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House of Commons

Wednesday 1 July 2009

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock.


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Cabinet Office

The Minister for the Cabinet Office was asked—

Civil Service Reform

1. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): What recent representations she has received on reform of the civil service. [283134]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and for the Olympics, and Paymaster General (Tessa Jowell): I have not received any specific representations on civil service reform, but this House knows that we remain committed to ensuring that the civil service is transparent and accountable and delivers the maximum value for every public pound of investment.

David Taylor: For civil service reforms to have an impact outside Whitehall, we need fuller information about the activities of senior civil servants. The delayed publication of the 2007 hospitality lists was just a start. Should we not, for example, place in the public domain permanent secretaries’ diaries? Would that not help to create the sort of transparency that the public expect nowadays from unelected officials, and help to refresh the machinery of government as part of real constitutional renewal?

Tessa Jowell: I know of my hon. Friend’s interest in the issue, and he will know about the commitment to transparency in publishing all details of senior civil service hospitality and expenses. He will also know that the Cabinet Secretary yesterday took the first step in publishing his own expenses, a move that was warmly welcomed by the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Does the Minister believe that it is proper that when the civil service code is drafted it should be scrutinised by Parliament as part of a Bill, rather than as secondary legislation?

Tessa Jowell: The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are committed to placing the civil service code on a statutory basis. That forms part of the Constitutional Renewal Bill that will come before the House. As with all these things, the challenge is to find legislative time, but the important point is that the civil
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service has taken very substantial steps to improve and to enhance accountability without legislation, and that is to be welcomed.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): Should we not warmly congratulate the Cabinet Secretary on publishing his own expenses, and also those of all top senior civil servants, and is that not an example to the wider public sector?

Tessa Jowell: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham) (Con): It is a pleasure to congratulate the Paymaster General and the Minister of State on their appointments. We look forward to having many fruitful discussions both across the Dispatch Box and elsewhere.

A report in May by PricewaterhouseCoopers found that finance directors in central Government Departments do not “have a pivotal place” at the public sector “top table” and

In light of the crying need for greater efficiency in the face of Britain’s worsening public finances, does the Minister agree that the status and authority of such finance directors need to be raised to the same level as that which they enjoy in the private sector?

Tessa Jowell: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I entirely agree with his sentiment. The value-for-money discipline that the finance director ultimately oversees needs to be a cultural discipline in Government Departments, promoted in every possible way with maximum transparency. I would also draw to his attention and underline, however, the success of the savings made by central Government through the civil service as a result of the Gershon review: £26 billion worth of savings have been made, with plans for a further £35 billion worth of savings, in order that we can continue to invest in public services as we believe the public wish.

Mr. Maude: We are familiar with the numbers that the Paymaster General has just read out, but we are slightly less convinced about their relationship with the reality of efficiencies actually delivered. Will she confirm that the now much delayed Constitutional Renewal Bill will include provisions that were in the draft Civil Service Bill, which was promised for more than a decade but still has not seen the light of day in Parliament? Will the Constitutional Renewal Bill contain provisions on special advisers? Given the corrosive effect of some special advisers on the quality and integrity of government, should not the Bill place a cap on their number and reassert in law that their role is to advise Ministers and not to direct the civil service—or does the fact that Damian McBride is apparently still in contact with Ministers just go to show that a change of culture within Whitehall will not happen without a change of Government?

Tessa Jowell: If the right hon. Gentleman is going to make assertions such as the one he made in relation to Damian McBride, he needs to provide some evidence. The important step the Government have taken has been to publish—the Prime Minister has been absolutely unequivocal about this—a code for special advisers,
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which was very recently updated to underline with absolute clarity special advisers’ responsibilities. I would just add that it is very easy to abuse special advisers as a category on the basis of the bad behaviour of a tiny minority, but in my view they greatly enhance the effective working of government, and that should be welcomed.

