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Cabinet Office

Volume 666: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2019

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was asked—

UK Elections: Overseas Funding

1. What recent discussions his Department has had with the Electoral Commission on the effect of overseas funding of political (a) parties and (b) campaigns on the conduct of elections in the UK. (900085)

The Cabinet Office regularly engages with the Electoral Commission on a range of issues, including strengthening the integrity of the electoral framework. We have committed to launch an electoral integrity consultation, which will seek to strengthen the provisions that protect UK politics from foreign influence. We are currently holding discussions with regulators and stakeholders, and we will be publishing the consultation in the coming months.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but may I press him further? The commissioners recommended that the rules on campaign funding are improved in the UK further to support confidence from the electorate. Will the Minister set out a timetable of when he will finish these consultations and implement the commission’s recommendations so that the electorate has faith in where the funding comes from for our elections in this country?

I appreciate the constructive tone with which the hon. Gentleman has put his question. We look to publish the consultation itself over the coming months. We will be engaging with a range of stakeholders, including political parties, because we need to make sure that the system we come up with is not only robust, but fair, while also allowing those who just want to stand up for their own community and engage in our democratic process to do so without having to consult lawyers to take part.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Facebook has recently withdrawn four different networks that were thought to have interfered with elections in the United States and Israel, and perhaps—we do not know—the United Kingdom. Does he think that is a good move or an irrelevant move by Facebook?

We certainly welcome any moves being taken by the social media giants to try to remove those who are looking to distort information or inappropriately influence elections. As part of the consultation we are taking forward, we will try to achieve some consensus about how we can have a modern and up-to-date set of rules that ensures people cannot go online to sidestep rules that are very strong in the physical world.

Can the Minister confirm how many convictions there were for polling station fraud last year—exactly how many?

I must say that perhaps it would have been better to ask that supplementary on the next question, but I will just say that in building confidence in our electoral system, it is vital that we tackle a range of issues. If the hon. Gentleman wants to see what happens when people’s democratic rights are stolen via electoral fraud, he should talk to his hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick).

Voter Identification

2. What assessment the Government have made of the potential effect on the number of enfranchised people of the provisions on voter identification in the proposed legislation on electoral integrity. (900086)

3. What steps the Government are taking to improve the integrity of electoral (a) processes and (b) systems. (900087)

10. What steps the Government are taking to improve the integrity of electoral (a) processes and (b) systems. (900095)

Voters deserve to have confidence in our democracy, so we will legislate to introduce voter ID, in line with Northern Ireland and many other nations, and to provide greater security for postal and proxy votes. The pilots and the experience in Northern Ireland showed no adverse effect on turnout.

Over the last two years, more than 1,000 people in pilot areas have lost their chance to vote due to ID requirements, which is more than 30 times the number of allegations of polling station fraud across the whole country. Once this pilot is rolled out, thousands upon thousands of people will lose their right to vote—a disproportionate response. Is not the reality that this is just US-style voter suppression?

My wife is Canadian. When I first went to vote with her, she found it extraordinary that people could turn up at the ballot box without any form of identification. Voter ID is what happens in Canada, Switzerland, France and other advanced democracies.

As to the point about lower turnout. In the pilots we undertook, over 99% of people who wished to vote were able to do so.

I welcome the Government’s plans, but do they go far enough? The United States introduced the Foreign Agents Registration Act in 1938 to protect that country against covert interference from malign states. Australia passed a similar Act in July 2018. Does the Minister think we need a FARA in this country?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. The Home Office is reviewing legislation related to hostile state activity following the Salisbury attacks. This is a thorough process to assess whether additional powers are required to clamp down on the activities of hostile states that threaten the UK both here and overseas. As part of this we are considering the legislation of likeminded international partners to see whether the UK would benefit from adopting something similar.

I welcome voter ID, which is commonplace in many democracies, but for those who do not have an existing form of ID, such as a driving licence, what provisions are the Government proposing?

My hon. Friend raises an important point, and it is why local authorities will provide voters who lack the required ID with an alternative ID, free of charge, to ensure that everyone eligible to vote has the opportunity to do so.

Is not the inevitable consequence of creating this obstacle to voting in person that anybody who wants to cheat the system will simply migrate to postal and proxy voting, where fraud is easy?

