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House of Commons

Wednesday 31 October 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of London (Ward Elections) Bill

Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Civil Service Recruitment

1. Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough): What steps he is taking to ensure equality of opportunity in recruitment to the civil service. [9279]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The Government are strongly committed to equality of opportunity and to creating an open and modern civil service that fully reflects the United Kingdom.

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Departments have set themselves challenging diversity targets for their staff at all levels, nationally and regionally. Each year heads of department account personally to Ministers on their progress and on future plans.

Helen Jackson: I thank the Minister for that answer. May I offer my congratulations? I was glad to see that in October last year nearly half the civil service were women and nearly 7 per cent. were from ethnic minorities, but what goes wrong after that, because fewer than one in five, or 20 per cent. of those female civil servants reach the senior grades? What happens under the internal promotion procedures? I am sure that he will be aware that the Labour party has taken action. Will he ensure that the Government do the same?

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend has the statistics down pat. It is true that half of the civil service are women but that only just over 20 per cent. of the senior ranks are female. There is a lot of work to do and we have set challenging targets—35 per cent. of senior grades to be held by women in 2005. A lot of work can be done not only at the stage of encouraging applications, but when we shortlist and assess people for promotion. There is, however, a lot more work to be done, but I take my hon. Friend's comments to heart.

Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I applaud the steps that the Government have taken to encourage and develop the careers of women and of people from black and ethnic minorities. Does the Minister appreciate that people joining the civil service are joining a public not a political service? Will he personally take steps to ensure that fellow Ministers appreciate that the independence and integrity of the civil service are fundamental? Whenever his colleagues develop a blame culture or respond to adverse headlines with "Shoot the manager", they do a disservice to equality in the service as well as to the service at large.

Mr. Leslie: The civil service is a fine institution and long may it continue to be so and to be independent and impartial. There are a number of ways in which we ensure that. The code of conduct for the civil service is scrupulously observed. It is also important that we get new talent and blood into the civil service to ensure that we have diversity not just for the sake of it but to enrich the talent that can serve and improve public services at large.

Policy Objectives

2. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): If he will make a statement on his role in ensuring more effective delivery of policy objectives. [9280]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mrs. Barbara Roche): The Deputy Prime Minister's main role is to support and deputise as necessary for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and to help oversee the delivery of key Government priorities.

Mr. Blizzard: I welcome that new delivery role. I will give my hon. Friend an example of why it is necessary. Earlier this year, because of the crisis in the fishing industry, the Government allocated £5.5 million for

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fishing communities, which was wonderful news. Six months later, however, we realised that the way in which the money had been distributed throughout the country was bizarre. Some of the things that it has been spent on bear no relation to the reason why the fund was set up.

Although Ministers issued guidelines, which stated that they did not want to be prescriptive, my local council maintains that the rules on spending are prohibitive. When we end up with Lowestoft, which is the country's third largest fishing port and accounts for 10 per cent. of the nation's catch, being offered only £65,000 out of £5.5 million, something is wrong. Will my hon. Friend consider that matter and the accountability of the regional development agencies, which were asked to deliver the initiative?

Mrs. Roche: Of course I understand my hon. Friend's concern. He has raised this issue in the House before. The delivery unit's remit is to deal with key priorities on health, education, transport and reducing crime. I will undertake, however, to bring my hon. Friend's concerns to the attention of the Department.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): Can the Minister explain how the Cabinet Office can have any real influence on the delivery of policy when the Treasury sets Government and policy targets and controls the budgets that Departments have to deliver those policies?

Mrs. Roche: Of course the Treasury has a key role to play, through the usual arrangements, to ensure that all Departments keep to their priorities and deliver. The Prime Minister's delivery unit, which is working successfully alongside the Treasury, in its role of co-ordinator, is ensuring that these matters are dealt with.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): Does the Minister recognise that to meet the need to deliver locally we must have excellent public servants? There are many of those throughout the country; however, they are constrained by the level of initiatives that the Government are introducing. Will the delivery unit try to reduce the number of initiatives and the number of forms and applications that have to be completed to implement the excellent policies that need to be delivered to local constituents? Will she ensure greater co-ordination across the board to offer them more realistic opportunities?

