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Cabinet Office

Volume 540: debated on Wednesday 8 February 2012

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

IT Procurement

1. What recent progress he has made on bringing forward proposals on Government IT procurement; and if he will make a statement. (94020)

Soon after the coalition Government came to office, we introduced strict controls on ICT spend that saved £300 million in the year to March 2011 alone. We have opened up procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises, we are moving towards open standards and interoperability, and we are examining some of the incredibly expensive and burdensome ICT contracts that we inherited from the previous Government.

Will the Minister tell us more about how open source, getting computers to talk to each other through common standards, and smarter procurement can help to save billions of pounds, secure better computers, and break up the IT cartel that was fostered under the previous Government?

It is becoming increasingly clear that the Government have opportunities to handle their IT and increase their digital offering in transactional public services very differently from that which we inherited. It is also becoming increasingly clear that it will be possible for both the quality of those public services and public interaction to be massively improved, at a fraction of the cost incurred by the previous Government.

Has my right hon. Friend had a chance to read the latest report on IT procurement by the Select Committee on Public Administration, which includes the Government’s response to our original report? We commend the Minister for that response, but there is further progress to be made. In particular, how will the Minister tackle the cartel-like behaviour of the large prime contractors?

The reports produced by my hon. Friend’s Committee are my regular reading, and I enjoy them enormously. I commend the Committee’s work, especially its conclusions on Government ICT. I also commend the work of the Public Accounts Committee, which has focused on the subject. I think that we are making progress, but I entirely accept my hon. Friend’s point: there is much, much more to be done. The previous Government left the taxpayer in hock to an oligopoly of ICT suppliers, and we intend to move on from that.

Social Action Fund

The social action fund exists to scale up projects that have proved their ability to inspire people to take social action. We recently announced the first investments for the fund, which are worth £9.4 million and have generated a further £9 million in match funding. We believe that those combined investments will generate more than 200,000 volunteering opportunities.

A registered charity in my constituency, Fourtwelve Ministries, which runs the Carpenter’s Arms residential rehabilitation centre and a food parcel handout service, was recently turned down for funding by the Social Investment Business, which administers the social action fund. One of the reasons given was that it was part of a Christian charity. Can the Minister assure me that the Government fully recognise the role played by Christian groups in delivering social action projects?

Yes, I can, but I should clarify one point. The charity was not turned down for the social action fund; it was turned down for another fund.

We all know from our constituencies that many churches and faith groups are very active in generating opportunities for people to become involved and give time to help others, and the social action fund is open to bids from faith groups that make social action possible. In the first round we invested in the Cathedral Archer Project, a Christian group in Sheffield that is enabling homeless people to volunteer to help other homeless people.

A recent report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations showed that, according to the Government’s own figures, charities face cuts of over £900 million. Does the Minister agree that the £20 million managed by the social action fund is a drop in the ocean in comparison with what charities need?

Let me make two points. First, the sector would have faced cuts under any Administration, as the leader of the Labour party has made clear. Secondly, the £20 million social action fund exists to do something very specific. Its purpose is to scale up successful, proven projects in order to inspire social action.

Big Society

3. How many big society projects were under way in the most recent period for which figures are available. (94023)

Our big society agenda involves putting power into the hands of individuals and communities, and it is emphatically not a programme driven from the centre of Government. I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that there is not an army of bureaucrats going around counting big society projects; that would entirely defeat the purpose.

I am grateful to the Minister for telling me that he has no idea—I appreciate that.

Big society projects have been one of the many successes of this Conservative-led Government. In my constituency we have the Hope project, led by the superb Simon Trundle, which is transforming one of the most deprived areas in the constituency. However, it is experiencing problems as local funding is cut, and it may even have to be closed. How can the big society initiative help it to obtain more funds?

I am aware of the Hope project, which is to be greatly commended, and I am happy to be able to say to my hon. Friend that my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), the Minister for civil society, will meet him to discuss this. I have a terrible feeling that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) might even succeed, because I did some research and discovered that he managed to get community first funding for two of the wards in his constituency. I wish him luck in this endeavour, too.

Patrick Butler said in The Guardian recently:

“For many in the charity world, the Big Society…has become a toxic sign of Government hypocrisy, broken promises and ineptitude”.

What are the Government doing to change that?

I hope the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will help me to do so, because distinguished members of his party totally back the big society, including the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), who tells him and his colleagues:

“We should be for the Big Society.”