I do not understand why the right hon. Gentleman is worried about a measure that is designed to enhance the integrity of our voting system. Any member of the public needs to produce identification to pick up a parcel, for example, or to pick up a book from the library, so why should they not produce identification to engage in the act of voting?

We seem to be importing a lot from across the pond. If it is not Trumpian trade deals weakening workers’ protections and opening our NHS to further privatisation, it is repressive voter ID laws that are well used by right-wing Republicans as an act of voter suppression. Is the Minister ashamed to be part of a Government who are learning lessons from the US Republican party on voter suppression? How many convictions have there been for in-person voter fraud in the last year?

We are not following the example of the United States; we are following the example set by the last Labour Government, who introduced photographic voter identification in 2003, and it had no discernible impact on turnout.

Strength of the Union

The Government are committed to strengthening the links between the four nations of the Union. The Prime Minister is taking personal charge, as Minister for the Union, supported by the Cabinet Office. We have boosted spending across the Union, including a further £300 million of new growth deal funding, which will open up opportunities for cities and regions across Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

We are arguably the greatest Union the world has ever seen. We have done so much for mankind and democracy across the world for generations. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we would be foolish to throw away this most valuable of Unions on what I believe is a passing whim?

As ever, I agree with my hon. Friend. I am pleased to see that his powers of oration have not dimmed. Ours is the most successful political and economic Union in history, and our four nations are safer, stronger and more prosperous together. We are deeply committed to keeping our family of nations together.

In a week in which we have seen a poll indicate that more voters support independence, threatening to split the Union, can my right hon. Friend tell me what work he is doing to build on the last Administration’s work to get UK Departments engaging with, and getting more of a presence in, the devolved nations?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have introduced new measures to ensure that the Union and devolved matters are properly considered as part of the process for developing and agreeing Government policy. Lord Dunlop’s independent review of UK Government capability will report in the autumn and make recommendations on how UK Government structures can continue to strengthen the working of the Union.

This is not the time for yah-boo politics. This is a most serious question—most serious because many experts outside this House believe that we are on course for a break-up of the United Kingdom as a result of the way this Government are handling the European Union and Brexit. Is the Minister not worried about that?

I thought the hon. Gentleman would be greatly heartened by the fact that, finally, the Prime Minister has agreed a deal—one that was voted for by this House last night—that enables a smooth transition out of the European Union, which will do much to enhance our Union.

The Government’s confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP says that the Government will never be neutral in expressing support for the Union, that the DUP will support the Government in all legislation pertaining to Brexit, and that the arrangement will be reviewed after each parliamentary Session. Will the Minister update us on all three points, please?

I find the approach of the nationalist party quite extraordinary—really quite extraordinary. I voted remain. I accept the outcome of the referendum and have supported it at every stage. The hon. Gentleman’s party appears to want to do two things: to ignore two previous referendums and to have two further referendums next year, 2020. It is the last thing the people of this country want.

Does the Minister agree that to strengthen the Union, it is important to have a close dialogue with communities in Northern Ireland about how the detail of the new arrangements for trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would work, to reassure them?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and that is exactly the commitment that the Prime Minister has given.

Back in the 2014 Scottish referendum, the winning side promised that Scotland’s views would not be ignored in the Union, yet on the matter that has consumed British politics for the past four years, the opinions of the Scottish people and their elected representatives have consistently been sidelined. The Minister will know that that has driven many people to reconsider their faith in the Union. Does he have any regrets about how the Conservative party has approached this matter?

The hon. Gentleman talks about commitments, but I remember the commitment from the leader of the Scottish nationalists in Scotland, who said the referendum was a once-in-a-generation event. As for how many people voted, more people voted to leave in Scotland than voted for the Scottish National party.

Last week, the Government threw the DUP and every Unionist in Northern Ireland under a bus—presumably the bus with lies on the side about NHS funding and the EU that the Prime Minister spent so much of 2016 riding around the country in—providing the SNP with sackfuls of ammunition for its campaign promoting a referendum on independence. Why are the Government more concerned about Brexit than they are about maintaining the integrity of the United Kingdom?

The Government remain committed to maintaining the unity of our United Kingdom. That is why the Prime Minister has negotiated a deal that enables Northern Ireland to leave the customs union alongside the rest of the United Kingdom and has a consent mechanism for the arrangements included in that treaty.

