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House of Commons

Wednesday 9 June 2010

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-

Non-departmental Public Bodies

1 Simon Kirby (Brighton, Kemptown) (Con): What mechanism he plans to use to review the effectiveness of non-departmental public bodies. [1341]

4. Chris Skidmore (Kingswood) (Con): What mechanisms he plans to use to review the effectiveness of non-departmental public bodies. [1344]

9. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What mechanisms he plans to use to review the effectiveness of non-departmental public bodies. [1349]

10. Mr David Amess (Southend West) (Con): What mechanisms he plans to use to review the effectiveness of non-departmental public bodies. [1350]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): We are committed to cutting the number of public bodies to increase accountability and cut costs. In future, each public body will have to meet one of three tests-does it perform a technical function, does it need to be politically impartial or does it act independently to establish facts? The Prime Minister has written to Cabinet colleagues asking them to apply those tests rigorously to the public bodies within their area of responsibility. I will be meeting colleagues in the coming weeks to take the review forward, and I expect to publish the outcome in the autumn with a view to introducing a public bodies Bill later this year.

Simon Kirby: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer, and I welcome him to the Dispatch Box. Given the Government's clear policy on localism, will he ensure that the regional development agency quango, SEEDA-the South East England Development Agency-is rapidly dismantled and that its powers and decisions are handed back to the local authorities to which those powers have always properly belonged?

Mr Maude: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. It is very good to see him here. He is a close neighbour in Sussex and he makes a very good point. The Government will engage in discussions with local partners, including local authorities and local
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business organisations, to work out with them in respect of each RDA the best way forward. I suspect that he and I have the same sort of concerns about the way in which SEEDA has operated.

Chris Skidmore: While the excellent Frenchay hospital near my constituency was downgraded by the previous Government despite a 50,000-strong petition of local residents opposing the move, it was reported last year that the salaries of NHS quango bosses have increased by up to 77% in the past three years. Does the Minister agree that this Government's commitment to transparency and accountability will help to reduce that sort of cost to the taxpayer and will help to protect NHS front-line services?

Mr Maude: First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the very vigorous campaign that he has fought and continues to fight in the interests of his constituents to protect the work of the Frenchay hospital. I have visited the hospital and I know what good work it does. He is absolutely right that transparency is the friend of the citizen in exposing what the state spends its money on. It will enable communities, individuals and organisations to exercise and enforce much greater accountability. Money is going to be increasingly scarce in the years ahead, thanks to what we inherited from the Labour party, and it is going to be increasingly important that it is spent where it is needed, at the front line, on patients and on parents whose children are at school.

Andrew Stephenson: I thank my right hon. Friend for those reassurances. Will he tell us what we are going to do to stop the proliferation of more and more quangos, as happened under the previous Government?

Mr Maude: In addition to applying rigorously to existing public bodies and quangos the three tests that we have set out, we will ensure that public bodies do not come into existence unless they are absolutely necessary to meet one of those three tests. Bodies that spend public money and deliberate on policy should in general be accountable, through Ministers, to Parliament. That is a basic principle, and that is what we will enforce in future.

Mr Amess: As someone who has long been concerned about unelected, unaccountable quangos, would my right hon. Friend care to comment on mechanisms that deal specifically with quangos in Essex? Would he welcome representations from me and other Essex colleagues?

Mr Maude: I would indeed. I expect those representations to be vigorous and forthright and I look forward to receiving them.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Many public bodies, such as the RDAs the Minister mentioned, but also the Bank of England, the BBC, the Judicial Appointments Commission and parliamentary boundary commissions, are independent of Government precisely because they have to be independent of Government. Will the Minister give the House a commitment that this will not just be a centralising exercise whereby bodies that ought to be independent are taken under direct control by Ministers?

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Mr Maude: I am disinclined to take lectures about centralising tendencies from someone who was a Minister in the last Government. I simply refer the hon. Gentleman to what I said. The tests that we will apply to quangos-to public bodies-will be rigorous and serious. If there is an overwhelming requirement for them to be independent politically, that will be one of the tests, but the presumption will be that public functions should be exercised by organisations accountable to Parliament.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): May I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his post? He may be aware that I chair the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, a non-departmental public body that has enjoyed cross-party support for its whole existence. Can he clarify the processes that are taking place? The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is already under a process of review as one of the arm's length bodies independent from the Foreign Office. How does that mix with the process he has set out today?

