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Cabinet Office

Volume 532: debated on Wednesday 7 September 2011

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Big Society Bank

I am delighted to be able to tell my hon. Friend that we are making excellent progress in establishing the big society bank. I am equally delighted to be able to tell him that it will be called the Big Society Capital group.

Big Society Capital announced appointments to the management and board in July. It is now securing Financial Services Authority and state-aid approval, and we expect it to be open for business in the spring.

Does the Minister agree that the most important thing about the initiative is that it gets funding to organisations in some of the most deprived communities in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is a noted, effective and passionate advocate of his constituency. It is of course for Big Society Capital itself to decide exactly where it places its investment funds, but I have absolutely no doubt that it will want to prioritise social intermediaries who focus on those families who are most vulnerable, and on those individuals and families who are most in need of help.

Community groups, including not-for-profit organisations, have difficulty establishing community projects because of the complexity of the system to secure funding. Will the big society bank have a dedicated officer to help and assist them, so that small projects in deprived communities have a level playing field?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very real problem, which Big Society Capital has recognised. Right from the beginning of the scheme’s design, Sir Ronald Cohen has insisted, and Ministers have agreed, that it should not directly invest in social enterprises but act as a provider of finance to social intermediaries—whether they are lending banks such as Triodos or other more exotic and interesting new social intermediaries—that already have a retail function and can deal, and know how to deal, with the small groups that need to deal with them.

Government Contracts

2. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are aware of opportunities to gain Government contracts. (69981)

5. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that small and medium-sized enterprises are aware of opportunities to gain Government contracts. (69985)

We have established Contracts Finder as a one-stop shop, which enables suppliers to find procurement opportunities, tender documents and contracts online and free of charge. We are also piloting a simple method, which I think is called a dynamic market, for suppliers to register online for public sector contracts below £100,000. That will enable small and medium-sized enterprises to compete at minimal cost alongside large suppliers.

Does the Minister agree that, although large companies often find it easy to tender competitively for those contracts, there is a real benefit economically from spending time and effort on encouraging small and medium-sized businesses to bid for such tenders?

I agree strongly with my hon. Friend. There is a temptation to think that it does not matter who provides a public service contract, big or small, but we all have an enormous interest in encouraging small and medium-sized enterprises to engage in the process, because we all have a huge incentive and reason for believing that innovation in public service can lead to more productivity. It is very often the small, innovative companies that engage in innovation, and therefore we need to ensure that we encourage their participation right the way through the process.

SME information technology companies are reporting back from the Government tendering process that project aims and budgets remain unspecified and that forms are still the size of telephone directories. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that those concerns will be taken on board, so that this Government can deliver real value from IT projects—something that the previous Government failed to do?

My hon. Friend has actively and aggressively pursued several Government Departments about these issues and I hope that he will continue to do so. He is absolutely right that too much of this still goes on. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who has taken the lead on the issue and deserves great credit for that, has not tried to keep the issue secret—on the contrary, he has tried to open it up.

We have introduced a “mystery shopper” scheme, which allows suppliers to challenge Government procurers when they see overly bureaucratic processes. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that during the first three months of the scheme, 23 cases of things such as huge telephone-book-sized contracts were investigated and 11 have led to immediate reductions in tedious bureaucracy. All the information about the scheme has been published on the Cabinet Office website.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the Public Administration Committee report “Government and IT—‘A Recipe For Rip-Offs’ ”? It points out that we cannot rely on the large systems integrators to involve small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government themselves have to employ people from that sector so that the Government can engage with it directly. That is the only way in which we will get SMEs involved in Government procurement.

As with every product of the Select Committee in which my hon. Friend is so notably involved, we do indeed pay enormous attention to that report. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has already taken that set of steps and is already intending to ensure that we have the expertise to do exactly as my hon. Friend recommends. It is absolutely crucial that we get to grips with every large project, and some of them are central to the Government’s policy agenda—in welfare, for example.

Public Bodies Bill

3. What steps he plans to take to put in place a system of regular review of remaining public bodies following the implementation of the provisions of the Public Bodies Bill. (69982)

The Government are committed to reviewing non-departmental public bodies every three years. The reviews will provide a much needed, robust challenge for the continuing need of individual bodies and ensure that the body is complying with recognised principles of good corporate governance.

