Previous Section Home Page

Column 367

agenda, and they now know how hollow that was. The public were also told that bringing down crime was at the heart of the Government's agenda.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Henderson: In a second. The public must now be completely aware of the Government's failure to bring down crime levels. The public were told that post office privatisation was at the heart of the Government's agenda, and they now know how transitory that commitment was. The public were also told that the Tory Government would be at the heart of Europe, and they now know how quickly that has vanished from the agenda.

Mr. Deva: I shall ask my question in the kindest way possible on a Friday morning. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to point out honestly that the Labour Benches were empty of hon. Members, other than the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I wonder if that is because the Labour party is not interested in the citizens charter and the services that it provides?

Mr. Henderson: I had anticipated that a Conservative Member would raise that point. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Labour party is very committed to improving public services, and if the citizens charter plays a part in that, the Labour party is committed to making the citizens charter effective and sensitive to the needs of the people. The reason why my colleagues are not with me this morning is that they are so excited by Labour's lead in the opinion polls that they are out campaigning to improve that lead even further. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) never likes to go over the top in such matters and has decided to give priority to discussing public services for the rest of the morning- -I hope.

Mr. Sykes: While we are on the subject of absent Members, does not the hon. Gentleman regard it as very unfortunate that, on the day that the Liberal Democrats unveiled their Members of Parliament charter, there is not one Liberal Democrat in the House to be questioned?

Mr. Henderson: I am not going to defend the Liberal Democrats if they are not here to defend themselves. I shall leave the leader of the Liberal Democrats to respond to the hon. Gentleman when he returns from whatever he is doing this morning.

The issue is, are the public convinced of the citizens charter and do they understand this so-called far-reaching programme? I was tempted to intervene in the speech of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he was referring to the derivation of the citizens charter, but I thought better of it and thought that I would wait until I had the opportunity, if I caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to mention it myself.

The citizens charter is a useful concept, which dates back, my history books tell me, to Herbert Morrison of the London county council in 1921. He promised the citizens of London a charter on local government services. Increasingly, the Government are stealing ideas from the Labour party's manifesto-- [Interruption.] Yes, yes. Many of the ideas which the Government now propose, where there is revisionism from the days of Thatcher, are often taken from common-sense ideas in Labour party manifestos, and the citizens charter is one of them. Indeed,

Column 368

the citizens charter concept was adopted by at least two Labour-controlled councils in the 1980s--Lewisham and York, which provide excellent services, according to the Government's own audited figures, to the people of those communities--long before the Prime Minister came forward with his proposals a year or two ago.

Mr. Harry Greenway: When the hon. Gentleman mentions Herbert Morrison, he is obviously, in going for the runs, in severe danger of being run out--if he has not been run out already. Herbert Morrison's promise to London was that he would build the Conservatives out. That was his only promise of any effect. He did that for a period, during which people could not buy their council homes, and so on. That was how he did it. In the end, it was a disaster for London, as recent history has shown.

Mr. Henderson: If that were true, it was because the Conservatives were not building any houses at all. Any houses built in London at that time were for ordinary people who saw the merit in having a Labour- controlled London county council. But that is a matter of history.

Mr. Sykes: I am sorry that we are all ganging up on the hon. Gentleman; it really is not fair. However, it is pretty rich of him to say that we are adopting Labour's clothes when the Labour party refuses to say that it will renationalise the railways, repeal the Jobseekers Bill or end any of our trade union reforms which were so successful in the 1980s or our education reforms. Labour has worn nearly all our clothes over the past 20 years.

Mr. Henderson: If I can get going, I shall refer later to the real differences between Labour's approach and the Government's approach to improving public services. The citizens charter is, by and large, a test of whether public services have improved. I hope that Conservative Members will recognise that the improvement must come from real changes in the way in which the services are delivered. Are the public convinced of the effectiveness of the citizens charter? There has been a proliferation of charter-related activities: charter marks, charter networks, charter newsletters and a charter task force. The notorious cones hotline was apparently a commitment made on the hoof by the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor), during an interview on the BBC's "Today" programme.

What has been the effect of the cones hotline which we see advertised on motorways as we drive around the country? In the last 12 months of its operation, 11,500 calls resulted in just five sets of cones being removed to some other location. Is not that a symbol of so much that is wrong with the Government's approach? It is back-of-the-envelope policy launched amid high hopes and wild claims which proves to be nothing more than an embarrassing damp squib and a waste of taxpayers' money.

