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Topical Questions

Volume 572: debated on Wednesday 11 December 2013

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.