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Civil Service

Volume 542: debated on Wednesday 21 March 2012

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.