The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—
Local Authorities: Voting Services
Before I answer the hon. Lady’s question, Mr Speaker, I hope that you will allow me briefly to thank and pay tribute to my predecessors in these roles, in particular my right hon. Friends the Members for Ashford (Damian Green) and for Derbyshire Dales (Sir Patrick McLoughlin). They have done great service for their constituents, this House and their country during their time in office and I want to put my thanks to them on the record. I also thank my hon. Friends the Members for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for the work that they did in the Cabinet Office before moving on to other responsibilities.
The Electoral Commission’s report shows that, overall, the 2017 general election was successfully delivered by a committed community of electoral administrators. We work with the commission, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Association of Electoral Administrators to ensure that returning officers are effectively supported to run polls.
I thank the Minister for that response and welcome him to his new role. As well as the snap general election last year, my local authority of Rochdale Borough Council presided over the Greater Manchester Combined Authority mayoral elections, for which it received no central funding, which is surprising considering that one of the Mayor’s functions is to replace the police and crime commissioner’s role, which did receive central funding. What action will the Government take to help local authorities such as mine to deliver well-run elections for these new roles?
The responsibility of the Cabinet Office lies in reimbursing local authority returning officers for the costs incurred in the administration of national elections. The responsibility lies with local authorities for the costs arising out of local elections. Local authority resources will be more than £200 billion over the current spending review period, including real-terms increases for both 2018-19 and 2019-20.
May I be the first Member also from the 1992 intake to offer my right hon. Friend congratulations on his latest appointment? Is he aware of the landmark ruling of the Supreme Court of the United States, which has said that the boundary changes in North Carolina are unconstitutional and gerrymandering? Will he join me in praising the work of the boundary commissions—despite their appalling recommendations for Lichfield—for at least being transparent, quasi-judicial and non-partisan?
It has always been an accepted strength of our constitutional arrangements that we have a parliamentary boundary commission for each part of the United Kingdom that is wholly independent of party politics and party influence. I hope, therefore, that all parties in this House will rally behind the recommendations of the parliamentary boundary commissions.
On behalf of Opposition Front Benchers, I welcome the Minister to his new role.
The chair of the Electoral Commission has warned that our electoral system is facing a “perfect storm” due to funding pressures, and 43% of local authority election teams have experienced real-terms cuts since 2010. Will the Minister outline why the Government’s democratic engagement plan fails to address these concerns, and will he ensure that a full and comprehensive review of the delivery and funding of electoral services is implemented as a matter of urgency?
I thank the hon. Lady for welcoming me to my new responsibilities. I repeat to her what I said in my initial response: the Electoral Commission concluded that, although there were problems in a number of specified constituencies, overall the 2017 general election was successfully delivered. The Government are committed to strengthening our electoral processes. As part of that, we are planning to run pilot schemes in a number of local authorities later this year to test requirements for voters to present ID before voting. We will look seriously at recommendations to us from the Electoral Commission on these matters.
Electoral Registration Process
Every application to the electoral register is now subject to identity verification checks, making our system more secure than before. In late December, the Government laid draft legislation aimed at further improving the registration process, including addressing recommendations from the Pickles review of electoral fraud.
Last month, a 21-year-old man was convicted of voting twice—first by post, and then by varying his name and voting in person. He then bragged about it on Twitter. I understand that more than 1,000 similar complaints are being dealt with by the Electoral Commission, mostly relating to students. What steps are the Government taking to deal with this distortion of our democracy?
I share my hon. Friend’s concerns and am glad that he has brought those examples to light. I understand that, following the examination of these reports—or perhaps of reports other than those to which he refers—the Electoral Commission has stated that there is
“a lack of evidence of widespread abuse.”
None the less, we will continue to work with the police and the Electoral Commission to reduce the risk of double voting.
I welcome the hon. Lady to her position. Does she agree that the electoral process, particularly in Northern Ireland, was severely corrupted some eight months ago by thousands upon thousands of proxy vote applications? The previous Member for Foyle, Mr Mark Durkan, lost his seat as a result of thousands of proxy vote applications that were approved without any electoral or photographic identification.
I struggled to hear the hon. Gentleman owing to some noises off. As he knows, and as he knows I know, the electoral system in Northern Ireland is devolved. I am sure that my new ministerial colleagues at the Northern Ireland Office will be taking his concerns very seriously and working with the devolved Administration, where appropriate, to look into them.
I, too, welcome the Front Benchers to their new responsibilities. I am delighted to see the strong team in the Cabinet Office.
Is the Minister giving any consideration to restricting registration for national elections to one address, which may help with the problem of double voting raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North West Leicestershire (Andrew Bridgen)?
