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Cabinet Office

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2012

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service

1. If he will undertake an impact assessment on the effect of changes in resource for the civil service on delivery of Government policy. (100937)

8. If he will undertake an impact assessment on the effect of changes in resource for the civil service on delivery of Government policy. (100944)

Our aim is to maintain the superb quality of our civil service while reducing its quantity. Under this Government the civil service headcount has come down from 487,000 to 435,000, which is smaller than it has been at any time since the second world war. Of course, this reduction helps to reduce the deficit, but it is also a natural consequence of our intention to reduce bureaucracy, improve public services and promote the big society by shifting power to people on the front line.

A recent National Audit Office report on cost reduction in central Government suggests that the staffing departures revealed an unplanned and haphazard redundancy drive that has paid off 18,000 civil servants since 2010, at a cost of £600 million, to save just £400 million. One of the report’s conclusions is:

“Few departmental systems can link costs to outputs and impacts, making it difficult to evaluate the effect of cost changes”.

Does the Minister agree, and what will his Department do about it?

The right hon. Gentleman has a distinguished career, which includes at one time being Parliamentary Private Secretary to Lord Kinnock, so presumably he has some experience of figures that go completely wonky, and the ones he is presenting give a very wonky picture. What the NAO report actually revealed is that the cost to the Departments was £600 million, the payback to the taxpayer was over 10 to 16 months and the total savings in this spending review period alone, in net present value, will be between £750 million and £1.4 billion. There is a massive saving there, which he would see if he read the whole report.

Recent analysis by the Office for National Statistics revealed that half of all central Government Departments, including the Minister’s, have actually increased staff numbers in the past six months. How does that fit with the Government’s pledge to increase localism? Is that not more central bureaucracy being created?

The hon. Lady will be aware that, as I mentioned in my first answer, there has been a massive reduction in the headcount of the civil service as a whole. Of course there have been particular cases in which particular people needed to be hired, but the broad effort we have been making has brought down the deficit and increased dramatically the efficiency of the civil service.

May I remind my right hon. Friend of the findings of the Public Administration Committee report, “Change in Government”, published last autumn, which identified the reduction in resources as just one of the many changes the Government are trying to achieve in the civil service? We await the plan for civil service reform with great interest, because our main conclusion was that the Government need a plan in order to effect this change.

My hon. Friend, the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, is absolutely right. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General and I have had meetings with the Prime Minister, the head of the civil service and the Cabinet Secretary, and under the aegis of those two very senior officials the review to which my hon. Friend refers is now being carried forward. There will be a strategy—much beloved of the Committee—that will emerge from that review, and once it is available Ministers will consider it and produce a plan for further changes in the civil service.

It has been reported that the outgoing director of strategy for the Prime Minister, the excellent Steve Hilton, wishes to reduce the number of Whitehall civil servants by two thirds. Does the Minister agree?

I am afraid that some wildly inaccurate reports have been floating around, but it is certainly true that the review that the Cabinet Secretary and the head of the civil service are leading on, which I mentioned in my previous answer, is looking right across the board to try to work out what a modern civil service ought to look like, bearing in mind all the technology and other advantages we currently have, in order to deliver innovation, change and the delivery of policy in the most effective and efficient way possible.

The Minister has announced the closure of the Central Office of Information, which provides politically independent public information from professional civil servants, and he will instead locate the service in various Departments, with the consequential inherent risk that the Government information service might become politicised. We would of course support any sensible measure to deliver a more economic service, but is not the current flood of leaks, on an industrial scale, in relation to today’s Budget a portent of the public information service’s politicisation, which he is opening the door to?

In a word, no. The changes that are being made in the structure and character of the information service are being made in order to have a modern service that can actually do the job properly. The hon. Gentleman ought to pause before talking about politicisation of the civil service, as under the previous Government efforts were made on an unparalleled scale to politicise the service’s activities. By contrast, this Government in all our information have been extraordinarily transparent, providing data on an unparalleled scale and operating a much more open Government than he and his colleagues ever dreamed of doing.

But that is all flim-flam, frankly. The leaking of Budget information on that scale is without precedent, and it is in clear breach, Mr Speaker, of your strict admonition that such statements should take place first in the House and not in the media. There is no way that professional civil servants in the COI would have undertaken such leaking, so does the Minister agree that there should be a Cabinet Office inquiry to identify the leakers? If it was civil servants, they are clearly in breach of their code of conduct, but, if it was Ministers, they are playing fast and loose with our democracy.

