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Cabinet Office

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2013

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Disaster Planning

1. What assessment he has made of current arrangements for disaster planning in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (900778)

The primary responsibility for emergency planning sits with local responders. The Cabinet Office works with other Departments, devolved Administrations and emergency responders to enhance the country’s ability to prepare for, respond to and recover from emergencies.

The whole House will want to thank the emergency services, local authorities and the Met Office, who did a brilliant job working together to prepare effectively for and respond to the effects of Monday’s storm.

What specific mechanisms will the Minister put in place to ensure that the lessons highlighted in the forthcoming Hillsborough inquest will be incorporated in his Department’s policies and practice?

When the results of that come through, we will obviously look at them urgently. It was a profoundly tragic event, and many lessons will need to be learned from it. We will look at it seriously when it emerges.

In the Minister’s initial response, he praised responders and local authorities. Will he also praise parish councils—those unpaid heroes in many of our communities—which provide emergency responses, and encourage those that do not presently do so to create and implement emergency plans?

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. A lot of the response needs to be done on an extremely local basis. Many parish councils take this seriously, with volunteers who rise to the occasion superbly—a huge amount of which happened on Sunday and Monday in preparation for and in response to the storm.

Senior Civil Service Staff (Reductions)

2. What assessment he has made of the effect on the functioning of government of reductions in the number of senior civil service staff; and if he will make a statement. (900779)

Since April 2010, the number of senior civil servants has reduced by 16% and the senior civil service pay bill has reduced by 20%. Last year, civil servants helped to deliver more than £10 billion in efficiency savings by changing the way in which Whitehall and central Government operate. We are determined to drive even greater value for the taxpayer while continuing to provide exceptional public services.

Is not the truth that Government cuts have seen many senior civil servants take early retirement, with an enormous loss of expertise and capacity, with increasing staff churn and work overloads, leading to problems like the west coast main line franchise chaos, delays in replying to Members’ correspondence and much else besides?

I wish to take this opportunity to praise civil servants for the work that they have done. With a civil service that is significantly smaller than that which we inherited in May 2010, productivity has improved markedly. The civil service is delivering at least as much as it was before, with fewer people. Engagement scores have stayed high, and I want to praise them rather than run down what they do.

I join my right hon. Friend in commending the senior civil service for operating in the way it does. Does he agree that its capability is not enhanced by the degree of churn in the top jobs in the civil service, and what will the Government do to address that?

There has been concern over a long period about senior civil servants—and not just senior civil servants—not staying in post long enough. We are seeking to address that, and I know that the leadership of the civil service takes the issue very seriously. One of the effects of moving to fixed tenure for permanent secretaries will, I suspect, be to lengthen the period they stay in post rather than, as some have feared, shorten it.

Have the Government yet worked out when we will reach the tipping point at which reducing further the number of senior civil servants will not improve the service they provide but will impinge on it?

As I say, there have been significant reductions. Productivity has improved and we believe that significantly more productivity can be gained. Current departmental plans show a continued reduction in the size of the civil service through to May 2015. We are finding different ways of doing things better with fewer people and at lower cost.

Is it not absolutely right that the effectiveness of public services is more important than the number of civil servants who are employed? What measures is my right hon. Friend taking to measure the productivity of civil servants so they can no longer be a drag on our economy, but enhance it?

At is best, the civil service is not a drag on the economy; it is an important component of the economy working successfully. The leadership of the civil service identified significant deficiencies in capability, which are now being addressed. Frankly, they had been left unaddressed for far too long. Urgent action is now being taken and we need to drive it through.

National Citizen Service

The National Citizen Service is growing fast and is proving enormously popular with young people. The research shows clearly that it helps to develop life skills that employers value, and that for every £1 of public money we invest, society is receiving £3 of value back.

I thank the Minister for that answer. I was privileged to attend a challenge network campaign day in my constituency, where social action projects were put into effective and lasting programmes across the constituency. What steps will the Minister take to roll out the National Citizen Service further and expand it, and will he join me in congratulating the efforts of Enfield youngsters?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating Enfield youngsters and all youngsters across the country who have participated in the National Citizen Service on their efforts. He may be interested to know that to date the young people have contributed more than 1 million hours of their time to volunteer and do good work in communities. They get a huge amount out of that process, which is why we are ambitious to grow it and have said that we will make at least 90,000 places available next year.