What of charterline? Like the cones hotline, it was launched in a blaze of publicity. At the launch of the pilot scheme in February 1993, the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) said:

"Research has shown that there is a great public demand for a national charterline information service."

The Government forecast 30,000 calls a month to charterline. In the first weeks, there were a number of callers. Some rang about the Department of Social

Column 369

Security and the health service. However, other calls could only be classified as miscellaneous. One caller to charterline asked how he could get rid of foxes in his garden. Others wanted to know how to get rid of starlings from their roofs. Another man asked how to become a monk.

I would not want to veto calls to charterline. However, was that what was intended? One caller demonstrated what many taxpayers think. He rang to complain that the charterline was a waste of taxpayers' money. How correct he was. After 10 months of the project and £500, 000 worth of expenditure, it was found that the charterline was receiving just 25 calls a day and that each call was costing £68. After all the trumpeting, as I understand it, the line had to be scrapped. I believe that the Government are currently considering whether it should be reintroduced.

High claims were made by the Child Support Agency when it introduced its charter in August 1993. The then chief executive, Ros Hepplewhite, wrote at the beginning of the charter:

"I am wholly committed to providing for our clients a service which is fast, efficient, confidential and accurate."

She went on to explain the agency's other ambitions. Under that charter, the agency stated that it expected that at least 65 per cent. of its customers would be satisfied and that maintenance would be calculated accurately. All hon. Members must be aware that the reality of the CSA's operation is very different. Not one of us can say that we have not received many calls and letters from constituents complaining about the appalling service that they have received from the CSA.

Those calls and letters do not come in one week or one month; if my constituents are typical, those complaints have been made from the inception of the CSA to the present day. I have been inundated by complaints from people who have been affected in one way or the other. Is that not evidence that a charter, in itself, does not necessarily improve public services? With regard to the CSA, the terms of the charter have not been met.

The CSA has acknowledged that 350,000 cases, out of a total of 1.1 million cases, have been outstanding for more than six months. The chief child support officer found that at least four in 10 maintenance payments ordered by the agency were wrong and that only one in six of the regional centres had been achieving its work targets.

Hon. Members are aware that those statistics have not been cobbled up by a bureaucrat sitting in an office. They are not statistics which bear no relationship to what is actually happening. Hon. Members know what is happening to their constituents. They are aware of their problems with the agency. The position has not improved since the resignation of the chief executive. The House will recall that, just before Christmas, the Under- Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), had to sneak out an announcement to the effect that the CSA was deferring indefinitely 350,000 cases involving benefit payments. We all look forward to the publication next week of a report on the CSA by the parliamentary ombudsman.

Column 370

Is that not clear evidence that hype, advertising and the false promises of Planet Portillo do not improve public services and that real changes are needed? If that does not happen, charters like the CSA charter are not worth the paper they are printed on.

The same position applies in British Rail. Rail users have been issued with a long document which identifies their rights. Notwithstanding commitments that might be contained in the charter, because of other factors in the rail industry, one of the charter's main points--that people can obtain a ticket at a railway station anywhere in Britain to any other point in Britain--has not been met. Although the Government say that they generally support the principle that tickets should be available at any station, because of BR's structure and the problems in that public service, the terms of that charter cannot be met. Is that not ridiculous? What a way to run a railway. Twentieth century dogma with 19th century structures is trying to run a service for the 21st century. Is it not little wonder that there is public scepticism about the effectiveness of the charter?

If the evidence that I have before me is accurate--I have no reason to believe that it is not--contrary to the point raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), two thirds of people interviewed in surveys do not believe that charters have been successful. In a National Opinion Polls survey, people were asked: "Have you ever seen a copy of the Citizen's Charter or other Charters for public bodies, such as the British Rail Passenger's Charter or Parents' Charter?"

Only 34 per cent. said that they had seen a copy.

The NOP's second question is more telling:

"The Government claims that the Citizen's Charter will lead to real improvements in the quality of service people get from public bodies like the NHS, while opponents claim it is just a public relations exercise and will make no real difference. Which of these views is closer to your own?"

Sixty-six per cent. of those polled believed that charters were just a public relations exercise.

