Skip to main content

Cabinet Office

Volume 592: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2015

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Religious Organisations (Charitable Status)

I have not received any representations recently from religious organisations on charitable status. More than 25,000 registered charities involve the promotion of religion. They play a hugely important role in our communities and support those in need. I pay tribute to their excellent work. They are often first in and last out of some of our toughest communities.

The Minister may recall the campaign that some of us waged on behalf of the Plymouth Brethren to retain its charitable status. It must have been for love, because they refused to vote on principle. We eventually won that campaign, but there is a worry on the part of many religious groups that increasingly so-called British values will trump faith values. Can the Minister assure faith groups that in the context of toleration for others they will be allowed to have space to teach their own faith?

My hon. Friend will know that the Charity Commission is independent of the Government and the Cabinet Office. It already respects the diversity of religious views, registering hundreds of new religious charities from a range of faiths every year, but it is fair to say that the Charity Commission did need to improve, as the National Audit Office said. It is now well on its way to doing that, but he can be assured that the Charity Commission has learned its lessons from the case he raises.

This is not about the Plymouth Brethren, but about a tiny sect of the Plymouth Brethren known as the Hales Exclusive Brethren. It is practising cruelty, I believe, in many ways against its own people. This is a dangerous sect. Rightly, the Charity Commission withdrew its status. The sect then had a campaign, which spent £2 million, to convince the Charity Commission that it had changed, and it changed its deeds. It is quite clear that this is what it calls “spoiling the Egyptians”, a process to deceive the Charity Commission. It is not abiding by its new status.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question, but the Charity Commission looked at this matter in detail and that religious group retained its status. Public benefit has always been a defining element of charitable status. That is what is unique about charities and what distinguishes them from private enterprises. We have no plans to change that.

Does my hon. Friend accept that British values have been forged in large measure by this nation’s Christian heritage? It is very important that our Christian heritage should be put at the forefront of our concerns. Will he make sure that the Charity Commission understands that there is widespread concern that Christian values are being treated on a par with other faiths, and that Christian values must be pre-eminent? There is a particular threat in our schools, where Ofsted is not taking the right view.

I completely understand what my hon. Friend says, but I have been assured that the Charity Commission has learned the lessons of the Brethren case. The commission is currently undergoing a major change programme to address the recommendations of the National Audit Office and become a more focused, robust and proactive regulator.

The case exhibited a deal of interest among the media, but the Brethren people went out of their way to ensure they provide a public good, in particular in schooling in my part of Northern Ireland and across the United Kingdom. Will the Minister maintain the stance that that public good far outweighs any perceived evil on the other side?

As I said, the key issue for the Brethren was to prove public benefit in what they were doing. That is the defining element of charity status, and the Charity Commission accepted that.

Transparency Agenda

In January this year, the UK was ranked top of a list of 86 countries on the World Wide Web Foundation’s open data barometer for the second year running. In addition, last year the 2014 Global Open Data Index again ranked the UK No. 1 out of 97 countries. There are now 19,000 data sets published on and our national information infrastructure sets the framework for how we manage hugely valuable open data.

I have a local issue to which I would like the Minister to respond. In Hull, 1,000 people applied for the first 14 jobs that Siemens recently advertised. Until 2013, MPs got constituency-based figures on the number of jobseekers going after each job vacancy. I would like to know why this was stopped under his Government. I have never had a clear explanation, and I do not think it is aiding transparency in this country.

That sounds like an issue for the Office for National Statistics, which, as the hon. Lady knows, is independent of Ministers, but I will ensure that this issue is looked at and that she gets a proper answer.

Another aspect of the transparency agenda is showing how taxpayers’ money is being spent. Does the Minister agree that that is the best way to safeguard against the massive waste and wild spending we have seen in the past and to avoid ballooning deficits and flat-lining public sector productivity in the future?

I am proud that the UK is now ranked as having the most transparent Government in the world. It undoubtedly has an effect in driving efficiency and savings. The ability to benchmark and compare spending in different parts of Government is a hugely powerful driver of efficiency and savings, and we intend to continue down that path.

