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House of Commons

Friday 13 January 1995

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[ Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Citizens Charter

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Chapman.]

[Relevant document: The First Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1994-95 on Maladministration and Redress (House of Commons Paper No. 112).] 9.35 am

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. David Hunt): I am pleased to have the opportunity to open the debate. It is only right for the House regularly to debate the performance of our public services and, of course, the reforms that the Government have introduced and the scope for further improvements.

The aim of the charter is clearly to raise the standard of public services and make them more responsive to users. The principles of the charter, which have transformed the quality of service throughout the country, are: the publication of standards, openness and information, the critical elements of choice and consultation, and the vital ingredients of courtesy and helpfulness and redress when things go wrong. Essentially--

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): Value for money?

Mr. Hunt: Value for money for the taxpayer, and better quality of services for everyone.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): The right hon. Gentleman talks about openness and information. Will he tell me why he has not replied to a question of mine which he was due to answer yesterday--it was down for answer yesterday--on perquisites and other expenditure by next steps agencies? The Prime Minister did not want to answer the question, and transferred it to the right hon. Gentleman. As the question was down for answer yesterday, and as I should have received an answer by 3.30 pm yesterday, will he explain why, in the interests of openness and information, I heard nothing from him?

Mr. Hunt: I greatly regret that the question has not been answered. I shall immediately look into what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

I strongly agree with the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service that the creation of next steps agencies has been a vital step forward. I equally agree that it is important to have openness and information across the Government machine.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done more than any previous Prime Minister to extend openness and information. The verification and publication of the details of Cabinet Committees and the membership of them were never done when the right hon. Gentleman was

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a Minister, when I first became a Member. There is a series of other areas where my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has opened up the processes of government much more than ever before. The citizens charter is clearly the cutting edge of the Government's reforms. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched the charter in July 1991, he had a clear and practical vision--a 10-year programme to ensure that public services do four things: first, as I have already said, to set and maintain demanding standards; secondly, to provide public information about performance to allow assessment and comparison; thirdly, to ensure that public services are responsive to the needs of users and offer prompt and effective redress when something goes wrong; and, fourthly, to achieve all that at a cost that the taxpayer can afford.

That is a clear vision, and one that I believe has struck a strong chord throughout the nation--so much so, that it is now clear that the charter is here to stay; so much so, that Opposition parties have rushed to claim credit for what was clearly the idea of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It is a vision that delivers practical benefits to ordinary people--so much so that Britain has become a world leader in public sector reform.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North): I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I am sure that we are all very much thinking of him at this sad time in his life.

There is a problem with a Labour council in my constituency. It frequently either does not respond to letters from my constituents, or it takes a very long time to do so. My constituents have asked me what redress they have against the council when it does not answer their letters, which is its worst and most serious offence. I estimate that about 80 per cent. of constituents' letters are never answered. What can be done when it does not answer them, or is slow to do so?

Mr. Hunt: I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's words of sympathy to me.

The most effective remedy against the sort of local council to which my hon. Friend referred is to have a Member of Parliament as assiduous as he is, who is prepared to raise the issue on the Floor of the House. It is outrageous that that local authority does not reply to letters. Often, some of the issues raised in them are extremely important, not just for the individual concerned but for a wider application. I very much hope that, when the leaders of that local authority hear of my hon. Friend's important and substantive criticism, they will immediately take steps to respond.

As I have said on previous occasions, one would think that it was not my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister but the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party that had thought up the idea of the citizens charter. Of course, that is not true. However, it is good that it is now clear that all the political parties support the principles behind the charter--

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover): Not me.

Mr. Hunt: There is still a small minority of hon. Members who do not agree. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is joined by his hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), who has said that the

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various charters are full of silly ideas, and the whole thing is nonsense. Of course, those on the Opposition Front Bench do not agree with either of the hon. Gentlemen.

That happens a great deal these days; indeed, it has become a characteristic. The Labour party has tried to paper over the cracks, but it has not been successful. No one can sell party policies or political parties like soap powders--it will not wash with the electorate. The new biologically improved Labour party is just the same as the Labour party we have always known. We were told in its new year message that it was to be a new, revitalised Labour party, but it is no different. However, the differences within the party are becoming more and more evident as each day passes.

