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Cabinet Office

Volume 646: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2018

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

Intimidation of People in Public Life

2. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of intimidation experienced by people in public life. (906829)

Intimidation can do real damage to our democracy and has no part to play in healthy debate. The Minister with responsibility for the constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), has launched a consultation on a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners. I encourage anyone who has experienced this sort of unacceptable intimidation to respond and to take part in that consultation.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Does he agree that those who seek to interfere with the course of an election through criminal intimidation should face electoral sanction?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. He is absolutely right. An electoral offence has a higher tariff. It is right that we are clear that our democracy is precious and important. We must do everything we can to protect robust debate with respect.

Does the Minister agree that more work needs to be done in tackling social media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter? Does he think that the Government should not just introduce voluntary charters to govern social media platforms but look at legislation, because too many Members of this House, the devolved institutions and councillors, and indeed candidates and activists, are facing unparalleled levels of abuse through social media platforms? That cannot be allowed to continue.

The hon. Gentleman makes the very good point that this should not be allowed to continue. We must look at all options on how we can ensure that. We have said we want to work with those companies and platforms to ensure they see proper debate but with respect. I encourage the hon. Gentleman’s party to adopt, as the Conservative party has, a respect pledge to behave properly in the social media world.

Earlier this year, all the Conservative councillors on Desborough Town Council resigned in protest at the abuse, harassment and intimidation suffered by the Conservative female chair of the council. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that, when he reviews standards of conduct in public life, that applies not just to elections but to serving councillors during their term of office?

My hon. Friend highlights a worrying problem that we are seeing across public life: people are seeing this kind of abuse. It was raised at last week’s Prime Minister’s questions. We all have a duty to stand up against this. The criminal bar on this is in place all year around. We are looking at elections as a separate issue in the consultation, but he is right: we all have a duty to call this out to ensure that people can have proper debate and fulfil their public duty with confidence that it will be respected.

Technological Innovation

3. What steps he is taking to encourage technological innovation in tackling social challenges and delivering public services. (906830)

4. What steps he is taking to encourage technological innovation in tackling social challenges and delivering public services. (906831)

I am determined that the public sector embraces the huge opportunities for better public services at lower cost provided by technology. That is why last week I announced five new public sector challenges from the GovTech innovation fund and why I am also leading the development of a public services innovation strategy to be published next spring.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Over the summer I wrote to all my 37 care homes and GP practices and visited most of them. They are facing unprecedented challenges with recruitment and retention. How will technology help in that regard?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I know that she is committed to this issue. We, too, are committed to using emerging technologies to improve the quality of care for patients and to empower staff. Under one of the GovTech challenges last week, we are working with a healthcare trust to ensure prescriptions are not interrupted when people move between care providers and, as Members will have seen, my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary is also very much committed to this agenda.

I welcome what my hon. Friend is doing in this area, but what steps are the Government taking to harness the power of technology to help to tackle the problem of loneliness, which the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, the Prime Minister and Members across this House have done so much to highlight?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. Under the GovTech innovation fund, in collaboration with Monmouthshire County Council, we are working to investigate a solution to identify vehicles with spare capacity to tackle loneliness and rural isolation. That is another example of the great potential of technology to help to alleviate loneliness across society and to support people in having meaningful social relationships.

At the weekend, I visited the Clipper, a converted pub on Union Street in Plymouth that is using crowdfunding technology in conjunction with the local authority, Plymouth City Council, to raise money for a refit. What support is the Minister giving to local authorities and communities to use new technologies to raise funds, especially in a time of austerity?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and I would be happy to discuss the example that he has raised. Local authorities have frequently bid for these GovTech funds. As I said, Monmouthshire County Council has been successful, as have local authorities in Northern Ireland, and I encourage others to make a bid when the next round opens shortly.

What progress is being made to ensure that my constituents can claim universal credit online through the medium of Welsh?

The Government Digital Service is committed to ensuring full accessibility to all public services, including in our home nation languages, and it will certainly look into that point.

My hon. Friend will be aware that, across the public service, appointments are being missed with experts including general practitioners, consultants, nurses and employment advisers. Is there a role for technology in prompting members of the public to attend these expensive and important appointments?

My right hon. and learned Friend is absolutely correct, and this is a perfect example of how we can use technology. Indeed, in my experience many GP surgeries already use methods such as text messages to prompt people not to miss their appointments. He will have seen from recent announcements that the Health Secretary is genuinely committed, as are the Government, to investing large sums in the greater use of technology in healthcare.

