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January 2011 Monthly Archives

Nick Hurd MP honours the ‘Untold Stories’ of the Holocaust by signing Book of Commitment

January 27, 2011

Holocaust Memorial Day

Today Ruislip Northwood & Pinner MP pledged his commitment to Holocaust Memorial Day by signing a Book of Commitment in the House of Commons to honour those who perished in the Holocaust.

With 27th January marking the 66th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi concentration and extermination camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Holocaust Educational Trust placed a Book of Commitment in the House of Commons to give MPs the opportunity to remember those who were persecuted and murdered during the Holocaust – and to support the sharing and safeguarding of ‘Untold Stories’, learning from survivors’ experiences to help create a future free from hatred and prejudice.

In doing so, Nick Hurd MP paid tribute to those remarkable individuals who survived the appalling events of the Holocaust and have since dedicated their lives to educating younger generations about the dangers of allowing persecution and intolerance to take hold in society.

On and around Holocaust Memorial Day, schools, local communities and faith groups from across the UK will join together to mark Holocaust Memorial Day. Thousands of events are being held across the country to commemorate all those who suffered at the hands of the Nazis during the Holocaust and in subsequent genocides. The aim of the day is to motivate people – individually and collectively, to ensure that the horrendous crimes, racism and victimisation committed during the Holocaust are neither forgotten nor repeated.

Nick Hurd MP said:
“In the tenth year of its commemoration in the UK, Holocaust Memorial Day 2011 marks the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As antisemitism, racism and prejudice are still present in our society, learning from the extraordinary ‘Untold Stories’ of those who survived gives us the opportunity to reflect on the evil that was perpetrated during the Holocaust and other genocides and pledge to create a brighter future.”

Karen Pollock, Chief Executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said:
“We are delighted that Nick Hurd MP is supporting Holocaust Memorial Day. As the number of survivors dwindles, remembering the Holocaust and passing on their testimony is more crucial than ever. Reflecting on ‘Untold Stories’ helps give back voices to those who were persecuted and reinforces the contemporary lessons that can be learnt from this dark period in our history.”

Community Cohesion Debate

January 26, 2011

Nick Hurd responds to a back bench MP’s debate on community cohesion. He highlights the Government’s aim to promote a greater culture of social responsibility and a greater role for the voluntary sector.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Main, for the first time. We have had an excellent, wide-ranging debate and you have chaired it very firmly. I congratulate the hon. Member for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) on not just securing the debate, but battling flu so valiantly and presenting a sincere picture of his concerns for his constituency.

I have picked out three things that I would like to respond to directly. First, I shall discuss the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion that the Government do not really know what big society means-he talked about fresh air in that context. I would also like to address his valid concern about cuts to the voluntary community sector, which was picked up by his colleague who represents the beautiful city of Durham, the hon. Member for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). I would then like to deal with the issue of landlords and how their practices risk unsettling, dividing and undermining communities.

Out of courtesy, if I could address the specific issue first, I will undertake to write to the Minister for Housing and Local Government on the issue of a national register. That subject is not my direct responsibility and I am sure that there are lots of complexities underlying his suggestion, so I will write to the Minister for Housing and Local Government to alert him to the concern expressed in this debate. I have discussed the matter with a colleague who represents a seat in Cornwall. That is a long way from Sedgefield, but it has exactly the same problem he mentioned. That area adopted the grass-roots solution of personal advocacy. Basically, the community was fed up with the situation, so it got together and lobbied directly the people causing the problem and forced a change in policy. I do not know how applicable that is in Sedgefield, but there are examples around the country where that problem has been tackled by grass-roots action-a very big society response. I will write directly to the Minister on his behalf.

Phil Wilson: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Hurd: I will not take an intervention at this point because I want to move on from that issue.

I shall address the hon. Gentleman’s main concerns about what the big society is, what the Government are trying to achieve and what we mean by it. If he wants to look at the record tomorrow, he will see that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) articulated the matter as well as anyone, when he talked about trying to promote a greater culture of social responsibility. The idea is not fresh air because, as the hon. Member for City of Durham and various hon. Members pointed out, a lot of wonderful activity is going on in constituencies across the country, where people are working together and giving up time to try to find better ways of doing things, supporting initiatives and getting things going.

