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House of Commons Hansard
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Cabinet Office and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
24 April 2019
Volume 658

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

Government Subcontractors and Suppliers: Payment

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1. What steps he is taking to ensure that all Government suppliers and subcontractors are paid on time. [910471]

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It is important to all suppliers, not least small businesses, that they are paid on time. That is why I have announced that, from this September, we will exclude suppliers from winning contracts if they fail to pay their subcontractors on time. Just this month, I contacted all suppliers to remind them of this intention.

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I welcome what the Minister has just said, but a significant proportion of Government procurement is on construction projects, where there are often poor payment practices, such as those exposed during the collapse of Carillion. The Federation of Small Businesses’ “Fair Pay Fair Play” campaign, which carries the message that everyone deserves to be paid on time, is asking for those projects to be made the subject of separate project bank accounts. Is the Minister considering that?

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Yes. My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Government already use project bank accounts on all construction projects, unless there are compelling reasons not to do so. That is just one way of ensuring our underlying objective of prompt and fair payment. It sits alongside initiatives such as paying our suppliers on time, excluding late payers and appointing prompt payment non-executive directors in all Departments.

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Bearing in mind that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, will the Minister outline when we can expect to see the follow-through of the proposed policy whereby suppliers will be unable to win Government contracts unless they are seen to be making prompt payments?

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to remind the House of that commitment. I announced in November that we will be bringing that policy into practice from September this year. The policy will mean that companies will face being excluded from Government contracts if they fail to pay their suppliers on time in two consecutive quarters.

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Which Government Departments have the best record in paying their suppliers on time, and which have the worst?

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I can tell my hon. Friend that the latest data shows that 10 of the 16 Government Departments were meeting the target of paying 90% of suppliers within five days, and 10 were also meeting the target of at least 96% of invoices within the 30-day target, so there is a good record overall.

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The Minister’s own Department has seen a threefold increase in late payments over the last couple of years. As we know, the Government are diverted from their day jobs with daydreams of a new Prime Minister, and this distracted Government are raising incompetence to a completely new level. We have seen that they are careless when paying small and medium-sized enterprises that provide services to the public, and those SMEs are the backbone of our economy. Yet the Government are very careful when it comes to outsourcing to wounded giants such as Interserve or failed dinosaurs such as Carillion. Is it not time that the Minister and his Department got their act together?

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I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am dreaming of nothing but securing my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in her continued position as Prime Minister.

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“It says here.”

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Sadly, I do not have a note on that point.

I can also reassure the hon. Gentleman on his point regarding prompt payments in my own Department, the Cabinet Office. According to the latest figures, in March we paid 88% of all our suppliers within five days and 98% within 30 days—a perfectly credible record.

Nancy Astor: Centenary of Election

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2. What plans the Government have to use the centenary of Nancy Astor’s election to encourage more women to stand for public office. [910472]

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We are all indebted to this groundbreaking Conservative Member of Parliament, who won her seat the year after women first got the vote. The Government are using the suffrage centenary fund to support some 350 projects, including training in political leadership in Bradford and Birmingham, and skills sessions in the east midlands, west midlands and London.

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Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming plans to commemorate Lady Nancy Astor, the first woman to take her seat in the House of Commons, with a statue in Plymouth?

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Absolutely. I welcome the extraordinary efforts of the campaigners who have achieved funding for a statue of Nancy Astor through public donations, particularly as there are—let us be frank—too few statues celebrating and commemorating the amazing contribution that women have made in helping to shape our nation. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work that she has done to support this project.

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Can we also remember the two pioneering women who closely followed Nancy Astor: the Liberal Margaret Wintringham and the great MP for East Ham, Susan Lawrence?

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Absolutely—I am happy to do that. As I said, there are too few memorials and commemorations of the great efforts and contributions made to society by women throughout the ages, and I am very happy to congratulate all those who do their bit for public service.

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Two years ago, we celebrated 50 years since Winnie Ewing was elected to the House of Commons; perhaps that should be reflected here. I do not know what the Government would do to celebrate Nancy Astor that they would not do to celebrate Constance Markievicz, who was the first woman to be elected to Parliament. The Scottish Government recently held a consultation on electoral reform that specifically included ways to improve gender and minority representation. Will this Government do the same thing and bring forward real proposals?

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If I remember correctly, Constance Markievicz did not take her seat, but as I said, I congratulate anyone who contributes to public life. We must all work to highlight and promote the fantastic work done by women across our country over the years in range of public service roles, which would be a good way to encourage more people to contribute in the future.

Cyber-security

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3. What steps his Department is taking to help improve the cyber security of public and private sector organisations. [910473]

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While the Government can manage and have been managing the security risk, it is essential that the cyber-security and engineering flaws in Huawei products are fixed. The National Cyber Security Centre has set out the improvements we expect the company to make and will not compromise on the improvements we need to see, in particular sustained evidence of better software engineering and cyber-security.

