|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 896grounds, that should be allowed. That may not always be the case, but if exceptions can be made in the cases that I have quoted, other exceptions should be made.
I am thinking particularly of housing. The alternative arrangements that we are making for new housing are being blocked by the PSBR. If capital expenditure is limited by the PSBR, it is impossible to achieve any continuity in capital expenditure as one year things may be looking good and the next year they may be looking bad. The PSBR is altered year by year by political needs which are often entirely different from commercial needs. For those reasons, the evidence in various reports shows that the PSBR is not always used in the best possible way.
I do not want to hog the whole evening, but I believe that it is a privilege, although sometimes an onerous privilege, to be on the Public Accounts Committee. We work as a team and, despite what the hon. Member for Bolsover says, manage to work without party strife. If we did not succeed in doing so, we should not be doing our duty by the House or by the country.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : I was interested by the speech of the hon. Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw), which I discussed with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) as he was making his points.
I wish to refer to the eighteenth report on financial reporting to Parliament, 1988-89, and the twenty-fourth report of the same year on the Department of Social Security's operational strategy. The report on financial reporting to Parliament deals with the arrangements for the financial reporting to Parliament of public expenditure. The main financial documents are the supply estimates, which are derived from the public expenditure survey and the public expenditure White Paper. They represent the Government's formal request to Parliament for cash to finance the major part of Government expenditure.
The objectives of financial reporting were set out by a previous Public Accounts Committee. They were to provide Parliament systematically with information on performance which is reliable as an assurance of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which Departments are operating services, and as the basis for selective inquiries.
The supply estimates, which are published annually, cover almost all Government expenditure, such as on the Foreign Office, the Home Office and defence. They cover all the Departments, but they do not cover two other sectors, about which I should like to say a few words. The first is GCHQ, and the second is Government expenditure on the security services, which comes under the heading of the secret vote.
The supply estimates index lists all the expenditure headings of Departments, but there is no reference to GCHQ. Yet it consumes almost £1,000 million worth of public money, which is a substantial sum. Parliament cannot question the use of those moneys, and there is no reporting to Parliament of how they are used. The money that is needed by that Department is, in effect, laundered through a number of votes for various Departments in such a way that Members of Parliament cannot follow or question the allocation of resources.
Column 897The second sector is the secret vote. The public should be aware that in the current year the Government propose to spend £125 million on the security services under that classification. Under present arrangements, the service is required only to submit to the Cabinet Office what is in effect an invoice for its expenditure for the following year--the document that I have here and which is published in the supply estimates--and it is awarded that amount. Parliament cannot ask questions about the use of those moneys. It is not that hon. Members might want to interfere or even queston the operational use of those moneys but that they do not know how many people are employed, where they work, what generally they are responsible for doing or what their regional obligations might be. We are unable to question that considerable amount of expenditure, which represents £2.50p for every man, woman and child in the United Kingdom.
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield) : Will the hon. Gentleman say what advantage there would be to Parliament in having that information? By definition, all the operations and details of the secret services' activities must be secret. Can the hon. Gentleman cite any western country where such details are available?
Mr. Campbell-Savours : In the United States of America, such material is available to a Congressional committee, which meets in private and is staffed by senior members of Congress. It never leaks and it investigates the facts which are of interest to its members in establishling whether resources are being used effectively. That is all that we need in the United Kingdom. I have never suggested that the security services should report to the Public Accounts Committee. I believe that a Scrutiny Committee of the House should be set up to deal with the financial accountability of the security services. Such a development is inevitable--it is merely a question of when the necessary Government commitment will be made.
The problem is that when the Public Accounts Committee has raised these matters on previous occasions, Departments under successive Governments have felt loth or constrained about whether such information, if given to Parliament, would be properly used. They have questioned the ability of Select Committees to retain that information as private, which is why I wholeheartedly condemn the fact that a document given to the Public Accounts Committee under conditions of confidentiality has been leaked in the past few days to The Guardian. I understand that the press may have found it exciting copy, but in so far as newspapers know that it is inevitable that that information will surface in another form, probably as part of one of our reports at a later stage, they should be far more circumspect about the information that they provide. I am sure that newspapers will always find hon. Members willing to provide such information, but by publishing it they compromise our Committees and make it even more difficult for us to convince Departments that we are reliable and capable of maintaining the confidentiality of documents until there is a need to publish them, and they serve the arguments of those who argue against the accountability for which I am pressing, certainly in relation to GCHQ and the security services generally.
