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Cabinet Office

Volume 546: debated on Wednesday 13 June 2012

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Estate (Savings)

1. What savings to the public purse have resulted from changes to the Government estate in the last two years. (110349)

The moratorium on new leases and on passing over breaks in existing leases has helped us across central Government to save the taxpayer some £278 million from property in just the first 10 months of the coalition Government’s time in office. To date, central Government have got out of more than 900 leases and released freeholds, and last year alone the size of the estate fell by 6%.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the House that the Government will get value for taxpayers’ money by ensuring that, wherever possible, the publicly owned freehold estate is used to avoid the need for expensive leases?

That is exactly our approach. Far too much of the freehold estate is under-occupied and far too many expensive leasehold properties are occupied in a very inefficient way. In Bristol alone we discovered that central Government, in their different forms, occupied 115 separate addresses, which is very inefficient and not at all conducive to joined-up government.

As you know, Mr Speaker, we should always watch what Ministers do, rather than simply listening to what they say. The problem with this Minister is that he promised millions of pounds of savings from other Departments while sneakily building up his own empire. In truth, his Department’s agencies had 23,000 square metres of office space when he came to office, but that figure has more than doubled to a staggering 56,000 square metres. Squeezing others while fattening up his own Department is hardly a policy that will incentivise colleagues to reduce their estate. When will he deliver the savings, and not just mythical ones?

The hon. Gentleman ought to look a little more carefully at the facts. He will see that the National School of Government and the Central Office of Information, which had been part of quangoland under the previous Government, have been brought in-house and so have been closed down.

May I satisfy the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman and give the Minister for the Cabinet Office good news by suggesting that even more money could be saved by relocating out of London and coming to Wellingborough?

I am confident that, under my hon. Friend’s benign guidance, Wellingborough is an incredibly good place for people to work. The size of the civil service is falling to its smallest since the second world war and we are reducing the number of people who need to be in central London, but if the opportunity to relocate people out of London arises, I am sure that Wellingborough will have a very good case to make.

When it comes to making savings for the public purse, a constituent of mine has written to me: she works for the civil service and is travelling two to three times a week from Nottinghamshire to London to attend meetings that last about an hour. Is that not a ridiculous waste of money, and what are Ministers doing about it?

Yes, indeed. I recommend that the Department for which the hon. Lady’s constituent works investigate the use of the telephone, which has been around for quite some time.

Big Society Capital

Big Society Capital exists to make it easier for charities and social enterprises across the UK to access capital. It has two measures of success: growth in social investment and the social impact of its investments. It is required to report annually on both the social and financial performance of those investments.

I thank the Minister for that response. Cathy Pharoah of the Centre for Charitable Giving and Philanthropy has said that Big Society Capital is likely to be biased in favour of safe lending. How will the Minister ensure that smaller projects with higher-risk clients have access to it?

Big Society Capital is a fundraising organisation with a social mission and exists to correct a market failure. It will support innovation and grow the new social investment market and will invest across a range of products. All we have asked it to do is ensure that it secures a sufficient return to cover its costs.

In a written answer to me on 11 June, the Minister stated:

“The Investment and Contract Readiness Fund applies to England only.”—[Official Report, 11 June 2012; Vol. 546, c. 218W.]

Given that Big Society Capital is for the whole United Kingdom, how will companies in other parts of the country be able to secure the same assistance?

Ultimately, that is a matter for the devolved Administrations, but the hon. Lady is right: Big Society Capital has been set up to be available to charities and social enterprises throughout the UK. The investment and contract readiness fund—£10 million of grants—is available to charities and social enterprises in England which want to make themselves more investment-ready, but the policy area is devolved and therefore a matter for the devolved Administrations.

Smaller charities say that they have a harder time accessing capital than the big “Tesco” charities. How can we ensure that the big society benefits the little society?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point, which is particularly relevant and valid in small charities week. He is entirely right. Access to capital affects smaller charities more than larger ones, and that is one reason why within two years we have developed and established the world’s first social investment institution, Big Society Capital, which exists to make such capital much easier to access.

In measuring the impact of Big Society Capital, will the Minister assure the House that the resource will tackle deprivation in hard-to-reach communities, particularly in Northern Ireland, where there are isolated rural communities and 35 scientifically measured areas of disadvantage?

