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Topical Questions

Volume 555: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2012

My responsibilities are for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil service issues, industrial relations, strategy in the public sector, government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

I welcome the fact that the Government are increasing the range of services that they provide online to our constituents. However, digital by default is a cause for concern as some constituents who do not have access to broadband or for whatever reason choose to use a paper option are worried that that may not continue. Will the Minister reassure the House that that option will remain for all those constituents who do not wish to use the computer option?

Transacting with the Government online costs about one twentieth of the cost of doing so by phone, one thirtieth of doing it by post, and one fiftieth, on average, of doing it face to face, so there are massive savings as well as increased convenience from moving public services online. But we recognise that there are of course people who cannot access services online and we will make sure that proper provision is made for them. We will publish our assisted digital strategy before the end of the year.

In July 2010 the Minister for the Cabinet Office said that

“it is essential that we take radical steps to increase efficiency and reduce energy use. . .This Government is determined to tackle waste wherever it exists, and that includes energy”,

yet according to figures updated last week on data.gov.uk, energy use in the Minister’s own Department at 70 Whitehall has increased by 9% this year compared with last year. Why is the Minister not practising what he preaches?

The Government are more than meeting their target to cut energy. It would be very good to hear the hon. Gentleman supporting our energy for growth project, which will mean cheaper energy for government and will unlock blocked renewable energy projects throughout the country. It would be very good to hear him supporting that.

T3. I am encouraged to see that the Government are firmly committed to reducing the extent of their bloated property portfolio. Will my right hon. Friend please update the House on progress that has been made in this area this year? (134243)

We have hugely reduced the amount of property that the Government occupy. The overall size of the central estate in 2011 alone fell by nearly 6%; the number of our property holdings fell by 11%; and we sold Admiralty Arch, which is an unsatisfactory office building but will be a very good hotel building. We are making enormous savings. We have achieved total savings of £360 million in annual running costs. If this had started when the Leader of the Opposition had my job, the country would not have been in the mess that we inherited in 2010. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. As a result, Members are not attending to the answers that are being given by Minister Maude, and that is unsatisfactory.

T2. May I encourage Ministers to work across parties to achieve a strong and robust register of lobbyists, rather than proceed with the proposal which the chair of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has described as so weak that it is not worth joining? (134242)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. We are continuing to analyse the responses received from the consultation on that matter.

T4. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) has already raised the plight of the Plymouth Brethren, who are subject to a disgraceful attack by the Charity Commission on their charitable status. During the passage of the Charities Act 2011 through the House, the current Leader of the Opposition gave undertakings that no religious body would lose its charitable status. If the Plymouth Brethren lose the litigation, will my hon. Friend undertake to ensure that the law will be changed? (134244)

I am sure we all want to see the Plymouth Brethren issue resolved as quickly and cheaply as possible by the Charity Commission and the tribunal. My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that we are reviewing all charity law in co-operation with Lord Hodgson, including whether we should revisit a statutory definition of public benefit.

T6. Nottingham community and voluntary service’s state of the sector report found that although demand for services is increasing, 69% of voluntary groups are facing reduced income, 52% have been forced to cut staff this year, 76% say they may have to close a service and 36% may close altogether. Is this not a terrible indictment of this Government’s support for the voluntary sector? (134246)

The Labour party has been predicting the collapse of the voluntary sector for three years. In fact it has grown, but it is under huge pressure, which is why we are doing so much to cut red tape, invest in giving, invest in social investment, support volunteering and make it easier for charities to help us to deliver better public services.

T5. With the festive season upon us, will my hon. Friend join me in thanking all those at the Erewash council for voluntary service and other voluntary organisations in my constituency who do so much at this time of year to give those in need and those on their own the extra support they need? (134245)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving us all the opportunity to thank the volunteers in our constituencies who do so much to keep things going, who bring people together and make things happen that otherwise would not happen. They deserve all our support and thanks, which is what this Government give.

T7. Does the Minister think that abolishing the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances in the morning and establishing the Hazardous Substances Advisory Committee in the afternoon was a sensible use of taxpayers’ money and time? (134249)

I have no idea about the issue the hon. Gentleman is talking about, but I will look into it and give him an answer.