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Cabinet Office

Volume 567: debated on Wednesday 4 September 2013

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Estate

1. What progress the Government have made in response to the 2010 report on use of the Government estate. (900026)

We are committed to saving money by, among other things, cutting our occupancy of property in London and elsewhere. We are consolidating into freehold space wherever practical. Since the general election, the central civil estate in London has been reduced by about 22%. Across the country we have cut estate costs by nearly £500 million and we are on track to deliver a further £80 million by the end of the current financial year.

I thank the Minister for that answer. The Smith report identified that 15,000 jobs could be moved from London to the English regions by 2015. That would first of all save money, but also correct the spending imbalance by which London has the highest current spending per head of any English region. Is there more we can do to make swifter progress?

The Smith recommendations were, so far as I can see, made on an assumption of stable public sector employment. Owing to the size of the public sector deficit that the coalition Government inherited, public sector employment has been falling since then by more than 400,000, and the size of the civil service is down by about 73,000 since the election, so the priority has been to reduce the amount of property we occupy, rather than moving employment from one part of the country to another.

The problems with finding savings from the Government estate are that many Departments are finding it difficult to surrender leaseholds early and to find private sector businesses to take up surplus accommodation, and are even having problems with selling freeholds because of the state of the property market, meaning that it is very unlikely that the full potential savings of £830 million will be met before 2020.

I do not think the hon. Gentleman is right on that. Actually, vacant space in the central Government estate is running at about 2.5%, compared with the national average of over 10% across the public and private sectors, so in fact Government Departments and agencies are not finding it impossible to surrender leases—they are doing so very effectively—or to sell properties where that makes sense, although our preference is to occupy the freeholds and get out of the leaseholds.

What does the Minister expect the footprint of the Government estate to be by the end of the present Parliament compared with May 2010?

Certainly, so far as the central Government estate in London is concerned, it will be down by well over a quarter, but that is only the beginning, because obviously property disposals and vacancies take time, for some of the reasons that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne) just referred to; that cannot be done literally overnight. We have made considerable progress already, however, as it is down by nearly a quarter and there will be much more to come.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) did not have the nerve to suggest that Government should relocate to Kettering, because he knows the place to come to is 50 minutes from London and it is Wellingborough. Will the Minister encourage Departments to move to Wellingborough, especially the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister?

I can imagine that no relocation destination would be more popular with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister than my hon. Friend’s constituency—or failing that, perhaps the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone).

Government Statistics

Public trust in Government statistics is incredibly important. As the hon. Gentleman knows, all official statistics in the UK are now subject to independent scrutiny by the UK Statistics Authority. As he also knows, that is now independent of Government and directly accountable to Parliament, rather than through Ministers.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but have the Government not failed to respond to the Public Administration Committee recommendations because of the Prime Minister’s numerous breaches of the code of practice for Government statistics?

I am not aware of any failings in communicating with the Committee. The Prime Minister has responded to those suggestions directly and to the chairman of the UK Statistics Authority very vigorously, which is the right and proper way of approaching it.

May I tell my hon. Friend how much I agreed with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General when he said in opposition that we should end the practice of pre-release—the release of statistics to Ministers and officials hours or even days before they are released to the public, so that they can be spun? Would it not increase trust in statistics if the Government adopted the views of the UK Statistics Authority and the Public Administration Committee and ended this practice, as they have in many other jurisdictions?

I know that my hon. Friend feels strongly about this, as does the Committee he chairs. He will know that we inherited a regime that had, rightly, been tightened up, with arrangements embedded in legislation. He will also know that we reviewed the arrangements when we came into power and took the view that the right balance had been struck. The arguments are well rehearsed and although I know that he does not like the message, we are not going to change the arrangements and I do not think that that message is going to change.

Let us look at cyber-statistics. In answer to my parliamentary question, the Minister put the cost of cybercrime at £27 billion, but that turns out to be a 2010 “guestimate” from defence company Detica. The National Audit Office misused Cambridge university figures, managing to confuse pounds with dollars. We all know that online crime is rising, but the Government rely on outdated third-party figures. Is he surprised that the public do not trust the Government’s efforts to fight cybercrime, given that they clearly cannot even measure it?