The second report is the twenty-fourth report on the Department of Social Security's operational strategy. The
Column 898background to the report is that since 1982 the Department has had under development a substantial £1.8 billion programme for the computerisation of the Department, replacing many of the current manual procedures. The aim of the strategy is to provide, through a series of interconnected projects, access to area computer centres by 450 local social security offices and 840 unemployment offices, which entails the use of 33,000 visual units.
The Public Accounts Committee has always been assured, certainly by the Department's accounting officer, that the system will work. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Mr. Knox) asked the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security about the progress of the computerisation programme. In reply, the Minister said : "The Department's highly complex £1.7 billion strategy for the computerisation of the payment of social security benefits is proceeding as planned. The pilot exercise in 23 local offices has been completed and the systems are being introduced nationally office by office."--[ Official Report, 27 November 1989 ; Vol. 162, c. 430.]
That reply suggested that everything was going fairly well. When we were discussing such matters earlier this year, in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen), we were given an assurance by Mr. Partridge of the Department. Speaking about the programme of computerisation and the local office projects, he said :
"The LOP ones will be very fully tested indeed. They go through about six states of testing and they will be tested to death and will work, I am quite confident of that".
That was on 1 February this year. His reply was nonsense and I believe that the accounting officer knew that when he gave it. Several statistics have been produced to substantiate claims about the operational efficiency of the system. I understand that the statistics are available nationwide, but I shall deal with the statistics from the Workington office in my constituency. To measure efficiency, one must take into account the availability of systems to departmental officials. The Department's statistics show that the system was working for 89 per cent. of the time in the week ending 5 November and 87 per cent. of the time in the week ending 12 November. Those are the Department's figures. I suggest that they alone indicate a loss of a great deal of time.
The statistics are also highly inaccurate, as they are based on averages. The programme and the local office projects cover three different areas of calculations--retirement pensions, departmental central index and income support. If we ignore the averages, and consider each area separately, we find different statistics. In the week ending 5 November, the system for retirement pensions in Workington was available for only 74.4 per cent. of the time, the departmental central index was operational 100 per cent. of the time, and the income support system for 91.6 per cent. of the time. In the week ending 12 November, the retirement pension system was available 89.7 per cent. of the time, the departmental central index 93.7 per cent. of the time and the crucial income support system, which represents the main body of the office's work, only 76.3 per cent. of the time. For nearly a quarter of the time in that week, the income support computerised programme was not operational in Workington.
Column 899Such figures have major implications for the level of service. By averaging all the statistics, the departmental central index--which is the least used and to which there is least access--drags up the average level of availablity, particularly for income support, and completely distorts the statistics.
I understand that in October there were 14 interruptions to the Livingstone mainframe computer service to local offices. For income support, most of the errors in software arise in priority areas such as arrears payments--a highly sensitive area for customers. There are allegedly more than 80 errors in the current software and the mainframe computer on pensions is overloaded. Breakdowns in the system, which when complete will have cost the taxpayer in effect almost £2 billion, are leading to a great reduction in morale among staff in the Department. In Bolton, the position is very bad and morale has almost been destroyed.
It is intended that the programme will be fully operational by October next year on what I call big bang day but the Department refers to as national roll-out. From what I am told, the system will not be working by that date. The Department has many questions to answer on that.
What are the implications of the £1.8 billion investment programme for employment? The Department's figures are a complete fabrication. The Department says, and the National Audit Office report states, that by spending £1.8 billion 20,186 jobs will be cut. The Department states that job reductions are crucial to the viability of operational strategy. When the Department's officials came before the Committee we were told that staff would indeed be lost. In my view, the projected savings will not arise. Managers in various parts of the country say that it is unlikely that any more than half the savings in staff will be made. However, senior managers say that if savings are not made on staff, cuts will have to be made in other areas of the service to ensure that the Government fulfil their expenditure commitments. That is unrealistic and impracticable because it will lead to a major reduction in service across the country, particularly in offices where there is a heavy workload. I have looked at the figures for the office in Workington in detail. Like every hon. Member, I occasionally visit my local office and ask questions, but on the most recent occasion, as I asked questions I carefully noted what staff told me as I walked around the office. I was told that in Workington 84 jobs were cut in 1987-88, 79 in 1988-89 and 74 in 1989-90. There has been a steady reduction as computers have come on line and a further 11 are to be cut, leaving a complement of 62 by June next year. I put it to Ministers that that complement will not be sufficient in Workington. The reductions in staff will jeopardise the service and lead to a major reduction in the quality of service to the customer.
