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Cabinet Office

Volume 611: debated on Wednesday 15 June 2016

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Government Estate

1. What progress his Department is making on the creation of a more modern and efficient government estate. (905408)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that since 2015 the Government estate strategy has ensured that running costs have fallen by £750 million. We have raised some £1.8 billion in council receipts and reduced the estate size by nearly a quarter. This is a huge achievement and in terms of space it makes the UK Government one of the most efficient organisations in the world.

I thank the Minister for that reply and congratulate him and his team on the work they have done. Given that the estate has been reduced by nearly a quarter since 2010, is it not crucial that as much of this land as possible is used for new housing, especially given that quite a bit of it is going to be brownfield?

My hon. Friend, as so often, hits the nail on the head. A huge Government programme has ensured that available public sector land is used to build more houses for our country.

A 2010 report suggested that to end the London magnet we had to move more top civil servant jobs out of the capital and into the regions. How are the Government getting on with that aim?

The Government are getting on very well with it: the number of civil servant buildings in central London has gone down hugely. We have created hundreds of thousands of jobs all over the country— 95,000 new jobs in the last year in the north of England alone—and what matters is what kinds of jobs we are creating and how many people are being employed.

Boycott and Divestment Guidance

We have received a wide range of representations about boycotts in public procurement. The Government’s position is very clear: public sector organisations should not use procurement to run their own independent foreign policies.

Does the Minister agree that people who stand for election to local authorities and who then serve as councillors perform an important role in communities the length and breadth of these islands, and does he further agree that they should be trusted to make political judgments for themselves? Will the Government abandon the boycott and divestment guidance in favour of supporting local democracy?

Yes, I think councillors do an excellent job at what councils are meant to do, but councils are not meant to set foreign policy, and attempts at local foreign policies that are discriminatory are potentially illegal, and we make that clear at every opportunity.

Where a national boycott is in place and where a national decision has been made, local authorities should of course follow that, but these decisions are rightly for the Foreign Office and not for local authorities; the country cannot be run by having hundreds of different foreign policies.

I think that, not for the first time, the Government are looking at this through the wrong end of the telescope. Rather than try to prevent local authorities from taking ethical and environmental considerations into account when making decisions, surely the Government should, as the Scottish Government do, encourage local authorities to do so—or does the Minister really believe that council tax payers’ money should be used to prop up oppressive regimes and support unlawful activity throughout the world?

I find it surprising that the Scottish National party engages in and supports discrimination of this kind. We should trade with the world, except where a boycott decision has been made at a national level. The idea that we should discriminate against companies with which we otherwise have a good trading relationship is wrong.

Permanent Secretaries: Diversity

I am afraid that following an outstanding permanent secretary’s move from Whitehall to become chief executive of Ofcom there are no permanent secretaries from BAME communities at present. However, 20% of permanent secretaries are women, which is higher than the figure for 2010 of 17.5% and much higher than the figure for 2005 of 8%, but clearly it is still considerably too low and we have a great deal more work to do to make sure we are drawing on a talent pool that reflects the nation as a whole.

In 2011, for the first time, 50% of permanent secretaries were female. Since then, and since the Prime Minister took control, the glass ceiling has been painstakingly reassembled. If he cannot be trusted to appoint women, is it not about time we introduced some positive discrimination?

The hon. Lady refers to a brief moment during which, because of appointments already in place and new appointments being made, there was a spike, and we would very much like to see that replicated on a long-term basis. We have appointed a range of women permanent secretaries in the past few months, and I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Lady that we are doing a great deal to ensure that the pool from which we draw the permanent secretaries—directors general—is improving significantly, in that 37% of our directors general are women. We are seeking to move that further forward, and we need to see this happening throughout the senior civil service.

According to Leonard Cheshire Disability, only 4.5% of senior civil servants are disabled. What are the Government doing to ensure that disability is not impeding disabled people in the civil service from reaching the highest levels? Will the Minister review the Government’s policies and keep the House updated on his efforts to improve the employment prospects of disabled people in the civil service?

