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Mr. Miller: The Minister will understand the importance of vehicle building to my constituency. Does he agree that this matter also presents a classic argument for integration? Vauxhall is producing the magnificent V6 engine, 100 per cent. of which is exported to Europe. It needs to get that engine on to trains. Thus far, British Rail has failed to deliver. Is not that the best argument for the Minister, his colleagues with economic portfolios and those in the Department of the Environment to get together and to make the system work in the interests of British manufacturers?
Dr. Mawhinney: First,I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman legitimately makes on behalf of his constituents. Secondly, if the hon. Gentleman has anxieties about the attitude of British Rail or Railtrack, he should pursue them with the appropriate bodies. Thirdly, it is precisely because we wish to introduce systems that are more sensitive to the customers' needs, with a relaxation of investment rules and the rest of it, that we intend to privatise. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join us in supporting that on behalf of the constituents for whom he has shown such legitimate concern.
Mr. Haselhurst: Does my right hon. Friend agree that in meeting the serious issues put before us by the royal commission, we need to be careful of the concerns of people who live in rural areas such as mine about the consequences of a drastic assault on vehicular transport,
Column 334particularly when there are no alternative forms of transport in rural areas, let alone anything that might be called integrated?
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes): My Department recently launched an equal opportunities programme for action for disabled people, which provides a framework for Departments and agencies.
Mr. Thurnham: Does my hon. Friend agree that we need an efficient and well-managed civil service which encourages disabled people to play their full part on merit, and that the deputy Leader of the Opposition typically betrays the best interests not only of taxpayers and civil servants but of disabled people when he calls for an inefficient and over- manned public sector?
Mr. Hughes: I certainly agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of selection on merit. That is why the civil service Order in Council was altered to permit encouragement and assistance in the process of selection to be given to disabled people so that their many merits can be brought out.
Mr. McNamara: Would the Minister be kind enough to tell the House the precise budget and the number of staff that he is making available for the programme for action on disability? In particular, will he give an undertaking that all buildings leased by the civil service will have the necessary facilities to enable current and future disabled people to work safely therein?
Mr. Hughes: First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new responsibilities in the Opposition team. I am not able to give him an answer to his first question and I will tell him why. It is not possible to give an answer because we want action to be taken by people responsible for personnel matters and equal opportunities inside every Department and every agency. So the number of people involved, the amount spent and the amount of action that will go into the programme should be enormous. I want it to be enormous. As for buildings, a review is being carried out at present which I asked my officials to start so that we know which buildings are accessible and which are not.
Mr. Brazier: Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the University of Kent at Canterbury and Pfizer on the remarkable programme that they are carrying out together in protein engineering? Does he agree that it would be wrong if, as some Opposition Back Benchers suggested two weeks ago, we spread research money around universities evenly, as a teaching aid, instead of focusing it in those places where it obtains the best results for the nation?
Mr. Hunt: Yes. I pay tribute to the University of Kent and the initiative that it has taken with Pfizer. I was in Scotland at the weekend seeing some initiatives at the University of Edinburgh and I have recently been to Cambridge university. There is no doubt that we have a number of centres of excellence. It is important that we sustain them in the best possible way.
Mr. Mike O'Brien: Would not a good way of encouraging links between industry and science be to give an example in the public sector, for example, with the Post Office? Has not the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in his letter to the Prime Minister of 2 November scotched any possibility that the Government could encourage such links by showing that he is prepared to abandon the commercial future of the Post Office and is not prepared to give it the commercial freedom in the public sector that Labour demands?
Mr. Hunt: Of course, I do not comment on leaked or stolen documents, but the plans announced in the Green Paper to develop new opportunities and investment in automation for Post Office Counters will go ahead. The Green Paper sets out the limits of what is possible for Royal Mail in the public sector and the reasons for these limits. We will be looking at them again, but they cannot be simply wished away.
Hon. Members on both sides must appreciate that there are no easy options. Public sector bodies fall within the public sector borrowing requirement-- that is a fact. Commercial freedom in the public sector means that more activity is underwritten by the taxpayer and Conservative Members take a responsible attitude to what happens to taxpayers' money.
Mr. Hawkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of the best links between science and industry have been encouraged by university departments in the north of England? Will he join me in congratulating three universities--the university of Lancaster, the university of Central Lancashire and Bradford university--which have had particularly good records in forging links between university science departments and industry?