First, if the hon. Gentleman recalls his time as the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the previous Prime Minister, he will be aware that he was serving a past master at giving foretastes of Budgets. Secondly, I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman feels he knows what is or is not a leak, as he has not seen the Budget yet, and nor has the House.

Policy Advice (Outsourcing)

2. What recent discussions he has had with permanent secretaries on Government outsourcing of policy advice. (100938)

The head of the civil service has set up a number of themed groups to explore various aspects of civil service reform. One is exploring whether outsourcing policy making could deliver more creative and innovative results, while ensuring accountability and value for money, and I met permanent secretaries recently to discuss that and other issues.

The Cabinet Office spent almost £120,000 in one day in August last year on consultancy, and McKinsey & Company is reported to have earned almost £14 million from Government health policy since the election. Outsourcing policy advice is costly and can lead to conflicts of interest, so will Conservative Ministers stick to their pledge in their manifesto to reduce the amount of consultancy?

Not only will we, but we have. We have more than halved—I stress, more than halved—the cost of consultancy to the taxpayer. Under the previous Government, such money was spent incontinently, and the result was bad value for money and the serious undermining of the self-esteem of professional civil servants, who like being asked to do difficult things and are very good at doing them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that every Government need the best possible policy advice available, and that sometimes it comes from within the civil service, and sometimes from without?

As the new Cabinet Secretary said the other day, the civil service has in the past had a monopoly on policy advice, and he and others feel that it is something worth questioning. I am sorry that it is only the Opposition who seem to have closed minds on the issue.

Voluntary and Community Sector

3. What recent discussions he has had on the types of Government funding models available to the voluntary and community sector. (100939)

13. What recent discussions he has had on the types of Government funding models available to the voluntary and community sector. (100949)

We want to help the voluntary and community sector to become more resilient by developing three pillars of funding: traditional giving, income from the state including more opportunities to deliver public service and a new pillar, the emerging market of social investment.

Many local voluntary organisations were set up to complement statutory services, as Nottingham Community and Voluntary Service reminded me when I met its representatives last week. If the predominant funding source for the voluntary sector is now to be public sector contracts, will not thousands of valuable voluntary groups throughout the country be left high and dry, showing once again this Government’s utter contempt for the big society that they purport to champion?

I think the hon. Lady missed my point. We are developing three pillars of funding, with the encouragement of high levels of giving, including a very generous tax incentive introduced by the Chancellor in the previous Budget; a new source of funding, social investment; and the launch of the world’s first social investment bank within a few weeks. But, yes, we want to do more with the sector to help us deliver public services, so, yes, we will be opening up new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to help us do just that.

No. The hon. Gentleman asks his supplementary question now, although it would have been helpful if there had been advance notification of the grouping to my office, which there was not. Very regrettable. The Minister must do better in the future, I am afraid.

A survey commissioned by Charity Bank has revealed that more than 20% of charities have suffered from the cancellation of contracts with businesses and Government bodies in the past year. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s refusal to recognise the needs and benefits of charities and voluntary organisations in policy formulation is preventing such organisations from getting vital funding to which they are entitled?

First, Mr Speaker, I apologise to you formally for that oversight by my office.

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Any commissioner in the public sector needs to engage with stakeholders in communities before commissioning services—not least in the voluntary and community sector, whose stakeholders tend to have, on the whole, a much better understanding of the needs of the people we are trying to help.

Five months ago, the Prime Minister told me here that he would look at the funding gap arising from changes to legal aid funding for advice services such as the citizens advice bureaux in Wiltshire. Does the Minister consider that he has yet found lasting funding arrangements to sustain that voluntary sector service in future years?

We know that the charity advice sector is under a lot of pressure; that is why we found the money for a £20 million fund to provide immediate support for the most vulnerable organisations and why we are undertaking a serious review of the longer-term issues facing the sector. We will be announcing the findings of that review later in the spring, so the hon. Gentleman may not have to wait very long.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating the work of bodies such as Voluntary Action Leicestershire, which are advising the voluntary and community sector so well in Leicestershire, including my constituency of Loughborough, on how to find alternative funding models and how to do things differently given the changed funding environment?

I am certainly happy to do that. Such organisations play an essential role in providing support for front-line organisations. That is why we have found £30 million of funding to support organisations as they improve those services for the front line through the transforming local infrastructure fund.

