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chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and minister for the cabinet office

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 27 June 2018

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Outsourcing: Value for Money

A recent Public Accounts Committee report found that after more than 25 years the Treasury still has no data on whether the private finance initiative model provides value for money. People in my constituency are concerned about back-door privatisation and the kinds of PFI contract often used in hospitals, which leave staff in the dark, not knowing about the security of their jobs. Will the Minister review PFI contracts and privatisation across all Departments in the light of the PAC report’s findings?

Let us consider this:

“It simply would not have been possible to build or refurbish such a number of schools and hospitals without using the PFI model.”—[Official Report, 14 November 2007; Vol. 467, c. 665.]

Those are not my words, but those of Gordon Brown, the last Labour Prime Minister.

My right hon. Friend might be aware of a petition in Gibraltar for it to have an MP elected to our Parliament. The petition now has close to 10,000 signatures, which is almost half the electorate of the rock. Will he therefore consider backing my private Member’s Bill to give Gibraltar the option of electing an MP to this place and reward Gibraltarians for their unwavering loyalty?

That is an extreme case of shoehorning in a particular concern, but it suffers from the disadvantage of bearing absolutely no relation to the question on the Order Paper. The hon. Gentleman has made his point in his own inimitable and mildly eccentric way, and we are grateful to him for doing so. Let us have a question that is in order.

On a serious point, many of my constituents were affected by the collapse of Carillion. How confident is the Minister that the big four accountancy firms have learnt their lessons for the future?

Clearly, criticisms have been made of the major accountancy firms by Select Committees of this House and others. The appropriate financial services regulator keeps this under review, and it is for the regulator to decide what, if any, steps to take.

With 2,300 jobs down the pan and the taxpayer paying £148 million to clean up the Carillion fiasco, how can the Minister give such complacent responses on value for money? Will he now admit that earlier Front-Bench assurances from those on his side of the House that the burden of Carillion’s collapse would not fall on the taxpayer have turned out to be incorrect?

No, I would not accept that at all. We have said from the start that our priority has been to keep public services running. We have paid the costs of the official receiver to enable the contracted operations to continue; the schools have been cleaned, and the meals have been served in schools and hospitals, by those providers. It is the lenders, directors and shareholders in Carillion who have taken the big financial hit, and rightly so.

The fact of the matter is that the Minister has admitted that £150 million has been paid to the liquidators. We see that his commitment to value for money has no credibility when we consider that only one civil servant is monitoring 700 taxpayer-funded contracts, with £60 billion in assets. The Government are sleepwalking from one outsourcing disaster to the next. Will he now accept the widespread public view that he should abandon his obsession with outsourcing?

The report by the Select Committee on Work and Pensions and the Select Committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy concluded that the directors, not the Government, were responsible for the fact that Carillion failed and that the Government had made a competent job of clearing up the mess. I refer the hon. Gentleman again to the fact that independent research commissioned by the last Labour Government showed savings to taxpayers of, on average, between 20% and 30% from outsourcing, compared with undertaking tasks in house. That is money that can go back into frontline public services.

Voter ID Pilots

2. Whether he has made an assessment of the operation of recent voter ID pilots; and if he will make a statement. (906086)

7. Whether he has made an assessment of the operation of recent voter ID pilots; and if he will make a statement. (906091)

We are encouraged by the data from the returning officers and the statements they have made indicating that the pilots were a successful test of the implementation of voter ID. The Electoral Commission will publish its evaluation in July and the Cabinet Office will conclude its own evaluation at the same time.

Does the Minister agree that additional measures should be brought in, given that the issue affects the vulnerable, the elderly and, in my constituency, ethnic minorities?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s commitment, which I share, to helping voters to be able to cast their ballots in a way that also protects the integrity of the wider system. Let us never forget that that is not only an individual advantage, but in the collective interest.

Following the recent trials in this year’s local elections, the Minister will be aware that local authorities such as Woking recorded a 99.7% success rate on voters bringing the correct ID. Does she agree that that demonstrates that we should consider rolling this out further to secure the integrity of the ballot?

