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Cabinet Office

Volume 588: debated on Wednesday 19 November 2014

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Digital Service

We have designed and created the award-winning and world-leading gov.uk, the central web domain for Government information. We are redesigning 25 major Government services to make them simpler, clearer and faster to use. That will not only provide savings to the taxpayer, but improve delivery for the public, focused on user need, not Government convenience.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to make sure that individuals who are not digitised, many of whom live in rural constituencies such as mine, are not disadvantaged if they cannot access digitised public services or can do so only at low speeds?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. When, on the recommendation of Baroness Lane-Fox, we adopted the digital-by-default approach—if it can be done online, it should be done only online—we stressed that there must be an assisted digital alternative for those who are not online, and we will ensure that that is the case.

May I congratulate the Minister on much of the innovative work he has done in the digital area, thanks to Martha Lane Fox, the Cross-Bench Member of the House of Lords? Will he, however, take on board the fact that older people in this country find it very difficult to make the transition from the traditional to a digital way of communicating with the Government?

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his compliment. We are trying to make a lot of progress, and the British Government are now regarded as world leading, after having been, frankly, a byword for failure in Government IT. Other Governments are now using the source code for gov.uk, and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Baroness Lane-Fox leads the Go ON UK charity, which is dedicated to getting more people online, which is the key purpose. When we provide the assisted digital option, we ideally want to frame contracts so that they incentivise the provider not just to provide a service, but to use it to help individuals to get online so that their lives are enriched more widely.

In answer to the very good question from my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Sheryll Murray), the Minister responded that those, like many in my constituency, who have no access to computers and are not online will be given something called an “assisted digital alternative”. Will he perhaps tell us what that is?

It can take many forms, but the point is that the service is provided or the transaction is conducted digitally—it is conducted online—although not necessarily by the citizen themselves. For example, it could be done in a library, where someone sits alongside the citizen to help them to input data or conduct the transaction, or it could be done on the telephone, with someone on the other end to put data into the web service. There are a lot of different ways of providing it, and they will be fashioned around the needs of the user, not the convenience of the Government.

In the spring, the Minister announced his digital inclusion strategy to exclude 5 million people. In the summer, he told pensioners to get online or lose access to Government services. In the autumn, farmers found that they needed a credit reference from Experian to apply for common agricultural policy grants. The list of people he is excluding grows day by day. Next week, a report for the Labour party will highlight the impact of his policies on the most vulnerable, and how a Labour Government will change that. How many more people does he intend to exclude from public services before he is voted out of office?

I invite the hon. Lady to dream on, on that front. Her party is ill-equipped to criticise us. The last Labour Government’s definition of an online service was enabling people to download a form from the web, print it off, fill it in by hand and send it off by post. They regarded that as an online transaction—they were not quite in the modern world. We are glad that she is catching up, but she still has a long way to go.

Charities (Legislation)

2. When he next plans to meet the Charity Commission to discuss the operation of legislation relating to charities. (906074)

I met the chair of the Charity Commission, William Shawcross, and its chief executive officer, Paula Sussex, last month, shortly before we published the draft Protection of Charities Bill. I will continue to meet them on a regular basis.

I welcome my hon. Friend to his well-deserved appointment. Does he agree that, under its new leadership, the Charity Commission is proving to be a much more effective regulator than it was a few years ago? Does he agree also that any organisation that encourages extremism of any kind should lose its charitable status and that, although the Charity Commission is getting tougher, it needs to get tougher still?

I do indeed. In the past, the Charity Commission was rightly criticised for regulatory failings. It now has new leadership, as I mentioned, with a strong board and a new chief executive officer. The Prime Minister has just given it an additional £8 million, and it will hopefully get new powers through the draft Protection of Charities Bill.

I think that my hon. Friend was referring to the concerns that were expressed on the front page of The Times this week about the threat from terrorism and extremism. The House needs to recognise that there is a threat to charities of abuse for terrorism purposes. For example, three men were convicted in 2013 for fraudulently using Muslim Aid charity logos to collect £14,000. I am right behind the Charity Commission in its efforts to ensure that it is a strong and robust organisation.

