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Scottish Executive (Staffing)

33. Pete Wishart (North Tayside): What assessment he has made of the staffing requirement in the civil service of the Scottish Executive. [63749]

Mr. Alexander: Responsibility for staffing levels below senior civil service level is devolved to the Scottish Executive. The Cabinet Office publishes statistics on staffing levels within the civil service and is made aware of significant changes in staffing numbers and the reasons for those changes.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Although I appreciate that the appointment of civil servants is a matter for the Scottish Executive, I am sure he appreciates that the civil service is very much reserved to this House. That might account for the undignified and unseemly spat between the First Minister and the head of the civil service in Scotland about the appointment of some 40 policy analysts in the run-up to the Scottish parliamentary elections next year. Is it the responsibility of this House or the Scottish Parliament to ensure that the appointment of 40 policy analysts is in the public interest and not in the interests of the Labour party in Scotland?

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Mr. Alexander: On the constitutional point raised by the hon. Gentleman, Sir Muir Russell, the permanent secretary of the Scottish Executive, serves Scottish Ministers, as do all civil servants in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman's point is much overblown. Only eight of those 40 policy analyst posts are new; there are 32 vacancies at present. Some of the criticism levelled at us is therefore unfair, and it reflects the desperation of the hon. Gentleman's party rather than reality.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr): Is my hon. Friend aware of the hundreds and hundreds of questions, some extremely trivial, tabled by SNP list MSPs, who seem to have nothing much else to do with their time? Does he think that that may account for any increase in the number of civil servants required to answer questions?

Mr. Alexander: I find myself in wholehearted agreement with my hon. Friend. In anticipation of this issue arising from the question tabled by the hon. Member for North Tayside (Pete Wishart), I looked at the figures and found that there has been a fivefold increase in parliamentary questions since devolution. It was therefore inevitable that there would be an increase in the number of civil servants charged with assisting in the development of answers. The hon. Gentleman's question may be better directed at his colleagues in Holyrood than at this Government.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): May I belatedly congratulate the Minister on his thoroughly deserved promotion? Does he stand by the explicit commitments made by the Deputy Prime Minister, not only to members of the civil service for the Scottish Executive but to all civil servants in the United Kingdom, that the Government will shortly introduce a Bill to secure the independence of the civil service?

Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks of congratulation, and I commend him for his ability to raise that matter in relation to this parliamentary question. The Government remain committed to civil service legislation, but we have also made clear our priorities, and it is simply not possible to do everything at once. It is vital to reform health and education, as we made clear at the election. The Government welcome all the discussion about the civil service that is taking place. I understand that both the Public Administration Committee and the Committee on Standards in Public Life are carrying out work on this issue, and I, for one, shall be interested in their deliberations as we take this policy forward.

Delivery Unit

34. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): What recent progress has been made by the delivery unit in securing the Government's objectives. [63750]

Mr. Alexander: The delivery unit continues to be responsible for working in partnership with Departments to ensure that the Government achieve their delivery priorities across the key areas of public service. After the

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spending review, it will expand its scope to include priorities in other main domestic service delivery departments.

Brian White: As one of the few people who claim to understand the Cabinet Office's previous organisation chart, may I welcome the changes made by Sir Andrew Turnbull? The delivery unit has worked well because it has been extremely focused, so does the Minister share my concern that the plans to expand its remit may result in its existing work becoming less effective?

Mr. Alexander: I commend my hon. Friend for his understanding of the previous organogram. I hope that Sir Andrew Turnbull's proposals for structural changes, which were announced recently, will give my hon. Friend confidence that we now have a strategic and focused centre that can drive forward the work on delivery and reform. After the spending review, the delivery unit will take forward its vital work within that structure.

I make it clear to the House that we see the delivery unit as having a key role in supporting, rather than supplanting, the work of Departments. We are determined to ensure that as it expands its role, it continues to work in support of Secretaries of State and Ministers throughout Whitehall as we advance our agenda for reform and delivery.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Is it the case that the delivery unit monitors between four and six targets in each of the policy areas of health, education, transport and law and order, selected from the Departments' public service agreements? Will the Minister tell us which particular targets are selected at the moment? Perhaps he could give us examples and put a note in the Library so that we can know what all the targets are and what the future priorities will be.

Mr. Alexander: I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that the delivery contracts have not been published because they contain no new commitments and do not represent a new list of Government priorities. There have been many other equally important priorities throughout Government, and publication might be wrongly interpreted as suggesting that there was a wholly new set of priorities. The work of the delivery unit reinforces pre-existing work taken forward by the Treasury and individual Departments in advancing the public service agreements, which are, of course, published and available to the right hon. Gentleman.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South): I welcome my hon. Friend to his position, and I also welcome the radical simplification of the Cabinet Office. When he addresses the delivery unit, will he ensure that it considers the performance of local authorities in delivering our 2005 e-government target? As I am sure he is aware, a number of reports, including those from Socitim and IDeA, express concern that we are not on target to deliver the quality of e-government services necessary to ensure that our constituents are able to access the full range of services to which they are entitled.

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Mr. Alexander: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for those observations. Given my background in the Department of Trade and Industry, I am fully aware of the important work being done on getting services online. I am also aware that some of the most innovative and

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exciting work has been done at local government level. That is why I, with responsibility for e-transformation, will work closely with colleagues at the newly configured centre to ensure that we learn from what is best in local government and take the opportunity share best practice across the country.

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Points of Order

3.30 pm

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, of which I have given notice. You will have seen the media reports of the latest bombing blunder committed by the United States in Afghanistan. A group of civilians celebrating a wedding, including women and children, were bombed; dozens have been killed or injured. It is the fifth bombing incident since October that we know of in which the United States has bombed civilians with consequent loss of life.

Anger is growing at a strategy of waging war from 20,000 ft. It is threatening the fragile peace process, alienating many members of the coalition against terrorism, and it is simply a wrong strategy. Has either the Secretary of State for Defence or the Foreign Secretary indicated that they will make a statement on the latest tragedy?

Mr. Speaker: No approach has been made to me by any Minister on that matter.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In May 2000, the then Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards ruled that a subject that I raised was not a matter for her. It was the Rent Acts (Maximum Fair Rent) Order 1999, issued by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. It allows the Deputy Prime Minister to benefit now, by up to £15,000, from an order issued from his office. I seek your guidance. What further action can a Member of Parliament take when a Minister changes the rules in a manner that benefits him personally?

Mr. Speaker: I cannot advise the hon. Gentleman on how he can raise such matters. It is up to him to acquire some expertise in that respect. He has raised this matter on several occasions under the terms of a point of order, but I cannot help him.

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