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Cabinet Office

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2015

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Public Procurement: Small Businesses

7. What steps he is taking to improve access to Government procurement by small and medium-sized enterprises. (908313)

Over the past five years, we have implemented a wide range of measures to open up the way we do business to make sure that small companies are in the best possible position to compete for contracts. These measures include increasing transparency, making opportunities more accessible, removing unnecessary bureaucracy, improving payment terms and clamping down on poor practice.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware of the report of the Public Administration Committee that showed that at the time not enough was being done. Does he accept that there still needs to be a real culture change in the civil service to open up Government procurement to small and medium-sized enterprises?

We have obviously made a lot of progress and there is more to do, but we intend to extend and embed the reforms that we have made over the past five years. I would just remind my hon. Friend that at the last general election, only 6.5% of direct central Government procurement spend was with smaller businesses, and we had no idea how much was spent in the supply chain, so we have made huge progress.

The Minister omitted to say in his answer that nine out of 17 Departments spent less with SMEs in 2013-14 than they did in 2012-13. With just 10% of Government contracts going to small businesses, why have this Government been so poor when it comes to procurement from our SME sector?

In 2010, the Government set an aspiration that by 2015 25% of Government procurement spend by value should go to SMEs directly and into the supply chain. In fact, we have exceeded our target, and a record 26.1% is now being spent with SMEs. That is a record to be proud of, and a tribute to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend on all the measures that he and his colleagues have taken on this subject? I know that four businesses in my constituency are currently benefiting from their measures.

I know my hon. Friend is a great champion of small businesses in his constituency. One of the wider benefits of this programme of commercial reform is that it enabled the Government to make the huge saving of £15 billion in the years 2010 to 2014. As I say, that is a lasting tribute to my right hon. Friend.

The Minister might confess that it would help if he bought enough desks for civil servants. In answer to 11 parliamentary questions, Whitehall Departments have told me that they have more civil servants than desks. In the Department for Transport, there are 6,600 officials and 1,500 desks. This sounds more like musical chairs than hot desking. Is it the cause of all the chaos and confusion in this Government?

I am not quite sure whether that is a serious question, because all modern companies and the modern civil service should be hot desking, which is exactly what is taking place.

Building Workers: Shrewsbury

2. If he will expedite the review of papers held on people convicted in 1973 in relation to alleged incidents during the national building workers’ strike at building sites in the Shrewsbury area so that the review is completed as soon as possible. (908308)

I am very grateful for that answer, and I wish I believed it. Sadly, it was confirmed in a debate yesterday afternoon that despite this House overwhelmingly agreeing on 23 January last year that the papers would be released—and that Ministers would assist in getting the papers released—they have not been. The campaign has consistently met blockages. I am calling on the Minister to bring forward the release of these papers as quickly as possible and to stop the 43-year cover-up, which will see innocent men going to their graves as convicted criminals to protect the Tory Ministers of 40 years ago. It is a disgrace.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is unaware of the actual situation. The review of which he speaks is under way at present, but the papers—and the particular parts of those papers that were kept back on security grounds—have all been given to the Criminal Cases Review Commission, which has looked at them and is using them in the course of its review. There is no question of any injustice of the kind he describes occurring as a result of the lack of those papers being present. I, however, assure the hon. Gentleman that if I find myself in my current post after the election, I shall seek to expedite the review.

The hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) asked a serious question. This was an establishment stitch-up 42 years ago, and for 42 years it has been an establishment cover-up. Does the Minister not realise that there cannot possibly be any state security reasons why the records of an industrial dispute should not be made public?

My hon. Friend is also suffering from a misconception. The bulk of the papers involved were released. The bits that were not released relate to security and make specific references to the security services and their activities. Those are being reviewed, and a decision will be made. He is absolutely right that the crucial point is that the people involved deserve justice, so the CCRC needs to see the unexpurgated version, and it has. It has been given full sight of all the papers.

