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Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 636: debated on Wednesday 21 February 2018

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

Parliamentary and Local Elections

1. What steps he is taking to increase participation by under-represented groups in parliamentary and local government elections. (903970)

11. What steps he is taking to increase participation by under-represented groups in parliamentary and local government elections. (903982)

Last December, we published our democratic engagement plan, setting out our current evidence on under-registered groups, our plans for deepening our understanding of engagement barriers and a commitment to tackling them. This year we are already delivering a number of projects focusing on young people and linked to the suffrage centenary celebrations.

The electoral roll would be a good place to start a strategy like that. The Government are perfectly good at finding us when they want our tax, yet an estimated 6 million people—predominantly younger urban voters, particularly those in ethnic minorities—are missing from the electoral roll. Everyone who is on Government registers through the benefit system, the tax system and the health system should be on the electoral roll. The boundary changes based on this flawed register are an undemocratic sham, so why are the Government working to make it more difficult to vote, rather than addressing this national scandal?

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was listening to my answer. We are not trying to make it more difficult to register to vote. We have set out a full plan about making it easier to do so for the groups who need it most. I take this opportunity to make it absolutely clear that we have a number of record highs on our register. Since the introduction of individual electoral registration in 2014, more than 30 million people have registered to vote. Ahead of the general election last year, a record number of additional applications to register were submitted. The electoral register has reached a record level of 46.8 million electors, and we should be proud of that.

The Minister may be interested to know that the turnout in my constituency of Glasgow North East at the last election was 53%, which was well below the national average. It also happens to be an area with some of the lowest incomes and highest unemployment in the country. Research has shown that low-income workers and long-term unemployed people report lower levels of political knowledge and participation in political activities than those from other occupational backgrounds. Given that they are also less likely to be on the electoral register—

Order. Sit down. What I want is a single-sentence question. Forgive me, but these prepared screeds are too long, and they are not fair to colleagues—a single sentence, and then sit down.

Given that these low-income groups are less likely to be on the electoral register, what is the Minister planning to do to actively engage with them and get them on the electoral register?

As I say, a range of things are set out in the democratic engagement plan. I look forward to working further with the hon. Gentleman and people across parties in this House and outside it to ensure that all those who are eligible to vote do so.

Will the Minister confirm how she is ensuring that survivors of domestic violence can participate in our elections?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that very important point. We should be proud that, only last night in the House of Commons, we saw hon. Members, cross party, supporting ways to make it easier for survivors of domestic abuse to be on the register. That is something that we should be proud of in this centenary year.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one way of increasing participation is through a clear and trusted voting system? Will the Government perhaps look at how they can roll out first past the post in more English elections?

My hon. Friend reminds us that in the 2017 Conservative manifesto, there was the commitment to maintain first past the post as the way that we vote in this country and to roll it out to additional elections. I look forward to speaking further to him about that.

It is clear that disabled people are under-represented in our democracy and our politics, but in 2015, the Minister’s Government abolished the access to elected office fund, which supported many disabled people in meeting the extra costs in standing for office. How can the Government claim to be making democracy more accessible when these financial barriers are put in their place?

The piece of evidence that I am working on at the moment relates to a call for evidence that came back from work on how to make voting in elections more accessible for those with disabilities. It is important to note that we are talking about a range of disabilities, and not just those that may be visible. That is something I am keen to focus on in my work. Indeed, I look forward to working further with the hon. Lady on ensuring that people with any disability feel able not only to participate in elections as candidates, but crucially, to register to vote.

Is it not right that, despite the concerns raised, individual electoral registration has both increased the roll and helped to reduce fraud?

That is absolutely correct. According to a 2016 report from the Electoral Commission, both completeness and accuracy have risen, and we should aim to keep it that way.

Given the Government’s determination to end freedom of movement to and from this country, might this now be an appropriate time to embrace the principle that everyone legally resident in this country should have a say in its governance? Would the Minister therefore consider introducing proposals to allow those born in other countries who decide to stay and make this country their home after Brexit the right to vote and to welcome them to our democracy?

I am considering this point—a number of points need to be taken into account as we complete an orderly exit from the EU—but the broader point is that if somebody has citizenship in this country they have the right to vote, which we think is correct.

Voting Age

The Government stated in their manifesto a commitment to maintaining the voting age at 18. We therefore have no plans to lower the voting age in elections. We continue to believe that the voting age should remain aligned with the age of majority at 18. This is the point at which many other key rights and obligations are acquired and is in line with international comparators.