Similar evidence was revealed by a poll conducted by the Scottish Consumer Council which has been referred to widely in the literature and of which I am sure the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is aware. People were asked what they thought about the citizens charter. While 23 per cent. of people felt that there may have been some improvement in public services as a result of the charter, 37 per cent. felt that the citizens charter was not improving public services.

Lady Olga Maitland: It strikes me that the hon. Gentleman is being somewhat selective in respect of the polls and surveys to which he refers. Would he kindly tell us who published the surveys and exactly what questions were posed?

Mr. Henderson: The hon. Lady has not been listening. I said that one poll was carried out by NOP, one client of which is the Trades Union Congress-- [Interruption.] Well, it is fair to say that the TUC represents a large spectrum of opinion. We are told that many Conservative voters are members of trade unions. However, that is not the point. National Opinion Polls is a reputable organisation. Its reputation is staked on the objectivity of its polling. I am certainly happy to take its evidence. If Conservative Members' cynicism is such that they cannot

Column 371

even now accept what opinion polls tell them of people's attitudes, we really have sunk deep. I will take no lectures from the hon. Lady on that matter.

Mr. Kaufman: Is my hon. Friend aware that National Opinion Polls has been used in the past by the Conservative party for its private polling?

Mr. Henderson: I was aware of that, but it momentarily escaped my mind. I am extremely grateful for my right hon. Friend's assistance on that matter.

The public can see charters coming out of the ears of local and national government. There is scepticism. The only place where we do not have a charter is in Parliament. Perhaps we should have a parliamentary charter or, perhaps, a Conservative rebels charter, stating, "A Government Whip will reply to your question within two hours, letters will be replied to on the same day, and compensation will be paid, subject to Treasury approval." Perhaps we should have league tables for Conservative rebels. Perhaps that would convince the public of the Government's genuine commitment to the citizens charter.

Where does the scepticism come from? It comes from the public's own experience. It comes from what the public know about public services as they affect them and their families. For example, I refer to education, transport and health services, on which we have already had an exchange of views this morning.

One factor which must be brought into hospital waiting list statistics--it is not a constant factor that can be ignored--is when a potential patient enters the waiting list. I understand that it is when the first consultation takes place. The evidence in my constituency is that people have to wait longer for their first consultation; therefore, they do not appear on the waiting list statistics. However, I accept that, once they are in the statistics, there have been some improvements, although at the expense of people who would previously have been seen in three or four weeks but who now must wait seven or eight weeks.

Mr. Clappison: I raised that point with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about it, surely he will join me in welcoming the fact that the new patients charter will include a standard for the length of time between seeing a general practitioner and having an out-patient appointment with a consultant. Surely that is an example of the charter working. It highlights an important issue.

Mr. Henderson: I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. If the charter clarifies for the public what is happening in the health service, of course that is welcome, but the problem is that the charter makes problems and commitments which cannot be honoured unless other things take place to improve the service. For example, there is a combination of human and capital resources in the health service. Several things have been flushed out by the citizens charter: the Government's attitude to public services generally, the extent to which the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 apply when there are changes in the delivery of services and whether there should be protection for working people. We know that the Government have had to be dragged along at the end of the European queue on that matter.

Column 372

No matter what the Government might claim about their commitment to public service, when it affects poorer people specifically, resources are not put in place. I am shocked that citizens advice bureaux budgets--the CAB must be central to the concept of assistance for the ordinary citizen--have been frozen for the next three years, according to the relevant schedules. That is regrettable, and it should be changed if the Government are genuinely committed to such matters. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster referred to access of information. The Government, in response to many pressures from the public and from the House, said, "We believe in open government." People asked, "If you believe in open government, why cannot an ordinary citizen ask questions on information which would be publicly available if a Member of Parliament asked a parliamentary question?" That seemed to be a reasonable point. The Government responded by introducing what they called the code of practice. If the right hon. Gentleman is sincere in his desire to extend freedom of information, there must be greater advertising so that the public know how they can find out information and what the procedures are.

The Government's record is appalling. Departments have spent only £43,000 on advertising the new code of practice. The Department for Education has spent only £581, and the Department of the Environment has spent £170. I obtained those figures from a parliamentary answer. They compare with the £5.7 million which was spent on advertising the virtues of the poll tax, and the £17.1 million which was spent on advertising the second British Telecom share offer. That puts into context the way in which the Government have allocated resources in this important matter. If they genuinely favour freedom of information and if they think that it is an important concomitant of the concept of a citizens charter, there must be greater commitment on their part.