Column 336nation in forging even closer links with the private sector. We are seeing some very innovative approaches which, along with my hon. Friend, I commend warmly.
Mr. David Hunt: A number of new charters are in preparation, including those on higher and further education in Northern Ireland which will be published early next year, taking the number of charters to 42.
Mr. Banks: Does the Minister have any proposals to introduce a charter for gas consumers? After all, at the moment they are caught in a pincer movement between a Government-required VAT increase and an increase in gas prices above the rate of inflation, and now they have heard that the chairman of British Gas is to receive a 75 per cent. increase in his salary, bringing it to £500,000.
Gas consumers are being taken to the cleaners; this private monopoly has been created by the Government and the consumers have no protection. Perhaps one of the Minister's miserable new charters might render them at least a little protection.
Mr. Hunt: I detect that that was a welcome for the Government's proposals on legislation. The best assurance for customers is competition. That is why the Gracious Speech included proposals, which will start in 1996, to remove the monopoly of British Gas in the domestic sector.
Price increases are a matter for British Gas and the independent regulator, Ofgas. The director-general has confirmed that the increase recently announced is allowable within the price formula and, of course, salaries are a matter for the shareholders.
Mr. Peter Bottomley: As part of a programme of open and accessible government, I refer my right hon. Friend back to the question from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) and ask whether the Minister can incorporate in the charter for Government Departments and agencies accessibility for both members of staff and the public? Perhaps the simplest way that he may consider doing this is for Ministers to ask their employees in the civil service and agencies to notify them if they intend to take on property which is not accessible either to staff or to the public.
Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend has raised a number of important points. He will recall that when I was with the Department of Employment we launched a new scheme called "access to work". The disability symbol, which is now available across the public and private sectors, is an indicator of the need to maintain a very positive approach to the sorts of problems that he outlines.
Mr. Henderson: Does the Chancellor accept that the fares increase announced by Network SouthEast last Friday, which in some cases is twice the rate of inflation, shows that the passengers charter cannot protect the public from bad management and bad organisation? Does
Column 337he accept that that raises serious doubts about the extension of charters into other aspects of the public service?
Column 338hon. Gentleman must be referring to the lowest cash increase for eight years--an increase which is not, of course, allowable for lines that have not met the targets which have been so clearly set out. I believe that the passengers charter is one of the great successes of this Administration, just as the citizens charter has transformed for the better the quality of services right across the public sector.
Dr. Spink: In considering the citizens charter initiative, has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to review the article in The Independent on 17 November? It stated that the Government's health and schools policies in particular were paying off and that that was in part a result of the charter targets.
Mr. Hunt: I am very happy to catch up with my hon. Friend. He instances just one further example of the way in which the citizens charter has transformed for the better the quality of public services and has come in right on the side of the ordinary citizen.
Mr. Gunnell: In that case, would the Minister explain to me why he has not been willing to place the permanent secretaries' handbook even in the Members' Library, which means that those documents are kept secret from hon. Members? Surely that cannot be open government.
Mr. Hughes: This is a familiar question from the hon. Gentleman. As he well knows, the handbook referred to is a compendium of guidance and other documents which are mostly in the public domain. Some material, such as that on security and vetting procedures, is justifiably confidential. I would have thought that most hon. Members would have agreed with that.
Sir Teddy Taylor: Will the Minister disregard completely the issue of the level of secrecy and concentrate on the promotion of accuracy, following the scandalous attack on one of my hon. Friends last Wednesday? He was accused of exaggerating wildly when he quoted net contributions to the European Community which were published in the Chancellor's Red Book.
Column 339of secrecy in quangos which, throughout the country, conduct their business in private without any remit from anyone?
Mr. Greenway: I thank my right hon. Friend for that most true reply. Will he use the processes of open government to tell the European Commission that the British acorn is as good as the German or any other acorn? If there is any doubt about that in Brussels, let the Commissioners come to see the ceiling of Westminster Hall which is made of British oak and which has been in place for almost 700 years.
Mr. Hunt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for promoting the British acorn. I promote it with enthusiasm myself, having taken the opportunity on many occasions to take my constituents around Westminster Hall and to point out the original hammerbeam roof, which is very much the pride of the Palace of Westminster.