The previous Labour spokesperson on the citizens charter, the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), said on BBC Newcastle:

"I think the idea is a good one . . . Consumers and citizens rights are crucial and I am pleased that everyone agrees." The present spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), recently pledged to keep the citizens charter, and I very much welcome that.

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) pointed out, it is not much use using words to praise the citizens charter if they are not accompanied by a clear commitment to its principles. As he said, one of the most important things is the principle of response--and to respond quickly and with a quality service.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): Is my right hon. Friend aware that the public very much appreciate the citizens charter? Indeed, a survey has shown that 70 per cent. of the public now understand the strength of the charter and know how to make best use of it.

Mr. Hunt: I could not agree more. I hope that other hon. Members will follow the clear objectives set out by my two hon. Friends in their interventions. I warmly welcome the fact that this is to be a full day's debate. I and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will listen carefully to all the points raised, as we are determined to strengthen the citizens charter even further.

I can now tell the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that I have just been advised that his question was not a named day question, and therefore did not need to be answered yesterday. I shall answer it early next week.

Mr. Kaufman: When my question is answered, will the right hon. Gentleman provide the information requested in it and not use one of the two get-outs--either that the cost to public funds would be too great, or that the information is not centrally available? As he has said that openness, information and quick response are the hallmarks of his Government, will he undertake to provide me with the information--which is Government information--that I have requested?

Mr. Hunt: I always thought that it was usual, especially with a right hon. Gentleman, that when an accusation is made that is then revealed not to be true, an apology is forthcoming.

Mr. Kaufman: I did not make an accusation: I made a request. However, in so far as what I said was not in

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accordance with the state of affairs, of course I withdraw it. I hope that, equally, now that I have done so, the right hon. Gentleman will respond to my intervention and tell me that he will provide me with the information that I seek.

Mr. Hunt: Now that the right hon. Gentleman has followed normal parliamentary conventions, I shall do the same in answering his question. Obviously, I cannot trail what my answer will be. He will receive it in the early part of next week.

As I said, Britain has become a world leader in public sector reform, with countries across the world accepting, adopting and adapting the charter principles. Last month, I opened the Service for the Citizen conference in London. It attracted more than 260 delegates from more than 30 countries-- from Malta and Malawi, Norway and New Zealand and many others. As well as giving us the opportunity to share our experience with them, they were accepting this country's leadership role in public sector reform.

We are less than four years into the charter programme, but we now have a framework for reconciling the ever-growing demand for high-quality public services with the taxpayers' clear and justified reluctance to present a blank cheque to pay more and more for them. Previous Governments have always aspired to the ability to deliver better quality services with better value for money. We should take pride in the fact that we have made great progress in setting standards, providing information about performance, increasing responsiveness to users and improving value for money.

Standards of service are clearly set out for virtually every major public service. There are 40 published charters. The standards are demanding. There is no point in having simple targets that are easily achievable. When existing charters are revised, we constantly look for ways to set higher standards. Wherever possible, we do that after consulting users of the service. We shall have fresh proof of that continual drive for improvement over the coming weeks, when we shall publish a new and expanded patients charter and a new and expanded contributors charter for national insurance payers.

We are at the beginning of a new year. As Minister with responsibility for the citizens charter, the first of my new year resolutions is to see a real improvement in public services by the end of this year. The charter is not some monument carved in stone. It is an evolving programme, which is constantly setting new and challenging targets. Of course services will not meet each and every target on all occasions, but we are signalling clearly what the user has a right to expect and what each service should deliver. The result is clear, too--the user benefits, and standards improve. There have been improvements in our hospitals. Waiting time guarantees have been met in all but a handful of cases. Waits of longer than 18 months are now virtually unheard of. It is not surprising, therefore, that, just a few days ago, even The Guardian noted that our national health service reforms

"have enabled a number of long-standing weaknesses to be tackled, and there is increasing evidence of improvements in services to patients".

Mr. Henderson: The right hon. Gentleman has made the point that waiting times have decreased for patients who might previously have waited one or two years, but

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does he accept that, at the other end of the scale, there have been compensatory factors, and that many patients who are in a semi-chronic state and who previously might have waited three or four weeks for an operation now have to wait seven or eight weeks for that operation?

That largely explains the change in the statistics to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. Is not further evidence of that the fact that, overall, more patients are on the waiting list nationally in 1994 than there were in 1993? That is the case in my own health authority of Newcastle and North Tyneside.