I have been to Northern Ireland myself to make the point that Big Society Capital is available to charities and social enterprises there. The honest answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that any outcome depends on the quality of the investment proposition that intermediaries take to Big Society Capital, but we are very keen to engage with charities and social enterprises in Northern Ireland in order to make sure that the measure is as accessible to Northern Ireland as we say we want it to be.

Civil Servants (Redundancy)

All Departments are rightly required to maximise opportunities for redeployment within the Government and to make all reasonable efforts to avoid compulsory redundancies. All Departments also have in place appropriate support for those employees affected, including retraining, career coaching and advice, and help with CV writing.

Since the coalition Government were formed, 1,000 senior civil servants have left the civil service. How many senior civil servants does the Minister expect to leave in the immediate future?

As I said a little earlier, the size of the civil service has already fallen to its smallest since the second world war, and there will be further downsizing, as we have made clear. The resignation rate of senior civil servants is stable: there is no higher turnover than before.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that next week the Government are going to publish their civil service reform plan, and that this issue may be one that the plan addresses as the Government try to set out a clear change programme for the whole of government?

We will publish in due course a plan for civil service reform, the pattern of which will be incremental reform that is capable of implementation. It should not be another civil service reform plan that lies unimplemented, gathering dust on library shelves.

Government Contracts

4. What steps he is taking to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for Government contracts. (110353)

It is our aim and aspiration that by the end of this Parliament 25% of central Government spend with outside providers should be with small and medium-sized enterprises. We have launched a series of radical measures to simplify the procurement process in order to make it easier and cheaper for all companies to see the business available with the Government and to bid and compete effectively. Our direct spend with SMEs since the Labour party left office is already on track to double.

How can SMEs in my constituency find out more about how to do more business with the Government?[Official Report, 18 June 2012, Vol. 546, c. 3-4MC.]

By looking at the Contracts Finder website, which is the main source of Government contracts over £100,000. That is the place where they should look, and I hope that they will, but since February 2011, when we announced our new approach, about a third of new contracts have already been awarded to SMEs.

Will the Minister advise the House on what help or education have been given to small and medium-sized businesses regarding online e-procurement? Many small businesses in my constituency find it quite challenging to go online.

I will look into that, but the hon. Gentleman might like to bring some of those suppliers to me to talk through the difficulties, because we want to make the process as easy as possible. Suppliers tell me that bidding for public sector contracts costs them typically four times as much as bidding for private sector contracts. The changes that we are making will radically reduce that, but we want to make sure that the process works, so I should be grateful for his help.

According to the Federation of Small Businesses, 40% of businesses still say that the tendering process is too complex. There are some very good messages in the procurement pledge on the website that the Minister mentioned. What steps is he taking to encourage people to adopt the principles of the pledge?

That is policy within central Government, and it should happen, although I am not for a moment claiming that it is universal yet. We want to hear about procurements that are not being done in the right way. In the wider public sector, we can do no more than exhort and encourage, and we will do so. However, it remains the case that if we are alerted to procurements being done in the old-fashioned way, which is very antagonistic to small businesses, we will intervene. We have got a number of those changed for the better.

The latest official figures continue to show that the proportion of procurement spend going to SMEs is decreasing in the majority of Government Departments. A recent survey by the FSB found that 40% of SMEs believe that the tendering process is too complicated, while 37% believe that they are being “sidelined” by the Government. Does the Minister agree with Mark Thompson, an adviser to his own Department, who said:

“The reality is, government has very little idea of how to deal with SMEs and has very little in the way in terms of concrete plans here”?

The main change is that for the first time there are official figures for this spend—the previous Government did not even bother to count it—and the numbers are going up. Obviously within each Department there will not necessarily be an even progress all the time—I would have thought that even the hon. Gentleman ought to be able to understand that—but across the whole of Government spend with SMEs has doubled. I would hope that he would enthusiastically welcome that.


5. What steps he is taking to reduce the administrative and regulatory burdens that affects the number of people who volunteer. (110354)

We want to make it much easier to volunteer, so we are implementing most of the recommendations in Lord Hodgson’s excellent report, “Unshackling Good Neighbours”. To identify any remaining burdens, we have launched the civil society red tape challenge and have urged the sector and the public to contribute by visiting the challenge website.

