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House of Commons

Wednesday 6 February 2008

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Duchy of Lancaster

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

Media Advisers

1. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): How many communications, press and marketing staff were employed in the civil service in (a) 1996-97 and (b) 2006-07. [184599]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Edward Miliband): In a civil service of 500,000, there are approximately 400 press officers in Whitehall Departments. The Central Office of Information white book lists 3,250 Government entries, but this includes a range of functions such as providing information to the public through publications, websites and campaigns around issues such as road safety, public health and smoking. There are no directly comparable figures for 1996-97.

Andrew Selous: Government is about choices, so why have this Government put PR above police pay?

Edward Miliband: Government is indeed about choices. I will tell the hon. Gentleman one thing that this Government have increased spending on, because it is something close to his heart: advertising for public information on health. In 1997-98, we spent £2 million; in the last year for which figures are available, 2006-07, we spent £43 million. That is about making choices to inform people about healthy living and how they can improve their own health. I would have thought that he would welcome that.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that the threats to the health of the public in the 21st century will be exactly as he describes—the lifestyles that we all, young and old, have in this country? Public information about smoking and childhood obesity are vitally important, and it would be completely irresponsible for any Government not to ensure that good messages get through to protect people’s health.

Edward Miliband: My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to the work that he did in leading the campaign on smoking in the workplace and the ban
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that was introduced. His work, and that of hon. Members in all parts of the House, made the difference in that campaign. He is right that we need to do more to inform the public about the dangers of second-hand smoking, for example, and that is another area that the Government have been investing in.

David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Is not the real problem that during the tenure of this Government the roles of public relations people, civil servants and political advisers have got incredibly muddled and mixed up? We need a new civil service Act to define very clearly what civil servants should do and what political operators should do.

Edward Miliband: I do not necessarily accept the premise of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I bring him good news: as part of the constitutional renewal Bill, we will legislate for the principles of a civil service Act. I hope that he will welcome that Bill and engage with it. I also point out that the Prime Minister has repealed the Orders in Council relating to the civil service that some people had criticised. I hope that the hon. Gentleman also welcomes that, and I look forward to his support for our Bill.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The Minister will be pleased to acquire the talents of the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), who is now part of his team. He is a true communications guru. He is a pioneering blogger and a highly influential letter writer, and he even produced for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) the widely respected YouTube spoof of the Leader of the Opposition. Now that his Cabinet Office has the benefit of such talented communications skills—and, of course, those of the other Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Corby (Phil Hope)—why does it need 35 communications officers, including one supporting each of the three Ministers?

Edward Miliband: There are eight press officers in the Cabinet Office. Once again, the hon. Gentleman, in common with his hon. Friends who have already spoken, undervalues the importance of information. The Government would be criticised if we were not providing information to people through websites and through other forms of communication. Interestingly, listed in the Government white book are people who work on Directgov, which is the site that provides information to millions of people around this country on the issues that matter to them. The hon. Gentleman should welcome what we are doing on this, not criticise it.

Public Spaces

2. Ms Dawn Butler (Brent, South) (Lab): What support the Government plan to provide to help local people make use of high-quality public spaces for voluntary activities in the next three years. [184600]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): The Government are committed to providing opportunities for local third sector organisations and public bodies to work together to ensure the best use of
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public spaces and buildings. The new £30 million community assets programme will provide grants to improve local authority assets so that they can be transferred to community ownership. That is just one element of a broad programme of support for local authorities and third sector organisations to develop quality partnerships to ensure the best use of high-quality assets.

Ms Butler: I thank the Minister for his response. In line with that answer, on 15 March, Wembley stadium will open its doors to voluntary organisations and the London borough of Brent to talk about facilities and its football development programme. Does my hon. Friend agree that that programme, along with the extended schools programme, is one of the right steps forward in making sure that our young people keep fitter, and in the development of stars for the future? As we are talking about Wembley, will the Minister also join me in congratulating the football—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Phil Hope: I wish the England team and their new manager every success—that is one European partnership that I am sure the whole House would want to support. I congratulate Wembley and Brent council for creating their new partnership. There are many football teams throughout the leagues that create such partnerships, and they bring real benefits, such as new learning centres and the engagement of young people in their communities in imaginative ways that provide them with constructive alternatives and opportunities for learning. I shall visit Watford football club in the near future to learn about the success it is having in improving the community around its town.

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I welcome this new initiative, and any help to local and voluntary groups is always welcome. However, is not the real support that the third sector wants from the Government the provision of more clarity and long-term core funding? What can the Minister tell us about the real help that local groups in all our constituencies are looking for?

Phil Hope: I have some very good news for the hon. Gentleman. If he reads today’s edition of The Guardian, he will see an announcement about the new Grassroots Grants campaign. That grant regime will provide a flow of revenue funding, which is particularly targeted at small, local voluntary organisations, whose grant needs often get overlooked. It will be rolling out from this summer through local providers, and it will consist of not only a revenue stream, but an endowment fund to provide sustainable funding for local voluntary organisations over the years ahead.

Martin Linton (Battersea) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating the happy campaigners of the Gwynneth Morgan day centre, whom he visited recently, on their campaigns on pavements and post offices, which took place with the help and encouragement of his Department? Does he agree that campaigning is an important activity for voluntary organisations and charities?

Phil Hope: We had an excellent morning in Wandsworth with the happy campaigners. The group is a Leonard Cheshire group, and it is standing up for the needs of its community. It is campaigning for better pavements in particular. We want to see such campaigning throughout
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the country—people with needs in their local areas having a voice. We want those who do not have a voice, who are the most marginalised, to have the opportunity to speak up and get public services to respond to their needs. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he does in his constituency in standing up for groups that are often the most overlooked.