Will the Minister remind the House how much money he anticipates will be saved as a result of the Bill? Given the spending on so many quangos, much of which is so wasteful, are we not being slightly modest in our ambitions? Is there not even greater scope in future years to save yet more money?

My hon. Friend is entirely right—he should be nudging us to be more ambitious. We have placed on record what we think is a conservative estimate of cumulative administrative savings from reforms already identified of at least £2.6 billion over the spending review period, but we expect that to be a start rather than a finish.

Is the Minister concerned that some of the public bodies may be being abolished with a little too much haste, particularly given the riots in the summer? The Youth Justice Board was very successful in reducing youth offending by around 34%. Does the Minister not worry that we will get rid of some of the bodies in too much of a hurry?

The Youth Justice Board still exists. What we have set up with the Public Bodies Bill is a framework and mechanism for enabling reform. Each Department has to come to the House with a case for reform, which needs to be debated and processed through secondary legislation. That is what we have set up, so Parliament will have plenty of opportunity to scrutinise and debate.

In 2009, it was agreed that the office of the chief coroner would be established to improve support for bereaved families. The decision was taken with support from both sides of the House. In the passage of the Public Bodies Bill, the Government have signalled that they intend to abolish the office of the chief coroner before it has even been established. Which organisations are in favour of its abolition?

The right hon. Lady knows from our Second Reading debates that there are strong opinions on this subject. I refer her to what I said before; the mechanism that we have set out is for a genuine debate on the proposed reforms. That is what the Bill enables, and she and I, or appropriate colleagues, will have that debate in Committee in forthcoming weeks and months.

Efficiency and Reform Group

4. What estimate he has made of the savings to the public purse arising from the work of the Efficiency and Reform Group in 2010-11. (69984)

The Government saved £3.75 billion in their first 10 months after taking office by stopping unnecessary and wasteful spending. We saved £800 million by renegotiating with the biggest suppliers to Government. We cut spending on consultants by 70% and on advertising by 80%. This is just the beginning; there is much more to be done.

I thank the Minister and welcome the initial savings of the Efficiency and Reform Group. He will be aware, however, of the £1 billion of additional savings that my own research has identified. Will he agree that I could meet the chair of the Efficiency and Reform Group to discuss these savings further?

The chair of the Efficiency and Reform Group is me, so I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who, when he was leader of Barnet council, showed how much can be done. We do, absolutely, have a huge amount to learn from what is being done best in local government, particularly the sort of savings that can be made by much better use of office accommodation. It is such a pity that when the current Leader of the Opposition was Minister for the Cabinet Office he did not do this stuff himself. The country would be in less of a mess and the public finances would be in better shape if he had done his job properly.

Of course everybody welcomes cuts to wasteful expenditure. However, will the Minister explain why the Cabinet Office website indicates that in January a contractor charged the taxpayer £5,867.66 for flying flags? Will he explain why the Government paid a single taxi fare of £324.14, which would almost get me from here to Yorkshire and back again? Finally, will he explain why the taxpayer paid £181 for a single individual’s eye test? What a waste of money.

I shall be absolutely delighted to provide the hon. Gentleman with full and detailed replies. I just point out to him, however, that if we had not opened up public spending to public scrutiny, he would not have a prayer of even asking the question.

Proxima, a small software company in my constituency, has the potential to offer real efficiency savings in the use of Government software. Its initial discussions with the Department have been positive, but they have now stalled. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me and my constituents to see how we can save the Government millions by better use of their resources?

My hon. Friend has raised an important point, and I will be very glad to meet him to discuss it. There is a huge amount we can do to use IT resources much, much better. Far too often in the past, the Government were reinventing the wheel by buying new systems and not reusing what they had already spent money on. That will now cease.

Civil Service (Voluntary Severance)

6. What estimate he has made of the number of civil servants who will leave the civil service on voluntary severance terms in 2010-11. (69986)

We aim to minimise compulsory redundancy. We reformed the civil service compensation scheme so that, for the first time, voluntary redundancy was more attractive than compulsory redundancy, which was impossibly expensive under the scheme left in place by the previous Government. We estimate that in early 2010-11 11,200 civil servants left the civil service on the new terms.[Official Report, 8 September 2011, Vol. 532, c. 3MC.]

