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Procurement (SMEs)

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 30 October 2013

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.