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Cabinet Office

Volume 649: debated on Wednesday 14 November 2018

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

Postal Voting System

1. What recent assessment he has made of the integrity of the postal voting system in local and national elections. (907572)

The British public deserve to have confidence in our democracy, and the Government are committed to ensuring that our electoral system, including postal voting, is fit for the future. Next year, Peterborough and Pendle will pilot improvements to the security of postal voting. The Electoral Commission’s evaluation of some similar 2018 pilots was published in July.

Does the Minister acknowledge that the combination of postal voting on demand in Great Britain, but not in Northern Ireland, and large extended family networks sometimes gives rise to accusations of undue influence? What safeguards can be put in place?

I would condemn any such undue influence, and I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I agree on that wholeheartedly. It is really important that postal voters are aware that their vote is theirs alone. That was the subject of a major awareness campaign at past local elections, and we hope to see similar again.

Will my hon. Friend examine what happened at the local elections last year, particularly those in London? Large numbers of voters were added to the register, had postal votes and then disappeared off the electoral register very soon afterwards. There are clearly potentially fraudulent activities at work.

I would certainly expect returning officers to look into that carefully, and I would support them in their efforts to do so. It is difficult for me to make any more detailed comments on that from the Dispatch Box, but in general terms we certainly wish to keep the postal voting process secure and safe and to ensure that that process contributes to the overall integrity of our elections.

Will the Minister assure the House that if there is an early general election, our postal vote system is robust enough and able to cope?

Does the Minister share my view that strengthening the integrity of the postal voting system will ensure that our electoral system is fit for the future?

Yes, I do, which is why I refer again to the pilots that I mentioned in my first answer. They will be important to give voters reassurance and confidence that our system is doing what we expect it to do and thus that our elections overall are secure.

Does the Minister accept that we must ensure that there is no repeat of what happened in the most recent election in Northern Ireland, where, because the proxy and postal vote system did not require people to produce photographic ID, there was a 600% increase in such voting in one constituency, resulting in a perversion of democracy?

I am happy to take a closer look at the figure that the hon. Gentleman cites and the specifics of that case. I mention again the pilots that we have tested in 2018 and that will run again in 2019, which are about helping voters to be confident that the whole system—not only postal and proxy voting but the rest of the electoral system—is secure, by means of looking into ways for voters to identify themselves and show that they are who they say they are.

Eric Pickles’s report “Securing the ballot” suggested that postal ballot applications should have to be made every three years. Is my hon. Friend looking into that suggestion?

Indeed. I am grateful to Lord Pickles for his report and his work, and we are looking carefully at the huge majority of his recommendations and taking them forward wherever we can.

Infected Blood Inquiry

The inquiry has now completed its preliminary hearings and plans to start its formal public hearings at the end of April 2019. Between now and then, the inquiry will hold public meetings in 18 places throughout the United Kingdom to enable people who have been affected or infected to express their views to the inquiry team. The inquiry has appointed 1,289 core participants, of whom 1,272 are people who have been either infected or affected by contaminated blood.

What steps will the Minister take to repair the damaged relationship with those infected, whose confidence in the Government has been undermined by the fiasco around their entitlement to legal aid and now by the failure of the Cabinet Office to swiftly notify Departments not to destroy relevant files?

As far as legal aid is concerned, more than £250,000 has been provided to those affected by this scandal to help them pay for their legal representation. As regards the other matter that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, this was an honest mistake caused by an administrative error. We explained that in full in the form of a written statement to the House and apologised to the inquiry as soon as it was discovered. All Departments, other than the Legal Aid Agency and the Courts and Tribunals Service, have now confirmed that no relevant records were destroyed during the relevant period.

Last month, the chair of the inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, said that many victims of the infected blood scandal are still living on the breadline today. The inquiry is not due to look at financial support until 2020, so what more now can the Government do to help the people affected?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, different compensation packages have been agreed by the Department of Health and Social Care in the different parts of the United Kingdom. Sir Brian did ask the Government to look at the case for some additional measures, which are being considered by the Secretary of State for Health and his ministerial team, and the Minister responsible for mental health, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), is very willing to talk to the inquiry team about that.[Official Report, 20 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 7MC.]

