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Cabinet Office

Volume 607: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2016

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service: Progression

1. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that people from all social backgrounds can progress in the civil service. (903980)

2. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that people from all social backgrounds can progress in the civil service. (903981)

We want to ensure that the civil service is fully representative of the nation it serves and benefits from the widest pool of talent in our communities and from every part of Britain. We have made considerable strides to increase diversity already, and we will shortly publish our strategy for social mobility, in which we will set out how we will further increase social diversity in the civil service.

As my hon. Friend knows, Plymouth is a low wage, low skills economy, but it is also the home of the seventh-largest university in the UK. What opportunities are there in the civil service in Plymouth for people who do not have university degrees?

My hon. Friend reminds us that there is big talent in Plymouth, and we want to make the most of it. Over this Parliament, as part of our broader commitment to 200,000 apprentices across the public sector, we will invest in more than 30,000 new civil service apprenticeships, which will offer a range of rewarding opportunities for people without university degrees, including opportunities already available in Devon and Cornwall. I am delighted to say that I have an apprentice in my private office. I hope that one of our apprentices will one day be Cabinet Secretary—and if that person is from Plymouth, so much the better.

I welcome the news that the Government have recently introduced name-blind recruitment across the civil service. What are they doing to prevent unconscious bias at later stages of the process?

Name-blind recruitment has been implemented in 75% of the civil service. We are working with other major workforces across the public sector further to embed name-blind recruitment. In addition, all civil service recruiters are required to undertake mandatory training to avoid unconscious bias before they embark on any recruitment exercise, and this includes panel members involved in sift and interview for fast stream apprenticeship schemes and executive recruitment.

I welcome what the Minister says, but does he agree it is important to recruit civil servants who will be lifelong servants of the state and the public and whose sole commitment is to public service?

Of course, and obviously we want to attract the best talent possible into the civil service. That is why we commissioned the Bridge Group report, which found that the fast stream, in particular, was deeply unrepresentative. We are taking considerable action to change that, however, including, as I just said, with name-blind recruitment, by publishing the pay ratio between the median and highest-paid employees and by creating over 200,000 apprenticeship opportunities in the public sector for young people.

What efforts is the Cabinet Office making to deal with the requirements of women who, unlike their male counterparts, might face difficulties because of the pressures of family life?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, which follows International Women’s Day yesterday. More than half of civil servants are women and more than a third of top civil servants in positions of leadership are now women, which compares favourably with, for example, FTSE 100 companies. However, there is much more to do to increase female representation in senior leadership roles, and we have introduced a number of initiatives, such as measures to increase gender diversity; a better system of entitlement for shared parental leave; more tailored support before and after maternity leave; and greater encouragement for job sharing.

I am pleased that the excellent Minister says there is no bias in the civil service—except, in terms of social background, if someone happens to want to leave the EU. How does he square that with neutrality?

My hon. Friend is ingenious in getting the EU into the question. Everybody in the civil service will, in the future, have an equal opportunity to get on in life.

One way of helping people from all social backgrounds to progress in the civil service is to move many more jobs, especially senior civil service jobs, out of London and into the regions, particularly areas such as the north-west. At the moment, someone has to come to London to progress in the civil service.

The hon. Gentleman is right; there has been a London bias to some extent within the civil service. We are therefore opening regional hubs. We will open one additional assessment centre in the north this year, with more regional assessment sites to follow. We will ensure that the fast stream is as attractive to people in all regions as it is to those in London.

In 2014, 718 people from working-class backgrounds applied for the civil service fast stream: eight succeeded. Is the Minister outraged by that, or is he wondering “How on earth did eight working-class kids sneak in?”?

If the hon. Lady is saying that we have a lot more work to do, I absolutely agree with her. Almost one in three people in Britain today are in working-class occupations, compared with a mere 4.4% of those who receive offers to fast stream, making the civil service significantly less socio-economically diverse than the University of Oxford. We know there is a lot more to do, but we are taking the necessary action.

Digital Government

Good morning, Mr Speaker. Our plan is to make people’s lives easier by reforming digital technology across government. We have now published over 24,000 open datasets, and are transforming more and more public services.

I thank the Minister for that response. Effective and secure data sharing is critical for 21st century government. Charities and research bodies have struggled for decades to access and evaluate data effectively, which has often slowed down world leading research. Does the Minister agree that the consultation on better use of data in government could lead to long-term complications around information governance in government being resolved?

I do. The better use of data consultation is about maximising opportunities for proportionate, secure and well-governed data sharing, including allowing world-leading research and statistics greater access to datasets as part of a wider programme to modernise and simplify the UK’s data landscape.