It is increasingly clear that there is simply no justification for the delay in the review or for the refusal to release the full papers about the case. The Minister may refuse to act, but a Labour Government will act. We will release those papers with the urgency that the situation demands. Justice delayed is justice denied. Why is he so determined to ignore the will of Parliament, ignore the public and ignore the urgency of the situation, and why will he not release the papers now?

I am sorry that the shadow Minister wrote that question before she heard my previous answers. If, as I hope she will not, she finds herself a Minister after the election and has to make this decision—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] If she finds herself in that position, I hope that she will discover the truth, which I have already told the House—that the CCRC has already seen the papers, so there is no question of justice being either delayed or denied.

Government Digital Service

3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the work of the Government Digital Service in implementing the digital-by-default programme. (908309)

The Government Digital Service has created the award-winning, world-leading gov.uk, the single web domain for Government information and services, and 25 major services have been redesigned to make them simpler, clearer and faster to use. That will not only provide savings to the taxpayer but improve delivery for the public, so that it is focused on user need, not Government convenience. In the next Parliament, we will deliver government as a platform, building common services such as a once-for-all payments platform.

The Government Digital Service has been one of the current Government’s unsung success stories, improving the efficiency and effectiveness of public services and saving the taxpayer money. Will my right hon. Friend, on the occasion of his final Cabinet Office questions, accept my congratulations on the fantastic revolution in public services that he has led over the past five years?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those kind words. There has been a great success with the Government Digital Service, which the Washington Post has hailed, stating that the UK has set

“the gold standard of digital government”.

The Obama Administration and the Australian Government have created their own analogous organisations, explicitly modelled on what we have done.

I do not know what the Minister is eating for breakfast this week, but you do not seem to be able to keep him down, Mr Speaker —I half expect him to announce a U-turn on his intended retirement before the week is out.

Is not the secret success of the Government Digital Service the confidence that it has given Departments to develop solutions in-house with an agility that was simply impossible in the days of lengthy contractual negotiations with large IT companies?

My hon. Friend is completely right. From a time when British government was synonymous with failed IT projects, we have moved to being the world leader in digital government. There is still a huge amount more to do, but I am grateful to him for his support for our work.

Trade Unions

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 the taxpayer some £26 million in the past year, and we have reduced the number of taxpayer-funded full-time union officials from 200 in May 2010 to just eight today.

While I generally support the principle of the union movement—[Interruption.] Why is that surprising? I generally support the principle, but it is not for the taxpayer to fund. What was the cost of giving trade union representatives in the civil service taxpayer-funded time off when this Government came to power?

Part of the problem was that it was not monitored, but the information we put together showed that the cost was £36 million, which we have cut to less than £10 million. There is a perfectly proper role for union officials to be embedded in the workplace, as they can resolve disputes and grievances quickly, but the situation was completely out of control and we have brought it under control.

Will the right hon. Gentleman take this opportunity to thank those civil servants—mainly trade unionists—who have had to implement Government policies, particularly in the Department for Work and Pensions, such as referring people to food banks? Perhaps against their own judgment, they have had to implement austerity, which has done great damage to the people of this country.

I point out to the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have great respect, that the need for austerity was caused by the huge budget deficit that we inherited from the Government of which he was a part. We would rather have not had to do that, but I give credit to civil servants across the country who have done a huge amount. The civil service is smaller than at any time since the second world war, but it is doing more than it was before and productivity has improved dramatically.

The Paymaster General has spent the last five years attacking civil servants’ facility time and check-off. We now learn, a week before Dissolution, that he is inserting a gagging clause into the civil service code. Why is it so necessary and urgent to change the civil service code now?

The change to which the hon. Gentleman refers simply makes clear what was already the case. There will be considerable concern about whistleblowing, and we will do whatever is needed to ensure that we continue to be much more open about things that have gone wrong. Things are much less suppressed than they were when the Labour party was in power.