The Government want to throw a bigger spotlight on that activity to try to make it easier for people to do more such things and be more ambitious. The matter should not be divisive. My hon. Friend the Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) put the argument beautifully. We should all be encouraging such things. I shall put the matter simply: it is about trying to encourage more people to get involved. There is no point pretending that all is rosy in the garden, as I think both Labour Members were saying when they cited the citizenship survey. We know that the country faces enormous challenges and that there are very stubborn, expensive social problems. It seems absolutely ridiculous to continue pretending that the state, people here or in Whitehall or even local authority chief executives somehow have all the solutions.

From my constituency, I know that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of the value that residents-constituents-can bring to the idea in terms of tapping into the talent, expertise, experience, ideas, networks and skills that are out there in communities. The big society is about trying to get more people involved and engaged in traditional volunteering or in that hugely important valuable work that we all know about from our constituencies. It is about providing the opportunity to give time to help improve someone else’s life. The value of that is two-way. Of course, we want to encourage more of that, but it is by no means the whole story. The big society is also about trying to get more people involved in shaping the future of communities, in the decisions that really matter and in trying to save things if things need to be saved, such as post offices, pubs, shops or whatever. It is about trying to combat the voice that I hear from constituents who say, “It’s not worth getting involved because it’s not as if we can change anything.” That is what we want to change.

The big society goes beyond that into the reform of public services and trying to open those up and get the people who pay for them and use them more involved in them. Again, in my constituency, I get a sense that people are becoming increasingly resentful of just taking what they are given and feeling that matters are being dealt with in a very detached way. Yes, this is about encouraging more volunteering, but it is also about getting people more involved at a local level in shaping the public services that they use. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) used the powerful expression, “giving the power back,” which I liked. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) was entirely right: that is what people want; they would like to get more involved. The citizenship survey showed that, and we are trying to make it easier.

There is a specific, proactive, big role for Government. There is no point in pretending that suddenly Government will disappear. The Government will play a hugely important part in all our lives, whatever the scale of the spending cuts. However, when it comes to making it easier for people to get involved and making the case for that more compelling, the Government are absolutely committed and on track, and will be delivering through three strands of action.

The first strand is about transferring real power to communities. That is now moving from words to realities. The specific measure has been mentioned-the Localism Bill. I am very pleased about and encouraged by the welcome that it has received, not least from the hon. Member for City of Durham. It is raising expectations. I think that that is right. People are excited about it, which suggests that its time has come. It is a huge piece of legislation, with lots of new rights and opportunities. However, there is more to the issue than just legislation.

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington challenged me to be more specific about what we are doing to get out of the way. He was entirely right. If he listens to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, he will get the sense that that is a Secretary of State who wants to do exactly that. He wants to change the whole nature of his Department so that it works for citizens.

The hon. Gentleman may be aware that our approach is to send this message to communities: “Tell us what is getting in the way and we will work to see what we can do to remove it.” There is a specific barrier-busting service, of which he may be aware. That flows from a very powerful piece of legislation called the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which I took through Parliament as a private Member’s Bill. Already, communities are responding to this invitation: “Tell us what’s getting in the way and we will see whether we can remove it, but give us the specifics.” The new website was launched a few weeks ago, and I think that more than 50 proposals have come in already. That is on top of the 300 different proposals that we had for the first wave under the Sustainable Communities Act. These things are community driven, so there is a real determination on our part to get out of the way.

The second strand is about public service reform: opening up the public services to new providers, including, specifically, the voluntary and community sector; bringing those services closer to the people who use them; and liberating people who are in the front line delivering the services. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury talked passionately about schools. He will know from his experience with local heads about their desire to be liberated. Specifically in relation to public service reform, a White Paper, which I think will be published next month, will set out our stall on that and explain exactly how we intend to go about it.

The third strand is about social action-trying to inspire people and make it easier for them to give time and money to get things done locally to help people. Again, the words are now being backed up by actions. The Cabinet Office has published a Green Paper on giving, which will lead to a White Paper. We seek fresh ideas on what Government can do with partners-the charitable sector and business-to make it easier for people to give time and money.