With growing support for votes at 16 on the Government’s own Benches, including from two former Education Secretaries, the right hon. Members for Putney (Justine Greening) and for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan), is not the right honourable George Osborne right when he says that the Government do not have a majority to stop this anymore and might as well get on and embrace it and get the credit?

The responsible thing for the Government to do is to stand by not just the policy we stood on in the recent general election but what we believe to be right, and it is right that the age of majority at 18 is the age at which every man and woman in this country acquires the full rights and responsibilities of adult citizenship.

If 16 and 17-year-olds are too childish and irresponsible to vote in local or Westminster elections, should that not also apply to their ability to vote in Conservative leadership elections?

We are talking here about electing the Parliament and the Government of the country, and although some 16 and 17-year-olds exercise and demonstrate enormous responsibilities, it is also the case that we make a general protection in our law for 16 and 17-year-olds—for example, through the criminal justice system. That is another way we recognise that 18 is, on average, the right point to make that judgment.

Last week, my local authority, Rochdale Borough Council, approved a motion supporting votes at 16 that received cross-party support. When will the Minister drag himself into the 21st century and get in line with the progressive and forward-thinking councillors representing the borough of Rochdale?

I am always genuinely interested to hear what is happening in Rochdale Council, but I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that 26 of our 27 EU partners, as well as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the United States, all have a voting age that begins at 18. I do not think that those countries can fairly be said to be not in the 21st century.

May I encourage my right hon. Friend to follow the wise example of the last Labour Government, who, though they were in office for 13 years and made many radical constitutional changes, none the less did not bring forward proposals to reduce the voting age to 16—for very good reasons?

My hon. Friend is spot on, and not only that, but the last Labour Government took a deliberate decision to increase from 16 to 18 the age at which somebody could buy cigarettes and knives and use a sunbed.

I agree very much with everything my right hon. Friend is saying. Is not the answer to look at all the laws pertaining to the age of majority and actually have laws that make sense? As he identifies, someone is not deemed old enough to use a sunbed at 17; can get married at 16 with their parents’ permission but cannot go out and buy a drink to celebrate; and cannot drive a car until they are 17. The law is all over the place and needs a proper review. Is that not the way forward?

My right hon. Friend makes an interesting and valid point. I would add, of course, that we make specific protections in our law in respect of criminal justice and the asylum system, recognising that people under 18 need special protection.

During a debate in 2015, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), said:

“I am one of those who believes that we should allow voting at 16”.—[Official Report, 17 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 572.]

Since then, a range of senior Conservatives have outlined their support, including the former Chancellor, who said that the Conservative party risked

“being on the wrong side of history”

if it refused to back the measure. Does the Minister agree with his colleague and will does he support votes at 16?

I stand by the manifesto on which I stood in 2017, and, as has been made clear this morning, by the position that the Labour party took for the 13 years during which it was last in government.

Steel Industry

We are working hard to ensure that United Kingdom producers of steel have the best possible chance of competing for and winning contracts. I believe that the Government’s changes in procurement guidelines make that opportunity greater for UK producers, including those in Corby.

As my right hon. Friend is well aware, we produce brilliant-quality steel tubes in Corby. What positive difference does he believe those public-sector procurement rules are making to our steel industry, and will he join me in promoting the use of British steel at every opportunity?

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in his tribute to the steelworkers of Corby, and the steel industry in the United Kingdom more generally. The guidelines that we have introduced mean that purchasing authorities must take account of the wider social and economic benefits that UK producers can bring, so that contracts are not awarded on the basis of cost alone. Moreover, every public authority is now required to incorporate relevant social and economic criteria in all major construction and infrastructure projects.

When will the Government fulfil their commitment in procurement policy note 11/16 to publish the performance of each Department?

I hope that we shall be able to do that later this year. According to the most recent information that I have, Government Departments are committed to following the guidelines, but we are carrying out checks to ensure that that is being followed through to the spirit as well as the letter.

Severfield, in Lostock at the heart of my constituency, produces architecturally significant steel structures such as the 2012 Olympic stadium and the ArcelorMittal Orbit sculpture. Will my right hon. Friend do all that he can to ensure that Government procurement buys beautiful, buys British, and buys from Bolton?

We want both public and private sector customers to buy British steel whenever possible. The Government have published a pipeline of future public procurement in which steel is needed, so that British producers can plan to bid to take part in the process.

Ethical Procurement

The Government are committed to ethical procurement. The Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 requires commissioners to consider the social benefits of their approaches to procurement, and the industrial strategy requires Departments to consider wider social and economic factors in the design of major Government contracts.