The hon. Lady is right. As a matter of fact, the situation is even slightly worse than she suggests. The percentage of disabled senior civil servants—or, at any rate, of senior civil servants who have registered themselves as disabled in staff surveys—is only 3.4%. That is much too low, and it reflects the fact that we have not yet been able to remove all the barriers that we need to remove. I am sitting next to the Minister without Portfolio, my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), who has shown that it is perfectly possible for someone who suffers from a significant disability to reach the highest level in politics, but we need that to be true throughout our public administration because we need to draw on talent from wherever it comes.

As the Minister confirmed, since the Prime Minister gave himself the power to appoint, 80% of permanent secretaries are men. In the spirit of open government, will the Minister commit to publish the shortlists from which the Prime Minister has made appointments?

I will go back and talk to colleagues about the methods by which we publish what happens under that procedure. I would like to point out to the Opposition spokesman—[Laughter.] I would like to point out to the Opposition spokesperson that we draw permanent secretaries from the pool of directors general. If we are to draw on that talent, we have to encourage more women to be directors general. As I have said, I am glad that the percentage of women directors general is now up to 37%. We would like to get up to 50% or beyond, and as we do so we will have the talent from which to draw into the permanent secretary ranks, which is obviously where we want women of talent to end up.

Government Offices: London

The Government’s direction of travel is ensuring value for money for the taxpayer and value for money overall. The Government Property Unit is working closely with the Departments to reduce the Government estate from around 800 buildings to closer to 200 by 2023. The number of Government offices in London has fallen from 181 in 2010 to just 54 today, and we will seek to reduce it to about 20 by 2025.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, wherever possible, all taxpayer-funded bodies should consider relocating outside central London to save money? Will he write to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority with that suggestion?

If I did not know my hon. Friend better, I would think that he was bidding for IPSA’s headquarters to be located in Northampton South. All I will say to him is: be careful what you wish for. I note that Northamptonshire has led the way by being the first area in the country to announce plans to bring its police and fire services together in a shared estate.

The Minister mentioned the value-for-money approach. Does he agree that it would be better if Government offices were spread across the United Kingdom? Given the value-for-money approach we take in Northern Ireland, would he consider Northern Ireland as a location?

Yes, my hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a policy on rebalancing the civil service between London and the regions across the United Kingdom. The civil service already has a significant presence across the United Kingdom, and he will know that many civil servants are employed in Northern Ireland. We are looking to extend this further and to create multi-occupancy offices in key locations around the country.

13. I am happy to make a bid for the relocation of Government offices. As my right hon. Friend will know, coastal communities have many advantages, but they face serious challenges. Does he agree that as the sunniest town in our fair United Kingdom, with a thriving cultural scene and buoyant chamber of commerce, Eastbourne might be just the place for such a relocation, as might East Sussex in general? (905421)

My hon. Friend, as a former teacher, is a brilliant MP for her area and a key component of compassionate Conservatism in Eastbourne. I note that Eastbourne chamber of commerce said the town is one of the 10 happiest places to stay in the UK, and it might be a good place for all of us to go after the European Union referendum—whatever the result.

Constituency Boundaries

5. When he expects the Boundary Commission to publish its initial recommendations for new constituency boundaries. (905412)

The conduct of the boundary review is, rightly, a matter for the independent Boundary Commissions. The Boundary Commissions for England and for Northern Ireland plan to publish initial recommendations this autumn, and the Boundary Commissions for Scotland and for Wales plan to do so later this year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Will he confirm that the guidance given to the Boundary Commission is to split wards by polling districts so that we have equal-sized electorates for Members of this House elected in 2020?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to state, first and foremost, the principle that all votes, no matter where in the country they are cast, should have equal weight, and that constituencies must therefore be more equal in size. Ward-splitting has for some time been part of the Boundary Commission’s work in other parts of the country, but I can confirm that it expects to be able to introduce it in constituencies in England as well.

The number of democratically elected Members of this place from Scotland will be cut by six, but are plans afoot to cut the number of unelected Lords, who are able to make laws affecting Scotland and the rest of the UK?

I think the hon. Lady was supporting the principle that votes should have equal weight no matter where they are cast in the country, and I welcome her support if my reading is correct. I cannot confirm plans to alter the size and composition of the Lords, although I understand that discussions at that end of the corridor are going on fairly continuously.

The supplementary was only tenuously related to the terms of the question, but I am in a generous mood.

