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Cabinet Office

Volume 577: debated on Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Trade Union Subscriptions

1. What his policy is on the deduction of trade union subscriptions from payroll in the civil service. (902978)

The civil service has used check-off for the last 30 years. Indeed, large companies such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce use it as a very efficient way to deduct trade union subscriptions from salary. Is this not just another ideological attack? Removing check-off from the civil service payroll will cost many times more than running the current system for hundreds of years.

As I say, it is a matter for Departments to decide for themselves. A number of trade unions take the view that it is much better to have a direct relationship with their members than to have it intermediated through the employer—it is a rather more modern way to run things.

Does my right hon. Friend think that it is fair on hard-working British taxpayers that their money is used to subsidise the administration of trade unions rather than going to front-line services?

My hon. Friend has been a doughty campaigner for the use of facility time to be much better regulated. We inherited from Labour a position in which very large amounts of public money were being spent on subsidising 250 full-time officials in the civil service alone, let alone in the wider public sector. I am happy to tell her that we have got that under control.

The Minister says that this is a matter for individual Departments, but the private secretary in his Department has written to every Department in Whitehall asking them to review check-off. We know that the Government, for political reasons, want to scrap check-off, and I have seen a copy of an official letter from the Department for Work and Pensions, which was subsequently withheld by Ministers, that states:

“The department has concluded that the figure for the financial implications of ending check-off should be disclosed…The information held states: ‘We estimate that implementation costs could exceed one million pounds’.”

In the light of that revelation, will he agree, in the interests of transparency, to publish the full financial implications of this misguided policy?

I am happy to bring the hon. Gentleman up to date. The DWP has subsequently said that that was a speculative and inaccurate figure—

Well, with respect, I have seen more recent correspondence than the hon. Gentleman has seen. The truth is that Ministers—as he will recall from his time in government—are sometimes given figures for the cost of making a change that turn out not to be true. This is such a case.

Public Bodies

The Government have reduced the number of public bodies by more than 250. By 2015, there will be a third fewer public bodies than in 2010, ensuring increased accountability and efficiency, with continuing efficiency savings of £900 million a year.

Many quangos are unaccountable, unelected and have great power over people’s everyday lives. They are incredibly expensive to run, with questionable outcomes. Will the Minister please consider another round of the bonfire of the quangos to continue our march towards a leaner and more efficient Government?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s encouragement. Our quest for a leaner and more efficient Government has already yielded savings of more than £10 billion in the last financial year. Labour did nothing on that whatever, which is part of the reason why we inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world. We have more to do, and for the first time we have instituted a round of triennial reviews so that every three years we look at the status of every public body to decide whether it still needs to exist or whether it can be trimmed back. We find that there is scope for much more progress yet.

Will the Minister confirm that the abolition of the UK Film Council and its amalgamation with the British Film Institute will ensure that we continue to make the most of British talent, in that wonderful creative industry?

I am confident that that will be the case. My colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport examined this question very carefully before making the decisions they did. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of the film industry in this country: it is a very bright star indeed, and we should certainly ensure that we do nothing that jeopardises that.

13. Sadly, one of Tony Blair’s lasting legacies was the creation of a huge number of unelected, unaccountable, highly paid quangos, which has ruined this place and taken power from it. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me by telling me what efforts he is making to return power and accountability to the House of Commons? (902992)

A major part of the programme of public bodies reform has been bringing policy functions back to the Government in a way that provides direct accountability to Parliament through Ministers. That is a big part of increasing accountability, but the secondary purpose of the reform of public bodies has been to save money, and I am glad to say that it looks as though the savings will, if anything, exceed our expectations.

The Minister has told us about the reduction in the number of quangos. Will he now tell us what progress is being made in increasing the cost-effectiveness of those that remain?

That is a continuing process. There is much more to be done to increase efficiency. As I have said, we saved more than £10 billion across central Government last year, and we expect the saving to exceed £13 billion in the current financial year, which will end this month. There is much more to be done on quango reform, but as I have said, we expect to save £900 million a year, and have already saved about £1.6 billion.

In the course of his ongoing work on public body and quango reform, will the Minister consider adjusting the responsibilities of the Major Projects Authority? Among its options, the authority has the responsibility to

“require publication of project information consistent with the Coalition’s transparency agenda”.

That is not happening. The Government have suppressed the MPA’s detailed report on HS2, hiding behind a summary. Is it not about time that we were given an accurate description of public bodies, or that the Government published the report?

