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Cabinet Office

Volume 661: debated on Wednesday 5 June 2019

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

Electoral Integrity Consultation

The Government recently announced measures to strengthen and protect our democratic processes, including a consultation on electoral integrity. Before we launch the consultation, we will hold discussions with interested groups and explore the scope for cross-party co-operation. It will be published in due course.

Earlier this year, my constituents were bombarded with Facebook adverts telling them that I was stealing Brexit and ignoring their votes. It has been reported that behind those adverts was hundreds of thousands of pounds of dark money. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that voters know who is funding political adverts on social media?

Part of our announcement was that we will bring in a requirement for digital imprints where candidates or campaigners are involved, and some social media platforms have already implemented that. We are also looking, as part of a wider consultation, at how to have modern and up-to-date electoral rules, but it is about ensuring that we do it well rather than quickly.

The problem is much more widespread. The Guardian reported that American donors have given $5.6 million to US funding bodies, which passed it to, among others, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and Policy Exchange. Will the consultation look specifically at how think-tanks are funded and by whom, or is the Minister worried that that is a little bit too close to home?

We are clear that the consultation needs to look at a wide range of issues, including the potential for shell companies or organisations to be used to funnel money into media campaigns. As I said in my initial answer, we are keen to get this right and to secure cross-party co-operation, so that we can have a robust system in law, because we know that any loopholes left in a rushed piece of legislation would be exploited.

Does my hon. Friend agree that part of having integrity in the system is ensuring that it is easy for people to understand? Electoral systems are critical to that, so will he bring forward plans to introduce first past the post in all English elections?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is a great advocate of the first-past-the-post system, which has served this country well for many generations, producing stable government. Any changes to introduce first past the post in other elections would have to compete for legislative time with other priorities.

Since we publicly raised concerns just over a year ago, the Conservative party has accepted more than £1 million from donors with links to Russia, including the wife of Vladimir Putin’s former deputy Finance Minister, who has donated £112,500 to the Conservative party in the past three months alone, making a total of up to £626,000. Will the review that the Minister is undertaking look at links between the Conservative party and the biggest kleptocrat of all, President Putin?

The person referred to is actually a British citizen, but I am not going to take lectures on the influence of Russia in British politics from the Opposition, whose leader wanted us to hand over evidence to Russia after the Salisbury attack—rather than believing our intelligence service, he would rather believe Mr Putin’s.

Electoral Registration: Non-UK EU Citizens

2. What estimate he has made of the number of non-UK EU citizens living in the UK who were unable to register to vote in the European parliamentary elections. (911140)

6. What estimate he has made of the number of non-UK EU citizens living in the UK who were unable to register to vote in the European parliamentary elections. (911144)

10. What estimate he has made of the number of non-UK EU citizens living in the UK who were unable to register to vote in the European parliamentary elections. (911150)

The Cabinet Office does not collect or hold information on the number of eligible electors who do not register to vote in any election. The process for EU nationals to register and declare their intention to vote in the UK for these elections was similar to the system used in previous European parliamentary elections.

Many of my constituents were denied a vote in the EU elections. Following yesterday’s urgent question, it is clear that the Government failed to implement the recommendations of the 2014 Electoral Commission review, failed to follow EU law, failed to try to extend the deadline for submitting the UC1 form and failed to uphold the human rights of EU residents in the UK. Was that simply Government incompetence, or did they deliberately deny EU citizens the right to vote?

I am very clear that the Government followed our legal obligations, and on 5 April the Electoral Commission published guidance for electoral registration officers, reminding them to prepare and issue UC1 forms to EU citizens on the register. Again, I reject this; and, again, the system was similar to what we have had in previous European Union elections.

On 23 May, my constituents Joanna Pardoe, Lues Huesca Molina, Paloma Luna, Peter Tait, Pierro Izzolino, Cristiana Bottigella, Sophie Beswick, Yaiza Rivero and dozens more were denied a vote in the EU elections. Yesterday, the Minister failed to apologise to them and the hundreds of other EU citizens who were unable to exercise their democratic right because of the impossible timetable set for Lewisham electoral services by this Government. Will he apologise today?