Leaving the EU: UK Readiness

7. What recent steps the Government have taken to ensure that (a) businesses and (b) the public are prepared for the UK leaving the EU. (900091)

13. What recent steps the Government have taken to ensure that (a) businesses and (b) the public are prepared for the UK leaving the EU. (900098)

14. What support the Government plan to provide for small businesses in the event that the UK leaves the EU without a deal. (900099)

Making sure that business and the public are ready for Brexit is a priority of the Government. That is why the Prime Minister negotiated with the EU a new withdrawal agreement that will end the uncertainty, secure an implementation period and ensure we leave with a business-friendly deal. Yesterday, the House backed the Prime Minister’s deal but voted to delay Brexit and extend uncertainty for business and citizens alike. As the EU has not responded to Parliament’s letter, the only responsible course of action now is to accelerate preparations for a no-deal outcome. The Government’s EU Exit Operations Committee is now meeting seven days a week. We will maintain our public information campaign, and Ministers and officials will continue to meet businesses of all sizes to provide advice and guidance, building on the thousands of business and other stakeholder engagements already recorded.

In my previous exchange with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I asked him what steps would be taken to support firms and farms affected by no deal and he set out the plans for Operation Kingfisher. How much funding will be set aside for Operation Kingfisher?

We continue to work closely with the farming sector to ensure that it is fully prepared for when the UK leaves the EU. We have pledged to continue the same cash total in funds for farm support until the end of this Parliament and we will do whatever is necessary to protect our farming communities.

In the light of yesterday’s vote, should businesses in Rugby accelerate their own preparations for leaving the EU without a deal?

The Government have always made it clear that our preferred option is to leave with a deal. We could have done that in a timely manner had this House not voted for delay, but until we have certainty, the only credible and reasonable thing for businesses to do is to continue to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

I recently visited a number of small companies in my constituency who welcome Government advice, but say that much of it is vague and non-specific. Will my right hon. Friend ask his civil servants to ensure advice is more specific?

I will pass on my hon. Friend’s comments to our officials. I am very proud to say that the preparing for Brexit page on the website is the page with the highest traffic, but there is always more we can do to ensure that specific information is passed on to businesses. I will ensure that that is passed on to our officials.

Will the Minister confirm that, for the no-deal preparations in relation to the port of Portsmouth, three companies of soldiers and 180 police are on standby? If that is correct, how many more troops and police have been put on standby for remaining ports around the country?

I have to confess that the details the right hon. Gentleman highlights are not known to me. If he would like to furnish me with that information, I am more than happy to look at it. The broader point I would make is that the Government are taking the appropriate action to ensure that we can leave without a deal if needs be. As I say, that has never been the Government’s preferred option and we could have been in a position to leave with a deal, widely welcomed by businesses and communities across the United Kingdom, if he and others had not voted to prevent it.

I wonder whether the Minister still has that clock on his wall, which he famously pointed at, counting down to 31 October. Is it still working? Did the Government pay for it, or did he provide for it himself?

I do not answer questions from the Dispatch Box in my capacity as chairman of the Conservative party, but if you will indulge me, Mr Speaker, the clock was not paid for out of public funds. Had Members across this House not voted to delay Brexit, we would have left on time with a deal and in good order.

The Minister continues to emphasise preparations for no deal, but did he not see in the paper yesterday a civil servant describing Operation Yellowhammer as the most expensive but failed bullying exercise in the whole of British history designed to frighten MPs into supporting a rotten Tory deal? Does he agree that there can be no justification for no deal once the EU, in the next few days, extends article 50? Under those circumstances, will the Minister for no deal then declare himself redundant and send the civil service back to do their proper jobs?

Ministers at the Dispatch Box answer questions on behalf of the Government, not civil servants. The point I would make is that preparing for a no-deal Brexit is the pragmatic and sensible thing for the Government to do. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned about a no-deal Brexit, he could and should have voted in a way that ensured we left on 31 October with a deal that works for the whole of the UK. He chose not to.

Topical Questions

It is my responsibility to prepare this country for Brexit. I am delighted that so many democrats across the House voted for the Second Reading of the withdrawal agreement Bill last night, and the universal cry from across this country is: please, get Brexit done.