Can we perhaps have a bit more transparency with respect to ministerial interests? This week, we saw Ministers hobnobbing at the black and white ball, although I noticed that the Paymaster General was sadly excluded from the Cabinet auction, and we saw new analysis showing that in the past 12 months Tory Ministers have made 168 ministerial visits to marginal Tory-held constituencies. In the interests of transparency, will the Minister now provide a full list of all ministerial visits and the reasons the locations were chosen, and will he publish the ministerial list of interests?

It sounds like the hon. Gentleman is getting a little concerned about the result of the upcoming election. The Government are disclosing more about what Ministers do than any Government have ever done before, and enormously more than the Government whom he supported before 2010.

Public Sector Mutuals

The Government are committed to supporting the growth of public service mutuals, which deliver benefits to front-line staff, commissioners and service users. There are now more than 100 live mutuals delivering well over £1.5 billion of public services, and more than 35,000 staff have themselves taken the decision to join a mutual.

I thank the Minister for his answer, but with the flagship mutual, Hinchingbrooke hospital, in special measures, will the Minister say whose idea it was to write to all the foundation and NHS trusts asking them to be pathfinder mutuals, and how many people have replied?

Mr Speaker, the

“failure of Circle at Hinchingbrooke hospital…where the company very nearly managed to remove an operating loss inherited from the public sector, was due to the failure of the NHS to deliver its side of the bargain”—

not my words, but the words of Tom Levitt, the former Labour MP for High Peak. Yes, a lot of NHS trusts have applied for the Department of Health and Cabinet Office mutual pathfinder programme, and all of that is progressing very satisfactorily. There are huge benefits for patients in this movement. We should all be concerned with that, not with an outworn, outdated ideology.

May I say how sad I was to hear that my right hon. Friend would be standing down at the next election? Singlehandedly, he has done more than anyone to reform the home civil service. What companies has he been in contact with to advise him on how public service mutuals might work better?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s kind remarks. This will be the second time I have left the House of Commons—the first time was not entirely consensual—and I shall be sorry to leave, although I think I have one more outing this time before the House dissolves.

Many businesses in the private sector operate as mutuals—John Lewis prominent among them—and they have been generous in their support for this programme because they think that employee ownership and control also benefit service users, which should be our overriding concern.

Government Digital Service

The Washington Post hailed the UK as

“setting the gold standard of digital government”,

and the Obama Administration have created a digital service modelled on our own. The Australian Government announced the same in January this year. The New Zealand Government have taken the source code from and used it for their own online presence. Last October, we celebrated the 1 billionth visit to

The Government Digital Service has been one of the unsung success stories of the Government, and it has been introduced smoothly and successfully. There have been none of the mess-ups that occurred on previous IT projects, which has meant that it has not had the public attention it deserves. What further services does the Minister foresee digitising to save taxpayers’ money and improve services for the public?

We have already saved a great deal of money and improved services for citizens, and we are beginning to roll out much better technology in government, so that civil servants are helped by the technology they have rather than hindered by it. There is much more to do. We inherited some extremely expensive, cumbersome and unwieldy IT contracts, and for one of them the Department had to pay £30,000 to change one word on a website. That is not acceptable; it is no way to treat taxpayers’ money; and it is going to change.

The Government Digital Service is a very talented group within the Cabinet Office and is internationally recognised, so it is unfortunate that the Minister has prevented the group from working with local government. On Monday, the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy said that he agreed with me and Labour’s independent digital government review that this expertise should not be barred from working with local authorities. Will the Minister now concede that GDS should be allowed and encouraged to work more closely with councils, so that we have digital services that work for everyone—locally and nationally?

The hon. Lady is completely right to flag up the huge scope for improvement in online services in local government. GDS’s focus has had to be on central Government, but in the document on efficiency and reform that we published at the time of the autumn statement, we flagged up that we expect this to be available across the wider public sector. The focus for the time being has to be on finishing the job in central Government, but helping to build an equivalent to support local government is a very high priority for us.