Over the summer, I was delighted to see the excellent work of the National Citizen Service team in Chester, who were redecorating Blacon young people’s project. Has my hon. Friend made an assessment of the monetary value of the work that NCS volunteers do for their local communities?

I thank my hon. Friend for the keen interest he has shown in the NCS, and many other hon. Members who took the time to visit programmes over the summer. As I said, young people have to date contributed more than 1 million hours of their time to do good work in their communities. Part of the calculation of £3 back for every £1 we spend is the value attached to the voluntary time they are giving. The other part is their increased employability, which reflects the life and work skills they are gathering through participation.

Is the National Citizen Service not heading for that same graveyard of three-word prime ministerial gimmicks like back to basics, the third way, the citizens charter, the cones hotline and the big society?

Not for the first time, I could not disagree more with the hon. Gentleman. NSC is proving its value across communities. Many Opposition Members visited the programme over the summer and Opposition Front Benchers have nice words to say about it. We are determined to embed it in the youth sector and for it to be part of the landscape of programmes that try to help young people achieve their full potential. We are extremely proud of it. [Interruption.]

The hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was gesticulating as though he was training to be an opera singer. I have no idea why, but let us hear from the hon. Gentleman.

The gesture was one of frustration and disappointment that some Opposition Members do not seem to understand how valuable the National Citizen Service is. Does my hon. Friend agree that what Gloucestershire college has been doing in my constituency to help people on to this wonderful course, which it is now replicating with a mini course for the new sixth form at the Gloucester academy, is an example of how the NCS can spread into the school curriculum too?

I could not agree more, in sharp contrast to my response to the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn). I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend in Gloucester to see in practice what he is talking about. The NCS is growing fast. We are seeing schools and colleges embrace it precisely because they see the value to their pupils of participating in a programme that helps young people develop the confidence, self-esteem and skills that will be valuable to them in life.

Can the Minister confirm that Serco has cut the funding it makes available to charities under the National Citizen Service? What impact does the Minister think that will have on the charities delivering this important initiative?

Serco leads a consortium that includes many large and small charities. It is an important provider. We manage our providers very carefully, and when there are signs of underperformance, we take action to protect the taxpayer. The hon. Gentleman would not know anything about that because he represents a party that over time has not represented the taxpayer sufficiently. In the case of Serco and that consortium, we took action to protect the taxpayer, and I am proud of that.

Last year, 6,000 places on the NCS summer scheme went unfilled, while youth services, which provided continuity, stability and a lifeline for many young people, disappeared. With one in three organisations that provide youth services facing closure, what has the Minister got to say to those young people?

First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on her promotion. I think she is the fifth shadow Minister I have faced across this Dispatch Box, and I hope she enjoys her time.

There is a serious point about cuts to local youth services by local authorities. We have taken over responsibility for youth policy and want to engage with local authorities to try to protect and enhance those services, but the hon. Lady misses a fundamental point about the NCS: it funds grass-roots youth organisations across the country to work with young people throughout the year—spring, summer and autumn—and therefore it is part of the solution.


We have committed an additional £210 million to the national cyber-security programme for 2015-16, underlining our commitment to tackling cyber threats. This year, we have launched the cyber-security information-sharing partnership and increased specialist capability in police forces, and we are currently setting up UKCERT, the national computer emergency response team.

Following the Snowden leaks in the US, where a contractor working for Booz Allen was able to cause untold damage to US and international intelligence services, what steps is the Minister taking to put in place restrictions on contractors and staff vis-à-vis access to this programme?

My hon. Friend has taken a close interest in this matter and made some extremely robust and helpful comments. We take contractor security extremely seriously, and following this breach, which took place in the United States, we are obviously redoubling our efforts to ensure that it is as secure as it can be.

When assessing the leaks from Edward Snowden and the reporting by newspapers, including The Guardian, will the Minister and the Government take clear account of the statement from President Barack Obama last week that some of the activities of the National Security Agency in the US raised legitimate questions for friends and allies?