Business Disruption Plans

2. Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): What steps her Department is taking as part of its civil contingencies responsibilities to increase the proportion of small businesses which have a business disruption plan. [283135]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and for the Olympics, and Paymaster General (Tessa Jowell): The Civil Contingencies Act 2004 places a duty on local authorities to provide business continuity advice, which ensures that advice reflects local conditions at times of emergency and meets local needs. To support that work, the Government have set up a business continuity advice line and in 2008 we published a national risk register to encourage organisations to prepare for the impact of business disruption. In addition, we are supporting the quality of that advice by the adoption of a British standard for business continuity.

Lorely Burt: In March, a Cabinet Office survey found that the proportion of small businesses that had a business continuity plan fell from 25 per cent. to only 14 per cent. The possibility of allowing a premium discount with insurers was being considered to see whether that would reverse the trend in respect of companies that had a business disruption plan. Will the Minister say whether she agrees with that strategy and how far the Cabinet Office has got with that investigation?

Tessa Jowell: It is clearly the responsibility of local authorities to pursue that policy with their small businesses and through their local organisations. However, the figures to which the hon. Lady refers rightly give cause for concern, and I am happy to write to her further about that matter.

Voluntary Sector

3. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): What assessment she has made of the effects of the economic downturn on the financial viability of the voluntary sector; and if she will make a statement. [283137]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Angela E. Smith): We recognise that there is a double challenge for the sector during the economic downturn: not only is there an increased demand for services, but there are concerns about financial viability. In response, we have devised a significant package of support for the third sector comprising up to £42.5 million of targeted supported, which is delivering real help now, when it is needed, and the £16.7 million hardship fund announced in the Budget in April. In addition, the sector will have a share in the £1.2 billion future jobs fund. That is a comprehensive package of measures. It includes support for volunteers, grants for small organisations and social enterprises, support for jobs and loans to assist partnership working.

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John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for her extensive answer and I welcome her to her post. Does she realise that some people, particularly those with economic problems and the charities that deal with such problems, are encountering more difficulties than others? As money is being filtered into the Olympics as well, such people are finding it very hard to make ends meet these days. What additional help can be given to those people, particularly those who are having problems balancing their house budgets?

Angela E. Smith: It was an extensive answer because it is an extensive package of support. The two key things that I should point out to my hon. Friend are the £42 million-plus package, which will support in various ways those organisations facing difficulties because of the recession, and the hardship fund. That will apply in a number of different ways, and charities and voluntary organisations will find it very useful. In addition, £515 million of support is available generally from the Office of the Third Sector. All those things coming together will provide significant help through these difficult times.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Please will the Minister make an assessment of the impact, during the economic downturn, on charities and others of the area charging regime used by water companies? The rain tax is having a substantial impact across the country. There is not a charitable organisation in my constituency, be it a charity shop, a scout group, a church or any other voluntary group, that is not being adversely affected by the tax.

Angela E. Smith: I certainly understand the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, because all of us, as individual Members of Parliament, receive correspondence from a wide range of organisations in our constituencies. I understand that this matter is being examined by the regulators and that Ministers have been talking to them in order to look into it.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend find time to examine the proposal made only a few months ago—I understand that it is still subject to detailed evaluation in her Department—for lifetime legacies to be brought into the field of charitable giving? That would make a big difference at a time of great difficulty for charities.

Angela E. Smith: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. I know that other countries, in particular the United States, have taken on board lifetime legacies in a significant way. I shall look into the matter, because we want to ensure that charities, the voluntary sector and the third sector as a whole can access support when they need it. That is one area that we can consider.

Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): May I press the new Minister for a better answer to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key)? Church groups, scout groups and sports clubs face crippling hikes in their water bills as a result of the proposed changes. Three months ago, I asked the previous Minister whether he would consider a moratorium, at least until an impact assessment was carried out. He said that he would speak to colleagues across Government, but we have heard nothing and time is running out. In
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welcoming the members of the new team, may I ask them what their view is? Will they consider a moratorium or the idea of a special social tariff, or will they continue the policy of doing nothing?