I thank the Minister for that answer. Let me place on record the fact that he will share the objective that all severance packages are voluntary. Nevertheless, I am receiving from civil servants who work in my constituency evidence that they have been dissuaded from volunteering for a redundancy package because parts of their accrued service do not count for the final compensation package. Will the Minister ensure that maximum flexibility is deployed in order to allow us to reach the goal of all departures being voluntary?

I can confirm that staff in the Crown Agents have always been outside the civil service compensation scheme. In April, I used the powers available to me under the scheme rules to allow service in the Crown Agents to count for compensation purposes for the voluntary schemes currently being run by the Department for International Development. I am aware that there are a few cases in which questions have arisen around service before joining the Crown Agents. My officials are actively engaged in clarifying what commitments were made at that time to these staff.

Public Disorder (Financial Cost)

7. What estimate he has made of the financial cost to the voluntary and community sector organisations of recent public disorder in England. (69987)

Since the riots, we have remained in close contact with our strategic partners, who are feeding in information about the impact of the riots on community groups. I have a meeting next week with community groups and sector representatives to discuss that impact and the way forward.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. At the height of the disturbances that hit Leicester, the Age Concern ambulance bus was torched. Despite what the Prime Minister indicated to me in his statement of 11 August, Age Concern is not eligible for the compensation schemes. Will the Minister look urgently at setting up a compensation scheme for charities so that Age Concern in my constituency can replace its ambulance bus as quickly as possible?

I was as shocked as anyone by the torching of the Age Concern ambulance. My understanding is that under these circumstances, damages are recoverable from the high street support scheme. I have been informed that officials have sent that information through. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and representatives of Age Concern if there are continued problems with this issue.

Does my hon. Friend agree that voluntary organisations are the backbone of our local communities and that any damage to their property or organisation diminishes their opportunity to assist the individuals and groups that are most in need?

I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, which is why I am meeting many sector representatives and community groups next week to discuss the impact and the way forward. He knows as well as I do that we are doing a huge amount to support community organisations through deregulation and by making it easier for them to access finance.

How much money does the Minister think he will have to put into the national citizen service to prevent future riots? How will he ensure that that is not done at the cost of general voluntary and community services that support young people, especially given that they are incurring additional costs in helping communities to rebuild after the riots and are subject to Government cuts?

We are hugely enthusiastic about the national citizen service; much more, apparently, than the Opposition Front Bench. The experience from this summer is that it has been a fantastic experience for young people, connecting them with a chance to do something really positive in their communities. We are piloting it, but have to proceed cautiously because a lot of taxpayers’ money is involved. As the Prime Minister has made quite clear, we are keen to expand it as fast as we can.

National Citizen Service

We are absolutely delighted with the progress of the national citizen service. About 8,500 young people enjoyed an extremely positive experience this summer. The feedback has been fantastically positive and we will publish an evaluation report shortly on this year’s pilots.

I thank the Minister for that response. Will he confirm that he will look to involve organisations such as the YMCA, which has a fantastically strong track record of providing constructive activities for young people, in the delivery of the scheme?

I share my hon. Friend’s high regard for the YMCA and lots of other youth organisations across the country. As I said, we are ambitious to expand the national citizen service and are looking to commission up to 30,000 places next year. We are actively reviewing a list of applications and bids from a great diversity of suppliers. We will announce the results of that shortly.

I know that the Minister is still working out the fine details of the scheme, but may I urge him not to reinvent the wheel, but to make the best use of the Prince’s Trust and the Duke of Edinburgh’s award scheme, of which I am a gold member? As well as not reinventing the wheel, I urge him not to break the spokes in the wheel by shattering youth service provision throughout the country as very good schemes go to the wall under this Administration.

I should make it clear that we are deliberately offering 16-year-olds in this country something new and distinctive. If the hon. Gentleman listens to the kids on the programme this year, he will hear that they see it as being very different from the Duke of Edinburgh’s award and the Prince’s Trust. It is set up to be different, and that is why we are piloting it. As I said, we are extremely enthusiastic about the feedback.

Order. There are far too many private conversations taking place in the Chamber. The House must come to order and hear Mr Mel Stride.

Topical Questions

As 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, the civil society and cyber-security.

