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The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes): It is for the Medical Research Council to allocate its spending according to its own priorities and the funding proposals it receives. Currently, it spends £3.1 million on breast cancer research.
Ms Lynne: Is the Minister aware that more than 300 women die each week from breast cancer and that it is the biggest killer of women between 35 and 54? Does not he realise that more money must be spent on medical research and that there is no point in the Government just washing their hands of that?
Mr. Hughes: I am also aware that the United Kingdom was the first country in the European Community and, indeed, one of the first in the world to introduce breast cancer screening for women between 50 and 64. As I am sure the hon. Lady is aware, the Forrest report showed that there was insufficient evidence to support mass screening for women under 50. To confirm that, the MRC is conducting research to assess the effects on breast cancer prevention of screening from age 40.
Dr. Goodson-Wickes: Speaking as co-chairman of Friends of Medical Research, a body in this House, may I welcome the comments that my hon. Friend has just made? Will he endorse the importance of the United Kingdom co-ordinating committee, of which the MRC is a member, in ensuring that there is no duplication of research within the cancer bodies? Such duplication is not only nonsense per se, but it creates confusion in the perception of generous donors to cancer bodies.
Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no doubt that the collaborative effort between the MRC and cancer charities, each playing its part, is absolutely vital. After all, £90 million, a third of the total budget, is currently spent by the MRC on areas relevant to cancer. It would be very easy to duplicate and to waste money, and none of us wants that.
Mr. Cohen: Is not there a great deal of opposition to the Government's proposed reform of the civil service? Do not people talk of the quality of service being damaged by privatisation and huge job cuts? Why have the mandarins remained untouched? As they are now little more than highly paid political advisers, should not their immunity from radical reform be ended?
Mr. Hunt: My predecessor published a lengthy and detailed White Paper on civil service reform. Since then, we have had a number of representations. I cannot recall one expressed in the terms in which the hon. Gentleman has now put his views. No doubt he will communicate them in the usual way. I am a firm believer in a high-quality civil service of the highest integrity. That is what we have and I am determined that we should build on an already strong base.
Mr. Hunt: We have such plans. I am satisfied that we have already seen a sea change--a dramatic improvement--in the service being given while maintaining high-quality performance and improving it where possible but, above all, giving good value for money. That is why the programme will continue.
Mr. Mandelson: Does the Minister agree that there is an urgent need for a new code of ethics governing the work of civil servants and their relations with Ministers which would help to clear up the impression that standards of integrity and of independence within the civil service have fallen? Will the Minister give positive consideration to that proposal, as his predecessor undertook to do?
Mr. Hunt: We saw a number of accusations flying during the party conference season, particularly at the Liberal Democrat conference, made by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). I felt very ashamed at the remarks which attacked the integrity of civil servants and those who give evidence to Select Committees. I am always looking for ways in which we can improve. I ask the hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) to recognise that we already have an extremely good code. Obviously, we want to see it improve wherever possible. However, we have a public service of the highest standards, which is recognised right across the world.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes: Departments and agencies in Dorset, as in all parts of the country, keep all their activities under review to improve the quality and efficiency of the provision of public services.
Mr. Bruce: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he assure the House today, as the Minister responsible for the civil service, that he will ensure that the civil servants who are currently working for the atomic energy authority at Winfrith in my constituency, who were first told that the authority was to be privatised in one way and have now been told a second way, are properly consulted and that the best way comes forward for either privatisation or
contractorisation, which will preserve their jobs for the future?
Mr. Hughes: What the people working in Winfrith can be sure of is that they will receive the normal, steadfast support of their Member of Parliament, my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce). We know in Government that he will be absolutely rigorous in ensuring that we keep up to the standards that he expects. We are committed to frank and timely communication and consultation with the staff. I know that my hon. Friend will keep us up to the mark.
Mr. Campbell-Savours: Is the Minister aware that the Labour party now regards South Dorset as a marginal constituency? Is he aware of the deep concern being expressed by people throughout South Dorset, especially in the industrial part of that constituency, about the effects of contractorisation, privatisation and market testing on their home and family lives? Does he realise that many families are being destroyed by the insecurity that the Government are bringing to many people in South Dorset?
Mr. Hughes: I am aware of two things. After listening to the Labour party conference, I believe that the Labour party probably thinks that water can run uphill. Secondly, I am aware that the Labour party does not care at all about the quality of delivery of public service. It does not care what it costs, it does not care about the quality of it and it does not care whether people get the services that they want. My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset does care. If Labour Members believe that they are going to win South Dorset, I look forward to seeing it.