Another recent report has commented on the link between ultra-processed food and cancer, rising levels of obesity, and the fact that only one in four adults is eating five a day. What more can the Government do through their public procurement processes to encourage healthy, sustainable eating, and to source it from British producers?

The hon. Lady has raised an important point. As I have said, the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 enables procurers to take those wider factors into account. We are also encouraging the adoption of a so-called balanced scorecard approach whereby, in the process of procurement, we consider those wider factors. We have rolled that out for all contracts worth more than £10 million, and have extended it to the Crown Commercial Service framework for facilities management.

One of the advantages of Brexit is that it will provide a wide range of opportunities to tailor our procurement rules to the needs of this country. Once we have left Europe, we will be considering exactly those measures.

What certainty does the Minister have that there is no direct or indirect gender discrimination anywhere in the Government’s supply chain?

In October last year, the Government produced a code of conduct relating to Government procurement which covered precisely those points.

Government Procurement: SMEs

5. What steps his Department is taking to promote Government procurement from small and medium-sized businesses. (903974)

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy and we are committed to supporting them in securing public sector contracts. Our aspiration remains to spend a third of our procurement spend with them by the end of 2022.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. Does he agree that individual Government Departments have crucial roles to play in promoting the use of small businesses in Government procurement, in order to deliver greater diversity in the firms that are awarded Government contracts?

I completely agree. We are working with Departments through the Crown Commercial Service to develop detailed SME action plans Department by Department, with every Department putting in place both a ministerial lead and a senior official with a role to champion small businesses. The figures so far show that more than half of Government Departments have increased the proportion they now spend on SMEs.

When we start the major work on this building, which will be a massive multibillion-pound infrastructure project, will the Government ensure that small businesses all around the country get contracts, not just the big corporations?

I certainly hope that that will be the case, and I believe our guidelines and approach to different Government Departments will encourage small business to secure those opportunities, but it will also be a matter for the Commons Commission.

Voter ID Pilots

8. What steps he is taking to ensure that local authorities participating in voter ID pilots at the local government elections in May 2018 communicate to voters changes in the voting process. (903977)

10. What steps he is taking to ensure that local authorities participating in voter ID pilots at the local government elections in May 2018 communicate to voters changes in the voting process. (903980)

The Cabinet Office is working in close partnership with all piloting local authorities to ensure that each pilot has a tailored and comprehensive awareness-raising campaign that encourages eligible voters to bring ID to the polling station.

Research by the Royal National Institute of Blind People has found that the polling cards in the Government pilot are still inaccessible for blind and partially sighted people, and are often mistaken for junk mail. Can the Government guarantee that restrictive ID requirements will not disenfranchise disabled voters?

That is an extremely good point, and it is exactly the kind of thing I was referring to in my earlier answer regarding the call for evidence on how those with disabilities might in some ways be disempowered from using the registration and voting system. In this case, I would expect the piloting local authorities to look carefully at the issue in their own work, and I will undertake to do so as well from the point of view of the Cabinet Office.

What guarantees can the Minister give people who do not currently have the necessary ID to go and vote in the upcoming elections that they will be able to have access to the photographic ID that is needed without incurring personal cost?

The local authorities involved in the pilots are ensuring that nobody will be left behind in the way the hon. Gentleman might fear. They will provide ID if a voter does not have it, in the format of, for example, barcoded poll cards or letters that are relevant on the day. Those kinds of issues remind us why it is important to do pilots to test things out

The award-winning elections team in Swindon will deliver one of those pilots. Does the Minister agree that it is staggering that Labour opposes a change that is no different from collecting a parcel from the post office?

That is absolutely right. Anybody who might oppose these measures should think very, very carefully. We already ask that people prove who they are when they go to collect a parcel, rent a home, buy a home, rent a car, or travel; it is normal to use ID in everyday life.

Given that voter ID is required in Northern Ireland, will my hon. Friend roll this out across the country as quickly as possible so that all elections are free and fair?

I will look closely at the results of the pilots to evaluate whether it is possible to go further with them. My priority is to do what we can to stamp out electoral fraud. Fraud is not a victimless crime; to have your vote abused is to have it stolen, and that is what I am looking at.

In the context of these trials forcing people to show ID to vote, in the context of individual electoral registration resulting in 2 million people falling off the electoral register, and now it seems in the context of proposals to make postal votes harder to obtain, why is it that every change the Government bring in makes it harder for people to vote? Why are they scared of people voting?

The hon. Gentleman is blowing this out of all proportion. Let us not forget that we already use ID to register to vote. What we are talking about here is proving that the person who is voting is the person who registered. Let me return to an earlier answer and say that individual electoral registration has increased the accuracy and completeness of the register. I think that the hon. Gentleman is misunderstanding his own point.