Mr. Skinner: Does the Chancellor agree that John Maples, a deputy chairman of the Tory party, has made a contribution to open government in his recent statement to Tory Members and others that it would be a good idea not to mention the national health service because the Tory party has given up on it? What is all this about setting yobbos on my leader? Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the new Tory party tactic? Have the Tories stooped so low?
Mr. Hunt: Indeed, a charter for yobbos. The code of practice that the hon. Gentleman would set out would make very interesting reading indeed. Of course I do not comment on leaked or stolen documents. The hon. Gentleman should know that. He ought to scrutinise the recent survey of social attitudes, which was published last week and which demonstrated that, for the first time, the majority of people in Britain applaud the Government's national health service reforms.
35. Mr. Clifton-Brown: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what inquiries from abroad the Office of Public Service and Science has received about progress with the competing for quality programme.
Column 340countries on the competing for quality initiative and, in December, representatives from at least 18 countries will be attending our service for the citizen conference.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Does my hon. Friend agree that that is recognition from yet more Governments around the world of the success of this Conservative Government's policies? Has he any news, following on from last weekend's Labour party policy statement, of when it will be altering its policy statement in that area to welcome this particular policy?
Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The United Kingdom is a leader in this field; many other countries are following what we have done. That is not surprising when £20 million of expenditure on the project produced savings last year of £135 million. The answer to the last part of my hon. Friend's question is that Labour party policy is generally one general election behind.
Mr. O'Brien: Does the Minister accept that there are now more appointed people on quangos than elected members of local authorities? Since unelected bodies are responsible for handling £46 billion, far in excess of the amount that local authorities handle, will he insist that there are published charters from the unelected bodies so that people may judge them? If there is disquiet among people who receive service from the quangos, would he also take action to remove the people who are causing that disquiet?
Mr. Hunt: Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that non- departmental public bodies, or quangos as he calls them, have reduced in number by 36 per cent. since 1979. Indeed, the Labour party would take us back up in numbers. In its recent policy statements, it has talked about the creation of many more quangos. All the citizens charter's provisions covering published standards, openness and information, choice and consultation, courtesy and helpfulness redress matters when things go wrong and value for money applies right across the public sector to all public services.
Mr. John Marshall: Does my right hon. Friend agree that some of the most important non-elected bodies are those which run the national health service trust hospitals, which have been responsible for increasing the number of patients treated and significantly reducing waiting lists? Is not that a success story which we should shout loudly?
Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend is right. It contrasts starkly with the position when we came into office in 1979, when a local hospital did not even know what its budget was. Now, there is much more devolution locally, standards are improving all the time, and record numbers of patients are being treated. That is a tremendous success story to which he is right to pay tribute.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes: Government policy is to reduce the administrative costs of research councils to the minimum level required for them to be efficient and effective, so that as much money as possible goes into science.
Mrs. Campbell: Will the Parliamentary Secretary confirm that he intends to approve Sir John Cadogan's plans to reduce the administrative staffing of the research councils by around 500 people? Will he also tell us how much that will add to the £16 million that the research councils have already spent on past restructuring and early retirement? How much more money will be spent on top of that?
Mr. Hughes: No decisions have been reached and therefore the first part of the hon. Lady's question does not arise, as she well knows. The fact is that in the 1994 "Forward Look", we explained that the director general of research councils had embarked on a fundamental review. I would have thought that anybody sensible, indeed most people in science to whom I have spoken,
Column 342would believe that it is important that we direct money towards science and not towards unnecessary administration. Expenditure on administration to ensure that we get the best value for money is, of course, not unnecessary.
Mr. David Shaw: When considering how to direct more money into science research, will my hon. Friend consider promoting the information super-highway in the way that he did this morning at the excellent conference that he launched? Will he also consider the fact that Britain leads in that area of technology? Will he accept my congratulations on the Government making more information available on a world-wide web server called "open.gov"? Will he also congratulate Walmer school in my constituency which went on to the information super-highway this morning and connected with a school in the United States of America?
Mr. Hughes: The answer is yes to each of my hon. Friend's questions and I thank him for his kind remarks. The information super-highway and the Government's use of the Internet provide exciting opportunities for delivering public services better. We take that seriously and that is why the experiment which was started only a month ago, and which has already been accessed by more than 100,000 people, will expand and more information will be placed on it. We will use it in the best possible manner to improve public services.
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