House of Commons
Tuesday 19 June 2012
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the London Local Authorities and Transport for London (No. 2) Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2007-08 on 22 January 2008, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 26 June.
Canterbury City Council Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Canterbury City Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 26 June.
Leeds City Council Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Leeds City Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 26 June.
Nottingham City Council Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Nottingham City Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 26 June.
Reading Borough Council Bill
That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Reading Borough Council Bill be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 26 June.
City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the City of London (Various Powers) Bill [Lords] be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 26 June.
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
That so much of the Lords Message [21 May] as relates to the Transport for London Bill [Lords] be now considered.—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Tuesday 26 June.
Oral Answers to Questions
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
The Secretary of State was asked—
The E3 plus 3 held talks with Iran in Istanbul and Baghdad this year, and talks took place in Moscow yesterday and are continuing. I told Foreign Minister Salehi of Iran last week that the E3 plus 3 is sincere and united in its approach to the negotiations. We have made a credible offer to Iran, focused on a halt to 20% enrichment and on confidence building. The onus is now on Iran to respond. If it takes concrete steps, the international community will reciprocate.
I welcome the hard work the Government are doing as part of the E3 plus 3 to bring a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the dispute with Iran. Will my right hon. Friend give more details about the offer that the E3 plus 3 has made to Iran? Does he agree that if Iran fails to accept that offer, the pressure of more sanctions will be necessary?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. There is a long-standing offer from European Union nations to assist with civil nuclear power in Iran once we are assured that its nuclear programme is purely for peaceful purposes. The offer made at the talks in Baghdad is an attempt to resolve the nuclear issue. It is focused on confidence-building measures and a halt to 20% enrichment. The ongoing talks in Moscow are tough and frank, and both sides have set out clear priorities. It is, of course, our intention that the European Union’s oil sanctions will come into force on 1 July. If no progress is made, we will certainly want to intensify the sanctions.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any serious concessions by the Iranians should be welcomed, but that for the discussions and negotiations to succeed the Iranians will have to demonstrate, with full verification and transparency, that they no longer seek either nuclear weapons or a nuclear weapons capability?
That would be required for the issue to be settled and for the negotiations to succeed. It is important for Iran to announce concrete steps and to put forward concrete proposals. It has put forward some proposals in the talks in Moscow over the past 48 hours. As I have said, the talks remain very tough and frank, and have not met with success so far. In the absence of success, including as my right hon. and learned Friend defines it, the international pressure will only be intensified.
We lost 179 of our brave soldiers in pursuit of non-existent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. We have lost 419 soldiers protecting the United Kingdom from a non-existent Taliban terrorist threat. Are we to expose more British lives to defend ourselves from non-existent long-range Iranian missiles carrying non-existent Iranian nuclear weapons?
The hon. Gentleman must not fall victim to Iranian propaganda about that, and of course we could also differ about some of the premises of his question, including the terrorist threats that have emanated from Afghanistan. I hope he will support the fact that the whole of our effort is going into finding a peaceful diplomatic solution. That is what the twin-track approach of sanctions and negotiations is about. One hundred per cent of our effort is dedicated to a diplomatic solution to the problem.
Will the Foreign Secretary acknowledge the important role of Baroness Ashton and the European External Action Service in making the talks happen? Does he agree that that has increased the possibility of finding a peaceful pathway out of the crisis?
Baroness Ashton is playing a very strong and effective role in leading the negotiations of the E3 plus 3. It is impressive that all six nations involved, including Russia and China, are working very closely together and presenting a united front and a united set of negotiating requirements. That adds greatly to the power of our position in the negotiations.
Our high commission in Singapore has supported local anti-trafficking initiatives. We welcome Singapore’s first national plan of action against trafficking in persons, published in March 2012, and look forward to further measures being implemented to tackle the problem.
We all agree that Singapore’s Government are moving in the right direction, and they have been backed up by EU parliamentarians. Is it not time that we used in the Commonwealth what has happened in Singapore and is happening in the EU? Is anything being done in the Commonwealth in relation to Singapore?
It is fair to say that Singapore is not one of the nine priority countries on human trafficking that the Home Office identified last year, which are Nigeria, China, Vietnam, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Uganda, Romania, India and Albania. We nevertheless recognise that there are concerns. Progress has been made, and we are keen to work with others in the Commonwealth and further afield to make further progress.
Given that human trafficking is a cross-Government issue, what steps is the Minister taking with the Department for International Development to ensure that as we pursue the millennium development goals and sustainable development goals, the goal of tackling human trafficking is not missed?
We have regular discussions with EU partners, both in Brussels and across Africa, as part of our co-ordinated strategy on addressing peace and security issues. The discussions cover Niger, Nigeria and wider African issues such as the European Council conclusions on the Sahel.
The extremist Islamic group Boko Haram is responsible for countless atrocities across Nigeria, including attacks on three churches just last weekend. It then disappears into the Nigeria-Niger border area. The British Government provide security assistances to Nigeria, and I understand that the French do the same for Niger. Will the Minister promise to talk to his counterparts in France to ensure that support is properly co-ordinated, so that that terrible organisation finds it less easy to hide?
I certainly share the hon. Lady’s condemnation of those appalling attacks, and of the retaliatory attacks by Christians against Muslim communities. We condemn both communities for what happened and urge the Nigerian Government to do what they can to secure calm. The UK has shared its experience on counter-terrorism policy, doctrine and legal frameworks, and we will of course co-ordinate our actions with the French. The President of Niger, President Issoufou, was in London all last week at the invitation of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and we discussed with him a number of counter-terrorism and security issues.
Given that there is regular and substantive high-level contact between British and Nigerian Ministers, what evaluation have the Government and other EU countries carried out of the Nigerian economy and the impact on it of the security measures that have had to be implemented as a result of terrorism, kidnapping and armed robberies?
The Nigerian economy is growing rapidly, but most of the growth is concentrated in the south, around Lagos, which is expanding to about 15 million people. The tragedy of the communal killings and lack of security in the north is harming growth in a big way, which will lead to a great deal of poverty, youth unemployment and other problems. That is why it is so important that communities are reconciled so that the economy can grow and wealth can be created.
Women and Minorities (Afghanistan)
At the Chicago NATO summit in May, I discussed with NATO colleagues our continuing support for the fundamental human rights of all Afghan citizens and full implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1325 on women, peace and security. The final summit communiqué reaffirmed our commitments in these areas.
We have encouraged the Afghan Government to implement the elimination of violence against women law that has been agreed in principle, and to bring into practice the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of violence against women. We bring these matters up with the Afghan Government regularly and work with many people in the Afghan Parliament to encourage that agenda. I am pleased to say that women now hold 69 of the 249 seats in the lower House of the Afghan Parliament, which bears favourable comparison with some European countries.
What is the Foreign Secretary’s response to President Karzai’s endorsement of the code of conduct published by the ulema council of clerics, which permits men in Afghanistan to beat their wives? Will the Foreign Secretary guarantee that women’s rights will not be sold down the river in negotiations on the future of Afghanistan?
The hon. Lady can gather from what I have said how strongly the Government are committed to making further progress on those issues, as she obviously is. One reason we want to encourage the implementation of the laws I mentioned in response to the previous question is the statement and the code of conduct to which she refers. We have discussed the code of conduct with representatives of Afghan civil society. Their advice is to concentrate—parallel to whatever the code says—on the good work that they and we are doing to improve women’s rights in Afghanistan in other ways.
Does the Foreign Secretary agree that fighting for women’s rights in Afghanistan has been an incredibly important part of the role so brilliantly carried out by, most recently, 20 Armoured Brigade, 120 of whose soldiers will march through Carriage Gates this afternoon at precisely 3.30 pm, to be met by as many hon. Members as I hope can find time to be there?
Some continue to say that our troops have lost their lives in Afghanistan in vain, and that they should come home today. What, in the Secretary of State’s view, would be the situation regarding the rights of women and minorities if that were to happen?
If we were to pull our troops out of combat prematurely and cease many of the other efforts we are making in Afghanistan, the position would be much more difficult, because through this period, when our and other forces are present, and when we are working closely with the Afghan Government, the prospects for women’s rights are improving. I am sure the timetable we have set is right—our troops will cease to be in combat after the end of 2014—but I hope the concepts of women’s rights are becoming more entrenched in Afghan society and politics all the time.
Does the Secretary of State agree that women’s rights in Afghanistan are a fundamental part of the security agenda, and that they must be protected in any settlement? That will require the involvement of women in peace and transition talks, to protect the gains made over recent years. Does he therefore recognise that time is rapidly moving on in those discussions? What will he do to try to inject some urgency into the process?
