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Cabinet Office

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 11 December 2013

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service (Union Facility Time)

1. What steps he is taking to control the amount of trade union facility time in the civil service. (901548)

4. What steps he is taking to control the amount of trade unions facility time in the civil service. (901551)

At the time of the last general election, there was no proper monitoring of trade union facility time in government. That has now changed, and paid time off for any trade union activities and full-time union officials now requires the specific consent of a senior Minister. We expect the cost to the taxpayer for paid time off for trade union duties to fall by 60% from the level we inherited.

I am very reassured by the Minister’s response, but will he outline to the House how much money has been saved as a result of those reforms?

So far, by reducing significantly the number of full-time union officials who are paid by the taxpayer as civil servants, we have saved more than £2.3 million just from that element of the reforms. Overall, we are on course to meet our benchmark of spending no more than 0.1% of the civil service pay bill on facility time.

Further to the kind answers that my right hon. Friend has given, will he tell the House how many civil servants were given paid time off to attend the Public and Commercial Services Union conference this year and last year?

In May this year, 651 PCS reps had paid time off to attend the PCS conference—fewer than half the number of the previous year. Next year, paid time off to attend the conference will be entirely at the discretion of the Secretary of State or the Minister in charge of that civil servant’s Department.

This issue is a significant cost to the public purse. Will the Minister please advise the House how many taxpayer-funded trade union representatives there were in May 2010, and how many there are now?

It has taken some time to establish the facts about that because there was no proper monitoring. We believe, however, that in May 2010 in the region of 250 civil servants were full-time officers of their trade union and doing no work on behalf of the taxpayer. Several of them had been promoted in post while doing no work as a civil servant—and one of them had been promoted twice, which seems remarkable.

It is clear that the Minister has planted these questions in order to union-bash again, which seems to be something he relishes. Is he man enough at this point to say how beneficial trade unions are in the workplace in terms of the economy, the taxpayer and the employer?

I have always been at pains to say that there is benefit to the employer in having union representatives in the workplace. What is not acceptable, however, is having those representatives uncontrolled, unmonitored and growing like Topsy, to the extent that they were costing the taxpayer £36 million a year at a time of financial stringency caused by the grotesque budget deficit we inherited from the Labour party. That is completely unacceptable.

The Minister knows that I have a lot of time for him, and I congratulate him on winning a famous design award for his Department recently. However, I am a proud trade unionist and member of Unite, and I am a proud Co-operator. In a democratic society in which unions have an important part to play—as does the co-operative movement—why is there a feeling coming from the Government Benches that they are out to get us?

I am certainly not out to get the hon. Gentleman, for whom I have—if I may return the compliment—a great deal of respect. I have never said that there is no role for trade unions or for trade union representatives having paid time off in the workplace. I have always stressed that there is value for the employer in the ability to have disputes resolved quickly, effectively and at local level. What was going on in the civil service, however, was way out of line with any other workplace, even in the public sector. The taxpayer is entitled to expect that the Government will grip that issue, which, for the first time, is being done.

Shared Services Programme

2. What assessment he has made of the effect on small towns of outsourcing under the shared services programme. (901549)

Our assessment showed that any employment impacts arising from outsourcing are likely to be substantially mitigated through redeployment. I expect that additional new employment opportunities will be generated through what I hope will be a thriving UK-based service provider that will result from the joint venture we have created.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that offices in rural locations, such as the Alnwick DEFRA office, can be excellent locations for shared back-office services because they have good staff and low staff turnover? Will he therefore do all he can to encourage the public-private partnership company to make sure that the Alnwick location is used, either for its existing work or for alternative work in the field?

I absolutely take the point that my right hon. Friend makes. It is very well made. I know that the new joint venture company will look very carefully at all the implications. It will want to be able to do the work effectively and to create a new provider in the marketplace that has the opportunity to create more jobs rather than lose jobs. I know that he will talk to the new company and that it will want to hear his views.

Government ICT Strategy

We have created a world-class Government web presence. We believe that we saved £500 million in 2012-13 through better IT spend controls, and our digital by default strategy is transforming 25 of the most significant Government transactions by making them easier for users and cheaper for taxpayers.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the new Army recruitment contract with Capita is a shambles. Why did the Government not plan the ICT better so that the new recruitment processes and Ministry of Defence systems worked better?