Voluntary Sector Funding

Most voluntary sector organisations receive no public funding at all, but those that do cannot be immune from the need to reduce public spending. That is why we are taking active steps to help the most vulnerable organisations, to encourage more giving and social investment, and to create new opportunities to deliver more public services.

Given that the most recent report by the National Council for Voluntary Organisations shows that, according to the Government’s own figures, charities are facing cuts of £1.2 billion in public money per year, does the Minister agree that the Government need to do more to support the voluntary sector in constituencies such as mine, Feltham and Heston, as we turn around what the NCVO has described as a “toxic mix of circumstances” affecting our charities?

As I have said, almost 80% of charities receive no money from the state, but we have made it clear that those that do cannot be immune from cuts. The Labour leader himself has made it clear that he could not have protected them from cuts at all. We should remind ourselves that the cuts are necessary because of the actions of the last Labour Government. This Government are taking action to protect the most vulnerable organisations, create new sources of funding and open up new opportunities for charities and social enterprises to deliver public services. All they hear from the Labour party are empty words.

Voluntary and Community Sector

5. What steps he is taking to ensure that the community and voluntary sector is considered in policy formulation in all Departments. (100941)

Our agenda is to give community groups and other voluntary sector organisations a much wider role in fulfilling the demands and needs of the public than they have had in the past. That is why, in considering each of our public service reforms, we have paid particular attention to the question of how the voluntary and community sector can work through them and help them.

Research by the NCVO has shown that Government Departments plan to cut a further £444 million of funding from the voluntary and community sector. Does the Minister agree that that is evidence of the complete disregard of his own Government for that sector?

Absolutely not. The hon. Lady should look carefully at what we have done in respect of funding of advice services, to which the Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), referred a moment or two ago. In 2010-11, the funding stood at rather less than £200 million, but in 2011-12 it went up and it has almost maintained the 2011-12 levels—still above those of 2010-11—for 2012-13. The Government are investing in the voluntary and community sector, not disinvesting in it.

Some examples of bureaucracy are being faced by many in the community and voluntary sectors. What are the Government doing to try to ensure that those sectors face no undue levels of bureaucracy in delivering their services?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—there are major bureaucratic obstacles and regulatory hurdles. My noble Friend Lord Hodgson has been looking specifically at those, and my team and I have been looking at them as part of the red tape challenge. We are going through every single regulation that affects the voluntary sector, the community sector and social enterprises to see what we can do to ameliorate or remove those obstacles, because we are determined to build the big society.

Government Procurement

6. How much and what proportion of Government procurement was made from small and medium-sized enterprises in the latest period for which figures are available. (100942)

9. What recent progress he has made on opening up public sector procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises. (100945)

I am grateful, Mr Speaker.

A year ago, the Prime Minister and I launched a package of radical measures to increase opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to supply to Government. One year on, central Government’s direct spend with SMEs is on track to more than double to nearly 14% since we took office.

Those are very encouraging figures. In order to encourage small and medium-sized firms and show Government transparency, will the evidence behind the facts and figures be put in the public domain as soon as possible?

I am delighted to tell my right hon. Friend that we make this information much more public and transparent than it has ever been before. The Contracts Finder website contains much more information about tenders, contracts and successful bids than has ever been the case, but we have more distance to go, and we will do so.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the work that he has done to help SMEs to access Government contracts, but will he now consider writing protection for small sub-contractors into every major Government contract?

I am delighted to say that nine of the biggest suppliers to Government have already agreed that they will advertise on Contracts Finder their contracts for sub-contract as well, and that will increase accessibility. In addition, we are taking steps to ensure that payments get made quickly not only to prime contractors but to sub-contractors further down the supply chain. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many very noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. That is unfair to the questioner and deeply unfair to Ministers, who may well be greatly wounded by the experience.

11. The Government say that they are committed to ensuring that 25% of all Government contracts will be awarded to SMEs, but official figures and the experience of SMEs in my constituency show that the situation is getting worse. When are the Government going to get their act together on this? (100947)

I fear that the hon. Lady wrote her question before hearing my answer. We cannot make a commitment; it would be illegal to do that. We have an aspiration to move to 25%. The Government formed by the party of which the hon. Lady is a member did not even bother to measure how much of this was happening. In the past year, we have more than doubled the amount of spend that goes directly to SMEs, but there is further to go and we will go that distance.

