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Column 910The court building programme is another splendid example of the need for value for money, efficiency and control of which Sir Brian Cubbon talks. The Committee said of the court building programme : "At the end of 1986, there still remained a backlog of 21,600 cases awaiting trial in England and Wales with waits between committal and trial as high as 25 weeks. These are matters of considerable concern to us, demonstrating how much more the departments need to do." That is not a good example of value for money, efficiency or economy, and those are the things about which we need to be concerned. It is unacceptable to me--and, I am sure, to all hon. Members--that there are such long waits between trial and committal. The report also covered the prison building programme, a matter to which I attach considerable importance. I am sure that I speak for most hon. Members when I say that none of us is proud of our prisons. I pay tribute to my right hon. and noble Friend Viscount Whitelaw who as Home Secretary took urgent steps to put that terrible problem right. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw) said, progress has been slow.
The report went on to say :
"We are surprised that the Home Office no longer have a target date for matching total available places with the average prison population and we consider it important that a new target is set. We are concerned that the recurring and apparently unforeseen surges cast serious doubt on the Home Office's ability to project accurately future prison populations."
That is a pretty tough comment on the efficiency of the Home Office. The report also said :
"By 1999 some 14,500 prison places, about one quarter of the total, will still be without access to night sanitation. We consider this to be unacceptable and urge the Home Office to find ways of bringing about a faster improvement in conditions."
In paragraph 26 of the report the Home Office makes the point that progress is being made towards dealing with the difficult problem of night sanitation. It is totally unacceptable in 1989 for men and women to be confined to prisons and for a large percentage of them still to be required to slop out, which means having no access to night sanitation and being obliged to use a bucket.
I hope that when my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary replies he will have something to say about what is being done to improve the efficiency of the prison service and to bring about the much-needed improvements in our Victorian prisons.
Another aspect of Home Office responsibility referred to in the report is a matter on which we had the privilege of listening to evidence from Sir Brian Cubbon while he was still in office. Paragraph 8 refers to
"serious over-loading of the courts, intolerable' delays in bringing cases to trial."
We went on to say that
"the Committee concluded that insufficient progress had been made towards meeting the objectives of the programme."
We also said :
"Measures taken by the Lord Chancellor's Department to reduce the backlog of cases and waiting times in the Crown Court--especially in London and the South East--had produced no more than a marginal improvement Bearing in mind also the consequent deleterious effects of the huge backlog on overcrowding in local prisons and remand centres recommended that the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Property Services Agency--bringing in the Home Office, as necessary--should take stock at the highest level of the programme's objectives, achievements and problems."
Column 911I am sure that when Sir Brian wrote the splendid article under the heading
"Treat 'em mean : keep 'em keen"
he was not referring to people slopping out in prisons or to those who have to wait for an intolerable time before their cases are heard. He may, however, have been referring to something that was mentioned in The Times - -the efficiency of his colleagues in the Home Office in dealing with those important matters which have caused us such great concern. We know that a crash programme has been initiated to provide a minimum of 12 temporary court rooms in London, but they will have a limited life expectancy and there is still a serious backlog.
I hope that when Home Office officials look at the report of today's debate and think about what we have said in the light of the comments of that distinguished public servant, Sir Brian Cubbon, there will be rapid progress towards dealing with those serious problems. They are not problems that can be left. They need to be dealt with now. It is unsatisfactory to have the system operating as it is with so many delays and so many people confined in appalling conditions.
In the article in the Municipal Journal Sir Brian was quoted as saying :
"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?"
One of the reasons is that many police officers are today employed in investigating each other. One force is investigating another to find out what went wrong in a particular set of circumstances. As we all know, the West Midlands police force is being investigated by west Yorkshire and the Surrey force is being investigated by Somerset and Avon. I could go on but hon. Members on both sides of the House know about the problem. Many officers are deployed in dealing with investigations into complaints, some of which will turn out to be trivial. A great deal of public money is being spent. Some of these cases, of course, will turn out to be serious--I am not trying to cover that up--but it is important, when considering Sir Brian's strictures, to consider the alternative.