This country makes a constant effort to ensure that urgency is part of the process. I was in both Pakistan and Afghanistan last week, talking to the Governments of both countries about reconciliation and their relations with each other in promoting a political settlement and reconciliation in Afghanistan. Of course, we will continue with all those efforts, bearing it in mind that the process must be Afghan led, and that Afghans must determine their own future. We are trying to support that process rather than dictate to them the future terms of their settlement.
Rape and other forms of sexual violence have frequently been used as weapons of war against women in Afghanistan and the world over. What initiatives is the Foreign Secretary taking to counter this massive issue and to move it up the global agenda?
We believe that this issue should have massively more attention in the international community, which is why, on 29 May, I launched a new initiative of the British Government. We are assembling a team that will gather evidence of sexual violence being used as a weapon of war and can be deployed in different parts of the world. We encourage other countries to do the same. It will be a major theme of the foreign policy part of our G8 presidency, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s support.
My ministerial colleagues and I have regular discussions with our eurozone and European counterparts. It is in the UK’s interests to have a stable eurozone, the countries of which must do all they can to stand behind their currency.
We might be drifting away from foreign policy, Mr Speaker. The fact that the United Kingdom has its safe haven status, with the lowest interest rates in our history, is an important point that the hon. Gentleman ought to remember. When our Prime Minister put his name to the letter ahead of the March European Council, along with 11 other Heads of European Governments, calling for measures to stimulate growth—improving the single market, free trade agreements with other nations and removing barriers to business—it received a strong endorsement from many European nations. Clearly we influence the debate very strongly.
I hear the Foreign Secretary’s response to my hon. Friend, but yesterday the Prime Minister gave what is becoming his all-too-familiar speech to eurozone countries. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that reciting the same old platitudes is a poor excuse for leadership? Is it not time for a plan for jobs and growth?
The Prime Minister is fully entitled to say what he believes should be done, as are many other world leaders at the G20. There is no reason the UK should be unable to give its views about what should happen in the eurozone, given that the United States and many other countries are free to do so. The eurozone economies have an important effect on our economy, and what is happening there is having a chilling effect on our economy, so we are fully entitled to give our views, as well as to show strong leadership in controlling and bringing down the excessive deficits left to us by the Labour party and in having a safe haven status that is the envy of much of the rest of Europe.
My right hon. Friend is a great historian as well as Foreign Secretary. Does he accept that the eurozone crisis is not only a eurozone crisis but a European Union crisis, and political, economic and democratic in nature? Given that it affects the daily lives of 450 million people in Europe, has the time not come for a convention, not of the kind held last time, but one based on the principles of democracy and the defence of the British nation?
I will go so far with my hon. Friend, as usual, but not all the way, as usual. I absolutely agree that the crisis is having a major effect not only on those in the eurozone but more broadly, and that it is having major political as well as economic ramifications. As for drawing together, in whatever form, reflections on the future of Europe arising from the crisis, however, it would be better to do that when one can discern how the crisis will end and progress and develop over the coming months.
Many residents in Orpington work in financial services and make a big contribution to the success of this country’s biggest export sector. Can the Secretary of State say what safeguards the UK financial services sector might need in the event of steps towards banking union in the eurozone and fiscal compact countries?
Safeguards will certainly be needed—my hon. Friend is quite right to raise that—but as things stand proposals and ideas about banking union take many different forms. Many people mean many different things by “banking union”. If such proposals are made more tangible and specific, we will set out the specific safeguards that we think we need for the single market. We are already making the case in European capitals that in the event of a banking union in the eurozone, which, by the way, we will certainly not be part of—let me make that absolutely clear—such safeguards will be necessary.
I am intrigued by the apparent complacency of the Foreign Secretary’s most recent answer. Given the Chancellor’s advocacy of greater integration in the eurozone, would the Foreign Secretary be willing to set out for the House what legal or political safeguards for British businesses and exporters the Government will be proposing at next week’s European Council?
The Chancellor has set out exactly what we think should happen. For the eurozone to be successful, it is necessary to have more support from stronger economies, to help weaker economies adjust; more pooling of resources, whether through common eurobonds or some other mechanism; a shared back-stop for the banking system, to strengthen banks and protect deposits; and, as a consequence, much closer oversight of fiscal and financial policy. That is what we believe the eurozone needs to do. However, if it were to adopt measures that affect—or may affect, in any way—the ability of the single market to operate effectively and in the interests of this country, we will need the safeguards for which we are already making the case. Once we have specific proposals, we will set out those specific safeguards.
If President Hollande is successful at next week’s European summit in securing agreement for a jobs and growth package, will the Prime Minister support his new-found best friend in this endeavour or will the Government stick to their failing austerity-alone approach, which has delivered a double-dip recession here in Britain?
The Opposition might need to take a closer look at some of the things that President Hollande is advocating, because he is saying that France must balance its budget by 2017. He is also saying that growth cannot come from state spending and that it must be reined in—to use his words—so perhaps the Opposition might care to decide whether they truly support the words of President Hollande.
6. What steps his Department is taking to encourage inward investment from developing economies through the diplomatic network. (112344)
We are strengthening the UK’s diplomatic network to increase substantially our presence in emerging markets. This will transform relationships in the fastest growing cities and regions, and reinforce work on investment opportunities, which is obviously a key part of repositioning our economy and our drive for export-led growth.
I welcome the Government’s commitment to the expansion of our commercial-diplomatic network, but given the pressure on budgets, including that of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, how are these measures and the programme of opening new embassies to be funded?
We are already in the business of opening new embassies. We have opened two this year in Africa—I opened one in Abidjan the other day—and we are opening embassies in Mogadishu, Monrovia, Antananarivo, in Madagascar, Bishkek, in Kyrgyzstan, and San Salvador. This will be paid for through a gradual reduction of our footprint in Iraq and Afghanistan and the closure of various subordinate posts in Europe.
The level of trade and investment involving the BRIC countries—Brazil, Russia, India and China—is a source of some disappointment to our British economy. What steps is the Minister taking to strengthen our role in those emerging markets, where there are real opportunities for growth?
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are working absolutely furiously to try to increase the amount of trade with those countries. UK Trade and Investment—indeed, the entire network—is working as hard as it can to increase trade. In fact, in all those countries our bilateral trade is on target to double over the comprehensive spending review period. Of course there is more work to do, but I would suggest that, through the efforts of Ministers, UKTI and our missions, we are making good progress.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Given the Government’s mercantilist foreign policy, should we not be using our embassies to show off the best of British? Ceramics businesses in my constituency complain that our consulates are undermining exports by not using British-made ware. Will the Minister confirm that, in future, when dinner is served and when tea is poured in UK embassies across the world, the words “Made in Stoke-on-Trent” will be in evidence?
The hon. Gentleman is a good champion of the interests of his city and his constituents in this regard. The Government are well aware of the fine quality of the porcelain from Stoke-on-Trent and, indeed, from other places in the United Kingdom, but in taking procurement decisions we have to balance the wish to showcase the best of British with the need to provide value for money, so that we can continue to protect front-line services.
The political situation in Syria is dire. All parties must now implement the Annan plan, and the international community needs to come together to compel the regime to do so. Major General Mood is briefing the United Nations Security Council today, and we stand ready to pursue robust action in the Security Council.
Yes, I can. We have in place a European Union arms embargo for Syria, and we discourage anyone else from supplying it with arms. We have had specific discussions with Russia on that matter, and I am pleased that the ship that was reported to be carrying arms to Syria has now turned back, apparently towards Russia.
As the Foreign Secretary knows, Syria has a large stockpile of chemical weapons. Is he confident that, when the Assad regime falls, the international community will be willing and able to secure those weapons to ensure that they do not fall into the hands of Hezbollah or of affiliates of al-Qaeda?
The right hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important point. The existence of such weapons has long been one of our concerns about Syria, and it is a concern in this situation. Yes, I am confident that the international community will take any necessary action on that, but I do not want to go into any more detail today.
Does the United Nations understand that the Syrian tragedy is essentially a sectarian civil war, with Saudi Arabia and Iran supplying arms and money to their rival surrogates inside Syria, and that Russia, for well understood reasons, is determined to prevent the Sunni from overthrowing the Alawites?
My right hon. Friend and I have had this exchange several times, and he is right to point out the importance of the Sunni-Shi’a tensions, and sometimes conflicts, in the region. As I have said before, however, I believe that there is more to it than that. There are also many people in Syria, of different ethnicities, religions and beliefs, who want freedom and democracy in their country, and who want to be rid of their repressive regime. The factors that my right hon. Friend has mentioned are not the only ones at work, but they certainly add to the complexity of the situation. They also add to the importance of opposition forces representing all groups in Syria and preserving their rights in the future, as well as the importance of trying to negotiate a peaceful political transition in Syria, which is what we are attempting to do.