I am afraid the timetable is exactly the same legal timetable there has been for previous European parliamentary elections and, ultimately, ensuring compliance with it is the job of the local ERO.

Two campaign groups, the3million and British in Europe, have raised more than £40 million to fund a legal challenge to the parliamentary election process. What assessment have the Government made of whether they took the necessary steps at the European elections to uphold article 3 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights, which protects our right to vote?

As said previously, the Government complied with all legal obligations and followed an almost identical process to what happened for previous European parliamentary elections. The requirement to make this declaration is part of European law, and we have to share such declarations before polling day. Again, while people may not like the outcome of those elections, I suggest they are better engaging with what voters said than trying to argue the process.

Will the Minister confirm that the UC1 form is not some arbitrary requirement, as has been suggested, but a core requirement of European law that is required of all European member states and has not been changed since previous elections?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right to say that this is a requirement that applied in 2009 and 2014, and there is a requirement under European law for us to have a declaration supplied to other member states about their citizens voting in this country to prevent double voting. It is interesting that those who are usually great fans of following European law did not want to follow this particular piece of it.

Yesterday, the Minister told me that he had received official advice that it would not be possible to bring forward a statutory instrument in advance of the European elections to allow more time for EU citizens to declare their intention on where they wished to vote and that that would not be possible because it would contravene European law. How can that be the case given that other European countries do it differently and that EU law sets no time requirements for registration, and will he publish the advice that he received?

EU law makes it clear that we have to supply details of the declarations sufficiently before polling day, which rather conflicts with the Scottish National party idea, suggested a couple of weeks ago, that we could fill in declarations at the polling station. Quite clearly, something cannot be done before polling day if the information is collected on polling day. We were clear that, with the timescales, we followed the legal process that was there from previous European parliamentary elections and complied with all our legal obligations.

On this matter, the Minister appears to be taking his cue from Shaggy, protesting, “It Wasn’t Me”. Six times yesterday, he refused to apologise to these EU citizens who have been disenfranchised. Can I suggest that he change the record and perhaps take his cue from Timbaland, and “Apologize”—apologise to those European citizens who have every right to vote in these elections, but were turned away on polling day?

It does seem like a bit of a broken record from the Labour party, and not an acceptance that this is exactly the same process EU citizens had to follow to vote in European parliamentary elections while the Labour party were in government. The best assessment will be the one done by the Electoral Commission, which will do so independently, following a statutory duty to review major polling events.

The Cornish People

3. What steps the Government are taking to support the recognition in 2014 under the Council of Europe framework convention for the protection of national minorities of the Cornish people as a national minority in the UK. (911141)

The Government are committed to meeting the requirement of the framework convention for the protection of national minorities in respect of Cornish populations. We work with Cornwall Council to encourage the promotion of Cornish culture, and we have committed £100,000 over two years to the council to support this.

I thank the Minister for his answer. In 2014, when the decision was made by the Council of Europe, the Government welcomed the decision and said that this would give the Cornish the same recognition as the other Celtic parts of the UK. Does the Minister share my view that, to keep this commitment, the Cornish should be allowed to identify in the forthcoming census as Cornish by way of a tick-box, just as the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish will be able to do?

I always welcome the determination shown by my hon. Friend to be a strong Cornish voice for Cornwall in the Chamber and to put the county first on the agenda. The Government will be guided by the recommendation of the Office for National Statistics to the Government and Parliament about the demand for particular questions when we lay the census orders before Parliament later this year.

One of the best ways in which the Department could recognise Cornish minority status is to drop the ludicrous suggestion of having a Cornwall-Devon boundary review. Will the Minister commit to giving the Cornish the same rights as the Welsh and the Scots?

The boundary review is independent, and in due course we will bring the orders before the House so that it can make a decision.

I rise with a degree of uncertainty, because ordinarily I seek to accommodate the hon. Lady, but the question has not been broadened by the character and contents of the answer, and I gently point out that Glasgow Central is a considerable distance from Cornwall. If she is sufficiently dextrous and can shoehorn an inquiry on Cornwall into a question about Cornwall that would be helpful.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for your indulgence. Protection of the Cornish language is important, but there is no right, as there is for the Welsh, to write to the UK Government in Cornish, or to write to the UK Government in Gaelic and receive a response in that language. Would the Minister consider a UK language protection Bill that would protect Cornish and Scots Gaelic in the same way that Welsh is protected?