While our population is rising, voter registration is going down. As part of the digital government programme, what further databases will the Minister use in support to boost voter registrations?

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We are using links to local government databases actively to work, through digital and other means, to ensure that everybody who has the right to vote gets the opportunity to do so.

Whether it be patient data or voter registration, it is vital that the Government have a coherent overarching digital strategy. Will the Minister update us on the digital strategy?

My hon. Friend has enormous experience in this area, and I look forward to publishing the update of the digital strategy very soon. In the meantime, we are getting on with implementing it.

Under the requirements of .gov, the language choice button on each government page has to appear at the bottom right—and in very small letters. That means that many Welsh speakers do not realise that the language choice is open to them, as it is in so many Government documents now. Will the Minister look at moving the language button to the top of the page and making it rather more prominent?

I am an enormous supporter of the Welsh language, and we are working hard to make sure that Government documents are always, where needed, translated into Welsh. I shall certainly look at the location of the button on the page, but we do a lot of user-friendly research to work out where the buttons ought to be.

Trade Union Bill

4. What assessment he has made of the applicability of the provisions of the Trade Union Bill to officials of the devolved Administrations. (903983)

Our assessment is that since employment and industrial relations are reserved matters under the devolution settlement with Scotland, and are not conferred on Wales, the laws that govern them are decided collectively here in Westminster for the whole of the UK. This means that they will apply to all employers in the UK, including those in the devolved Administrations, as part of our country’s single market in goods and services, which has successfully enriched our intellectual, cultural and economic life for centuries.

Restricting facility time is likely to limit the Scottish Government’s ability to work effectively with trade unions on a range of issues, because they will not have the capacity to engage. The Scottish Government have already voiced concerns about the Bill. Will the Minister now listen and restrict its applicability so that it does not apply to public sector employees in Scotland?

The Trade Union Bill includes primarily an approach to try to make the facility time settlement transparent. It aims to publish data on facility time costs and expenses to allow politicians and voters to understand what the costs are and to see whether they are being spent efficiently. I think that that should be applied and welcomed right across the UK.

Since the SNP Government came to power in Scotland in 2007, the number of industrial disputes has fallen by 84%. I note this on a day on which junior doctors are yet again on strike and on the streets in England. I think that the public will draw their own conclusions about who can best manage industrial relations.

Given the Minister’s last reply, what sanctions does he intend to take to compel the Governments in the devolved Administrations to implement the draconian measures in the Trade Union Bill?

I hope the hon. Gentleman did not mean that the law makers in the various devolved Administrations are considering becoming law breakers. I am sure he did not. All of us here are involved in creating, and amending, laws for the United Kingdom as a whole, and I think it would set a very dangerous precedent for all of us to start saying that we will disregard those who do not please us.

Civil Service: Policy Making

Departments determine their workforce needs, and the civil service has a significant United Kingdom-wide presence. We are considering new Government hubs and strategic locations outside London as a way of further consolidating our office estates. I know from my own area that parts of Public Health England, for example, are moving from London to the east of England, which means £500 million of investment and thousands of jobs.

The Government have decided to close the office of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in Sheffield and move it to London, and we have now learnt that the vast majority of policy makers for the northern powerhouse are based in London as well. We in Newport have benefited hugely from the location of civil service jobs in, for instance, the Intellectual Property Office and the Office for National Statistics. Given the Government’s recent woeful track record, will the Minister make it clear today that those jobs are valued, will be protected, and will remain in Newport?

The northern powerhouse is about devolution, not about jobs in London. The Government have a passion for Newport, and for Wales in general. Not only did the NATO summit encourage investment, but, as the hon. Lady knows, the Friars Walk regeneration project means more jobs and finance. When my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General visited the ONS office recently, he expressed huge admiration for the work of its staff, and committed himself to its long-term future. Only this week, it was announced that the ONS was recruiting 30 economic researchers to graduate posts. It is developing a skills base that will enable it to become a centre of expertise for data handling, and the hon. Lady should be celebrating that in her constituency.

When Labour lost power in 2010, there were 181 Government-owned buildings in central London. The equivalent number today is 54, because the present Government have got rid of 130. How much further will this go, given that it indicates a wish to move jobs out to the regions?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the figure should be about 20 by the end of the decade. It is worth noting that the number of civil servants based in London has fallen by more than 7,500. As my hon. Friend says, the number of buildings in London has fallen from 181 to 54, which has meant savings of more than £2.8 billion for the taxpayer.