I am glad that the charities Minister will meet the Charity Commission. As a matter of urgency, will he also meet Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and his colleagues in the Treasury to sort out the nonsense whereby smaller charities in particular find it difficult to set up the gift aid system? That is a correct tax relief, but it is not going to many charities because of the red tape involved.

I will be happy to meet HMRC. I would say that we have the autumn statement coming up, and the hon. Lady might like to look out for anything that might appear in it.

In his discussions with the Charity Commission, will the Minister see how it can encourage the development of charitable community funds that tap into the desire of local people to support local charities?

I thank my hon. Friend for all the work that he does. I hope that he and people in his constituency will support Giving Tuesday, which is on 2 December. That is a great opportunity for smaller charities to raise substantial sums of money and I hope that he will support it along with me.

Youth Services Provision

We are working to offer practical support to the youth sector at a time when local authorities continue to make difficult decisions on how to deliver services. Our support focuses on promoting delivery models for innovative services, including mutuals, and better measurement of the impact of youth services on the lives of young people.

Last week, BBC Look North revealed that more than £30 million had been cut from youth services across Yorkshire—deep cuts that had been forced on councils by the disproportionate reduction in local authority funding for areas with the highest need. What discussions is the Minister having with colleagues in other Departments about the impact of those cuts on young people?

I am slightly surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman’s criticisms, because I did not notice his campaigning in Sheffield on the cuts made by his local authority and I could not find a single letter that he has written to the Department about those cuts. Sheffield city council is one of 10 local authorities that are co-operating with the Government to transform youth services using the new delivery models that we are talking about. I would add that we are working with the youth sector to launch the centre for social impact, which will make it much easier for the youth sector to justify the things that it does and to get the buy-in of local authorities to keep those services going.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating Gavin Pardoe and his team, who have accessed finance from the Charity Bank, Sport England and many other sources to build a magnificent new skate and BMX park in Stourbridge that opens next week?

I do indeed join in congratulating Gavin Pardoe and the able team that supported him. I understand that it is a state-of-the-art skate park that will draw in people from right across the west midlands. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on her role in bringing it about. It sounds like a wonderful facility for young people in the area.

The Minister will know that youth provision is not statutory provision, and that it is therefore vulnerable to local authority cuts. He will perhaps have seen the early-day motion that has been signed by Members from throughout the House, suggesting that there should be positive discussions now about making youth services a statutory provision.

I have seen the hon. Gentleman’s early-day motion, and we believe in supporting a statutory position, but it is important that local authorities have the right to make decisions about their local area. The Government do not wish to be too prescriptive in directing local authorities on what they should and should not do. For that reason, we do not support his early-day motion.

In my constituency, the Cedars youth centre, which is a partnership between Watford football club, Harrow council and the Government, is an extremely successful example of how youth services can be transformed. Does my hon. Friend agree that such a service is the way forward for youth services, and would he like to visit the centre and see for himself the excellent work that is being done?

I can feel a number of visits to hon. Members’ constituencies coming on. I congratulate my hon. Friend’s council on the work that it is doing. It is possible to innovate and make youth services even better and more efficient, so we do not have to accept the Opposition’s counsel of despair.

11. The National Audit Office has said today in a report on local government funding cuts that the Government fail to monitor the impact of funding reductions on local services. The report into the exploitation of girls in Rotherham cited youth workers as repeatedly having raised serious concerns—they were often the only people to do so—which shows that youth workers are often the only dependable adult in vulnerable children’s lives. Will the Minister assure me that he will monitor carefully the impact of local government cuts to youth services and the effects on child safety, and report his findings back to the House? (906084)

Obviously the Rotherham child sex abuse case is complex, and most of the responsibility for the matter lies within the Department for Education, but the hon. Lady makes a good point. It is important that we all learn lessons across Government, and the Cabinet Office is as keen as any other Department to do so.