The Police Federation of England and Wales takes the view that there should be an independent police complaints authority with its own investigative branch, which could spend its time carrying out necessary investigations and leaving police officers in forces throughout the country to get on with the important job of policing. I hope that the PAC will turn to that matter when the time is right. The forty-fourth report is on the quality of service to the public at DSS local offices. It is a particularly good report and it was welcomed by staff at social security offices throughout the country, who felt that a Committee of Parliament was at last taking an interest in the appalling conditions in which many of them have to work. Those conditions are especially acute not just in inner London but in parts of outer London.
I have discussed these matters with the staff at my local DSS office in Uxbridge and I know of their anxiety. Happily, the increased expenditure on improving offices in London and other parts of the country has greatly improved them and working conditions in them--but there is another problem.
Column 912In the borough of Hillingdon, in which my constituency lies, there is great competition for competent staff to do the jobs that officers in the DSS offices have to do. During the course of the evidence that the Committee took from the permanent secretary, Mr. France, I asked what consideration the Department was giving to the introduction of geographically related pay, and whether consideration had been given to the precedent set by the nurses' pay award, under which a supplement is payable over and above London weighting. Mr. France told the Committee that his Department, in common with other Departments, was introducing local pay additions for areas around London, amounting to £600. That is a welcome step in the right direction, but it is not a very large sum.
I asked Mr. France whether consideration could be given to geographically related pay throughout the country. He replied : "Geographical pay is gradually beginning to appear."
That is welcome and I hope that further progress will be made. There is another problem. There is great competition in Uxbridge between the Department of Social Security and the London borough of Hillingdon for exactly the same sort of staff. Local authorities such as Hillingdon borough council can pay whatever they judge the appropriate rate for the job. Consequently, the DSS is battling to retain staff who are frequently siphoned off by local authorities. That also applies in many other parts of London and, for all I know, in other parts of the country.
Thus there are differing rates of pay in the DSS, which is an agency of national Government, and a London borough council, which is an agency of local government. That is making it difficult for DSS offices to retain local staff who have worked there for many years and who are experts in their field. They are tempted to go and work for the borough council. As £600 per year, welcome though it is, is not much these days, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give some thought to this.
Before I took part in this session of the PAC I made a number of inquiries among my friends in the Department of the Environment to discover whether overall strategic consideration was being given to the problem of the pull by local government away from the offices of a Department of State. No such consideration is being given, so the problem will persist unless something is done about it. I mention this matter on the Floor of the House because I hope that some thought will be given to it. It is not an easy matter to solve, but perhaps the PAC could deal with it at an appropriate time. It is a privilege to take part in this debate and to have served on the PAC under our distinguished Chairman. I look forward to many more good reports. Like the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), no doubt, I firmly believe that they are one of our best protections for ensuring value for money for the taxpayer. 8.34 pm
Mr. Tim Smith (Beaconsfield) : I start by endorsing what my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) has just said. I, too, regard it as a privilege to serve as a member of the Public Accounts Committee. It is one of the most effective Select Committees because it can draw on the services of 900 staff. Most Select Committees have perhaps two or three special advisers. We are fortunate because we rely so heavily on the staff of the
Column 913National Audit Office, who produce the reports on which our inquiries are based. Of course, those reports are not being investigated today, but they form the basis of our inquiries. We are also fortunate to have the calibre of staff that the NAO employs. I know that it has plans not only to maintain but to improve the quality of its staff and to increase the number of
value-for-money reports that it makes.
Although I have said that we are effective, perhaps we should have some independent assessment of our effectiveness ; perhaps we could do a little more to blow our own trumpet. The Audit Commission is good at making regular pronouncements about the total value of the savings that it has recommended could be made if local government adopted its proposals. We could do more to quantify the savings that have been recommended by the PAC.
In this respect the Treasury should regard the Committee as an ally. We have a common objective ; I am sure that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary would agree that it is to improve value for money. I should like to make a proposal : my hon. Friend should try to see what can be done to improve the quality of Treasury minutes. Although I am sure that there is no deliberate attempt to obfuscate the issues, the way in which Treasury minutes are set out could be greatly improved. If the PAC first clearly tabulated what its recommendations were, the Treasury could then follow the practice of other Departments when replying to Select Committee reports. For instance, I have just read the Trade and Industry Select Committee report on financial services in the European market. Each recommendation is set out, followed by the Government response to it. That would be a useful way of proceeding. Will my hon. Friend consider that proposal?