Information Assurance

3. Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the Cabinet Office in providing information assurance across Government. [184601]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Tom Watson): The Cabinet Office sets out the strategic direction for information assurance in Government. Individual Departments are responsible for following the strategy and protecting the data that they hold.

Mr. Vara: Will the Minister finally confirm what is abundantly clear to the rest of the country—that there is insufficient Government information assurance for schemes such as ID cards and national road pricing?

Mr. Watson: The Government take information assurance very seriously, and the hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to know that I have spent a lot of time in my new post understanding this new brief. The Prime Minister announced that the new Secretary of State for Wales will be increasing ministerial firepower on the matter, and any lessons that have to be learnt, will be.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his new appointment. When he considers the failures that there have been in data security, he will find a common thread. It is not a policy failure, but a failure of management and training. Will he look at what the private sector does to ensure that people are properly trained and that they are aware of their obligations under privacy legislation, and will he ensure that such rules are adopted in the civil service?

Mr. Watson: I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. I know that he is an recognised expert in this House on information assurance. His points on training are important and one of the early indications from the O’Donnell review is that there is a role for enhanced training. If such training is required to be mandatory, it probably should be.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): I welcome the Minister back to the Dispatch Box; no doubt that is his reward for his part in dispatching the previous Prime Minister.

Two years ago the Walport report called for the Government to improve data security, warning that leaks of personal data would damage the Government’s reputation. A year ago, Sir Edmund Burton, the Cabinet Office’s own adviser on information assurance, pointed out a systemic lack of awareness of data security throughout the Government. Just last summer, the Coleman report raised concerns—a report that it is now clear that no
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Minister actually bothered to read. After all those warnings, and after 25 million bank details have gone missing, benefit files were dumped on a roundabout and 3 million drivers’ records were lost in Iowa, of all places, why are we still seeing personal data disasters week after week?

Mr. Watson: Let me repeat my earlier answer: we take the matter seriously, and the information assurance strategy launched last June increased Government security. The O’Donnell review, when it reports, will again improve Government policy. Four principles underpin our approach to that review. We require enhanced transparency, increased monitoring, improved guidance and better, and possibly mandatory, training.

Mr. Maude: How many reports does the Minister need? He has had three so far. The problem is not a lack of transparency, but a great deal too much of it in respect of personal data.

Nick Coleman said in his report last year that

Is not that the clearest possible indication that the Government can never be trusted with all the personal data involved in setting up a national ID card? When will Ministers at the centre of Government show some leadership, get a grip and start to protect the public’s personal data, which are constantly being put at risk?

Mr. Watson: The O’Donnell review is already changing Departments’ activities. The right hon. Gentleman and I both aspire to a cultural change in Government. Our hard-working civil servants should deal with people’s personal information in the same way as they deal with taxpayers’ money. That is a contemporary challenge for Government. Twenty-five years ago, when the right hon. Gentleman first entered Parliament—and when his Front-Bench colleague the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and I were probably playing “Manic Miner” on a 48-kilobyte ZX Spectrum—the information that can now be held on a DVD would have filled 400 filing cabinets. We are rising to that contemporary challenge and Departments are taking action.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): The Government want the Information Commissioner to carry out spot checks on Departments to ensure that data are secure. Is that happening and does the Information Commissioner have enough staff to make a decent job of it?

Mr. Watson: That is a matter for the Information Commissioner, but we will give him all the support he requires in doing that job. Indeed, that was announced in the interim review from the O’Donnell report.

Voluntary Sector (2012 Olympics)

4. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of the impact of the UK’s hosting the 2012 Olympics on the funding available for voluntary sector organisations. [184602]

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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Phil Hope): The Olympics will bring huge benefits to the whole country and the Big Lottery Fund has introduced important safeguards to protect the amount of funding available to voluntary sector organisations. The fund has ensured that no existing lottery projects will be affected and that the original estimated £2 billion over the next five years will continue to be available for the third sector.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am sure that the Minister knows that the Big Lottery Fund has allocated resources to many thousands of important and valuable voluntary organisations and clubs. Although I welcome the Government’s assurance that there will be no further raids on good causes, will he please confirm that the voluntary sector will get the same amount of funding from the Big Lottery Fund, or the same share of funding, as it now receives?

Phil Hope: That was the point of my original answer. I confirm that the original estimate of £2 billion for the next five years will be available for the third sector. If the hon. Gentleman is so concerned for the Big Lottery Fund to give its resources to the third sector, he might have a word with Conservative Front Benchers, who recently announced that they would cut £250 million from the amount going from the fund to the Olympics. That would take £250 million away from the voluntary sector.

Derek Wyatt (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Lab): One of the positive aspects of London 2012 is that more than 100,000 people will volunteer. Will the Minister consider creating a national vocational qualification for volunteering and, most of all, establishing an Olympic volunteers day that will connect not only this country but all the cities that have hosted the Olympics throughout the world since 1896?

Phil Hope: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his contribution to work on the Olympics. He and I played rugby together many years ago in the parliamentary rugby team—something that we will probably not do again in future. The volunteers to whom he refers are essential. Qualifications that volunteers can attain, as part of acknowledging the contribution that they make, are an important part of the process of accreditation that we would like to happen. This is, of course, a matter for voluntary organisations and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, but my hon. Friend is right to raise the issue, because there are genuine opportunities to be taken.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): One of the strengths of the Big Lottery Fund has been the fact that it funds not only the third sector, but the statutory and private organisations that partner that sector. That is where the cuts of £425 million will fall. Will the Minister make it clear what impact he thinks those cuts will have on the ability to deliver real outputs and projects on the ground?

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