What my hon. Friend says is absolutely the case. The measures that we piloted at the local elections just past were reasonable and proportionate and have been shown to have worked. Furthermore, other countries already do this without problem. The overwhelming majority of people were able to cast their votes in these pilots without any issue. I look forward to considering the best next steps, informed by those pilots.

I am sure that the Electoral Commission will provide those who look for problems with a little bit of data to chew on, but the point is this: it seems to me that the Labour party is looking for problems. Actually, most voters regard this as a reasonable and sensible step that protects our democracy.

We agree about the importance of preventing voter fraud and other electoral malpractice. The Electoral Commission ruled that Leave.EU breached spending limits and other rules, fined the organisation and reported its responsible person to the police. What steps are the Government taking to address that and how will the Minister ensure that the issue of cheating in the Brexit referendum is pursued?

As you will know, Mr Speaker, given your role in connection with it, the Electoral Commission is an independent body. I am not able to respond at this point to questions about investigations that it is undertaking.

Government Procurement: Small Businesses

10. What steps his Department is taking to encourage the use of small businesses in Government procurement. (906094)

11. What steps his Department is taking to encourage the use of small businesses in Government procurement. (906095)

Small businesses are the backbone of our economy, and we are determined to continue to level the playing field so that they can compete for Government contracts. That is why in April I announced a number of measures to help achieve that and have recently met the Government’s strategic suppliers and Ministers in several Departments to ensure that those measures are delivered.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Specifically, how will coastal towns such as Southend-on-Sea benefit from the changes in this procurement procedure?

As my hon. Friend will know, small businesses generate more than 16 million jobs and we are determined to level the playing field so that those in coastal towns such as Southend get their fair share of prosperity and win Government contracts. I encourage businesses in Southend to look on Contracts Finder, on which more than 17,000 small businesses are already registered, for procurement opportunities.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is vital that we have a vibrant and mixed group of suppliers and small businesses from all corners of the UK, including Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and that they should all be considered equally in the procurement process?

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct. It is crucial to ensure that we have a diverse supplier base. We have made a number of changes to the Government procurement processes to assist small businesses, including requiring prime contractors to advertise subcontracting opportunities on the Government Contracts Finder. We also divide contracts into separate lots, including by region, when that makes commercial sense.

I thank the Minister for his responses. As seen from my recent work on the Public Accounts Committee, there sometimes appears to be a conflict between large strategic suppliers who see themselves as aggregators of several procurement contracts for small business and other instances in which small businesses would like to get certain contracts directly from Government. Will he explain the Government’s thinking on how to balance those two approaches?

We already require buying authorities to disaggregate contracts so that small and medium-sized enterprises can compete. However, there will, of course, be contracts in which disaggregation would affect value for money. That is why we recently announced that when large contractors are successful, they will be required to advertise those subcontracting opportunities on Contracts Finder, so that small businesses can bid.

What assessment has the Minister made of the cost implications where outsourced contracts have been overturned by the High Court because of incompetent procurement processes? I refer specifically to the expensive mess created by Conservative-controlled Lancashire County Council in connection with a Virgin contract for children’s services.

As the hon. Lady will know, the Cabinet Office has extensive processes to ensure successful procuring. If she is questioning the overall purpose of procuring, I refer her to the comments made earlier by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office. In addition, research shows that public authorities save at least 11% by contracting out services. That means more money for health and education.

The Minister referred to small businesses as the backbone of our economy. What plans does he have over this Parliament to strengthen that backbone and increase targets in terms of accessibility of procurement for small businesses?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. In the previous Parliament, we set and met a target of 25% of all Government procurement going to small businesses. We set a challenging target in this Parliament of a third of all procurement going to small businesses. I am taking a number of steps to help us to try to achieve that.

