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Cabinet Office

Volume 495: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2009

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service Reform

I have not received any specific representations on civil service reform, but this House knows that we remain committed to ensuring that the civil service is transparent and accountable and delivers the maximum value for every public pound of investment.

For civil service reforms to have an impact outside Whitehall, we need fuller information about the activities of senior civil servants. The delayed publication of the 2007 hospitality lists was just a start. Should we not, for example, place in the public domain permanent secretaries’ diaries? Would that not help to create the sort of transparency that the public expect nowadays from unelected officials, and help to refresh the machinery of government as part of real constitutional renewal?

I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in the issue, and he will know about the commitment to transparency in publishing all details of senior civil service hospitality and expenses. He will also know that the Cabinet Secretary yesterday took the first step in publishing his own expenses, a move that was warmly welcomed by the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Does the Minister believe that it is proper that when the civil service code is drafted it should be scrutinised by Parliament as part of a Bill, rather than as secondary legislation?

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to placing the civil service code on a statutory basis. That forms part of the Constitutional Renewal Bill that will come before the House. As with all these things, the challenge is to find legislative time, but the important point is that the civil service has taken very substantial steps to improve and to enhance accountability without legislation, and that is to be welcomed.

Should we not warmly congratulate the Cabinet Secretary on publishing his own expenses, and also those of all top senior civil servants, and is that not an example to the wider public sector?

It is a pleasure to congratulate the Paymaster General and the Minister of State on their appointments. We look forward to having many fruitful discussions both across the Dispatch Box and elsewhere.

A report in May by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that finance directors in central Government Departments do not “have a pivotal place” at the public sector “top table” and

“their boards have a mixed appetite for transparency in financial decisions”.

In light of the crying need for greater efficiency in the face of Britain’s worsening public finances, does the Minister agree that the status and authority of such finance directors need to be raised to the same level as that which they enjoy in the private sector?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I entirely agree with his sentiment. The value-for-money discipline that the finance director ultimately oversees needs to be a cultural discipline in Government Departments, promoted in every possible way with maximum transparency. I would also draw to his attention and underline, however, the success of the savings made by central Government through the civil service as a result of the Gershon review: £26 billion worth of savings have been made, with plans for a further £35 billion worth of savings, in order that we can continue to invest in public services as we believe the public wish.

We are familiar with the numbers that the Paymaster General has just read out, but we are slightly less convinced about their relationship with the reality of efficiencies actually delivered. Will she confirm that the now much delayed Constitutional Renewal Bill will include provisions that were in the draft Civil Service Bill, which was promised for more than a decade but still has not seen the light of day in Parliament? Will the Constitutional Renewal Bill contain provisions on special advisers? Given the corrosive effect of some special advisers on the quality and integrity of government, should not the Bill place a cap on their number and reassert in law that their role is to advise Ministers and not to direct the civil service—or does the fact that Damian McBride is apparently still in contact with Ministers just go to show that a change of culture within Whitehall will not happen without a change of Government?

If the right hon. Gentleman is going to make assertions such as the one he made in relation to Damian McBride, he needs to provide some evidence. The important step the Government have taken has been to publish—the Prime Minister has been absolutely unequivocal about this—a code for special advisers, which was very recently updated to underline with absolute clarity special advisers’ responsibilities. I would just add that it is very easy to abuse special advisers as a category on the basis of the bad behaviour of a tiny minority, but in my view they greatly enhance the effective working of government, and that should be welcomed.

Business Disruption Plans

2. What steps her Department is taking as part of its civil contingencies responsibilities to increase the proportion of small businesses which have a business disruption plan. (283135)

The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 places a duty on local authorities to provide business continuity advice, which ensures that advice reflects local conditions at times of emergency and meets local needs. To support that work, the Government have set up a business continuity advice line and in 2008 we published a national risk register to encourage organisations to prepare for the impact of business disruption. In addition, we are supporting the quality of that advice by the adoption of a British standard for business continuity.

In March, a Cabinet Office survey found that the proportion of small businesses that had a business continuity plan fell from 25 per cent. to only 14 per cent. The possibility of allowing a premium discount with insurers was being considered to see whether that would reverse the trend in respect of companies that had a business disruption plan. Will the Minister say whether she agrees with that strategy and how far the Cabinet Office has got with that investigation?

It is clearly the responsibility of local authorities to pursue that policy with their small businesses and through their local organisations. However, the figures to which the hon. Lady refers rightly give cause for concern, and I am happy to write to her further about that matter.