The Government take the whole issue of cybercrime incredibly seriously. I am not sure that we are going to take any lectures on trust in public statistics from the Labour party; the reason the UK Statistics Authority is in place is because public trust in Government statistics cratered after 13 years of Labour, for ever associated with the dark arts of spin and media manipulation.

Government Contracts: SMEs

3. What steps he is taking to ensure that more small and medium-sized companies win business from Government. (900028)

4. What steps he is taking to ensure that more small and medium-sized companies win business from Government. (900029)

6. What steps he has taken to address barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in Government procurement. (900031)

12. What steps he is taking to open up central Government Departments to partnerships with small and medium-sized enterprises. (900039)

It is this Government’s policy to dismantle the barriers facing small and medium-sized companies to ensure that they can compete for contracts on a level playing field and grow. I refer the House to the letter I sent last month to all hon. Members, in which I set out some of the progress we have made and the further steps we will be taking to ensure that Departments continue to increase their spend with small companies.

I am grateful for the Minister’s answer and I welcome her reforms to Government procurement processes, which are a marked improvement on the previous Government’s efforts. However, will she share her Department’s best practice with local government, which is still issuing cumbersome and complicated tenders that are excluding so many SMEs from competing for business because of the amount of time that they have to put into them?

I welcome that support from my hon. Friend, who is extremely active on these matters in trying to secure more jobs, particularly in his constituency. He rightly says that we have a clear job, which we will do: to transfer the successful procurement reforms that we have made in central Government to the wider public sector. We are accepting the recommendations made in Lord Young’s “Growing Your Business” report, which deals with the complexity, cost and inconsistency that can face small businesses in the wider public sector.

The Minister will doubtless be aware of the success of Redfern Travel, from my constituency, which saw off French competition to win a billion-pound contract. How will the Government’s reforms help other British businesses to achieve similar David and Goliath-type victories over multinational corporations?

I also welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment in his constituency to SMEs. I note that support has come from, for example, the Federation of Small Businesses, which says that Government policy continues to move in the right direction in this area. The forthcoming consultation, to which I referred, will make that public sector procurement market more accessible to SMEs, by requiring all contracts over £10,000 to be listed in one place—on Contracts Finder, for example. I also draw his attention to an SME friendliness tool that we published in June. I urge all colleagues to use that to hold contractors in their constituencies to account.

What is the Minister doing to promote the use of the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012 to help small businesses and social enterprises to win public sector contracts?

I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised that point and she will know that we have asked my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Chris White) to act as an ambassador on this matter; it is very important. The message that we need to get through to contractors, who are of course the ones making such arrangements, is that they must have regard to the taxpayer and value for money at all times, but that other such issues might also be used to benefit those for whom they are contracting.

Is the Minister not aware that the truth is that the Government are becoming more and more dependent on big companies—private sector companies such as G4S, Serco and Capita? Is she aware that a recent Fujitsu-sponsored poll of small and medium-sized enterprises showed that 26% find it more difficult to get contracts with the Government and that 6% think that it is easier?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s focus on this matter. He will welcome our review on some of the companies he has named, but it is most important to say that the Government are on track to deliver our aspiration of awarding 25% of central Government business to SMEs by 2015. We look for that directly and through the supply chain, and that is what helps us to procure for growth in this country.

In a recent speech at an event called “Transforming Technology Procurement through SMEs”, the Minister for the Cabinet Office said with typical understatement that the Government were

“entering a new world for government technology procurement”

and launching

“radical reforms to increase opportunities for SME suppliers”.

Why, then, according to freedom of information requests submitted by ComputerWeekly, has only 0.52% of all the IT procurement spend for the Government’s beleaguered universal credit programme gone to SMEs?

It continues to be pretty rich for the hon. Gentleman to come to this Dispatch Box when he and his Government did absolutely nothing to count the spend with SMEs when they were in government.

National Citizen Service

We published an independent evaluation of the National Citizen Service in July and I am delighted to say that the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. It proved that NCS is boosting young people’s confidence, helping them to develop valuable skills, as well as inspiring them to make a difference in their communities. Return on investment is estimated at almost three times the cost of delivery.