I therefore hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in putting across the idea that we should welcome the giving back of power to communities and individuals to change their own lives for the better.

One of the ways the big society will succeed is through the dissemination of successful projects, for which the big society awards were intended to be one of the vehicles. What progress has been made with the awards?

I am happy to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the big society awards are alive and well and happening, with successive tranches of people coming in to get them. The Prime Minister is hugely devoted to this. It is important to recognise what communities and community groups are doing the length and breadth of the land.

The Minister is a keen follower of my website, so he will know that I support initiatives to build social capital in communities. When I visit voluntary groups, I am very struck by the extent to which they have benefited from the future jobs fund. From a big society point of view, was it not a mistake, therefore, to abolish that fund?

I am indeed an avid follower of the hon. Gentleman’s website, and a most interesting document it is, too. The fact is that, alas, the future jobs fund offered only a very temporary fix. By contrast, we are trying to create a framework within which the voluntary community sector has long-term prospects that it can build on through achievement and by providing the taxpayer with value for money.

Efficiency Savings

We have made huge efficiency savings in the spending we inherited from the previous Government. In the 10 months to March 2011 we delivered £3.75 billion in savings by reducing waste. For the first time, the savings were verified by the Public Accounts Committee and by the National Audit Office in its report last week, but this is only the start and further significant savings will derive from the Efficiency and Reform Group’s programme of long-term, sustainable reform.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I am a keen follower of his Department’s website and I noted that its jobs section last week advertised eight jobs with a salary of more than £100,000 before bonuses, perks and who knows what tax arrangements. Will the Minister explain how that fits with his freeze on non-essential and non-front line jobs in the public sector, and at a time when public sector workers are under increasing pressure?

It is completely consistent with that, because we need particular skills to drive out the waste we inherited. Particularly, there is a need for commercial and IT skills. While those skills exist in Government, we do not have enough of them. Every single one of those external recruitments by the Cabinet Office will have been approved by me personally, and I make absolutely no apology at all for approving them. Where those skills are needed and a rigorous search has shown that they are not available within Government, we will recruit from outside and we will pay people properly for work that is essential.

Is it not a fact that the Minister’s Efficiency and Reform Group will achieve no savings at all if the most senior officials in Government are distracted into chaotic breaches of the Cabinet Office code of conduct? Will he confirm that the Cabinet Secretary has now restored efficient Government by launching an investigation into such destructive breaches of the code as that reported in The Times yesterday of a senior No. 10 aide saying the Health Secretary should be “taken out and shot”?

Frankly, coming from the hon. Gentleman—the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the previous Prime Minister, who operated in a No. 10 that was widely reviled as a snake pit of back-biting and anonymous briefings—that is pretty rich.

Big Society

Our objectives are to build social capital by transferring powers to communities, opening up public services and encouraging more social action.

Last year, the Prime Minister included community empowerment among his three big society aims, but this year the Communities Secretary has already been forced to write to the Conservative leader of Nottingham county council following reports of disproportionate cuts to the voluntary sector. Can the Minister tell me exactly how this Tory council’s decision to cut voluntary sector funding by a huge 34% will empower communities in our county?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has written in extremely uncompromising and tough terms to the county council in question, reminding it that there is statutory guidance, and that the proportion by which the voluntary and community sector is cut should be the same as the proportion by which the council’s own budgets are cut. I am delighted to pay tribute, unusually, to the hon. Lady’s own council, which, despite coming from a different political party from mine, has actually followed that rule, cutting both by roughly similar proportions.

The Public Administration Committee report on the big society described it as lacking clarity and leadership and ways of measuring progress. Why does the Minister think this cross-party group is so critical of the big society idea?

As a matter of fact, the Committee’s report is an admirable work that brings out extremely clearly the value of our big society agenda and urges us to push it further and faster, and we agree with that. Actually, the evidence clearly shows that it is on the ground that people will measure success. When they see more free schools educating their children better, mutuals delivering better health care, and communities taking charge of their own neighbourhood planning and making their environment better, then we will know it is a success.

The shadow spokesman on London and the Olympics said that the big society “should be Labour territory”. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that the whole point of the big society is that it is not just for Labour but for everyone?

Yes, I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend, and I should like to pray in aid the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt), who said that the big society is

“something that the Labour party should instinctively understand as part of its own DNA”.

The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), told the Labour party:

“We shouldn’t be afraid of the Big Society; we should claim it for our own”.