Voluntary Sector

3. What assessment she has made of the effects of the economic downturn on the financial viability of the voluntary sector; and if she will make a statement. (283137)

We recognise that there is a double challenge for the sector during the economic downturn: not only is there an increased demand for services, but there are concerns about financial viability. In response, we have devised a significant package of support for the third sector comprising up to £42.5 million of targeted supported, which is delivering real help now, when it is needed, and the £16.7 million hardship fund announced in the Budget in April. In addition, the sector will have a share in the £1.2 billion future jobs fund. That is a comprehensive package of measures. It includes support for volunteers, grants for small organisations and social enterprises, support for jobs and loans to assist partnership working.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her extensive answer and I welcome her to her post. Does she realise that some people, particularly those with economic problems and the charities that deal with such problems, are encountering more difficulties than others? As money is being filtered into the Olympics as well, such people are finding it very hard to make ends meet these days. What additional help can be given to those people, particularly those who are having problems balancing their house budgets?

It was an extensive answer because it is an extensive package of support. The two key things that I should point out to my hon. Friend are the £42 million-plus package, which will support in various ways those organisations facing difficulties because of the recession, and the hardship fund. That will apply in a number of different ways, and charities and voluntary organisations will find it very useful. In addition, £515 million of support is available generally from the Office of the Third Sector. All those things coming together will provide significant help through these difficult times.

Please will the Minister make an assessment of the impact, during the economic downturn, on charities and others of the area charging regime used by water companies? The rain tax is having a substantial impact across the country. There is not a charitable organisation in my constituency, be it a charity shop, a scout group, a church or any other voluntary group, that is not being adversely affected by the tax.

I certainly understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, because all of us, as individual Members of Parliament, receive correspondence from a wide range of organisations in our constituencies. I understand that this matter is being examined by the regulators and that Ministers have been talking to them in order to look into it.

Will my right hon. Friend find time to examine the proposal made only a few months ago—I understand that it is still subject to detailed evaluation in her Department—for lifetime legacies to be brought into the field of charitable giving? That would make a big difference at a time of great difficulty for charities.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I know that other countries, in particular the United States, have taken on board lifetime legacies in a significant way. I shall look into the matter, because we want to ensure that charities, the voluntary sector and the third sector as a whole can access support when they need it. That is one area that we can consider.

May I press the new Minister for a better answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key)? Church groups, scout groups and sports clubs face crippling hikes in their water bills as a result of the proposed changes. Three months ago, I asked the previous Minister whether he would consider a moratorium, at least until an impact assessment was carried out. He said that he would speak to colleagues across Government, but we have heard nothing and time is running out. In welcoming the members of the new team, may I ask them what their view is? Will they consider a moratorium or the idea of a special social tariff, or will they continue the policy of doing nothing?

That is an interesting question from the party that privatised the water industry, which has had a direct impact on the bills that are being seen today. After three weeks in office, I do not have a final answer for the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he will understand that I want to look into the matter. We understand the concerns that have been raised and we are talking to colleagues in Government and the regulators about the issue.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that among the hardest hit by the recession are young people. How will the hardship fund in particular, and the voluntary sector in general, help young people to obtain the necessary skills that they need to get through the recession and find much needed jobs at the end of it?

My hon. Friend has hit on a key point. By volunteering or becoming involved in the third sector, people gain skills that help them into employment. For young people specifically, I would point her to the charity v, which has significant funding from the Government and is building a database of volunteering opportunities for young people. Many of those enable young people to gain skills that will lead them into work. V also provides support to ensure that volunteering is an activity that builds new skills.

Democratic Renewal

4. What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on co-ordination of Government policy on democratic renewal. (283139)

As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been extensive ministerial discussions about democratic renewal. The Prime Minister has announced the creation of a new democratic renewal council to drive forward the Government’s commitment to further reform. We have already introduced the Parliamentary Standards Bill and published our draft legislative programme, which includes the Constitutional Renewal Bill.

The Minister mentioned the Prime Minister. Is she aware that he wrote two letters in March to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, asking the committee to look into the whole question of Members’ remuneration, allowances and outside interests, covering what the Prime Minister called “the full picture”? Why then are the Government rushing through the House a Bill on the constitution that deals with precisely those matters before Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations? Is not this all about bad government and saving the Prime Minister’s political skin?

