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Civil Service Reform

Volume 495: debated on Wednesday 1 July 2009

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.