10. I welcome the consultation period that will follow the Boundary Commission’s recommendations, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to ensure that people are aware of the consultations so that they can make their views known? What does he intend to do to publicise the consultations? (905418)

My hon. Friend is right: it is vital that people are aware of the consultation period. It is being advertised on the Boundary Commission website and will be advertised further to make sure that everybody can comment, but it is up to political parties from all parts of the House to make sure that their supporters and organisations are galvanised and submissions can be made.

The number of registered voters has gone up massively since December 2015—in some constituencies, the equivalent of two extra wards have been added. Will the Minister therefore reassure us that he cannot possibly use the December figures to redraw the boundaries—or will his Government go back to using voter registration for their own political gain once this referendum is over?

I am intrigued that the hon. Lady thinks she knows what has happened to individual constituencies’ electoral rolls, because the final versions will not be published for another week or 10 days. Whatever the outcome of that publication, it cannot be right that we carry on with the existing political constituency boundaries, which are based on the electoral rolls from 2001 or, in some parts of the country, from 2000. They are shockingly out of date and we absolutely need to update them. I can, however, reassure her that there will be updates every five years, rather than every 10, and that constituency boundaries will be more up to date and accurate than they have been in the past.

Anti-Corruption Summit

7. Whether the agreements reached at the anti-corruption summit in May 2016 will be applied to other countries. (905415)

This Government and this Prime Minister have taken a global lead on tackling the scourge of corruption. Each delegation at the anti-corruption summit signed up to the commitments set out in the communiqué. In addition, 42 countries and eight international organisations issued statements setting out further measures that they will take.

In April 2014, the Prime Minister said:

“I believe that beneficial ownership and public access to a central register is key to improving the transparency of company ownership and vital to meeting the urgent challenges of illicit finance and tax evasion.”

Will the Minister explain why the Government are no longer calling for public registers of beneficial ownership in the British overseas territories?

We are calling for them. The Prime Minister was absolutely right then, and we are delivering on that now. Later this month we will publish the beneficial ownership register for the UK. All the overseas territories have signed up to beneficial ownership registers, and we urge them to make them public.

11. In the run-up to the anti-corruption summit, leaders of charities and faith groups around the world were calling on the Prime Minister to insist on the same levels of transparency in our overseas territories and Crown dependencies as we have here in mainland UK. Why did the Prime Minister ignore them? Was he unable or unwilling to stop the facilitation of corruption in our tax havens? (905419)

We have made huge progress in ensuring that we have registers of beneficial ownership in the overseas territories. We are also publishing the beneficial ownership register for the UK. The progress that has been made in the overseas territories is the greatest under any Government in history, which perhaps is one reason Transparency International said that the summit had been a good day for anti-corruption.

The Panama papers have shown how illicit finance robs the very poorest countries of the world. Malawi, for example, loses about $130 million a year through such finance. Will the Minister explain why the Malawian company Press Trust Overseas Ltd cannot have its tax affairs scrutinised because it is in the British Virgin Islands? Should not the summit have come to an agreement to force such overseas jurisdictions to publish central beneficial registers?

If the hon. Gentleman cares so much about the matter, he might have congratulated us on the progress that we made at the summit. He will be delighted to know that the British Virgin Islands has signed up to have a beneficial ownership register and to share that information with the UK Government. We are making progress in tackling the scourge of corruption, about which previous Governments, including the one he supported, did too little.

Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012

It is important to begin by acknowledging that, thanks largely to my hon. Friend’s efforts, the social value Act came into force in January 2013. He can be proud that the Act has unlocked a range of public benefits from the procurement of goods and services. Lord Young reviewed progress in 2014 and reported in 2015. His findings inform our current work to quicken the pace of implementation. As part of that work, we will publish a paper this summer that will give examples of how central Government are driving forward the social value Act and what further actions we will take.

The social value Act has been seen to benefit commissioners, service providers and the wider community. What progress has been made in ensuring that government, both local and national, applies the Act to their procurement processes more widely and consistently?