No, the Prime Minister’s sole concern is to restore public confidence in politics and the way in which this House and Members conduct their business. That is why he took the initiative, in the light of all the expenses revelations, to bring forward specific proposals. He has made it clear that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry is independent and that we will accept its recommendations when they are published in the autumn. However, it was clear that the public wanted action now, and the Prime Minister and the Government have acted on that.

Does the Paymaster General agree that it is most unfortunate that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry, ranging as it does across all aspects of the House, has chosen today to be in Northern Ireland, when it is Prime Minister’s questions and the majority of Members from Northern Ireland are likely to be here? I hope that it is not a harbinger of things to come in terms of Members’ access to the inquiry.

As Sir Christopher Kelly is the independent chairman of that independent inquiry, he is free to make the arrangements that he needs to make to take the views of the public in every area of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that we all welcome that. I am sure that he will learn a lot from the feedback of the people of Northern Ireland today.

Will my right hon. Friend, as part of this discussion about democratic renewal, include the abolition of the Act of Settlement, which is simply legalised sectarianism and has no role in the 21st century?

I do not think that I would be being candid with my hon. Friend were I not to say that that is not part of the provisions of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

While I welcome the Government’s new-found desire for democratic reform, the National Democratic Renewal Council—a closed Cabinet Sub-Committee made up solely of Labour Members and therefore neither national nor democratic—is possibly the worst way to do that. Will the new ministerial team reconsider that secrecy and, instead, set up a citizens convention to ensure the widest possible public involvement and support?

The National Democratic Renewal Council is part of the machinery of government, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that the relevant Ministers and Secretaries of State sit on it. However, it is associated with a wider, more extensive and deeper commitment to engagement with the public in debating these issues than has ever been the case before. I am quite sure that proper consideration will be given to the arguments not just for a citizens commission—an argument with which I am familiar—but for other forms of sustained public engagement that will shape the conclusions of the consultation.

Charities (Economic Downturn)

5. What recent assessment she has made of the effects of the economic situation on the charitable sector. (283142)

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson). The recession affects different organisations in many different ways, and that is why we have provided a significant package of support that has different elements to it—support for volunteers, grants for small organisations, social enterprises and support for jobs, as well as loans to assist partnership working.

I thank the Minister for her reply. On Monday, Cancer Care Cymru, which is a local charity based in my constituency and which funds specialist cancer nurses to work closely with people who are suffering from cancer and receiving treatment in the NHS, announced that it was closing because of a slump in fundraising. That is a terrible loss for people suffering from cancer in the Cardiff area. What can we do on a general level to help to stop such closures?

My hon. Friend has raised a very serious issue, which could be happening in different places, but I recommend that she looks at the different funding that is available. First, I recommend the hardship fund that will be in place at the end of this month. I also suggest that she looks at the package of £42 million that is available to provide real help now, and she might find that there is a way there to help the local community. Support is also being given through the National Council for Voluntary Organisations to help organisations with things such as fundraising, because that is key for things such as cancer care. She might find that there is some support there that she can talk to the NCVO about, so that her charity can get some extra support with fundraising, too.

Is the Minister aware that the very hardest hit in the charitable sector are the small charities that provide services that are much valued locally and that will not be provided by any of the statutory or larger organisations? I am referring to small charities such as the young mental health charity in my constituency. What advice can she give Members of Parliament and others to try to help these small charities to survive the present recession?

The hon. Lady makes a significant point. It is often the smallest charities that make a real difference to people’s lives on the ground. May I direct her to the funding that is available through the grassroots grants? About £130 million is available that is issued locally. In her area, there will be a department of a third sector organisation issuing those funds in sums of anything from £5,000 to a few hundred pounds. On the ground, that can make a real difference. If she has any problems, I ask her please to come to me, and we can direct her to the funding in her area.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution relies totally on donations from the public. I declare an interest as a member of its national council. One of the burdens that it faces in this recession, and has faced throughout its existence, is the VAT that it has to pay on equipment and fittings. Will the Minister take that matter up with colleagues in other Departments to try to get some sort of exemption so that the RNLI can carry out its work on behalf of us all?

I pay tribute to the RNLI for its work. In a previous life, I met its representatives on many occasions. This is a matter for the Treasury, but we will draw my hon. Friend’s comments to the attention of Treasury Ministers—[Interruption.]

Order. There is quite a hubbub of private conversations taking place, and I note that some of the people busily chattering away have already had the good fortune to ask a question. I hope that they will extend a similar courtesy to others.