Mr. Hunt: I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The patients charter has seen a profound change in almost every aspect of the national health service, but the matter involves much more than that. He has failed to acknowledge that 1 million more patients are being treated, which is a significant achievement, and one to which he should pay tribute. He should also pay tribute to all the people who work in the NHS. They have revolutionised and transformed the quality of service for people who seek treatment.

Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough): To help my right hon. Friend, did not the waiting list previously comprise people who wanted warts and tattoos removed? Is it not right that they should be pushed further back in the queue when priorities exist that might need more urgent attention?

Mr. Hunt: I agree with my hon. Friend. Every new treatment has a new waiting list. That includes minor treatments. Every time there is a new way of approaching an illness or a problem, there is a new waiting list. It is important for priorities to be set.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) should sometimes join me in listening to the "Today" programme, which he may have heard of. A few days ago, I heard the BBC correspondent pay tribute to the changes for the better in the NHS which have occurred as a result of the patients charter.

The Labour party, however, seems to have a propensity for always trying to find the bad news. Instead of praising the fact that there are 1 million more patients, it always looks for the one operation or one treatment that has a question mark over it, and for something that has gone wrong. I warn the hon. Gentleman that he will find it increasingly difficult. When I first came to the House in the 1970s, my postbag was full of complaints about the NHS, but that is no longer the case. My postbag is often filled with praise by patients and their families for the sympathetic and effective treatment they receive from the NHS.

Mr. Harry Greenway: I am sorry to intervene again, and I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that, as a result of the patients charter, where a doctor marks a patient's need for treatment as urgent, that treatment is delivered speedily? That was not the case formerly.

Mr. Hunt: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and agree with him. It is just another example of the way in which improvements are continually being secured for NHS patients.

Improvements have not been made just in money terms. It used to be all about just money. When we came to power in 1979, we were told that there would be an increasing shortage of money for the NHS and that it

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would not be safe in our hands. That has clearly been proved to be wrong. We have substantially increased the amount of money that goes into the NHS--it has gone up by more than 50 per cent. in real terms. It is not just about money. The patients charter has introduced a new set of standards, and everyone in the service has done everything possible to meet them. My hon. Friends are therefore able to refer time and again to continual improvements.

Mr. Henderson rose --

Mr. Hunt: Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, I shall say that we also listen and so do the NHS, the NHS trusts and everyone working in this great service. We listen to the ways in which further improvements can be achieved. I pay tribute to campaigns such as that run in the Daily Mail on single-sex wards. We listen all the time and try to find ways to improve and to introduce new standards that everyone can work towards. That is why the patients charter is such a considerable success.

Mr. Henderson: I do not wish to labour the point, but it would be remiss of me not to press the right hon. Gentleman further on the issue raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway).

Of course there is support across the House for the concept of the health service being more sensitive to the needs of people. There is no argument about that. The argument that does exist across the House, however, is that much of the patients charter has been hype, and that there has been a statistical movement to achieve the results in the reduction in the number of people waiting up to two years, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

People on the ground in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ealing, North know that the charter does not improve the national health service. Unless new resources are put into the NHS, and unless it is administered more efficiently, people will not obtain the service they demand.

Patients who are identified as needing urgent treatment and who receive it a bit more quickly than before are not, with respect, the main problem in the NHS. By and large, people who are in a serious condition and who need urgent treatment are treated, but people who suffer chronic conditions, have arthritic problems and need hip replacements are not. Those people are suffering because of the inefficiencies in our health service, regardless of what the Government claim.

Mr. Hunt: The hon. Gentleman is treading a dangerous path. I do not accept what he has said, and nor would any independent observer who compares the NHS today with the NHS in 1979.

The hon. Gentleman is pursuing an even more dangerous path in that he has just promised additional and extra resources for the NHS. I warn him that the leadership of his party has laid down clearly that no such pledge can be made. He is opening himself up to a Brown thunderbolt and he will be struck down, according to the latest way in which the Labour party is run. He said that we need to increase the real resources for that--

Mr. Henderson rose --

Mr. Hunt: The hon. Gentleman is worried. I do not blame him, because the Chamber is beginning to be

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littered with bodies of Labour Front-Bench spokesmen who have been as dangerously irresponsible as he has just been.