I want to refer to four reports which form a representative sample that well illustrates the value of the different aspects of the Committee's work. The first is one to which hon. Members have already referred--the twenty-sixth report on coronary disease. It was an interesting report because it was the first time that the NAO had examined the output of the National Health Service, rather than the input. It had previously examined estate management and the way in which operating theatres are used, for example, but this report inquires into the objectives of the NHS. What is it in business for? The obvious answer is : to ensure that we all enjoy better health. What is one of the main killers in Britain? The answer is : coronary disease. How effective is Government policy in tackling it? Compared with some other countries it is not very good, and there is much room for improvement.
I referred earlier to the strikingly disproportionate amount spent on treating the problem as opposed to trying to prevent it. I shall not repeat the figures that I gave, but this needs examination. Curing heart disease is an expensive business, so we should devote more resources to trying to prevent it in the first place. There is also a case for better ministerial co-ordination. When we asked questions about it in the Committee we were told that it was a matter for Ministers, so it seems right to mention it to my hon. Friend now. There are ministerial committees that deal with drugs and AIDS, so
Column 914there seems to be a strong case for a ministerial committee to deal with coronary disease, because trying to prevent it is clearly the responsibility of more than one Department-- although the Department of Health has a major responsibility.
The example of tobacco taxation immediately demonstrates that the Treasury has a major responsibility. I know that when Treasury Ministers consider the Budget, many other considerations are regarded as more important than the nation's health. However, Treasury Ministers would surely agree that the price mechanism is the most efficient way of influencing people's behaviour. All the evidence shows that if we increase the price of cigarettes, we curb demand.
Mr. Roy Beggs (Antrim, East) : I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Does he agree that, as the price of tobacco products has increased in the past, we have disadvantaged our own people because jobs have been lost in production in the United Kingdom and laid open the opportunity for cheap imports to this country without achieving a reduction in the use of tobacco products?
Mr. Smith : The hon. Gentleman puts the argument which has been put to me many times by the tobacco industry and of which I am well aware. There are always different considerations, but I have no doubt that price is an extremely effective way of influencing people's behaviour. The report shows that three principal factors determine whether people suffer coronary heart disease, and smoking is one of them. That is an important consideration.
The thirty-second report on the financial management of the Welsh Office is interesting. It is the first time that the National Audit Office has examined a whole Department. It looked at the financial management of the entire Department. The Welsh Office is a relatively small Department and spends only--perhaps I should not say only--£3,500 million and therefore it was possible to subject it to such scrutiny.
When the permanent secretary attended, I asked him whether he had a job description. He told me that he had not. I asked him how much of his time he spent on policy advice rather than managing the Department. He estimated that he spent more time managing the Department than on policy advice, which I thought was interesting. I asked him whether he regarded senior officials in the Department as a management board. There has been a change in Civil Service culture during the past few years as a result of financial management initiatives and other initiatives taken by the Government. There are more officials in Government who see themselves as managers. I am still clear that giving good quality advice to Ministers is probably seen as the priority.
Another factor in this context is the lack of accountants working in line management positions in Government. One might think that financial controllers in Government would be accountants ; they are not. Such is the generalist philosophy and culture of the Civil Service that accountants are thought of as people to be put at the end of the corridor and consulted on financial matters. They are not placed in positions with a degree of financial responsibility. There are very few accountants working in line management positions. The other day I was talking to an internal auditor from the DTI who told me that there were as few as 300 throughout central Government.
Column 915Dr. Godman : Given the Committee's practice of comparing different Departments, does the hon. Gentleman agree that, in the absence of a Scottish Affairs Select Committee, this Committee could perform a useful, nay, a valuable, function in examining some aspects of the financial management of the Scottish Office?
Mr. Smith : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that we regularly look at matters relating to Scotland. We recently looked at the operation of the procurators fiscal and aspects of the Health Service in Scotland. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that we should look at the overall financial management of the Scottish Office, that is an interesting idea that we might well put to the National Audit Office.