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Will the Minister update the House on the distinction the Government make between different types of infrastructure equipment from Huawei, and how that will be used to respond to the centre’s recommendations?

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We have the independent Huawei cyber-security evaluation centre to look at what the company is doing to meet the commitments we require of it. Looking to the future, the Government are committed to taking decisions on the 5G supply chain based on evidence and a hard-headed assessment of the risk. We have undertaken a thorough review of that supply chain; the decisions based on that review will be announced in due course, and to this House first.

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Given the concerns about Huawei’s involvement in our 5G network, what more can the right hon. Gentleman say about the steps the Government are taking to secure our critical national information infrastructure?

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From the Government’s point of view, the security and resilience of the UK’s telecoms networks are of paramount importance. We think we have robust procedures in place to manage any risks to national security today. Looking forward to the roll-out of 5G, we have three clear priorities: stronger cyber-security practices across the entire telecoms sector, greater resilience within individual telecoms networks, and—crucially—diversity in the supply chain for 5G. These are matters that go beyond any single company.

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The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will know that the Government are about to award a £300 million contract including requirements to host British citizens’ biometric data. To protect the security and privacy of British citizens, can he guarantee that that data will not be held by foreign companies subject to foreign Government laws giving foreign Government access to British citizens’ private data?

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Clearly, any tendering exercise that the Government undertake has to be subject to the normal rules on open public procurement, but I know that the Home Secretary, who is responsible for the proposed database, will give the highest priority to ensuring the security of that sensitive personal data.

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It has been reported that the Prime Minister has given Huawei the green light to help to build the UK’s 5G network, against the advice of Ministers, our international allies and our security services, yet Huawei has itself said that it will take up to five years to secure its equipment. Why do the Government have more confidence than Huawei has in its ability to build our 5G network safely and securely?

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As I said in response to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), the security and resilience of our telecommunications networks are of paramount importance in every decision the Government take on these matters. We have undertaken a thorough review of the entire 5G supply chain, which is designed to ensure that we can roll out 5G in a secure and resilient way. We will announce our decisions about that to this House in due course.

House of Lords Membership

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4. What steps he is taking to reduce the size of the membership of the House of Lords. [910474]

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The Government are committed to supporting measures to reduce the size of the other place on which they can command a consensus across both Houses, such as the positive trend in retirements. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is also committed to maintaining her restrained approach to appointments.

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The Minister mentioned consensus, but the reality is that due to Brexit and the PM’s failed leadership, this House is completely gridlocked, which gives the bishops and hereditary peers in the unelected Lords more power than ever and a greater say in Scotland’s future than the Scottish Parliament itself. Does he agree with his Scottish Tory colleague, MSP Murdo Fraser, that the other place needs to be scrapped?

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In the last week we sat, the Scottish National party was praising the House of peers. This week it is calling for it to be scrapped again. The focus now, with the issues facing this country, is to get on with delivering a Brexit deal that works for the whole United Kingdom, rather than spend our time building constitutional grievances, as the separatists wish to do.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment to the Front Bench and his outstanding responses so far. Notwithstanding any reservations we may have about the unelected place, is it not the case that on occasion, the standard of debate there can be a lot higher than here?

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I thank my hon. Friend. I am sure that over his 27 years in this House he has seen plenty of very high-standard debates. In fact, he has contributed to raising that standard on many occasions. The House of Lords plays a special part in our constitution as a revising Chamber, subject, as always, to the supremacy of this elected House.

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I welcome the Minister to his place. Unelected, out of touch, unresponsive—the House of Lords is not only a relic from a bygone era; it is a stain on our modern democracy. When will the Cabinet team live up to its public duty and lead a serious constitutional debate in this country to modernise our democracy and get rid of the House of Lords?

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As I touched on earlier, the vast majority of people in this country—certainly in Torbay, and across the rest of the UK—would not see this House spending months on constitutional navel-gazing as the top priority at the moment. Many people have talked about reforming the House of Lords over the last century, and the Government will look at proposals that could enjoy a broad consensus, but for now, with the pressures on the legislative programme, few would understand if we decided to dedicate months to this.

Government Departments: Real Living Wage

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5. If he will make it his policy to (a) introduce the real living wage in all Government Departments and (b) seek accreditation from the Living Wage Foundation. [910475]

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I am pleased to tell the House that from 1 April, the Government increased the national living wage by almost 5% to £8.21 per hour, which gives an annual pay rise of almost £700 to full-time workers on the national living wage. That is our preferred approach to addressing low pay across both the public and private sectors.

