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Topical Questions

Volume 529: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2011

As the Minister for the Cabinet Office, I am responsible for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil service issues, industrial relations, strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s progress on public sector reform. Does he know why public sector unions have decided to ballot their members on strike action now, when talks on pension reform are still ongoing?

Only three of the unions have done that. The majority of unions are continuing to engage in good faith with the discussions that are still taking place. It is our determination that at the end of the reforms proposed by Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, public sector pensions will continue to be among the best available, but we will ask people to work longer because they are living longer and to pay a bit more, to achieve a better balance between what they pay and what other taxpayers pay.

How can the Minister possibly justify the announcement on the No. 10 transparency website that since November the Government have spent more than £5 million on tarting up offices in Whitehall, including £680,000 on No. 10 Downing street? How can he justify that when he is laying off nurses, policemen, servicemen and so on? Will he now publish a line-by-line account of how the money was spent?

Point one: if we had not gone in for full transparency in what the Government are spending, the hon. Gentleman would not know anything about this. Point two: we inherited a massive programme of wasteful refurbishment of Government offices from the previous Government, including some unbelievably badly negotiated PFI contracts. If they had taken the same care as we are taking with taxpayers’ money, we would not have the biggest budget deficit in the developed world, which we inherited from his Government.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend think that responsible Members of this House, in all parts of the Chamber, should condemn irresponsible strike action that puts children’s education at risk and diminishes public services? Does the silence— (59585)

It would be good to hear Opposition Front Benchers joining us in urging the trade unions to stay with the discussions, which still have a great distance to go, to secure what will still be among the very best pension schemes available. If schools close down, it is not just children’s education that will be disrupted, but the livelihoods of millions of parents who depend on schools being open so that they can go to work to earn the money to pay the taxes to support public sector pensions. [Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber and too many private conversations taking place. I want to hear the questions and the Minister’s answers.

T5. By 2014, civil society will be losing £2.9 billion a year in revenue—the same as the amount forgone in corporation tax by big companies in the United Kingdom. Why are the Government being so soft on big business and so tough on charities and the voluntary sector? (59588)

I reject that statement absolutely. The hon. Gentleman is pulling numbers for lost income to the charity sector out of the air and completely ignoring the volume of public sector contracts going in, not least through the recent Work programme, which is worth at least £100 million a year. As for big business, I would simply refer him to a speech made by the Prime Minister last year called “Every Business Commits”.

T4. You will be aware, Mr Speaker, that my constituency will hold a national sporting event in the next fortnight, the enjoyment of which could be undermined by strikes proposed by the unions. Does my right hon. Friend agree that these strikes are unnecessary, and will he confirm the Government’s commitment to talks to ensure that they do not have to happen? (59587)

As I say, we are committed to continuing those discussions. We had further discussions yesterday, and there will be more next week and the week after. There is much still to be resolved. It was Lord Hutton, Labour’s Work and Pensions Secretary, who recommended the changes, and in order to make public sector pensions sustainable for the future we need to drive these reforms through.

T6. On what date did the Government instruct parliamentary counsel to draft amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill, following the consequences of the NHS Future Forum? (59589)

I would recommend that the hon. Gentleman ask that question of the Secretary of State for Health.

During 2011, I will be launching a new social enterprise, the Northamptonshire parent infant project. What assurance can my right hon. Friend give me that commissioners will be encouraged to provide medium-term contracts to charities that provide essential support services?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the fantastic work she is doing with that organisation, which is tackling natal depression and perinatal problems. The central Government compact already provides for multi-year funding whenever that is appropriate. Local compacts are a matter for local decision, but I strongly encourage her county council to offer a multi-year contract, if that is at all possible.

T7. How many mutuals does the Minister expect to support through his Department next year, and will he be making a further statement on the mutual pathfinder? (59590)

We know that there is growing enthusiasm for public sector workers to come together to form employee-led co-operatives or mutuals to carry out and deliver public services. All the evidence shows that they deliver huge increases in productivity and better public services at lower cost, and I hope that the hon. Lady will give her full support—

T9. To what extent does the Minister expect any PCS strike action to have an impact on our vital public services? (59592)

We are waiting to see the result of the ballot this afternoon, but I hope that civil servants, who are imbued with a strong public service ethos, will recognise that we are seeking to achieve public sector pensions that continue to be among the very best available. However, because people are living longer, they will be asked to work for longer. Furthermore, because there is not a fair balance between what they pay and what other taxpayers—who have seen their own pensions take a hit—pay, we are expecting them to pay a bit more towards them.