Skip to main content

Cabinet Office

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 7 January 2015

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

London-based Civil Servants

1. What plans he has to reduce the number of London-based civil servants; and if he will make a statement. (906843)

As part of our long-term economic plan to save taxpayers money and to pay off the deficit, this Government have reduced the size of the civil service like for like by 21%—that is after adjusting for machinery of government changes. That has increased productivity and saved the taxpayers £2.4 billion last year alone compared with spending in 2009-10. The reduction includes a substantial cut in the number of London-based civil servants.

I thank the Minister for his positive answer. Given the pace and scale of devolution in the UK, is there not more scope for merging and moving London-based Departments?

There is a lot of scope for us to get out of properties that we do not need and we have done that already. We have released a huge amount of property into the private sector where it can be used for the purpose of creating jobs, and there is more that we can and will do in that respect.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that an outstanding example of civil service dispersal is the Department for International Development in East Kilbride. As long as Scotland remains in the UK, which I believe it will for a very long time, can such an example be emulated?

I completely share the right hon. Gentleman’s hope about the United Kingdom, and wish to add my thanks and congratulations to the civil servants at DFID who do such a fantastic job in Scotland. There is scope for civil servants to work in many places other than central London and we will continue to pursue that.

Although transferring civil servants to other locations and downsizing are necessary, do they not make the whole business of managing the personnel in the civil service much more difficult? Will my right hon. Friend give full backing to the new chief executive of the civil service to strengthen the data held by the Cabinet Office on the skills and capabilities among civil servants so that we do not disrupt the training and career paths of the people on whom we depend?

As my hon. Friend well knows, the quality of data in central Government that we inherited was not good. It is getting better, but there is much more that needs to be done. The new chief executive of the civil service, who has got off to a terrific start, has a lot of experience in the management of big, complex dispersed organisations from his business background and I am sure that he will want to discuss that further with my hon. Friend.

Is the Minister not aware that there is a great deal of disillusionment in the civil service? Is it not our job in this House to support really good people with the highest level of skills coming into the civil service so that they are happy and motivated in their job? What will he do about morale in the civil service?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to support the development and skills of civil servants and to provide them with rewarding jobs. Obviously, the purpose of the civil service is not to provide jobs but to serve the public. I am happy to tell him that morale in the civil service, as measured in the annual people survey, has held up very well—it has certainly not fallen since the last year that his Government were in office—despite the very considerable demands made on it and the downsizing to which I have referred.

Jobs are lost from rural communities under the shared services project, as has happened at Alnwick. Can we have a more determined cross-Government effort to relocate out of London work, such as archives, that could be done in rural communities?

The right hon. Gentleman and I have discussed that in the Chamber before, and I completely understand his concern, particularly about the shared service staff in Alnwick. The machinery is not always as simple as it might be, but there is more that we can and should do to ensure that jobs are located in places where they can be undertaken efficiently and effectively with good results for the taxpayer and the citizen.

Miners Dispute (Outstanding Documents)

2. What progress his Department has made on releasing outstanding documents relating to the miners dispute in 1984-85. (906844)

The documents, other than sensitive or personal papers, were released in the usual way under the law that was passed by the previous Government.

What have this Government got to hide with regard to the miners strike, because only 30 out of 500 digitised documents relating to the strike were released last week? There was no mention of Orgreave, but there was an admission that the Government tapped National Union of Mineworkers members’ phones. When will the documents that have not been released be released, and will they be released unredacted?

I really have nothing to add to what I have already said and what has been said on previous occasions. The same considerations were applied to these papers as apply to the release of Government papers generally, which means that those that are personal or sensitive are not released in the normal time scales. I know that there are very strong feelings about this. I was a Member of Parliament for a coal mining constituency during the mining strike, and the mining community was deeply divided during that period. I am well aware of the sensitivities of that period.

Will my right hon. Friend note that the appetite for everything to be disclosed is shared by some Government Members, most particularly because I can recall the unlawful killing of the taxi driver David Wilkie and the recent revelations from the former right hon. Member for Pontypridd that following the event a number of papers at the NUM offices in south Wales were deliberately burnt and destroyed?