We have announced the pilots of the next phase of the national citizen service. Again, that is a powerful, positive programme, which is designed to connect young people with their ability to make a contribution to their communities. I think that one of the biggest pilots, involving 1,000 young people, is taking place on the edge of the constituency of the hon. Member for Sedgefield. I urge him to engage with it, because I have seen that that programme can be very powerful in lifting the aspirations and confidence of young people.

The hon. Member for City of Durham rightly challenged me on this important point: the big society must be open to all. We all know that some communities are in a stronger position than others to take advantage of it. I represent a relatively affluent, suburban constituency on the edge of London, a long way from Sedgefield. My communities are well networked, strong and ambitious and, I think, will respond quickly to that agenda, but other communities will need some help.

The Government are determined to be proactive in encouraging, supporting and helping those communities to help themselves. That is one of the driving forces behind our community organiser and community first programmes, which we will be announcing more details of soon. The aim will be to establish, in those communities, people who can bring people together, organise communities and start building networks-people who have the confidence to start getting people together to get things done. With that will be a neighbourhood grant programme. Again, that will be targeted on the most disadvantaged areas, where the social capital is lowest. It will put money into the hands of neighbourhood groups to help them to develop and deliver on their own plans. The hon. Member for City of Durham mentioned the big society bank. That is wholly designed to make it easier for social entrepreneurs-people who want to take a bit of a risk to get things happening and who want to do things differently in those areas-to access capital.

The Government are doing things, but things are also beginning to happen in communities. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury was very modest about his pioneering work on developing job clubs in his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham is getting a big society initiative going in his constituency. In my constituency, I am convening people in exactly the same way-in one ward, people are concerned about the future and feel that they need to come together and think about a neighbourhood plan for the area. I am facilitating that.

Last week I was in Halifax, where groups of people from the public sector-different stakeholders-were gathered round a table, talking about partnership in a way that they never had before, because they felt that that was possible and they were being encouraged to do it. One could sense that they were not going to go back to the bad old ways of sitting in their silos and just pursuing their individual targets and budgets. Something is happening and changing out there, and it needs to, because we have to find better ways of doing things.

I shall spend the time left to me on dealing with the very important issue of cuts to the voluntary and community sector, which is an emotive issue for many hon. Members. I have written to every Member of Parliament, inviting them to bring in representatives of their voluntary and community sector to talk to me about that, and many have taken up the invitation.

Of course, the voluntary and community sector is hugely important to this project, because of its ability to support and mobilise people, but it is not-we should be frank about this-the whole story. Business has a hugely important part to play, as do citizens and residents groups and as do Government. Charities are not a proxy for community, but they are a hugely important partner in the process.

There is a very difficult issue, which we should not underestimate, in relation to managing the transition. However, we need to be honest about this. Unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune from the cuts. The nation is spending £120 million a day in interest and borrowing £1 for every £4 that we spend. That is not sustainable. We have to reduce public spending on a scale that means that, unfortunately, the sector cannot be immune. That would have been a reality confronted by the Labour Government, exactly as the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington emphasised, so there are cuts and there will continue to be cuts.

Tom Brake: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr Hurd: I would rather not, because I would like to finish this important point. The numbers being bandied around are entirely speculative. The Government are monitoring the situation closely, at central and local government level, because we are concerned that the process should be managed properly. We established a transition fund, which has now closed. That process was well run. From the Prime Minister down, we have sent a strong steer to local authority leaders that we do not expect them to take the easy option of making cuts to the voluntary and community sector before they have taken the opportunity to pursue their own efficiencies. Many councils, such as Reading and Wiltshire, which I heard about today, are increasing the amount of funding that they are giving to the voluntary and community sector. We are continuing to invest in the training of commissioners. We have reviewed and updated the compact, which is the framework that steers the relationship. The Office for Civil Society is continuing to invest to support and strengthen the sector.