The Government’s record on technical and digital innovation is appalling. Their flagship Verify system is so flawed that the NHS and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs have both rejected it. Having spent six years and £130 million of public money developing the system, the Government cannot even convince their own Departments to register. Judging by this dismal record, does the Minister agree that the only technological innovation this Government can stimulate will be overdue, over budget and under-performing?

Specifically on Verify, I would urge the hon. Lady not to read everything that is being speculated on in the newspapers. The Government are committed to ensuring secure online digital identities, and Verify has already delivered for 2.7 million people. More broadly, let us take the example of, which has had 5.1 billion sessions and 15.2 billion page views. That did not happen when the Labour party was in power. Let us also take the example of Notify, which is used by hundreds of organisations. The Government Digital Service is a genuine innovation of this Government, and it is delivering seamless services across Government Departments.

Leaving the EU: Contingency Plans for No Deal

8. What contingency plans his Department is making for no deal being reached on the UK leaving the EU. (906836)

The Cabinet Office has developed contingency plans for exit-related policy areas that are within our remit, such as public procurement, and we also work with other Government Departments on their plans. These preparations are a sensible precaution in case of the unlikely event that the UK should leave the European Union with no deal.

I thank the Minister for that answer. If our country is not ready for a no-deal scenario, we are simply not in a position to credibly negotiate with the EU, so will he ensure that colleagues across Government work as hard as they can to maximise the completeness and credibility of their plans?

Yes. A no-deal scenario is not what we expect, and it would certainly be an unwelcome outcome. It is not what we want, but it is right that we should take these sensible precautions. All Ministers around the Cabinet table and their teams are working hard to ensure that those plans are developed and ready.

As the chief executive of Jaguar Land Rover has said, a deal is vital for west midlands, and indeed UK, manufacturing. What plans do the Government have to ensure that the funding currently provided by the European Investment Bank to UK manufacturing businesses and infrastructure projects will continue after we leave the EU?

We are looking at various proposals, including the creation of a UK prosperity fund, to replace those funds that are currently disbursed via the European Union. My hon. Friend reminds us of the importance, in our negotiations, of seeking to achieve frictionless trade so that the just-in-time delivery systems that cross national frontiers can be sustained to the benefit of business here and in the EU.

Does the contingency planning that the right hon. Gentleman’s Department is doing include warning Departments what they would need to do if Parliament were to vote for a final say on the deal?

I point out to the right hon. Gentleman that, in voting for the referendum Bill and supporting the article 50 process, the great majority of Members of this House accepted that the decision of the British people in 2016 should be final. However we campaigned, I think that that remains the case.

Does the Minister agree that the difficulties of contingency planning should not be added to by this obsession with a mythical hard border, which no one wants, cannot be implemented and could be circumvented with ease by everybody in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic?

As the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, ensuring that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland is a fundamental principle of this Government’s negotiating strategy, along with ensuring that there is no customs barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what work has been undertaken to ensure that UK-wide frameworks are ready in the event of no deal?

We are continuing intense discussions at official level with the Scottish and Welsh Governments and the Northern Ireland civil service. It is in the interests of every part of the United Kingdom that those frameworks are ready, so that the benefits of the UK single market can continue to be felt by consumers and businesses in Scotland and everywhere else in our country.

Following on from that question, what are the implications for the proposed common frameworks of not having a deal on exiting the European Union? No matter how complicated and chaotic the discussions become, will the Minister give an assurance that they will not be used as an excuse to force through arrangements without the consent of the devolved Administrations?

On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, it remains our intention to do everything that we can to work with the agreement of the devolved Administrations and not to have to use the powers in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 unless necessary. However, whether there is a deal or no deal, there will still be a need for UK-wide frameworks to ensure that the UK single market is preserved when powers have returned to this country from Brussels.

With just weeks to go until the negotiating deadline, it is clear that the Government are putting more and more focus and effort into planning for a no-deal scenario. Will the Minister therefore tell the House when the Government plan to put the interests of the country ahead of the interests of the Brexit extremists in the European Research Group?

Anyone who has worked with this Prime Minister knows that what motivates her every single working day is the interests of the people of every part of the United Kingdom. In publishing the technical notices and the guidance to business on a no-deal scenario, we are doing exactly what the European Commission and other EU Governments have done. It is the responsible course of action to take.

Voter ID Pilots

6. Whether he has made an assessment of the operation of recent voter ID pilots; and if he will make a statement. (906834)

10. Whether he has made an assessment of the operation of recent voter ID pilots; and if he will make a statement. (906838)

The Cabinet Office and the independent Electoral Commission published their respective findings in July that the pilots worked well. The overwhelming majority of people were able to cast their vote without a problem, and there was no notable adverse effect on turnout. The success of the pilots proves that the measures are reasonable and proportionate.

