire— Mr Lee Rowley.

T5. Will the Minister confirm how employers in North East Derbyshire—small and medium-sized businesses—can be helped to win Government contracts? (901984)

Our small business panel, which I met on 1 November to celebrate its first birthday, is working on a number of key issues to further break down barriers to entry for SMEs. It was pleasing to hear that Contracts Finder, and the mystery shopper service in particular, are, in the panel’s words, “stonkingly good”.

T7. Cambridge Assessment, which manages the University of Cambridge’s three exam boards, is not-for-profit and world leading, yet it faces unfair competition from private exam boards that are not subject to freedom of information rules. Why will the Government not extend transparency to all providers of public services? (901986)

I recognise the individual case. The hon. Gentleman has written a letter to me on this matter and I hope he has received my response. The Government obviously update freedom of information arrangements regularly, so we will keep this matter in mind. There is a consultation on various points in the freedom of information code, which the hon. Gentleman is welcome to be involved in.

Ministers, like me, are absolutely passionate about making sure that people get to the ballot, whether at parish, town or district level. Do Ministers agree that it is really important that we continue to have polling cards at every election so that everyone can play their part in the electoral process?

As I have said, the Government are committed to ensuring that as many people are engaged in the democratic process as possible, and this includes ensuring electors are equipped with the information they need to vote. As a result, we have no plans to change the current arrangements for poll cards.

T8. The gender pay gap is growing in a quarter of Government bodies. How is this setting the rest of the country an example? (901987)

Departments will publish new gender pay gap figures before the end of the year to meet the requirements of the Government’s new gender pay gap regulations for all large employers. The new requirements will provide unprecedented transparency, generate wider debate, and encourage employers to take the action required to close that gap.

The Union needs Scotland’s two Governments to work together to get things done. One proposal in the Stirling city region deal is to co-locate all customer-facing public services in Stirling to a public sector innovation hub. Will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the Scottish Government and Stirling Council to bring that about?

I was delighted to be lobbied hard by my hon. Friend on this and other matters when I visited Stirling recently. He will be pleased to hear that the Department for Work and Pensions is committed to maintaining its current estate in Stirling for at least the next five years, and we can obviously discuss future options. I also hope to agree heads of terms for the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city deal early next year.

In his written statement on the contaminated blood inquiry, the Minister for the Cabinet Office simply said that:

“a further announcement will follow before the end of the year on the setting up of the inquiry.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2017; Vol. 630, c. 35WS.]

Those affected by this tragedy have not been given any information about what that means. Will he clarify whether he intends to appoint an inquiry chair by the end of the year?

The hon. Lady raises a very serious point. The contaminated blood scandal of the ’70s and ’80s was an appalling tragedy that should not have happened. She will, I am sure, appreciate that not only did we receive 800 responses to the consultation but, at the request of the all-party parliamentary group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, the end of that consultation was delayed until the end of October. All the decisions on the chair and the other things that need to be determined will, as I have already committed, be set out to the House before the Christmas recess.