In Sherwood, many people are put off volunteering by unnecessary Criminal Records Bureau checks. Will the Minister update the House on how we can reduce that burden?

That is a frustration felt in many constituencies. My hon. Friend will be aware that changes are under way. There are two major thrusts of change: many fewer people will require checks; and those who do will find it much easier to carry those checks around the system—the portability for which people have been asking for some time. Those changes will largely be in place by next spring, and I am sure that they will be as welcome in Sherwood as they will in Ruislip.

This issue has come up repeatedly. Does the Minister accept that in the coming years the red tape challenge will be judged on the numbers of people who are involved in volunteering and the verdict of those who want to volunteer?

All I know is that it is incumbent on Government to get out of the way as much as they can. Many areas of regulation are too intrusive and take up too much time and money that could be better used. I think that there is cross-party support for wanting to encourage more people to get involved, and if the Government can get out of the way, then we should.

Civil Service Pensions

We are committed to ensuring that the reform of public sector pensions means that public servants will continue to receive pensions that are among the very best available. These now provide a fair deal for public service workers while being an affordable deal for the taxpayer and a good deal for the country that is sustainable in the long term. We have spent months negotiating a new scheme that was put to the civil service unions some months ago. I am pleased that four unions have now accepted the proposals.

I am sure that the 85% of the work force in my constituency who work in the private sector will welcome that response given that their pensions are, on average, far less generous than those available in the public sector, which they are also expected to fund. Will my right hon. Friend give the House an estimate of the sum that the taxpayer would be expected to pay for public sector pensions over the next 25 years if these reforms did not take place?

It is perfectly clear that the reforms that we put in place across the public sector will save the taxpayer tens of billions of pounds over coming decades. The Office for Budget Responsibility will make a more precise calculation in its next long-term outlook.

Charitable Donations

7. What discussions Ministers in his Department have had with their ministerial colleagues on charitable donations. (110357)

We liaise regularly with other Departments in the development of our agenda to encourage more giving of both time and money.

Research from New Philanthropy Capital has revealed that 65% of charities are being forced to cut front-line services. In addition, after the way in which the tax relief proposal was handled, the expert Alana Lowe-Patraske said:

“It remains to be seen if donors and charities trust this government on philanthropy”.

Will the Minister update the House on how the Government will repair their relationships with charities?

I think the hon. Lady will find that most people in the sector and most commentators recognise and welcome the Chancellor’s change of mind on that. They also recognise that this is a Government absolutely committed to creating the conditions for charities and social enterprises to do more. That includes supporting more giving of time and money through initiatives such as the social action fund, through various match funding and through some generous tax incentives—

I commend the Government for their actions following the consultations on taxation and charitable donations, but may I urge the Minister to look again at the gift aid structure, and perhaps to consider a transfer to a system whereby individuals can deduct their charitable donations from their tax directly?

Gift aid and all matters relating to tax are a Treasury matter. My hon. Friend will be aware that gift aid is under constant review, and in the 2011 Budget some welcome initiatives were brought in to make gift aid easier to claim for small charities and small donations.

Behavioural Insights Team

The team is headed by a steering board which is chaired by the Cabinet Secretary. In September 2011 the team published an annual update of its first year, and a two-year sunset review will be conducted by the board in summer 2012.

The team does some very interesting work on encouraging behaviour to change in cost-effective ways. If my hon. Friend looks at the annual report, she will see some good examples. For instance, by slightly changing the wording in letters sent out by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to self-assessment taxpayers who owed money, the team increased payment rates from 68% to 83%, which is estimated to lead to savings of £30 million a year in administrative and court costs if rolled out across the country.

Government Policy (Delivery)

On 31 May we published business plans for 17 Government Departments, which clearly set out the actions that Departments will take to implement the Government’s reform priorities and by when. The No. 10 website publishes monthly updates on which actions have been completed and which are overdue.

Will the Minister explain how one Government policy operating in direct conflict with another—for example, the withdrawal of the right to flexible working conflicting with support for carers—amounts to efficiency?

The particular issues are well outside my responsibilities, but I will cheerfully look at the question that the hon. Lady raises.

Procurement Fraud

We are committed to tackling fraud and error in all areas of Government business, including public procurement. We believe that we can save the taxpayer billions of pounds a year by doing that across Government. Every central Government body will carry out a spend recovery audit by the end of next year, which should generate savings of between £50 million and £100 million. The Home Office and the Department for Transport have already recovered significant amounts by doing this.