In his recent answer, the Foreign Secretary reiterated his support for the Annan plan, but only last week the UN was forced to suspend the observer mission in Syria. In the light of that suspension, does he accept what is already clear to many people on the ground in Syria—namely, that the Annan plan is simply not working? Will he set out today the steps beyond the Annan plan that the UK is now advocating that the international community take to bring about a cessation to the violence in Syria?
I accepted, some time ago, that the Annan plan was not working. It is not working at all at the moment, but it would be wrong to give up completely on the plan, because the road to any peaceful settlement in Syria will be through either the Annan plan or something very similar to it. It is therefore important to persist with those efforts, and we are doing that particularly in our talks with Russia. I met the Russian Foreign Minister again in Kabul last week, and the Prime Minister has met President Putin in the past 24 hours to pursue this matter further. We are seeking international agreement, including with Russia, on how to ensure the implementation of the Annan plan. We are ready to take that matter forward at the UN Security Council or in a contact group, or in both together. Of course, if all those efforts fail, we will want to return to the UN Security Council, as well as greatly to intensify our support for the opposition and to see more sweeping sanctions from across the world.
Is my right hon. Friend aware of reports that this afternoon the United Nations will decide to withdraw completely UN monitors? Were that to happen, a valuable independent source of information about what is taking place in Syria would simply be lost. I do not expect a detailed reply to the question I am about to put to him, but may we take it that the United Kingdom will use all available methods of obtaining information to ensure that we have a clear view of what is happening in Syria?
Yes, certainly, of course we will do that. We are awaiting at the UN Security Council today the briefing of Major-General Mood, who has been heading the monitoring mission, so no decision about what will happen to the mission has been taken in advance of that. It is very important that information is assembled, particularly about crimes and atrocities that have been committed. Earlier this year, we sent teams to the borders of Syria to assemble such evidence. The Syrian activists who assembled the evidence of the massacre at al-Houla were trained by the United Kingdom. We will continue our efforts to make sure that one day justice can be done.
The initiatives I have mentioned are all really a continuation or extension of the initiatives that have already been taken. We have not given up the search for an internationally agreed peaceful transition in Syria, but it is vital for such a transition to have the active support of Russia. That is why over recent weeks we have attached such importance to diplomacy with Russia. We will continue with those efforts.
The Foreign Secretary will know from conversations with the Russians that they are accusing us of using their veto as a fig leaf for our lack of policy. Will he nail that once and for all by pointing out that a united international community is far more likely to achieve results than a divided one?
Yes. I think it would be wrong to characterise the Russian veto in that way. The veto exercised by Russia and China in February was against all the other 13 members of the United Nations Security Council, which very much favoured a united international stand on this issue. Nevertheless, Russia has supported the Annan plan and has agreed with the two most recent UN resolutions. That is why we continue to discuss the issues with them and to work with them. I hope we can reach a common position with them on the implementation of the Annan plan or something very close to it.
I recently met a large group of Syrian students. Will the Foreign Secretary update us on any information he has or any discussions he is having with the Home Office about Syrian student visas? Some are being forced to return home where their lives are at risk. Will the right hon. Gentleman update us on what progress is being made to make sure that the German and US model is followed, allowing them to stay?
That is more of a question for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but as the hon. Gentleman asks, I will discuss the issue with the Home Office. We have very clear rules in this country: we do not return people to a situation in which they are likely to be tortured, killed or abused. If we thought that that was going to happen to these people, we would not do that, but I will take up the hon. Gentleman’s point further.
I visited Bangladesh at the end of May. In conversations with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the leader of the opposition, I was able to stress how important it is to have free and fair elections with full political party participation by early 2014. Improving human rights, democracy and the rule of law—all foundations of political stability—are key parts of the UK’s development assistance programme there.
My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is true that Bangladeshi political culture is very confrontational. The stand-off between the leaders of the major parties is very deep and very bitter, and in my time in Bangladesh I encountered many people who believed that the country—which is doing very well in many respects—would do better if there were a more co-operative political process. I think that the diaspora in the United Kingdom could indeed play a part in that.
The United Kingdom Government take many opportunities to raise concerns about human rights and the importance of implementing the independent commission's recommendations with the Bahraini Government. I visited Bahrain on 11 June, and had an opportunity to discuss the issues directly with Bahraini Government representatives, members of Opposition parties and representatives of civil society.
Amnesty International’s 2012 report refers to excessive use of force in arrest, unfair trials, torture and deaths in custody in Bahrain, but the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy report for this year does not even rate Bahrain as a cause for concern. Why is that?
The Human Rights and Democracy report contains a case study examining circumstances in Bahrain. It is true that our process of reporting has tended to mean that that if difficulties arise during the year, they are not always included. Compiling the reports on a quarterly basis will give us more opportunity to include more information. Bahrain is included as a cause for concern, and we have regular conversations with members of all sides there. The picture is very complex.
The truth is that there are elements on both sides of the divide in Bahrain who want to talk to each other, and elements on both sides of the divide who do not. I spoke to representatives of the major Opposition party. It is difficult to engage members of the Opposition in negotiations because they have preconditions which they claim not to have, and the same can be said about some members of the Sunni support side. It is a complex picture, but what the United Kingdom does is encourage both sides to engage. We are using, for example, our experience in Northern Ireland, where good political leadership and a great deal of dialogue led to reconciliation and the bringing together of two elements of society that had been bitterly divided. There is much that we are delivering, and much that we can do.
May I follow up the point raised by the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd)? The Government of Bahrain have consistently held the view that the door is open for a meaningful dialogue with members of Opposition parties, which are, of course, recognised in Bahrain. The Government cannot have that dialogue on their own. The Opposition have a moral responsibility to come to the table and engage in meaningful dialogue with the Government in order to make progress.
My hon. Friend is right. Bahrain is sometimes portrayed as having no Opposition activity, with marches postponed or cancelled, but in the run-up to the grand prix recently Al-Wefaq, the main Opposition party, held authorised demonstrations. However, as my hon. Friend says, if a meaningful dialogue is to take place, there must be two sides to it. We will continue to urge both Opposition and Government to engage in such a dialogue, because the implementation of the commission’s recommendations is just as important as the recommendations themselves.
I welcome the setting up by the Bahraini Government of a Ministry of Human Rights and Social Development, but what is my hon. Friend’s assessment of the progress that is being made? Are the reforms having a real effect on the quality of human rights in Bahrain?
There are developments that make a difference, such as human rights training in the security forces and a code of conduct for the police, efforts to prosecute members of the security forces who may have been involved in offences last year, and a general recognition that the recommendations in the independent commission’s report need to be implemented. A series of reforms are taking place, but, as my hon. Friend suggests, more needs to be done.
I welcome the recent efforts by the Palestinian and Israeli leaderships to renew direct contacts. We have urged both sides to focus on dialogue, to avoid any steps that could undermine the prospects for peace and to work towards the resumption of direct negotiations.
We are strongly urging both sides to build on the current contacts, and we have discussed that with, among others, the new Israeli Deputy Prime Minister. Those contacts include the joint statement of 12 May following the exchange of letters between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas. We are encouraging them to resume direct negotiations. We welcome the statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu that the new coalition in Israel presents an opportunity to advance the peace process, and we urge them to take that opportunity.
19. Much of the watching world is troubled by the thought that if there is continuing delay, there will be continuing illegal building of habitations by Israel in Palestine. Can the Foreign Secretary assure me that this issue will be a high priority for the Government, because with every year that passes the chance of peace and justice in those two countries recedes? (112359)
I agree with my right hon. Friend, and he knows how regularly and vigorously we raise this issue. I have straightforwardly condemned recent announcements of settlement activity on occupied land. It is because of that activity that the opportunity for a two-state solution will slip away unless it is agreed in the not-too-distant future, so this remains one of the world’s most urgent and pressing issues.
European Football Championships
I am sure the entire House will wish the England players every success in their match later today. On the question of attendance by Ministers, however, we took the decision that no Ministers should attend group games at Euro 2012. We are keeping the question of attendance at later stages under review.
We have consistently said to the Ukrainian Government that the selective use of justice in Ukraine is unacceptable and we want their policy to change. There is still time for improvement, but unless that happens I do not want to hold out much hope that our policy will shift.
Does my right hon. Friend welcome the fact that the England team went to Auschwitz-Birkenau ahead of the tournament to bring home to people, in eastern Europe in particular, the horrors of the Nazi atrocities? What a welcome respite that is from some of the terrible things we have heard about in Ukraine.