The Minister suggested it was Government policy to try to ensure that civil service employment opportunities were spread throughout the United Kingdom. Does he agree that it is a good idea—on the grounds of value for money, and on other grounds—for everyone to get out of the London and Westminster bubble and out into the real world on a more regular basis?

I could not have put it better myself. As I have said, there are 800 civil service buildings outside London. We have important targets for developing important strategic hubs for the civil service all over the country, and more people who get out of the Westminster bubble, the better.

We know that the Minister’s friend the Paymaster General is very close to the Chancellor, and that he therefore likes to insert the words “northern” and “powerhouse” into every speech he makes. However, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden), 98% of senior jobs in the northern powerhouse department are now based in London, and—with no sense of irony—Sheffield policy-making jobs in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills have been moved to Whitehall. The test for the Minister, when he finally gets the promotion that he has been seeking and that he so richly deserves, will be whether he has more senior and policy-making civil servants in London or fewer. Does he have it within him to live up to our expectations?

I genuinely cannot understand the premise of the hon. Lady’s question. She should be proud, as are councils in the north of England, that the northern powerhouse is devolving powers right across the region. We are one of the most radical Governments when it comes to devolution. Her councils in the north support it, and I am sad that she does not.

Infrastructure and Projects Authority

6. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority since its establishment as a merged entity. (903985)

As the Infrastructure and Projects Authority has been in existence only for the past two months, it is a little early to give the House an evaluation of its effectiveness. However, I am completely confident that by combining Infrastructure UK and the Major Projects Authority, we will be better able to monitor from beginning to end the projects that the Government are engaged in.

Following Infrastructure UK’s success with Crossrail, does my right hon. Friend think that the pooling of expertise in the new merged body bodes well for Crossrail 2, which will have a positive effect for people in Hertfordshire?

Broadly, yes. Of course, the final decision on Crossrail 2 will be made only following the recommendations of the National Infrastructure Commission chaired by Lord Adonis, but I am confident that when we get there, and if Crossrail 2 does occur, the fact that the IPA will be in there from the beginning right until the last moment will improve the project’s prospects of being delivered to schedule and on budget.

Freedom of Information Act 2000

We announced our response to the independent commission on the freedom of information last week. The commission did not make a formal recommendation about extending the coverage of the Act, but we will take action to extend pay transparency across the public sector.

I am pleased to note that the Government appear to have retreated from their plan to introduce fees for freedom of information requests. Does the Minister agree with me and many of my constituents that it is in the public interest for the Freedom of Information Act to be extended to cover private companies when they are contracted to provide public services?

As I have said before at the Dispatch Box, I am a strong supporter of freedom of information, and I want to record my thanks to the commission, which did hard work and made sensible suggestions for improvements. The issue that the hon. Lady has raised is a complex one. For instance, we do not want to deter small businesses from supplying into government. We will consider what was written by the commission, even though no formal recommendation was made.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the commission’s conclusion that it would be inappropriate to introduce further charges for requests under the Act? Can he reassure my constituents that the Government have no plans to do so?

I can absolutely give my hon. Friend that assurance. As we said last week, we will not introduce fees because we think that it is important for people to use freedom of information to find out what is going on inside public bodies, including local authorities and more broadly, to ensure, rightly, that taxpayers’ money is spent better because the people who are spending it are held to account.

12. The Minister has just talked about extending the Act to cover private providers doing public service contracts, and he mentioned small businesses. Clearsprings runs a Home Office contract in my constituency relating to asylum seekers’ accommodation, but it is failing the taxpayer and the thousands of vulnerable asylum seekers living in its accommodation, safe from the scrutiny of the Act. Will he confirm that the Act will be extended to cover large companies such as Clearsprings? (903991)

I cannot give the hon. Lady that assurance, not least because, having considered this question and listened to representations from both sides of the argument, the commission did not make a formal recommendation on this matter. I can tell her, however, that FOI can be used to scrutinise those who set up the contracts that businesses, large and small, supply into.

Topical Questions

The responsibilities of the Cabinet Office remain much as they were last month. We continue to ensure that the Government fully and effectively implement their programme across Whitehall and the wider public sector.

Will the Minister update the House on the progress that has been made to ensure that every serving member of our armed forces, wherever they are in the world, will be entitled to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum? Will he guarantee that they will receive their ballots in good time, and will he please confirm how we will ensure that every vote is counted?

My hon. Friend has been completely tireless in her attempts to ensure that armed forces personnel can vote in the referendum, and rightly so. I can confirm the Prime Minister’s commitment given to her that we will enable all the armed forces to vote. I am happy to tell her that the chief counting officer for the referendum has now directed that postal ballots will be sent to the armed forces between 23 and 27 May to ensure plenty of time for their votes to be counted.

