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House of Commons Hansard
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Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
13 March 2019
Volume 656

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

Leaving the EU: No Deal

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1. What recent progress his Department has made on preparations for the UK leaving the EU without a deal. [909760]

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If you will indulge me for 30 seconds, Mr Speaker, I would like to apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office for his absence from the Chamber. As I think you know, he has a commitment that means that I am taking his place today.

I say to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) that we have published over 300 items of no-deal content and we have broadcast across some 200 commercial radio stations. The Cabinet Office is facilitating the redeployment of staff between Departments, and it is co-ordinating contingency planning through established structures.

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It was announced overnight that the Government plan to slash tariffs on the majority of products imported from outside the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Such a move would mean cheaper steel imports, with business saying that that could destroy our steel sector and our manufacturing sector more broadly. What consultation did the Government undertake with the steel sector before the announcement?

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The temporary tariff regime aims to minimise costs to business and mitigate price impacts on consumers while supporting UK producers. I stress again that that is a temporary scheme, and business will be consulted over the first 12 months.

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This morning, right hon. and hon. Members and I were serving on a statutory instrument Committee. Along the Committee corridor, there are SI Committees almost every day, preparing not only for a deal-Brexit but for a no-deal Brexit. Can I tell my right hon. Friend that we are prepared, in my view?

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Aren’t we? I think that is where the question mark comes.

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My hon. Friend makes a very good point. As the Government have said consistently over the past couple of years, we are working so that we are prepared, whatever the outcome. The legislative default for this Parliament is to leave without a deal, if we do not agree a deal.

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The country is hanging on to a no-deal cliff edge. Today, we read about the Government’s latest brilliant idea: a ludicrous TV advert telling the public, from Friday onwards, “Don’t panic”, which is a bit like Corporal Jones in “Dad’s Army”. However, this is not the Home Guard in the 1940s, and the prospect of thousands of job losses and shortages of food, medicine and so on are no joke. We can prevent this. Today, the Commons will take control from the Government to prevent such a disastrous scenario. Will the Minister join us?

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I find it somewhat ironic that the hon. Gentleman, along with his colleagues, is talking about preparation—the previous question was about preparation too—but complains that we are preparing the public for what may happen on 29 March. The simple answer is that he and his colleagues should have voted with us last night to make sure that we left the EU with a deal.

Civil Service Pay

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2. What recent discussions he has had with trades unions on civil service pay. [909761]

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The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I regularly engage with unions on a range of civil service workforce issues, including pay. I most recently met union representatives across the wider public sector last month, and I will meet civil service trade unions on pay for 2019 very shortly.

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Since 2010, wages for workers in the civil service have fallen 10% to 13% behind workers in the NHS, local government and the education sector. Despite that, the Cabinet Office has confirmed that any pay rise above 1% will have to come from further cuts in jobs, and in terms and conditions. Is it not time that the Government backed up their claim to be ending austerity by ending it first for their own employees?

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As the hon. Gentleman acknowledges, we have removed the 1% pay cap, and it is up to each Department to find efficiency savings and better ways of working to pay for greater pay rises. That is exactly what we have seen. For example, the Foreign Office agreed a deal of 4.6% on average over the course of two years, giving a pay rise but funded properly by efficiency savings.

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Will my hon. Friend say whether in the discussions he has been having he has reflected on how much the national living wage will increase from next month, and how many workers that will benefit?

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As ever, my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. In fact, the effect of the national living wage this year is to hand workers a £700 pay rise.

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Can the Minister confirm that permanent secretaries agreed a 1% pay offer across the board in Departments last year? Does that not make a mockery of the fact that the Government have 200 separate pay negotiations across the civil service?

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As the hon. Gentleman is aware, in respect of lower grades—those below the senior civil service—there is a delegated pay process. The overall framework is set by the Cabinet Office and the Treasury, and it is for individual Departments to decide. We will go through the proper process, and no final decisions have been taken.

Election Candidates: Disabilities

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3. What plans the Government have to encourage more candidates with disabilities to stand for election. [909762]

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In December 2018, we launched the £250,000 EnAble fund, which provides grants to help cover disability-related expenses that people might face when seeking elected office ahead of the May local elections.

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I thank the Minister for that answer. In the past, I have been a trustee of SHIELDS—Supporting, Helping, Informing Everyone with Learning Disabilities in Southend. What plans do the Government have to engage people who have learning disabilities in the electoral process?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend, as I know he works hard in supporting what SHIELDS does. It is clearly doing positive work for people with learning disabilities in Southend. We are committed to supporting people with learning disabilities in participating in democracy. We are working, to that end, in partnership with the Royal Mencap Society, including, for example, through facilitating a meeting between Mencap and political parties on the provision of easy-read manifestos.