Angela E. Smith: That is an interesting question from the party that privatised the water industry, which has had a direct impact on the bills that are being seen today. After three weeks in office, I do not have a final answer for the hon. Gentleman and I am sure that he will understand that I want to look into the matter. We understand the concerns that have been raised and we are talking to colleagues in Government and the regulators about the issue.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that among the hardest hit by the recession are young people. How will the hardship fund in particular, and the voluntary sector in general, help young people to obtain the necessary skills that they need to get through the recession and find much needed jobs at the end of it?

Angela E. Smith: My hon. Friend has hit on a key point. By volunteering or becoming involved in the third sector, people gain skills that help them into employment. For young people specifically, I would point her to the charity v, which has significant funding from the Government and is building a database of volunteering opportunities for young people. Many of those enable young people to gain skills that will lead them into work. V also provides support to ensure that volunteering is an activity that builds new skills.

Democratic Renewal

4. Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): What discussions she has had with ministerial colleagues on co-ordination of Government policy on democratic renewal. [283139]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and for the Olympics, and Paymaster General (Tessa Jowell): As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, there have been extensive ministerial discussions about democratic renewal. The Prime Minister has announced the creation of a new democratic renewal council to drive forward the Government’s commitment to further reform. We have already introduced the Parliamentary Standards Bill and published our draft legislative programme, which includes the Constitutional Renewal Bill.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: The Minister mentioned the Prime Minister. Is she aware that he wrote two letters in March to Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life, asking the committee to look into the whole question of Members’ remuneration, allowances and outside interests, covering what the Prime Minister called “the full picture”? Why then are the Government rushing through the House a Bill on the constitution that deals with precisely those matters before Sir Christopher Kelly’s recommendations? Is not this all about bad government and saving the Prime Minister’s political skin?

Tessa Jowell: No, the Prime Minister’s sole concern is to restore public confidence in politics and the way in which this House and Members conduct their business.
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That is why he took the initiative, in the light of all the expenses revelations, to bring forward specific proposals. He has made it clear that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry is independent and that we will accept its recommendations when they are published in the autumn. However, it was clear that the public wanted action now, and the Prime Minister and the Government have acted on that.

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the Paymaster General agree that it is most unfortunate that Sir Christopher Kelly’s inquiry, ranging as it does across all aspects of the House, has chosen today to be in Northern Ireland, when it is Prime Minister’s questions and the majority of Members from Northern Ireland are likely to be here? I hope that it is not a harbinger of things to come in terms of Members’ access to the inquiry.

Tessa Jowell: As Sir Christopher Kelly is the independent chairman of that independent inquiry, he is free to make the arrangements that he needs to make to take the views of the public in every area of the United Kingdom, and I am sure that we all welcome that. I am sure that he will learn a lot from the feedback of the people of Northern Ireland today.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend, as part of this discussion about democratic renewal, include the abolition of the Act of Settlement, which is simply legalised sectarianism and has no role in the 21st century?

Tessa Jowell: I do not think that I would be being candid with my hon. Friend were I not to say that that is not part of the provisions of the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): While I welcome the Government’s new-found desire for democratic reform, the National Democratic Renewal Council—a closed Cabinet Sub-Committee made up solely of Labour Members and therefore neither national nor democratic—is possibly the worst way to do that. Will the new ministerial team reconsider that secrecy and, instead, set up a citizens convention to ensure the widest possible public involvement and support?

Tessa Jowell: The National Democratic Renewal Council is part of the machinery of government, and the hon. Lady is absolutely right to say that the relevant Ministers and Secretaries of State sit on it. However, it is associated with a wider, more extensive and deeper commitment to engagement with the public in debating these issues than has ever been the case before. I am quite sure that proper consideration will be given to the arguments not just for a citizens commission—an argument with which I am familiar—but for other forms of sustained public engagement that will shape the conclusions of the consultation.

Charities (Economic Downturn)

5. Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): What recent assessment she has made of the effects of the economic situation on the charitable sector. [283142]

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