The third report to which I shall refer is the ninth report on the Overseas Development Administration and multilateral aid. I do so because the Committee has not always criticised every Government Department. In this case, we gave the ODA good marks for what it was doing. Our general conclusion in paragraph 18 was :
"we saw the C & AG's Report as providing Parliament with assurance that the Overseas Development Administration have adopted a generally sound approach to monitoring and controlling the Multilateral Aid Programme."
We had some reservations, as we always have. It is our job to criticise and we always look for the weak points. But when a Department is well run, and managing itself in a satisfactory way, it is important to say so and in that case we did.
The forty-sixth report in the last Session, 1987-88, on the management of the family practitioner services is one of many reports on the National Health Service produced by the Committee. Obviously, we made detailed proposals for improving the management of family practitioner committees and have made many other detailed proposals in other reports on the NHS. Many of our recommendations have found their way into the Government's White Paper, the NHS review. That may come as a surprise to some people who apparently think that the White Paper is designed to undermine the National Health Service. However, its simple objective is to improve the efficiency and effectiveness with which the taxpayer's money is spent in the Health Service. In the Public Accounts Committee, we see examples almost every month of where savings could be made and more money devoted to improved patient care. I am pleased that many of the Committee's proposals have found their way into the White Paper and are being, or will be, implemented when the National Health Service and Community Care Bill is enacted. That is an important point.
I congratulate the Committee's Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton- under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), on his work. His is a most onerous task which he has carried out with great distinction.
Mr. Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, East) : I identify myself and the Opposition with the remarks of the hon. Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw), who congratulated my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton- under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) on the way in which he chaired the Public Accounts Committee during the past year. My right hon. Friend does an enormous amount of hard work, and I know that he commands the respect of the rest of the Committee and the House. I thank him and
Column 916the other members of the Public Accounts Committee for the work that they do and for the bipartisan spirit in which they do it. It is important to the authority which the reports carry when they come before the House that they are produced in a bipartisan spirit and reflect a consensus among the Committee members. That unanimity gives them enormous authority. The House takes the Committee's views seriously.
Therefore, it is all the more damning that the substantial losses to the Exchequer which have been identified in some of the reports relate not to failures in public administration, but to losses sustained as a direct result of the Government's ideological commitment. The bill for dogma is now being presented to the nation. In some of the reports the Public Accounts Committee has identified a separate matter : where public expenditure has been foolishly forgone, resulting in long-term inefficiencies and losses to the Exchequer. I shall deal first with this issue before referring to the reports which identify losses to the Exchequer due to political decision making rather than administrative inefficiencies.
When the House debated public expenditure in February, we found a new word for public expenditure foolishly forgone. We introduced to the English language "Lamontable" and the concept of Lamontable spending decisions. Of the Lamontables now under consideration, the twenty-sixth PAC report on coronary heart disease makes important reading, and it has been referred to by several hon. Members. It is not the first time that the PAC has considered the issue, but it still feels that it is necessary to express its concern at the failure of the Department of Health to evaluate the full potential of spending on prevention to save on treatment costs.
As the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) said,, factors such as heredity and age are unavoidable. None the less, the Committee draws attention to the three principal risk factors, which are smoking, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. These factors are all avoidable, and the Department must do more than admit that more needs to be done in heart disease prevention. The Committee highlights the obvious point that more resources devoted to prevention would result in long-term savings for the Department and to better lifestyles for many of our citizens.
Several hon. Members have referred to the administration of national museums, galleries and collections. The Committee noted that the Treasury expressed the view that there was scope within the arts budget to meet urgent priorities, but the museum service claims that it is seriously under -funded to meet its needs. The result is an inability of the service properly to account for the care and maintenance of, in some instances, priceless collections that are in its charge. The Committee noted the lack of reliable quantified information on the extent of the problems faced by the service and the resource consequences of that. It is an issue to which the Committee will no doubt have to return when better information is available.
It is right that the House should assert now that it is in the national interest that these matters are brought to a satisfactory conclusion before the poor storage conditions and the backlog of conservation to which the Committee refers in the case of some national collections reach their logical conclusion and important collections are irretrievably damaged or lost to the nation for ever. I was as horrified as the Chairman of the PAC, my right hon.
Column 917Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, when the Victoria and Albert museum stated that it was running the risk of irreparable damage to some parts of the national heritage. I am sure that the House considers that to be unacceptable. If it is the consequence of public expenditure foolishly forgone, it is Lamontable that we must pay the price for it.