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Perhaps I should declare an interest, in that my wife is disabled and I have been glad of her support in my elections in the past. At the recent snap election, we faced an issue with access to voting stations; sometimes a school would be declared unsuitable because repairs were being carried out and another place had to be found for a voting station. Sometimes disabled access was an issue. What are the Government doing to make sure that it is made as easy as possible for disabled people to get in there and cast their vote?

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The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We are working with returning officers on this issue, and there is the wider issue of engaging with people with disabilities to address. All of us, in all political parties, can do more about that. We should be looking at what we can do to encourage people to get involved. That is why I am so proud of being part of the Conservative party whose Conservative Foundation does exactly that.

Leaving the EU: Civil Service Responsibilities

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4. What assessment he has made of the capacity of the civil service to manage its additional responsibilities as a result of the UK leaving the EU. [909763]

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The Government are equipping themselves with the right people and the right skills to deliver the UK’s exit from the European Union. We now have more than 14,500 people working specifically on EU exit-related policy and programmes across government. Workforce plans will continue to be reviewed to ensure that the civil service can always respond to emerging capacity and capability requirements.

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What assessment has the Department made of the impact on other Departments, many of which have seen civil servants transferred into working on our strategy for exiting the EU?

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We have more than 400,000 civil servants across Departments and across the country, many of whom have areas that cross over with the work they are doing on the EU. We work with Departments to ensure that we are using the right skills in the right places to make sure that we are prepared to leave the EU in a good and orderly fashion.

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Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what measures are being taken to return civil servants who work in the EU—in Brussels and other parts—to the UK to carry on their duties?

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Obviously, as we leave the European Union, the civil servants who have been focused on those issues will continue to do the work they need to do that relates to the EU. Where that work ceases, they will be moved back into the relevant civil service areas, as is required, across Departments.

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At a meeting of the Cabinet Office in December, it was reportedly agreed that all non-essential Government business is to be suspended so that civil servants can concentrate on no-deal planning. Can the Minister confirm whether the Government consider the housing crisis, resourcing the Home Office to process settled status applicants, the failure of universal credit and the delays to HS2 to be essential or non-essential business?

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The best advice I can give the hon. Lady is not to get tempted to believe rumours of Cabinet leaks that she reads about in the newspapers. If she looks at the Government’s track record, she will see that we are delivering record employment levels and record low unemployment, that we are improving wage levels for people who work for the Government, and that we are delivering for people, with good and outstanding education continuing. I am sure she will look forward to hearing more about that in the spring statement later today.

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Compared with two years ago when we triggered article 50, how much more and better prepared is the civil service right across the UK for what needs to happen in the next few months?

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Work has continued over the past two years. As the hon. Gentleman may recall from answers I have given at the Dispatch Box over the past year or so, the number of civil servants focused on this policy area has changed and increased as required, so that we are ready to leave the European Union on 29 March.

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It is clear, is it not, that Brexit will mean a lot of change, upheaval and uncertainty for ordinary civil servants throughout the country. I was therefore genuinely astounded to learn last week from the general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union that not a single meeting had taken place with national officers of that union to discuss Brexit. When will the Government start to discuss these matters with representatives of the workforce they depend on to deliver services throughout the country?

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We are engaged not only across the devolved authorities but with union officials, at both ministerial and official level, on a regular basis.

Dark Money

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5. What assessment he has made of the effect of dark money on (a) transparency and (b) influence in UK politics. [909764]

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We have a robust legal framework for money in elections, to ensure that elections are free and fair. Donations to political parties of more than £500 must be from permissible donors, which include individuals on a UK electoral register, UK-registered companies and trade unions, and UK political parties. Responsibility for regulating that sits with the independent Electoral Commission.

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Even this week, hundreds of thousands of pounds of dark money is being spent on social media adverts by a pro-Brexit organisation warning MPs not to “steal Brexit”. There is no information in the public domain about who is funding these ads, which are being so heavily promoted at a critical time in the Brexit process and are clearly aimed at influencing it. There is no place for dark money in British politics. The Electoral Commission has been calling on the Government to take action for years; why have the Government failed to act?

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A number of recommendations have been made in this and related policy areas—for example, by the Electoral Commission and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. As would be expected, we are considering them all together and will respond in due course.