I do not doubt that there are improvements in citizens' procedural rights. Some additional information is available. However, the main test of whether the citizens charter has been effective is surely whether public services are better. Are people receiving better, quicker and more effective treatment in the national health service? Is our education system improving, with higher standards of education for all our children, young people and adults? Is our transport system providing a better service? Is it tackling congestion problems in our cities? Is it tackling the problems of obtaining the necessary investment to provide transport in future? Are the public receiving the public services that they want?

The public's verdict, of course, is already clear for hon. Members to see, regardless of the opinion polls to which I have referred and which are disputed by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. There have been two major sets of local government elections since the main claims were made about the citizens charter at the previous general election. On both occasions, the public completely rejected Conservative local government. They have not seen Conservative local government as being committed to public services or delivering public services efficiently, and they have seen no major improvement arising from the citizens charter, or they would have given the Government the result that they looked for during those elections. Patently, that did not happen. In addition, the public are concerned about their loss of control over public services because of the rapid growth in quangos.

Column 373

In his speech to the Conservative conference in October, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said:

"I joined the Conservative Party because it is the party which gives powers and responsibility to people, because we know that the state does not know best."

He continued:

"Through the Citizen's charter we are transferring power from bureaucrats and politicians in Whitehall and the Town Hall to ordinary people in the school hall and village hall."

That might be very laudable, but it is the ultimate in "I regret what I said at the party conference." The right hon. Gentleman knows that, regardless of the terms that he set out in that speech, that is not the Government's record.

The Government have centralised power in a sustained way over many years as a deliberate policy; indeed, they have made a virtue of having done so. Training and enterprise councils have taken over training and regeneration policies. Funding councils have been established for further and higher education. Urban development corporations are taking over urban regeneration in designated areas. I have in mind also housing action trusts, the Housing Corporation, health service trusts and the new police arrangements. They all take power from local people so that local representatives cannot have a say. All those arrangements are changing the way in which services are controlled by taking power away from ordinary people and elected representatives and by giving authority to people who are appointed by Secretaries of State.

Independent research has shown that, by 1996, unelected bodies will spend £54 billion of public money. A survey by the Financial Times in April 1993 found that quangos were responsible for a fifth of all public spending --a 20 per cent. increase on 1979. A report by the institute of local government studies in November 1993 found that there are now 17,000 members of unelected public bodies, compared to 25,000 councillors.

The Government have tried to dismiss the figures by arguing that there is now increased accountability through the citizens charter, but that has not been accepted even by many of the Government's own intellectuals--if that is not a contradiction in terms. I do not know whether Graham Mather, the Conservative Member of the European Parliament for Hampshire, North and Oxford, would like to be classified as a Conservative intellectual, but I have shared a platform with him on one or two occasions and he seems to bat above the average on these matters.

Mr. Mather says that there has been some centralisation of public services and adds:

"Where school boards and hospitals trusts are failing is when they're trapped in a system controlled by Whitehall and Whitehall civil servants setting standards, controlling cash and really taking decisions back on the Minister's desk instead of the local level." That is what a Conservative representative says, so it is not only Opposition Members who feel that power has been taken away from local people and elected bodies. Prominent members of the Conservative party acknowledge that that has taken place. Some are reluctant and wary of the consequences of that, as Mr. Mather is, while others make a virtue out of the fact that power has been taken away from local representatives because they think that the Government know best.

Column 374

An accompanying point must be acknowledged by the House. I do not think that a case could be made for the extension of quangos even if they had as members people who were, broadly speaking, representative of different currents of thought and who reflected different political attitudes. But that is not the case. The reality is that Conservative place-people--including relatives of some Conservative Members --have been given jobs in hospital trusts and other public bodies. That is not acceptable in a modern democracy, and it is not consistent with the principle of the citizens charter.

Lady Olga Maitland: The hon. Gentleman talks about increased centralisation. He might like to speak to parents in my constituency whose children are in grant-maintained schools. They are delighted that they are now able to take part in schools that are independent of the tyranny of local town halls, and they vote for that.