Exactly the same point is made by the PAC, although in a different context, in its twenty-eighth report on road maintenance. Several hon. Members, especially those with constituency interests, spoke on the issue with considerable feeling. The Department of Transport is criticised for continuing uncertainty, for failing to budget, for having an irregular maintenance programme and for taking money from that programme to be used in the new-build programme instead. The report highlights the long-term public expenditure consequences of neglecting maintenance and refers to the Department's estimates of the long-term cost of a decision to defer the spending of about £28 million in 1988-89. It is estimated that this decision could lead to on-costs of about £60 million to £120 million over the next three to four years.
The Committee rightly doubts whether the benefits lost by postponing part of the maintenance programme will ever be recovered by spending the money on new build instead. It considers this to be a striking example of short- sightedness in saving now but spending later. This is an example of public expenditure foolishly forgone, and the decision will cost the taxpayer more in the long run. It is another Lamontable decision. The report was published at the end of June and the Committee was able to take note of the new spending commitments which were announced in April-May for the Department of Transport.
The announcement was heralded by a speech delivered by the then Chief Secretary to the Treasury. There were those who suggested cynically that that was because the Chief Secretary expected to be moved to the Department of Transport in the forthcoming Government reshuffle. I consider that to be an unworthy and cynical view. It was always my opinion that the then Chief Secretary was destined for higher things. Now that he has moved up a rung, as it were, the previous Financial Secretary has moved to fill his job and the previous Economic Secretary is now the Financial Secretary. It is surely an appropriate moment for me to welcome the Financial Secretary to his new job and to say that I look forward to winding up these debates with him for the rest of the Parliament, and in the same spirit that I did with his Lamontable predecessor.
Mr. Brown : My other pun, as fans of our consideration of Finance Bills will know, is to refer to brief gaps in our consideration of them as lacunas. He who was the Economic Secretary is now the Lilley of lacuna. Perhaps that will not fit into the spirit of the debate, and that may explain why the Opposition seem unable to retain Members to serve on Finance Bill Committees.
It would not be a PAC debate without mention of the Ministry of Defence. The three recurring themes in these debates are the misdeeds of the Northern Ireland Office, the misdeeds of the Ministry of Defence, and the
Column 918Government's lack of enthusiasm to clamp down on a wide range of serious fraud. This year the Ministry of Defence, even by its own standards, has managed to secure a substantial amount of the Committee's fully justified attention. No fewer than 10 of its reports refer to matters that concern the Ministry.
The thirty-first report deals with the reliability and maintenance of defence equipment. It builds on the consideration that the Committee gave to the issue way back in 1979. In that year, it was noted that an improvement in the reliability and maintenance of defence equipment was potentially the most cost-effective measure directly open to the Ministry in that sector. The PAC was therefore right--it was a reasonable thing for it to do--to return to the matter about 10 years on to ascertain what progress had been made. According to the Committee, there had not been very much progress.
The Ministry accepts that unreliability probably costs as much as £1 billion a year. It considers 50 per cent. to be a fair goal for justifiable savings. As Sir Peter Levene rightly said, reliability costs money but that the more we spend on it the more we shall save. It is fair to observe, as the Committee does, that not much of a start seems to have been made 10 years on. The PAC drily observes that it looks to the Ministry to make early progress. This is another example of public expenditure forgone leading to greater cost to the taxpayer in the long term.
If the Ministry ever begins to take notice of the PAC's reports or of these debates, I hope that it will consider these matters and make a start to improve the quality of the type 23 frigate programme. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne has said that there are only 30 reliability and maintenance specialists in the Ministry. As the report states, however, the Ministry has a procurement budget of about £9 billion.
The Ministry of Defence provides a good example of the Committee's work in the second of the two areas to which I referred at the beginning of my speech, and that is the loss of moneys to the Exchequer as a result of Government dogma, not maladministration. It would be amazing if this debate were to reach a conclusion without reference to the Committee's forty- eighth report on the sale of Royal Ordnance plc. The Committee rightly makes the point that, prior to the sale of Royal Ordnance, the MOD did not explore the possibility of redevelopment at Waltham Abbey or Enfield and nor did it obtain alternative valuations of those sites on the assumption that redevelopment might be approved in future. The Government sold Royal Ordnance, including all its sites, in April 1987. It was bought by British Aerospace for £190 million. The Waltham Abbey and Enfield sites were bought for £3.5 million, but a subsequent valuation by the City firm of Warburg suggested that the sites could be worth up to £462 million when they had been redeveloped for industry and housing.