SMEs (Government Procurement)

4. What recent steps he has taken to address barriers to small and medium-sized enterprises participating in Government procurement. (906076)

Central Government spend with SMEs increased from £3 billion in 2009-10 to £4.5 billion in 2012-13. They benefited from a further £4 billion in indirect spend through the supply chain, so we are on track to deliver our ambition that 25% of Government’s direct and indirect spend should be with SMEs. In addition, we are implementing further changes to procurement rules that will benefit small businesses.

The majority of local authorities are still not using the Government’s Contracts Finder, resulting in local SMEs losing out on opportunities. What are Ministers doing to ensure that more local authorities submit their procurement opportunities to the website?

I draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the fact that a new and greatly improved version of Contracts Finder will be launched early in the new year. It is a massive opportunity for local authorities to procure better and cheaper, but also to be able to support local businesses. There are now more than 1,000 suppliers on our G-Cloud framework, 87% of which are SMEs, a number of them based in Bolton. They are all now able to provide services directly to public sector purchasers, which helps growth and jobs as well as providing better value for the taxpayer.

What is being done to encourage innovative SMEs to get in on public procurement, and will the Minister update the House on the effectiveness of the mystery shopper tool?

We have enabled suppliers who suspect that a procurement is being done in the old-fashioned way that we inherited to raise it directly with my officials in the Cabinet Office, who can then intervene with the public sector procurer-commissioner to ensure that it is done in the modern way, which does not exclude small businesses from supplying to government in the way that was routinely the case in the past. We have made a huge amount of progress, but we still have a long way to go.

Trade Union Subscriptions (Civil Service)

5. What his policy is on the deduction of trade union subscriptions from payroll in the civil service. (906077)

I am interested in the Minister’s response because I understand that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has been writing e-mails and letters to other Secretaries of State, asking them not to write off. Will the Minister confirm whether that is correct, and will he make clear all correspondence between him and other Liberal Democrat Ministers concerning their opposition to this Tory attack plan on worker representation?

I can do no better than quote a member of the Public and Commercial Services Union—she is just identified as June—who said that direct debit is

“the easiest way of paying my union subs. You know then that it’s going to get paid because you’re not dependent on your employer taking it from your wages. I think it’s better.”

I agree with June.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the relationship between trade unions and their members ought to be direct and not intermediated by the civil service?

As the PCS said in the document from which I quoted, check-off is an archaic way of operating that pre-dates the existence of bank accounts and direct debits. Most civil service unions use direct debits, not check-off, because they think that is the modern, direct way for an organisation to have a relationship with its members.

The Department for Work and Pensions estimated that the cost of ending check-off across Departments was £1 million. The Minister denies that, so will he tell the House exactly how much it will cost to implement what is a political attack by the Conservative party, rather than a policy worthy of Government?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for raising that point and she is completely correct to say that an official produced the figure of £1 million. However, when asked for the workings and calculations that underpinned that number they were unable to produce them, and it turned out to be a completely fictional number. The correct calculation of the cost is more likely to be a negative number and a saving to the taxpayer, as well as being a measure that enables the PCS to do what its members now prefer and have a direct relationship with them.

The Paymaster General has reiterated his support for getting rid of check-off, even though the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has written to Departments saying that there could be legal costs associated with that. A leaked HMRC memo talks about marginalising the unions, which could lead to industrial action among civil service unions. Does that show that Ministers are playing irresponsible party politics with the trade unions, and that the right hon. Gentleman should abandon his plans to get rid of check-off?

It is always reassuring to find that the old truths turn out to be enduring and that Labour speaks for its paymasters, the trade unions.

Topical Questions

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

The right hon. Gentleman is also responsible for the list of Ministers’ interests, and it is some time since that was done—I wonder when it will be. I am interested to know whether his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is still a honorary member of the Irvine Burns club, and whether the Minister still lists the Blind Trust as part of his financial interests, and whether we can see where we are going on this subject.

I have no idea what that was all about, but I am sure it can be pursued through different channels.