The trial and ongoing detention of Yulia Tymoshenko has widely been denounced as politically motivated. Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce), why do the Government appear still to take the position that human rights do not matter at the knockout stages of the European championships? Is it because they do not have confidence in their own policy, or because they do not have confidence in our team?
I am afraid the hon. Lady must have written her question before she listened to my answer to her hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Teresa Pearce). We have made it clear in every conversation at official and ministerial level with our Ukrainian counterparts that if they want to have the democratic future and the closer links with Europe that the Ukrainian Government say they want—and that we believe need to happen—they have to show they are serious about democratic, as well as economic, reform.
Last week I travelled to Pakistan and Afghanistan where I visited our troops in Helmand and participated in the Heart of Asia conference, where I discussed the situation in Syria with Ministers from Russia, China and Turkey. This week I will meet the Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Co-operation Council, and the Government will host the visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
I thank the Foreign Secretary for his answer. Will he join me in wishing Aung San Suu Kyi a happy birthday? She is the embodiment of peace and reconciliation. Does he agree with me that the controversial constitution of 2008 still puts the defence services at the heart of the Burmese Government? Will he assure Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the people of Burma that we will walk alongside them in their long walk to peace and reconciliation?
Absolutely, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I think that the whole country will wish Aung San Suu Kyi well and will be delighted to see her this week. I am delighted that at your invitation, Mr Speaker, and that of the other place she will be coming to address us here in Parliament. It is important to recognise that there is still a long way to go in Burma. Although her party has won the 40 recent by-elections, that represents only a small part of the Parliament. I do believe that the President of Burma is sincere in his intentions, but there will be a variety of views about the democratic progress of Burma within the regime, so it is vital for all of us who believe in freedom and democracy across the world to work with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi over the coming months and years.
T9. Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. In the midst of difficult, apprehensive and gloomy times in the eurozone, what measures are the Government taking to ensure that we are engaging as proactively as possible with exciting emerging markets in sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Mozambique? (112372)
It was well worth waiting for that question, Mr Speaker. I can tell my hon. Friend that the FCO and UK Trade and Investment are actively supporting UK businesses throughout southern Africa, including in South Africa and Mozambique. Indeed, recent successes have included assisting Aggreko to secure a $255 million deal to construct a power plant that will supply electricity to both South Africa and Mozambique. That is a big success story.
T2. Will the Foreign Secretary explain exactly what the Government’s policy is towards the Democratic Republic of the Congo? Very controversial elections were held there last year, which were heavily criticised by the Carter Centre, the European Union and the Churches in the Congo. A great deal of military incursion is occurring, particularly in the east; the treatment of women there is appalling; and huge profits are being made by mining companies. We would be grateful if the House could be told exactly what the British Government’s strategy is in that situation. (112365)
The EU observers’ report found that the vast majority of people in the DRC were able to vote in relative peace and security, although I entirely accept that there were irregularities in that election. Looking forward, we are very concerned about what is happening in the Kivus, in the eastern DRC. It is essential that the situation there does not deteriorate further, and we urge all parties, including surrounding states, not to use proxies and to stay out of the situation. We urge all sides to work for peace in that troubled region.
T10. Credit is due to both the previous Labour Government and this coalition Government for the UK’s global leadership on the arms trade treaty. Vital economic issues are being discussed at the G20 meeting this week, but will the Foreign Secretary tell the House whether the Prime Minister will also use the opportunity to lobby other world leaders in advance of next month’s arms trade conference, so that we can get a robust, comprehensive and effective arms trade treaty to save millions of lives? (112373)
Yes. We do indeed regard a robust and effective arms trade treaty as absolutely vital. We have continued the work done by the previous Government. There is a strong degree of consensus on this, but it is important that the treaty is both robust and effective. Negotiations are due to start on the final leg of this in July, in New York, and Ministers will be keeping a close eye on it.
We welcome the peaceful conduct of the second and final round of Egypt’s presidential elections, but this is a critical moment in the move towards democratic, civilian-led government in Egypt. We are concerned by recent announcements of the dissolution of Parliament and the reintroduction of powers of arrest and detention for the military. We want the process of drafting a new, inclusive constitution and the holding of new parliamentary elections to be taken forward as soon as possible and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), has today been making those representations to Egyptian Ministers.
I absolutely agree with the Foreign Secretary when he says that there are similarities between what is happening in Syria now and what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s. I also note that he mentioned “robust action”. If we take any robust action that involves our servicemen, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to ensure that it includes robust rules of engagement so that our servicemen, if by chance they were ever deployed in that dreadful country, would have sufficient means to defend themselves properly?
My hon. Friend speaks with a great deal of experience and I certainly take that point and agree with it. Should we come to that eventuality, we will try to do that. Having heard our earlier exchanges, he will be conscious that our efforts are devoted to a peaceful political transition in Syria and to a cessation of violence. At no stage have we advocated a military intervention, but we recognise that the situation is so grave and deteriorating so quickly, and that such crimes are being committed, that we cannot take any options off the table at the moment.
T3. I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Two Nobel peace laureates are in the United Kingdom today: Aung San Suu Kyi and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Will the Secretary of State take this opportunity to update the House and the country on what steps the Government are taking to work with those Nobel laureates and the authorities in Burma and Tibet to address ongoing human rights issues? (112366)
I mentioned a few moments ago our support for democratic change and human rights in Burma, including the resolving of the conflicts that continue, such as that in Kachin state. Ethnic conflicts have continued although there is a ceasefire in place in many of them. All that work will continue. We have a regular and formal human rights dialogue with China. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we, like the previous Government, recognise Tibet as part of the People’s Republic of China—let there be no mistake about that—but we certainly speak up for human rights in China, as we have done regularly and will continue to do.
Gambian national General Omar Mbye is married to my constituent Deborah Burns and today appears in the Gambian Supreme Court to appeal a conviction for treason and a sentence of death. Will the Minister assure me that the Foreign Office is doing all it can to ensure that justice prevails in the Gambia, particularly in this case, and to ensure that this man is not executed?
General O. B. Mbye and seven other defendants were charged with and convicted of treason and sentenced to death. Their case comes up in the Supreme Court in Gambia today and I understand the general is married to a British citizen who is a constituent of my hon. Friend’s, so obviously we are following the case closely and will provide her constituent with all possible consular and other assistance. On a wider note, we have growing concerns about President Jammeh’s Government and his attitude to the Opposition and to human rights, as well as the way he is discriminating against minorities.
T4. One of my constituents, a UK resident for 40 years, and 16 members of her family have inherited land in southern Cyprus. In order to dispose of the land, the Greek high commission has insisted that she prove UK residence for the past 38 years. She has provided passports and medical records and has now been asked to produce utility bills from 1974, a nigh on impossible task. Will the Minister or his officials communicate with the Greek high commission to find a way forward for that family? (112367)
As Daw Aung San Suu Kyi reminded us in her speech from Oslo last week, while we celebrate her freedom there remain many prisoners of conscience in Burma. Will the Foreign Secretary urge the Government there to establish a review of the cases of all prisoners so that it is possible to determine the actual reason for their arrest?
Absolutely. I have discussed this issue regularly with the Burmese authorities including with the President of Burma directly. I was pleased that in January there was such a large-scale further release of political prisoners in Burma, but the hon. Gentleman is quite right to say that some remain. In many cases, the Government of Burma allege that there is a responsibility for a violent crime or particular crime—not just the holding of a political opinion. That means that these cases have to be gone through and resolved individually. We will certainly encourage the Government of Burma to do that.
T5. Is the Minister aware that following the blockade of Gaza, the Gazans suffer an acute shortage of drinking water, with 90% of the water being contaminated and 90 million litres of untreated or partially treated sewage being dumped in the sea every day? Will he now tell the Israelis that this is a cruel and illegal way to treat Gazans? (112368)
The situation in Gaza has long been of concern to the UK Government, and representations are made to the Israeli authorities regarding their responsibilities there. Things have gradually been improving in respect of trade in Gaza. but this issue is bound up in the longer-running and larger dispute between Israel and the Palestinians regarding the middle east peace process. The concerns that the hon. Lady raises have been raised by the UK Government and we will continue to raise them.
Gosport-based Royal Navy sailor Timmy MacColl went missing in Dubai on 27 May. His pregnant wife and the rest of his family and friends are clearly very worried about his whereabouts. Will the Minister please reassure me that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is doing all it can to bring him home safely?
Yes. I thank my hon. Friend for raising this case. Our consular teams in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and in Dubai are aware of this case and we have met representatives of the family. It is a distressing and puzzling case and we are giving as much assistance as we can, along with other agencies, to the investigation.