We reviewed central Government’s progress on the Act and found increasing awareness of it and a clear willingness and commitment to implement it. I will publish an appraisal of central Government’s commitments to the Act later in the summer, which will set out the steps being taken and the plans for the future. In preparing for that, I have invited a panel of external social value experts to review and critique current plans and practice. That process is helping to ensure that central Government’s aspirations for social value are being stretched.

Topical Questions

The Cabinet Office is responsible for efficiency and reform in government, transparency, civil society, the digital economy and cybersecurity to deliver the Government’s agenda.

Will the Minister confirm that, whether appropriate in the Government’s view or not, it is still lawful for public bodies to refuse to award contracts to companies for reasons other than nationality, such as human right records, compliance with international law or a connection with trades such as the arms trade or fossil fuels?

As I said earlier, the boycott of, and discrimination against, countries is potentially illegal. The guidance that we set out was designed to make it absolutely clear that these decisions on boycotts against countries need to be taken at a national level, and it is inappropriate for local authorities to try to set their own foreign policies.

T3. The National Citizen Service has been a wonderful success in Huddersfield and Colne Valley. What more can be done to make sure that even more young people in Yorkshire can find out how to access this transformative experience? (905441)

My hon. Friend is right that the National Citizen Service around the country and in his own constituency has made a huge difference. There were 467 people who went through it in 2015 in Kirklees, the local authority in which his constituency lies. We are determined to increase that number. There is a new marketing campaign, and I am glad to say that 8 million hours of volunteering have so far been contributed by National Citizen Service participants. I hope my hon. Friend will see in his constituency a proportion of that effect coming through in the next year.

T2. What provisions are the Government putting in place to ensure that non-UK citizens of the EU living here will continue to enjoy the same rights after a possible Brexit vote as they do now? (905439)

The hon. Lady is asking a question about something that is a matter of hot debate as we go through the next week or so, and it highlights one of the issues that would need to be resolved and that is of very great complexity.

T4. This Government have a responsibility to ensure that their citizens are safe online. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what progress he is making in developing the 2016 national cyber-security strategy? (905442)

Cyber-security is incredibly important, especially as we increasingly deliver digital government. The national cyber-security strategy ran up to 2016. The new strategy is underpinned by investment of £1.9 billion—almost double the funding—and we will publish the strategy later this year.

T5. The backward steps in gender inequality at the top of the civil service are unacceptable. Will the Minister release the gender breakdown of those who were shortlisted for the role of permanent secretary so that we can have further transparency on this important issue? (905443)

As I said to the House a few moments ago, we will take that serious suggestion away and come back with a view about whether it is possible to release those data without compromising individual sensibilities. I am absolutely with the hon. Lady that we need to see more women joining the ranks of the permanent secretaries, and as I mentioned to her, it is of great importance that the directors general are now much better distributed in a gender balance.

T6. The National Citizen Service provides a real opportunity for young people in Cornwall, a part of the world that is quite deprived. What more can we do to ensure that young people have access to the service this summer? (905444)

My hon. Friend is right. There were 312 people in Cornwall who participated in the National Citizen Service last year. We want to see that number rise significantly. Already 486 people have signed up and we hope to see more come through during the coming year. We are spending £1 billion over the four years to increase the proportion of young people who can do National Citizen Service, which I think will have an enormous effect on, among other things, social cohesion—80% of those who went through National Citizen Service said at the end that they had a better view of people from other backgrounds than they had before they joined it. [Interruption.]

The Minister is offering serious thoughts in a cerebral manner on a very important topic, the National Citizen Service. I think he deserves a more attentive audience.

Given the surge in voter registration, how can the Minister possibly justify using such woefully inaccurate figures to redraw the electoral map of the United Kingdom?

We just had this question a few minutes ago, and the answer is very clear: the alternative of using figures from 2001 or 2000 is completely unacceptable. We have, in fact, made the process more frequent, not less, and we now update the register for the purposes of writing the boundaries every five years, not every 10.

T8. What steps will the Secretary of State take after a resounding victory in the vote to stay in Europe next week to get all Departments working harmoniously and well again after the disruptions we have had over the last month? (905446)

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is mistaken in his implication: actually, the fact is—I see this day by day—that the Departments of State have functioned smoothly and effectively throughout this period, as have members of the Cabinet. I am glad to say that we intend to continue doing so to fulfil the manifesto commitments on which we were elected.