It depends on which nation of this country we are talking about. At a recent meeting of the Scottish Parliament’s Finance and Constitution Committee, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirmed that, as part of his Government’s deal, Northern Irish businesses would have easier access to the European single market than Scottish businesses. Can he confirm how much this clear competitive disadvantage will cost Scottish business?

Scotland’s businesses benefit from being part of our United Kingdom. I gently remind the hon. Lady, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General pointed out earlier, that more Scots voted to leave the European Union than voted for the Scottish nationalist party at the last general election.

T4. With the Government being the largest client of the construction industry, will the Minister support a private Member’s Bill—similar to the ten-minute rule Bill that I introduced in the last Session—to outlaw the abuse of retentions? (900103)

I know how much work my hon. Friend has put into that issue. The Government have consulted on ways to prevent the loss of retention payments due to abuse or supplier insolvency. We continue to work with the industry and its clients to develop measures that will achieve that aim, and I very much hope that he will help us in that process.

T2. One hundred and eighty-one victims have died since the start of the contaminated blood inquiry, so when will this Government accept the responsibility for the worst scandal in the NHS and pay compensation to surviving victims and bereaved families? (900101)

The hon. Lady raises a very important point. The infected blood inquiry is a priority for the Government, and it is extremely important that all those who have suffered so terribly can get the answers that they have spent decades waiting for. On the point of compensation, the Government have always made it clear that we will wait for the determination of legal liability, to which the inquiry’s deliberations relate, and then make our determination off the back of that.

T5.   The Mayor of Greater Manchester is the police and crime commissioner and has responsibility for the Greater Manchester spatial framework and for health and social care devolution. London has an Assembly to challenge the Mayor. What mechanism is there in Greater Manchester? (900104)

As part of delivering our northern powerhouse, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has committed to 100% devolution across the north of England, but in Greater Manchester, power must come with responsibility. That is why last May, the people of Bolton threw off the yoke of their Labour council after 40 years. The new Conservative leader, David Greenhalgh, will end Andy Burnham’s era of impunity.

T3. The withdrawal agreement will have the most profound effect on devolution, and I do not trust the Tories with devolution. Does the Minister agree with the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland, who are meeting across the road, that they must give legislative consent? (900102)

It is very interesting to hear from the hon. Gentleman. He does not believe in devolution; he believes in smashing up our United Kingdom, so I will take no lectures from him on making our UK institutions work in the interests of all.

Derby is only a short train ride from London and is a welcoming city for business. Will the Minister see which Departments could be moved out of expensive accommodation in London to much better value-for-money offices in Derby?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for her reference to Derby. We recognise the strength of the east midlands, and we are working with stakeholders from her local enterprise partnership—D2N2—to explore opportunities for role relocation in this area.

T6.   The Government’s previous offers to reduce the pension age of prison officers have included unrelated changes to their terms and conditions, such as a derisory three-year pay deal. Will the Minister agree to sit round the table with the POA union to negotiate this issue solely on its own? (900105)

We continue to engage with the prison officers union, but I would be happy to meet any people who wish to discuss this.

What steps is the Minister taking to improve access to wireless internet at hospitals and in operating theatres?

The Cabinet Office works across all Departments to help drive the Government’s commitments, including to ensure the roll-out of broadband across the United Kingdom, and I am working with the Department of Health and Social Care on that.

T7.   Yellowhammer identified possible food shortages and food price rises that would have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable groups. What work are Ministers doing with schools, hospitals and frontline charities to make sure this is not an issue? (900106)

I am very grateful to the hon. Lady. I know how seriously she takes these issues. Through the XO Committee, we are working with local resilience forums and with the Department for Education, the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that vulnerable groups are protected come what may.

Existing electoral law seeks to control the spending and supervise the message whenever we go into elections. Does the Minister share my concern that it might not be adequate to control and supervise the advertising and campaigning that takes place on social media, where most of our constituents are more likely to get the message and where it is so important to ensure adequate controls?

I appreciate my right hon. Friend’s concerns. We will be launching the consultation on electoral funding next year, as I have already outlined in this Session, and we are looking to introduce digital imprints so that electors are well aware of who is targeting them on social media.