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This matter really is first-order business for the Government. Our electoral system has always been something of which this country has been proud. I urge my hon. Friend to push ahead with the steps needed to control this activity, because it is clear that on these big issues it is very bad news if people believe that the electoral system has been corrupted.

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My right hon. Friend makes a weighty and important point. He is absolutely right that we should not be complacent about the way our electoral system runs. We have already taken forward a series of measures to ensure that it is secure, and we will do more of that to ensure that our system is good for today and fit for tomorrow.

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9. The problem is that the Government spend an awful lot of time condemning the actions of the press or social media platforms, but right now there are social media posts describing Members of this House as traitors and asking for us to be targeted to make sure that we vote a particular way. It is no good our condemning that sort of language in this House if Ministers do not take real action now to make election laws fit for now, to ensure that Members of Parliament can do their jobs freely and not be intimidated to vote a particular way. [909768]

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The hon. Gentleman will have noticed the written ministerial statement that I published only last week, which outlined the steps that the Government have already taken and will be taking to reduce intimidation in public life. It has to be a collective job, though, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life was right to ask various organisations, including the social media companies, on which I know the hon. Gentleman does some work with one of his all-party groups, to take action.

Government Departments: Living Wage

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6. If he will make it his policy to introduce the real living wage in all Government Departments and to seek accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation. [909765]

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We are addressing this issue through the application of the statutory national minimum wage and the national living wage, based on the advice of the Low Pay Commission. From April, the national living wage will rise again, from £7.83 to £8.21 per hour, handing a full-time worker a further £690 annual pay rise.

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The real living wage is £9 an hour, and, in terms of paying it, Scotland is already the best performing part of the UK. Over the next three years, the Scottish Government will be lifting more people— 25,000 more people—out of poverty and on to the real living wage. When will the UK Government follow Scotland’s lead in paying the real living wage, not the bogus national living wage?

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I am sorry to hear the hon. Lady referring to the national living wage as bogus. It is a very proud achievement of this Government and it is actually rising faster this year than the real living wage. Over the past three years, since it was introduced, the national living wage has handed the lowest paid workers a pay rise of almost £3,000.

Cyber-security

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7. What steps his Department is taking to help improve the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. [909766]

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Our world-leading national cyber-security strategy, supported by £1.9 billion of transformational investment, sets out the steps that we are taking to defend our people, deter our adversaries, and develop the skills and capabilities that we need. Our vision is that, by 2021, the UK is secure and resilient to cyber threats and prosperous and confident in the digital world.

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I was concerned to read that three quarters of FTSE 350 companies are not aware of the risks associated with businesses in their supply chain, particularly with businesses with which they have no contact. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that their own suppliers understand these vulnerabilities?

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As ever, my hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this very important issue. Companies must do more to understand their supply-chain risks. Our cyber essentials scheme extends our influence to organisations that provide products and services to Government; it specifies standards that will improve their cyber-security. We use contractual arrangements to ensure that they help those in their supply chains, often small companies, to be more secure.

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Technology can help deliver public services which are better, smarter, more tailored and put people in control, but that requires investment in people, processes and equipment. The 2017 WannaCry attack on the NHS was a consequence of a lack of investment in all three. What is the Minister doing specifically to give local authorities and other public service deliverers the resources and the skills that they need to ensure secure digital public services?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise the challenge of cyber-security, but we have responded to that challenge. That is why we have created the National Cyber Security Centre, funded by £1.9 billion of additional money. On the WannaCry incident, we have learned the lessons since that attack and we are, for example, rolling out Windows 10 across the NHS.

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We know that 43% of businesses experience cyber-security breaches each year and, as we have just heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), we know that half of all local authorities in England still rely on unsupported server software. We know from the Minister himself that the Government have no idea how many cyber-attacks hit Government. Does the Minister accept that we need a new approach? We need to look at how we foster cultural cyber-change and we need to look at how we put the public good rather than private interest back at the heart of Government cyber strategy.

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The hon. Lady says that we have no idea of the level of attacks. I am happy to set out the number for her. We have already managed more than 1,100 major incidents through the National Cyber Security Centre. The national cyber security strategy is delivering, for example, the removal of more than 4.5 million malicious emails every month, and the taking down of 140,000 fraudulent phishing sites. This strategy is bringing together the commercial side and the Government side and it is delivering.

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We are out of time, but we must hear the question of the right hon. Member for Loughborough (Nicky Morgan).

Intimidation in Public Life

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8. What assessment he has made of trends in the level of intimidation of people in public life. [909767]

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The increasing prevalence of intimidation in public life can seriously damage our democracy, as we have already just discussed. The Government are taking a range of actions to tackle this problem, including a consultation on a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners.