The PAC said :
"We note that BAe could make a substantial gain on their sale or development without benefits accruing to the taxpayer beyond the sale price paid by BAe."
Of course, British Aerospace has also purchased the Rover Group. It is not the first PAC report to bring privatisation issues to our attention. Hon. Members who recall last year's debate will remember the unhappy report on the Rolls-Royce privatisation. They will also remember the last-minute debt write-offs and the pressure from the management of Rolls-Royce just before it was due to go
Column 919into the private sector. There is no doubt that next year we shall again consider a PAC report on the Rover Group, which will inevitably make similar points.
Substantial sums of public money have been unnecessarily given away to pursue the Government's ideological commitment to privatisation and with no consideration of the public purse or even of issues of common sense. If it had happened just once, it could be understood, but to have a debate on this matter last year, this year and probably again next year shows substantial Government contempt for the public purse.
Mr. Shersby : I do not wish to be controversial, but surely it is necessary to balance the decision on the Rover Group with the substantial sums of taxpayers' money that have been used to shore up the Rover Group for many years. I think that the figure is about £3.5 billion. Without being controversial, I wish to point out that that is also a substantial sum of money and that many taxpayers were heartily sick of it.
Mr. Brown : I am content to await the eventual PAC report on these matters. No doubt we will return to them next year. My understanding is that those taxpayers were about to realise a return on their investment in Rover. Perhaps the PAC will say that, perhaps it will not, but one thing is certain--that the PAC cannot avoid the issue of the potential speculative gain on the land owned by Rover and by Royal Ordnance. That point was emphasised in the report on Royal Ordnance, and I expect that it will be emphasised again in the report on Rover. I may be wrong, and I do not wish to prejudge the issue, but that is what I expect. Whatever one's political view of privatisation, and I am opposed to it, it is possible to carry out a privatisation programme and preserve the legitimate interests of the taxpayer on land sales--land set at a certain value, but which also has a substantially increased and enhanced speculative value. I wish that the Government had taken that point on board before transferring substantial assets to the private sector.
Again, it would not be a PAC debate without some mention of unacceptable levels of fraud and the Government's failure to deal with them. Their reluctance to take firm action across a whole range of areas was a major feature of last year's debate. This year, the Committee is concerned at the level of fraud on the second regional development grants scheme. It regards it as a unacceptable that the majority of cases to date have not been detected by officers of the Department of Trade and Industry. The Committee makes the important recommendation that there should be independent accountants' reports on the number of jobs created as a simple, effective and straightforward safeguard against fraud.
It seems appropriate to move on from independent accountants' reports and independent monitoring to the report on the urban development corporations. Systematic monitoring of performance is recommended for the urban development corporations, and the implementation of that recommendation is long overdue. The Committee has so far looked only at the London Docklands and the Merseyside development corporations, but it will at some stage have to turn its attention to other more recent urban development corporations. There is no evidence that the Department of the Environment is making any serious
Column 920effort to control or restrain those undemocratic and unaccountable institutions which are spending significant sums of public money. In its twentieth report on the London Docklands and Merseyside development corporations the Committee identified four issues-- first, again, the lack of control over land valuations and sales ; secondly, the misuse of consultants, a matter that my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) raised in last year's debate ; thirdly, the failure to protect the public purse in profit-sharing arrangements ; and, fourthly, and most significantly, poor management. I strongly suspect that variations on those four items would be discovered if scrutiny were extended to the other urban development corporations. I hope that at an appropriate time the Public Accounts Committee will undertake that task.
In trying to do justice to the Committee's reports I have drawn two themes from them--public expenditure foolishly forgone, the failure to spend 1p now costing £1 later ; and the losses that have been suffered by the Exchequer as a result of political decision making rather than maladministration, most noticeably through the Government's privatisation programme. I hope that at some stage the Public Accounts Committee will be able to take an overview of the cost-effectiveness of the Government's privatisation programme. Then the point made by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) could be weighed against the fears, some of them confirmed, some yet to be confirmed, of Opposition Members.