I hope this can bring the whole House together.

If my right hon. Friend wants to see the big society at work, may I suggest that he look at the snow in winter clearance initiatives of East Riding and North Lincolnshire councils? They have devolved money down to local communities, enabling them last weekend to sort out snow clearance in their own way, as they wished.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that is a classic example of what I see in my own constituency, in many other rural constituencies up and down the country and increasingly in the suburbs. People are taking charge and making sure that they get what they actually need delivered locally, by people who understand the local circumstances, and in many cases much more cheaply than was previously possible from the centre.

Given what is really happening, the objectives for the big society would appear to be huge funding and job cuts across the third sector, charities walking away from the Work programme and health service mutuals not getting health service contracts. Given the lack of influence that Cabinet Office Ministers clearly have across the rest of Whitehall, is the Cabinet Office not now merely the place where the emperor’s new clothes get spun?

Unfortunately, what the hon. Gentleman fails to reckon with is that not only this Government but any Government currently trying to run the United Kingdom would be faced with the need to clear up the fiscal mess that he and his colleagues left this country in, and that certainly entails cuts. We are very clear about that, and as matter of fact his own leader is now beginning to be clearer about that—although we are still not clear how clear he is. The fact is, therefore, that the voluntary and community sector does suffer some reduction in funding, but we are determined to create vast new opportunities for that sector, so it can compete to provide public services effectively and for the sake of the taxpayer.

Consultancy

During 2010-11, the Cabinet Office spent just over £9 million on consultancy. The figure is down from £27.5 million in 2009-10, the last year of the previous Government. That is a reduction of more than two thirds and we anticipate further reductions in the current financial year. Across central Government, expenditure was reduced from £1.234 billion in 2009-10 to £361 million in the last financial year—that is a 71% reduction.

In August 2010, the most recent month for which figures are available, the Cabinet Office spent almost £120,000 on consultants for advice on judicial reviews. Does the Minister agree that spending hundreds of thousands of pounds defending this Government’s mistakes is not the best use of taxpayers’ money?

The Government are obliged to protect what they do in the interests of the taxpayer. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that spending on consultants was spiralling completely out of control under the previous Government. That was providing very bad value for the taxpayer and it was very demoralising for mainstream civil servants, who felt that they were undervalued by the previous Government, whose default setting when anything difficult came up was to hire consultants. We will put our faith in the work that civil servants do. [Interruption.]

Order. A large number of very noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber, even as I speak. Some involve very senior Members who ought to know better.

Public Procurement

8. What assessment he has made of the effects of changes to public procurement on the ability of small and medium-sized enterprises to secure contracts. (94028)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of new suppliers to Government working groups in making it easier for small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for Government contracts. (94029)

We want 25% of the value of Government contracts to be awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises, and we have made significant progress towards that. This has so far led to a more than doubling in the amount of direct spend awarded to SMEs in the first half of the current year.

The Minister will be aware that his own commercial representatives of SMEs have said that it will take up to two years before SMEs stop being excluded from Government contracts. Does he agree that that is utterly unacceptable? What is he going to do to make better use of EU exemptions that protect local economies?

I fully accept that it will take a little time to get things fully sorted out following the mess left after 13 years of the hon. Lady’s Government, so rather than chiding us for the progress that we are making why does she not congratulate us on our progress and start apologising for the mess her Government left behind?

Further to the Minister’s answer, the leader of one of the Government’s own working groups, Mark Taylor, who is the chief executive officer of Sirius, has said:

“There are SMEs being taken out of procurement, not put into it.”

He said that that is “simply not acceptable.” Are not Government policies, as Mr Taylor points out, making it more difficult for SMEs to take part in Government procurement projects, rather than easier?

No, that is the reverse of the truth. The arrangements we inherited made it incredibly difficult for SMEs to bid, because the procurement processes were so bureaucratic, so clunky and so expensive, both for the taxpayer and for bidders, that many SMEs and voluntary and community sector organisations were, in effect, excluded. We are addressing that. There is more to do, but I would be grateful for some support from the hon. Lady’s side, particularly in encouraging Labour-led local authorities.

My constituent, Mr Isham, who runs a business in Willington, is also finding it difficult to break through the barriers to obtaining Government contracts. May I encourage the Minister to come to South Derbyshire for a question and answer session with local business people, so that they can learn at first hand from the master how to apply?