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. I am a strong supporter of transparency and am proud of what this Government have done to make us the most transparent Government in the world. There is a concern, and that was a very bitter period in our nation’s life, but the normal considerations about the protection of personal papers must be followed in this case as in others.

Is not the whole subject of these papers embarrassing to the Government and to the Minister? At the beginning we argued that 75 pits were to be closed, and the Thatcher Government said at the time that there were only 20. They lied continually in the House of Commons, repeating that figure, and then the Cabinet papers revealed that it was 75 after all and that the miners had been right. He is embarrassed to reveal other papers simply because that Government decided to attack the NUM and Britain’s manufacturing base, and that has been carried on by the Tories ever since.

I think that the hon. Gentleman’s case would be stronger if at that time he had made the case for the National Union of Mineworkers to have a proper ballot of all its members so that they could decide whether they wanted to be brought out on strike, rather than being bullied and intimidated into it.

I was elected in the middle of the miners strike in 1984 and know exactly what happened: we were lied to by those in authority. They said that our pit, Tower colliery, was uneconomic. We kept it going because the miners put their own money into it for another 10 years. There are lots of things that have not yet been revealed publicly, and I think that it is high time the truth came out.

As I say, the papers have been released, subject to the normal considerations about protecting sensitive and personal documents. Again, I do not recollect—the right hon. Lady and I were elected on the same day and were Back-Bench Members of Parliament during that period—hearing her voice being raised to support a proper ballot of mineworkers on whether they wanted to go on strike at all.

Why have not all the papers and memos between the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, and the chief constables and magistrates courts been published?

I can only repeat what I have said already: the papers have been released, subject to the normal considerations about protecting sensitive and personal documents, with the same considerations that are applied to all Government papers.

Big Society Network/Society Network Foundation (NAO Report)

3. What assessment he has made of the implications for his Department’s policies of the findings of the report from the National Audit Office entitled “Follow-up: grants to the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation”, HC 840. (906845)

I welcome the NAO report into the matter, which found that there were no issues with Cabinet Office processes and, as a result, did not make any recommendations. Therefore, I do not feel that there are any wider implications for the policies of my Department.

The Minister clearly must have read a different version of the report. Voluntary sector organisations in my constituency tell me that they are struggling to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable as a result of this Government’s polices, yet the NAO report shows that millions of pounds of public money was wasted on failing projects as a direct result of prime ministerial interference and ministerial decisions taken despite

“concerns raised about financial sustainability and weak performance”.

Is not that truly shocking? When other charities are struggling to survive, how does the Minister justify it?

I simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I disagree that we should avoid funding new and innovative approaches, despite the risks that come with doing so. I note that according to the Charity Commission, the number of registered charities went up from 162,000 to 164,000 between 2010 and 2014, and the total income of all registered charities has grown from £54 billion to £64 billion in the same period.

One of the lessons for us all to learn is the transformative potential of social enterprises encouraged by the Treasury—social enterprises such as the Cinnamon Network, which does everything from running food banks to helping people when they are released from prison. Social enterprises have the potential to make a real change in our society.

My right hon. Friend is exactly right. Supporting social enterprises has been a huge priority for this Government, which is why in the autumn statement the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased social investment tax relief, raising the cap to £5 million. We are the party of small business, but we are also the party of social enterprises.

Will the Minister explain why his Department, which is supposed to be responsible for Government transparency, has refused to release any minutes or attendance lists of meetings between his advisers, the Big Society Network and the Society Network Foundation, and why over six months he has refused to answer 76 parliamentary questions on the subject? Some £3 million were wasted, there were two damning reports from the National Audit Office, thousands of charities are in crisis, and the only beneficiary from the big society has been a Tory donor’s bank account. Is it any wonder that the Minister does not want to answer questions about it?