T6. Last week, a Conservative Member of this House expressed huge admiration for General Pinochet. Given that General Pinochet sanctioned sadistic torture against innocent men, women and children, will the Foreign Secretary condemn his colleague’s comments? (112369)
I am not aware of the particular comments, but the hon. Gentleman can rest assured that the Government support a strong, democratic, free and open future for Chile, and our relations with the Government of Chile are excellent on that basis. Looking to the future, there is no doubt about where we stand.
We want to see the eurozone restore economic stability. That is in the interests of the United Kingdom as much as any other European country. The Prime Minister is demonstrating, through his leadership on the agenda to do with growth, deregulation and trade, that the UK continues to shape the direction of the European Union in a way that serves the prosperity and security of the people of this nation.
T7. Further to the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs Riordan), is he aware that the Israelis allowed only three lorry loads of exports through the Kerem Shalom crossing in the weekend of 5 June, compared with an average of 240 truck loads a week before the blockade? That is why factories are standing idle and why a third of the population is unemployed. Will the Minister tell the Israeli Government that the blockade is not only inhumane but totally counter-productive? (112370)
Briefly, yes. The hon. Lady’s makes a comparison between what goes through now and what went through before the blockade, and we make exactly the same point. It is more than went through last year, but that is not good enough. It is in the interests of Israel and the people of Gaza and beyond that the economic prospects of the people of Gaza improve. Israel can play its part in that and we urge it to continue to do so, just as we encourage those in Gaza not to launch attacks on Israel.
The Prime Minister has rightly set his face against the EU’s proposal for an unjustified 6% increase in its budget. Will the Minister take this opportunity to express his opposition to the External Action Service’s claim for a 5.7% increase in its budget and qualify the motion that appears on the Order Paper today?
When that motion was debated and agreed without a Division at yesterday’s European Committee, I made it very clear that we were opposed to an increase in the External Action Service’s budget, and that we expected the EAS to live up to the terms of the decision establishing it, which said that it had a responsibility to secure value for money and to return to budget neutrality.
T8. As a greater number of American veterans of the Afghan war commit suicide than die in combat, and as uncounted thousands of our own troops return, broken in body and mind, should we not follow the example of Canada, Holland, France and Australia and bring our troops home at an earlier date than planned? (112371)
It is also important to remember the immense achievements of our troops in Afghanistan, who have helped to bring stability to areas of Afghanistan that would not otherwise have known it, and who have done so much to reduce the terrorism threat to this country and many others, and it is very important for that job to be completed, as we intend it to be, by the end of 2014. It is important to remember the achievements of our troops, and not just the problems that they encounter.
Civil Service Reform
With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the civil service.
The British civil service plays a crucial role in modern British life. It is there to implement the policies of the Government of the day, whatever their political complexion. Its permanence and political impartiality enable exceptionally rapid transitions between Governments. Most civil servants are dedicated and hard-working, with a deep-seated public service ethos. Like all organisations, the civil service needs continuous improvement, and I want today to set out the first stage in a programme of practical actions for reform.
In 2010 we inherited one of the largest budget deficits in the developed world, and despite success in improving Britain’s financial standing, we still face significant financial and economic challenges, as well as rapid social, technological and demographic changes. The Government have embarked upon a programme of radical reform of public services to improve quality and responsiveness for users and value for the taxpayer. We need a civil service that is faster, more flexible, more innovative and more accountable in order to succeed. Our civil service is smaller today than at any time since the second world war, and this has highlighted where there are weaknesses and strengthened the need to tackle the weaknesses.
We need to build capabilities and skills where they are missing. We need to embrace new ways of delivering services. We need to be digital by default. We need to tie policy and implementation seamlessly together. We need greater accountability, and to require much better data and management information to drive decisions more closely. We need to transform performance management and career development.
Today, Sir Bob Kerslake, the head of the civil service, and I are publishing a civil service reform plan that clearly sets out a series of specific, practical actions to address long-standing weaknesses and build on existing strengths. Taken together, and properly implemented, those actions will deliver real change. They should be seen as a first step in a programme of continuing reform for the civil service. This is not an attack on the civil service, and civil servants have not been rigidly resistant to change, but the demand for change does not come just from the public and from Ministers—it comes from civil servants themselves, many of whom are deeply frustrated by a culture that is overly bureaucratic, hierarchical and focused on process, rather than outcomes.
That was revealed in the responses to our “Tell Us How” website, aimed at getting fresh ideas from staff about how they could do their jobs better. Civil servants themselves bemoaned a risk-averse culture, rampant grade-ism, and poor performance management. The action plan is based heavily on feedback from civil servants themselves, drawing on what frustrates and motivates them, while many of the most substantive ideas in the paper have come out of work led by permanent secretaries. Reform of the civil service never works if it feels like it is being imposed on civil servants by Ministers, but neither would it succeed if the civil service were simply left to reform itself. Because we want this to be change that lasts, we have discussed the proposals widely, including with Ministers of the previous Government, to draw on their experiences and ideas.
The civil service of the future will be smaller, pacier, flatter, more digital, more accountable for effective implementation, more capable, with better data and management information, and more unified, consistent and corporate. It must also be more satisfying to work for. These actions must help to achieve that. Under published plans, the civil service will shrink from around 500,000 in 2010 to around 380,000 by 2015—it is already the smallest it has been since the second world war. Sharing services between Departments will become the norm. That has been discussed for years; it is now time to make it happen.
Productivity also needs to improve. For too long, public sector productivity was at best static, while in the private services sector it improved over the same period by nearly 30%. Consumer expectations are rising and, as we have been told, there is no money. The public increasingly expect to be able to access services quickly, conveniently and in ways that suit them. We are conducting a review with Departments to decide which transactional and operational services can be delivered through alternative models. Services that can be delivered online should be delivered only online. Digital by default will become a reality, not just a buzz phrase.
We should no longer be the prisoner of the old binary choice between monolithic in-house provision and full-scale privatisation. We are now pursuing new models: joint ventures, employee-owned mutuals and new partnerships with the private sector. MyCSP, which manages the civil service pension scheme, became the first joint-venture mutual to spin out of Government recently, and it provides a model for future reforms.
The civil service culture can be slow moving, hierarchical and focused on process rather than outcomes. Changing that would be really hard in any organisation. We can make a start by cutting the number of management layers. There should only exceptionally be more than eight layers between the top and the front line, and frequently many fewer. That will help to speed up decisions and empower those at more junior levels. Better performance management needs to change the emphasis in appraisals emphatically towards delivery outcomes and reward sensible initiative and innovation.
We also need to sharpen accountability, which is closely linked to more effective delivery. Management information in Government is poor, as the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee, the Institute for Government and departmental non-executive board members have vigorously and repeatedly pointed out. Therefore, by October this year we will put in place a robust and consistent cross-Government management information system that will enable Departments to be held to account by their boards, Parliament, the public and the centre of Government.
We will also make clearer the responsibilities of accounting officers for delivering major projects and programmes, including the expectation that former accounting officers can be called back to give evidence to the PAC. The current arrangements whereby Ministers answer to Parliament for the performance of their Departments and the implementation of their policy priorities will not change but, given their direct accountability to Parliament, we believe that they should have a stronger role in the recruitment of permanent secretaries.
We will therefore consult the Civil Service Commission on how to strengthen the role of the Secretary of State in the recruitment process for permanent secretaries. The current system allows the selection panel to submit only a single name to the Secretary of State. At other levels, appointments will normally be made from within the permanent civil service or by open recruitment but, where the expertise does not exist in the Department and it is not practicable to run a full open competition, we are making it clear that, as now, Ministers can ask their permanent secretaries to appoint a limited number of senior officials for specified and time-limited executive/management roles.
By common agreement, both inside and outside the civil service, there are some serious deficiencies in capability. Staff consistently say in surveys that their managers are not strong enough in leading and managing change. In future, many more civil servants will need commercial and contracting skills as services move further towards the commissioning model. While finance departments have significantly improved their capabilities, many more civil servants need a higher level of financial knowledge. As set out elsewhere in the plan, the civil service needs to improve its policy skills and fill the serious gaps in digital and project management capability.
By autumn we will have for the first time ever a cross-civil service capabilities plan that identifies which skills are missing and sets out how those gaps will be filled. Staff consistently say in surveys that their managers are not strong enough in leading and managing change, so, for the first time, leadership and potential leadership talent will be developed and deployed corporately.
As long ago as 1968, the Fulton commission identified that policy skills in the civil service were consistently rated more highly than operational delivery. That is still the case today. We will establish, therefore, the expectation that permanent secretaries appointed to the main delivery Departments will have had at least two years’ experience in a commercial or operational role, and we will move over time towards a position in which there is a more equal balance between those departmental permanent secretaries who have had a career primarily in operational management and those whose career has primarily been in policy advice and development.