As my right hon. Friend knows, we are publishing much more detail about the Government’s major projects than has ever been published before. The role of the Major Projects Authority has ensured that, for the first time, consistent oversight and assurance are being applied to the Government’s major projects portfolio, and as a result, having inherited a position in which only about a third of major Government projects were delivered on time and on budget, we now find that the proportion is more like 70%. We are making a great deal of progress, but I hear what my right hon. Friend says.

Speaking about public body reform in 2012, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee said that

“the Cabinet Office must get to grips with the programme’s overall costs, benefits and key risks”.

However, a recent National Audit Office report showed that those failings were still in place. When will the Minister get a grip?

It is a bit surprising that the hon. Gentleman should raise that point, given that the last Government did absolutely nothing on this front. We inherited a position in which the Government did not even know how many public bodies there were, but by the time of the next election, we will have reduced the number by a third and cut the costs significantly: we will have cut the cost of quangos by £2.6 billion. I hope that, at some stage, the hon. Gentleman will reflect on the poor record of his own Government. We would be willing, at that stage, to accept his congratulations on what we have done.

Charitable Giving

Three quarters of British people give money to charity, and on that measure, we are the most generous of all the G8 countries. Collectively, in 2010-11 we gave £16.5 billion to charity through direct and indirect donations, and with active Government support. I am delighted to say that the amount of giving appears to have remained constant since 2010, despite difficult times. I am sure that that is something that the whole House will welcome.

Indeed it is. The Minister will be aware of the good things that we can achieve through “round the pound” schemes, and I know that he, like me, is a fan of the organisation Pennies. Will he therefore back my “Winchester penny” idea? The aim is to support the third sector in my constituency by encouraging local businesses, including those that are part of national chains, to join Winchester’s efforts to ensure that we keep it local and support those who are most in need.

I wholeheartedly support my hon. Friend’s initiative. I know that he is a great champion of the voluntary sector in Winchester. We are great fans of Pennies, which is one of the organisations that we have supported through our innovation in giving fund, and which is modernising the way in which we can make micro-donations. I am delighted that my hon. Friend has launched his initiative in Winchester. I congratulate him on his leadership, and congratulate all the businesses that he has so far succeeded in signing up to what seems an excellent initiative.

More and more younger donors are choosing to make their charitable donations by text, yet this group of people are being woefully failed in terms of Gift Aid. Will the Minister look into this, so that Gift Aid support is available for donors who give by text?

I wholly understand the hon. Lady’s point. People are giving in new ways, harnessing the power of new technology. One of the challenges we face is how we can help to make giving easy and compelling in the modern age. She will be aware that we work very hard with our colleagues at the Treasury to try to modernise Gift Aid, such as by making it easier to claim Gift Aid on small donations, and she will be aware that there is an active consultation on how we modernise Gift Aid in the digital world, including how we can harness it to support text-giving.

Public Bodies: Appointments

The Minister will recall that when in the 1980s the then Conservative Government abolished the metropolitan county authorities, the Government were scrupulous in making arrangements for the successor joint boards to recognise the rights of minority groups on the local authorities as well as the majority groups. Such arrangements do not pertain to the new combined authorities that I see from today’s Order Paper we are bringing in. Why is that?

I will look at the point that the right hon. Gentleman raises. The truth is that in the last year for which the commissioner for public appointments has published figures on public appointments, actually slightly more appointees declared a Labour party affiliation than a Conservative party affiliation, but for appointments generally we seek people with some commercial experience of running large organisations who can bring to bear the same desire for efficiency and eradicating waste as we are showing in central Government.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the fact that the rather artificial and silly row about Conservatives being appointed to public bodies has now thankfully come to an end? Also, I inform him and the House that the Public Administration Select Committee is going to have a look at the relationship between public bodies and their sponsoring Departments, to see how they perform in bad times as well as good, how they deal with crises and how accountability should be improved.

I of course welcome that inquiry. This is an important issue that should be kept under considerable review. Where the Executive and Parliament forgo the ability for a public activity to be directly accountable to Parliament, we need to understand very clearly how that responsibility is being executed.

I am not sure that the row has come to an end, because in recent weeks we have learned that a Tory donor has been made chair of Natural England, that a former Tory Member of this House has been made chair of the Care Quality Commission, and indeed in the Cabinet Office an impartial civil service post, heading up the appointments unit, has gone to a former member of Conservative central office. So can the Minister, who is of course a former Tory party chairman, explain why an exemption was agreed to give Laura Wyld that Cabinet Office post?

