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Column 380the new approach to public service provision in the 1990s, just as we pioneered the concept of privatisation in the 1980s.
Changes of the type under discussion cannot be accomplished in complex and continually evolving modern societies simply by devising a comprehensive blueprint and implementing it. We are bound to proceed by a process of trial and error and we have to admit error from time to time. We pursue a general strategy, with sensitivity to problems as they arise. We have to have the will to provide innovative solutions to those problems when we see them. We must also be prepared from time to time to recognise when the problems are such that they require some adjustment to the overall strategy. The Government have been working sensibly in that fashion, as they have put in hand the massive programme of changes that they have undertaken. There are a number of problems, however, for which we have not yet found adequate solutions. We must recognise that some may require modifications to the general strategy.
First, and probably most important, is the problem of ensuring that the Government operate as an intelligent purchaser on their side of the purchaser-provider divide. We have put an enormous amount of energy into the organisation of providers, so that in many sectors we have an extensive array of lean, mean and competitive providers of public services. I am not convinced, however, that the Government's capacity, both centrally and locally, to make sensible long-term purchasing decisions has also been commensurately developed. In particular, the problem of short-termism seems to be
institutionalised in our public finance system and the way in which the Treasury operates. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North put some sound arguments on that.
Some stability is required for any large-scale organisation to flourish, especially if it is operating in the intangible area of services whose quality depends largely on the morale and motivation of huge numbers of professional and semi-professional employees. We will do ourselves a disservice and will risk discrediting the new approach to public service provision if the new relationship between the Government as purchaser and the agencies as providers simply maximises the impact of stop-go policies.
The second problem has a more philosophical character. We must recognise that there is a difference between co-operative and contractual models of organisation and that both have their value and their part to play. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central pointed that out in his intervention. The citizens charter is based on the extension of essentially private sector contractualist ideas into a public service world that has traditionally been based on an ethos of co-operation. That is not a bad thing--there is always a danger that the co-operative ethos among producers can become introverted and self-serving, rather than oriented towards service users. That was recognised as long ago as Adam Smith, but we must recognise that there is a great diversity in human psychology and in organisations and that what may be appropriate structures of incentive and disincentive in one type of organisation may not always be appropriate in others. There are also problems of
Column 381hybridisation. It may not be possible successfully to combine those two different philosophies in a single organisation.
Mr. Lord: I am following my hon. Friend's argument carefully. Is not one of the changes that has taken place in the past 30 years a change in the relationship between elected councillors, responsible for spending a large amount of public money, and their officers? The same is probably true of the relationship in Whitehall between civil servants and Ministers. There has been a notable shift in power away from the elected member, just as the amounts of money involved have hugely increased. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on that?
Mr. Jackson: I want to say something about the problems of accountability, especially as they relate to the House. My hon. Friend is right. There is a sense in which the reforms are designed to restore a greater measure of political control over the operation of those great programmes, by enabling the political leadership to define much more clearly what it expects to get out of them, by setting the objectives and standards and by devising performance standards, so that there is a way of getting some sort of political handle on the operation of those great sums of money.
I was trying to argue that we have to be careful about the way in which we combine a contractualist approach to organisations with a co-operative approach. One striking aspect of how contractualism may be at odds with co- operative organisational models relates to pay--an absolutely critical question. The private sector gurus who advise on the organisation of public service agencies tend to attach great importance to financial incentives for individuals. I am sceptical about the universal applicability of that. High pay for top executives and individualised performance contracts are an American and Anglo-Saxon fashion. They are much less common, even in the private sector, in mainland Europe and Japan--arguably more successful economies. We are all becoming increasingly familiar with the problems posed by those individualised pay arrangements in terms of both public credibility of the leadership of organisations, and of employees' morale. We need to think again on that issue.
The problem of political accountability, which has arisen time and again in this debate, is posed by all those new developments. The telling points about centralisation made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North simply cannot be dismissed. I propose not to follow him but to draw attention to the problem of accountability as it relates to this House.
Parliament still operates within the parameters of the 19th century system of government. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who will speak in the debate, is an eloquent exponent of that topic, but he fails to recognise that the old system that he defends was never adequate to cope with the vast expansion of responsibilities assumed by the state in the first part of this century. If the machinery for accountability embodied in this House was inadequate for the era in which, as Nye Bevan put it, Ministers were held responsible for every dropped bedpan in the national health service, how much more inadequate are its arrangements in the face of the new dispensation emerging under the banner of the citizens charter?
