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Topical Questions

Volume 594: debated on Wednesday 25 March 2015

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.