HC Deb 18 November 2003 vol 413 cc611-2
18. Kevin Brennan (Cardiff, West)

What steps are being taken to increase the proportion of disabled people in the senior civil service. [1388311]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander)

My Department undertakes a range of activities to encourage people with disabilities to apply to the civil service and to increase the proportion of disabled people in the senior civil service. For example, the civil service bursary scheme encourages disabled staff with potential to reach the senior civil service. The aim of such activities is to increase the proportion of disabled staff in the senior civil service to 3.2 per cent. from the current level of 1.7 per cent.

Kevin Brennan

I thank the Minister for that answer. I am sure that he is aware of the groundbreaking and innovative work of the Public Administration Committee on developing a draft civil service Bill. Does he think that we should include in that Bill provision to ensure that the civil service provides equality for disabled people, or is the civil service doing well enough under current arrangements? For example, how well are we doing in comparison with the FTSE 100 companies?

Mr. Alexander

My hon. Friend raises an important point. We are awaiting the outcome of work by the Public Administration Committee on the draft civil service Bill and we look forward to it with interest. The Government's commitment to publish a draft Bill thereafter endures. On the substantive point about the level of commitment in the civil service, I was greatly heartened by the words of Sir Andrew Turnbull on his appointment as Cabinet Secretary, when he personally committed himself to the diversity agenda in the civil service. As for comparisons with the private sector, some 12.9 per cent. of the economically active population are disabled, but data from the civil service diversity survey suggest that some 15 per cent. of civil servants have a disability or long-standing illness.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire):

I welcome the Government's determination to increase the number of people who are disabled who work in the senior civil service. However, I am less convinced by the Government's press release of 16 October, which said that they would achieve that by coordinating interdepartmental action to get better information on disabled staff at senior levels in order to understand better the barriers to progression. In that context, we are told by the press release that only 0.5 per cent. of the 190 senior civil servants in his Department are disabled. That is more than none, but less than one. How many senior civil servants in his Department are disabled?

Mr. Alexander

I will happily write to the hon. Gentleman with the specific number. I have looked at the facts that he elucidated and I would make the following observation. The total number of staff of the Cabinet Office is just below 2,000, and the number of senior civil servants is a significantly smaller proportion. Therefore, the number of staff directly affected is very small. None the less, he raises an important point. The Cabinet Office should lead by example, and that is why I welcome the initiatives that it has taken at a corporate level—in terms of the guidance that was issued, which the hon. Gentleman seemed to dismiss—and in the work that every Department should be doing on the diversity agenda.

19. Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly)

What progress the civil service has made since 1997 in the employment of ethnic minorities. [138845]

Mr. Alexander

This Government are strongly committed to diversity in the civil service and to ensuring that it is fully representative of the community that it serves. The latest data, for April 2003, show that ethnic minorities make up 8 per cent. of the civil service, an increase from 4.8 per cent. in April 1997.

Mr. David

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, but what efforts are being made to encourage ethnic minorities to enter the civil service, especially through the fast stream, which has long been the preserve of people from the white middle class?

Mr. Alexander

My hon. Friend makes an important point, but I have some positive news in relation to the fast stream. The Government promoted the fast stream summer development programme for ethnic minorities, which now provides a training placement of six to eight weeks for 60 undergraduates. There are also grounds for optimism about the further scope for work in the fast stream in years to come. We have initiated work to that effect.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Can the Minister give an absolute guarantee that appointments and promotion will always be made solely on merit? Will he guarantee to the taxpayer that the best possible quality of public service will be provided?

Mr. Alexander

I am happy to give the undertaking that civil servants are appointed according to merit. However, an important factor that must be borne in mind is that we need to realise the potential of all sectors of the community. I see no contradiction between a diversity agenda that recognises that and also secures and upholds the traditional principle of merit in the senior civil service.

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

Has not the time come now, through a single equality Act, to lay a duty on all public bodies to promote equality? The Public Administration Committee recommended that recently.

Mr. Alexander

My hon. Friend is the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, and I take his point very seriously. I know that much work is being done on the matter of a single equalities commission, which will be given clear consideration by the Government.