I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that the real world we inherited was an absolute shambles in terms of how Government managed IT transactions. His is the party that gave us tax credits and the NHS IT system. What we have done is to put in proper controls and create the conditions in which smaller and leaner organisations can come in and offer better value.

May I commend my hon. Friend the Minister and the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General for the excellent work they have done in ICT? But is it not still ludicrously impossible to get around the silly Treasury rules about recruiting, retaining and rewarding the necessary staff with the necessary expertise to be the single responsible owners with continuous oversight of projects? Does that not show that civil service reform has not gone nearly far enough, and that that justifies a commission on the future of the civil service that only Parliament can provide?

I recognise my hon. Friend’s consistent commitment to the idea of improving the capability of the civil service. However, I do not think I agree with his premise, and I invite him to visit the Government’s digital service because he will see a department that feels unlike any other in Government. It is full of extraordinary talent that has come in to work for Government, often at below market rates, because they want to make that difference.

The arrogant complacency of the Minister’s answers shows just how out of touch he is. Some 80% of Government interactions take place with the bottom 25% of society, but only 15% of people living in deprived areas use a Government service online. The promised assisted digital provision is still nowhere to be seen, locking our citizens out of his digital democracy. That is why Labour has announced a review of digital government, to make it work for the many, not the few. Is it not time that he did the same?

Again, we absolutely will not take any lessons from the Labour party about digital government. We are committed to the idea of transforming the great digital service. The feedback has been tremendous so far, and we have a hard commitment that every transformation will be accompanied by an assisted digital programme.

Kettering borough council, of which I have the privilege of being a member, is having great difficulty in complying with the Cabinet Office protocols on e-mail traffic with local government. May I arrange a meeting with the Minister and a representative from the authority so that we can get this sorted out?

I have heard that from other sources, not least in my own local authority, so I am happy to take that matter up with my hon. Friend directly.


Our recent report encouraging social action set out what we have done to make it easier for people to give time and money, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me in welcoming the news that volunteering has risen sharply since 2012 after years of decline.

I hope the Minister will elaborate further. Only 9% of people are responsible for giving two-thirds of donations to charity. Will he elaborate on his previous answer?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point and he is right to say that we rely on an extremely generous minority who do most of the giving. Britain has risen in the league table and is now the sixth most generous country in the world. Millions of our fellow citizens and constituents give time on a regular basis, and volunteering has risen since 2012 after years of decline. We think we have made a contribution to that.

May I add my support for the many people who volunteer to support charities? Does my hon. Friend agree that the investigation by the Public Accounts Committee into the pay of senior executives of charities is a good step in the right direction to ensure that volunteers are following people who are being reasonably paid?

I certainly agree that our voluntary sector relies on trust and integrity, and there should be transparency on administration costs and salary expenses. Individual salary pay is not an issue for Government; it is an issue between trustees and donors.

In any discussions the Minister may have with some of the main charities, will he debate with them the need for them to promote their work in a proactive way, while safeguarding against what some regard as assertive and over-aggressive actions by charity collectors who try to obtain direct debits on the street? There is concern about the level of assertiveness on the street.

We certainly do have those conversations with the chief executives of some of the largest charities. The activity the hon. Gentleman describes raises at least £100 million a year, so we cannot ignore that. We must, however, ensure that it is regulated effectively so it does not put people off and tarnish the brands of the charities we need to support.

Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the many people in my constituency who work for charities and who volunteer? Will he update the House on what is happening in schools to encourage the next generation of young people to work for charities and volunteer more?

My hon. Friend is a great champion of the voluntary sector in her constituency. I am delighted to place on record my appreciation of volunteers across the country. As she points out, it is vital that we inspire the next generation. That is why national programmes, such as the National Citizen Service and the cross-sector and cross-party campaign—Step up to Service—we support to double the number of young people involved in regular volunteering are so important. I hope she welcomes them.