Mr. Henderson: In the absence of my Labour colleagues this morning, apart from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), I feel bound to clarify the position. I said that there needs to be greater efficiency in the national health service so that more resources can be spent on priorities.

Mr. Hunt: Let the record stand; I just hope that it will not be read by his Front-Bench colleagues.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is dangerous to confuse the debate about resources with that about standards? Should we not stick to debating standards? The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) referred to patients with chronic conditions, but would he not do better to welcome the evidence of a fall in average waiting times and the fact that the new patients charter contains an explicit commitment on the length of time between a patient seeing a general practitioner and receiving an out-patient appointment to see a consultant? The Opposition have complained about that, but a standard is now being set in the patients charter.

Mr. Hunt: I could not agree more. My hon. Friend has highlighted our argument, which is that the debate is not only about money--money is, of course, crucial, but we have more than lived up to our commitments on the funding of the national health service--but about standards, about making the nation comfortable in the knowledge that it has the best health service in the world and that the service will be readily available whenever the nation needs it. We constantly upgrade standards when we examine the patients charter and seek ways to improve targets.

Lady Olga Maitland: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) was scaremongering about the difficulty of getting treatment for chronic conditions such as those involving hip replacements? The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, in Sutton, the St. Helier's hospital trust can perform a hip replacement within nine weeks of a patient being referred by his general practitioner.

Mr. Hunt: My hon. Friend has highlighted an achievement in her area, but there are centres of excellence providing treatments across the United Kingdom. We should be proud of them, but our target must be to bring all areas up to the level of the best. All hospitals and health service trusts should take as their benchmark the highest standards in the service. That is what the patients charter is all about.

Mr. Sykes: Does not my right hon. Friend find it galling to be given lectures by the Opposition on standards of health care as it was only in 1979 that the National Union of Public Employees and Confederation of Health Service Employees were picketing Scarborough hospital to decide which patients received treatment? What does that say about the Opposition's standards?

Mr. Hunt: The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North is beginning to regret intervening on me in

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respect of the national health service. I recall vividly that my local hospital on Merseyside was also picketed when the Opposition were last in power. Pickets on the gate stopped ambulances entering the hospital. Ambulance doors were opened to allow the shop steward, who had no medical qualifications, to decide whether, in his opinion, the treatment required was urgent or non-urgent. The public were appalled, not only in Merseyside but elsewhere. That is the legacy with which the Labour party has to live. That was its record when it was last in power.

There have also been improvements in jobcentres. The good news is not only the rising number of vacancies but the falling number of unemployed. About 98 per cent. of those who become unemployed and become clients of the jobcentres are now seen within 10 minutes, even without an appointment.

That is very different from the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s and the old- fashioned employment exchanges which had bars on the windows. Jobcentres are now open-plan, and people are seen quickly. Two thirds of those who become unemployed come off the unemployment register and find a job within six months. That is a tremendous record for the Employment Service, and I pay tribute to it for that.

In all these ways, the citizens charter is now an established part of the fabric of British life. We expect tables detailing the performance of our schools and hospitals; we expect compensation if the trains let us down; we expect to be answered promptly and courteously; and we expect timed appointments in hospitals. We also expect effective complaint systems, and there is a fundamental change in people's awareness of how they should complain.

As I said clearly in my opening remarks, it is a charter principle that, when things go wrong, they should quickly be put right. There must be a well publicised and easy-to-use complaints procedure, with an independent element wherever possible. I think immediately of the revenue adjudicator, whose services from April will be available to those who have complaints about Customs and Excise.

The Government have taken seriously the question of complaints. We set up the independent complaints task force in 1993. It has now carried out more than 50 reviews of public service organisations and published a series of discussion papers, the last of which--on redress--was published on 6 January. I welcome the task force's contribution and look forward to receiving its final report later this year.

I also welcome the contribution made by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, whose first report into maladministration and redress was published on Wednesday. The Committee's report is an important input, and I and my colleagues will consider it carefully.