In welcoming the greater efficiencies and economies of scale that come from centralised procurement, does my right hon. Friend recognise the danger that centralised procurement can, in effect, throw up barriers to entry for smaller suppliers? Might this not help to explain why small and medium-sized enterprises are not always getting their fair share?

As I said earlier, SMEs are increasing their share of Government business. It has doubled since the election and is set to continue further. I point my hon. Friend to what happened with the Government’s aggregated travel contract when we brought it together: one of the two contracts for travel across the whole of Government was won by a small business, which is rapidly becoming a bigger one.

Topical Questions

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

In March, Ministers confirmed in this place that the Department was conducting a review into the long-term funding challenges facing the charity advice sector, as was promised to me by the Prime Minister last October. Will the Minister tell the House and the busy advisers, such as those at Wiltshire’s citizens advice bureau, what conclusions he has reached?

Advice providers, like other parts of the voluntary sector, are facing a difficult funding situation. In the Budget, the Chancellor made £20 million available in each of the next two years to support the not-for-profit advice sector as it adapts. Our transition fund also provides support to 45 CABs and 17 law centres, and the Ministry of Justice is increasing funding for mediation services by £15 million to encourage greater use of mediation in disputes.

Twelve months ago, the Minister for the Cabinet Office gave the Work programme as an example of the big society in action. A year on, some of the charities that signed up originally have gone bust and almost 100 have withdrawn their welfare-to-work expertise from the programme completely. Is this yet another example of the lack of leadership from Cabinet Office Ministers for charities across Whitehall, or can we finally expect some action to sort this mess out?

I do not know from that question whether the hon. Gentleman believes it is right for social enterprises to play a major role in the provision of public services. We do, and more than 500 social enterprises and voluntary organisations are involved in the supply chain. I would have thought that he welcomed that.

Order. Far too many noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. Let us have a bit of order for Nicola Blackwood.

T6. I am sure that the Minister will join me in applauding the work of the Archway Foundation, which for 30 years has been combating loneliness in my constituency. Like many charities, it is struggling increasingly with excessive regulation. What steps is he taking to combat red tape to let charities do what they do best, which is to help those who are most in need in our communities? (110369)

I am delighted to congratulate the Archway Foundation on its work. My hon. Friend is right that there is too much that gets in the way of charities and voluntary organisations in doing their work. That is why we are undertaking what is probably the most comprehensive review of the regulation and legislation that affects the sector.

T2. The Department for Work and Pensions has no right to data. Absurdly, its Ministers have banned Work programme providers from publishing any data on their performance. That is the opposite of this Minister’s open data policy. What is he doing about it? (110365)

I will tell the right hon. Gentleman exactly what we are doing about it: we are following the processes set up by the last Government.

Independent research has shown that more than 8,000 teenagers committed almost 250,000 hours of service to their communities last year, that the customer satisfaction rating among the teenagers who took part was 93%, and that the benefit-cost ratio was 2:1. That was a good start and I encourage all colleagues of all parties to get involved with the NCS in their constituencies this summer. It is a fantastic opportunity for their young constituents.

T3. The Government came to power promising a bonfire of the quangos. Will the Minister confirm, however, that the Health and Social Care Act 2012 creates more quangos than the Public Bodies Act 2011 abolished? (110366)

T9. The Minister for the Cabinet Office must be praised for his efforts in driving forward the open data agenda, through which dusty Government datasets are beginning to provide the jobs and economic growth that the country so desperately needs. What further measures does he have in mind to open up such dusty public sector datasets? (110373)

My hon. Friend has been a formidable, expert and passionate advocate of the open data agenda. Open data are the new raw material and can drive a huge amount of business growth. The Government are already the world leader in opening up data, but there is more to come. [Interruption.]

Order. It is very unfair on the Minister that he is not being heard. He should be heard, as should all Members.

T4. The Government have sold off 250 freeholds of the nation’s buildings and land. If they are going to continue to do that, will the Minister ensure that there is a covenant in the conveyancing to ensure that the public have access to public land? (110367)

I will look at the issue that the hon. Lady raises. If she has particular concerns about property to which public access should be guaranteed and is not, we will no doubt want to consider the matter.