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Of course, the national living wage is not a real living wage, and it does not apply to under-25s, so that is a load of mince, frankly. Why would the Government want to perpetuate age inequality in terms of pay? Is the Minister proud of the fact that this Government actively discriminate against young people, including his own civil servants?

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I find it extraordinary how the hon. Gentleman denigrates the national living wage. The national living wage has handed a pay rise of £3,000 to the lowest-paid workers since it was introduced, and it is rising faster than the real living wage. In respect of under-25s, we need flexibility for younger workers, to help them get into the labour market. That is a sensible compromise.

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The reality is that the Government’s living wage is not the living wage set by the Living Wage Commission, but putting that aside, can the Minister set out what representations he has made to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority to ensure that Members of this House can become living wage employers? My understanding is that it will not let us do that.

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Relations with IPSA are a matter for the Leader of the House, not for a Cabinet Office Minister such as myself, but I have heard the hon. Gentleman’s representations and I am sure the Leader of the House will have heard them as well.

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What I can add, which I hope will be of some reassurance to the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), is that the House of Commons is indeed an accredited living wage employer and has been for some time. I hope that that warms the cockles of the hon. Gentleman’s heart.

European Parliament Elections: Candidate Intimidation

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6. What steps his Department is taking to prevent the intimidation of candidates in the event that the UK participates in the upcoming European Parliament elections. [910477]

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The Government will work closely with the police and electoral administrators to tackle any reports or allegations of intimidation, as we do in the run-up to all elections.

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I am very glad that the Minister is taking this seriously. There will be so many of us in this House who have seen an escalation of threats and abuse in the current political climate, and there is a real fear—when we have the likes of Nigel Farage saying that the European elections are an opportunity to put the “fear of God” into politicians—that such people run the risk of stoking up that kind of intimidation and aggressive behaviour. What can the Minister do to try to ensure that everyone conducts the European elections in a moderate, temperate, professional way?

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I think there is a responsibility on politicians of all political parties—left, right and centre—to try to conduct elections in a spirit, yes, of democratic argument and debate, but also in a spirit of mutual respect for the fact that, in a pluralist democracy, we are entitled to disagree and to express our disagreement; and then to accept the election result however that turns out and to get on with people of other parties, who have an equal democratic mandate to our own.

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I recently had the honour to co-host a conference on misogyny and antisemitism. May I urge the Government to do everything they can to make sure these two forms of hate crime do not prevent women from participating in elections and making their voices heard in the democratic process?

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I agree wholly with what my right hon. Friend has just said. I think one of the most shocking features I have found about life in the House of Commons in the last few years is to learn, in particular from women MPs of different political parties, how they have often been singled out for the sort of misogynistic, brutal abuse that far too many have suffered.

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May I ask the Minister what support he can give to local authorities, and particularly to polling station staff, who in fact may be the most vulnerable during the European election campaign?

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As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have been consulting on creating a new electoral offence of intimidating candidates and campaigners. As far as the staff are concerned, any intimidation or abuse is prima facie a breach of existing criminal law, and I hope that political party representatives and presiding officers would have no hesitation in reporting such things to the police.

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I am very clear and I think the Government are very clear that it is the duty of all politicians of all parties to call out abuse and intimidation wherever and whenever it happens. However, in this particular instance, would it not just be better to keep our promises, and call off these farcical elections?

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It would indeed be the Government’s hope that, even now, we could agree and ratify the withdrawal agreement and give effect to it, which would make it possible for these elections not to take place, but the only way to stop these elections taking place is to bring into effect the withdrawal agreement or to pass primary legislation through Parliament disapplying our international obligations.

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I am very worried about the fact that other candidates are already trying to intimidate candidates. Using language like “fear of God” is not a good way to go about our democracy. I was at a conference this morning at which a country, Eritrea, was trying to discuss how to build a democracy. Surely the Minister for the Cabinet Office will wish to be stronger in his language in condemning the outrageous language of other candidates using words such as “fear of God”?

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I think I was very clear in my earlier comments that there is a profound responsibility on politicians, particularly political leaders, of any party to show moderation and restraint in the language they use about political opponents.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [910486]

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May I start by welcoming my hon. Friend the Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster) to his new ministerial role, and by wishing my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith) the best of luck as she starts her maternity leave and thanking her for the work she has championed to stop intimidation in public life?

The CyberUK 2019 cyber-security conference begins today in Glasgow. I am pleased that I will address that conference tomorrow, where I will outline our work to ensure that the UK remains a global leader in cyber-security.

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Ministers will know that I never miss an opportunity to talk about jobs and opportunities for my Southampton, Itchen constituents. More people are in work than ever before, but not all jobs are well paid with good opportunities. A Government relocation to Southampton would help to give my constituents more opportunities. Has the Minister considered relocation to Southampton as part of the Places for Growth programme? If not, why not?