Mr. Henderson: With all due respect to the hon. Lady, I must tell her that if the Conservative Government say that they can no longer afford to fund those schools as they are cutting budgets, there will be no point in the parents bleating to the local authority that the services provided by that school are important for the local community, because the decision will be taken in Whitehall.

Mr. Sykes: I do not want to upset the hon. Gentleman, but perhaps he ought to phone Tony Blair to find out the answer to the question which I am about to ask him. If all that he has said is true, why is the Labour party committed to increasing the number of quangos by 2, 536?

Mr. Henderson rose --

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes): Order. May I remind hon. Members that it is not our custom to refer to another hon. Member by name? That is the prerogative of the Speaker and her deputies only.

Mr. Sykes: I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that oversight.

Mr. Henderson: There was another oversight on the hon. Gentleman's part. He has not understood his central office brief, because even Conservative central office could not cook up statistics which show that figure. If the hon. Gentleman wants to send me details, I shall be happy to peruse them and give my response later to any point that he raises.

Mr. David Hunt: It might be helpful if a few facts were introduced into the hon. Gentleman's speech. There was a quango state in this country which existed at the time I came into the House in the 1970s. When the Conservative Government took over, the number of quangos was 2,167. We have reduced that number to 1,389. The figures which the hon. Gentleman is using include 2,668 housing associations which everyone knows are non-profit- making bodies run by unpaid committees of volunteers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) pointed out, the hon. Gentleman is also including grant-maintained schools in the figures. The quango state is a Labour state, and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) is quite right in saying that the Labour party has already made many

Column 375

commitments which show that the number of quangos would go back up again if we ever had a Labour Government.

Mr. Henderson: The undemocratic state is a Conservative state, and people can see that with their own eyes and through their own experiences. They know that, regardless of what the right hon. Gentleman said, the amount of money which is now allocated directly by central Government to quangos is far greater than it has ever been--even under a Conservative Government. I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's point in any way.

People know that many of the services upon which they rely are now controlled by Whitehall. The money is dished out there and the people who administer the services are appointed there. If a person wants to complain, he has to go to Whitehall because going to his local office will have no impact whatsoever. That lack of democracy adds to the scepticism which the public clearly have about the benefits of the citizens charter.

In many instances, the public services are run on principles which have been rejected by companies that have adopted best practices in the private sector. The Government are always keen to tell the House that they want the public sector to act more like the private sector. Such is the reasoning behind the introduction of a number of changes such as compulsory competitive tendering, to which I shall come in a moment. Where there has been an introduction of private sector practices into the public sector, it has often been the worst practices and not the best.

Many claims have been made about the impact of compulsory competitive tendering. The Government have claimed that savings of about 6 per cent. have been made in the provision of services through compulsory tendering. Where those statistics have been shown to be--in a mathematical sense-- accurate, it has often been because the quality of service has suffered. But other studies, which have examined the impact of CCT over a longer term, do not even accept that point. A study by Professor Szymanski of the London Business School--an organisation not exactly sympathetic to some of the views of the Labour party--looked at CCT in the long term. He took examples of councils which put out contracts to tender in the early 1980s before there was a compulsory element. In the long term, the study shows that prices will begin to rise. In effect, a lot of private sector contractors introduce loss-leading in the early stages of a contract. Once a contractor has a contract, and the local authority has few real alternatives, up shoot the prices. That is interesting evidence which has been raised in relation to this matter.

Mr. Sykes: Can the hon. Gentleman name one single council where that has occurred in the past 10 years--in relation to cleansing services, for example?

Mr. Henderson: Wandsworth council had to change its tender because the contractor was not meeting standards and prices were rising. The council was not getting value for money and changed the contract. The evidence from Professor Szymanski was that, in the long term, Wandsworth-- like other councils--will have to pay a higher price for getting private sector contracts because a monopoly will have developed and there will not be alternatives in particular areas. [Interruption.] I do believe that.

Column 376

In any case, that is not my main quarrel with the changes which the Government have introduced. My main quarrel with CCT is that it has not really changed what is happening at a local level in the provision of public services. Low-paid workers have had their conditions reduced, and quality has suffered. Management still try to control workers with the stick, rather than any concept of the carrot. Budgets are spent whether or not there are any needs to be met at a particular time. There is little innovation by management or workers in an environment with little security, and often poor motivation.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes): The hon. Gentleman has told the House that he believes that competitive tendering for local government services makes them more expensive. Can he produce one single example in which putting out to contract rubbish collection services has increased the price? Is it not a fact that substantial amounts of money have been saved by authority after authority following the example originally set by Wandsworth? They have done a tremendous favour to the nation. The service quality has improved and the price has fallen.