As the hon. Lady knows, it has long been the convention in this and previous Administrations that the minutes of ministerial meetings are not routinely released, but all the information pertinent to this issue was shared with the NAO in the course of its investigations. As for the Tory party donors that she mentioned, it is not the case that any of the trustees gained financially from the Cabinet Office funding. The matter has been investigated by the Charities Commission and the NAO twice, and which both found no evidence of what she suggests. Furthermore, the trustees of the charities have invested significant personal resources into them.

Trade Union Facility Time

4. What assessment he has made of the use of trade union facility time by civil servants; and if he will make a statement. (906846)

At the time of the last general election there was no proper monitoring of trade union facility time in government. We now have controls in place that have saved taxpayers £25 million in the last rolling year to date, and have reduced the number of taxpayer-funded full-time union officials in central Government from 200 in May 2010 to fewer than 10 now.

I am sure everybody in the House believes that employees in whatever sector should be given both the right and the opportunity to be properly represented with their employers, be it by trades unions or others, but the majority of my constituents and, I suspect, the majority of people in this country would still be quite shocked and unhappy to discover that we are still funding public servants, who should be working for the public service, to support trade union activity that has nothing whatever to do with what they are paid for. Will my right hon. Friend bear down on the remaining members given facility time in the public service?

As I say, the amount of facility time has been reduced significantly. There is a perfectly proper use of facility time for trade union duties in resolving grievances and dealing with disputes locally and effectively, and we support that, but there was also a huge amount of unmonitored and out-of-control, paid-for activity supporting trade unions, including in many cases paying for civil servants to attend seaside conferences of trade unions at the taxpayers’ expense, and that seemed to us to be wrong.

When he carried out an assessment, did the Minister consider speaking to Opposition Members who have experience of being employed under facility time arrangements, where we spent the vast majority of our time helping management to manage the service we were working in, particularly when management was faced with cuts, redundancies and redeployment forced on it by central Government?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the proper use of a trade union presence and the use of facility time on trade union duties, as defined by law, can be very beneficial, and we support it, but what was going on went way, way beyond that. It was completely out of control, and it was quite right that we should bear down on it by first monitoring it and then reducing it. We have now reduced the amount of money spent on it to less than 0.1% of the pay bill in the civil service, and that was quite right.

National Citizen Service (Colne Valley)

Next year will again see NCS programmes taking place in every local authority across England. I know that my hon. Friend has seen at first hand the transformative effect that the NCS has had on participants in and around Colne Valley, where about 500 young people took part in it last year. The NCS will continue to grow this year, and I urge all MPs to visit a programme near them.

As the Minister said, I saw at first hand the benefits of the NCS when last year I attended a tea party with Moor End academy students at Astley Grange nursing and care home that brought together many different generations and people from different ethnic backgrounds. Does he agree that the NCS has also been very effective in promoting community cohesion?

Yes. Independent evaluations of the NCS have shown that participants feel more positive about people from different backgrounds and have a greater sense of responsibility to their community. The last evaluation also demonstrated that parents believed their children had a better understanding of their local community after taking part.

Will the Minister agree to hold discussions with relevant Ministers in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to see whether there would be an appetite for extending the National Citizen Service there?

Of course we would welcome discussions. This is a devolved matter and it will be for local devolved Assemblies to make a decision on it. We are already pursuing increased numbers in Wales and having discussions there, so further discussions with other countries, including Scotland, would be welcome.

Digitising Government Services

As part of our long-term economic plan, we are moving a first wave of 25 public services online. Our future plans are to secure further savings by digitising more public services and moving to a “Government as a platform” model, building common digital infrastructure for services that improves the user experience and saves money by building common services only once.

How are the Government working with the private sector and voluntary sector in Thurrock and Basildon to ensure that my constituents have the relevant training to be able to access these services?

Britain already has a high level of digital inclusion, and it is rising, but we are determined to go further and get more people online. We are working closely with almost 70 organisations from the private and voluntary sectors that are signed up to our digital inclusion charter. I have no details of exactly what is going on in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I would happily share them with him.

