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Duchy of Lancaster

Volume 654: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2019

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

Public Services Delivery: Technology

1. What steps he is taking to encourage the use of innovative technologies to improve the delivery of public services. (909024)

Last month I announced five new public sector challenges, to be funded from the £20 million GovTech innovation fund. In the spring we will publish a strategy for the use of innovation in public services.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the GovTech fund is being used to identify technologies with the potential to improve medical care and deliver better services at a lower cost?

I am delighted to confirm that to my hon. Friend. There is huge potential here for improvement in public services. So far the GovTech Catalyst has funded two health-related challenges: the first seeks to improve the medication pathway for people entering custody, and the second will assess how machine learning could improve prediction and provision in relation to adult social care.

At the weekend, 70 Labour MPs and Members of the European Parliament signed my letter to the Government asking them to review the operation of the EU settled status app for EU citizens, which is currently available only on Android phones and not on iPhones. What advice does the Cabinet Office gives other Departments to ensure that no digital discrimination is embedded in the new technologies that the Government are rolling out?

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the question of the digital verification system. It is perfectly possible to subscribe to it with any phone. The issue relates to the document verification, which can be carried out in respect of Android phones but not, currently, in respect of Apple phones. However, the Home Office is working on that as we speak.

I know the Minister will be aware that delivering public services in rural areas is particularly challenging. Will he consider how he could use tech and innovation to facilitate better public services in areas such as those that I represent?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the great aspects of the GovTech challenge fund is that it is often used in rural areas. In rural Scotland, for example, we are looking into how it could be used to help to ensure that the environment is properly managed, and we are working on other similar schemes.

Time and again, Mr Speaker, you have heard me raise the issue of deeply unsatisfactory broadband coverage in my constituency, which greatly impairs the delivery of vital public services. Responding to a question that I asked not long ago, the Prime Minister mentioned the shared prosperity fund. Might that fund be used to tackle the problem of very poor broadband coverage? If the Minister cannot give me an answer now, will he agree to meet me to discuss the issue?

I am always happy to meet all Members, and I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representation in respect of the shared prosperity fund. Our industrial strategy has already committed us to spending more than £1 billion on digital infrastructure, including £176 million on 5G and £200 million on broadband for local areas. There is, I know, an issue with the Scottish National party Government getting the money to the frontline, which is why my right hon. Friend the Culture Secretary has announced that in future, money will go directly to councils.

When it comes to the delivery of technology with the use of public money, we know whose side the Government are on: their mates in the megafirms. Their spending on Cloud provision with just one company, Amazon Web Services, has increased by 8,000% since 2015. The next time the Minister signs off another multimillion-pound tech contract, will he perhaps spare a thought for one of the UK’s incredible small and medium-sized enterprises?

The Government are committed to ensuring that SMEs win their fair share of Government contracts. Unlike the Labour Government, this Government have set the target of devoting a third of all spending to SMEs. However, the hon. Lady rightly raised the issue of Amazon Web Services. Let us look at the figures. AWS is a G-Cloud supplier. A total of £3.2 billion has been spent on G-Cloud. How much has been spent on AWS? Just £70 million, which amounts to less than 2.2% of total spending.

Public Sector Procurement

2. What recent progress his Department has made on its proposed changes to public sector procurement. (909025)

We are determined to deliver value for money for taxpayers through better procurement, and to support a healthy and diverse supply market. We recently announced measures including simplifying procurement processes, taking account of social value when awarding contracts, and excluding large suppliers from Government contracts if they cannot demonstrate prompt payment.

I thank the Minister for his answer. The number of businesses receiving late payments from the Cabinet Office has nearly tripled in the past two years. Does the Minister agree that this makes a mockery of the Government’s plans to crack down on public sector suppliers who pay late?

Prompt payment is important to all businesses, particularly small businesses. That is why we have set a target for 90% of undisputed invoices from small and medium-sized enterprises to be paid within five days. We are making good progress, and six Departments are already exceeding that target. I know that there has been an issue in respect of the Cabinet Office, but I can give the hon. Gentleman the latest figures, from December, which show that 95% of invoices are now meeting the 30-day target and that 82% are meeting the five-day target.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming moves to roll over the WTO Agreement on Government Procurement—the GPA—and in welcoming the access that that would give to UK companies competing abroad and the opening up of our own markets to foreign competitors?

I know that my right hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in this area, and he is absolutely right to highlight the importance of the GPA. I am pleased that we have made progress and reached agreement in principle for the United Kingdom to join the GPA, and I am confident that we will have that in place shortly.