I do not question the need for computerisation. I am thoroughly in favour of it if it leads to the faster provision of service, if it works, if it means that people are in and out of the office more quickly, and if it makes access to material data on particular people easier. However, I object to misrepresentation of the facts to Parliament to substantiate the expenditure.
We are told that the computer system is to be fully operational by October 1990. Yet the staff cuts in Workington--I assume that it will be the same in every other part of the country--are to be made by July next
Column 900year before the computer is fully operational. The same will apply in every hon. Member's constituency. Every office will face the same difficulty. The cuts are based on what I can only describe as doctored statistics to substantiate the repeated claim of Ministers and civil servants that everything is on line. The system is not working as it should. Departmental officials know the truth and they are telling Members of Parliament because many of us are talking about what is happening in that Department. Action needs to be taken now.
Why have all the problems arisen? My conclusion is that the computer was bought from the wrong firm. I understand that by waving the Union Jack one can invariably land major public-sector contracts. The contract was won by Imperial Chemicals, which I am told produced the equally disastrous Camelot computer 10 years ago. If we are to introduce computerisation affecting many Departments and tens of thousands of people across the country, Departments have a responsibility to buy what is right although it may not necessarily appear to be in the best interests of the country at the time. It has major implications for the operational effectiveness of a Department.
Departmental officials sometimes provide inaccurate information. In February, I questioned the answers given to me on the operations of the social fund microcomputer. I was told that my data from a research project carried out in several offices in the north of England were inaccurate. I checked with my sources, talked to departments and was told that the information was correct. Officials should not treat members of the PAC as though we were idiots. We know what is going on because we can ask questions. Responsibility for answers should be more direct, even if the Government find the answers uncomfortable. For example, Mr. Nichol recently gave evidence about the NHS. He is involved in a great deal of controversy about the ambulance dispute. He gave the Committee good, solid evidence based on what I believe to be the most objective assessment of what was happening. He did not hide the truth, but simply put it to the Committee. I pay tribute to him for that, and that is the approach that I shall expect from all departmental officials in the future. My hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is unfortunately no longer present, but I am sure that he is busy elsewhere in the House. He must understand that the House has to have a mechanism which enables Members to probe deeply into a matter and test details, especially when the truth comes out. Hon. Members must have access to officials to question them in detail on matters of great interest. The Floor of the House does not offer us that opportunity. It is good for backchat across the Dispatch Box--once in a while a Minister slips up and we score a point but at the end of the day it is the Select Committees which offer us the only opportunity to inquire in depth into a particular matter.
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is a great pity that the invisible hon. Member for Bolsover is not in his place? If he were to participate in the debate, he would have before him more than 40 reports from the PAC going into great detail which our Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), has described so vividly tonight. That would have provided the hon. Gentleman with an
Column 901admirable opportunity to question Government expenditure in many areas, basing his comments on facts, which would be a nice change for him.
I have had private discussions with my hon. Friend. He does not recognise Select Committees as a forum for such inquiries. He is inclined to go directly to organisations to secure the details which we can obtain in our proceedings. I do not condemn him for his strongly held view that a consensual relationship develops across such Committees, and it is true in this instance. I can defend that because by the nature of our reports inquiring minds are gathered together. We are all dedicated to securing value for money and the most cost-effective use of public resources.
Unfortunately, I shall not be present to hear the replies as I have to return to my constituency on the 8.45 plane from Heathrow. I apologise to the hon. Member who is to speak next. I shall read the hon. Member's speech and also the replies. I ask the House to forgive me for leaving early.
Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West) : I have had the privilege to serve on the Public Accounts Committee for two years. If ever I had any doubts about whether our work was worthwhile, they were dispelled by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). When in my political life I do anything diametrically opposed to what he recommends, it is a good weather vane, showing that I am making the correct political decisions.