When the Government introduced new gagging clauses on charities in receipt of Government grants last month, they credited a report published by the think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, in which the policy was a key recommendation. Just four months prior to that, the Minister for the Cabinet Office received a £4,000 donation from the chairman of the IEA, Neil Record. That is surely just a coincidence, but in order to avoid any misunderstanding will the Minister, who has said that he is committed to freedom of information, publish all communications between the IEA and his Department as well as all the submissions and advice that he received from the civil service?

I did not have any discussions with the IEA on this. It is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent on good causes and the right things, not on lobbying Government. It is right that taxpayers’ money should be spent on the things for which it was intended, not on ensuring that lobbyists can take politicians out for lunch.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that recording laws on vellum is a millennium-long tradition and an important part of our unwritten constitution? The House should look to preserve it. (903999)

I certainly do. Keeping a record of our laws on vellum is a long-held tradition, and we should safeguard our great traditions. I am looking forward to the debate on this tomorrow. In 1,000 years, I want people to be able to look at the laws that we pass in this House, so I hope to see a strong turnout in support.

T2. The Government are finally reviewing Atos contracts after several National Audit Office and Select Committee reports going back four years have highlighted poor performance and a lack of value for money for taxpayers. In addition, there have been devastating impacts on disabled people. Why have the Government taken so long to do that? Will the Minister also confirm that the anticipated savings have not been made? (903996)

The hon. Lady simply ignores the fact that the Government have taken the action, which should have been taken long ago and which the previous Labour Government completely failed to do, to deal with contractors who are not up to scratch. We are dealing with contracts that are necessary to improve matters and are improving them so that people get the services they deserve, which is why all our welfare programmes are now back on track.

T8. A constituent of mine who works for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Shipley has contacted me after being told by his managers that he is unable to help the campaign to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum and even to deliver leaflets in his own time. Given that Government Ministers are free to campaign in a personal capacity to leave the EU, why are the Government not extending the same courtesy to civil servants? (904002)

My hon. Friend’s constituent should follow the rules set out in section 4.4 of the civil service management code, which shows in what circumstances civil servants can engage in political activity. The Government of course have a clear position on the referendum: we want to stay in a reformed European Union. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the first to say that it is only because of our Prime Minister’s munificence, tolerance and generosity of spirit that Ministers are allowed to disagree in public with the Government position at all.

T3. The anti-advocacy clause has been widely condemned by civil society and is now subject to an e-petition in this House about its impact on academic grants. Will the Minister explain why it was brought in with no scrutiny in the House, and will he urgently review it in the light of the public outcry? (903997)

The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise that taxpayers’ money should not be used to lobby Government. Those who argue against the clause are arguing that the taxes paid by hard-working people should be on spent on lobbyists. I disagree. The clause has been in operation for over a year in the Department for Communities and Local Government, where it was found to be working well, which is why have expanded it across the whole of Government.

T10. Given that there is now a presumption in favour of building first on brownfield sites, will Ministers work with local authorities in Norfolk to help identify suitable sites? (904004)

Yes, we will indeed. We are also taking steps to make sure that we release the greatest possible amount of public sector brownfield land, so that in places such as my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine we see building in places where people welcome and accept it, to provide homes for our people, to the benefit of the taxpayer.

T6. In the last Parliament, the Government’s departmental plans set clear policy targets and the date they pledged to achieve them by. This time, no dates are given and the aims are as vague as “continue to be the most transparent government in the world”.Are the Government deliberately preventing the public from holding them to account or do they genuinely not know what they are doing for the next four years? (904000)

I am sorry that the hon. Lady obviously has not read the items on the website; a multitude of specific dates for specific programmes are given, and we will continuously update this as we go through the Parliament. It is true that we are the most transparent Government ever in this country and one of the three most transparent Governments in the world. Maintaining that is quite a good goal, and I would have expected her to welcome it.

T4. Thank you, Mr Speaker. Almost two thirds of people in Scotland want to see charities speaking up for those affected by Government policies, which is why the Scottish Government and the Scottish National party are against the new anti-advocacy clause. Will the Minister commit to assessing the impact it will have on Scottish charities? (903998)

Once again, we have a request from the SNP for hard-working people to pay their taxes and for those taxes then to be used to lobby the very Government that are giving out the grants. That is wrong in principle. We have been using this clause in practice for more than a year and because it was working well we have extended it across government.