I would obviously be delighted to meet my hon. Friend’s constituents, but I would urge them to look at the Contracts Finder website, where, for the first time, Government and public sector contracts are available for scrutiny. If they find that procurement is still being done in the old-fashioned, outmoded way that we inherited from the Labour Government, they should phone our helpline and we will get on the case, as we have done in many cases already, and put improvements in place.

Manufacturing companies in my constituency are slowly dragging this country out of the mire in which it was left by the previous Government. Will the Minister please advise my manufacturing companies how, other than by looking at the website, they can find out about getting on the list to provide the national Government with products?

We inherited some very rigid arrangements that militated against UK-based suppliers and at the same time provided very bad value for taxpayers. We are making reforms that make it easier for local businesses, particularly manufacturing businesses, to compete effectively, but I will happily consider the issue raised by my hon. Friend.

The Government promised that 25% of Government contracts would be awarded to small and medium-sized enterprises, yet figures on the Minister’s departmental website show that the percentage of procurement spend with SMEs at the Cabinet Office has fallen from just under 11% to 7%, a decline replicated across Whitehall. At a time when net lending to SMEs is falling and the number of companies going under is increasing, why are things getting worse, not better, for small businesses on his watch?

It is simply not the case that things are getting worse. The value of contracts being given to SMEs is rising and rising markedly from the very low base that we inherited. The other issue that we have had to deal with is the fact that the quality of information left by the previous Government was deplorable.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are for the public sector, the Efficiency and Reform Group, civil service issues, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

Will the Minister explain how the Government’s action in allowing the chief executive of the Student Loans Company not to pay tax or national insurance on his £182,000 salary is in line with his own Government’s report, “Tackling Debt Owed to Central Government”? Does the Minister agree that this Government have one rule for the rich and another for everyone else?

T2. In reply to a question I tabled last July, my right hon. Friend emphasised the importance of reforming the civil service appraisal system. Will he update the House on what changes have been made? (94036)

We have already put in place new arrangements for the senior civil service and they will be rolled out for the whole civil service at the delegated grades. It is really important that appraisal identifies the very best performers, rewarding them with promotion and proper pay, and pays serious attention to those who underperform, who cause massive demoralisation to the hard-working majority of dedicated civil servants.

T3. Given the fact that the report of the Public Administration Committee, “A Recipe For Rip-Offs”, has recommended that owing to allegations of anti-competitiveness and collusive behaviour by some large IT suppliers, the Government should establish an independent and external investigation into those claims, will the Minister agree to implement the recommendations and set up an investigation into the oligopoly of large suppliers? (94037)

The hon. Gentleman is completely correct that an oligopoly of IT suppliers has, to far too great an extent, dominated Government ICT contracts. We seek to change that by having smaller contracts and much quicker and better procurement processes, but we have a legacy of huge contracts with that oligopoly of suppliers and are looking at how we can deal with that.

T8. Europe’s most energy efficient data centre was recently opened by Ark Continuity near Corsham on the edge of my constituency, providing resilient top-tier security infrastructure. Given the Minister’s interest in improving public sector information, communications and technology, can I interest him in joining me on a site visit to see that world-leading technology for himself? (94042)

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and that installation. There are now ways of providing much better ICT at a much lower cost and in a much greener way. We are exploring all of them and I would be delighted to share our thinking with my hon. Friend—[Interruption.]

Order. There is far too much noise. We can scarcely hear the Minister’s answers, which is unfair on the Minister and unfair on the House.

T4. Sixty per cent. of Welsh Government public procurement contracts are awarded to SMEs, half of which are in Wales. In England the figure is less than 10%. Given that SMEs invest more in local jobs, pay more tax and create more growth, what is the Minister doing to ensure that SMEs get business in England, instead of the money being siphoned off abroad? (94038)

We are radically reforming procurement to cut the cost to businesses. Bidding for public sector contracts has been far too expensive, both for the taxpayer and for bidders, and it is entirely right to say that too many SMEs have simply been frozen out of the process. We are determined to open that up and to enable more SMEs, which will tend to be UK-based, to bid successfully.

T9. I welcome the Minister’s wise decision to accept a bid from the Hastings Trust and other charities to the social action fund to build community volunteers and to promote the big society in Hastings. May I urge him to visit us in Hastings, to see the good work that is being done? (94043)

The allure of a visit to my hon. Friend’s constituency is hard to resist. I can undertake that I or my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), the Minister for civil society, will fulfil that engagement.