Mr. Henderson: I am grateful to the Minister for intervening, because I can give him the evidence from the study to which I referred by Professor Szymanski. Referring to refuse services, he says:

"On average there were initial 20 per cent. savings in the tendered out services in the first two years but at the end of the five-year period costs were up 11 per cent. even though average staff numbers were down by 20 per cent."

I do not believe that compulsory competitive tendering has achieved the ends which the Government claim. They have not resulted in the adoption of the best practices of the private sector. Conservative Members who know anything about industry will recognise that. They will not recognise worker motivation and involvement, quality targets, workplace flexibility and teamwork or security of employment in the many privatised services now in place in different parts of the country.

Mr. Sykes: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that no one is entitled to security of employment in the 1990s? It is a nice thought. When the hon. Gentleman talks about security of employment, he is really talking about the closed shop.

Mr. Henderson: The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the position. His thinking is old-fashioned. I am not talking about employers' fear of being forced to concede security of employment to their workers. I am talking about employers saying that those workers are so valuable to them, their business and operation that they want to build loyalty by giving workers the security that they would want for themselves and their families. That is the concept of security which I have watched advanced- thinking companies such as Nissan up in Sunderland develop over 10 years. That is what is important. I am not talking about contractual security imposed from outside. I am talking about internal organisations building their own loyalty. That concept has not been achieved through compulsory competitive tendering. The same goes for market testing. Again, there is no real change. There are no initiatives and no new services. There is no extra motivation and no change in workplace

Column 377

attitudes. There is more stick and more insecurity. We need a genuinely new approach. Do we not first need a commitment to the concept of an efficient, good public service? Is it not crucial that the Government recognise that there is a need for democratic choice, that that choice should be devolved to the most local level possible and that citizens should exercise that democratic choice either directly or through their elected representatives?

Do we not need an approach which is dogma free and recognises the need for a mix of public and private in finding the funds for investment and bringing about the most effective form of delivery? In ridding ourselves of dogma, should we not move away from the presumption that privatisation is best and establish on merit whether a service is best delivered in private or public ownership? Do we not need a regular review of services to examine whether new services can be provided? Should public sector departments not be encouraged to take community initiatives to achieve that aim and be given new appropriate statutory powers to do so? Should we not review the way in which we insist on rigid, annual budgets in most parts of public service? Private organisations carry funds forward from one year to another. Should not public sector organisations also be given that form of accounting without any detriment to the budget that they would have received? If we did that, we would stop the nonsense of parsimony in budgets from April to February and then profligacy in March before the end of the financial year. I notice from the faces of Conservative Members that they have experienced that in their areas, as I have in mine.

It is often said in the world of work that management get the workers they deserve. If management are stuffy, rule-book based, old-fashioned, inflexible and uncommunicative, it is little surprise that the work force mirror those attitudes? Is it not most important of all that a new sense of public service is instilled--a public service motivated at management, worker and democratic level; a public service based on secure, well-paid employment with high standards of training; a public service that uses the most modern technology and operational systems; a public service that has clear targets and is subject to rigorous audit; a public service which is initiative orientated; a public service of which we are proud, which we value and on which all of us can depend? If that is our purpose, we must support the changes necessary to achieve that.

If the citizens charter contributes to those changes, the Opposition will give it procedural support. However, I do not believe that the public scepticism about the way in which our public services are run and about the claims made for the citizens charter can be overcome unless real change takes place. We need new commitments on the need for public services and a new attitude to their delivery. 11.5 am

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): The citizens charter is the often- derided tip of a very large iceberg. Those who mock it are guilty of failing to realise the scale and significance of what lies under the surface. We are debating one of the most important developments in British politics in the 1990s. The fact that we are conducting the debate in such a thinly attended House,

Column 378

particularly on the Opposition Benches, speaks volumes about the way in which we as Members of Parliament understand our functions and responsibilities.

As it is clear that the importance of the citizens charter and what it stands for has not been widely understood, I shall say a few words about why it is so important, after which I shall draw attention to some of the problems that need to be acknowledged.

