HC Deb 08 March 2000 vol 345 cc991-3
3. Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

If she will make a statement on progress in temporary secondments of (a) people from business and industry to Government Departments and (b) civil servants to business and industry. [112257]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam)

The "Modernising Government" White Paper and Sir Richard Wilson's recent report to the Prime Minister on civil service reform made it clear that the Government are keen to promote the exchange of people and good practice between the civil service and other organisations. Such opportunities can take many forms, ranging from temporary secondments, to short-term attachments, to job sharing and joint training.

Sir Sydney Chapman

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that the initiative has been gathering pace year on year since at least the mid-1980s? In accepting that the country can benefit from the exchange of ideas and experience between business and the civil service, will she consider the possibility of making it the practice that civil servants above a certain grade should be seconded, as a sabbatical, to industry or business, if not for a year every seven years, at least for three months?

Marjorie Mowlam

The scheme has been running since the 1970s and recently we have done what we can to expand it because there is no doubt about the advantages that it brings in terms of the exchange of ideas, creativity and a learning process from which all can benefit. We have recently tried to expand it beyond the business community, which has been the focus of the scheme since the 1970s, to include all groups represented in the community, such as the voluntary sector and trade unions, so that there is a greater exchange of ideas and practices between bodies across our communities.

The idea of a sabbatical has potential and I shall consider it, but, at the moment, we are considering inequalities in funding between exchanges which limit many in the voluntary sector from benefiting from such a scheme. However, we shall include the idea in our consideration of the expansion of the programme.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that our manufacturing sector still has a great role to play in the creation of wealth, even though that was not accepted in the Thatcher era? Is not it important to ensure that there are more secondments in that area so that civil servants understand the problems facing manufacturing industry?

Marjorie Mowlam

There is no doubt that manufacturing industry did an enormous amount for this country in the 1970s and we owe it a great debt. We will benefit from exchanges in the manufacturing, retail and voluntary sectors, because only through the exchange of ideas is progress made. The numbers are increasing in business and the voluntary sector, and trade unions have made an important contribution, with discussions between the National Audit Office and the Trades Union Congress about the possibility of exchanges. We look forward to further progress. I concur with my hon. Friend's sentiments.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

Will the Minister ensure that when there are secondments or short-term contracts for appointments in the civil service, the question of compromising the duty under "Questions of Procedure for Ministers" that public resources should not be used for party political purposes will never arise?

Marjorie Mowlam

I am not sure what that has to do with secondments, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that public resources are not used for political purposes, as has been made clear time and again from the Dispatch Box.

Mr. Lansley

How then can the Minister reconcile that duty with the appointment of Mr. Joe McCrea, who was for eight years special adviser to the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) as the head of the so-called knowledge network inside the Cabinet Office? Will she undertake to ensure that in that role and with his responsibility for other permanent civil servants he will play absolutely no part in the London mayoral election campaign? Will she ensure that no material produced by that unit in the Cabinet Office will be used in that campaign, or that if London material is produced it is all published on the internet between now and 4 May?

Marjorie Mowlam

All the work done in that unit will be put on the net so there will be no question of work being done that even the hon. Gentleman will not see. Whatever individuals' past may be, and whatever political party or business they may have been involved in, we will work by the recruitment procedures outlined in the Civil Service Commissioner's recruitment code: for secondments of more than 12 months, there has to be a field of candidates; all secondees are told that they are subject to the Official Secrets Act; all secondees are required to observe the civil service management code, including the code of confidentiality; and consideration will be given to any potential conflicts of interest, and if there is any suspicion of such a conflict, the secondment will be abandoned.