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I know what a strong champion my hon. Friend is for the city of Southampton. I have heard his representations and am very happy to extend him an invitation: officials from my Department can meet him and representatives from Southampton to see what we can do in that area.

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There are currently 2 million European citizens registered to vote in the UK, many of whom will be using their votes in the local elections next Thursday. However, in order to be eligible to vote in the European elections on 23 May, they will need to complete some paperwork. So far, fewer than 300 of those citizens have completed the paperwork, which would usually have been distributed by electoral registration officers from January onwards. Due to the short timescale for the administration of the European elections, I have heard that many European citizens are considering taking legal action against the Government. What consideration has the Minister given to that, and what measures could the Government take to help European citizens use their vote in the European elections here in the UK?

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I appreciate that the shadow Minister’s point is about the time to make a declaration rather than the registration deadline. She will appreciate that the Government’s approach needs to be determined by the law and what affects it, but I am happy to look at the issue, respond to her in writing and lay a copy of that response in the House Library.

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T3. What steps are Ministers taking to encourage the use of innovative technology for the delivery of public services? [910489]

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This is a major priority for the Cabinet Office, which is why earlier this month I announced £1.5 million in funding for 10 projects that will use location-based data to improve public services, and why I will shortly publish a strategy outlining how we will harness the power of innovative technology across the whole of Government.

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T2. Millions of people are not registered on the electoral roll, and they are much more likely to be from an ethnic minority, young or from a lower demographic class. Does not it say everything about this Government that at a time when we should be trying to get more people on to the register, they are doing everything they can to keep people off the register? [910488]

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This is the Government who introduced online registration, which has made it much easier for people to get on the register and has resulted in among the highest numbers of registrations, so the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question is completely wrong.

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T5. Does the Minister agree that, as the Institute for Government has recently pointed out, the Government have outsourced many public services precisely because the public sector was delivering them poorly, and that any plans to end outsourcing are motivated by political ideology, not by what is best for the taxpayer? [910491]

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight those recent comments, which were clear that Labour’s outsourcing policy risks creating major implementation problems and losing the benefits that outsourcing has brought for taxpayers, without any guarantee that services would improve. This Government will continue to make decisions on outsourcing based on the evidence, not on ideology.

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In congratulating the hon. Member for Huddersfield on the birth of his 12th grandchild—another Sheermanite in the world—I call Mr Barry Sheerman.

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T4. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will pass that message on to the new baby. Yesterday another little girl—a little Swedish girl—came to this place and reminded us how we must act dramatically to face up to climate change and the challenges of climate change. What is the Minister doing to totally re-energise every Department of State on climate change? [910490]

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I think the young woman to whom the hon. Gentleman refers spoke for her generation. All of us who go into schools and colleges in our constituencies know how the issue of climate change inspires and drives political priorities among many of our young constituents. Every Department in this Government is committed to delivering the ambitious plan to reduce carbon emissions and secure our environmental objectives by the 2050 deadline. There is no difference between any Ministers about the need to get on with that.

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T6. Will my hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that disabled candidates in the forthcoming local elections will, thanks to this Government, be able to access dedicated disability-related funding to support the specific needs they face, without it counting towards elections expenses? [910492]

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It is vital that those who stand for office are representative of our society. As a Government, we are taking action to achieve that through a £250,000 fund for disabled candidates in the forthcoming English local election in May. That will help to create a level playing field for disabled and non-disabled candidates.

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T7. Will the Minister further outline what discussions have taken place with social media outlets, such as Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter and others, to strike the delicate balance between freedom of thought and opinion, and security and freedom from cyber-bullying? [910493]

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The hon. Gentleman alludes to the fact that there is a delicate balance to strike between ensuring that people can freely express opinions and ensuring that the Government do not get involved in regulating opinions. It is about making sure that facts are accurate. That is why we are working with colleagues in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on the online harms White Paper to ensure that we can tackle those challenges and strike the right balance on freedom of speech.

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I have met several innovative small businesses in Fareham recently, for example the IT business Silver Lining. Many such small and medium-size enterprises would like more opportunities to work closely with the Government. What steps are the Government taking to enable greater contracting with SMEs?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this important challenge. We have set a demanding target of 33% of all Government business going to SMEs, and our forthcoming innovation strategy will look at exactly that point—how we can make it easier for SMEs to win innovative Government work.

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Does the Minister agree that we need to eradicate fake news at source, and that that includes a more ethical approach to Government advertising spend to ensure it does not go on online fake news sites?

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The Government take disinformation very seriously. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is leading cross-Government work to tackle it, including through the online harms White Paper. The role of Government is to make sure that electors have the facts in public debate, not to regulate opinions people may form on them.