The Public Accounts Committee published two reports on the services offered by the Department of Social Security. In its forty-fourth report the Committee considers the quality of service to the public in what were then local Department of Health and Social Security offices. After making a number of points about the organisation of local offices, manpower levels, high staff turnover and the direct relationship between dissatisfaction with facilities and expenditure on local offices, the Committee expressed its concern about the image of the social security system and the narrow interpretation of the DSS of its responsibility for advising and encouraging claimants. The Committee returned to some of those matters in its thirtieth report, noting an estimated level of incorrect payments of between £34 million and £89 million, stating that that was clearly unacceptable. The Committee expressed concern at the number of errors in the social fund account and the frank admission that what was disclosed was unsatisfactory and unacceptable.
My hon. Friend the Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) was right to raise the question of claimants suffering from the industrial disease vibration white finger. That does not affect all areas equally ; it is confined to constituencies where heavy industry dominates, particularly heavy engineering and shipbuilding, but that industrial illness and the way in which the Department of Social Security is dealing with it deeply concern those communities that are affected.
My hon. Friend referred to a figure of 20,000 claims submitted in Sunderland alone. They will not all be substantial but a great number of them will be. I am reminded of the deluge of industrial deafness claims that occurred when I was an official of the General Municipal Boilmakers and Allied Trades Union before I was elected to this House. At the peak of those submissions, the union's solicitors had an office with filing cabinets all
Column 921around the walls labelled from A to Z, and each file was visited once every three months. Ultimately there were about 4,000 successful claims in the Newcastle area alone. That is a prime example of people suffering industrial injury as a consequence of the community in which they live and of a traditional form of employment in that community. Vibration white finger is a similar issue, and my hon. Friend was right to raise it in the context of the report. The Public Accounts Committee made the point that the Department is taking steps to improve the service provided by local offices and intends to increase its targets year by year. However, the PAC comments also that the Department's services are provided to 23 million callers each year and that, in the main, they are citizens who are least able to turn to any other form of advice and who rely on the state to treat them fairly. It is important that the state treats those citizens fairly and does not send them somewhere else for the information that should be provided by a Government Department. The reports also present some stark contrasts in providing an overview of what is happening in this country. They tell of the transfer of public assets from public control to wealthy, private companies and of the generous arrangements made to facilitate such transfers. Other PAC reports tell of the neglect of public services, inadequate funding of the arts, lack of road maintenance, and failure to spend money also on preventive medicine. Two of the reports reveal the mean and squalid treatment received by the least well off in our society in respect of services delivered by the DSS. The Public Accounts Committee presents a snapshot and an indictment of Tory Britain.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Peter Lilley) : This is the first occasion that I have had the privilege to reply to a debate on the work of the Public Accounts Committee. In preparing for it, I came to realise what a daunting responsibility it is--not only because of the enormous volume of reports involved but because of their scope, range, quality and value. I join with other hon. Members in paying tribute to the Committee's Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), who brings to it both his personal authority and considerable experience, which enhances the work of what probably has always been the most powerful and important Committee in this House.
It is not just officers in the public service but Ministers who take seriously the views of the Committee and of its Chairman--and not just what it says but what it might say. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) made a valid point when he remarked that the Committee could refer only to things that had happened, but it also casts its shadow ahead of it and makes everyone very aware of, and more cautious about, their own actions. I pay tribute also to the Comptroller and Auditor General, as well as to the staff of the National Audit Office, for their excellent work in preparing the reports.
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), with whom I am often in agreement on constitutional matters, was wrong to suggest that the Committee's practice of reaching unanimous agreement is detrimental and open to criticism. Whatever our views on the precise role and scope
Column 922of the public sector, we can surely all agree that it should carry out that role by providing value for money and maintaining the highest standards of integrity in the way in which that money is spent. Through its reports, the Committee does a great deal to achieve that aim.
Inevitably, I cannot respond to all the many points that have been made-- which themselves are but the tip of an iceberg whose bulk, in the form of the reports themselves, lies below the Dispatch Box. Let me deal first with the report on the quality of service provided in DSS offices.