A frequent complaint of civil servants themselves concerns performance management. They feel that exceptional performance is too often ignored and poor performance is not rigorously addressed. In future, performance management will be strengthened by a senior civil service appraisal system that identifies the top 25%, and the bottom 10%, who will need to show real improvement if they are to remain in the service. Departments are already introducing similar appraisal systems for grades below the senior civil service.
The Government are committed to ensuring that the civil service will be a good, modern employer and continue to be among the best employers in the country. Departments will undertake a review of terms and conditions to identify those that go beyond what a good, modern employer would provide. We will also ensure—again, meeting a consistent concern of civil servants—that staff get the IT and security arrangements that they have been asking for, so that they can do their jobs properly. That is a part of doing what is necessary to make civil service jobs more satisfying.
Another key goal is to improve and open up policy making so that there is a clear focus on designing policies that can be implemented in practice. Too often in the past policy has come from a narrow range of views, but Whitehall does not have a monopoly on policy-making expertise, and in future open policy making will become the default and we will create a small central fund to pilot policy development commissioned from outside Whitehall.
I repeat that this plan is just the first stage in a programme of reform and continuous improvement. It responds to concerns expressed by Parliament, by Ministers and former Ministers and, most importantly, by civil servants themselves. None of the actions in the plan is in itself dramatic, and none will matter unless it is properly implemented, but together, when implemented, they will represent real change.
I will oversee the implementation of the plan, and, as the paper sets out, Sir Bob Kerslake, as head of the civil service, and Sir Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, will be accountable for its delivery through the cadre of permanent secretaries.
Change is essential if the civil service is to meet the challenges of a fast-changing world. I commend the plan to the House.
I thank the Minister for his courtesy in providing me with an advance copy of the plan, and for taking some time to explain his thinking.
The British civil service is widely admired, and rightly so, for its core values of honesty, impartiality and professionalism, and that is why it is so worrying that in the past two years the Minister has presided over chaotic change, which has seen a collapse in morale and more than one in three of the most senior civil servants leaving voluntarily. We, in contrast, sought radical but incremental change in the service.
On accountability, management culture and increased flexibility, there is always more to do, and we will support and, indeed, welcome sensible reforms such as improving management culture, information systems and skills development. We especially welcome the drive to digitise. It is essential to promote this process so that we obtain the highest possible levels of productivity from all staff. How does the Minister see digitisation proceeding?
In an era of flexible networks, the civil service can be seen as over-hierarchical and bureaucratic, as well as operating within self-contained departmental silos. Will the Minister indicate his intentions in reducing hierarchy and bureaucracy? The civil service has often been criticised in relation to procurement, IT, the management of change, and project management. What plans does he have to improve performance in all those areas?
I note the Minister’s suggestion that there should be interaction between the civil service and the private sector, but will he confirm that he is not making a presumption that private sector experience is somehow superior to the service of the public within the public sector ethos? We welcome the increased accountability of the civil service to Parliament and his comments on the Public Accounts Committee. On public sector mutuals, will he ensure that more information is placed before the House on this matter in due course?
The Minister has proposed that the performance of the worst 10% of civil servants be addressed. What consultation has he had on that proposal, and when does he intend it to be introduced? Of course, we welcome the drive to improve the standards of management in the public service, but is there not a danger that he and his colleagues may indulge in a blame game? After all, the problems that his Government face result from the failure of Ministers, not of the civil service. In identifying the worst-performing public servants, perhaps he might consider the proposal that he name and shame the poorest Ministers; I can see one of them talking to him on the Front Bench now. Perhaps he does not need to, though, because the court of public opinion has already rendered its verdict, at least in relation to the Secretary of State for Health. Given the double-dip recession, does he agree that at least the Chancellor of the Exchequer should now be placed in special measures?
Has the Minister done any U-turn on regional pay? Will he confirm that while there is nothing wrong with sensible local bargaining of the kind that we did when we were in office, we live in a single United Kingdom and the suggestion of large-scale regionalising of pay is divisive and should now be dropped?
The Minister has said that he intends further to reduce the size of the civil service and that the Government would cut back-office staff and not front-line services. Staff reductions on the scale that he has announced cannot possibly be easily developed. We are not talking about simple numbers on a page but real human beings facing redundancy at a time of high unemployment. These people have chosen to serve the public. How does he intend to deal with the human consequences of his decisions, and will he be engaging with the trade unions and other staff representatives in this process? His staffing estimates must be based on detailed risk impact assessments. For example, will the country be left vulnerable as a result of further cuts at the UK Border Agency, in the police service, or elsewhere? Will he agree to place in the Library copies of all departmental risk impact assessments of staff reductions?
On the sensitive area of the relationship between Ministers and civil servants, I have two concerns. The Minister proposes to formalise the process of seeking policy advice from outside agencies, and he intends that Ministers play a larger role in appointing permanent secretaries. We welcome careful progress on both those suggestions, but equally, is there not a danger that they might lead to cronyism and a dangerous politicisation of the civil service? What assurances will he give to the House that in engaging in the appointment of civil servants and in selecting external agencies providing policy advice, neither of those matters will fall into disrepute because of ideological, or even personal, favouritism by particular Ministers?
We welcome the positive proposals in the plan, but it will do little to correct the chaos that now exists in many Departments. After all, the point of reform is to make things better than they were before.
I am grateful for the shadow Minister’s welcome for much of what we have said, although I regret the tone of some of his contribution.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point about potential politicisation, we are very concerned that that should not happen. Any proposals about the involvement of Ministers in appointments, which has operated in various ways for a long time, must be regulated properly by the Civil Service Commission, whose task it is to ensure that there is no taint of cronyism or favouritism. There have been many suggestions, particularly in the time of the previous Government, that cronyism has been a feature of the way in which Governments operate. Because of that, the Civil Service Commission is particularly concerned to ensure that any changes are made extremely carefully. I and my colleagues strongly support that.
I have not announced any further reductions in the size of the civil service. The figure of 380,000, which is the consequence of the plans that Departments already have, is already out there. The reductions are obviously taking place in a planned and considered way by Departments, and they are alert to the need for front-line services to be protected wherever possible.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned issues of morale in the civil service. However, the people survey, which is a consistent survey across the whole civil service that is done every year—a welcome innovation by Lord O’Donnell under the previous Government—suggests that morale has remained remarkably stable at a time of uncertainty, a pay freeze, the reform of pension schemes and significant downsizing. Turnover, as measured by resignations from the civil service, has also remained stable. There is obviously a reduction in the size of the senior civil service, but that is simply a consequence of the overall reductions in size across the civil service.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for our plans for digitisation. That will not always be without controversy, but it is important. The Government lag behind most providers in making services available to consumers online. Too many online Government services fail, meaning that the non-digital delivery of transactions by post, phone or physical contact has to be retained. That is much more expensive and a lot less convenient for the user. It is important to tackle that problem. He will be aware of the invaluable review that was done by Martha Lane Fox 18 months ago, on which we are drawing heavily to drive our plans forward with urgency.
I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point about interaction with the private sector. I do not make the assumption that the answer to every problem in the civil service is to bring in people from the private sector. In fact, much more needs to be done to equip existing civil servants with skills. That is where interaction is so important. The culture in the civil service needs to feel much more recognisable to people from the private sector, so that when there is interaction, they do not feel like they have stepped on to a different planet. We believe that enhanced interaction will contribute to that.
The only moves that there have been towards regional pay were made under the previous Government, when the Ministry of Justice introduced a degree of regional pay. No final decisions have been made on the matter and we will not proceed without good evidence and a strong rationale for doing so.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman’s response reflected the widespread consensus that there is a need for change. Our proposing change which responds very much to concerns within the civil service does not mean that we think that the fundamental model is wrong. Arguments are made for a more American approach, but one would lose many important benefits such as the institutional knowledge, continuity and ease of transition through that approach. We have therefore worked within the constraints of the model as it is, but much can be done within those constraints. None of the changes need be massively controversial or dramatic, but together they will make a real difference to the way in which the country is governed.
I thank my right hon. Friend for publishing a civil service reform plan, which will prove to be the comprehensive cross-departmental change programme that the Public Administration Committee has long been calling for. Will he engage all his fellow Ministers to ensure that they lead the programme alongside permanent secretaries? Without effective leadership, no change programme will succeed. Finally, will he reaffirm that the civil service must remain one of our great institutions and a force for the stability of government, our constitution and our nation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who has been urging me to publish a civil service reform plan for some time. I have said many times that I am keener on civil service reform than I am on civil service reform plans, but we have set out the plan and what we aim to achieve. It will require concerted political leadership, and there must be no hiding place. The political leadership of the Government and wide consensus across the party divide, which I think there is, together with the leadership of the civil service, will provide the best chance of implementing the plan successfully. I completely accept his point that the civil service is an important component of our stability, but we need to ensure that stability does not equate to a lack of any movement.