I have a mild confession to make. In Committee yesterday I said that when I started to serve on it I worried about whether the flood of reports, with their varying degrees of horror, would continue indefinitely. There were wry smiles from my colleagues and stifled guffaws from one or two who are battle hardened. The flood of reports has continued unabated. That more than anything else justifies strengthening, supporting and providing more assets to the Committee in its work so that we can produce value for money for taxpayers. I pay tribute to the National Audit Office for the high quality of its reports. In a debate such as this we are spoilt for choice. If, heaven forbid, I ever wanted to filibuster, PAC reports would give me ample ammunition and would ensure that I did not retrace covered ground.
This evening I have chosen to talk about road planning and coronary heart disease. I am well aware that in choosing coronary heart disease I am following in the footsteps of our worthy Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon). I join my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw) in expressing my appreciation of our Chairman's leadership and the way in which he keeps us away from the pitfalls of policy. I understand that at the weekend he will be given the freedom of Tameside, and I congratulate him on that worthwhile honour.
I have chosen those two subjects because the Treasury and departmental responses to them are different in nature from the response to my chosen subject last year--the Charity Commission. My hon. Friends on the Committee called it a disaster looking for an opportunity. The
Column 902Treasury response was immediate. It put extra officers on the job to ensure that the Charity Commission was not abused and that the millions of pounds a year given to charities were correctly applied. The responses this year have been described as less than urgent. The twenty-sixth report reminds us that coronary heart disease kills 180,000 people a year. I am not happy with the speed of introducing and spreading best practice. The Department of Health's response to the number of lives lost is not co-ordinated as it is for the treatment of AIDS and alcohol abuse, for which ministerial committees have been established. An analysis of the 34 health districts in England has shown that a quarter of them did not even mention the prevention of heart disease in their programmes for 1988-89. In international terms, the United Kingdom has one of the highest death rates from this terrible disease. It is 298 per 100,000 in Northern Ireland and Scotland and 243 per 100,000 in England and Wales compared with 230 in the United States, 79 in Spain and 45 in Japan.
As a further example of our laid back approach, I should like to bring in the question of the targets for coronary artery bypass grafts as a case in point. The Welsh Office has decided to adopt a higher figure of 400 to 500 operations per million of population. The response from the Department of Health is that the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons are preparing a report on the topic. When that advice is available, the Department will no doubt leap into action and consider whether a new target should be set. I suggest that the colleges and the Department of Health should have a view in place at the moment. They have international comparisons to hand, and attention to the spread of best practice could be a little quicker. Putting aside the present ambulance dispute, another worrying aspect is the wide range and variety of policies adopted by ambulance crews. We must remember that 30,000 people die of heart attacks within the first two hours. Scotland has a policy of fitting its ambulances with defibrillators and of training crews in their use. That is positive thinking. The British Heart Foundation is working to achieve that. It will cost about £2 million, and the foundation is working with the Heart Start Scotland campaign.
Seven of the nine districts in Wales are seeking to introduce extended training for ambulance crews in heart disease. What is the position in England? The accounting officer was not too certain about how many ambulances had defibrillating equipment or about the number of crews trained in its use. The National Audit Office said that it is about 30 per cent. However, we find that some districts ask their ambulance crews to use defibrillators while others positively discourage their use. One of our ex- colleagues died of a heart attack in his 40s. There is a strong view that if a defibrillator and a crew trained in heart resuscitation had been available, he could still be in the House representing his constituency.
I asked Sir Christopher France whether whether there were any regions or districts that did not train ambulance staff in the use of defibrillators, and his answer was yes. Like every other member of the Committee, sometimes when I left the Committee Room I said to myself, "I wish that I had asked another question. I wish that I had asked Sir Christopher whether, if he had a heart attack, he would like the ambulance staff who were picking him up to have
Column 903a defibrillator and a trained crew or whether he would have been prepared to hang on and wait until the door of the hospital appeared."
Mr. Tim Smith : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most striking aspects of coronary heart disease is the vast imbalance between the amount that the Department spends on treatment, which is £500 million, and the amount that it spends on prevention, which is £10 million? Does he agree that prevention is better than cure and that there should be a reordering of priorities? Does he also agree that the most effective way to stop smoking is to increase the price of cigarettes? To put it mildly, it is unfortunate that in two of the last three Budgets the duty on cigarettes was not increased at all, which means that the real price has fallen. Would not that be the most effective way to discourage people from smoking?