Digitising public services creates vast amounts of data that can be used further to improve services and accountability, transforming the relationship between citizens and Government—a subject dear to your heart, Mr Speaker. However, each Government Department has a different approach to handling data, and there is total chaos among officials and Ministers about what is allowed, with, consequently, deep distrust among the public. In government, we will instigate a review to set out a coherent and ethical approach to data sharing. Will the Minister join us in committing to the principle that people own their own data and it is for them to say what happens to it?

I am happy to welcome the hon. Lady to the movement for open data. Under the coalition, the UK Government have become the world leader in open data. There is more that can be done with sharing data, but it is very sensitive and difficult. We are determined not to make the mistake that her party made in government when it had a train wreck in trying to move data sharing too fast. We have a lot of ongoing work on this, and I would be very happy to share the thinking with her.

Topical Questions

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

The Minister for the Cabinet Office stated in October 2010 that public bodies would be made more meaningfully accountable. Specifically, what new mechanisms has he put in place to make public bodies more meaningfully accountable to this House and, indeed, to the public?

Our concern with public body reform has always been to ensure that accountability is improved. A number of functions have been brought within Government to make them directly accountable to this House through Ministers. A number of other activities have been discontinued completely. The number of public bodies has been reduced by about a third. When we came into office, there were no data about the actual number of public bodies. In addition to increasing accountability, we have also saved the taxpayer very considerable amounts of money.

T3. Given the recent cyber-attacks on the United States, what strategies are the Department and the Government putting in place to protect Britain and Britain’s corporations from cyber-terrorism? (906800)

This is a very real and live concern. Our cyber-security strategy—I reported to the House on its third year of operation in the last month of the year—has been backed with £860 million of new money. We take this very seriously, but much more will need to be done because the threats are moving on very quickly, as well as the need for the defences.

In February 2010, when he was shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Gentleman wrote to the Cabinet Secretary to complain that in asking Treasury officials to cost Conservative party policy, Labour had

“compromised the impartiality of the Civil Service and used the taxpayer funded service for political attacks.”

What discussions has he had with the Chancellor about special advisers using civil servants to propagate political smears and fiction this week, and has he redrafted his letter to the Cabinet Secretary?

I am confident that the permanent secretary to the Treasury, who was the permanent secretary to the Treasury at that time, has followed exactly the same practice as he would have done then.

T4. Does my hon. Friend agree with Lord Winston that Labour’s mansion tax would have a devastating impact on the ability of charities to raise money from legacy giving? (906801)

Yes, I do. This real concern is shared by many in the sector. Most notably, the Wellcome Trust has voiced fears of the impact it would have on legacy giving. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations reckons that 10,000 charities get legacies each year, to a value of about £2 billion. Lord Winston, who is a widely respected Labour peer, has been joined by Charles Clarke, the former Labour Home Secretary. As they have both added their voices, I hope that the shadow Chancellor will rethink this wrong-headed policy.

T2. Earlier in this Parliament, Ministers flirted with the possibility of a politicised senior civil service. That danger seems to have receded, but will the Minister now reaffirm a Government commitment to the historic principle of political impartiality in the civil service, specifically in matters relating to the European Union? (906799)

I did not catch much of what the hon. Gentleman said, but I will happily look at the transcript and come back to him with a detailed reply.

I cannot really add to what Sir John Chilcot has said. That independent inquiry is under the control of the inquiry members. I can say that we have responded to every request for extra resources; none has been turned down. I would just add that if the previous Government had launched the inquiry at the time it was requested, it could have been finished and could have reported long ago.

T8. In the debate on food banks just before Christmas, the Minister for Civil Society kept saying that the reasons for food bank use were complex and overlapping. He would not go beyond that. Will he join me in condemning the Tory councillor who said that the only people who use food banks are those with drug, alcohol and mental health problems, and will he acknowledge that the top two reasons for food bank use are due to the failings of this Government’s welfare system? (906805)

I think the thing to say about food banks is that I and Government Members commend Britain’s very strong tradition of volunteering and community action, which sees people coming together to support those in need. Food banks are just one example that I come across on a daily basis.