6. Thirty thousand Carillion suppliers are owed £2 billion in unpaid invoices. When will Ministers enforce the prompt payment rules for Government contracts and stand up for small businesses, or is the reality that under this Prime Minister the Conservatives really are the anti-business party? (906090)

We are absolutely committed to prompt payment. That is why the Government pay over 96% of their suppliers within 30 days. In respect of application to contracting, I have just announced a consultation to ensure we can exclude contractors if they fail to pay small businesses on time.

House of Lords

4. When the Government plan to respond to the report of the Lord Speaker’s Committee on the size of the House of Lords. (906088)

The Prime Minister responded to the Lord Speaker’s Committee on 20 February. In her response, she committed to do her bit to address the size of the House of Lords by continuing the restrained approach she has so far shown to appointments.

Thanks to the Minister’s actions during the debate here on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the couple of minutes that Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town had on devolution was more time than all the devolved MPs got collectively. Does the Minister think it acceptable that unelected Members of the House of Lords had more opportunity to debate the Government’s redrawing of the devolution settlement than any elected Member from Scotland?

As you will know, Mr Speaker, because you spent many hours in the Chair, we spent several hundred hours debating the Bill. I am proud that it has attained Royal Assent. I think we can all agree that that will provide greater certainty to businesses and citizens as we exit the EU. It is a shame that the Scottish National party seems not to be interested in that.

Does the Minister agree that the House of Lords would be vastly improved if it was smaller and democratic?

I echo what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said about the role we see for the House of Lords: it should continue as a scrutinising Chamber but respect the primacy of the Commons, which certainly is the democratically elected Chamber.

Does the Minister really think that next week’s by-election, with 31 electors who are the children and grandchildren of people who got there illegitimately, is, in a modern democracy, the right way to elect Members of Parliament in another place?

The right hon. Gentleman is an experienced Labour Member of Parliament, so he might recall that Labour had a hand in the legislation that guides this process. He will also recall that the Conservative party won the general election on a manifesto that said it would not prioritise reform of the House of Lords.

It is all very well the hon. Gentleman breezily declaring, “Never mind about the House of Lords.” The question, inconveniently for him, is focused on the House of Lords. Generosity gets the better of me, however, and I am itching to hear the ministerial reply.

Mr Speaker, I think the simplest answer is that the Boundary Commission will return with its proposals shortly and the House will have the pleasure of looking at them.

Senior Public Appointments: Widening Access

We want to ensure that public boards represent the people they serve. That is why in December we launched our diversity action plan, which committed to 50% women and 14% ethnic minority representation by 2020. Just last month, I appointed Lord Christopher Holmes to undertake a review of removing barriers that disabled people might face when applying for public appointments.

What proportion of appointments made to public bodies are people from working-class backgrounds and what proportion went to private school?

The hon. Lady raises a very important point about our making sure that public appointments reflect the country as a whole. That is why we have taken a number of measures to increase diversity based on the Bridge report recommendations.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that we have a huge amount of talent for public appointments, including in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, so will he set out what he is doing to ensure that regional voices are heard around senior public appointments?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Diversity means not just ethnic diversity or gender diversity, but regional diversity. That is why, for example, we recently held an event in Glasgow to encourage people in Scotland to apply for public appointments.

One way in which we could widen public appointments is to limit the amount of them to just two per person, instead of the gravy train that seems to appear as far as public appointments are concerned.

As ever, my right hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and I take on board his recommendation. Diversity also means ensuring that we do not have the same old faces constantly applying for and succeeding in winning public appointments. That is why, as part of our diversity measures, we are encouraging a wider array of people to apply for public appointments.

Does my hon. Friend think that online abuse acts as a deterrent to people putting themselves forward not just for elected office, but for public appointments? Does he also agree that such abuse should be dealt with robustly and that we all have a responsibility to call it out?

Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we will be launching a consultation shortly to deal with exactly that point.