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I thank the Minister very much for that reply. She may have seen the “Exposure” programme broadcast last week, which captured the abuse and threats of death that I have faced, that my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) has faced, and that my former right hon. Friend—still a friend—the right hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), has faced. There was also an excellent response from the Speaker to a point of order that I raised on the matter. Does the Minister agree that the systematic intimidation of MPs in this place on the way they vote should be a real concern to anybody interested in our democracy?

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Yes, I do agree. The Government have therefore been working closely with the parliamentary security team, the police, administrators and others, because tackling this issue requires action from everyone. It also goes wider than just Members of Parliament. For example, we are helping candidates at the local elections this year to be safer with their home addresses.

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One sentence, Tom Brake.

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10. Will the Minister commit to conducting a Mueller-style public inquiry into the alleged electoral fraud that has been committed in electronic campaigning by, for example, the leave campaign and potentially Arron Banks, who is being investigated by the National Crime Agency? [909769]

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The right hon. Gentleman is of course concerned about the implications for intimidation, to which I am sure the question relates.

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The right hon. Gentleman should know that the Government cannot have such an inquiry because the agencies investigating are independent, and rightly so. I can reassure the House that we have seen no evidence of successful interference in UK democratic processes, and that is as we would wish it to be.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [909775]

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Last week, the Minister for the Constitution, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), updated the House on the actions we are taking to tackle the inexcusable intimidation of people in public life. We have legislated so that candidates in local elections have the choice to remove their home addresses from ballot papers. We have consulted on a new electoral offence of intimidatory behaviour. It is vital that everyone in the House works together to prevent such behaviour and address this worrying trend.

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My constituents rightly care about the security of their ballots. May I ask for Crawley to be considered for a future voter ID pilot?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. We will be looking carefully at the evaluations from the 2018 pilots and—when they come forward in a few months—the 2019 pilots to help inform our next steps and to shape how the final policy will look when introduced. We can benefit from close collaboration with local authorities, and we would welcome the involvement of Crawley as we progress.

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There have been reports that the Conservative party is preparing to take part in the upcoming European elections. The Opposition have heard that on Monday, there was a telephone conference between the Cabinet Office and regional returning officers, who would run such an election, during which preparations for European elections were discussed. Are the Government saying one thing in public and another in private?

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As I said to the hon. Lady’s colleague earlier, she should not believe every rumour she reads in a newspaper or on Twitter. It is simply not true.

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T4. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the arbitrary 15-year rule that prevents Britons abroad from voting in UK elections. Will she recommit the Government to supporting the private Member’s Bill of our hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), when it comes back to the House next week? [909778]

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I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point. The Government continue to support that Bill and think it is the right thing to do.

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T2. On Sunday, the BBC reported that Interserve is likely to go into administration on Friday. What steps is the Minister taking to protect jobs and pensions, should Interserve collapse? [909776]

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As the hon. Lady would expect, we keep under review the situation in relation to all our strategic suppliers. I assure her that we take appropriate contingency measures in respect of every strategic supplier.

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T5. Can the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on delivering more public services online? [909779]

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To date, we have already delivered almost 800 services online on gov.uk. In addition, I regularly engage with ministerial colleagues, principally through the digital implementation task force, which is chaired by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.

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T3. The Government claim that they have lifted the pay cap and declared austerity over, but it seems that this does not apply to their own employees. The lack of consultation on the civil service pay guide is just shameful. When will the Minister make it his policy to return to national pay bargaining? [909777]

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This Government do not support national pay bargaining. It has been a step forward that we tailor pay to the needs of each individual Department. But I engage with all trade unions as we set the overall delegated framework that applies to pay grades below the senior civil service.

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T7. I welcome the announcement from the Cabinet Office on reforming the way that Government contracts are awarded so that they consider social impacts. Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the effect of these changes on social enterprises? [909782]

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My hon. Friend rightly raises the issue of social enterprises. That is why, earlier this week, I made an announcement that we would be consulting on how to allow social enterprises to bid for a range of Government contracts and set out a clear framework for them to do so. I am confident that we will be able to unlock the opportunities of the over 100,000 social enterprises we have in this country.

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T6. Should private sector companies delivering public sector contracts be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000? [R] [909781]

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We had a lengthy Westminster Hall debate on this last week. We are considering the Information Commissioner’s report on it, but we think that we are already supplying a lot of transparency on information and that that is adequate.