I welcome the substance of what the Minister said and the bipartisan tone in which he put it. In particular, may I welcome his proposals for greater involvement by Secretaries of State in the appointment of their permanent secretaries? I say by way of confession that, although I am not sure what the rules were at the time, in each of the three permanent secretary appointments that I made—in the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Justice—I insisted that there was a shortlist of at least three candidates from which I should choose. There was not the least allegation that I had acted in a partisan or cronyist way. The point that I made to those Departments was that if I was to take responsibility for the whole Department and for the work of that permanent secretary, I needed to have some confidence in the individual at the official top of the organisation.
I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of view, which I think most people who have been Ministers would recognise and respect. As Ministers we come to the House of Commons and, more or less cheerfully, take responsibility and are held accountable, sometimes in very robust terms, for what our Departments deliver and how they perform. The relationship between a permanent secretary and a Secretary of State is the most important one in a Department, and it is not reasonable for a Secretary of State to feel that he or she has no real choice in the appointment of that permanent secretary.
Will the Minister reiterate that one of the great strengths of the reform agenda that he has put forward today is that it responds to the demands of ordinary civil servants themselves? History shows that if the Cabinet Office acts in isolation, the project is doomed to failure. We require much wider leadership of the reform agenda, right across the civil service.
My hon. Friend makes the point very well that it would not work if we tried to impose reform that went against the grain of the hard-working majority of civil servants, who come to work to do a good job and serve their fellow citizens, and who want to go home at the end of the day feeling that they have been able to make a difference. The plan would not have a chance of being successfully implemented. We need to call on the leadership of the civil service, but also on those throughout the civil service who see a need for change and want to be part of it.
It is opportune that the Public and Commercial Services Union parliamentary reception is taking place at the moment, to which all Members, including the Minister, are invited. That union represents staff who have had job cuts, privatisation, pay cuts and pay freezes and who have had their pensions undermined. They have even had their redundancy payments cut. Will he call in and explain to those staff what is meant by “Departments will undertake a review of terms and conditions to identify those that go beyond what a good…employer would provide”? Does that mean that there will be more cuts to job security, maternity cover, paternity leave or sick pay? Will he explain precisely what it means?
Depending on how long this statement goes on, I would be delighted to call in to the PCS reception and renew old acquaintances and friendships.
To which terms and conditions does the statement refer? Civil servants hate it when outlandish and archaic terms and conditions, many of which they will not have known exist, get picked up by the media and lampooned. Such terms and conditions enable the media to project civil servants—quite unfairly—as feather-bedded and pampered, which is demoralising for them. We want the civil service to be a good, modern employer, and among the best employers, but that means that such outlying terms and conditions, which are hard to defend in the modern world, must be addressed. They include, for example, the fact that as soon as people become civil servants, they are entitled to six months’ full sick pay. That is out of kilter with anything that exists in the wider public sector or the private sector. That sort of thing will need, over time, to be addressed.
I welcome the Minister’s talk of sharpening accountability and of better accountability upwards to departmental boards. He even talks of giving Secretaries of State more of a say on appointments. Why has he not considered enhancing accountability to the Select Committees of the House? Surely without that change, the mandarin is not truly outwardly accountable to the public.
I completely understand my hon. Friend’s point. He will know that the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge), the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, who is away on Committee business at the moment, strongly takes that view. The Government have not opined on that suggestion at this stage, because the House of Lords Constitution Committee is conducting an inquiry into exactly that issue and we do not want to pre-empt its deliberations. My hon. Friend’s point, however, is a powerful one.
In his statement, the Minister said that the “demand for change…comes from civil servants themselves”, and yet went on to say that changing the civil service culture would be “really hard”. There seems to be a contradiction in that. Can we be sure that the reorganisation of the civil service is in the interests of service to the community, and not simply a cost-saving exercise?
We need to save costs—that almost goes without saying—and every Department is working under a severe financial constraint, one consequence of which is the significant reduction in the size of the civil service, to which I have referred. The proposals are about ensuring that, in such circumstances, when there is a smaller civil service and less money around, citizens can be served and receive public services of a good standard, and in many cases we hope a better standard than they currently receive.
Is it fair that businesses outside London and the south-east must compete for staff against public offices whose pay and conditions are set nationally? If local pay works so well and flexibly for the Courts Service, why would we be squeamish about extending it?
At the risk of my hon. Friend’s eyebrows going into overdrive, may I say that no final decisions have been made? He makes the argument. We have invited the pay review bodies to look at that proposal but no decision will be made until the evidence has been properly examined and the existence or otherwise of a strong rationale has been established.
I would like to return to the issue of accounting officers being recalled to Select Committees. In his statement, the Minister referred only to the Public Accounts Committee. May I urge him to consider other Committees, such as the Defence Committee, given that procurement decisions can cover 10, 15 or 20 years? Will he consider not only making that clearer, as he said in his statement, but making it a duty?
For the PAC, it is becoming the practice that, in the right circumstances, former accounting officers can be called back. I hear what the hon. Lady says; it is a powerful case. Actually, I would not find it objectionable if former Ministers were called back to Select Committees to talk about decisions they were involved with in a previous life. I see the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), the former Lord Chancellor, nodding assent, which is courageous of him.
As my right hon. Friend said, as long ago as 1968 the Fulton commission identified that policy skills were consistently rated more highly than operational delivery. Forty years later, during my time on the PAC, we found out that not a single permanent secretary had ever run a project. After all these reviews, will he really achieve where everybody else has failed, and get fewer permanent secretaries who have an Oxbridge degree in Latin, can write a beautiful minute and are charming, and actually get people who can run a project and be on the right pay scale for it?
I hope that my hon. Friend, who stewarded the PAC with such distinction and speaks with great authority on this subject, would recognise that the appointment as head of the civil service of Sir Bob Kerslake, who has a formidable history of operational delivery in local government and running big local authorities, is a step in the right direction. If my hon. Friend looks across the piece, he will see that there are more, but not yet nearly enough, permanent secretaries with a background in operational delivery. We need to go further, however.
On 23 May, in answer to my question about bonuses, the Prime Minister told the House that there was
“no place in the modern civil service for a presumption of good performance.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 1130.]
Why has the Minister not taken the opportunity, in his excellent paper, to outlaw the culture of bonuses for senior civil servants, especially in failing organisations, such as the UK Border Agency? Giving senior civil servants bonuses of £3.5 million cannot be right.
Performance pay is always controversial, whether in the public or private sector. The paper suggests that a voluntary earn-back scheme, such as that suggested by Will Hutton in his report on fair pay, might be worth considering. We will invite the Senior Salaries Review Body to consider such a scheme for the senior civil service. Civil servants would be invited to put, say, 5% of their basic pay at risk, so that they have to earn it back, with the possibility of exceeding it with exceptional performance. That would not feel like a one-way bet.
For a start, there needs to be better performance management and much better management information. It is a constant complaint that the quality of data is poor and inconsistent. It is hard to hold Departments and parts of Departments to account when we do not know how well they are performing. I point out to my right hon. Friend that when we turned MyCSP, the organisation that delivers the civil service pension scheme, into a joint venture mutual, its levels of productivity and accuracy, doing difficult processing work, improved markedly as it moved towards the vesting date.
I hope I am not alone in having a great sense of unease about the greater involvement of Ministers in selecting permanent secretaries. When permanent secretaries have to succumb to ministerial favour, is there not a danger of moving towards a presidential system, with more politicisation, less impartiality and civil servants fearing to speak truth unto power lest their careers not advance? I hope that I am not alone in saying that, and I hope that the Minister has a good answer.
The answer is that we are absolutely not moving to the presidential-type system. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman talk to his right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn, who has experience of this. The simple truth is that if a Minister is to be accountable for what their Department does, it is not that unreasonable to suppose that they should have a better degree of choice in selecting the principal instrument for the performance of their Department.
If local residents in the borough of Kettering phone Kettering borough council, of which I have the honour and privilege of being a member, they speak to a human being who answers the phone within 10 seconds. We ran the British empire with fewer civil servants than we have now, and if Kettering borough council can do that, should not organisations such as the Inland Revenue helpline be told that they have to do the same?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful case, not just for the merits of Kettering borough council, but for what central Government and the civil service can learn from the best in local government. We make that point in the plan. There is, for example, good experience in local government of local authorities sharing services to a much greater degree than in the past—including, in many cases, sharing chief executives. We have suggested that this is also something that central Government could learn from.