Mr. Heald: Does my right hon. Friend agree that this year's week was a staggering success, in the words of the New Scientist , that his announcement will be a huge boost for science in Britain and that organisations such as the Chemical Industries Association, which has been arguing
Column 16for better promotion of science, will be very pleased and satisfied to hear of the Government's commitment to British science?
Mr. Hunt: Two points--first, I have authorised grants of £190,000 in total to the British Association for the Advancement of Science and the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science and I believe that the week will be a tremendous success. Secondly, I agree with my hon. Friend that Britain is a world leader in chemistry. In the current financial year, we have authorised a further £4.5 million, making a total of £22 million being spent on chemistry research.
24. Mr. Peter Bottomley: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement on the progress he has made in modifying the research councils, as outlined in the science White Paper.
Mr. Bottomley: Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that all the research councils and industry not only work competently together, but try to show the country that they are doing that, so that those of us who help fund the research councils realise that we are getting value for money and that it will help the prosperity of the country?
Mr. Hunt: Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend. First, it is important to establish a positive partnership between all the key players to promote scientific research. Secondly, we must get the message across in language that everyone can understand, so that people recognise the high quality of research being undertaken and the significant advances that are being made right across the spectrum. We want a much greater public understanding of science to develop.
Dr. Bray: Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster ask the research councils jointly to undertake a review of the career structure and prospects of research scientists, particularly at the post-doctorate level, because they are continuing to deteriorate?
Mr. Hunt: I share the hon. Gentleman's concern about the career prospects of research scientists. I want the leading scientists who come out of our universities and other academic institutions to be given much greater recognition in industry, not only in terms of pay, but with regard to their place in it. If the hon. Gentleman has any particular ideas about how better we can promote that aspect, I would be extremely pleased to hear from him.
Mr. Hunt: Yes, because one of the most fascinating aspects of our White Paper, "Realising our Potential" has been the establishment of 15 technology foresight panels that cover key areas right across the spectrum. Leading industrialists, leading scientists and leading users of science have sat down together to work out new programmes that look forward five, 10, 15 and 20 years. My hon. Friend is right; when we publish "The Forward Look" next year we will be able to incorporate in it the preliminary results from some of those technology
Column 17foresight panels. The results of that process can only be very good because it will feed into the research councils the priorities that we need to maintain in the coming years.
25. Mr. Raynsford: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what consideration he has given to promoting greater accountability and openness on the part of quangos, agencies and non-departmental public bodies.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes: The setting of performance criteria, quality standards and targets and publication of more information are examples of how the Government are encouraging greater accountability and openness.
Mr. Raynsford: Does not the Minister accept that after 15 years of accepting a deterioration in and an undermining of democratic institutions, and substituting rule by 1,000 quangos, it is time for the Government to call a halt? Will the Minister now concede that there is a case for an open and public review of the work of all quangos and that subsequent decisions should be taken to replace wherever possible non-democratic bodies with those that are democratically accountable?
Mr. Hughes: Arising directly from the hon. Gentleman's question, now it is rule by nearly 1,000 fewer quangos than before. As well as the delivery of services, people believe that it is important that information is made available to them. The whole thrust of public sector reforms has been towards more transparency, clearer allocation of responsibility and greater responsiveness to the user than before. However, I would not expect the Labour party either to know or to care about that.
Mr. Hawkins: Will my hon. Friend confirm that since 1979 the number of non-departmental public bodies has fallen by 36 per cent? Will he also confirm that it was the last Labour Government and previous Labour Governments who were particularly keen to set up quangos, especially in Labour local authorities, such as Lancashire county council? Does he agree that it is Labour Governments who are particularly keen on putting Labour placemen in power wherever possible and Labour local government which believes in non-democratic institutions and the appointment of Labour placemen?
Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We do not need to hear what the Labour party says it would do, we can see what Labour does when it runs councils--it puts its Labour placemen in power. Although Opposition Members may say one thing today, we heard the Labour party spokesman on Scotland tell the Labour party conference that the party plans to create more quangos.
Mr. Meacher: When will Ministers have the guts to stand up for the work of their own Departments? Is not it obvious that it is not Derek Lewis who should be taking the rap for high security prisoners escaping from Whitemoor gaol, but the Home Secretary? Is not it equally obvious that it is not Ros Hepplewhite who should be pilloried for the ill-judged procedures of the Child Support Agency, but the Secretary of State for Social
Column 18Security? When are Ministers going to stop hiding behind the skirts of the quangocrats they appoint and instead take responsibility for their own dirty work?