We can see that Celtic roots are strong, both in Cornwall and in Scotland, and that there is a link between them. We are always keen to help to promote the culture of these isles, and the different languages that are spoken across them are part of our vibrant United Kingdom. The Cabinet is always open to suggestions about how we can better do that, as the Department is keen to promote our Union.

Voter ID Pilots

4. What estimate he has made of the number of people in voter ID pilot areas who could not vote in the May 2019 local elections because they were unable to meet ID requirements. (911142)

11. What estimate he has made of the number of people in voter ID pilot areas who could not vote in the May 2019 local elections because they were unable to meet ID requirements. (911151)

The Government are delivering a programme of work to strengthen the integrity of our electoral system and ensure that elections are secure and fit for the 21st century. Validated figures will be published as part of the evaluations undertaken both by the Cabinet Office and by the independent Electoral Commission of the 2019 pilots.

According to interim figures for the pilot areas in May, 800 people were denied a vote because of ID requirements, yet last year there were only eight reported cases of personation fraud across the whole country. Is not the reality that this is not about protecting our electoral system—it is about voter suppression?

If it was so bad, why did the Labour party introduce a system of voter ID in Northern Ireland that has had no noticeable impact on voter turnout? To be clear, this is about securing the ballot, and we look forward to the Electoral Commission’s conclusions on the pilots.

Does the Minister not agree that electoral fraud is rare in this country and could be tackled locally? If he thinks that that is how it should be tackled, will he help local government with resources?

It is always a pleasure to be asked a question by the hon. Gentleman. We are taking a range of measures to secure the protection of our electoral system, and I do not think that an ID check that originated in the 19th century and that was based on a small percentage of the community—and I must say, men—voting, where everyone was known, is still fit in the 21st century.

Most people would think that voter ID requirements are perfectly reasonable. On the pilots, what steps were taken comprehensively to ensure that people were aware of the requirements?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. A range of work was done locally, supported by the Electoral Commission and the Cabinet Office with councils’ consent, to ensure that voters were aware of the requirements. The indications so far are that that has been successful, but of course we will look at the Electoral Commission’s independent review before making further decisions on the process.

Candidates with Disabilities

5. What plans the Government has to encourage more candidates with disabilities to stand for election. (911143)

The Government are working with disability organisations to help political parties better support disabled candidates. In December 2018, we launched the £250,000 EnAble fund, providing grants that cover disability-related expenses that people might face when seeking elected office.

I have met many talented students with disabilities in Cheltenham from the National Star College, so I commend my right hon. Friend for removing disability expenses from the electoral spending limits. Surely, that should apply across the United Kingdom. Does he not agree that it should be rolled out to Wales, too?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. That is, of course, a matter for the Welsh Labour party in the Welsh Assembly. We have taken the view here that excluding disability-related expenses is vital to closing the gap between candidates with disabilities and candidates without disabilities, therefore enhancing equality of opportunity.

In supporting candidates with disabilities to stand in elections, does the Minister not agree that there could be a further benefit? It could result in the voting population of those with disabilities coming to the voting booths in person to vote for disabled or able-bodied candidates.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good point. It is good for us to ensure we have candidates from all backgrounds and all abilities, with candidates with disabilities having the opportunity to stand. There is a duty on all of us in political parties to do that. I am very proud that the Conservative party has a fund to support candidates who need extra help.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments in answer to this question. Does he agree that we all want to encourage maximum participation to ensure we get the very best candidates to stand and participate in all elections?

My right hon. Friend makes a very good point. That is absolutely right, and as I say, it is why I am very proud to be the chairman of a party that has a fund, through the Conservative Foundation, that puts money into supporting candidates in that way. It is for all of us in all political parties to support candidates of all types and abilities to come forward, stand and represent their constituents.