Mr. Page : I agree with my hon. Friend, but I know that at least one of our hon. Friends will speak about that. I ought not to pick the bones completely clean but should leave one or two topics. My hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) has swept up some of the other topics that should be acted upon.
As I have said, there is a laid-back approach to introducing the spread of best practice. Each year 180,000 people die from heart disease and, as my hon. Friend says, prevention is better than cure. The Department of Health and the Treasury should allocate funds to saving lives rather than trying to treat people after the disaster has occurred.
The fifteenth report deals with road planning. That is a euphemism for what sometimes happens because I freely admit to the House, as I admitted to the Committee, that I and my constituents are scarred by the experiences of the M25, part of which passes through my constituency. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield feels equal pain over the large number of holdups and congestion. My first objection relates to the misleading way in which the figures about the relative success or failure of the forecasts are presented. We see from the report that about 18 of the 58 schemes are 20 to 40 per cent. above or below the forecast level and that in seven of the schemes the error exceeded 40 per cent. Anybody hearing that would say that, while it is not too good, it is not too bad either. The forecast is for 100 cars a day, and with an error of 40 per cent. there will be 140 cars.
Of course, that is not the way that the Department works. Its forecasting error is expressed as a percentage of the outturn. In my constituency it is not 50,000 cars that use the road but more than 100,000. That means that for every one car that was forecast to use the road there are more than two, and somehow the Department thinks that the increase represents 0.4 of a car. It is certainly more than double. The Department says that it will make clear the method that it uses. Its forecast should be used as the base line and not as a percentage of the outturn.
I hope that forecasting will be improved, as is suggested in the Treasury response. However, that response is an
Column 904amalgam of reasons and excuses about why the forecasts have turned out in the way that they have. They are a history of underestimates. It says that in future things will be better and that the sun will shine. I remember the M1 when it had just two lanes, but then it had to be extended. There is an explanation offered about the M25, especially where it passes through my constituency. The response says :
"For example, for the Micklefield Green-South Mimms section, objectors argued that traffic could be accommodated for some years ahead by minor improvements to the existing road network." The response said that the forecasts had to be vigorously defended at the inquiry against the constant criticism that they were too high. Of course the objectors said, "Do we need the motorway? Do we need all this disruption?", and thought that the existing road network could possibly accommodate the traffic. They would say that, because they based their objections on Department of Transport figures that were at least 100 per cent. out. Of course there will be chaos and confusion. While reading the reasons, excuses and promises for the future, I wonder whether there has been any real change in the nature of the beast.
The other thing that riles me about that section of the M25 is that during the inquiry we had already had the experience of the Chertsey to Staines section, which was open, and within months was oversubscribed and had exceeded the forecast figures. Some 100,000 vehicles were travelling through that section per day, and as it is only 10 or 11 miles from my constituency, surely it would have been realised that those cars had to go somewhere. They would not all flood on to roads in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield or to Heathrow airport but would continue to the beginning of the M1. It is peculiar that no one recognised that. I take some comfort from the remarks in the Treasury's response, particularly the comment that it is more optimistic about future economic growth. I also take comfort from the response in the White Paper entitled "Roads for Prosperity". I hope that those responses will allow for a more realistic roads provision for the future. Good communications, whether through information technology, or physically through roads or rail services, are necessary if Britain is to be a successful industrial country.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will make sure that forecasts err on the side of growth and prosperity rather than on the negative side of reduction. I also hope that my constituents will have a better level of environmental protection, and that the traffic will keep moving when the motorway is widened.
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow) : Earlier this evening the hon. Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw) described me as a volunteer attendant at this debate. I am pleased to take part in what has been, and I hope will continue to be, a civilised debate. The only unfortunate thing about the debate has been its attendance, which is on a parallel with attendance levels late at night when we debate European Community affairs. That is a matter for regret. The forty-fourth report from the PAC--an estimable Committee--is entitled "Quality of Service to the Public at
Column 905DHSS Local Offices". I wish to focus on the importance of test case decisions to the public, to the DSS and to the Treasury and the Government's response to the report.