Mr. Hughes: The Ministers responsible for any non-departmental public body or agency are accountable to Parliament and their degree of independence is useful in terms of effectiveness and efficiency. The National Audit Office is either auditor of, or has inspection rights to, non-departmental public bodies and, of course, it inspects what agencies do. It would be very useful if the Labour party stopped talking about mechanisms and for once mentioned the customer--whom the Labour party does not care about.
26. Sir Trevor Skeet: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what the Government have done to investigate the opportunities to improve services provided to the public presented by information superhighways.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes: A consultative document on the information superhighways was published in June of this year. I can tell the House that my Department will co-ordinate a pilot Government information service using the Internet to gauge the interest in receiving information electronically.
Sir Trevor Skeet: I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Minister. What response has he had to the document since June? Which aspects of public life are likely to be affected? Will it be medical, retail or banking?
Mr. Hughes: A total of 2,700 paper copies of the report have been requested, but at the moment we do not have information available about how many have been requested-- [Interruption.] Clearly, Opposition Members do not understand the Internet. We do not yet have information about how many copies were requested electronically. After all, I am sure that Opposition Members would not want to delay information being placed on the Internet simply to put that technology into place. Opposition Members are silent now. The Internet, and the availability of information over the Internet, can bring better and faster information to people in all the areas mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet) to improve the delivery of public services.
Mr. Brandreth: In warmly welcoming that concise reply, may I also welcome to the Dispatch Box my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary? What a magnificent team. May I also bring them best wishes from the Cheshire registration service which today was awarded a chartermark for the excellence of its service?
Column 19Does my right hon. Friend have plans to further extend the use of performance tables given the excellent results so far?
Mr. Hunt: First, may I join my hon. Friend in congratulating the Cheshire county council registration service? I had not realised until I met the officials involved--Roger Manley and his team--that Cheshire was the first registration service in the country to offer couples the opportunity of register office marriages on Saturday afternoons. The team responds very warmly to customers' suggestions and is a very good example of the 98 winners of chartermarks that we have been able to announce today from 120 commendations, more than 500 applications and 20,000 expressions of interest. I congratulate all those involved.
With regard to performance league tables, the first national tables on the performance of hospitals and ambulance authorities were published in June. The revised passengers charter will be published early next year with comparative information on the performance of railway routes. We will also be publishing next year the first national tables on the performance of local authorities, including the police. The programme does gather strength.
Mr. Hunt: From my time as Secretary of State for Employment, I recall that that is a target for those working in jobcentres administering unemployment benefit which is a social security benefit. It is a target. As I understand it, benefits agencies have as a target that they give people the right information on take up. With my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Social Security and for Employment I am happy to look at ways in which we, with the chief executives concerned, can give an even better service. However, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that the quality of service is better than ever before.
Mr. Greenway: Will my right hon. Friend say what my constituent, Mrs. Joshi of Manor road, Ealing, who is severely disabled, can do? More than a year ago, she applied for a disabled parking space outside her home in order to have any mobility at all, but she has failed to receive an answer from the bone idle Labour Ealing council.
Mr. Hunt: I agree that it is common courtesy to respond. Whatever the answer might be, it is very important that all those who are involved in public service should respond to individual cases. I have no information about the case that my hon. Friend mentions, but I hope that his highlighting of the case here will lead to prompt action. However, my hon. Friend should not have to resort to doing that. I hope that he will be able successfully to urge his local authority to pay more attention to people.
Mr. Winnick: Is there to be a special chartermark for a former member of the Cabinet who joins a privatised company which was directly involved with the Department of which that former Cabinet Minister was the head? If we are really concerned about the integrity of public life and if we want to end the sleaze which dominates this country today, would not it be a good example if Cabinet Ministers made it clear that they would not join any such company for five years?
Mr. Hunt: The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) produced an unofficial publication, but the present Prime Minister was the first Prime Minister to publish a guidance for Ministers. That is now in the public domain; the standards are available for all to see. I wish that Opposition Members would desist from throwing around unfounded allegations. Our standards of British public service and of our life of service as Ministers and as civil servants are the highest to be found anywhere in the world. One has to go abroad to recognise that. Why do not Opposition Members do so?
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