It is, I agree, very important for clients of the social services, who are often among the most needy and vulnerable members of society, to receive the best, most rapid and most courteous service that we can reasonably provide. The social security reforms that we introduced some years ago have made the system easier for clients to understand and simpler for the authorities to administer, and that is already showing in the improved clearance times for--among others--income support claimants. In 1987-88, they had to wait for an average of 6.3 days for their claims to be cleared ; last year, they had to wait for an average of 4.9 days. The time that they spend in the office--including waiting time--has been reduced in that period from 26 minutes to just under 20.
Hon. Members have expressed doubts about the DSS's survey figures as compared with those provided by Gallup's survey. Let me point out, particularly to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne, that the Gallup report was retrospective--it asked people to think back to their visits--whereas the DSS figures are collected at the time of the visits. Early in the new year, however, the DSS is to carry out the first external and independent poll of customers' opinions, which will be made available to the House and which will, I believe, be of value.
I may respond in more detail to the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) in writing, although his contribution was most welcome. Let me tell him now, however, that the new complementing system will take effect in April 1990. It will be performance-based--that is, it will make staffing levels fit agreed performance levels in each office. The Government do not accept that staffing levels are wrong, but we hope in time to improve the precise allocation and complement of staff.
Dr. Godman : I am obliged to the Minister. May I point out, however, that considerable anxiety is felt by many of my constituents who have made claims in respect of white finger disease? Their fear centres on the likelihood of the Treasury forcing the DSS to close down the take-up campaign by bringing forward a closure date for such claims. Will the Minister give me an assurance that that anxiety is misplaced, and that the Treasury would do no such dreadful thing?
Mr. Lilley : The Treasury never does dreadful things. I will, however, give the hon. Gentleman an assurance that I will look into the matter and write to him--and, if he wishes, that response can be made public. I am grateful to him for raising an issue that is plainly important both to many of his constituents and, more widely, to the industries affected.
The next report refers to the sale of the royal ordnance factories. We are satisfied that the arrangements for the sale of Royal Ordnance were designed to ensure that the competition was as wide-ranging as possible and open to bidders. Care was taken to ensure that the pressure on the
Column 923bidders was maintained until the final decision. We are confident that the price received for Royal Ordnance-- £190 million--was a true reflection of its market value. It was twice the value that we were advised could have been obtained the previous year.
The media claims about the site values of the two main sites that have been mentioned in the debate have been demonstrated to be enormously exaggerated. The professional valuations were in the range of £25 million to £37.5 million--only 8 per cent. of the figure extensively quoted in the media. Quite clearly it was a mistaken report.
The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne mentioned the importance of valuing sites on an alternative-use basis. Valuations of the two sites were made on an alternative-use basis, but they were found to be lower than those made on a current-use basis and for that reason they were not made public. However, they demonstrated that the current-use valuations were the highest and the most relevant. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the possibility of selling off in tranches. That is obviously much easier to do in respect of a public company than in the case of a private treaty sale, but occasionally we have sold off public companies in tranches as in the case of Cable and Wireless.
The right hon. Gentleman and a number of others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Sir M. Shaw), expressed concern about the report on museums and galleries. I am not sure whether the report fully recognised that the Committee's concerns are already being addressed.
Improved corporate planning is being required of all the main museums and galleries. In 1987 we introduced three-year planning which makes it easier for them to plan ahead. In 1988 we announced a major increase in grant-in- aid for building and maintenance work, and the funding emphasis on conservation, storage and documentation has been enhanced. The total provision for museums and galleries has risen from £158 million in 1988-89 to £182 million in 1990-91--a 15 per cent. increase--and will reach £200 million in 1992-93--a 27 per cent. increase. That will provide a considerable increase in resources available to museums and galleries to carry out the work which the Committee rightly recognised is so important.
I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough that record-keeping will be an important aspect of corporate planning required of museums and galleries and I understand that many museums are using computerised records which will give them a much better ability to identify what they have in their collections.
The report mentioned by the greatest number of right hon. and hon. Members was that dealing with coronary heart disease. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South- West (Mr. Page) were disappointed in the fall in the United Kingdom rate of coronary heart disease. I understand that the fall has been greatest in countries where the level of disease initially was the highest. It is not