Column 382As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central, that new dispensation provides enormous opportunities for hon. Members to assert greater control and direction over public services. The making of public service contracts allows much greater sharpness in priority setting than was possible in the past. The contractual arrangements between central Departments and agencies generate a huge new flow of information about performance standards. If the House had the right structures, there is no reason why we should not play an effective part in guiding Ministers in setting strategies, determining priorities and monitoring performance. But do we have the will to do so? The attendance at today's debate shows that we have not yet even begun to understand the scale of those possibilities.
Finally, I want to say a word about the limits of the citizens charter philosophy and programmes based on it. Earlier, I said that I regard the charter as an attempt to meet rising expectations of quality in the public services when people's willingness to pay for those services through taxes is strictly limited. I have no doubt that quality improvements in our public services can be achieved through the charter by making them more businesslike, but we must recognise that, ultimately, the quality of public service--as of any service--is, more than anything else, a function of the financial resources available to support it. Ultimately, we get what we pay for. In that sense, the citizens charter approach faces the prospect of diminishing returns.
One of the great paradoxes of today's society is the contrast between the public sector's increasing affluence, in which real incomes have risen by 40 per cent. since 1979, and the financial constraints under which our public services labour. I have a picture in my mind of parents in constituencies like mine driving back to comfortable, centrally heated homes in their Volvos and BMWs from meetings in draughty, old-fashioned school buildings to write angry letters--nowadays increasingly to send them by fax--to their Member of Parliament complaining about cuts affecting local schools. Many of them could easily afford to make up the amount of those cuts from their substantially increased disposable incomes if they were able to do so.
The logic of my argument is that, over the years, the element in the charter approach that asks, "Must the Government be responsible for it?" will become increasingly important. That should not be thought of, as it may have been until now, as a question that leads to the complete withdrawal of publicly funded provision. We need more halfway houses between public and private responsibility. So far, Britain has not been especially innovative in developing co-operative modes of finance by which individuals who benefit from a public service make an individual financial contribution to support it, alongside the contribution which we all make through the tax system. Our approach still tends to be that services must be either wholly in the private marketplace or provided entirely free on the back of a tax system. In the future, it will be increasingly necessary for us to seek ways in which we can bridge that gap.
The citizens charter of the future will ensure that the growing personal incomes which rising productivity is delivering to our people can be directed to not only private consumption--more holidays and consumer goods- -but the consumption of mixed public and private goods and the support of public services.
Column 38311.25 am
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) provided the House with an extremely thoughtful speech and I shall refer to some of his arguments. First, however, I contrast the picture that he drew of his constituency with one of the constituency that I represent. He has made it clear that he represents an affluent south of England constituency, where his constituents drive from centrally heated homes in their Volvos and can often communicate with their Members of Parliament by fax machine. I compliment the hon. Member and his constituents on their affluence.
My constituents are very different people. I represent an inner-city constituency where many thousands of my constituents live in great poverty. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Youth unemployment is 40 per cent. in parts of my constituency. We have a dreadful housing problem, which is not assisted by the complete end to council house building and the fact that housing associations cannot respond out of their resources to my constituents' needs, however hard they try with the aid of the Housing Act 1974, which, as junior Housing Minister, I put through 20 years ago.
Some people, because of poverty, deprivation and domestic circumstances, require assistance from public services in a proportion almost incomparable with the requirements on such a public service in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It is therefore my duty to speak for my constituents who need public services. Many of them literally cannot survive without public services, and currently receive nothing like the level or standard of public services they require.
The concept of public service is not unique to, or possessed by, a single party in the House of Commons. I echo the comments by the hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) about the absence of the Liberal Democrats today. They flood my constituency with their cheap and boastful little leaflets about the need for public service, but when it comes to the House having a full debate on public service, they are nowhere to be seen. Their hypocrisy is demonstrated by their failure to show any interest whatever in today's debate. But that party, in the days when it was a serious and reputable political party, advanced the concept of public service. The Conservative party has a long and honourable history of participating in and innovating public services. The Chamberlains in Birmingham were the parents of modern public service as we see it. My party, the Labour party, has been associated throughout its history with the need for public services.
The problem is not confined to the deterioration in the quality and availability of public services, for it extends to the erosion of the very concept of public service. I was sorry that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster contributed to the erosion by his use of a word that I find one of the most offensive in this context. It is used by those who should be providing a service.