Is not the Minister guilty of a bit of jiggery-pokery? [Hon. Members: “Oh!”] The fact of the matter is that if the Government looked at good examples such as Huddersfield University and Kirklees Council, they would see the way in which they emphasise local and regional procurement, which brings in jobs and wealth and retains them in our communities. Why do this Government not do the same?

We are absolutely committed to ensuring that we get the very best suppliers, which is why we have introduced a balanced scorecard approach. That allows suppliers to take into account a wide range of factors, including environmental factors and factors relating to the quality of produce. Those are the sort of reforms that this Government are committed to introducing.

The Government give a very welcome emphasis to the employing of small and medium-sized enterprises in Government contracts, and that is very good stuff, but does the Minister not agree that in reality, Government procurement processes are so complex, so difficult, so massive and so expensive that it is actually companies such as the defence primes that get the contracts and then hammer down the prices they pay to their subcontractors? How can we find better ways to ensure that SMEs win some of those valuable contracts?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the issue of SMEs winning contracts. This is why we have abolished complex pre-qualification questionnaires on small-value contracts, for example, and in November I announced that if major strategic suppliers were not paying their small providers on time, they could face being excluded from Government contracts.

I am aware that current statute means that wage rates cannot be mandated, but it is possible to use the procurement process to encourage employers to consider paying the real living wage in the context of fair work policies. Indeed, that is the process undertaken by the Scottish Government. Will the Minister consider following Scotland’s lead and using procurement to ensure that employers pay the real living wage?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I hope that he will acknowledge the progress that this Government have made in introducing a national living wage for the first time. The effect of that national living wage, which will rise by almost 5% this April, is that an average person working full time on the national living wage will be almost £3,000 a year better off—and that is not counting the massive increase in the personal allowance that also cuts their taxes.

Of course, it is not a living wage; it is just a minimum wage re-badged.

The Government have repeatedly insisted that Interserve’s

“current intentions are a matter for the company itself.”

However, it emerged last night that Cabinet Office officials were playing an active role in talks to negotiate a rescue package. It seems that the Government cannot make up their mind whether they have a responsibility to intervene and protect public services and jobs or whether to let the market decide, so which is it?

The Government are absolutely clear that their principal task is to ensure the continued delivery of public services, and that is what we have ensured in respect of our strategic suppliers. The hon. Gentleman raises the case of Interserve. I welcome this morning’s announcement, which I am sure he has seen, which demonstrates that it is making good progress towards refinancing, but we are clear that that is a matter between the lenders to that company and the company itself. The Government are not a party to those negotiations.

Information Law

3. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the Information Commissioner’s January 2019 report, “Outsourcing oversight? The case for reforming access to information law”. (909026)

The Government are fully committed to transparency and openness across the public sector and have already introduced a range of measures to increase transparency in contracts. That means that we are publishing more data than ever before to the benefit of taxpayers. I am grateful for the Information Commissioner’s report, which we will consider carefully, but we have no plans at present to legislate further in this area.

I am grateful to the Minister for that reply but, as the Information Commissioner tells us, the Government spend £284 billion a year on external suppliers that are currently beyond the scope of freedom of information laws. The Information Commissioner tells us that that would have made a difference at both Grenfell and Carillion, so why will the Government not commit to real transparency and adopt the Information Commissioner’s recommendations?

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster set out an important package of measures last year to improve transparency in contracting. However, I do not think there is evidence that the collapse of Carillion could have been anticipated by the reforms in the report. Indeed, the relevant Select Committees said that Carillion’s directors were responsible, not the Government.

Public Life: Intimidation

4. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of intimidation faced by those in public life. (909027)

The increasing prevalence of intimidation in public life can seriously damage our democracy, which is why the Government have consulted on a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners. We are currently analysing the contributions to the consultation, with a response due to be published soon.

What progress is the Department making with online platform providers to ensure that they develop and implement automated techniques for content removal and address take-down times for offensive material?

My hon. Friend makes a good point that he has made strongly before, which is to his huge credit. We have been clear that much more needs to be done to tackle online harm. Too often, online behaviour fails to meet acceptable standards, with many users powerless to address such issues. A joint Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and Home Office White Paper is expected to be published in the near future and will set out legislative and non-legislative measures detailing how we can tackle online harm and set clear responsibilities for tech companies to keep UK citizens safe. We want to ensure that we do that in a fair and proper way.