The charter also means proper information. My ministerial colleagues and I want the public to have more information on how public services are run, how much they cost, and how well they perform. That is my second new year resolution--more information to help users to understand and compare, to assert their rights and to exercise choice.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover): Will my right hon. Friend consider whether it would be appropriate to have a separate charter, which could perhaps be called the

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information provision charter? It could contain recommendations to Departments, local authorities and others on how to set up world wide web pages on the Government's Internet WWW server, thereby providing even more information to people about the standards of service they can expect, on how local authorities and Departments should act and, in response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), on standards of reply to correspondence. Each Department and council could issue a statement on the WWW detailing the time in which they expect to reply to letters. Once that statement had been made, the public would know what standards to expect.

Mr. Hunt: I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in this respect. We have made a start, but this year there will be a rapid explosion in the amount of information available as all Government Departments are planning to put information on the Internet. I hope that we shall reach the position described by my hon. Friend, and look forward to consulting him on the best way to do so.

Performance in one area after another is being opened up for public inspection. Services from the railways to the courts to the Benefits Agency now publicise performance information locally, but achievements nationally are even more striking. We started three years ago with schools. Parents can now read about secondary school examination results, truancy rates and taught time. The publication of the third annual performance tables last November showed that almost 60 per cent. of secondary schools had increased the percentage of pupils getting at least five GCSEs at grades A to C.

The tables also stimulated public debate about value-added indicators to measure the performance of schools over time. National health service performance indicators were published for the first time last summer, enabling people to compare the achievements of hospitals against patients charter commitments for waiting times, cancelled operations and ambulance emergency responses.

The information revolution, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) has paid tribute, is being extended. I agree with him that we need to extend it to a wide range of local authority services. Already, every council has published statistics on the provision of home helps, residential care, leisure facilities, refuse collection, consumer protection and other services, including the police. This spring, the Audit Commission will publish the data in comparative form. Council tax payers will then know what they are getting for their money, and a new, powerful line of accountability will be established.

Another of our aims is to open up the internal processes of Government to the people we serve. Our code of practice on access to Government information, introduced last April, commits Departments to a number of specific obligations, including the publication of explanatory material on their dealings with members of the public. The Inland Revenue, for example, is now publishing the internal guidance used in local tax offices; it is available for public inspection. Such developments empower the user of public services. We have brought about real changes in the Departments and agencies that are in daily contact with the public.

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In response to customer demand, we have put Government services on the streets. If a person wants a face-to-face meeting with a tax officer, a network of mobile tax inquiry centres set up in shopping precincts, town halls and libraries can bring advice directly. Some local benefit offices now run benefit road shows as well. If customers choose still to go to the benefits office, the progressive introduction of one-stop shops means that they will be able to have their concerns over a wide range of benefits and social security allowances dealt with by one person, in one place, at one time. That is a tremendous advance, and a great improvement. I pay tribute to the Benefits Agency and to my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Social Security for their work in bringing that about.

Those improvements would not have been possible without reorganising the service providers themselves. The creation of executive agencies under the next steps initiative has enabled Government organisations to focus on the quality of the service they provide. The latest annual report of the next steps agencies gives many examples of high-quality service and commitments to further improvements. It is not surprising that the recent report by the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service on the future of the civil service welcomed both the citizens charter and the next steps programme, which it called the most successful reform of recent decades.

Responsive service is not limited to central Government; there are many examples elsewhere. One example is the Waltham Forest housing action trust, which gives residents a voice in choosing the type of housing in which they want to live. As a result, the trust is now replacing high-rise blocks with two-storey housing and garden flats. The introduction of two-storey housing follows a precedent set by many other authorities, and is extremely popular. Another example is Wandsworth's environmental services department, which introduced a noise control help line and a 24-hour investigation service after carrying out a MORI survey of residents' priorities.

Those organisations, together with many others right across the public sector, were among the 98 winners of the latest charter mark awards. In 1994, this scheme, the quality award of the citizens charter, attracted more than 500 applications and 20,000 expressions of interest. Among the winners were services from local authorities under the control of each of the main political parties.

I now want to move forward another stage. I believe that we must make the charter mark award much more the property of the public and that we must involve many more members of the public in the system. With the introduction of public nominations for honours, the Prime Minister has set up a system which has been a remarkable success. I want to extend that principle. I am pleased to announce that in 1995, for the first time, we will ask the public--the users of public services--to nominate organisations for a charter mark award. My third resolution for 1995 is that I want more suggestions from the public, not only in terms of nominating what they believe to be examples in their area of excellence in delivery of the principles of the citizens charter, but in terms of how they believe services can be improved. The charter is not Government property; it is a charter that belongs to the people. Our plans for the charter mark will make that clear.