I refer to "customer". When we buy something in a shop, we are customers, but British Rail and London Underground now refer to passengers as customers. That strikes me as something more than merely the change of a word. It is the change of an entire concept, whereby public transport, which used to be provided as a service, is regarded as a commodity to be sold rather than a service
Column 384to be provided. In the case of British Rail and London Underground, it is not, unfortunately, being provided to the highest standard. It is even worse when "customer" is used in the service and caring sectors. I find it offensive when the chief executive of the Benefits Agency refers to my constituents as customers. Those of my constituents who go to the Benefits Agency in need of income support or a crisis loan are not customers. They are not buying anything. They only wish that they had the wherewithal to buy things. Those of my constituents who find themselves in that position may be clients, but I fear that they are applicants. The ethos of the
commercialisation of public service is one that we should examine extremely seriously.
The deterioration of public service is happening through privatisation and through the creation of the next steps agencies. In so far as the citizens charter can ameliorate that, I welcome it. The charter should be available to assist those who require good public services. The problem is that the nature of service is being removed.
Let us consider some of the privatised industries, and especially British Telecom. With the relative failure of Mercury, BT is much more, even that it was before, a monopoly service--I accept that the cable companies provide some telephone services. British Telecom is an enormously cash-rich organisation. Unfortunately, it is no longer motivated by service and seems not to understand the nature of it. I have a press release that was issued on 3 January from Mike Hepher, the group managing director of BT, in which he states: "BT keeps its pledge to reduce prices and improve value for money for its customers."
He bases that on a cut in the cost of transatlantic telephone calls.
The passage that I have quoted appears on page 1. At the bottom of page 2, we learn that the rental of a BT telephone line will rise by 4.6 per cent. on 1 February. That is way beyond the current rate of inflation. The increase is being imposed by an organisation that has more liquid cash at its disposal than any other in the United Kingdom. Its profits are greater than those of any other organisation, and that is partly through its almost monopolistic position. Business people who need to make transatlantic calls will get them cheaper. My constituents, and specifically pensioners, who depend on their telephone not only for an emergency, as BT seems to imagine, but as a lifeline to their families and friends, will have to pay more. That is not a concept of public service. The increase in current revenues is being paid for by my constituents and others--not by rich organisations--who are living in poverty.
It is not only at national level that BT is failing in its duty. For more than eight months, I have been in correspondence with BT about two telephone boxes in my constituency which are a focus of vandalism and hooliganism. Local residents and shopkeepers have complained. The police have asked for the telephone boxes to be moved. As I have said, I have been in correspondence repeatedly with BT for eight months, asking it to remove what are recognised by the police and my constituents as a cause of crime. Nothing has been done and there is no sign that anything will be done.
Column 385I think that all hon. Members are appalled by the notion that the number of offices where through railway tickets can be bought is to be reduced. Only recently, the Prime Minister said that he did not want that to happen. Unfortunately, the Government's legislation gives the Secretary of State for Transport only an advisory role in dealing with through ticketing.
Lady Olga Maitland: I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that he is talking about outrageous scaremongering. His example of through ticketing involves an exercise that was put forward as an idea, not as a policy. It is important that that is made abundantly clear to rail travellers.
Mr. Kaufman: It should be made clear also to the regulator. It is the regulator who has put it forward, not some anonymous person in the street. We need a commitment from the regulator about through ticketing. If that is not forthcoming, the viability of the railways as a transport system will be lost. If that happens, the hon. Lady will be the first to complain.
The hon. Lady rises, rightly, to complain about the role of the director general of the prison service, about whom I shall something to say before I resume my place. But the hon. Lady should be careful about leaping to her feet before she knows what will happen about ticketing. She represents a commuter area. It is my guess that, within a year from now, the hon. Lady will be joining me and many of her hon. Friends in trying to ensure that the through ticketing system is put right.
Let us consider what is happening through privatisation at a local level. When I had any problems relating to British Rail in the past, I was able to write to the chairman, who would respond. I am not saying that the response was always satisfactory, but there was always a clear line of accountability. In the end, if I did not get done what I wanted, I would have a clear explanation from the man at the top. During that period I knew where to go.
For many months, there have been three issues in my constituency on which I would have written to the chairman of British Rail. One issue may be regarded by hon. Members as trivial, but it is not trivial to my constituents. It involves the state of Glencastle road, which is owned by British Rail, not by the local authority. There are huge accumulations of rubbish, which are a health hazard.
The second issue is the Vine street sub-station of British Rail, which was a danger to children. Another related to a piece of railway line next to the Abbey Hey football club in my constituency, where children were able to stray on to the line. In two of the three cases, there was a danger to children's lives; in the third, there was and is a danger to the health of my constituents.
Before the privatisation legislation went through the House, I would have written to the chairman of British Rail. I have tried to find out who now has responsibility. I wrote to Railtrack, but received no response on any of the three issues. I wrote to Railtrack again, and again received no response. I wrote again, and again received no response. I then wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport, and I received no response. I wrote to him again, and again received no response. I then wrote to the
Column 386Prime Minister, and I did receive a response. He has an efficient office that deals fairly promptly with correspondence.