10. Are the Government looking at the effects of social media intimidation on our democracy? A wide number of pieces on social media, involving both misuse of data and funding of unclear origin, are intimidating and influencing political debate in this country. (909033)

The hon. Lady makes a good point. We are looking at exactly that, because we must ensure that people have a clear view of what is true, fair and appropriate online.

Someone came to my surgery this week and clearly made an implied threat to me, a number of Members of this House and a former Prime Minister. However, if I report any of that, I am breaching the confidentiality of the person who came to see me, so I want to know the Minister’s advice.

I do not think that my hon. Friend would have been breaching confidentiality, because if such conversations are happening, that represents a threat that he would be well within his rights to report to the police.

I have been subjected to online intimidation. Does the Minister agree that we need to drive home the message that the secrecy of the iPhone or keyboard is not protection enough for people to spew vile, intimidatory statements and messages to anybody in public life?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. All of us in public life should call out such things when we see them. We must be clear about what is unacceptable and report it to the authorities where appropriate, so that people feel able to engage online in a proper and fair way without intimidation or abuse.

Tiers of Government: Collaboration

We are committed to working productively with all levels of government, including local authorities, directly elected Mayors and devolved Administrations across the UK. We will also work closely with the devolved Administrations to review the formal structure of inter-governmental relations.

People across the Tees Valley are delighted at the devolution model led by Ben Houchen, our excellent Conservative Mayor. Ben is delivering on his manifesto promises, which included rescuing Teesside airport and leading the regeneration of the steelworks. Will my right hon. Friend commit the Government to maintaining their excellent record of support for Ben’s work in getting Teesside on the front foot again?

I pay tribute to the leadership that Ben Houchen and his colleagues on the Tees Valley combined authority have shown. They have very ambitious plans, and we look forward to continuing our joint working with them on a local industrial strategy to drive productivity, growth and employment in the Teesside region.

In light of there being no Executive in Northern Ireland, what measures are being taken to ensure services can be delivered for Northern Ireland? Especially within the public sector, we have had difficulty in getting decisions across the line. We need ministerial intervention.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Parliament agreed to change the law late last year to give Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office greater powers in giving directions to the Northern Ireland civil service, but the answer is for the political parties in Northern Ireland to come together so that we can see the Executive and the Assembly restored. That is the way to give effective representation for effective decisions to be taken.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is no formal machinery for the Parliaments of the United Kingdom to work together and to scrutinise the work of the Joint Ministerial Committee and the Executive functions that work together. The Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit again met in January and called for this. Will he support this Parliament and provide it with the necessary resources so we can institute proper interparliamentary machinery in the United Kingdom?

We are very open to proposals from my hon. Friend’s Committee and from others in this House and the House of Lords. We are working together with the devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. If Parliament will lead, the Government will support it.

7. One way in which the Government are coming together across Departments is through the Leader of the House’s working group on the early years, which is supported by the right hon. Gentleman’s Department. Will he ensure that that review remains ambitious and radical in its proposals and does not become a victim of departmental-itis? (909030)

Having spoken to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House about this on a number of occasions, I do not think anybody can doubt her determination to ensure that this issue is given proper priority. I expect proposals from that group later this year.


6. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Government on the devolution of power to local authorities. (909029)

The Smith Commission was clear that the Scottish Government should work with the Scottish Parliament, civic Scotland and local authorities to develop ways in which greater devolution within Scotland could be provided.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Does he agree that local authorities are best placed to deliver local services, rather than taking a centralised approach?

I think that that is right. For example, it will be very important to involve local authorities in my hon. Friend’s constituency and in neighbouring constituencies in taking forward our ambitious proposals for an Ayrshire growth deal.

Voter ID Pilot Schemes

8. Whether his Department plans to conduct further voter ID pilots; and if he will make a statement. (909031)

A diverse range of local authorities have confirmed that they will be taking part in the voter ID and postal vote pilots for the 2019 local elections. These pilots will provide further insight into ensuring security of the voting process.

I know different local authorities are using different methods as to what constitutes ID, but does the Minister believe enough progress will be made so that, should this Parliament go the full five years, we will have voter ID available at the next general election?

Yes, I do. I am grateful to the authorities that are piloting voter ID this year. Their experience will help us to formulate the right policy to roll it out nationally.

Let me say to the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) that the Cumbrian steak and kidney pie, the merits of which he commended to me, was of the highest quality.

Mr Speaker, I am incredibly grateful to you for those kind words and for coming along to Cumbria Day.