T3. My constituents Callum Brogan and Parvathi Thara have been selected as National Citizen Service leaders for 2014-15, and have told me how much the NCS means to them. Will my hon. Friend tell me his future plans for the NCS? (906115)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work with his local NCS, and all Members across the House who also take an interest in the programme. I wish his two constituents the best of luck next year as NCS leaders. The programme has consistently demonstrated, through independent evaluations, that it delivers more capable, confident and engaged young people, and up to £6.10 in benefits for every £1 spent. It continues to grow and it saw its 100,000th participant this summer.

It is good to see the Deputy Prime Minister this morning talking up family-friendly working, but what is the right hon. Gentleman doing to ensure best practice on family friendly across the civil service, in particular on access to high-quality and high-level part-time and flexible opportunities? Is it not about time that the Government showed leadership, instead of lecturing others on what they are not doing?

I warmly welcome the hon. Lady to her post. I have slightly lost count, but on my reckoning she is the fifth incumbent of the shadow post and I am sure the best. I look forward to a warm relationship with her over the coming period.

On the hon. Lady’s valid point about the need for the Government to exercise leadership in providing family-friendly opportunities for flexible working, I very much agree that we should do that, and we are already doing that. We are providing more opportunities and we think there are significant productivity improvements in enabling people to work more flexibly. However, it is always to be stressed that it is not an entitlement; it has to be according to the needs of the business.

T5. What assessment has the Minister made of Labour’s proposals for a mansion tax on legacy giving, which is so appreciated by our charities? (906117)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I did notice that the Leader of the Opposition had a very compelling economics lesson on TV the other evening, when Myleene Klass said:

“You can’t just point at things and tax them.”

That is hardly a thought-through strategy. We have heard voices within the Labour party itself—

Order. The Minister should resume his seat. His answer suffers from one principal disadvantage: it has absolutely nothing to do with his important responsibilities as a newly appointed junior Minister, with which of course we wish him well.

T2. Several Ministers, including, it has to be said, the Prime Minister, fail to handle data with a certain amount of precision. Indeed, two weeks ago the Prime Minister told the House that there were 1,000 extra GPs when in actual fact there are 36 fewer. Will the Minister, who is responsible for consistency and co-ordination across government, clamp down on these bad practices and perhaps help the Prime Minister to correct the record today? (906114)

We are really not going to take any lectures on this kind of thing from the party that brought the whole idea of fiction writing into dispute during its time in office.

T8. Like the Minister I, too, have seen at first hand the benefits of the National Citizen Service and believe that every young person would benefit from taking part in the programme. Will he tell the House how he intends to increase both participation and the availability of the programme across the whole UK? (906120)

I thank my hon. Friend for the efforts he is making in his constituency to support the NCS. He spoke this year at the regional awards and promotes the programme in local schools. I am delighted that the NCS has taken part in every local authority across the country this year. There are projects now in Wales and Northern Ireland, and my officials are in discussions with the Scottish Government to explore the possibility of a pilot in Scotland.

T4. During this Parliament, the National Statistics Authority has repeatedly had to write to Ministers to ask them to correct misleading or false statements on the growth of the national debt, the amount the Government spend on flood protection and much else, and to ask the Government in future to publish the figures as quality assured official statistics. Do the Government agree it is now time to change the law? (906116)

I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows that all correspondence to the UK Statistics Authority is publicly available on its website, but he will also know that it has responded to both the Government and the Opposition on the issue of statistics, such as when it wrote on 24 July concerning incorrect employment figures used by the Leader of the Opposition and a shadow Business Minister—

Order. We are going to get one more question in because we want answers about Government policy. The Minister will learn gradually.

I have previously praised the important role parish councillors play during national emergencies, as they did in my constituency during the flooding last year, but the picture nationally remains patchy in terms of parish councils with emergency plans in place. May I urge the Minister, ahead of this winter, to push again to ensure that parish councils take up their responsibility for emergency planning?

My hon. Friend, who works hard in this area, makes a valid point, and I will ensure it is taken onboard and acted on.