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Cabinet Office

Volume 585: debated on Wednesday 10 September 2014

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Big Society Network

1. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the National Audit Office’s recent report on funding arrangements for the Big Society Network. (905293)

3. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department's policies of the National Audit Office’s recent report on funding arrangements for the Big Society Network. (905295)

I take this report seriously. I am satisfied that the issues raised concerned adherence to process, and therefore do not feel that there are any implications for the policies of my Department.

First, I welcome the Minister to his place. When it seems pretty clear that the National Audit Office had some pretty damning conclusions regarding the mismanagement of over £2 million of public money to the Big Society Network, and when, in my own constituency, the SWEET project, which got a big society award, ends up having money cut by the Government because it does precisely the innovation work that it got the award for in the first place, what exactly, in this day and age, does the big society mean? While he is at it, will the Minister look into the circumstances surrounding the cuts to the SWEET project?

I shall certainly look into that matter, as the hon. Gentleman has asked. We welcome the NAO’s report and have learned the lessons from this experience. There are no conclusions that the Cabinet Office did anything untoward in this regard. All the report says is that we did not adhere to the guidance we issued for this particular programme on a couple of points.

Is it true that the Prime Minister’s flagship Big Society Network is now being investigated by the charity commissioners over allegations of misuse of Government funding and inappropriate payments to directors, including a Tory donor?

None of us could let that go. Thanks to the National Audit Office’s report, we now know that the Government’s big society lies in tatters. We have since learned that the charity the Prime Minister personally launched at No. 10 Downing street is not only under investigation by the Charity Commission, but is under investigation for moving Cabinet Office funding to its parent company, which is chaired by a major Conservative party donor who also earned hefty consultancy fees from it. Was the Cabinet Secretary aware that Government funding was being transferred not to the thousands of legitimate charities in this country, but to the bank account of a Conservative party donor?

This allegation has been investigated by the grants manager, and appropriate action to recover any funds not spent in line with the grant agreement is being taken.

Political Activity (Charity Commission Guidance)

2. What assessment he has made of the scope of the Charity Commission guidance on campaigning and political activity; and if he will make a statement. (905294)

Charities play an important role in shaping Government policy. Indeed, Departments are working on the development and implementation of many our policies. However, it has long been the case that the law and Charity Commission guidance prohibits charities from party political campaigning and activities. I believe that that is the right position.

Does the Minister nevertheless agree that it would be right to return to the Charity Commission guidance of 2004, which ensured that charities focused on social justice and helping people in need on the front line, not on big marketing budgets and playing party politics?

The Charity Commission’s guidance is clear about what charities can and cannot do and reflects the commission’s view of the underlying law. The guidance was last reviewed in 2009. The Charity Commission has said that it keeps all its guidance under review to ensure that it remains relevant and up to date, but it has no immediate plans to amend its guidance on campaigning and political activity.

Since 1921 the Royal British Legion has undertaken political campaigns for the benefit of military veterans and their families. Will the charities Minister please affirm the right of charities to undertake political campaigning in line with their charitable objectives? If he cannot say that loud and clear, could he please get back to his knitting?

I take the hon. Lady’s point and I was expecting a question along those lines, so I have stitched together a response for her. Charities, with all their expertise, have long been at the forefront of helping to tackle some of the country’s biggest social challenges and have an important role to play in helping shape a Government policy, but they must stay out of party politics, which has been a long-standing requirement by charity law—[Interruption.] Is the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy), who is chuntering, saying that her party seeks to change the law?

I am grateful to the Minister for his response and to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke) for tabling the question. Was it not the Leader of the Opposition who, when in government, commissioned the report that changed the Charity Commission guidelines, which are giving so many people so much concern?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I want to stick to the main point. Charities have enormous expertise and can contribute to shaping Government policy. I want to make it clear that political campaigning by charities is absolutely right, but it is important that they steer clear of party politics.

Over the past few weeks it has been absolutely embarrassing to see a number of Conservative MPs come out of the woodwork and attack some of this country’s best charities. Would it not be better for the Minister and his team to get behind those charities and allow them to comment and campaign on issues relating to their work?

As I have made clear time and again, and as somebody who has spent more than 30 years of his life in the voluntary and charity sector, I say that it is absolutely right that charities have the right to campaign on the issues that they feel strongly about. The only point I have been making is that they should steer clear of party politics. Campaigning is absolutely right and they must continue to do that.

Government Reform (Savings Programme)

4. What progress he has made on his programme to achieve savings from greater efficiency in and reform of central Government. (905296)

On 10 June, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor and I announced savings through efficiency reform of central Government of £14.3 billion for the last financial year, measured against a 2009-10 baseline. These savings include both recurring and non-recurring items, and include £5.4 billion from procurement and commercial savings, £3.3 billion in project savings and £4.7 billion from work force reform and pension savings.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Is he able to quantify the specific savings to the taxpayer from Government Departments and agencies now being required to share buildings, rather than having their own stand-alone premises?