Voluntary Organisations

6. What recent discussions he has had with charities and voluntary organisations on levels of demand for their services. (901553)

9. What recent discussions he has had with charities and voluntary organisations on levels of demand for their services. (901556)

I have regular discussions with charities and voluntary organisations. The anecdotal evidence is that many are experiencing higher demand for their services. It is a challenging environment and we all know that. However, I am encouraged that charity income appears to be steady, volunteering is up, giving has remained stable and social investment has risen. It is challenging, yes, but there is good news out there.

The Government expect charities and voluntary organisations to step in in many places where the state has pulled out. However, the Minister recently said:

“frankly I don’t think the government does understand civil society.”

Why did he say that?

Because for years, not least under 13 years of Labour, government and civil society did not mix or take the time to understand each other. Our commitment to open public service is not about replacing things but trying to create the space for charities and social enterprises to help us deliver better public services. There are different cultures and we have to take the time to understand each other better and make the process work better.

A recent survey by The Guardian’s voluntary sector network revealed that 47% of respondents had no confidence in the Government’s approach to the third sector. Rather than just yet another failed relaunch of the big society initiative, would it not be better if Ministers started to actually listen to charities, large and small, to find out what support they need?

I have spent a lot of my time listening to charities and voluntary sector organisations over the past five or six years, and I would point out to the hon. Gentleman and the Labour party, which continues to talk down the sector, that the sector’s greatest asset, the British public, continue to support it more and more. Charitable giving has been steady through difficult times and levels of volunteering and social investment have been rising. The Government have done a great deal to make it easier for charities through difficult times.

My hon. Friend will be aware that Essex county council is currently consulting on the future of youth services and that some difficult decisions lie ahead. He is meeting the Essex county councillor concerned. Will he give every support possible to youth services in Harlow and do everything he can to support Essex council so that we can protect our youth services?

My hon. Friend has written to me about this matter, and I congratulate him on his work. I am committed to meeting the decision makers at Essex county council, as I met with decision makers in Cornwall yesterday. There is a very real issue about the future of youth services and why they have been so easy to cut, and I remain passionately committed to young people having access to high-quality youth work.

Church leaders in Bedford have been instrumental in setting up and operating the food bank there. With demand for food bank services increasing across the country, will my hon. Friend join me in meeting representatives from local churches in Bedford to understand the complex reasons why demand for food bank services is increasing?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question, because the Labour party tries to make far too many political points about food banks. The underlying issues are complex and their number is growing, and the Government are supporting them with investment through our social action fund. Food banks are a magnificent human response to difficult times, and we should place on the record our recognition of the work being done to support them across the country in responding to need.

Government Efficiency

The efficiency and reform group supported Departments across Government to deliver savings of £5.4 billion in the first half of 2013-14, which was an increase of 73% on savings over the same period in the previous year. I am extremely proud of the hard work that civil servants across Whitehall have undertaken to achieve this success for the taxpayer.

Will the Minister tell me why the costs of the efficiency and reform group, which now employs 440 members of staff, have ballooned to £60 million? More importantly, will he tell the House today what he would not tell my hon. Friends on the Front Bench—how many people work there now and what is the cost?

A lot of this work simply was not being done under the previous Government, but the predecessor organisations employed more than twice as many members of staff as the efficiency and reform group now employs, and the simple fact is that in the last financial year it was responsible, with its colleagues across Government, for delivering savings of more than £10 billion by eradicating waste left by the Government of which the right hon. Gentleman was a member.

We know that universal credit will not be delivered on time, that £40 million has been wasted, that £90 million will be written down and that the IT system Agile was deeply inappropriate. The Opposition have learnt that Agile was used on the insistence of the Cabinet Office, so will the Paymaster General, who boasts of his efficiency drives, give us a full explanation of his Department’s role in this debacle and publish all guidance the Cabinet Office sent to the Department for Work and Pensions?

Oh dear. Is that the best the hon. Gentleman can do? I suggest he read the report by the Public Accounts Committee on what went wrong with universal credit. The problems only came to the attention of the DWP because of a review commissioned by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are for the public sector efficiency and reform group, civil service issues, industrial relations strategy in the public sector, government transparency, civil society, cyber-security and civil contingencies. In that context, I would like to thank all those in the emergency services who did a brilliant job working to prepare effectively for and respond to the effects of last week and weekend’s storm surge. I am sure the whole House will want to send its best wishes to those adversely affected and our thanks to those who worked massively to prepare for it.