Earlier today I asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) whether the senior official from the DSS, during cross- examination by the Committee, had offered an explanation of why the DSS had failed to publicise decisions taken by social security commissioners, which might have profound consequences for the Department and their clients--or claimants as they are traditionally known--and for the Treasury. The Treasury may be delighted by the apparent failure or unwillingness to publicise test case decisions. However, I am concerned for the claimants. In paragraph 3 of the report, the Committee talks about the poor standard of service obtaining in some local offices. I shall defend the two offices in Greenock and Port Glasgow, as the two managers there--Mr. Derek Andrews and Mr. Brian Bryceland--run tight ships. I have always told them that I will not tolerate any of my constituents being treated in a discourteous or ill-mannered way by officials, who are also my constituents. I am pleased to say that complaints about discourteous or ill-mannered behaviour can be counted on the fingers of one hand over a period of some six years. I am sure that hon. Members of the Committee were not criticising the officers in my constituency.
I disagree with the Committee when it states, in paragraph 3(e), that it accepts that the staff levels in local offices are at a level appropriate for the work that they have to undertake. I do not believe that that is so. In some local offices the problem is exacerbated by a high level of staff turnover. Some new companies are beginning to come to Greenock and Port Glasgow, and one of those new companies recruited nine members of staff from the local DSS office. They were among the first 14 people employed by that company. I agree entirely with the Committee when the Chairman and his colleagues say in paragraph 3(i) of the report :
"We accept that in providing information and advice local offices must respond to the circumstances in which they operate. But we are not satisfied that all offices are adequately fulfilling the Department's role".
That is true of test case decisions.
I am pleased to see, in paragraph 28 on page ix, that the Committee members have taken note of the effects of the Department's efforts in Scotland to influence the content and timing of take-up campaigns. In the Strathclyde region there is a high level of co-operation between local DSS offices and the social work departments of the regional council. However, it is precisely at such moments that DSS officers do not have the facilities or staff to deal with the effects of take-up campaigns.
The Government seem to be somewhat complacent and I am less than satisfied with their response to a fine report.
Paragraph 14 on page 4 of the Government's response, entitled "Complementing Local Offices", claims that there is a new complementing system for local officers, based upon performance as well as work measurements, and it says :
"It will seek to deploy staff to meet agreed standards of service".
That is not always the case. There is much more to be done in regard to the quality of the service provided by officials.
Column 906The example that I want to pursue follows a test case in August this year involving a commissioner and a Mr. Potts from Sunderland, who suffers from a common industrial disease called vibration white finger which is well known to my constituents and to those of my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Brown). It is brought on by the constant use of vibratory percussive tools. In the shipyards, the man most susceptible to this peculiarly painful industrial disease would be the caulker burner, but it affects many thousands of former employees in shipbuilding, mining, forestry and construction.
On appeal, the commissioner decided that Mr. Potts was in a state of justifiable ignorance of his right to claim backdated disablement benefit in respect of his illness. If other claims based on that test case are made, payments may in some cases exceed £6,000. Hence, perhaps, the Treasury's response to the DSS's failure to publicise the test case, especially in shipbuilding constituencies. I believe that there are thousands of men who have suffered from this disabling industrial disease.
Following the test case, several take-up campaigns have been conducted--on Merseyside, the north-east, Northern Ireland and the west of Scotland. As I represent a shipbuilding constituency, hon. Members will not be surprised to hear that I am deeply involved in the latter.
In response to the campaign, the Government, advised by DSS officials, introduced a deadline of 1 November 1989 for claims. A group of Labour Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East, went to see the Minister of State at the DSS on 30 October and secured a significant concession from him and his officials. The Minister agreed to re-examine the decision to revoke regulation 13 of the Social Security (Industrial Injuries and Diseases) Miscellaneous Provisions Regulations 1986, which enables sufferers of industrial diseases to submit back-dated claims for benefit.
The Minister displayed his usual civility and courtesy. He also behaved with compassion. I just wish that his officials would show the same compassion when publicising the test case. We had to look for it ourselves. The Minister reinforced his decision by tabling a statutory instrument which enables late claims for industrial injuries and diseases to be determined in certain circumstances as though they had been made on 30 September 1986.