I thank my right hon. Friend for her views. I refer to the breadth of the Pickles review of electoral fraud, which gave us the basis for a number of reforms of our electoral system, all designed to reduce fraud and improve security. In that context, I will look carefully at all its recommendations. As you will know, Mr Speaker, the Government have already accepted and will be moving forward with a number of them. I would be delighted to discuss any issue further with my right hon. Friend.
One of the ways in which the Government could look to give more security to the electoral register is by moving to automatic registration when national insurance numbers are given out. Will the Minister comment on the private Member’s Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff Central (Jo Stevens), which would resolve any issues with individual registrations?
I am very well aware of the arguments, although I confess that at this point, 24 hours into my role, I have not yet had a chance to study that particular private Member’s Bill. I shall be happy to do that and take up the conversation from that point.
May I, too, welcome the Minister to her post? She is the fourth I have had the privilege of facing in the past two years.
The biggest threat to the integrity of the electoral registration process is the fact that millions of our citizens are not on the electoral register. All the Minister’s predecessors promised that they would bring forward proposals to address this problem. We were told that there would be a plan at Easter last year, then in the summer, then in December, but still nothing. When will she bring forward proposals to make sure that we can increase the number of people on the register?
The hon. Gentleman will know that in fact we have near-record levels of participation in our democracy. Voter turnout has risen. The completeness and accuracy of the electoral register have improved. There have been 30 million new registrations to vote since the introduction of IER—individual electoral registration—in 2014. Seventy-five per cent. of those used the “Register to vote” website, which I am sure he will agree is an important reform. The electoral register for the 2017 general election reached a record level of over 46 million electors. I do not agree with his assessment.
Government Contracts: SMEs
I call Minister Oliver Dowden.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, and hon. Members for that very warm welcome.
Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and this Government are committed to supporting them in securing Government contracts. To that end, we have already streamlined our procurement processes to assist small businesses. Our small business panel is working to improve accessibility of Government contracts, and we continue to focus on breaking down the barriers that might deter SMEs.
I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome him to his position. He will know that many small businesses are put off trying to get contracts by the amount of information they need to supply and the bureaucracy they have to go through. What more can the Government do to reduce that bureaucracy and amount of information?
My hon. Friend raises a very important point. It really is vital that small businesses can access Government contracts as simply as possible, so to achieve this we have already taken action to ensure that bidding processes are simplified across the public sector, with complex pre-qualification questionnaires abolished for low-value contracts. We will continue to look at ways to reduce burdens for business, particularly small businesses.
Given what the Minister has said, what information does he have that there has actually been an increase in the number of small and medium-sized businesses accessing Government contracts?
I would point to three pieces of information: direct spend with SMEs is up 80% since the Conservatives came to power in the coalition in 2010; more small businesses than ever are bidding for Government business; and the Government now spend about £5.6 billion directly with SMEs.
As a fellow Hertfordshire MP, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on his well-deserved new role? Does he agree that it may be possible for prime contractors with Government contracts to do more to bring in small and medium-sized businesses, particularly in specialist areas, where Hertfordshire is of course so strong?
I thank my right hon. and learned Hertfordshire Friend for his welcome. He raises an important point. There are two aspects of this: there is the direct spend—as I have said, it is about £5.6 billion—but we also need to ensure that we get spend into contracts lower down, with people who have Government contracts then spending with small businesses, which is something we are committed to doing as a Government.
Too often, rather than outsourcing to SMEs, very large companies are employed. In this respect, despite being under investigation by the Financial Conduct Authority and reportedly having debts of £1.5 billion, the massive outsourcing company Carillion remains a major supplier in terms of Government procurement. If it were to collapse, it would risk massive damage to a range of public services. Do the Government have a contingency plan for such an eventuality, and what is the likely cost to the taxpayer?
As the hon. Gentleman would expect, we of course make contingency plans for all eventualities. If I could briefly update the House, Carillion, as Members will know, is a major supplier to the Government, with a number of long-term contracts. We are committed to maintaining a healthy supplier market and working closely with our key suppliers. I can tell the House that Carillion’s operational performance has continued to be positive. For example, it advanced its work on Crossrail over the Christmas period.
The truth is that the Minister has failed to answer the central question. The Government have been outsourcing public services to large outsourcing companies on an industrial scale. When these massive outsourcing companies fail, as too often they do, does the Minister really think it is fair that the costs stay with the taxpayer, while the profits are creamed off by the shareholders?
I do not think there is anything wrong with profit. Profit is a reward for investment made by businesses. Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman had listened to my answer, he would not have had to read a pre-scripted question. I gently suggest to him that this is something the Government take very seriously. We, for the first time, as a Government—this had not been done for 13 years previously—started measuring the number of small and medium-sized enterprises that have Government contracts. We set a target of 25% in the last Parliament, and we have delivered on that, so I think that is a record of success for this Government.