Mr Maude: I hope they will seamlessly meld together. I am not conscious of the particular review to which the hon. Lady refers, but this review will cover all public bodies that come under the responsibility of all Departments. I am confident that in my discussions about the review with the Foreign Secretary the Westminster Foundation will be considered in a proper way.

Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to his responsibilities. If he has a bonfire of the quangos, there are one or two I might add. There is one where newly appointed staff are increasing, its executives earn more than Ministers and MPs, and are appointing press officers and consultants, yet they do not even answer the telephone. Would the Minister be surprised and would he care to name that quango? Might it be the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority?

Mr Maude: These are deep waters and I prefer not to venture into that particular one at this stage, but I am absolutely confident that the right hon. Gentleman will make his views known in his characteristically forthright manner.

Cabinet Government

2. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): If he will discuss with ministerial colleagues proposals to strengthen Cabinet government. [1342]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr Oliver Letwin): First, I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who in marked contrast to the previous Prime Minister and his predecessor, long campaigned for Cabinet government to become a reality. I am delighted to tell him that I do not have to answer his question in the future; I can answer in the present, because in the last three weeks we have already taken enormous strides to create proper Cabinet government through the formation of a small number of effective decision-making Cabinet committees that will look across the whole range of Government business, make decisions collectively and not resort to the kind of sofa government that caused so many problems, for example, in the entry to the Iraq war.

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Kelvin Hopkins: I thank the Minister for his answer. The British constitution has sometimes been characterised as a time-limited elective dictatorship and the Prime Minister as an elected monarch. In an era of sofa government, the Cabinet was downgraded to cipher status. Is it not time for really radical change-perhaps with the Cabinet elected by Members of Parliament?

Mr Letwin: The trend towards elections is indeed one that the Government have in general sponsored, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware. Many Members have put themselves forward and are in the course of being elected for many important posts in the House. But the reality of Cabinet government does not depend on elections, it depends on whether the Prime Minister of the day and, indeed, in the coalition Government, the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister of the day are willing to see collegiate decision making rather than elective dictatorship. They are not only in this instance willing, but keen to do so. If I may point it out to the hon. Gentleman, one of the advantages of the new politics of coalition Government is that it enforces on us collective decision making, because we have to agree between the two parties in the coalition as well.

Mr Speaker: Order. I do not wish to be unkind to new Ministers, but answers are, frankly, too long. They need to be shorter.

Voluntary Organisations

3. Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con): What assessment he has made of the effects on voluntary organisations of the Government's regulatory and administrative requirements. [1343]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): One of our priorities is to make it easier to run a voluntary organisation, so we are committed to clearing the thicket of bureaucracy that too often gets in the way of doing good and to setting up a joint task force with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to look at how we can reduce red tape for small organisations.

Fiona Bruce: The requirements for people to obtain more than one Criminal Records Bureau check when working or volunteering with different community organisations is causing much duplication and expense, both to individuals and to community groups such as Crossroads Care Cheshire East in my constituency. Will the Minister consider reviewing the CRB check procedure and introducing one single registerable and transferrable check for each individual?

Mr Hurd: I welcome my hon. Friend to the House and wish her every success in following in some quite formidable footsteps. The point she makes is extremely important and that frustration has been expressed to me by a number of voluntary organisations. I hope that she will be pleased to know that, in the coalition agreement, the Government are committed to reviewing the criminal records and vetting and barring regime and I will make sure that the relevant Minister in the Home Office is aware of her concerns. She and I will be following that review very closely.

Paul Goggins (Wythenshawe and Sale East) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new and important role. Given statements made in recent days by the Prime Minister and others about deep and early cuts in public spending at the same time as statements about an
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extended role for voluntary organisations in the delivery of public services, I am sure that, as the Minister for the voluntary sector, he will want to move swiftly to reassure anyone who thinks that there is any suggestion that this means that the Government want to get public services on the cheap. He will want to rebut that suggestion very swiftly. Therefore, will he confirm to Members on both sides of the House who value greatly the work of voluntary organisations that he and other Ministers will uphold the compact with voluntary organisations and, in particular, the commitment to three-year funding as a minimum and to full recovery of costs for volunteering?