Topical Questions

I was pleased to be able to announce that Mr Justice Langstaff will serve as chair for the independent inquiry into the infected blood scandal. He is a highly experienced judge who I am confident will conduct a thorough inquiry. Over the coming weeks, he will be talking to those affected to set comprehensive terms of reference, and the Government will provide him with all the support he needs. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber. The Minister’s answer could hardly be heard. Let us hear the voice of Amber Valley. I call Mr Nigel Mills.

I thank the Minister for his answer. What plans does he have to use the events marking the centenary of women’s suffrage to encourage greater democratic participation?

During this centenary year, we will host the first national democracy week. We have established a council to help to deliver a unified programme of events up and down the country that will focus on those who are underrepresented on the electoral roll, and a package of education-themed events to inspire young people and women through the story of suffrage and our democracy.

T2. All of us in the House will have been saddened last week by the tragic death of a homeless man just yards from here. Will the Minister tell us how the Cabinet Office is working with all Departments to ensure that this crisis is resolved quickly? (903986)

Any such death is a tragedy. The Government have established an inter-ministerial group to drive forward our objective of halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027. I am playing an active part in that work.

T3. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to move more civil service jobs outside London, and has Scotland been considered as an excellent destination for Government Departments or agencies? (903987)

The Government are committed to moving activities away from London and the south-east. There is a presumption that all new non-departmental public bodies should be outside London, so we have created Government hubs across the UK, including in Edinburgh and Glasgow. My hon. Friend makes a marvellous case for having more such opportunities in Scotland.

T5. Dounreay in my constituency is being decommissioned, and it is crucial that both levels of government should work in harmony to ensure future employment for the people of my constituency. Canada and Australia typify joint working between levels of government. Will the Minister work very hard indeed to ensure that the Scottish Government and the UK Government work together to allay the fears of my constituents and to provide future employment? (903989)

I completely understand the importance of Dounreay to the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The Government’s industrial strategy is all about trying to ensure that every part of the United Kingdom benefits from the new industrial opportunities now open to us, and my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary will be working with the Scottish Government to ensure that it delivers for Caithness and Sutherland.

T4. Too few of our small businesses apply to sell their goods to Government because they are worried about the bureaucracy involved. What reassurance can the Minister give them and, specifically, what feedback is available to them when they do so? (903988)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Small businesses are the engine of our economy, and we are committed to supporting them in public procurement. That is why we have already streamlined our procurement processes to assist small businesses by, for example, abolishing complex questionnaires. Specifically in relation to too much bureaucracy, businesses can report such practices to the mystery shopper service.

T6. On what date were Government officials first instructed to work on draft amendments to clause 11 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill? (903990)

Work on clause 11 has been going on for a long time, to deliver on our commitment to table amendments during proceedings in the House of Lords—with the agreement of the Scottish and Welsh Governments if humanly possible.

T7. Will my hon. Friend mark the centenary of women’s suffrage by giving Government support to the Overseas Electors Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) to enfranchise British citizens who have lost the right to vote? (903991)

Yes, I intend to speak on the Government’s behalf during the Bill’s Second Reading on Friday. The proposal is an important Conservative manifesto commitment, but I hope that it will also command cross-party support.

My colleagues in Edinburgh will be voting today to scrap the public sector pay cap and give a 3% pay rise to those earning under £36,000. When will public sector workers in England see a similar rise?

Public sector workers are among the most talented and hard-working people in our society, and they should be fairly rewarded. In respect of the Cabinet Office, the Chancellor’s Budget statement confirmed that we are moving away from the 1% average public sector pay award, and proposals will be issued later this year.

I wish my right hon. Friend every success in his forthcoming meeting with the Scottish and Welsh Governments this week. Will he bear in mind that he is being compromising and open, and will he invite them to be the same?

My hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of all parts of the United Kingdom working together to deliver an orderly, smooth Brexit. We want to work in partnership with the Scottish and Welsh Governments to deliver a big increase in the powers devolved to their Parliaments and Governments.

I welcome the Minister’s announcement about the appointment of Sir Brian Langstaff as the judge for the public inquiry into contaminated blood, but will he reassure the House that the inquiry will have a families-first approach, that an outward-facing secretariat will support all those affected, and that meetings will be held around the regions and nations of this country?

The hon. Lady will understand that Sir Brian, as the independent chair, will ultimately determine such matters, but I was struck when I met him by his determination both to listen to the views of the families who have been worst affected by the tragedy and to ensure that those views are fully taken into account.