Mountbatten school in my constituency runs the NCS for the whole of Hampshire. This summer, more than 160 young people benefited from the experience. The feedback from them has been overwhelmingly positive, but what reassurance can the Minister give that the scheme will continue into the future so that many more young people can benefit?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend’s young constituents got so much out of the experience. She will be delighted to know that 26,000 young people took part in NCS last year and our public intention is to make 150,000 places available in 2016. I hope that reassures her of our intention to make this fantastic experience available to many more 16 and 17-year-olds.

Over the summer I had the opportunity to meet three groups of young people from my constituency who took part in the programme, which is run so well by The Challenge Network in my part of the country. What more can the Government do to encourage even more schools to get their pupils to take part in this excellent scheme?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend also had such a good experience with his local NCS. I am delighted to have it confirmed regularly that young people are now recommending it to each other, which, as he knows, is the way that it will grow. We continue to evangelise in schools, but it is fantastic that young people are now talking to each other on Facebook and Twitter and saying, “You should do this.”

My hon. Friend has told us how successful and popular the scheme has been. What plans does he have to extend the scheme more widely so that it can have an impact in Wales?

I am delighted to say that we have managed to persuade the Administration in Northern Ireland to adopt a very successful pilot there, which we are delighted with. I am very happy to confirm that we are continuing to talk with the Scottish and Welsh Administrations to try to encourage them to work with us to structure some pilots to make the scheme available to young people across the United Kingdom.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating all the young people who took part in the scheme in my constituency, which was delivered by the Medway Youth Trust? The scheme was completely filled this year and the trust wants to see it continue to grow next year.

I continue to be enormously impressed and proud of all NCS participants and how the experience raises their confidence and sense of what they can achieve. I would like to place on the record my thanks to all providers for the way in which they are delivering a very challenging programme so well and so consistently across the country.

Does the Minister accept that cuts to year-round services for young people have directly contributed to 6,000 NCS places not being filled this summer? What is he going to do to save the Youth Service, the year-round service that is now his responsibility?

The Cabinet Office is not devoting any money from local authorities. Every week the hon. Lady pops up to talk about cuts in her constituency, but she never asks any tough questions of her local authority about the priorities it sets. The Cabinet Office has taken over responsibility for youth policy, and part of what we will be doing is working with local authorities across the country that want to think creatively about how they continue to deliver really value-added youth services.

It was a privilege to meet participants in the National Citizen Service in Wiltshire last month. They told me that they got the opportunity to work with people on social action projects whom they would not otherwise have met. Does the Minister agree that the value of the initiative depends on its ability to continue to draw participants from all backgrounds?

My hon. Friend makes a hugely important point. The social mix is fundamental to the value of NCS, because it is about giving young people opportunities to meet and spend time together that they would not otherwise have, and they value that enormously. We pay by results when it comes to providers delivering that, and we monitor it obsessively.


10. What recent assessment he has made of implementation of the Government’s procurement reforms. (900036)

As a result of the Government’s procurement reforms, we have made the way we do business more competitive, more transparent, better value and far simpler than ever before.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Are the Government still allowing large corporations that are being investigated for fraud to bid to run our probation services while excluding small businesses and organisations from doing the same?

The hon. Gentleman will find that the contracts he might be alluding to were all let by the previous Government, and I have already informed the House of the progress we are making in shifting Government business to SMEs.

The Public Administration Committee’s report on procurement stated that the Cabinet Office should work with all Departments, and especially the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to ensure that UK business is prepared to deliver UK contracts. What progress is being made on that?

The most important thing to remind the House about in that regard is how the pipelines we have published show British firms, and indeed firms around the world that have a good piece of value to offer the British taxpayer, where they can find contracts.

Britain has a massive trade deficit with the European Union, and it could be reduced if British companies were employed to provide for the Government. How much are the Government doing to ensure that public organisations purchase from British companies, rather than those from the continent of Europe?

I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is seeking to make. What we seek is best value for the British taxpayer and to use the British Government’s procurement spend to allow for growth as far as possible in this country. We are of course bound by certain EU procurement rules, with which I am sure he is very familiar. [Interruption.]

Order. There are a lot of very noisy conversations taking place, including on the Opposition Benches, but I am sure that Members will wish to be quiet to hear Stella Creasy.