Mr Speaker: Again, I am afraid that that question was a little on the long side. I know that the answer will not be.

Mr Hurd: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but it is a bit rich coming from a member of a Government one of whose last acts involved the breaching of the compact by the then Minister for the third sector. The compact is an important framework for the relationship between the state and the sector at a very important time in its development. We want the sector to work more closely with the state and the compact has an important part to play in making sure that that relationship works productively.

Emergency Planning College

5. Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): What plans he has to visit the emergency planning college at Hawkhills. [1345]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): The emergency planning college is in my hon. Friend's constituency and does extraordinarily valuable work in training people to support this country's resilience in all types of emergency. I have no current plans to visit the college but my hon. Friend is, I am sure, about to tell me why that is a missed opportunity.

Miss McIntosh: May I take this opportunity to invite my hon. Friend, whom I congratulate on his appointment, to visit the college? I know that he would be very welcome. Such a visit would act as a morale booster to the college. Will he extend its role to make sure that we can in future pre-empt tragedies such as we have seen in Cumbria and to ensure that all the emergency services are put through their paces at regular intervals to prepare for any such incidents in the future?

Mr Hurd: I welcome my hon. Friend back to the House and I thank her for her question. Clearly we need to be proud of the college, which is a national centre of excellence and has won awards, including, I believe, a best in the world award, for its work? I understand that it has been through a recent reorganisation. If it would welcome a ministerial visit, I would be happy to do so. [ Interruption. ]

Mr Speaker: Order. May I remind the Minister that it is very important to face the House, because otherwise Members cannot hear? The Minister can come back to the Dispatch Box.

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Mr Hurd: I think that I had finished, Mr Speaker. If the college would welcome a ministerial visit, I will be happy to fit that in.

Pay Rates (Civil Service)

6. Katy Clark (North Ayrshire and Arran) (Lab): If he will bring forward proposals to equalise rates of pay between staff in the civil service and in non-departmental public bodies. [1346]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): For the grades below the senior civil service, these matters are delegated to individual departments and to non-departmental public bodies. Nevertheless, we will seek to improve and modernise civil service pay arrangements to ensure that they are fair and transparent, to enable us to retain and motivate staff and to offer best value for money to the taxpayer.

Katy Clark: I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome him to his position. He will be aware that there are 230 separate bargaining units in the civil service and, at the moment, people doing exactly the same job can earn rates of pay that differ by up to 30 per cent., and more. What will the right hon. Gentleman do to bring about more equal and fairer pay structures within the civil service so that we have justice and to improve morale?

Mr Maude: In the absence of any money-and as the former Chief Secretary pointed out, there is no money left-the opportunities to equalise pay in an upwards direction are pretty limited. We have said that as part of the efficiency and reform group work that we have set in train, we will carry out a review to see how we can simplify civil service pay, but this is a deeply complex area.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Can the Minister please give any details of the review into the introduction of the 20 times pay multiple in the public sector?

Mr Maude: The terms of reference for Will Hutton's review are being drawn up and finalised. As my hon. Friend says, the review will look at the multiple between the best-paid and least-paid employees in the public sector. We are decentralisers and localists, so we will not expect to exercise our writ across the whole of the wider public sector. We think transparency will play an important part in driving down the differentials.

Non-personal Data

7. Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): What plans he has to publish non-personal data held by Government Departments. [1347]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): In our first month in government we have already published a number of key data sets, including the Treasury COINS-combined online information system-database, MRSA and C. difficile weekly infection rates for each hospital, and details of the salaries of 172 civil servants who are paid more than the Prime Minister. The letter from my right
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hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 29 May set out specific commitments to publishing further data on spending, contracts and the civil service during the rest of the year. We will also give the public a right to data so that people can obtain the Government-held data sets that they want.

Mr Watson: The right hon. Gentleman is doing a great job and I hope he gets the support of my Front-Bench team in accelerating the programme of releasing public sector data, but does he accept that the Government cannot be selective about those data? They cannot print 172 civil servants' salaries without telling me what Andy Coulson is paid.

Mr Maude: All this will be divulged in due course. If I may, I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman. When he was a Minister in the Cabinet Office, he pursued the agenda of data transparency with admirable vigour, and I suspect he was somewhat frustrated by the lack of progress that it was possible for him to make. I look forward to working closely with him as we jointly pursue this agenda in the public interest.

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