One of the biggest problems facing Governments in the late 20th century democracies is how to operate successful, good-quality public services when we have more or less reached the limits of taxpayers' willingness to pay for such services. The creation of the welfare state during the 70 years from Lloyd George in the Edwardian period to Keith Joseph mark I in the early 1970s was a heroic achievement, but it did not involve any fundamental innovations in how Britain was governed. It was accomplished simply by increasing taxation and enlarging the political and bureaucratic machinery that had been established in the middle of the 19th century.

The inexorable growth in the proportion of the national income taken in tax and redistributed by the state, which began in the first decade of this century, was bound to reach a limit some time. It did so in the 1970s--a decade marked throughout the advanced industrial world by taxpayers' revolts. In Britain, they took the form of waves of industrial unrest at the concept of a social wage and a social contract--the idea that the lower personal incomes brought about by higher taxes and wage restraint would be compensated for by higher spending on public services. The Heath and Callaghan Governments failed in that regard, and their failure marked the end of that sort of thinking.

In the past two decades in Britain, as elsewhere in the advanced democracies, all parties have backed off from policies that would involve large tax increases. That was beautifully illustrated in exchanges today between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who was twitted so successfully on Labour's spending commitments. The Labour party's manifesto for the 1992 election was probably, although we will undoubtedly try to present it differently, the last gasp of the tax-and- spend philosophy. It remains to be seen whether my party will escape the damage that the Government inflicted on it by deciding to increase taxes rather than cut public services in the teeth of the recent recession.

Governments throughout the advanced industrial world face fundamental problems in relation to the welfare state. There are two contradictory pressures. As per capita incomes rise, there is a continuing rise in the expectations of users of public services. At the same time, the growth in the resources available for funding public services is limited, essentially, to the rate of growth in the economy. The fundamental significance of the citizens charter is that it is a serious and sustained effort to tackle that critical problem.

I said that the welfare state was built by expanding 19th century political and bureaucratic machinery. A Member of a late-Victorian Parliament, returning to this House in 1980, would certainly have no difficulty in recognising

Column 379

the arrangements by which the welfare state was run, however enlarged and distended he might have thought them.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central): Would not the great difference that that gentleman would notice on returning to the House probably be waste? Is not the key question in the debate how we inject private enterprise efficiency into publicly owned services?

Mr. Jackson: I shall come to the argument about the use of private sector methods to improve efficiency. The Victorian Member would certainly have observed a large increase in waste and would have been very attentive to it because one of the central tenets of Victorian public finance was to reduce waste--I can cite the phenomenon of candle ends, Mr. Gladstone and all that.

At this stage in my argument, I am trying to show that the arrangements by which we expanded the welfare state were essentially 19th century arrangements that would have been familiar to a Victorian Member returning in the 1980s. He would have seen a monolithic civil service, employed on uniform terms and conditions--basically, the service created by the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 1860s--which was simply expanded within the traditional structure of accountability to Parliament through Ministers. He would have observed that in operation here at Question Time and so on. The citizens charter addresses the fundamental problems that I described by breaking through to a new concept of government. It recognises that there is no need for the delivery of public services to be organised through a monolithic civil service, which was part of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord). Indeed, the traditional civil service uniformity of conditions may be an obstacle to efficiency and performance. Through the next steps agencies, the Government are recognising the way in which so many public service activities are discrete businesses that need to be run on lines that are specifically adapted to the immediate task in hand.

At the same time, we have begun to understand that 19th century ideas about political control and accountability were neither efficient nor effective, and I shall return to that subject. The tasks and objectives of agencies are now much more clearly spelt out by being embodied in contracts between them and central government. The fundamental new principle that has been introduced in the past 10 years is that of a division of functions between purchasers and providers and the embodiment of their relations in contracts with specified standards of performance and clearly defined arrangements for monitoring performance against those standards. I have no doubt that all that is leading to a steady sharpening up of the performance of public service deliverers, while making much more transparent the relationship between those--including hon. Members--who are politically responsible for ensuring that a service is provided and those who are operationally responsible for ensuring that it is delivered efficiently and to a high standard.

Governments throughout the world are facing up to those problems--some more and some less successfully. It is a noteworthy fact, in which we can take some pride, that our thinking on such matters is more advanced than that almost anywhere else in the world. We are pioneering

Next Section

  Home Page