May I encourage the Minister to look at hidden disabilities, such as fibromyalgia and ME, as well as physical disabilities, to ensure that people with hidden disabilities, which might not be instantly recognisable, are included in the democratic process?

Yes. The hon. Gentleman is right. It is for all of us to ensure we have a holistic approach to make sure nobody is ever left behind and everybody has a chance to reach their full potential.

Cyber-security

7. What steps his Department is taking to help improve the cyber-security of public and private sector organisations. (911147)

The National Cyber Security Centre provides expert technical advice to Departments and Government contractors, but also to the wider private and public sectors, on how to prevent, detect and recover from cyber-attacks.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that, while it is important to ensure we protect the Government from attacks to new systems, we protect legacy systems, too?

I completely agree. Whoever leads the next Government, it would be good advice for the relevant Department to take forward a consolidated bid in the next public spending round, so that this issue can be tackled on a cross-Government basis.

Providing national insurance data can be at the root of the difficulties that young people face when registering to vote. Will the Minister identify how Departments can better share data with local councils to help more people exercise their democratic right and still ensure cyber-security?

We are looking at the potential reform of the canvassing operation by local authorities to compile the electoral register. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, there is a fine balance to be struck between the benefits one gets from data sharing between different Government agencies and the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of very sensitive private data.

Today, the Public Accounts Committee found that, incredibly, a third of the funding for the Government’s cyber-security strategy has been transferred or loaned to other Government projects and that £69 million of cyber-funding has been taken from the strategy completely. Will the Minister confirm whether that is because the Government do not think our cyber-security is an important priority for them, or whether that is because even national security is not exempt from Tory austerity?

What the report shows very clearly is that the cyber-security of this country, and particularly of Government Departments and agencies, has been strengthened since the introduction and implementation of the national cyber-security strategy. The work that the National Cyber Security Centre, in particular, is leading on is helping Government Departments and the private sector alike to keep in touch with the developing and changing nature of the threat and to raise our defences accordingly.

Overseas Electors

8. What plans he has to change the 15-year time limit on participation by overseas electors in UK elections. (911148)

The Government are committed to scrapping the arbitrary 15-year rule. We were disappointed that the Overseas Electors Bill from my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) did not succeed, but we remain committed to implementing votes for life and are considering the next steps to deliver that.

Is my hon. Friend aware that not everyone is enthusiastic about these changes, starting with me? Even though it would affect two of my daughters, who live permanently in America, I cannot for the life of me understand the justification for these changes. Will he also comment on reciprocal arrangements for non-nationals voting here?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, but I have to disagree with him. I am clear that we need to take the choice that is right for this country and our citizens who live abroad, many of whom have literally fought for this country and still retain very strong emotional connections to it and an interest in its affairs. That is why the Government’s view is that the 15-year limit is arbitrary and should be removed.

Government Procurement

9. What progress the Government have made towards their target of spending 33% of central Government procurement with small and medium-sized enterprises by 2022. (911149)

We are doing more than ever to encourage SMEs in public procurement. Recently published figures show an increase in spend from the previous year. Examples of measures that we have taken include streamlining procurement processes and improving transparency and, from September, we will be able to exclude suppliers that fail to pay subcontractors on time.

Research from the Federation of Small Businesses shows that 25% of businesses that are in supply chains for public infrastructure projects experience late payment more than half the time. Along with the Government lagging dismally behind their target of spending 33% of central Government procurement with SMEs by 2022, is this not yet more evidence that they simply do not represent the interests of small businesses?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman would welcome figures that show we are spending more with small businesses than ever before. On his point about prompt payment, we set a very challenging target of 90% of undisputed invoices from SMEs being paid within five days and we are meeting that for most Departments.

Topical Questions

We are now moving towards the 20th anniversary of devolution in Scotland and Wales and we are making every effort possible to restore devolved Government in Northern Ireland. Under this Government, the devolved Parliaments have been given more powers than ever before, with new powers over income tax, transport and the benefit system, and we have been clear that, when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, a significant number of powers will flow back to those Parliaments. We are committed to upholding the devolution settlements and to strengthening the Union between all parts of the United Kingdom. [Interruption.]