Democratic Processes: Foreign Influence
The first duty of the Government is of course to safeguard the nation, and we take the security and integrity of our democratic processes very seriously. Although we have not seen evidence of successful foreign interference, we are not complacent, and we will continue to do what is necessary to protect ourselves.
In order to protect ourselves, the chair of the Electoral Commission has said that we need new rules for online political advertising to combat external influence, particularly via Facebook and Twitter. When will the Government bring forward the legislation we need?
One of the very first things for me to do in my new role is to meet the Electoral Commission, and I look forward to discussing that with it.
I welcome the new Minister. Does she agree that one of the ways of reducing foreign influence in our democratic processes would be for Members of this House not to go on Russia Today and Sputnik, and indeed be paid money for doing so?
Hearing from the right hon. Gentleman reminds me of the heady days during the coalition Government when we served in and around the Cabinet Office together. His question reminds us that there are hon. Members who seem to feel the need to do as he says. I think it would be more helpful if we recalled the words of the Prime Minister in her Mansion House speech, which were that we should be well aware of what Russia seeks to do and should seek to protect to the UK from it.
Electoral Registration: Disabled People
The Government are considering the responses to our call for evidence on the accessibility of the voter registration system. We have recently released the Government’s plan for democratic engagement, which includes strategies for disabled electors. The Government have also implemented the findings of an accessibility review of the website “Register to vote”.
For those who are disabled physically and visually who want to carry out a normal role in voting like the rest of us, will the Minister confirm that those who have disabilities and are in wheelchairs can gain access to polling stations and that ballot papers in Braille are available for those who are visually disabled?
Notwithstanding the caveat that in Northern Ireland the system is devolved and in some ways different from that in Great Britain, we certainly should not regard people with disabilities as in some way restricted in using the voting system in one way or another. Polling stations are equipped with, for example, tactile voting devices. More broadly, there are arguments around whether Braille brings some opportunity to identify a voter, but I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman’s question and would look forward to any further conversation he would like to have.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her new role. In my constituency of Southport, three excellent schools specialise in teaching children with autism as well as behavioural and learning disabilities. Does she agree that encouraging children with those conditions to learn about our political structure will make them more likely to engage with the electoral systems as adults?
I agree with my hon. Friend and I am glad he has raised those points. My predecessor in this role, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), did excellent work in the Every Voice Matters project where he focused on this as a matter of social justice. Of course, the citizen—any citizen—should be at the heart of voting and able cast their vote as a matter of public service.
Government Procurement: Small Businesses
In November 2017, we published the 2015-16 figures for central Government Departments. The Government are fully committed to supporting our small businesses, which are the engine room of our economy, so we are continuing to take action to meet our target of a third of procurement being with small businesses by 2022.
It is good to see the Minister looking in a state of high excitement, as well he might.
Those 2015-16 figures show procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises to be falling, from 27% to 24%. The majority goes through indirect procurement, so is not the truth that wholesale changes are needed in a Government procurement system that just delivers crumbs from the table of large contractors to SMEs?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that this is a challenging target, but, as I said previously, we set a challenging target in 2010 and we met it by the end of the Parliament. I am confident that we will meet our target again. In particular, we will be taking further measures in relation to SMEs. We will use transparency to encourage large businesses to employ more SMEs and make prompt payment part of the selection process for larger suppliers, which is the point that he raised. I can tell the House that we will be bringing forward proposals on that very shortly.
The Cabinet Office is responsible for co-ordinating action to increase socioeconomic diversity in the civil service. We are delivering on all recommendations made by the Bridge Group in its 2016 report.
The recent Social Mobility Commission report found that the worst-performing areas on social mobility are no longer inner-city areas but remote, rural and coastal areas and former industrial areas. What steps will the Government take to redress the funding imbalance that the north faces and to tackle social mobility issues in post-industrial towns such as Leigh?
The Social Mobility Commission report identified action on education, housing and employment as the key steps needing to be taken, and those are the exactly the things to which the Prime Minister and the Government are giving priority. For example, we have 1.9 million more children in good or outstanding schools than we did in 2010.
I am absolutely delighted to see that the right hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (David Evennett) has been promoted from the Whips Office and can now speak.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that social mobility is essential to maximise the potential of individuals and our country, and that while the Government have achieved a great deal so far, there is still more to be done?
I completely agree with my right hon. Friend. The Government look forward to delivering in full on the social mobility action plan for education that my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) announced just before Christmas.