We have three priorities. We ask ourselves, “What are we doing to make it easier to run a charity or voluntary sector organisation?” We are continuing to invest in infrastructure to support the sector. We are examining the red tape and regulation that get in the way. There are reviews across Government in respect of the Criminal Records Bureau and health and safety. Again, we are trying to get out of the way where we can. We are actively examining ways of getting more resources into the sector. The giving Green Paper is about trying to stimulate more charitable giving. The social investment bank-the big society bank-is about trying to grow a new market of social investment. We are reviewing everything that we can to try to make it easier for charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises to deliver more public services.

The transition that we have to manage is very difficult, but we are trying to help the sector to work towards a future in which it can be a very active player in the big society, delivering more public services, helping to give people a voice at local level, and benefiting from the extra time and money that we hope people will give. The Government are absolutely determined to make it easier for people to get involved, to live in even better connected communities and to feel part of something bigger.

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Chilcot Inquiry (Civil Service Code) Debate

January 25, 2011

Nick Hurd responds to a back bench MP’s debate on the independence of the Chilcot inquiry.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr Nick Hurd): Mr Williams, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time. I know that my being English will not count against me in what would otherwise be a Welsh affair.

It is also a pleasure to respond to an important debate. The recent Iraq conflict, as we saw last week, stirs powerful emotions. We should recognise that the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Mr Llwyd) has been one of the leaders of the debate on the legality of the war. He should be congratulated on his part in the democratic process. It is surely in the interest of all of us that the Chilcot inquiry should be conducted with impeccable impartiality and integrity. The hon. Gentleman obviously believes-and I listened to him carefully-that the process is, to use his words, flawed and compromised, principally by the process of appointing Margaret Aldred to the secretariat of the inquiry. As the hon. Gentleman was the first to admit, those are serious allegations, and should be responded to in like manner, not least for the sake of the reputation of the individual concerned, who cannot be here to defend herself.

I will simply disagree with the hon. Gentleman, not least because the chairman of the inquiry and his committee appear to be satisfied with their procedures, but I am happy to respond to the points that have been made. It might be helpful to provide some additional background context to the Iraq inquiry, in relation to the appointments that we are discussing.

The Iraq inquiry was launched, as the hon. Gentleman will know well, on 30 July 2009 with a remit to examine the United Kingdom’s involvement in Iraq, including the way decisions were made and actions taken, to establish as accurately and reliably as possible what happened, and to identify lessons that can be learned. The committee is made up of Privy Counsellors, is chaired by Sir John Chilcot and has four other members: Sir Lawrence Freedman, Sir Martin Gilbert, Sir Roderic Lyne and Baroness Usha Prashar. I think that it is generally accepted-I certainly accept it, but I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman shares my view-that each committee member is independent, non-partisan and committed to undertaking a thorough, rigorous and fair inquiry.

Mr Llwyd: It is no part of my view that any of the inquiry members should be impugned. I have no wish to denigrate them. I am discussing a conflict of interest specifically.

Mr Hurd: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for placing that on record and making it entirely clear. I am pleased that he has done so. Obviously, to some degree, their reputation and integrity are on the line, as the procedures for which they are responsible are being called into question. I am sure that they would take very seriously indeed any suggestion of mismanagement of a potential conflict of interest. As he says, it might undermine the integrity of the processes to which their names are attached. As I understand it, they have placed on record the fact that the committee and the secretariat work collectively. The committee is satisfied that its procedures are capable of dealing with any potential conflict of interest. The Privy Counsellors are supported by a secretariat staffed by civil servants who share their commitment and are governed by the values of the civil service code, which I will address at the end of my remarks.

Having provided the background and context, I will address the role of the secretariat and the process of appointing the secretary, which is the crux of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. The secretariat supports the chair of the inquiry and its members in carrying out their tasks. Its duties are varied and wide-ranging and include making logistical arrangements, requesting statements and papers and preparing papers for consideration by the committee.

The secretariat operates independently of the Department and is currently staffed by 16 civil servants drawn from seven Departments: the Cabinet Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Government Communications Headquarters, the Department for International Development, the Northern Ireland Office and the Serious Fraud Office. There are also two suitably cleared temporary support staff members supplied by a recruitment agency. Those appointments to the Iraq secretariat were made in line with Cabinet Office human resources procedures, which are similar to those used by other Departments to provide staff for inquiries. I understand that they were used most recently in relation to the Gibson inquiry. It is regular practice.