I listened with great interest to what the Minister said about opening up policy development work. I note what he said about the Civil Service Commission, but I wonder whether he will expand on it. I am not making a partisan point, but he will recall answering questions recently about suggestions—allegations and so on—that, for example, Mr Peter Cruddas had influence over the No. 10 policy making machinery. If policy making is outsourced to think-tanks, there are bound to be occasions when suggestions are made that outside bodies—donors and so on—have undue influence over those think-tanks, so is the Minister anticipating some sort of regulatory framework? Will he expand a little further on that for us?
The first thing to say is that this proposal is only a modest move. It will be piloted and reviewed to see what works and what does not. I completely concede the hon. Gentleman’s point that the work needs to be done carefully. It is not, I hasten to add, a recipe for giving more business to consultants—we have massively cut the business that central Government give to consultants—but we think there is scope for commissioning policy development work from academics, for example, which seems to be a fruitful idea that is worth pursuing to see what the benefits are.
It is important that those who choose the civil service as a career path should still have a wide experience and keep up to date with the knowledge, skills and experience that will be useful. Has the Minister considered whether the parliamentary term and timetable—our cycle—might offer time for development and training opportunities for those staff, or time for fast-track staff in particular to take paid sabbaticals in industry, commerce and the voluntary and philanthropic sectors, which are at the cutting edge of personnel development?
That is a valuable point, which we address. Such development is available and possible, but it happens to a much lesser extent than is desirable. Exposure to different worlds and different experiences can enrich the ability of senior civil servants to deliver effectively for citizens.
It is a modest fund of £500,000 from the Cabinet Office, to be matched by Departments, if they want to bid to use it. I would not generally expect there to be a single appointment. Under the circumstances, we would want to get different groups in to pitch their ideas for how they would develop the work and so on. However, these are early stages. We want to explore how to do the work effectively, but we think it is worth pursuing.
Will my right hon. Friend clarify whether he will be publishing the personal objectives of permanent secretaries and the interim project milestones of senior responsible owners? Further to the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr Leigh) asked, given that 70% of civil servants work in operational roles, will he clarify how many permanent secretaries do not have two years’ experience in such roles?
I do not have the last fact immediately at my fingertips, although it could no doubt be there soon. On my hon. Friend’s first point, yes, we do plan to publish permanent secretary objectives. They ought to be set in a rigorous way through agreement with the Secretary of State, with the lead non-executive on the Department’s board, with the Prime Minister and with the head of the civil service. That needs to be done. We will then publish those objectives, because the public need to be able to see the extent to which they are being met. My hon. Friend also asked about milestones. We are becoming much more open and saying much more about the way in which the major projects are governed, and about their performance, than has ever been the case.
As well as suggesting a greater role for Secretaries of State in the recruitment process for permanent secretaries, the right hon. Gentleman referred to Ministers being able to ask permanent secretaries to appoint a limited number of senior officials to time-limited executive or management roles. Has he any plans to circumscribe or, better still, proscribe any involvement, interference, intervention or influence by special advisers in relation to such matters? Does experience not teach us that special advisers should not taste, touch or handle any aspect of such a process?
I welcome the thrust of the reform, but will the Minister clarify one point? Does he support the idea that a Secretary of State should have the final say in the recruitment of a private sector individual to the post of permanent secretary, provided it is done on a fixed-term, performance-related basis?
Yes, I do believe that. Obviously, that would need to follow a selection and recruitment process that had been regulated by the Civil Service Commission to ensure that the appointment had been made on merit following fair and open competition, as the law requires. Given that degree of regulation, however, and the assurance that that should give that the individual was an appointable candidate for not only the current Secretary of State but any future ones, there is no obvious reason why that should not happen.
The Minister said that there was nothing dramatic in his plans. Is it not time for a bigger reform than one that simply involves the appointment of permanent secretaries? Should not a change of Government mean a change at the top of those agencies delivering the most important parts of the new Government’s programme? Perhaps we should consider a system closer to that of the United States, in which Ministers would propose appointments which would then be confirmed or rejected at hearings in this House. Those who were appointed would then, like Ministers, be publicly accountable as well as directly accountable to Parliament.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says. As an experienced former Minister, his views attract respect and deserve careful consideration, but his suggestion would involve a fundamental change to the model that we have in this country. That is not unthinkable, but a deep change would be involved. We believe that our system works really well—or is capable of doing so—and that we can make these changes within the current model to deliver real change. We can also get on with that quite quickly.
My right hon. Friend rightly began his statement by saying of the civil service: “It is there to implement the policies of the Government of the day, whatever its political complexion.” He will be aware, through his role as a constituency Member of Parliament and as a Minister, of the frustrations expressed by many Ministers at the lack of determination of some in their Departments to implement the programme on which the Government of the day were elected. What assurances can he give us that this programme of reform will keep its central facet—namely, that the civil service is there to implement the will of the people as expressed by those elected to the House of Commons?
That is a fundamental tenet of our system, and if there were widespread concern that that was not happening, pressure to change the system along the lines that the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) has outlined would become hard to resist. The key point, however, is that the permanent secretary of a Department is under an obligation to provide Ministers with officials who are capable of delivering the Minister’s priorities. If that is not happening, Ministers are entitled to—and should—make quite a fuss.
While I fully agree that we need to deal with poor performance effectively, and I look forward to seeing the Minister’s capabilities plan, will he tell me why he has chosen to use norm-referencing at an arbitrary 10%, which is going to encourage colleagues to have a dog-eat-dog approach and to vie with each other to get out of the bottom 10%, like in some ghastly TV game show, rather than to deal with poor performance where and whenever it occurs?
All the evidence suggests that without some, by its very nature, relatively arbitrary way of ranking performance, we will not get the focus on dealing with poor performance. I do not take a simplistic view of poor performance that suggests that anyone who is underperforming should immediately exit the civil service because the first thing that should be done is to provide proactive support and development of the individual to get them to improve. If that does not prove possible, then it is not right and it is not fair to the rest of the civil service, who work hard and are dedicated, to see the civil service’s reputation pulled down by those who are consistently underperforming.
When looking at civil service reform, will my right hon. Friend continue to ensure the curtailing of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money spent on civil service management conferences? Will he also curtail the huge spending on expensive head-hunters by civil service departments, often staffed by former senior civil servants themselves?
Spending on all those things has massively reduced since the coalition Government were formed. We can often do these things much more effectively. Management-type conferences, away-days and all that sort of thing now take place largely in the Government’s own property at much lower cost. It is sometimes necessary to use head-hunters to do particular recruitments, but this should be the exception rather than the rule.
I thank the Minister for his statement, in which he said that the civil service of the future would be smaller. In light of that, what will be the staffing head count implications for those parts of the civil service that reside within the devolved regions, such as the Northern Ireland Office and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?
Those decisions will be taken by those Departments themselves. We do not expect to do that by central diktat. So far as civil servants in the devolved Administrations are concerned, that is of course the responsibility of those Administrations. The Northern Ireland civil service is slightly different as it is separate, but in Scotland and Wales, the permanent secretaries of both those Administrations have been involved in the development of these plans.
Civil servants at GCHQ and elsewhere in my constituency already deliver what I call a gold-plated service to government, despite serious challenges to recruitment and retention. Will these reforms strengthen the hand of unique institutions such as GCHQ in the face of serious private sector competition for highly expert staff?
I am very aware of the amazing work done by GCHQ and of the extraordinary talents that get attracted to Cheltenham, and by and large retained there, in support of work of the highest importance for the safety of the nation. There is certainly nothing that we are doing that will inhibit the ability of organisations such as GCHQ to do what is necessary to recruit and retain the very best.
There are many talented public servants at all levels of the civil service, but will my right hon. Friend assure me that these plans will allow that talent to be recognised and advanced by rewarding innovation and successful outcomes?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point—that the system does not always reward those who innovate. We make the point in the paper that no one’s career ever seems to suffer if they continue to preside over an inefficient status quo, but if people try something new that does not work, they can feel very exposed. We need to be as rigorous in examining, testing and challenging the status quo as we are with innovation and change. We need to be supportive of those who try new things. Not everything new that gets tried will work, but the best organisations learn at least as much from things that are tried and do not work as they do from things that are tried and do.
The Prime Minister recently stated in Malaysia that “Yes Minister” remains true to life. The Minister has said today: “There should only exceptionally be more than eight layers between the top and the front line…That will help to speed up decisions and empower those at more junior levels.” Could we not be a little more ambitious?