Is the Minister aware that voters in my constituency, the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales cannot vote at all on planning and housing issues that affect them? What steps will she take to bring in democracy for those parts of our country that are under the aegis of a national park, which are not directly elected?

I am somewhat familiar with the issue because of my proximity to the Broads Authority in my constituency, but I suspect this question may be for a colleague to answer and I will ask them to do so.

Topical Questions

Last week, I announced new measures, as part of the follow-up action to the Government’s racial disparity audit, to improve outcomes for ethnic minority students in higher education; to ensure league tables reflect performance in addressing inequalities; and to encourage higher education providers to make their workforces more diverse.

Some 16% of the adult population of this country has some form of disability, yet when I look around this House, I see very few Members with a disability. When are we going to see an effective Access to Elected Office Fund? We need a Parliament that is representative of the public it serves. When are we going to be like that?

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman raises this issue. He is right to say that we need to raise that level of participation. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities is working on a fund that will help that to happen. Furthermore, a statutory instrument will be before the House next Monday that will help with this by addressing election expenses.

T7. Members discharge their duties in a variety of ways, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is not possible to discharge them properly from inside a prison cell? When will the hon. Member for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) do the right thing, stand down and give the people of that part of the country the representation they deserve? (909043)

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, and it comes down to what the people of Peterborough need: a hard-working and present local MP. Of course we have passed legislation in this place to enable recall. I suspect that may be used in this case, but I hope it will happen promptly, for the sake of the people of Peterborough.

Let us consider these figures: 25,342 and 21,900. Those were the number of voters who cast their votes for me and for the Minister to serve as elected parliamentarians, yet just 100-odd votes secured a win in the most recent hereditary peer by-election in the other place. The winner was eligible to stand because his great-grandad’s cousin’s dad’s fourth cousin’s dad’s cousin’s great-great-great grandad was made a Lord by Charles I in 1628. What progress is the Minister making on reform of the other place?

May I first welcome the hon. Lady back to the Dispatch Box? It is a pleasure to see her here again. Two points need to be made: first, the legislation she cites was that of her own party; and. secondly, reform of the House of Lords is not a priority for this Government. We have been clear on that matter and I can be so again today.

What conversations is the Department having with local authorities in Scotland and the Scottish Government about relocating civil service jobs north of the border, specifically in areas such as international trade?

The Government have a policy of seeking to relocate Government offices and agencies outside London wherever possible. We are keen to work with Scottish local authorities, as well as local authorities from all around the United Kingdom, to secure that objective.

T2. The Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy reported last year that it was concerned that “the current complex arrangements for ministerial responsibility mean that day-to-day oversight of cross-government efforts is, in reality, led by officials, with Ministers only occasionally ‘checking in’.”Do the Government have a grip on cyber-security? (909038)

Yes. It is right that different elements of cyber-security report in to different Departments. For example, where this relates to an offensive cyber-capability, as part of our defences, that is rightly part of the Ministry of Defence’s responsibility. The relevant Ministers do co-operate regularly, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that this all reports back to the National Security Council where the relevant Cabinet Ministers take the decisions.

On the inter-ministerial early years working group, which is an excellent initiative, is the Minister aware that the cost of child neglect is estimated at some £15 billion per year? So when negotiating with the Treasury, will he be mindful that funding for this is not only the best way of giving kids the best start in life, but a good way of saving money?

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be very glad of my hon. Friend’s support.

What with the £1 billion-plus of Northern Ireland contributions secured by the Democratic Unionist party, the knighthoods for the European Research Group, and now the cash-for-votes inducements that we hear are being offered to MPs, are the Government not a bit worried about sailing dangerously close to the wind of the Labour-introduced Bribery Act 2010? Will the Minister reaffirm that no votes in this place should be for sale? Especially not mine; I have not been offered anything.

I am deeply shocked that the hon. Lady has so little confidence in her own colleagues as to think that they would be capable of that.

Some of my most engaged constituents are expats who currently reside in France or Spain. Does the Minister agree that it is unfair and undemocratic to deny these British citizens the right to vote after an arbitrary 15 years?

Yes, I do, which is why we support the private Member’s Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), which will redress that injustice and deliver votes for life.

T4. Northern Ireland has required voter ID for 13 years. Why is it necessary to run a pilot programme when we have already evaluated it and found that it works effectively and has not affected voter turnout? (909040)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support on this matter. We should see such support throughout the House for a set of measures that are reasonable, proportionate and already used in countries around the world and in our own country, the United Kingdom, to help to protect voters and ensure that their vote is theirs alone.