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The ownership of the citizens charter belongs to our people, and we are handing it over to them. We will also make new charter mark awards for the best customer suggestion and the best staff suggestion to be implemented. We will do everything we can to ensure that our best organisations get the recognition they deserve, and that their successful innovations are networked widely.

For that reason, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science, and I will visit a range of charter mark winners during the next few months. We will talk to managers, staff and customers and find out how their tremendous enthusiasm can be used to make the charter mark an even more successful catalyst for improvements. I very much welcome the ready participation of my right hon. and hon. Friends in highlighting organisations in their constituencies which they are not only proud of, but believe deserve recognition. I hope that, helped by their constituents, they will be able to nominate many more organisations for consideration. Value for money is another key principle of the citizens charter. We have taken a number of initiatives on contracting out and on competitive tendering. Those initiatives have been vital in enabling us to maintain and improve quality while containing costs. In local government, about £6 billion-worth of services a year are now subject to compulsory competitive tendering, which is being extended to cover services such as information technology, finance, engineering and property.

In central Government, the 1991 White Paper "Competing for Quality" introduced a full programme of privatisation, market testing and contracting out. I feel strongly that competition stimulates increased efficiency and improves quality. It is good for the users of services, good for taxpayers, who get better value for money, good for managers and staff, who can concentrate on core tasks, and good for business, with billions of pounds' worth of new opportunities. I announced on Monday that, from April 1992 to September 1994, the competing for quality programme covered more than £2 billion-worth of Government activities, as well as 54,000 posts--one tenth of the entire civil service. Annual savings of more than £400 million--that is 20 per cent.--have been achieved, and that is a remarkable programme. That £400 million is now available for other services, other programmes and other improvements in services. Another ambitious programme worth £860 million is already under way. Financial results have been impressive. But, as many of my hon. Friends have already pointed out in this debate, improvements in quality are the critical ingredient. Departments have been able to negotiate better quality in about a third of market tests, while fully maintaining the existing level of service in other cases. In the past three and a half years, we have established a framework for delivering high-quality services at a cost that the taxpayer can afford. The great target now is to build on what we have already achieved. That is a challenge which the Government and service providers throughout the public sector will relish. The citizens charter has transformed the culture of our public service.

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There may be some people who still feel that they do not have a voice. My final new year's resolution is to change that. I want everyone, including the most vulnerable in our society, to know that they really have a say in improving public services. That is, of course, what the citizens charter is all about.

10.20 am

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North): May I first extend my sympathies and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his family for the loss which they have suffered this week?

I am pleased that we are debating this subject today, although I must confess that I feel a little like the batsman who, together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), has the dilemma of deciding, in the absence of colleagues, whether to go for the runs or to protect one's wicket. I think that I will go for the runs, or at least make an attempt to do so.

Public services and their delivery are an important issue to the British people. There can be no doubt about that. It is right that Parliament should debate whether we have good public services, whether they are delivered efficiently, whether the citizens charter has played a part in any change in either of those factors and whether other matters have affected the level or the delivery of our public services. It would be wrong in a debate of this nature to avoid comments on the general role of public services and the way in which public expenditure has been prioritised on public services. It must be said that too much public expenditure in recent years has been directed towards dealing with the effects of unemployment and the related issues of community decay and rising crime, and that too little has been directed at investment in community needs, such as improved transport, education and training, and the environment. We have heard the right hon. Gentleman's new year resolutions. I remind the House of some of the commitments that his predecessors made in dealing with the citizens charter. In a statement to the House in November 1992, the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), claimed that the 1991 White Paper

"launched a radical and far-reaching programme of reform and improvement of public services."

He went on to say:

"The citizens charter programme of public service reform and improvement is at the heart of the Government's agenda for the 1990s."--[ Official Report , 25 November 1992; Vol. 214, c. 869-70.] The problem that the right hon. Gentleman had then, and his successor has this morning, is that, although the Government may agree with that approach, it is not necessarily helpful for them to say that something is at the heart of their agenda, because that does not convey any clarity to the public.

One thing about which the House can be in no doubt is that the public do not now know what the Government's agenda is. The public have been told many things, yet many other realities have resulted. The public were told that tax cuts were at the heart of the Government's

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