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Departmental Staff

Volume 402: debated on Thursday 3 April 2003

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If she will make a statement on her plans to reduce the number of senior staff in her Department. [106686]

There are no plans to reduce the number of senior staff in the Department.

In view of that slightly surprising reply, will the Minister explain public reports a few weeks ago that the Secretary of State's intention was to be the first member of the Cabinet to set an objective of reducing her Department's bureaucracy by 20 per cent? Why has she subsequently backtracked on that public commitment?

The hon. Gentleman should not always believe everything that he reads in the papers. He was clearly determined to ask the question that he had prepared. I have given an answer that dismisses that rather facile approach.

As the Minister said, the intention may be for there to be no such reduction, but the Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs, of which I am a member, was distinctly unimpressed by the Department's IT strategy, which envisages a selling-off of the information functions to the private sector. Will that not lead to a loss of experienced, committed and talented individuals that DEFRA, in its present position, cannot possibly afford? Surely, for a Department to sell off core resources, such as information, is like St. Thomas' hospital over the river selling off its surgery department to Sainsbury's butchers.

I could simply answer "no" and leave it at that. I am afraid that my hon. Friend gives a complete mischaracterisation of what is going on in DEFRA. The Office of Government Commerce review has just been completed, which demonstrated how DEFRA had lifted its game in improving IT. We try to use the best industry standards to provide high quality IT for the future, which is badly needed due to the desperate situation that we inherited. We have every intention of improving IT, as we intend to improve senior management. We have made great strides during the past 18 months and will continue to do so.

I am relieved to hear that the Minister has no intention of cutting senior staff in DEFRA by 20 per cent. In my experience, DEFRA civil servants are of the highest quality, so I am glad about that. In that case, however, what does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do about the Select Committee's report? I remind him that it states that DEFRA

"must undergo … structural and cultural change. We have doubts about the abilities of management to oversee such a period of change."
Will the Minister answer some questions about staffing in that context? First, why are officials of the former Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions paid more than their equivalents in the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Secondly, how much money does he plan to save for the Treasury as a result of the senior staff review? Will it be more than the £20 million set aside for early retirements? Thirdly, if, as reported in the Financial Times on 13 January, "mandarins" are to undergo psychometric testing to assess their leadership abilities, would it not he reasonable for Ministers to undergo the same tests?

We are proposing to use those tests on the Opposition, as they need testing more than we do. Again, the hon. Gentleman should not believe everything that he reads in the papers. We are seeking to narrow the gaps between the payment of staff and a lot of progress has been made, but he will appreciate that dealing with that issue is expensive. The purpose of the work that has come from the senior staff review is to lift the quality of staff, particularly senior staff, throughout the Department, and a great deal of progress is being made in that regard. I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the high quality of the staff in DEFRA, and they are lifting their game throughout the Department as a result of the leadership that they are being offered.