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I would just like to make this point about GCHQ: it comprises very, very dedicated, hard-working Crown servants who do incredibly valuable work to protect our safety and security every day of the week, and they deserve solid support from right across the Chamber and from both Front Benches. I hope that that will be made absolutely clear.

The Government are rightly trying to tighten up on British cyber-security. Does the Minister share my concern that anybody who weakens encryption methods or puts in back doors exposes us all to greater risk?

My hon. Friend is very knowledgeable on this subject, and everything he says about it must be taken extremely seriously. Yes, there is a point there to which we need to have proper regard.

According to the Government’s own figures, 87% of small businesses experienced a cyber-security breach last year and were attacked, on average, 17 times, yet more than four fifths of the Government’s cyber-security budget goes on the intelligence services, big business and government, leaving small businesses and consumers to fend for themselves. Now we learn that the Minister has set up his own wi-fi network in the Cabinet Office to bypass all that expensive security. When will he stand up for small businesses and consumers and get a grip on cyber-security?

I am glad to say that the most recent rankings of countries in relation to cyber-security had the UK in top position, but we are not at all complacent; much more needs to be done. The hon. Lady is very interested in the wi-fi arrangements in my office, which were installed by the Cabinet Office IT supplier and are fully compliant. We take all this extremely seriously, but the threats are changing all the time and we need to be agile in how we respond to them.

Post Office

6. What recent discussions he has held with his ministerial colleagues on the use of the Post Office as a front office for Government services. (900783)

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Post Office already delivers a number of valuable front-line services for the Government, and it has proved successful in competing for contracts. The Cabinet Office’s engagement at the moment involves conversations about how the Post Office and others might help us to give better support to citizens who are not yet online.

The Minister is correct: the Post Office already delivers a lot of Government services. It has the technology to enable it to back up the Government’s digital agenda and to be the front office for the Government. For example, people without internet access could make universal credit applications through it. Post offices are at the heart of our communities, and I urge the Minister to encourage all Government Departments to make more use of the Post Office.

I hear that message loud and clear. We are engaging with the Post Office and a number of suppliers about how they can help us with our agenda of encouraging more of our citizens to get online and become digitally capable—and to access Government services online, because that is the direction of travel that we are taking—as well as with the assisted digital programme, which will ensure that none of our citizens is left behind in that process.

One area of business that was taken from the post offices some time ago was the issuing of TV licences. Has the Minister had any discussions with his ministerial contacts about bringing that service back to the post offices? Many old people still do not have access to the internet.

As I have said, our conversation with the Post Office is about the broad agenda of digital by default, and about how we can get more of our citizens online. Some 11 million of them are estimated still to be offline, so that is a big challenge. Alongside that, programmes are necessary to ensure that people who do not want to be online can still access Government digital services. I am sure that the Post Office and others will be able to help us in that process.

Is the Minister aware that the National Federation of SubPostmasters has reported that the income generated by the Government services that its members provide is fairly small? I am all in favour of sub-post offices providing Government services, but the Government must surely be made to pay for that properly.

Obviously, if post offices are going to provide a service, they need to have the capacity to do that. I have had conversations with postmasters in my area. In the Pinner post office, for example, I have tried out the new technology that is helping citizens to get online and access services locally and to become more digitally capable, and I did not get a sense from that postmaster that there was a problem.

Procurement (SMEs)

8. What recent steps he has taken to reduce barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in Government procurement. (900787)

This Government remain extremely committed to the process of trying to increase the participation of SMEs in central Government procurement, and we believe that at least an additional £1.5 billion has flowed into the SME sector through that process since 2010. That represents progress, but we know that there is still a lot to do.

The Minister has just claimed that direct spend with SMEs has increased since the last election, but will he confirm that the recorded rise in the Ministry of Justice since April 2011 is in fact down to his officials, including law firms, offering legal aid services? When is he going to correct those figures to remove that inaccuracy?

I am not going to take any lessons from the party opposite. What we inherited in terms of SMEs participating in public procurement was no ambition and no data. This Government are supplying the ambition and trying to ensure that the data are as good as they can be. We are not taking any lectures from the party that had no ambition and no data.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to support small businesses, but will he look at the systems in which small businesses are sometimes unable to bid? And may I see him after this Question Time to tell him precisely what I mean by that?