I am very happy to say that the Minister behaved with compassion. We offer our compliments to him. This is a victory for natural justice and common sense. The campaign is being conducted with expediency. The trade unions are playing an important role in it. The General, Municipal, Boilermakers and Allied Trades Union was instrumental in taking the test case to appeal. I am delighted to work with Robert Thompson, the Scottish secretary of that union, Duncan McNeil and other trade unionists in the local campaign. The two DSS offices in Sunderland--Phoenix house and Dunn house--have received more than 20,000 applications for back-dated disablement benefit. Not all of them will be successful, and for some of those that are payments will be quite small, but they still impose something of a financial burden on the DSS, which is recognised honourably by the Minister, and on the Treasury.
By and large, applications in Sunderland are for white finger, although I understand that they call it dead finger in the north-east. I am told that a fellow went to see my hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field)
Column 907claiming that he had vibration white bum because he had sat on machinery which vibrated. He claimed that that had given him the disease in his posterior.
The two DSS offices in Sunderland have co-operated with the local take-up campaign. I have been assured by my hon. Friends the Members for Sunderland, North (Mr. Clay) and for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin), and by David Towler, Brenda Fulton and Brian Chapman of the Sunderland Trades Union Congress unemployment centre, that local DSS officials have been extremely helpful and co-operative in the take-up campaign. They, and officials in Greenock and Port Glasgow, Belfast, Newcastle, Liverpool and elsewhere, confront considerable difficulties when dealing with such a torrent of claims. The two offices in my constituency have received more than 800 back-dated claims in the past three or four weeks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) talked about delays that people experience when they go to DSS offices. My worry, when there are take-up campaigns such as these that involve disablement claims, is that the procedure is so long-winded. A clerical assessment is made of the claim. That involves contacting the applicant's former employer, who may have disappeared or gone out of business, to assess the nature of the claimant's work. When a response is obtained, the adjudication officer makes a decision, yea or nay. If his decision goes against the claimant, the claimant has a right of appeal to a local appeals tribunal. That may lead to the claimant having to undergo a medical examination. A second adjudication officer assesses the medical opinion delivered by the medical practitioner. That may lead to the claimant having to appeal to a medical appeals tribunal, which may take several months. That appeals tribunal decision is given to the adjudication officer. That is a tiresome, cumbersome and time-consuming procedure.
There are few hon. Members here tonight, and few other than my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East represent shipbuilding constituencies. Many of the men with whom we are concerned are unemployed and some of them will never work again because of the extent of their disabilities. Some of them are pensioners who have been denied their legitimate rights as a result of the failure of the Department of Social Security to alert them to this test case.
The Government must seek to eliminate or at least to reduce those delays. Even at this late date, I want Ministers at the Department of Social Security to instruct local officers at Lady Lawson street in Edinburgh, on Tyneside, on Merseyside and in Ulster to initiate comprehensive local advertising campaigns which will reach out to such people.
I held a public meeting the other day. I paid for a fairly large advertisement in my local paper the Greenock Telegraph, and as it was a legitimate parliamentary expense, I shall ask the Fees Office to pay for the advertisement. Over 200 men turned up at the public meeting in Port Glasgow last Friday. My hon. Friends from the north-east of England and from Merseyside will confirm that in their areas too the advertising and publicity is being carried out by voluntary organisations such as unemployment centres which are, to put it bluntly, strapped for cash. It is the responsibility of the Department of Social Security to give some much needed assistance to men in those unpleasant circumstances.
Column 908In a constituency such as mine--and you have heard me say this before, Mr. Deputy Speaker--there has been a decline in the shipbuilding industry. Unemployment, according to the Government's statistics, is still at 14.8 per cent., which is way over the United Kingdom average. Thousands of my constituents are in receipt, directly or indirectly, of social welfare incomes, so they have a direct interest in the quality of service that is provided by the two local Department of Social Security offices. In the main, they receive a good service from hard -pressed officials. Senior officials at the Department of Social Security should not be cutting the number of employees at the Greenock and Port Glasgow local offices ; they should be recruiting staff rather than running down staff numbers. Ministers and senior officials at the Department of Social Security must also treat claimants as clients.
I am deeply grateful to all the members of the Public Accounts Committee for examining the quality of performance of staff at local Department of Social Security offices and for enabling me to respond to their excellent forty-fourth report.
Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge) : I am glad to follow the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman). It is a refreshing change for an hon. Member who is not also a member of the Public Accounts Committee to speak in this debate. I listened to him with great interest and I hope that he will contribute to future debates. It is also good to hear a Scottish voice in these debates. Our debate this Session, like all previous debates, is concerned with the endless task of the Public Accounts Committee in searching for value for money, ensuring that the taxpayer receives value for money and, if not, discovering the reasons why and reporting them to Parliament. On Monday morning, when I was considering how I might contribute to this debate, my eye lighted on an article in The Times. The headline read :
"Former Whitehall chief's criticism. Police do not give value for money' ".
As the House knows, I am parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation. I put down my cup of tea to see who had written the article and who was being quoted. I was especially interested to see that the report concerned an article in the Municipal Journal of 24 November, commenting on the views of that endless searcher after value for money, Sir Brian Cubbon, the former permanent secretary at the Home Office, who before his recent retirement was a frequent witness at sessions of the Public Accounts Committee.
I shall quote from this important article by Sir Brian. The headline read :
"Treat em mean : keep em keen!"
I thought that the article would be worth reading because I remembered so many occasions on which we had had such helpful discussions with Sir Brian on the importance of value for money at the Department of which he had the distinction of being the head for so many years. I hope that the House will forgive me if I quote briefly one or two interesting passages in the article.
Sir Brian wrote :
"Lack of money is a powerful incentive for officials to prioritise and get the same results with less money. Treat em mean and keep em keen'. The Home Office's local services have been largely immune from this top-down pressure. Expenditure on law, order and protective services in the
Column 909United Kingdom has risen in real terms from £5 billion in 1978/79 to £8.4 billion in 1989-90. A further factor has been the split in financial control, between the Home Office and local authorities. In the case of the police, probation and magistrates' court services, the specific grant from Central Government (51 per cent., 80 per cent., and 80 per cent., respectively) increased the onus on the Home Office to secure value for money in these services, but the main effort had still to come from local control and initiatives. In the case of the police, the Audit Commission paper Adminstrative Support to Operational Police Officers records the good progress made by the police, with Home Office and HM Inspectorate support, in streamlining procedures, reducing paperwork and using civilian support units. The scrutiny technique has been introduced. HM Inspectorate use statistical data, which records police activities in a uniform way, enabling trends to be monitored from year to year and amoung groups of forces. Financial information is being added.
It remains difficult to find measures, and recording systems, which reliably link increased police manpower with increased effectiveness and efficiency. It remains an open question whether we are getting value for money for all the extra inputs of recent years. Police civilians have increased by 11 per cent. or more than 5,000 since 1985. Why is it that the number of police officers on patrol or operational duties has increased more slowly?"
That was an interesting question for Sir Brian to ask. The Times expressed some surprise in reporting the article. It said : "The former Permanent Secretary at the Home Office has publicly criticized his former colleagues for failing to secure adequate value for the billions they spend on the police."
I thought that it was very interesting to have Sir Brian's views and we so much enjoyed listening to him when he came before the Public Accounts Committee that I thought that it might be helpful for the House tonight if I commented briefly on the forty-second report on financial control and accountability of the Metropolitan police and the courts and prison building programmes for which Sir Brian, while at the Home Office, was responsible.
I should first like to deal with the financial control and accountability of the Metropolitan police, that gallant body of men who keep our capital free of crime to such an extent and who serve us selflessly day and night. In our report we said :
"Following our Forty-fifth Report, the Government accepted that the arrangements for securing the accountability of the Metropolitan Police needed further development' and said that a substantial programme of work to that end is in train.' We have not received the outcome of the work, and would welcome details as soon as possible, so that we can consider the matter further as necessary.
Some time has elapsed since that was said.
Paragraph 62 of the Treasury minute to the 42nd report--Home Office, Lord Chancellor's Department and Property Services Agency--responds to the Committee's comments and observations on that topic. It was published one year ago and says :
"The Home Office will submit shortly to the Committee a memorandum giving a detailed report of the programme of work, mentioned in the Treasury Minute of October 1986 which has been undertaken to improve the accountability and financial control of the Metropolitan Police and to review the information provided to Parliament." We are still waiting. We are now in November 1989 and we still have not had from the Home Office the memorandum that we require on that important subject. I hope that Sir Brian's successor, Sir Clive Whitmore, will give some thought to that matter at an early date.