Topical Questions

Oral Answers to Questions — Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons at 11:30 am on 9th March 2016.

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Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed 11:30 am, 9th March 2016

If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Minister for Government Policy

The responsibilities of the Cabinet Office remain much as they were last month. We continue to ensure that the Government fully and effectively implement their programme across Whitehall and the wider public sector.

Photo of Anne-Marie Trevelyan Anne-Marie Trevelyan Conservative, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Will the Minister update the House on the progress that has been made to ensure that every serving member of our armed forces, wherever they are in the world, will be entitled to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum? Will he guarantee that they will receive their ballots in good time, and will he please confirm how we will ensure that every vote is counted?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Minister for Government Policy

My hon. Friend has been completely tireless in her attempts to ensure that armed forces personnel can vote in the referendum, and rightly so. I can confirm the Prime Minister’s commitment given to her that we will enable all the armed forces to vote. I am happy to tell her that the chief counting officer for the referendum has now directed that postal ballots will be sent to the armed forces between 23 and 27 May to ensure plenty of time for their votes to be counted.

Photo of Anna Turley Anna Turley Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

When the Government introduced new gagging clauses on charities in receipt of Government grants last month, they credited a report published by the think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, in which the policy was a key recommendation. Just four months prior to that, the Minister for the Cabinet Office received a £4,000 donation from the chairman of the IEA, Neil Record. That is surely just a coincidence, but in order to avoid any misunderstanding will the Minister, who has said that he is committed to freedom of information, publish all communications between the IEA and his Department as well as all the submissions and advice that he received from the civil service?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I did not have any discussions with the IEA on this. It is about ensuring that taxpayers’ money is spent on good causes and the right things, not on lobbying Government. It is right that taxpayers’ money should be spent on the things for which it was intended, not on ensuring that lobbyists can take politicians out for lunch.

Photo of Karl McCartney Karl McCartney Conservative, Lincoln

Does my right hon. Friend agree that recording laws on vellum is a millennium-long tradition and an important part of our unwritten constitution? The House should look to preserve it.

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

I certainly do. Keeping a record of our laws on vellum is a long-held tradition, and we should safeguard our great traditions. I am looking forward to the debate on this tomorrow. In 1,000 years, I want people to be able to look at the laws that we pass in this House, so I hope to see a strong turnout in support.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions)

The Government are finally reviewing Atos contracts after several National Audit Office and Select Committee reports going back four years have highlighted poor performance and a lack of value for money for taxpayers. In addition, there have been devastating impacts on disabled people. Why have the Government taken so long to do that? Will the Minister also confirm that the anticipated savings have not been made?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Minister for Government Policy

The hon. Lady simply ignores the fact that the Government have taken the action, which should have been taken long ago and which the previous Labour Government completely failed to do, to deal with contractors who are not up to scratch. We are dealing with contracts that are necessary to improve matters and are improving them so that people get the services they deserve, which is why all our welfare programmes are now back on track.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

A constituent of mine who works for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in Shipley has contacted me after being told by his managers that he is unable to help the campaign to leave the EU in the forthcoming referendum and even to deliver leaflets in his own time. Given that Government Ministers are free to campaign in a personal capacity to leave the EU, why are the Government not extending the same courtesy to civil servants?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

My hon. Friend’s constituent should follow the rules set out in section 4.4 of the civil service management code, which shows in what circumstances civil servants can engage in political activity. The Government of course have a clear position on the referendum: we want to stay in a reformed European Union. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the first to say that it is only because of our Prime Minister’s munificence, tolerance and generosity of spirit that Ministers are allowed to disagree in public with the Government position at all.

Photo of Patrick Grady Patrick Grady Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

The anti-advocacy clause has been widely condemned by civil society and is now subject to an e-petition in this House about its impact on academic grants. Will the Minister explain why it was brought in with no scrutiny in the House, and will he urgently review it in the light of the public outcry?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

The hon. Gentleman fails to recognise that taxpayers’ money should not be used to lobby Government. Those who argue against the clause are arguing that the taxes paid by hard-working people should be on spent on lobbyists. I disagree. The clause has been in operation for over a year in the Department for Communities and Local Government, where it was found to be working well, which is why have expanded it across the whole of Government.

Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham Conservative, North West Norfolk

Given that there is now a presumption in favour of building first on brownfield sites, will Ministers work with local authorities in Norfolk to help identify suitable sites?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Minister for Government Policy

Yes, we will indeed. We are also taking steps to make sure that we release the greatest possible amount of public sector brownfield land, so that in places such as my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine we can see building in places where people welcome and accept it, to provide homes for our people, to the benefit of the taxpayer.

Photo of Melanie Onn Melanie Onn Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Commons

In the last Parliament, the Government’s departmental plans set clear policy targets and the date they pledged to achieve them by. This time, no dates are given and the aims are as vague as

“continue to be the most transparent government in the world”.

Are the Government deliberately preventing the public from holding them to account or do they genuinely not know what they are doing for the next four years?

Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Minister for Government Policy

I am sorry that the hon. Lady obviously has not read the items on the website; a multitude of specific dates for specific programmes are given, and we will continuously update this as we go through the Parliament. It is true that we are the most transparent Government ever in this country and one of the three most transparent Governments in the world. Maintaining that is quite a good goal, and I would have expected her to welcome it.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Almost two thirds of people in Scotland want to see charities speaking up for those affected by Government policies, which is why the Scottish Government and the Scottish National party are against the new anti-advocacy clause. Will the Minister commit to assessing the impact it will have on Scottish charities?

Photo of Matthew Hancock Matthew Hancock The Paymaster General and Minister for the Cabinet Office

Once again, we have a request from the SNP for hard-working people to pay their taxes and for those taxes then to be used to lobby the very Government that are giving out the grants. That is wrong in principle. We have been using this clause in practice for more than a year and because it was working well we have extended it across government.