May I take this opportunity to congratulate my right hon. Friend on the open government partnership conference held in London last month and ask what plans there are for the open government partnership for the coming year?

We passed on our chairmanship of the open government partnership at the conference. I thank my hon. Friend for his remarks; it was very successful, with contributors and participants from civil society and from Governments right across the world. It was attended by a number of UK Ministers, including my right hon. Friends the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. We hope that this will develop, with more Governments taking part and with a deepening of the relationship with civil society organisations in some countries where their life is not nearly as protected as the life of civil society organisations here. [Interruption.]

Order. The Minister is providing serious answers to serious questions, but I am not sure that he is getting the serious attention that he and I would think those answers warrant. Perhaps we could have a bit of order.

It was revealed in a leaked letter yesterday that the Minister for the Cabinet Office tried to use emergency powers to block a freedom of information request for the Government to publish the HS2 project assessment review from 2011, which he did because of “political and presentational difficulties”. Those who support HS2 in principle know that public confidence is vital. Concerns have already been expressed about accelerating costs because of the Government’s failure to get a grip on the project. Questions have been raised by the National Audit Office about the economic benefits. Will the Minister now publish that project assessment review?

Under the last Government, when the hon. Gentleman resided in Downing street, information about the progress on major projects had to be extracted by force. Earlier this year, we published the ratings for all major projects. We did that voluntarily—the first time it has ever been done—and we will continue to do so. We are now the world’s leading Government on transparency, so lectures from the hon. Gentleman come pretty thin.

Given the continued funding pressures on youth services, will the Minister update us on how his Department is using the Positive for Youth policy to maximise resources for a better joined-up youth offer between local authorities, voluntary services and businesses to provoke young people’s engagement and a youth voice?

First, let me recognise my hon. Friend’s long-standing advocacy for young people and his authorship of the initial Positive for Youth programme. Yes, we are very concerned about cuts to youth services at the local level. The Cabinet Office is mapping exactly what is going on at the moment and stands ready to work with local authorities to help them comply with their statutory duty and work more creatively with other local partners in delivering fantastic opportunities for young people to develop themselves through access to high-quality youth work.

T2. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Following the question on outsourcing from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), we have now passed £100 billion-worth of contracts to large companies that have absolutely no transparency. Is it not time to revisit the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to make sure that these companies do have the necessary transparency and are brought into the scope of the Act? (901569)

The hon. Gentleman will know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who chairs the Justice Committee, presided over an inquiry into the working of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and did not recommend that any such change should happen. The hon. Gentleman refers to large companies taking part in outsourcing, but one of the things we have done is to reduce the Government’s dependency on large companies by opening up procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises across the country, which was not even measured under his Government. We have made big steps—though not yet enough—to open it up to many smaller UK businesses.

Last week’s tidal surge devastated hundreds of homes in my constituency when our flood defences were breached by the Humber, the Ouse and the Trent. During that emergency, the real heroes in communities such as Burringham and South Ferriby were—apart from the emergency services—our parish councils, which had in place emergency plans that ran 24/7. Will my hon. Friend pay tribute to those parish councillors and urge other such councillors to ensure that they have proper community emergency plans in place?

My hon. Friend is completely right: there was an amazing community response to the emergency caused by the storm surge. He is quite right that parish councils, particularly in rural areas, play an incredibly important role in a completely voluntary way. I would also like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who I understand was out there in the small hours of the morning, working alongside his constituents to support them.

T3. Can the Minister tell us what proportion of the files subject to the 30-year rule the Department has released to the National Archives, and how many of them relate to Northern Ireland? (901570)

May I invite my right hon. Friend to visit Matrix SCM at Milton Keynes and see how it is helping local authorities to save an average of 17% on public procurement contracts, increase the number of small and medium-sized enterprises winning those contracts, and speed up the payments process?

I shall be happy to do that. I know how much support my hon. Friend must have given the company in his constituency. We have opened up procurement, which was being run in a way that, in many cases, froze out SMEs and prevented them from doing work for councils and the Government, but, although we have made some progress, we still have much more to do.