The very comprehensive nature of this inquiry is important, and it is also important that it should have a timeframe that is kept to. Is my right hon. Friend able to give us any idea whether the timetable is still robust and when we can expect to see a final report?

As my right hon. and learned Friend will know, it is a matter for the independent chair of the inquiry to determine its duration. In my conversations with Sir Brian, he has always been very clear that he does not want this inquiry to drag out; he wants to get justice and a clear outcome for the survivors and the victims, and he will be striving to secure that objective.

A number of my constituents are affected by this scandal and have waited for decades for answers on how it was allowed to happen. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that Members are updated about where those meetings outside London are held so that we can keep our constituents informed and get the maximum participation?

I do have a list, but rather than read it out now perhaps I can write to my hon. Friend and place a copy of it in the Library so that all Members know where those meetings will be taking place.

May I suggest to the Minister that one measure that he could take quite quickly is to level up all the payments that those who are infected and affected receive? There is a variation around the United Kingdom at the moment because of devolution, and such a move would go a long way to show good faith to this community.

The hon. Lady has always been the most ardent champion of those who have been affected by this scandal, but it is the legal and constitutional position that each part of the United Kingdom is responsible for its own compensation scheme, which reflects the devolution settlement as regards health policy.[Official Report, 20 November 2018, Vol. 649, c. 8MC.]

Will my right hon. Friend say a little bit more about the role that those who have been affected by this tragedy will have in setting the terms and the scope of the inquiry? I particularly raise this because of the issue of access to treatment, which is something that I have regularly raised and that I think should be explored.

That issue is certainly one that I know Sir Brian and the inquiry team want to examine and call evidence on. People who have been directly affected have had opportunities at the preliminary hearings to express their views. More than 1,200 of them have now been appointed as core participants and the forthcoming public meetings will give them a further chance to make sure that their views are indeed heard. Sir Brian is determined that that will be the case.

Cyber-security

3. What steps the Government are taking to help improve the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. (907574)

Our world-leading national cyber-security strategy, supported by £1.9 billion of investment, sets out measures to defend our people, businesses and assets, to deter our adversaries and to develop the skills and capabilities that we need.

I am grateful for that response. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a sovereign capability is very important when it comes to cyber-security and that, when Government contracts are awarded, British companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises, should be given preference?

Where national security interests are at stake, exceptions can be made to the normal rules on public procurement, as my hon. Friend knows. The other thing that we need to do is drive up standards among all Government suppliers, large and small, and that is something where we have an active programme of work.

A Wrexham constituent was concerned that a cyber-security breach at his business was being dealt with from central London and was very disappointed with the responsiveness of the authorities when the breach was reported. Will the Minister do more to ensure that people understand where cyber-security breaches are investigated and improve the system?

I am happy to look into the case of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. I encourage all businesses and third sector organisations to look at the materials available on the website of the National Cyber Security Centre, because it includes plenty of evidence about best practice in improving cyber-security for large and small organisations.

Cheltenham is a national centre of cyber-security because of its strength at GCHQ. Does my right hon. Friend agree that T-levels will help us to remain ahead of the curve in ensuring that we have a rich and deep pipeline of talent?

T-levels will indeed be an important contribution to improving this country’s skills in cyber-security, and I am pleased that Education Ministers have identified the digital T-level as one of the first to be rolled out in 2020.

We heard last week that there is an estimated shortage of 50,000 cyber-specialists in the UK—estimated because, unbelievably, the Government have not made any assessment of their own. The Government’s immediate impact fund, designed to quickly increase the number and diversity of cyber-specialists, is helping just 170 people, only 28% of whom are women. Does not this prove that this Government are failing at the first hurdle when it comes to keeping this country safe and bolstering our cyber-resilience?

No. The hon. Lady made a point about women cyber-security specialists. It is true that only about a 10th of cyber-professionals anywhere in the world are women. That is why the Government this year launched the CyberFirst Girls competition, which is getting more teenage girls actively interested and involved. That is the way to help develop further cyber-skills in our workforce.

Cyber-specialist Vacancies

Departments are responsible for ensuring that adequate staffing levels are met. As part of the national cyber-security strategy, we have newly established a Government security profession unit to support Departments in quantifying and managing their cyber-skills gaps and in building career pathways for specialists.