Digital Inclusion

This is a devolved matter but in England and Wales more than 70 public, private and voluntary sector organisations now support activity under the digital inclusion charter, working together to help individuals, small businesses and charities to realise the benefits of being online. Later today the Government will launch the Digital Friends initiative that will call on civil servants to go out into their communities and teach digital skills to friends, family, neighbours, or colleagues who are offline.

The Minister will be aware that, unfortunately, Glasgow has one of the highest levels of population who are offline. The Government have recently run a series of adverts on Glasgow radio stations about encouraging people to switch their electricity and gas suppliers, but they are asking people only to use the online route. What assessment has he made about how we can encourage digital inclusion and the appropriate way to target Government adverts?

As I said, this is a devolved matter. The Scottish Government published their digital participation strategy in April 2014, led by the Cabinet Secretary for Culture, Europe and External Affairs, Fiona Hyslop MSP, and supported by a ministerial advisory group.

Civil Service: Job Reductions

6. What assessment he has made of the effect on local economies of the reduction of jobs in the civil service. (908312)

Although the civil service is now at its smallest size since the second world war, officials have helped to deliver efficiency and reform savings of £11 billion in this financial year to January against a 2009-10 baseline. I pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of hundreds of thousands of civil servants up and down the country.

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why he shut an office in my constituency that I fought long and hard to maintain, given that people have more than met the targets they have been given on every occasion in every year? Will he personally—he has not got long to go—have a wee look at that and perhaps write to tell me why he shut that office?

I am not sure which department the office is in, but every department must look to its efficiency and many are transforming what they do and delivering more and better for less. We have shown that that can be done, but there is much more still to do.

With the news this morning that HSBC is choosing Birmingham over Singapore or Hong Kong, and that Jaguar Land Rover is opening a new plant in the Birmingham area, will my right hon. Friend pay tribute to the civil servants who enabled that to happen in a new, clean, civil service that is lean and effective?

I pay warm tribute to what my hon. Friend has done to support the bringing of employment to the west midlands. He is a hugely energetic local Member of Parliament. Yes, the civil service does these things extremely well. It is a smaller civil service, but it is more effective than it was. I think its leadership would agree that there is still much more to do.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr Donohoe) raised the issue of the Government closing down the Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs office in his constituency. Why is the Minister closing down the HMRC office in my constituency, the Army recruitment centre in my constituency and the Crown courts in my constituency?

As I said to the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, every Department in Government has to look to its efficiency, make sure it can live within its means and do the job on behalf of the public. The civil service does not exist to provide employment; it exists to serve the public. We found that that can be done more efficiently and effectively, doing more and better for less. At the same time as employment in the public sector has fallen, it has risen in the private sector by 2.3 million.

Does the Minister agree that in the parts of the United Kingdom where there has been an over-dependence on the public sector and large numbers of jobs in the civil service, such as in Northern Ireland where the Executive are trying to reduce the dependence on the public sector, central Government should support inward investment through the private sector?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman. He is quite right to identify both the problem and the solution. The Northern Ireland economy will undoubtedly benefit from more private sector investment, from overseas or from within, with a smaller public sector.

Senior Civil Servants: Accountability

8. What steps he has taken to increase the accountability to Parliament and the public of senior civil servants. (908314)

The Prime Minister can now exercise choice in making permanent secretary appointments. We have introduced fixed tenure for permanent secretaries. We publish their performance objectives, as well as improved management information, to allow them to be held to account. We have revised the Osmotherly rules to ensure that senior responsible owners are directly accountable to Parliament for project implementation and to allow former accounting officers to be called to Select Committees.

Will the Paymaster General update the House on the role that Ministers might have in the performance review of permanent secretaries?

We have now instituted a formal process where formal input must be provided by Ministers to the Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service on the performance of their permanent secretaries. That input has to be taken into account as part of the end of year appraisal undertaken by the head of the civil service.

Order. There are so many noisy private conversations taking place it is quite difficult to hear the Minister’s answer. Let us have a bit of order for the Chair of the Public Administration Select Committee of the House of Commons.