11. What steps he is taking to increase information-sharing between Government and businesses on cyber-attacks. (900037)

As part of our £860 million investment in the national cyber-security programme, earlier this year I launched the cyber information-sharing partnership. It provides a secure online and face-to-face environment for Government, law-enforcement agencies and business to share information on cyber-threats and how best to combat them. Already over 150 firms and other organisations have joined, and it is our intention to expand the membership to include SMEs.

I thank the Minister for that response. Given the important role that the police will play in helping small businesses tackle cybercrime, can the Minister tell us precisely how much of the £650 million cybercrime budget has been allocated to the police, and how much of it has been spent and on what?

I cannot give the hon. Lady the exact figures off the top of my head. Obviously a considerable amount is being spent with the law enforcement agencies to combat cybercrime, about which the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) was complaining earlier. This is a very wide-ranging problem. There is a huge issue about awareness in the business community and we are working hard to promote it.

Topical Questions

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

Will my right hon. Gentleman give us an update on how he plans to take his very valuable reform forward?

We are making some progress on civil service reform. It was absolutely essential that we published in July our one-year-on report on progress. The head of the civil service, Sir Bob Kerslake, and I were very forthright in saying that progress had not been as fast as we would have hoped, but we are stepping up the pressure and the pace.

While there are now rumours of significant concessions, Ministers still need to explain why charities were not consulted before the lobbying Bill was published. Why could not even the junior Minister be bothered to pick up the phone to the Royal British Legion, cancer charities or the National Council for Voluntary Organisations before producing a Bill that will have such a chilling impact on the work of charities?

The hon. Gentleman knows very well that we spent a significant amount of time on this in the House yesterday and that there is more opportunity to discuss it next week. He will also know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and I met charity leaders on Monday and will continue to do so. [Interruption.]

Order. There is still far too much noise in the Chamber. I understand the general excitement, which I am sure is in anticipation of the question from Mr Henry Smith.

T3. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the £10 billion- worth of efficiency savings that his Department has made on behalf of the taxpayer in the past year. What ambition does he have for the coming year? (900102)

We hope that those savings will rise to £15 billion in the current year, and potentially to £20 billion the following year, with a further £5 billion, at least, after that. If only the Leader of the Opposition had started to do this when he held my job, perhaps we would not have inherited quite the size of public sector deficit that we did, but I am afraid that he was showing weak leadership even then.

T2. The Minister’s response to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) was to say that she had met charities on Monday. What was she doing all summer while the ramifications of this dog’s breakfast of a lobbying Bill became clear? (900101)

We were doing more over the summer to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists than Labour ever did.

Does the Minister share my concern that too many charities spend too much money on lobbying and on inflation-busting pay rises and bonuses for the boardroom, and that they ought to be concentrating more on the front line of helping people in need?

I hear my hon. Friend. I happen to think that campaigning continues to be an entirely legitimate activity for charities as long as it fits with their charitable objectives. That has always been the Government’s position and I do not see this legislation affecting that.

T4. Leading human rights lawyer Helen Mountfield QC said this week that the transparency of lobbying Bill will put“small organisations and their trustees/directors in fear of criminal penalty if they speak out on matters of public interest and concern.”Will the Minister finally wake up and do something about this appalling Bill?


That leading QC’s advice in fact bears out that those concerns exist under the current legislation. Furthermore, we see a great show of displacement activity among Labour Members because they are afraid of some of their friends coming under scrutiny.

T5. Is it not the case that the transparency of lobbying Bill would not stop lobbyist Lynton Crosby advising the Prime Minister on tobacco policy, but could stop an organisation such as Cancer Research UK campaigning about it? Is that acceptable? (900104)

We explained at length yesterday that the Bill would not affect or change the law concerning the political activity of charitable organisations in the sense of when they support, promote or procure electoral outcomes. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has answered the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question too many times to count.

T6. But the Government’s lobbying proposals would apply only to third-party consultant lobbyists, who make up a small minority of the industry. The Association of Professional Political Consultants estimates that this means that only 1% of ministerial meetings organised by lobbyists will be captured by the legislation. Does the Minister agree with Iain Anderson of the APPC that this Bill is so bad that it“would be difficult to produce a worse Bill”? (900108)

If that was an attempt at lobbying it was rather too long-winded. The point is that we are doing more to introduce a statutory register than Labour ever did, and we are clearing up a specific transparency gap that arises, because we are the most transparent Government ever and I think the hon. Gentleman knows it.