I am not sure that the Minister is being accorded the respectful attention that his celebrity status within Her Majesty’s Government warrants, and I hope that there can be an improvement on that in the minutes ahead.

Yesterday, during the urgent question, the Government were asked how many names of EU citizens were transmitted from this country to other countries after the 7 May deadline. What is the Government’s response to the fact that, under the directive, article 9.4 says that EU citizens shall remain eligible to vote in perpetuity and not have to fill in additional forms?

The process was exactly the same as for previous European parliamentary elections and I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at the independent review that the Electoral Commission will do following the poll.

T2. What are the Government doing to encourage maximum participation in elections and, in particular, to encourage young people to register to vote? (911171)

The Government are committed to ensuring that all citizens feel empowered to participate in democracy. In the Cabinet Office, we have delivered projects to promote and encourage participation among young people, including a scheme to recruit and train some 1,000 youth democracy ambassadors. I know that my hon. Friend has personally worked very hard on this issue and I give great credit to him for that, because political parties have a role to play in getting young people involved in politics as well. I am very proud that, in the Conservative party, with his good work, we have seen over 100 new young Conservative branches in just a year.

T6. We know that the Government have been spending a lot of our money on private polling to find out what the people of Scotland think about their so-called precious Union. Are there any plans for similar polling to find out what the people of Scotland think of the demand that our health service be sacrificed to curry favour with Donald Trump? (911175)

The Prime Minister could not have been clearer yesterday that the future of the NHS will not be on the table in trade negotiations. The hon. Gentleman would be better advised to focus on the need to improve the declining standards in the Scottish NHS, for which his party is responsible.

T3. A number of former Rugby residents who live abroad, including Claire Nurcombe, who lives in France and who I still represent here, have told me about their wish to retain their voting rights in the UK. The Minister has already referred to the commitment to allow British nationals to retain their voting rights. Can he clarify when that will be delivered? (911172)

My hon. Friend’s examples show why an arbitrary 15-year limit is not correct. The Government are considering their options to bring this forward at the earliest opportunity.

T7.   Will the Government commit that come the next general election not a single primary school will have to close to be a polling station? (911176)

Legislation allows returning officers to use schools as polling places to ensure sufficient provision of polling places. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that there needs to be a balance, particularly because we need to find accessible buildings and in some cases schools will be the only ones, but there should be a discussion between returning officers and schools to ensure that the burden of this requirement is not too great.

The vast majority of liberal democracies worldwide, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, consider 18 the right age at which to enfranchise young people. Parliament has debated the question of lowering the voting age in a number of contexts and has repeatedly voted against doing so.

T5. Last week, Nicola Sturgeon brought forward legislation in the Scottish Parliament for another independence referendum in Holyrood—[Interruption.] Clearly much to the delight of SNP Members. But that is despite recent polling showing that fewer than one in five Scots want another independence referendum in the next couple of years. What discussions has the Minister had with representatives of the Scottish Government about these developments? Can he reassure me and the House that the UK Government will continue to uphold the result of the 2014 referendum and say no to this unwanted independence referendum? (911174)

It was the First Minister herself who said that the 2014 referendum was a once-in-a-generation decision. I believe that we should take her at her word during that referendum campaign and uphold the clear will of the Scottish people as expressed in the 2014 referendum.

To strengthen the Union, what actions are the Government taking to deliver investment and growth to all four nations of our United Kingdom, especially in places such as Stoke-on-Trent?

My hon. Friend is right. That is why such measures as the modern industrial strategy and the city deals programme bring benefits to every part of the United Kingdom. As he knows, Stoke-on-Trent has benefited from the transforming cities programme to the tune of more than £5.5 million and from the ultrafast broadband programme by more than £9 million.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) has said, Nicola Sturgeon laid the draft legislation for a second independence referendum last week, but with only one in five Scots supporting what she is doing. Can the Minister assure me that his Department is doing all it can to protect and preserve our United Kingdom, which we are so proud to be part of?

The Government believe, and I believe the majority of people in Scotland continue to believe, that all of us are stronger by being proud of being not only Scottish, English, Welsh or Northern Irish, but part of a union of four nations in the United Kingdom.