Mrs. Roche: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Part of my job is to go and talk to local councillors and to people in Government offices. We need to ensure that some of our public funding programmes are much more accessible to local communities and local groups. We need to simplify those programmes, and that is exactly the sort of work on which we are engaged.

Emergency Planning

3. Sandra Gidley (Romsey): If he will make a statement on his Department's recent activity regarding emergency planning. [9282]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie): The civil contingencies secretariat at the Cabinet Office is co-ordinating the work

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of the Civil Contingencies Cabinet Committee, chaired by the Home Secretary, and is comprehensively reviewing the nation's ability to deal with emergencies. The secretariat is also taking forward the review of emergency planning in England and Wales announced by the Cabinet Office in August.

Sandra Gidley: Is the Minister aware that the emergency planning officers who are responsible for delivering those plans on the ground have received only two communications from central Government since 11 September, one of which was to ask for the confirmation of a fax number? When the Minister's Department was asked whether it had responsibility for emergency planning, the response was, "Kind of." Is that acceptable and does the Minister agree that a Minister of Cabinet rank should be appointed to take charge of civil contingencies until further notice? The current situation is unacceptable. I would like to feel that somebody is taking overall responsibility; I am sure the House would and I am convinced the public would.

Mr. Leslie: There is a Minister of Cabinet rank in charge of civil contingencies: the Home Secretary, who chairs the Civil Contingencies Committee of the Cabinet. The Cabinet Office helps, through its secretariat, to co-ordinate the activities of all Departments; well worked plans are in place across all the critical elements of the national infrastructure to make sure that Britain stands ready to cope with whatever emergency situations may arise.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): My hon. Friend is aware of my interest and that of my constituents in the whole issue of emergency planning and of the work that has recently been done locally. I am sure that he will join me in congratulating the officers of the local authority and the public servants who have delivered their functions so well. Can he explain why the role of emergency planning is not firmly established on a statutory basis?

Mr. Leslie: The review announced by the Cabinet Office in August is indeed examining the question of statutory footing for emergency planning. In fact, the consultation period for that document ends today. The Government will be considering the legislative background to emergency planning. In general, having worked closely on such matters, I believe that the arrangements and structures that are in place are adequate and capable of dealing with a whole series of eventualities.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield): I am genuinely seeking information and help from the Minister. [Interruption.] Does he accept that foot and mouth was an emergency, and will he therefore give some consideration, through his office, to re-establishing the regional committees of the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? Those committees could have done an amazingly helpful job in reducing the terrible and horrific impact of foot and mouth. The committees were phased out, but if they had been in operation they could have played a valuable role.

Mr. Leslie: As with flooding, there are lessons for all Departments to learn from foot and mouth. A number of

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those lessons have been incorporated in the contingencies that are now in place to deal with events post-11 September. With specific reference to foot and mouth, I understand that the Government offices in the regions were significant contributors to regional operations centres during the whole crisis. That is certainly an area in which more work can be done and it will be developed in the future.

Ms Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North): May I press my right hon. Friend further on the role of the civil contingencies secretariat? I greatly welcome the recent consultation on emergency planning, but it is vital that we place it on a statutory basis. Given that the Home Secretary has taken some of that work forward, and although we do not wish to be alarmist about events after 11 September, I still believe that it is important that we give the Cabinet Office all possible support to ensure that organisations such as the Chartered Institution of Environmental Health have an active role in influencing what is placed on the statute book. Such legislation should be properly implemented and properly monitored.

Mr. Leslie: My hon. Friend makes several useful points, particularly about the expertise that is available from outside Government on emergency planning; it is not the preserve of Government Departments alone. I believe that it is our duty to ensure that we have plans to detect and prepare against any eventuality as well as respond and recover, and the Cabinet Office will help to co-ordinate that under the leadership of the Home Secretary.

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