One has to admire the gall of the hon. Gentleman, given that the Government of whom he was a supporter relentlessly stuffed public bodies full of Labour donors and Labour lickspittles. It was the most appalling abuse of power. We are running things in a substantially better way, as the statistic I have just disclosed illustrates. Further, I can inform the hon. Gentleman that the number of women appointed to public appointments is now up to 45% for the last period, which is significantly better than anything his Government ever even began to achieve.

Procurement (Savings)

5. What assessment he has made of the level of savings resulting from procurement and commercial reform across central Government since May 2010; and if he will make a statement. (902982)

Through a range of very overdue commercial and procurement reforms across central Government, the efficiency and reform group set up by the Minister for the Cabinet Office has delivered savings of £3.75 billion in 2010-11, a further £5.5 billion in 2011-12 and an additional £10 billion in 2012-13.

What a shame the Labour party did not do that, and did not mend the roof while the sun was shining. Nevertheless, there are still things that we need to do. My hon. Friend will know that there have been problems at the Ministry of Justice with G4S and Serco. What lessons has he learned from that, to prevent such problems from happening again?

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is worth reminding the House that the Labour Front Bencher who had the opportunity to realise those savings but failed to deliver them now leads the party. In answer to my hon. Friend’s question, the review that we launched after the Ministry of Justice found irregularities with contracts let under the previous Labour Government underscored the need to strengthen the commercial capability of the civil service, which was long overdue.

In Rotherham, small and medium-sized charities are struggling to keep afloat because of moves towards larger-scale procurement. Does the Minister agree that, while such procurement can make savings, it can also cause suffering?

This Government are extremely committed to trying to open up the public service so that more, and more diverse, organisations can help us to deliver better value for the taxpayer. That explicitly includes charities, social enterprises and public service mutuals. Yesterday, we announced a publication that updates the House on our progress. We are making progress. We are not yet where I want to be, as this involves a quite profound cultural change, but we are committed to seeing this through.

Government Websites

So far, we have closed an astonishing 1,789 Government websites. We are in the process of moving the remaining 200 on to by July 2014. In that process, we are not just saving £42 million but providing, at long last, a single source of consistent, clear information on Government policies.

I welcome the action that my hon. Friend is taking. Will he update the House on the progress that is being made on digitising the apprenticeships application process, and tell us when it will be available on

That is a very important service, for reasons that the House understands, and it is a priority for us. We have built a prototype, which will be tested with users over the coming months, and our hope is that a version of this important service will be available from October this year.

Will my hon. Friend tell us what best practice local authorities can take from this central Government initiative?

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. There is a huge opportunity to harness best practice across local government, and that is why we have partnered with the Local Government Association and other sector partners to establish a local digital alliance. We are collaborating with and supporting local government to design and deliver local public services online. That will allow them to offer value for money and to maximise the opportunities presented by digital tools.

The Big Society

I hope that the hon. Lady will join me in celebrating the fact that volunteering has risen since 2010 after years of decline, and that almost 2,000 young people in Bristol and the immediate surrounding area will have the opportunity to take part in the National Citizen Service this year.

I am sure that the Government are embarrassed by the fact that food banks have now become by far the most visible sign of the big society in action and have now, de facto, become part of the welfare system. Jobcentres are being told to signpost them, rather than refer people to them, in order to mask their connection with benefit sanctions and delays. Is this a sign of the success of the big society: food banks feeding the starving because of the failures of the welfare system’s safety net?

Food banks are an impressive civil society response to a need that, as the hon. Lady knows, emerged before the last general election. We have supported a number of them through our social action fund. I hope that she agrees that they are not a long-term solution to the complex issue of food poverty. There are no simple answers, despite what Opposition Members claim, but a large part of the solution is a recovering economy and the long-overdue reform of the welfare system, and that is what we are delivering.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the best example of the big society is people power, and that the best example of people power is an in/out referendum on the EU, which those on the Opposition Benches oppose?

I wholly support my hon. Friend. He is a great champion of the big society and is entirely right that a large pillar of that is giving more power to the people. As we have learned today, there is only one party that will give people the power to make that important choice.

The Archbishop of Westminster, Civil Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice have all delivered damning verdicts on the Government’s big society recently. They have shown that people are being thrown on to charity, because the state has failed; that there are three times as many charities in affluent neighbourhoods as in deprived ones; and that while volunteering is thriving, it is not in the places where it is needed most. Was it the intention of the big society that some would swim while others would sink?