In July, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy criticised the Government for not properly addressing the cyber-security skills and recruitment gap, which it said is of vital importance to Britain’s defence and economy; but today the Minister still cannot tell how many of these specialist role vacancies exist across the Government. When will the Department tasked with upholding cyber-security standards make this tier 1 national security threat a priority?

The Committee praised what the Government had done, but, as the hon. Gentleman says, it also said that we needed to do more. I do not dissent from that conclusion. Indeed, the Government made that clear in their response to the Committee’s report. It is important that every Department feels ownership of cyber-security; it is not something seen as for the centre only to worry about. The profession framework, which will be outlined in the spring of next year, will run right across the Government and will outline the job families for specialists and the pay, rewards and career progression that they should be able to expect anywhere in the Government. [Interruption.]

The Minister was offering a serious and comprehensive reply to which there was a less than attentive audience, which is perhaps a tad discourteous. Let us have some order in the Chamber so that we can hear Mr Nigel Huddleston.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the UK is actually already a world leader in cyber-security, and will the Government continue to commit, through education and training, to ensure that we continue to be so?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend that commitment. I could list a range of programmes that the Government are undertaking with school-age students and tertiary education students to drive up those standards, as well as working with international partners, who look to us for some of the best practice around the world.

I call the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone). I thought that the hon. Gentleman wanted to come in on this question. No? It is not obligatory. Speak now or forever hold your peace, man.

I am very sorry, Mr Speaker—I could not hear you for the hubbub.

One would think that a cyber-attack against such a lovely country as Scotland would be unthinkable. Does the Minister have any feel for how the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament are getting on with cyber-security?

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to go into detail, but we do work very seriously and closely with the devolved Governments in both Scotland and Wales and with the Northern Ireland civil service. In my experience, Ministers and senior officials in those Administrations take this challenge very seriously indeed.

Electoral System: Overseas Interference

5. What steps the Government are taking to protect the electoral system from overseas interference. (907576)

9. What steps the Government is taking to protect the electoral system from overseas interference. (907580)

We have not seen evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes. However, we are not complacent, as the Prime Minister has said, and we will do what is necessary to protect ourselves and work with our allies to do likewise. The Cabinet Office co-ordinates cross-Government work to protect our democracy and to ensure the public’s confidence in our elections.

Does the Secretary of State support the work of the Petitions Committee in looking into cyber-bullying?

I shall speak to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and I am sure that he will be happy to take a look at that.

Deepfake videos have the potential to do tremendous harm, as they can easily be fabricated to show candidates making inflammatory statements or, God forbid, simply looking inept. Civic discourse will further degrade and public trust will plummet to new depths. This is the new wave of disinformation and election interference coming from overseas. What are the Government doing to prepare?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her very serious question and engagement with this important issue. I share her concern about that as an example of disinformation. The Government are acting to counter disinformation in a number of ways, including following on from our manifesto commitment to ensure that a high-quality news environment can prevail. I look forward to working further with her on this important issue.

Given the activities of the Russians with cyber-attacks, and looking at Florida, what with hanging chads and all the rest of it, will my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that we will not move to an online voting system?

Yes, I can give that assurance, which derives from the Conservative party’s manifesto. I can also say that the system we do use of pen-and-paper voting is, by its nature, rather more secure.

What action are the Government taking to seek a range of views on potential measures to secure our voting system from overseas interference?

We are doing that in a number of ways. I would be very happy to have a longer conversation with my hon. Friend on this subject. Work goes on across the Government to look at these matters, including with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and in the Home Office. We, collectively, will ensure that we seek those views.

In the past week, the police have begun an investigation into whether Arron Banks used foreign money to buy the Brexit referendum. We have also seen Shahmir Sanni victimised for blowing the whistle on electoral crime by Vote Leave. Is it not now time for the Government to admit that the legitimacy of their mandate for the referendum is fatally compromised?

I think that the hon. Gentleman draws the wrong conclusion from his argument. The Government will be delivering the outcome of that referendum, on which, I have no doubt, we will hear more from my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in just a minute. What I will say, crucially, about the investigation into Arron Banks is that the Government will not comment on an ongoing criminal investigation.