We have got out of a huge number of properties. We have reduced our office estate by the equivalent of 26 times the size of Buckingham palace, raising £1.4 billion in capital receipts and saving £625 million in running costs. Our One Public Estate programme, which is working very closely with a number of local authorities, is saving even more money and releasing property for the private sector to create jobs and growth by local government, central Government and indeed the wider public sector co-locating, which both saves money and is more convenient for the public.

Cost-effectiveness is of course something that all of us should aim for, but does the Minister agree that in trying to achieve that it would be better if best practice was shared right across the United Kingdom, including Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?

We try to promulgate good practice as best we can. We are, however, localists. We believe that the wider public sector—those who have responsibility and are accountable for the way in which the wider public sector operates—must be responsible for their own decisions. I have had very productive conversations with Ministers in the devolved Northern Ireland Government. There is much that we can learn from each other, and much that we can gain, as in the One Public Estate programme, from working together.

Why has the Cabinet Office increased spending on consultants and agency staff to over £50 million in the last year?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the amount of money spent by the Government on consultants and contingent labour has been cut very dramatically from the grossly swollen levels that we inherited from the Government of whom he was a supporter. [Interruption.] It will sometimes go up a little bit, and it will sometimes come down a bit.

Actually, we sometimes need to get the right skills that do not exist in government, and by and large we will make sure that we have the right skills available on the right terms. [Interruption.] I was grateful to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, for the support he expressed for our efficiency and reform programme in a very robust speech earlier this week.

Social Enterprises

We are committed to supporting social enterprises, and we are leading the world in growing the social investment market to provide social enterprises with access to the finance and advice that they need. I am particularly pleased that we are working with Social Enterprise UK to deliver the first ever Social Saturday this Saturday to encourage more people to buy from social enterprises. I would like to congratulate my hon. Friend’s constituent Sebastian Huempfer, who yesterday won the Prime Minister’s Points of Light award for his work with soap recycling social enterprise CLEAN SL8.

Oxfordshire is a hotbed of social enterprise and tech expertise, as the Minister for Business and Enterprise discovered when he visited the outstanding social enterprise Oxford Launchpad at the Said Business School yesterday. Does the Minister for Civil Society agree that the middle-stage funding gap is acting as a barrier to UK social tech achieving its full potential, and that raising the cap on the social incubator fund is the right response to this problem?

My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. We are working closely with key stakeholders to ensure that social ventures can access the support and finance that they need throughout the different stages of development. Following the support provided through the social incubator fund, there are now a number of opportunities for social ventures to access support.

I see that you are wearing a slightly pinkish tie today, Mr Speaker, but pinkness seems to be absent from the Government Front Bench. Today is “wear it pink” day, which is the national campaign day for breast cancer.

Social enterprise is a very important sector and it is getting more important by the day. Has the Minister seen the wonderful picture of Mrs Thatcher’s face with Che Guevara’s beret, which launches the new manifesto for the social enterprise sector? That is important, because it marks the conjunction of social enterprise, social enterprise investment and crowdfunding. We would be very grateful if he put his weight behind it.

The image is visible in Westminster station and doubtless elsewhere, as I am sure the Minister is aware.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. When I was coming into Parliament, the image struck me as a cross-party approach to campaigning. We lead the way on social impact bonds. The UK is also leading the charge through the Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012, which contributes to the Government’s ambition to reform public services to ensure that they not only achieve maximum value for money but contribute to their local communities.

SMEs (Government Procurement)

7. What recent steps he has taken to remove barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in government procurement. (905302)

In response to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), I think that my tie is at least as pink as yours, Mr Speaker.

The direct spend of central Government with SMEs increased from £3 billion in 2009-10 to £4.5 billion in 2012-13. SMEs benefited from a further £4 billion in indirect spend though the supply chain. We are therefore well on track to deliver our ambition that 25% of Government spend through the supply chain should be with SMEs. However, we are still not satisfied, so we are taking forward a number of the recommendations of Lord Young of Graffham on creating an SME-friendly single market in, among other things, the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill.

I thank the Minister for his reply. However, with £36 billion owed to small businesses in late payments, will he ensure that the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill requires companies to demonstrate that they will pay all their suppliers promptly in order to be on the Government’s approved supplier list?

The hon. Lady is a doughty campaigner on this front and I commend her for it. The policy of central Government is to pay undisputed invoices within five days and to pass 30-day payment terms down the supply chain as a condition of contract. The situation is therefore improving. We encourage our prime contractors to pay more quickly than the 30-day commitment on a voluntary basis. We have tasked Departments with managing their contracts in a way that ensures that that happens. We also encourage SMEs that are not being paid by the prime contractor sufficiently quickly to let us know so that we can investigate.