I will explain more. When the Government decide to establish an independent inquiry, the timing is such that it must often be done as a matter of priority and with a degree of urgency. Decisions about the chair and members of an inquiry are matters for the Government. It is usual for an inquiry secretariat to be staffed by civil servants on loan or secondment from Departments. Decisions about the secretary to an inquiry will normally be for the chair, and the secretary will then recruit the supporting team in consultation with the chair.

When considering individuals’ suitability for secretariat roles, a number of factors are taken into account, ranging from availability to relevant skills and experience to the potential for any conflict of interest. I can confirm that that process was followed for the Iraq inquiry secretariat. The posts were not initially advertised, as they needed to be filled urgently. The secretary and the Cabinet Office human resources team worked with colleagues in other Departments to identify individuals considered suitable for the various roles, taking into account their availability, skills, knowledge, experience and any identified potential conflicts of interest. After the individuals had been agreed, the moves were made through the Cabinet Office human resources managed move policy.

Moving on from general recruitment, I will focus on the specific position in which the hon. Gentleman is interested, that of inquiry secretary. It is clearly a crucial role. The Cabinet Secretary discussed with Sir John Chilcot the experience, skills and background knowledge required and agreed that the secretary should be a senior individual in the civil service, ideally with previous knowledge and experience of defence and foreign affairs. The Cabinet Secretary proposed Margaret Aldred, who had been the deputy head of the Foreign and Defence Policy Secretariat-formerly the Defence and Overseas Policy Secretariat-in the Cabinet Office since November 2004. Sir John, after considering with others Mrs Aldred’s background and experience, agreed. He did not call for more choices or more alternatives. He agreed with the proposal from the Cabinet Secretary. Given the professional standards of the senior civil service, he and the Cabinet Secretary concluded that there would not be a potential conflict of interest with her appointment, and it would not affect the independence of the inquiry. We strongly support his view.

Regarding Mrs Aldred’s previous involvement in Iraq issues, which is the issue that concerns the hon. Gentleman, the inquiry has papers from the Cabinet Office covering the whole period of its terms of reference. Those include papers produced by the foreign and defence policy secretariat, in which Mrs Aldred was previously employed. In addition, it has heard evidence from the Prime Minister’s foreign and defence policy advisers for whom Mrs Aldred worked.

Sir John and other committee members are fully satisfied that the secretary is discharging her role efficiently and effectively and with the highest levels of professionalism. Mrs Aldred is a highly experienced member of the senior civil service, with a deep understanding and knowledge of defence and foreign policy issues. Her previous work on Iraq has been handled by the inquiry in a way that is fair and open and avoids conflicts of interests. Again, I stress that the committee is satisfied that that does not have any negative impacts on the inquiry and does not call into question the independence of its work. It would be wrong to suggest otherwise.

Let me conclude by talking briefly about the civil service code and its values, because the hon. Gentleman suggested that this process cut across the bow of that code. The code and its values are clearly important in gaining a full appreciation of how they apply in relation to the secretariat to the Iraq inquiry. Let me start by covering the values. As civil servants, the inquiry secretary and other members of the secretariat are required to carry out their duties and responsibilities in accordance with the requirements of the civil service code, including integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality. They are also required to comply with the law and uphold the administration of justice. While working for the inquiry, the civil servants will be accountable to the inquiry for their work and actions.

To conclude, I have no doubt at all, if things are as the hon. Gentleman said, that some things should have been done better, not least in terms of the courtesy that should have been extended to him, and the length of time that it took to respond to the FOI request. I am sure that the people involved in that will think on it. But in terms of the core issue-the integrity and professionalism of the secretariat to the inquiry-I am pleased to have the opportunity to place on record my appreciation of the work done by the inquiry, which I am sure is shared by the House and the general public. I am also pleased to be able to put it on record that both I and the independent committee of Privy Counsellors who constitute the Iraq inquiry, and whose reputation and integrity are on the line in this process as well, are confident that the inquiry secretary and the other civil servants are providing impartial and objective advice to the inquiry in a way that upholds the impartiality of the civil service and preserves the independence of the inquiry.

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