Can the Minister confirm that concerns about ethnic minority communities being adversely affected did not come to pass during the pilots? Is that not yet another reason why voter ID should be rolled out across the whole country as soon as possible?

My hon. Friend is correct. Our surveying alongside the pilots found no indication that the ID requirements changed the reasons for not voting for any specific demographic group across the participating authorities. That is important evidence.

My hon. Friend knows well that elections are expensive to conduct. Sevenoaks District Council and Tonbridge and Malling Borough Council do excellent jobs of conducting elections not just for themselves, but for this place and for the county council. Is she planning to consider ways of speeding up payments to those borough and district councils?

Yes, I am working with the Association of Electoral Administrators to see how the process can be improved. I take this opportunity to thank all the electoral staff in my hon. Friend’s council and elsewhere, who work so hard. The fact is that they have six months in which to submit an account. These things can sometimes be left to the last minute, which creates a bulge in the process, but we want to improve that.

In terms of this so-called success, the Electoral Reform Society’s report says:

“The government must have a strange definition of success.”

It confirms that this is a waste of money and that it disenfranchises voters. When will the Government tackle the real electoral fraud issue, which is the spending breaches by the Labour, Lib Dem and Tory parties?

The Electoral Reform Society and people who quote from it have a strange definition of mathematics. The number that they put out on polling day was wildly inaccurate and scaremongering about this policy and they have some explaining to do.

Out of 45 million votes cast last year, there has been only one conviction for voter fraud, yet the Government seem determined to pursue voter ID, which stopped hundreds of people voting last year. When faced with real threats to our democracy, in the form of violations of campaign rules and finance laws, the misuse of voters’ personal data, and foreign interference in our elections and referendums, the Government have done almost nothing. Will the Minister tell us when the Government will get their priorities right and stop penalising honest voters while turning a blind eye to electoral abuses by the powerful?

There is an incredibly important principle at stake here, which seems to be missing from the Labour party. Either you want to stamp out electoral fraud or you do not. This policy is about that. Regardless of the number and the levels of the crime, we should tackle it and ensure it does not rob people of their votes. Furthermore, the hon. Gentleman entirely forgets what his own party did in government by making this policy a fact in Northern Ireland.

Steel Procurement

7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Government’s steel procurement policies. (906835)

The Government are clear that we will do all we can to support our steel industry. The publication of indicative pipelines of Government steel requirements, alongside revised procurement guidance, ensures that United Kingdom steel producers have the best possible chance of competing for major public sector contracts. We will be reporting on our performance later this year.

The UK steel industry continues to face challenges. The Government promised in their 2016 guidance on steel procurement that they would publish individual Departments’ performance on steel procurement. When will they publish that information and be transparent about this?

I am happy to update the hon. Gentleman on that point. I have consulted the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington). He has written to Departments over the summer reminding them of that duty. We are reiterating our commitment to produce that information before the end of the year.

Hereditary Peer By-elections

9. What assessment he has made of the merits of the by-election system used to elect hereditary peers in the House of Lords. (906837)

The Government are clear that comprehensive reform of the House of Lords that requires legislation is not a priority for this Government. We would welcome working with peers on measures that could command consensus, so we welcome the work of the Lord Speaker’s Committee, chaired by Lord Burns.

It should be a priority. Forty-three hereditary peers just elected another hereditary peer to a seat in Parliament with 43 votes. That is nonsense on sticks. It should be scrapped and the Government should bring forward proposals.

I am not sure there was a question there that I can answer. I say with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman that he assiduously raises this issue at oral questions time after time. I understand his arguments, but the Government’s position is as I put it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is no place for hereditary legislatures and that they should not be supported by a party that claims it wants to build a meritocratic Britain?

I respect my hon. Friend’s argument just as much as I respect that of the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson), but the answer remains the same: there is an enormous amount of work in front of both Houses of Parliament at this time and this is not a priority.

Topical Questions

Over the recess, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), who is Minister for the constitution, announced that the Government have been able to save the taxpayer more than £300 million since 2016 through the national fraud initiative—a record amount. This clampdown on fraud and error in the public sector has helped us to divert more money to frontline public services.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the Scottish Government’s proposed electoral franchise Bill, which will protect the voting rights of EU citizens and refugees for Holyrood and local government? Does he agree that we should protect people’s rights and extend the Westminster franchise for EU citizens and refugees?