In fact, the excellent Centre for Social Justice report actually highlighted how much progress this Government have made in doing what we said we would do, which is transferring power to people, opening up public services so that more and more organisations can come in to help us to deliver better services, and encouraging social action. As I said, giving in this country has remained constant since 2010 and volunteering has risen, which I hope the hon. Lady would welcome.

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 contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

The Wilson doctrine is a convention whereby Government agencies do not intercept communications with Members of Parliament without explicit approval from the Prime Minister. In a letter to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield North (Nick de Bois) in 2012, the Minister told him that the Wilson doctrine did not apply to metadata, thereby exposing whistleblowers to risks from which parliamentary privilege should protect them. Will he review this policy, discuss it with the Prime Minister and report to the House?

I absolutely understand the point that my right hon. Friend makes and I will undertake to look at this with my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister.

T4. The Minister has a bit of a reputation as a pyromaniac, trying to have bonfires of regulations, quangos and much else. If that is the case, why is he allowing the Financial Conduct Authority to introduce a new code that will inhibit crowdfunding and local people in their communities in raising money through social media? Why do we have this new regulation? (902996)

I accept the compliment that the hon. Gentleman pays me—gracefully, I hope—but the issue he raises is not one with which I am familiar. I am sure that my right hon. Friends in the Treasury will want to look at it. It is a great pleasure to have representation from the Opposition about excessive regulation. [Interruption.]

Order. Far too many excessively noisy private conversations are taking place. Let us have a bit of order for Mr Mel Stride.

T2. My right hon. Friend will know that the Public and Commercial Services Union, which stood up with such militancy against his pension reforms, has discovered that it has a £65 million black hole in its own pension scheme. Does he agree that the union should spend more time looking after its members and less time politicising Government reforms? (902994)

All organisations that run a pension scheme have to live in the real world. I am sure that the leadership of the PCS will take pleasure in the fact that its members in the civil service continue to enjoy a pension scheme that is significantly better than the one that the PCS offers to its own staff.

T6. There is huge concern about the Government’s proposals to sell or part-privatise the Land Registry, putting 400 civil service jobs in Durham at risk. It works and even turns a profit for the Treasury. Why fix what is not broken? Has the Minister discussed this with his Department for Business, Innovation and Skills colleagues, and if not, why not? (902999)

I have indeed discussed this with my colleagues in BIS. I do not take the gloomy view that the hon. Lady takes, that any involvement of the private sector means that the Land Registry will be less effective or have less opportunity to grow. A lot of what the Land Registry does is excellent, and there is a real opportunity for it to grow. If that involves bringing in a private sector partner, or private sector capital of one form or another, I hope that she would support that.

T3. May I welcome the Minister’s plans to improve accountability for senior civil service appointments? To ensure transparency and the scrutiny of appointments, may I also urge him to consider making the shortlists for appointments for the heads of quangos, Whitehall Departments and international courts the subject of prior scrutiny by Select Committees? (902995)

My hon. Friend’s latter point is constantly reviewed, and it will come as no surprise to him that his urging is supported by many Select Committees. On his first point, for the first time all permanent secretary appointments are for a fixed tenure of five years. We publish the objectives of permanent secretaries, and all this is beginning to be more accountable than it has ever been before.

T7. This week concerns were expressed in the media about the move to a shared network for emergency services. Why are the Government refusing to share the risk assessment, saying that it will prejudice the procurement process? (903000)

I am not familiar with the particular issue that the hon. Lady raises, but I will happily look at it and get back to her.

T5. What would be the administrative consequences for government if patients languishing on long waiting lists in Wales were given access to the far higher quality services delivered by the coalition NHS in England? (902997)

As my hon. Friend knows, I was in Wales last week, and the deficiencies of the health service under Labour guidance in Wales were a subject of constant discussion.

T8. Last weekend I was searching for a V14 form to return a tax disc, I did a search on Google, and a copycat website came up offering services that cost money. What efforts are being made by the Government to work with the advertising agencies to try to deal with copycat websites that are ripping people off? (903001)

My colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and I had a meeting with Google and others last week to address exactly this issue. We are taking urgent steps, with Google and with the Advertising Standards Authority, to address it. It is a real concern, the hon. Gentleman is right to raise it and we are on the case.