I am very glad to hear that extension to my hon. Friend’s question, and I certainly accept his invitation. We are absolutely determined to try to remove the barriers to small business participation. For example, we have recently announced the fourth supplier framework for the procurement of Government cloud technology services, and I am delighted to tell him that 84% of those suppliers are SMEs. [Interruption.]

Order. There are far too many noisy private conversations taking place in the Chamber. That is unfair on the Members asking questions and on the Ministers who are trying to make their answers heard.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities as Minister for the Cabinet Office are for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil services issues, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

Last Friday afternoon, the Cabinet Office snuck out details about special advisers, showing that there are more of them and that their cost has risen by more than £1 million last year. At a time when the Government are demanding cuts and claiming that they are necessary, is it right that such profligate spending by the Cabinet Office on special advisers is allowed to go uncontrolled?

The requirements of a coalition Government mean that there is more requirement for special advisers. Their cost is still only 2% of the cost of the senior civil service.

T2. What outcomes does my right hon. Friend hope to see from the Open Government Partnership summit being held in London tomorrow? (900794)

We are looking forward to welcoming to London the representatives of 62 Governments who have chosen to belong to this unique partnership both between Governments and with civil society organisations. Transparency is an idea whose time has come, and we will celebrate the progression of the open data and transparency agenda over these two days.

Last Friday afternoon, the Cabinet Office finally released some information, but the Government failed yet again to release the Prime Minister’s annual Chequers guest list, which has not now been published since July 2011—an interesting definition of “annual”. This follows repeated failures adequately to answer parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests about visits to No. 10 by the Prime Minister’s adviser, Lynton Crosby—despite the Government answering exactly the same questions about other individuals in other Departments. When are the Government going to release this information, including about that cigarette lobbyist running around at the heart of Downing street?

I am sure that when the hon. Gentleman was in residence in No. 10 Downing street in the last Government—when the degree of transparency was virtually nil—it would never have been disclosed, as it will be, that the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran (Katy Clark) was at Chequers helping the then Prime Minister to plant a tree.

T4. This time last year, Ministers announced a radical overhaul of facility time. With Royal Mail, teacher and fire brigade strikes inflicting disruption on the public and with the appalling behaviour of Len McCluskey in Grangemouth, FOI data I have received show that the overall public subsidy from Whitehall to the unions has gone up, not down. What further action is my right hon. Friend taking? (900797)

The events at Grangemouth illustrate the problems that can arise when full-time union officials are paid for by the employer. I am glad to be able to tell my hon. Friend that the number of full-time union officials on the civil service payroll has halved and that the cost has more than halved.

T3. In response to the question of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), the Minister said that he took very seriously the threat of cybercrime to small and medium-sized businesses. However, cybercrime has cost SMEs £800 million in the last year, yet the Government are giving only £5 million to spend on it across the board. What are the Government doing to tackle that problem? (900796)

I accept that awareness of cyber-threats by all businesses is still too low. As the rankings show, the threat is higher in Britain than it is in most countries, but awareness is not good enough and too many businesses have left themselves vulnerable. We are working hard to raise their awareness. My right hon. Friends in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are leading that work, but there is much more that we can and should do.

Will the Government support my private Member’s Bill on 29 November, which is intended to give charitable status to religious institutions? Will they support it?

I have already told my hon. Friend that we will not. I understand that there is a lot of concern on both sides of the House about the Plymouth Brethren case, on which we are all united in wanting to see a quick and speedy resolution to that issue.

T5. The coalition agreement pledged to limit the number of SpAds—special advisers. Given that the number has risen to 97, what limit do the Government actually want? (900798)

There is a limit, and we announced it last week. However, it will be subject to change from time to time.

When my right hon. Friend came to office in 2010, what cross-Government work had been done to tackle fraud, error and debt?

None. I now chair a cross-Government taskforce on fraud, error and uncollected debt, as a result of which, in the last year, we saved the taxpayer £6.5 billion that would otherwise have been wasted.