Edward Timpson was appointed chair of the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service and of the new Child Safeguarding Practice Review Panel. Andrew Tyrie has been appointed chair of the Competition and Markets Authority. Baroness Stowell was appointed chair of the Charity Commission. They are all probably worthy appointments individually, but a clear pattern is emerging, so will the Minister confirm that the main criteria now for senior public appointments is that someone has to be a former Tory MP or Cabinet Minister?

As ever, the hon. Gentleman makes a rhetorical flourish. Sadly, the facts just do not bear it out. The Government’s code for public appointments is clear that political activity is neither a judgment of merit nor a bar to becoming a political appointee. If he looks at the statistics, he will see that of 1,000 candidates in the past year—2016-17—4.9% were Conservative and 4.8% were Labour.

National Democracy Week

National Democracy Week begins on Monday and events will take place across the United Kingdom, encouraging everyone to get involved in our democracy. I thank those partners who are helping particularly to make sure that we reach under-registered groups. I hope that Members across the House will support it.

National Democracy Week is about encouraging people to be active British citizens. What steps have been taken to extend the National Citizen Service to Scotland, so that my constituents can have the same opportunities as others throughout the United Kingdom?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for National Democracy Week and for the National Citizen Service. Funding is available for the devolved Administrations to deliver the NCS, although the decision is a matter for them. As a proud Unionist like him, I would like to see young people across the United Kingdom benefiting from it.

I am just wondering how the Government can, with a straight face, celebrate something called National Democracy Week when they are completely undermining democracy in this country by passing laws without the consent of the Scottish Parliament, ripping up the Sewel convention and fundamentally undermining devolution.

There was not a question in that, but none the less, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. This Government believe fundamentally in the treatment that our House of Commons has given to the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which will now serve our country, in leaving the European Union, with certainty for businesses and citizens.

I think a fair interpretation is that it was a rhetorical question, which is not entirely without precedent in the history of the House of Commons.

Voter ID Pilots

My Department has not received any representations about the legality of the pilots. The powers to make the pilot scheme orders are in section 10 of the Representation of the People Act 2000, which was, of course, passed by Parliament. Those powers enable changes to be made to rules regarding the conduct of any local elections in England and Wales.

At the last general election, my constituency had the lowest turnout in the UK, and it also has a low registration rate. What kind of democracy are we living in when the Government actively pursue a scheme that results in people being denied the vote, as was shown by the pilot in May, instead of seeking better engagement and participation in our democracy by potential voters?

The hon. Gentleman will have just heard me setting out measures to encourage more people to be involved in our democracy. He knows, as I hope does every Opposition Member, that there is a point of principle at stake here. Do we defend our system from fraud or do we not?

Two barristers have concluded that there is no provision in the Representation of the People Act to introduce schemes by secondary legislation that restrict or discourage voting, and that the scheme is therefore beyond the scope of the law. Can the Minister reassure the House that she acted within the law?

Yes, I can. I can also reassure those listening that this is clearly a series of Labour Whips’ handout questions.

The Labour party might like to reflect on the fact that it was its 2000 Act that allowed the pilots to be run.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Laura Smith) is signalling that that was very much her own question. It has to be said that Whips’ handouts are also not unprecedented in the House, but she is keen to draw attention to her own independent mindedness on this important matter.

I recently spoke at an event at Newbattle Abbey College in my constituency about encouraging people to vote—no Whips were in attendance. Meanwhile, the Government’s voter ID pilots saw at least 340 people turned away, and many more would have been discouraged from voting. Is this not a slap in the face of people who are working hard to encourage people to vote?

To be clear, that was 340 out of a total of more than 230,000. I also want to be clear on the matter of principle. The Labour party accepts this principle for its own selection meetings, where it routinely asks for ID from members. Is this good enough for Labour but not for the rest of the country?

Topical Questions

The private sector has a vital role to play in delivering public services and is something that this Government will continue to champion. Earlier this week, I announced new measures in the wake of the collapse of Carillion to promote and deepen responsible capitalism, whereby everyone plays by the same rules and businesses recognise their duties and obligations to wider society. That is in line with the Government’s commitment to deliver an economy that works for everyone.