Cyber-security: Public and Private Sector Organisations
Cabinet Office Ministers and officials meet regularly with colleagues across the Government to discuss the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. We are investing £1.9 billion in that work, as detailed in our national cyber-security strategy.
What resources are available for organisations to better protect themselves against cyber-attacks?
The National Cyber Security Centre gives direct help and advice to public sector organisations and also offers private sector organisations advice, guidance and help in responding to attacks. I encourage all to use its services. [Interruption.]
Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber, with very loud and persistent private conversations going on. Let us have a bit of order at Topical Questions.
I intend to continue the work of the Cabinet Office to deliver its purpose: to maintain the integrity of the Union of the United Kingdom, to co-ordinate the security of the realm, to sustain a flourishing democracy, to ensure the delivery of the finest public services, and to help to implement the Government’s policies and the Prime Minister’s priorities.
The Government have withheld a dozen documents relating to the Government’s European policy in the early 1990s. What are they trying to hide? What embarrassment is the Tory party trying to cover up? Will the Minister release those documents?
I am happy to look at the particular case, if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, but I can assure him that documents are not withheld lightly. Sometimes individuals are named, or documents contain information that is still diplomatically sensitive. [Interruption.]
Order. Let us have a bit of order for a Dorset knight: Sir Robert Syms.
It is true that the Prime Minister has asked me to continue with my predecessor’s responsibilities of overall supervision of intergovernmental relations within the United Kingdom. I spoke yesterday evening to the Deputy First Minister of Scotland and the First Minister of Wales and assured them that I hope to visit both Scotland and Wales in the near future. I hope also to visit Northern Ireland.
One of the challenges facing electoral staff this year was an unprecedented number of people taking advantage of the opportunity to register online, and administrators had to sort out duplicate registrations. We are looking at the lessons to be learned from that, but we should not fail to acknowledge the fact that online registration has made it easier for people to register and has been a great boon to many of our citizens.
My hon. Friend, with his expert knowledge of Africa, makes an important point. The national security adviser based in the Cabinet Office is responsible for roughly £3.2 billion of cross-departmental overseas development aid spending. I look forward to discussing with him how that money can best be spent and will certainly take account of my hon. Friend’s views.
Despite the success of online registration, we accept that there is more to do. It is important that we encourage all our citizens to take advantage of their democratic right to cast a vote, both locally and nationally.
A number of my constituents have suffered terribly as a result of the contaminated blood scandal. Will my right hon. Friend please update the House on the progress towards the appointment of a chair and the timescales for the inquiry?
The contaminated blood scandal was an appalling tragedy from which individuals and their families are still suffering. I regard this as a very high priority for me. We have asked the Lord Chief Justice to nominate a judge to chair the inquiry, and I hope to announce the name of that judge soon.
We are implementing in full the recommendations in the report to which I alluded earlier and are encouraging all Departments to step up their work in making sure they recruit people and seek to recruit people from groups in society that have been harder to reach than others in the past. It is important that that work continues. The Prime Minister’s commitment to the racial disparity audit, which in 13 years of Labour Government we never saw from the party opposite, is an indication of the Government’s seriousness of purpose on this point.
The Minister will be aware that personal assurances were given to me and colleagues that the Government would bring forward amendments to clause 11 of the repeal Bill, but they have failed to do so. Will he assure me that the Government remain committed to working with the devolved Administrations to find a form of words that will be agreed and will allow a legislative consent motion to be passed?
I can certainly give my hon. Friend that commitment. When I spoke to the Deputy First Minister of Scotland last night, I said that we were disappointed that we had not been able to reach agreement with the devolved Administrations on an acceptable form of words for such an amendment but that I was committed to intensifying our discussions with the devolved Administrations to seek to reach an agreed form of words in time for proceedings in the House of Lords.
Order. There is a lot of noise in the Chamber. The question is about knife crime. This is a matter of the utmost gravity. Please, it is the last question—let us hear it and the answer.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
On new year’s eve, another four young people lost their lives to knife crime in London. We have failed to tackle this epidemic because we have failed to recognise that the solutions span health, education, poverty and aspiration. What can the Minister do in his role to get Departments working together to find a long-term solution?
On behalf of myself and, I am sure, the whole House, may I send our unreserved sympathy and condolences to the families of those four young people, who must be going through hell at this time? The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government’s stance on knife crime is tougher than ever—we have increased the punishments for repeat offenders and banned cautions for the most serious offences—and the latest figures show that more people are being sent to prison for knife crime than in the past. I accept that this has to be cross-departmental work. It has to involve local government and the Mayor of London in a big way. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is very committed to seeing further action taken to drive down the rates of these appalling crimes. I promise the hon. Lady that I will give what support I can from the Cabinet Office to the Home Secretary’s work.