Public Service User Satisfaction Data

8. What progress he has made on the commitment in the “Open Public Services” White Paper of July 2011 to publish public service user satisfaction data on all providers from all sectors. (905303)

I am delighted to be able to tell the right hon. Gentleman that the progress in that incredibly important area has been considerable. The friends and family test, which is our main user feedback mechanism, is used in all hospitals and maternity wards. By March 2015, it will be extended to the rest of the NHS. It is already used in further education, it has been used in the National Citizen Service since August and it will be used in Jobcentre Plus from March next year. The intention is to roll it out right across the public services.

I am heartened. The Government’s Work programme is a good example of a public service where user satisfaction data would be extremely valuable, but the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has steadfastly resisted their introduction. Will the Minister have another go at persuading the Secretary of State to introduce the use of such data in that service?

I am grateful for that suggestion. I will certainly talk to my right hon. Friend about it. He recently agreed to introduce the data in Jobcentre Plus and we have had to work through the details of that. I will certainly open discussions with him about the Work programme and will have discussions about other programmes across the rest of Government.

Topical Questions

My responsibilities are efficiency and reform, civil service issues, the public sector industrial relations strategy, Government transparency, civil contingencies, civil society and cyber-security.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that statement. Does he agree that, contrary to some suggestions that have been made, the chief executive of the civil service will be best placed to accelerate the pace of reforms in the civil service in this country?

We do believe that the new post will play a vital role in embedding the programme of efficiency reform that we have driven. I appreciate the support of Labour Front Benchers for that approach, so that there will be consistency whatever the result of any election. He—or the new chief executive officer, whether a he or a she—will work closely with the Cabinet Secretary and myself in supporting the performance management of permanent secretaries, but will also line manage the heads of the cross-Government corporate functions. That will increase the focus on driving efficiency.

Last week, the Minister for Civil Society made his first, stunning intervention as the new Minister responsible for charities by saying:

“The important thing charities should be doing is sticking to their knitting”.

When so many charities and people who work for them do such a magnificent job in every part of the country, was that not the most condescending, patronising, inept, out-of-touch and just plain wrong thing for the Minister to say? Will he finally now apologise?


As I have made abundantly clear, charities play an important role in shaping a Government policy, and indeed, with their expertise, they should be doing that. What I made absolutely clear was that charities should not get involved in party politics, because that is the law.

T2. As part of our long-term economic plan, the Government have disposed of more than 1,250 properties since 2010. What is the Minister for the Cabinet Office doing to release more Government properties so that we can reduce costs and become more efficient? (905270)

As I said earlier, we have already reduced our office estate by the huge amount of 2 million square metres since 2010, the equivalent of 26 times the size of Buckingham palace. The strategic land and property review being led by my officials in the Government Property Unit will enable sites worth at least £5 billion, and potentially much more, to be released over the next five or six years.

T3. Small businesses in my constituency have long since given up trying to jump through the hoops that they face in even bidding for Government contracts. They certainly do not recognise the description that the Minister gave of the opportunities for Government procurement. Is not the truth that despite all his talk, it is almost impossible for small businesses to get Government contracts? (905271)

In that case, it is remarkable that the amount of Government business being given to small and medium-sized businesses has risen to nearly 20% and is on course to rise even higher. Under the arrangements left in place by the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported, a lot of small businesses were simply frozen out because the process was so bureaucratic and clunking that they could not even get into the starting gate, let alone have a chance of winning the race. Now they can, and increasingly they do.

T5. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Cheshire Community Development Trust on the work it does to help the people of Weaver Vale to get into work? Does he agree that that is exactly the sort of social action that should be used as a template to unite communities across the country? (905273)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has highlighted the important work that Cheshire Community Development Trust does to support people in Weaver Vale. Through our social action work, we are supporting communities across the country to take a more active role in shaping their neighbourhoods and working together for the good of others.

T4. On user satisfaction data, does the Minister accept that the Public Accounts Committee was right to say that the position is currently far short of the ambitions in the White Paper? How long will it be before user satisfaction data are published for all services and all providers? (905272)

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and so was the Public Accounts Committee, to say that we need to go much further. The ambition is to cover all public services. I am currently conducting a review of the complaints procedures across Government to see how we can mine them for user satisfaction data. I hope that that, combined with the expansion of the friends and family test, will lead to increasing fulfilment of our ambition, but the House should be in no doubt that it will take some time to fulfil it completely.

T6. In the previous financial year more than £85 million was spent by the taxpayer on full-time trade union representatives. Is that a fair figure, and what is the Minister doing to reduce it? (905274)

At the time of the last general election there was no monitoring whatsoever of the volume of taxpayer-funded trade union facility time in the civil service. We now have controls in place that saved £23 million last year, and we have already reduced the number of full-time taxpayer-funded union officials from 200 in May 2010 to fewer than 10 this summer.