As Carillion showed, the outsourcing of Government contracts is nothing but a gamble with jobs and public money. When will the Tories put the public interest first instead of their friends, spivs and speculators?

The collapse of Carillion has shown that outsourcing genuinely transfers risk from taxpayers to shareholders, directors and lenders—to the private sector company.

T2. What work has the Cabinet Office done to ensure that Departments have the skills and people required to deliver a successful exit from the European Union? (906101)

My hon. Friend is right to ask that question. We are focused on ensuring that we deliver a successful and positive exit from the European Union. The Cabinet Office works closely with colleagues in the Department for Exiting the European Union and other Departments to ensure that all those places are professionally filled. I can confirm that, as of the end of March 2018, some 5,500 staff have been recruited to the Departments most affected.

We empathise with the hon. Gentleman. It is okay; maybe some lozenge will be provided, or some water. Please, let us hear the question.

Was that heard? I apologise to the hon. Gentleman, but I think we may have to ask someone else to ask his question for him.

I take it that the hon. Gentleman, through the hon. Lady, was asking for examples of successful outsourcing. I refer him to the outsourcing of the teachers’ pension scheme, which has cut administrative costs by nearly half, to the benefit of pension scheme members.

T3. What progress has my hon. Friend made in allowing the Jain community to declare their religion in the new census, and will she agree to meet a delegation from the community? (906102)

Yes, and I look forward to that meeting. Since the response to consultation on the matter in May 2016, the Office for National Statistics has continued to consult stakeholders, and has met the members of the all-party group on Jainism. It is considering all the evidence provided, and will finalise its recommendations shortly.

T7. Will the Minister please explain how the Government justify wasting time and taxpayers’ money on the “testing and scrutiny” of contractual arrangements, only to ignore their own highest possible risk rating for Capita and award it the fire and rescue contract? (906106)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Cabinet Office has extensive functions to ensure that we award contracts only to companies that offer the very best value, and that was exactly the case in that instance.

T4. What progress is the Department making in implementing the findings of the race disparity audit? (906103)

The Government have committed themselves to explaining or changing ethnic disparities highlighted by the audit. We have already announced action on criminal justice, employment support, school exclusions and youth unemployment, and we continue to talk to a range of stakeholders to take that work further.

You will recall, Mr Speaker, that representatives of Wick High School were here last week—thank you for your kind remarks about them. Does the Minister agree that bringing schools the length and breadth of Britain, including my faraway constituency, to the House will do much for learning about democracy here in the mother of Parliaments?

Yes. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s constituents to this place. I hope that they will find things of interest to them during National Democracy Week, and that the resource packs that are available to all parliamentarians will enable them to make the most of it.

T5. What recent discussions has my hon. Friend had with Cabinet colleagues about the cost to the taxpayer of public sector workers’ taking trade union facility time? (906104)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For too long, unions in the public sector have received taxpayer funding for an activity that is inadequately controlled and poor value for money, which is why we are introducing transparency in respect of facility time. We believe that proper management could save our taxpayers up to £100 million.

The anniversary of the Prime Minister’s announcement of a public inquiry into contaminated blood is fast approaching. Can we expect a statement in the House to say that the terms of reference have finally been agreed and the public inquiry can get on with its work?

I am acutely aware of that anniversary date, and the justifiable expectations of survivors of that tragedy. I have sent the draft terms of reference proposed by the chair of the inquiry to the devolved Administrations, as I am obliged to do. I hope that I can announce the full details as rapidly as possible.

T8. What reassurance can my hon. Friend give that Departments will work together to deliver our ambitious plans to create more jobs and prosperity in Weymouth and on the Isle of Portland in the years ahead? (906107)

Departments across the Government are committed to working with local partners in Weymouth and Portland to build jobs and prosperity. In July, representatives of a range of Departments will visit local partners to see for themselves the enormous opportunities that exist in the area, and to identify how Government policies and programmes could help to support their ambitions.