Last week, Mark Taylor, the co-chair of the “new suppliers to Government” panel which is advising the Minister on SMEs, resigned, saying that Government contracts to SMEs were “drying up”, that things were “going backwards”, and that SMEs were

“finding it more difficult to do business with Government”,

and accusing the Government of “recounting” their figures. Given that the Minister has admitted that the Government are nowhere near their promised 25% target, will he explain why the proportion of procurement spend going to SMEs is falling at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department of Health, the Department for Education, the Department for Transport, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for International Development, and the Treasury?

I say to the hon. Gentleman that if Mr Mark Taylor had come to any meetings of the SME panel over the past six months, he would have been more up to speed with the considerable progress that is being made. The previous Government, for whom the hon. Gentleman was an adviser, cared so little about this matter that they did not even measure what was being done. We have, I repeat, more than doubled the amount that is spent with SMEs over the past year. That amount will continue to grow.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities as Minister for the Cabinet Office are public sector efficiency and reform, civil service issues, the industrial relations strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

National citizen service is going to become a rite of passage for many of our constituents. Will my right hon. Friend tell me how young people in Rossendale and Darwen can find out about getting involved this summer?

Three providers are delivering more than 600 places across Lancashire this year. Those providers are Catch22, The Challenge Network and Fylde Coast YMCA. I strongly encourage young people and their parents in Rossendale and Darwen to find out more about the NCS through its Facebook page or the Cabinet Office’s NCS website.

T2. What progress has been made by the commission into the West Lothian question? Many Opposition Members, and I am sure many Government Members, do not want to see a two-tier system of hon. Members in Westminster. What progress has the Minister made on this matter? Will he assure Members that we will be allowed to make a contribution to the commission? (100953)

I am completely confident that the members of the West Lothian commission will read the hon. Gentleman’s remarks with great interest.

T4. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when the plans to refurbish No. 70 Whitehall were approved? (100955)

Those plans were approved in 2008, when the current Leader of the Opposition was Minister for the Cabinet Office. It is therefore surprising that the shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office chose recently to mount an unprovoked attack on the decision made by his party leader.

T3. Part of my constituency had a bad experience with the Big Lottery Fund, which awarded it £1 million, but then sat on the money for the best part of two years. Will the Minister give better policy direction to that body so that it does not award funding and then sit on it for two years? (100954)

I hear what the hon. Lady says and I will look into it. I am surprised to hear that that was the case.

T5. Yesterday, Britain showed itself at its best. The Olympics offer us a chance to repeat such a show to the world. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is disgraceful that strike action has been threatened during such a wonderful opportunity? (100956)

It was distressing that the leader of the Unite trade union made that intemperate threat. I hope that the Leader of the Opposition will take an early opportunity to condemn these bully-boy paymasters, who are threatening, when the eyes of the world are on Britain, to bring the country to a standstill.

T6. Concerns have been raised about the role of Circle health care in the Government’s pathfinder programme. Will the Minister clarify its role in the programme? (100957)

I will look at what the hon. Gentleman says and provide him with what will no doubt be a comprehensive answer.[Interruption.]

Order. I am not altogether sure that the Minister heard the question. If he did not, he was not the only one. There is too much noise and Members are yelling even when Members from their own party are asking questions. A bit of order would help.

T7. Had we reached Question 10, I would have asked what recent assessment has been made of Government policy on open source software and open standards. (100958)

We are strongly in favour of using open source software wherever possible. We have established that that can cut the cost of providing digital services massively, while producing better results. On a recent visit to silicon valley, I and a number of colleagues found businesses that were capable of cutting those costs on a massive scale.

A study by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations has found that applications by charities for emergency help were highest in the north-east, because the 20 poorest areas suffered 40 times as much reduction in their funding as the 20 richest. A year ago the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr Letwin), said that the voluntary sector would

“find that there is access to a large amount of revenue”.—[Official Report, 20 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 936.]

Has he disappeared because he no longer believes that?

I deeply regret that it has been necessary for the Government to cut spending in the way that they have. The reason is very simple—the Government of which the hon. Lady was a member left this country with the biggest budget deficit in the developed world.

T8. In the past decade, small business has increased employment by 1 million and big business cut it by 1 million. Does that not show that procurement for small businesses is about not just fairness but more jobs and money? (100959)

My hon. Friend is completely right. That is why we have an aspiration to increase the direct spend to 25% of what the Government spend. We have already more than doubled that, and we intend to go further.