Government Procurement

5. What change there has been in the proportion of Government procurement made through small businesses and the voluntary sector since May 2010. (907558)

The central Government’s direct spend with small businesses increased from 6.5% in 2009-10 to 10.5% in 2012-13, and small and medium-sized enterprises have benefited from a further 9.4% of indirect spend through the supply chain in that same year. I shall be publishing figures for 2013-14 shortly. We have moved a long way towards our ambition and aspiration that a quarter of Government procurement should be with SMEs.

What steps have the Government taken to make public procurement simpler, especially for small and micro-businesses on the Isle of Wight?

I am delighted that my hon. Friend has raised this point about supporting businesses in the Isle of Wight; he has been a huge and doughty champion of businesses in his constituency. We have made public procurement more transparent and accessible. We have published tenders and contracts through the contracts finder website—and we shall be launching a much-improved version of that very soon. We have simplified how procurement takes place to take away some of the bureaucracy that looked like it was designed to stop small businesses competing for, and winning, business. There is much more we can and will do.

12. Reading through the UK Statistics Authority booklet, I am struck by the number of times that the Government have been rebuked for giving false information in their statements. The Prime Minister is twice rebuked for giving the wrong facts about the debt, saying that it is falling when it has in fact been rising. Could the Cabinet Office get together with the UK Statistics Authority and agree to deal with facts, rather than fiction, in Government statements for the next three months? (907566)

Order. The question is about Government procurement, small businesses and the voluntary sector.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman made a very interesting point, but I am finding it hard to relate it to the question under consideration.

Public Appointments

As was the case under the last Government, appointments to public bodies are made on merit by Ministers after a fair and open selection process regulated by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. We have taken unprecedented steps to open up the public appointments process to new talent, slimming down the application process, placing an emphasis on ability rather than prior experience, and increasing awareness. In the first six months of the current financial year, 44% of new public appointments made by Whitehall Departments were women, compared with about a third under the last Government.

The Minister knows that, following the fiasco of the Home Secretary’s attempt to appoint a chairman of the inquiry into child abuse allegations, there is a sense that there is a black book or a secret list, dominated by the metropolitan elite. They are all from London, they all know each other, and they all went to school together. When will the Government open up the secret list, and let us know how people get on it?

As I have said, we have moved significantly towards our aim of ensuring that 50% of public appointments are of women. I recently hosted events organised in Birmingham and Leeds to encourage people from outside London to express interest and apply for such roles, and I am delighted to say that there was a huge amount of interest. We will continue down that path. [Interruption.]

Order. A great many very noisy private conversations are taking place in the Chamber. We should have a bit of order, not least so that we can hear the Chair of the Public Administration Committee, Mr Bernard Jenkin.

Cross-Government Planning and Implementation

7. What plans he has to improve the effectiveness of his Department in co-ordinating planning and implementation across Government Departments. (907560)

That is a question on which the Public Administration Committee has focused for a long time, and very welcome it is too.

The creation of the implementation unit in the Cabinet Office has done a great deal to increase implementation capabilities throughout the Government, and I am glad to say that we have launched a series of other initiatives to bring Departments together. We have created the better care fund, the stabilisation unit, the international energy unit and the troubled families programme, and we intend to continue the process.

During the inquiry that we conducted on future challenges facing the machinery of Whitehall, we found that, so far, the Government have been very good at imposing departmental spending limits, but there is a capability deficit when it comes to cross-departmental financial planning and management. How do the Government propose to address that?

I agree that it needs to be tackled. I think that the most signal example is the relationship between local authorities—in particular, adult social care departments—and the health service. We are now focusing on that above all, and trying to prevent circumstances in which a failure to pool budgets leads to worse results for patients. I think that we shall then have a model that we will try to use in many other areas.

Does the Minister have any discussions with other Departments about the closure of offices? Offices are being closed in my constituency, and that would clearly not be happening if efficiency were the criterion. What co-ordination does the Minister apply to the closure of offices in the areas that need them most?

In recent years, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has had the unique distinction of having made public services more efficient by finding vast efficiency savings, which have amounted to some £20 billion a year in the current Parliament. Had the last Government followed such a lead, we might not have been in the dire situation in which we found ourselves in 2010, and the need for our long-term economic plan might not have been as great as it was.