At what may well be my right hon. Friend’s last appearance in the House of Commons at the Dispatch Box, may I remark that his five-year term as Minister for the Cabinet Office in charge of civil service policy for the Government will have truly left its mark not just on the civil service but on this House? His tenacity, commitment and sincerity are of great credit to him.

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I pay tribute to him for the way in which he and his Committee have held us to account for what we do. He has done that consistently and persistently. It has not always been comfortable, but that is what the House of Commons is for.

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.

I would like sincerely to thank my right hon. Friend and neighbouring Member of Parliament for all his assistance and advice over many years., Can he estimate the amount of taxpayers’ money that has been saved through efficiencies in his five years in the Cabinet Office?

In the course of this Parliament we have saved more than £50 billion through efficiency and reform savings. I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for the support he has given throughout the process. He is a completely brilliant local MP, and I am confident he will be back here after the election.

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman, given that this is likely to be his last appearance in this place. He has a long record of public service, which he has always pursued with principle, dignity and drive. Even when it has not served his own career, he has never been afraid to speak out, and I have always respected him for having a clear agenda. He is a moderniser and impatient for reform, and despite our disagreements, I am sure that Members on both sides of the House will want to pay tribute to his distinguished career.

Looking to his future, I wonder whether he wants to follow in the footsteps of his friend Michael Portillo. If so, I am happy to arrange some practice sessions for him cosying up on the sofa with my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). I wish him well with his future plans, albeit with me taking his place in the Cabinet Office, and I wondered whether he wanted to take this opportunity to tell us some of his fondest memories of this place.

I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her kind and warm words; they are hugely appreciated. We have pursued a difficult and often controversial agenda of reform, but one of things that has given it strength has been the robust support from her and her predecessors. Whatever the result of the election—I hope it will not be the one she foresees—this programme of reform must continue and be followed through.

T2. In joining the tributes to my right hon. Friend for his sterling public service, may I ask what else he could have achieved in the past five years had he been a member of a real Conservative Government? (908323)

That is a tempting question, but actually we have achieved a huge amount. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, who has worked closely with me and my officials on driving through this programme. It is hard to see how we could have done much more in that context.

T4. Does the Minister agree that one of the great failures of this Government has been their inability to check the quality of private companies engaged to deliver our people’s public services? Has that not been one of the fatal policy weaknesses of this Government? (908325)

We have improved the quality of the commercial directors and teams across Government so that we can monitor much better what is done than was the case under the hon. Gentleman’s Government, and I announced yesterday some principles for transparency that will take this process yet further. It is much better than it was, but there is still a lot to do.

T3. My right hon. Friend has been an outstanding Minister on cyber-security. He recently visited Pakistan and met the chief of general staff in the Pakistan army. Did they discuss greater co-operation between our two countries on cyber-security and sharing the good practice he has developed in this area? (908324)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. Yes, we had a fruitful visit to Pakistan and are collaborating and co-operating with the Government of Pakistan in several important areas.

T5. What assistance is the Minister for Civil Society giving to the National Citizen Service to maximise the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds who participate in it so that they can play their full part in a programme that would benefit them more than those from more affluent areas? (908326)

The hon. Gentleman’s interest in the NCS is welcome and I know is reflected in his constituency, where demand for the programme is high among pupils at Bulwell academy and Bluecoat Beechdale academy. I am delighted that the latest independent evaluation found that in 2013 16% of NCS participants were in receipt of free school meals, compared with about 7% of 16 and 17-year-olds in the general population.

T6. The Cabinet Office has been relentless in reducing waste from public services. However, does my right hon. Friend share my concern that the hidden cost to the taxpayer, as well as the lack of local accountability, from doing away with the shire fire and rescue services and trying to create a national fire service as Labour proposes would be considerable? (908327)

I share my hon. Friend’s view that the local accountability that comes with local fire services is extremely important. I would be very loth to see that change.