Okehampton, in my constituency, has recently seen unemployment treble virtually overnight, although the figure has now decreased dramatically due to local action. It is holding a very important event this week, “Okehampton Works”, bringing together public, private and voluntary organisations to focus on employment, which is an important step towards the big society locally. Will my right hon. Friend join me in visiting Okehampton to meet, and learn from, those who have pioneered that important initiative?

I should be delighted for either myself or the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), to join my hon. Friend in Okehampton to discuss those very issues. There is a huge amount that can be done.

One quango that has done a really good job since it was brought in by the Labour Government is the Security Industry Authority, which licenses bouncers outside pubs. One role that it has not yet been given is the licensing of private investigators. We have seen over the past year that some private investigators are very good people, but some of them are the scum of the earth. Should we not be licensing them and giving that power to the authority?

Whatever the merits of the hon. Gentleman’s point, it is one that he should make to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has responsibility for these matters.

T2. In the light of the excellent work in Lincoln this summer of the pilot national citizen service managed by the Lincolnshire and Rutland Education Business Partnership, can my hon. Friend assure me that careful consideration has been given to the EBP’s bid for next year, which I wholeheartedly support, so that it can be the deliverer of the NCS for the whole of Lincolnshire in 2012? (69955)

I am grateful to Lincolnshire and Rutland Education Business Partnership for the excellent work that it has done this summer, which is a really good example of communities working together to support the NCS. As I have said before, we are giving careful consideration to all bids received to run the 2012 pilots and will be making an announcement very shortly. [Interruption.]

Order. There really is far too much noise in the Chamber. It is very discourteous to the Member asking the question and the Minister whose answer we want to hear. I hope the House will show some respect for Mr Sammy Wilson.

What arrangements does the Minister intend to put in place to ensure that places such as Northern Ireland benefit from the opportunities presented by the big society bank?

I was in Belfast just a few weeks ago, at Hillsborough castle, talking about just that to a section of community organisations and social enterprises that were fascinated by the big society bank. We made it very clear that it was open for business in Northern Ireland.

T4. I enjoyed a very rewarding week of volunteering in my constituency during the summer with Mencap, the National Trust, Kirkwood hospice, the Forget Me Not Trust and many more. Does the Minister agree that volunteering should be a key component of the national citizen service? (69957)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the sterling example that he has set others. Of course, one of the purposes of the national citizen service is to connect young people with their power to make a positive difference in their communities. If he had visited some of the pilots that I did, he would have been absolutely inspired by the enthusiasm with which they undertook that task.

In opening access to public data on the performance of our publicly subsidised railways, does the Minister recognise that real-time running information would be even more powerful in driving innovation that would aid the travelling public? Will he get train operators to be more open with such public data?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. These are services that rely on public subsidy, and that information is incredibly valuable and capable of providing enormous benefit to the users of public transport. It can drive more passengers on to public transport, which we all want, so it is in not only the public interest but the operators’ interest to make such data available.

T5. Further to our meeting in May, may I ask my right hon. Friend what progress has been made with the relocation of part of the central Government estate from central London? (69958)

At this stage we are concentrating on simply reducing the footprint of the Government’s property estate, which was allowed to grow massively out of control under the last Government because there were no controls whatever. Rather than looking to relocate, at this stage we are simply looking to reduce what the Government occupy. I know that Croydon, which my hon. Friend represents vigorously, is a very good location out of central London for Government services to operate from.

T7. Small and medium-sized enterprises in my constituency warmly welcome the steps that the Government are taking to make it easier for them to win Government contracts, but they also need better access to finance to win such contracts. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to help with that? (69960)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that without the finance, SMEs cannot take part. I am delighted to be able to tell him that in the first half of the year, SME lending has almost lived up to the target set in the Merlin agreement for SMEs—it is within £1 billion—which is a major achievement.

T8. Does my hon. Friend agree that the promotion of youth organisations such as the Passion youth centre in Shepshed, which are often set up by churches, should be a cornerstone of the Government’s response to the riots over the summer? (69961)

I should certainly like to join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Passion youth centre and the local churches that support it. That seems to be an excellent example of the community pulling together to make better use of an old facility, which is exactly the type of thing that we are trying to encourage through the Localism Bill, Big Society Capital and the Community First grant programme.