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.

Today’s National Audit Office report on late payment says that the Government’s policy to pay invoices more quickly risks boosting the working capital of the main contractors rather than benefiting small businesses down the supply chain. Why then did the Government on three separate occasions refuse to adopt amendments I tabled ensuring that small businesses all the way down the supply chain would have been paid on time?

We have gone infinitely further than any previous Government ever did to ensure that payment is speeded up through the creation of project bank accounts and inserting into main suppliers’ contract terms a requirement that they pay quickly as well, because the concern is a very real one. Small businesses can end up being starved of cash and it is not acceptable, so we are driving much better practice through these legal obligations. The situation is better than it was, but there is much more still to do.

T2. May I congratulate and thank my right hon. Friend on having secured a 4.3% increase in public service productivity in the first three years of his watch, by contrast with the zero growth over the previous 13 years? What further measures does he plan to take to increase public sector productivity? (907583)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. There is much more to do. According to the Office for National Statistics, public sector productivity remained flat throughout the Labour years and it has started to increase, but there is much more that we need to do. We have said further savings and reductions in the cost of delivering public services can be made while the quality of the service increases. We have shown over this period that we can do more for less, but we are going to need to continue with redoubled effort in the future.

Given his laudable aims to improve access to Government contracts for small business, is the right hon. Gentleman as disappointed as I am about revelations in The Independent today that Capita faces allegations of using a major Government contract to short-change small companies, forcing many out of business? He described this contract as a model of how to open up the public sector, yet it has catastrophically failed. Given his championing of the Maude awards for failure, will this contract be a winner of such an award, and what lessons has he learned from this contract?

We have learned a lot of lessons from this contract, and I absolutely am as disappointed as the hon. Lady. It should not be working like this. I am aware of the concerns and we are investigating them very rapidly to get remedial action; it is not acceptable.

T3. The framework agreement for public procurement of infrastructure in the south-west provides that the bidder that gets closest to the average tender price, not the cheapest, gets the job. Will my right hon. Friend look into this matter, because it seems to me that this is wasting taxpayers’ money? (907584)

I am not familiar with the precise issue my hon. Friend raises, but it sounds very odd to me, and I will investigate it. Of course everyone who spends public money procuring services, goods or infrastructure needs to ensure the money is spent as well as it possibly can be, and I will look urgently at the case my hon. Friend raises.

T4. The Geoffrey Dickens dossier was distributed across the Central Office of Information in the early ’80s, with one special archive suddenly emerging. How can we be certain there is not another special archive in the Cabinet Office that needs to be handed over to the police immediately? (907585)

The Central Office of Information had nothing to do with any of this. That is a completely different, and now defunct, organisation. I am ensuring that officials in my Department are going through all the files thoroughly to make sure that they are organised, that they know what is in them, and that any files that are at all relevant are submitted immediately to all of the inquiries that are under way. There is no excuse whatsoever for these files not being surfaced.

T5. Will the Minister join me in praising the vibrant charity and social enterprise sector in west Norfolk for all its superb work, especially the two charities chosen by this year’s mayor, Barry Ayres, namely the Prince’s Trust of King’s Lynn and the west Norfolk Kandoo club? (907586)

Social enterprises and charities make an invaluable contribution to our economy and society, and I am delighted to join my hon. Friend in thanking those charities in Norfolk and others across the country for their work. We are investing about £470 million over the spending review period directly to support charities and voluntary groups.

T7. At Prime Minister’s questions in November last year, the Prime Minister said that “there are 1,000 more GPs across the country than there were in 2010.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 822.]According to the UK Statistics Authority, however, there were actually 356 fewer. That is just one error. The UKSA recently revealed that, since May 2010, it had had to investigate the Government more than 200 times for the use of dirty statistics. When will this Government stop their fiddling? (907588)

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that the UK Statistics Authority has on several occasions found the Opposition guilty of using statistics in a misleading way. That is its function: to hold us all accountable.