Community Asset Transfers

The stronger and more sustainable third sector organisations are, the better they can help to build stronger and more resilient communities. To that end, my Department is funding a £30 million community assets programme and we are working with the Big Lottery Fund to refurbish underused buildings in 38 communities across England. We are also working across Government to invest in community assets: for example, the Department for Communities and Local Government has invested in the £70 million Communitybuilders programme.

I thank the Minister for her reply, but will she say what assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the Big Lottery Fund in administering the scheme?

The scheme got off to a slow start because the work had to be put in place, but we now have 38 different organisations receiving significant grants from the Big Lottery Fund. Those grants will make a real difference on the ground, and I am pleased with how matters are now progressing.

In my constituency, the local council wants to transfer the assets of community centres to the local community. However, is my right hon. Friend aware that the people running centres such as the Norton community centre do not want the responsibility of taking on contractual and employment liabilities?

My hon. Friend raises an issue that concerns many people. When we talk about community asset transfers, we are talking about the Government putting in money to support organisations and communities. The will to do that has come from the communities themselves. With community asset transfers, the liability is transferred not to the community but to an asset. Local councils must realise that the scheme is funded by the Government for local communities. It must not be forced on local communities, but should be carried out with their co-operation and direction.

Third Sector Funding

7. How much funding her Department has allocated to charities and the voluntary sector from the (a) Capacitybuilders and (b) Communitybuilders fund in the last 12 months. (283144)

In the last financial year, Capacitybuilders allocated over £24 million to charities and voluntary sector organisations. Communitybuilders was announced in the Department for Communities and Local Government White Paper “Communities in Control” in July 2008. As planned, the programme will be open for applications this summer, and its national partner will be the Adventure Capital Fund.

The gift aid programme is making good progress, and it gives charities a significant amount of additional money. A recent specific reform is that the profits generated when goods given to charity shops are sold can be donated as gift aid to the organisations involved. There is further work to be done with gift aid, and I understand that the Treasury is looking at it at the moment, in consultation with Ministers.

Grassroots Grants

8. What criteria her Department uses to allocate Grassroots grants to local community organisations. (283145)

The grassroots grants scheme is worth £130 million and provides small grants and endowments for local community groups. The beauty of the programme is that local communities make the funding decisions, based on local priorities. So far, almost 10,000 grants have been awarded, to the benefit of many organisations that had not benefited before. The criteria set by the Government are that the recipients are bona fide third sector organisations with an income below £30,000, that they meet the needs of the local community and that they are driven by committed local volunteers.

The number of children trafficked into Britain is increasing. The police cannot cope, and local authorities are finding that the children abscond from their homes. Why will the Government support local, voluntary and community groups more, as they can provide guardianship, legal advice and support for children in distress? I hope that the Minister does not mention the POPPY project, as that deals only with adults. Why are the Government not supporting voluntary and community effort more, when the public sector is failing?

I am not aware of any applications under the grassroots fund for the sort of organisations that the hon. Gentleman has referred to. However, the money in the grassroots fund has been well received, and we will be happy to look at applications from any organisation.

Charities (Economic Downturn)

9. What steps the Government have taken to assist charities that have been affected by the failure of Icelandic banks; and if she will make a statement. (283146)

The Government have taken unprecedented steps to help third sector organisations affected by all aspects of the international economic crisis. We have listened to the sector, including those organisations affected by the Icelandic banking collapse. The packages announced in the real help for communities fund and the more recently announced hardship fund total £59 million. That clearly demonstrates our commitment to supporting the sector through difficult times.

A large number of charities have had their assets frozen as a result of the Icelandic banking collapse. Why have the Government ignored the Treasury Committee’s recommendation for compensation, and will the Government consider establishing a short-term Treasury loan fund to help out sound charities facing genuine hardship? [Interruption.]

The Government are doing an enormous, unprecedented amount to help charities and voluntary sector organisations that are facing difficulties in the recession. The hon. Gentleman outlined the situation facing one group of organisations. I have to say to him that it would be difficult to single out one particular organisation or reason. The hardship fund that is in place, which is real help now, is a greater package than has ever been in place to help charities through difficult times. It has never been matched by any previous Government.

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate the beloved Christie cancer hospital in Manchester on its successful campaign to obtain a refund of charity money lost following the collapse of an Icelandic bank? Will she thank the Government for arranging that refund, and will she congratulate Lord Bradley on heading that successful campaign?

Everyone is always pleased—indeed, the Prime Minister has said so himself—when organisations that are in difficulties gain support. The refund was a local decision, taken by NHS North West, responding to a local need. We are all very pleased to see Christie getting the support that it deserves.