The Government have put forward a package of measures that give enhanced rights to EU citizens lawfully resident in the United Kingdom. We believe that that is a fair and generous offer, and it is currently the subject of negotiations.

T2. When considering the relocation of civil service jobs outside London, will the Minister please remember that the south-west is a great place to live, work and do business, and that the best place is North Devon? (906845)

My hon. Friend, as ever, makes a strong case for his region. The Places for Growth programme demonstrates our commitment to rebalancing the economy by moving Government jobs away from London and the south-east, and the One Public Estate programme is supporting this collaboration. I am pleased to say specifically that the Devon and Torbay partnership expects to deliver 288 jobs and land for 201 homes by 2020.

T3. We know that the Cabinet Office is preparing for the very real threat of no deal, with secret Cobra meetings and civil contingency planning. Business leaders are warning of the disaster of a no deal or a bad deal. Is it not about time that we put this decision—the biggest facing our generation—back to the people for a people’s vote? (906846)

There was a people’s vote in 2016 that, at the time, both the hon. Lady’s party and mine said would be the decisive moment. It is perfectly right that the civil contingencies secretariat in the Cabinet Office takes an active part in contingency planning for all eventualities.

T4 . The Government have identified £1 billion that could be saved through procurement by hospitals. What work is the Cabinet Office doing to support that £1 billion saving so that we can release £200 million of it to scrap hospital car parking charges? (906847)

I know my hon. Friend’s long-standing commitment to this cause. We are committed to delivering value for money for the taxpayer by extending best procurement practice into the wider public sector. The Crown Commercial Service, which manages procurement of common goods and services for both central Government and the wider public sector, including the NHS, has already delivered more than £600 million of savings this year.

T5. The Minister chairs the cross-departmental homelessness reduction taskforce. Rough sleeping is a huge concern to my constituents in Sheffield, but the voluntary and statutory sector tells me that it is held back from tackling it by disproportionate cuts to local government. The recent Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government strategy provided no new money, so will his taskforce look at the issues so that we can actually do something? (906848)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. The homelessness and rough sleeping implementation taskforce, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and on which I serve, supports the Government’s cross-Government strategy, which was announced earlier this summer. The taskforce is also monitoring the implementation of the new Homelessness Reduction Act 2017. I would be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss the proposals he raises directly.

Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), I am pleased to advise the House that we are joined today by the former Speaker of the Canadian Parliament, the longest serving Speaker in his country’s history, Peter Milliken. Welcome, Peter, to the House of Commons.

Recent figures show that almost £200 million of taxpayers’ money was spent on trade union activists last year. Would not Transport for London, for example, be better advised to spend the £5 million that it spent on trade union activities on transport for London?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Although trade unions of course play an important role in the modern workplace, facility time in the public sector must represent value for money, which is why we have taken a transparent approach to it. We estimate that more than £120 million is being spent on it. Departments and Government agencies must seek to reduce that spending, as I am pleased to say the Cabinet Office has done; we are spending less than 0.01% of our budget on it.

T6. Will the Minister tell the House what steps he has taken to tackle the gender pay gap in the civil service? (906849)

The Government have required all public bodies and large private sector employers to make public their gender pay gap, so that action can then be taken to ensure that that gap is reduced and closed. We are determined that the public sector will set an example.

T7. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that, thanks to his efforts and those of the Department of Health and Social Care and of Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust after the collapse of Carillion, work on the Midland Metropolitan Hospital will resume later this year, and the west midlands will get another world-class hospital? (906850)

I am pleased to confirm that the Government and the local trust have reached agreement that the Midland Metropolitan Hospital will be completed by 2022. It will be equipped with state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment, 15 operating theatres and at least 669 new beds. That is a further demonstration of the Government’s commitment to investment in our national health service.

Since 2010, the central civil service has been cut by 20%, which has severely reduced overall effectiveness and specialist knowledge. In the light of the demands placed on Departments by Brexit, do the Government agree that they are paying the price for that short-sightedness?

The Government remain strongly committed to having an effective civil service. Thanks to funds provided by the Government, we now employ 7,000 more civil servants to deal with Brexit. With the pay settlements that we are reaching on a Department-by-Department basis, we are ensuring that civil servants are properly rewarded.

Ministers were right to listen and act on public sector steel procurement. How are the new procurement regulations bedding down, what is their effect and what benefit are they bringing to the UK steel industry?

We are clear that we will do everything that we can to support our precious steel industry. All central Government Departments are now required to evaluate the social and economic benefits of procurement decisions, alongside price. That has meant that the UK’s steel producers are now in the best possible position to compete for Government work, and UK steel suppliers are able to compete effectively with international suppliers.