A lot of the focus on foreign interference, particularly from the Russians, is on technological interference, but there is also a large amount of Russian money swilling around that is finding its way into political parties. What are the Government doing to restrict Russian financial influence on political parties at national and constituency level?

We are fully behind the law as it stands, which is that it is not permissible for parties on campaigns to accept foreign donations. We uphold those laws. We will examine recommendations recently made by, for example, the Electoral Commission, about how more may be done.

Government Hubs: Civil Service Efficiency

6. What assessment he has made of the potential effect of Government hubs on levels of efficiency in the civil service. (907577)

The hubs programme saves money and creates a better place to work by bringing together Government activity on to single sites. We make extensive use of shared spaces, smarter working and workplace design. This encourages productivity as well as reducing vacant space. Indeed, in total, the programme is saving £2.5 billion over 20 years.

The Minister knows what a capable and deeply talented Minister he is, and there are plenty of people like him in Plymouth, Moor View. Does he agree that Plymouth would be an ideal place for one of these Government hubs?

Flattery will get my hon. Friend everywhere, and may I repay it by saying that I know what a powerful advocate he is for the city of Plymouth? He once again makes his case exceptionally well. While further hub locations cannot be confirmed until commercial negotiations have concluded and Departments have informed staff, future locations are under active consideration.

There is cross-party support for moving Government hubs to Plymouth. What support can the Minister give to local authorities such as Plymouth City Council, which is working to create the buildings and land for these Government hubs to move into?

The hon. Gentleman rightly highlights the Government’s One Public Estate programme, and the example he cites in Plymouth is just one of many. Overall we expect to release land for 25,000 new homes and create 44,000 jobs by 2020.

Topical Questions

Yesterday I chaired the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU negotiations, attended by Scottish and Welsh Government Ministers and civil servants from Northern Ireland. This, the eighth such JMC meeting that I have chaired this year, followed the significant progress made in recent months with the devolved Governments in developing UK-wide frameworks to protect the vital internal market of the United Kingdom.

From policing to education, health and the environment, the approach of the Scottish National party Government is that control from Edinburgh is best, and when in doubt, centralise. Can my right hon. Friend update the House on what he is doing to ensure that the Smith commission promise to ensure decentralisation from Edinburgh is met?

The Smith commission was clear that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Government to work with the Scottish Parliament, civic Scotland and local authorities to ensure that power is devolved from Holyrood to local communities. For our part, we are ready to help the Scottish Government to implement the Smith commission in full and will give them our support if and when they choose to do that.

Will the Minister confirm without equivocation that the Government will fully comply with yesterday’s resolution that all information provided to the Cabinet will be made available to the House as soon as the Cabinet finishes, if it ever does?

I set out the Government’s position yesterday in the debate. We will reflect upon the outcome of the vote yesterday, but at the moment, there is no agreed deal. There is a provisional agreement between negotiators, which has yet to be considered by the UK Cabinet or the 27 member states meeting in Council.

T2. In the centenary of the Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act 1918, how do we encourage greater diversity among candidates for public office, such as Amandeep Garcha, a Sikh woman in my constituency? (907587)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is fantastic to see such wide diversity of candidates in Walsall. I remind the House that the Government Equalities Office is providing financial assistance for all MPs, to encourage female constituents to come here on 21 November, and I hope more colleagues will take up that opportunity.

T5. In addition to the register of lobbyists, in the interests of transparency, shouldn’t all think-tanks be obliged to publish their funding sources? (907590)

We believe that the legislation is working well, but we would be happy to look into any specific further points that the hon. Gentleman would like to make.

T3. The Government Equalities Office funding is in Education, its staff are in the Home Office and its Ministers are in the Department for International Development. My Select Committee recommended a year ago the wholesale move of the GEO to the Cabinet Office. Does my right hon. Friend agree with that? (907588)

My right hon. Friend and her Committee did indeed make a powerful case. It has needed a lot of cross-departmental discussion, but I hope that in the very near future, we will be in a position to give her a definitive response.

I am extremely grateful to the Minister. Everyone is present and correct, and it is no bad thing to start Prime Minister’s questions precisely on time.