As a result of my correspondence with the Prime Minister's office, I received a letter from the Secretary of State for Transport saying that certain things would happen. They did not. I wrote to him again, and I received a response this week advising me to write to Railtrack. Railtrack repeatedly does not reply, the Secretary of State for Transport does not reply, the Prime Minister does reply--as a result of which, I receive a response from the Secretary of State for Transport--but in the end I am asked to get on board the merry-go-round again. Meanwhile, and after many months, the problems for my constituents continue. There is no longer any clear line of accountability.
The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) made a sensible intervention in the speech of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, saying that it was outrageous that letters from his constituents to their local authority received no response. The right hon. Gentleman agreed with his hon. Friend, and stressed the importance of people receiving a quick response. He said that he expected letters to be answered promptly and courteously, and that when things went wrong they should be quickly put right. However, although he said that, the fact is that what is happening in my constituency is also happening throughout the country.
Mr. Robert G. Hughes: The right hon. Gentleman properly raises in this House important constituency matters that he says are not being addressed by Railtrack. I have to say that I do not think that that is a national phenomenon, and I do not know why it is happening in his constituency.
I raised a matter, of equal importance to my constituents, about a railway bridge and pigeon droppings. The then responsible authority, British Rail, failed to respond over a number of months. In the very week that Railtrack came into existence, it answered the letter, and then arranged a site meeting within a week.
I am satisfied, on behalf of my constituents, with the response that I have received from Railtrack. I do not know what has gone wrong for the right hon. Gentleman, but I agree that Railtrack should respond.
Mr. Kaufman: I congratulate the Minister on his success. Perhaps in his reply, in correspondence or in conversation he could tell me his secret --how does he get a reply from Railtrack when neither I nor even the Secretary of State for Transport can get one? Responsiveness is absolutely crucial. When lives are at stake--and children's lives have been at stake-- action must be taken. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that things must be improved.
I want to raise a matter relating to the water industry. North West Water, which runs the water industry in my constituency, is involved in export activity--good luck to it--but it is also involved in asset-stripping--not good luck to it. It is trying to destroy the one amenity of wild country available to my constituents. It is not providing a decent service in water and sewerage provision to many of my constituents. In a recent episode, the water supply to people living in part of Gorton was so poor that they were afraid to use their toilets because of the lack of water, and they had to operate a street shift system for taking baths.
Column 387North West Water failed to respond-- [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) may giggle, but the matter is important to my constituents. They do not receive a decent water supply, yet the chief executive of the water authority has received a 571 per cent. pay increase. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not regard the most basic service of all--the supply of water--as something to giggle about.
Mr. Lord: The right hon. Gentleman may know that I stood for, and failed to win, the seat of Manchester, Gorton in 1979, when it had rather different boundaries. In fact, I was born in that part of the world, and I care very much for it. I am horrified to hear of what is happening in his constituency, and of how long it is taking to sort things out. Certainly, if lives are at risk and nothing has been done for eight months, I suggest that he disregards the Wantage faxes and the postal service, and gets on his much-maligned telephone and sorts people out before lives are lost.
Mr. Kaufman: The problem is that I do not know who to telephone-- [Interruption.] I do not. I have dealt with three different Railtrack offices, none of which appears ready to acknowledge responsibility. I can show the hon. Gentleman my large file of papers. Getting on the telephone would do no good. If the Prime Minister cannot get action, a telephone call to some untraceable person is not likely to help. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having been a candidate in Gorton. It was in the days when Conservative candidates had appreciable votes in Gorton. No doubt he had quite a good vote.
I want to raise the question of the line of accountability in the national health service. The Gorton medical centre in my constituency has a patient list of 9,000 people. I visited the centre a couple of months ago at the request both of my constituents and of the centre's doctors. I found a waiting room so tiny that mothers with babies and elderly people had to stand while waiting to see the doctor. The filing and nursing rooms were inadequate for their needs. There were unacceptable toilet facilities.
The doctors want to add a new storey to the medical centre and rearrange the facilities, which would cost £150,000. That could be financed by the chief executive of North West Water handing over part of his salary increase. The Health and Safety Executive has declared the premises unsatisfactory, so the centre will have to rent a shop across the road, where the annual charge for rates and local utilities will be £8,500. People trying to get from the shop to the centre will have to cross an extremely busy road, and could be involved in traffic accidents. Additional staff will have to be engaged and paid.
I wrote to the Secretary of State for help. She passed me on to the North- West regional health authority. It passed me on to the family health services authority. So I have been passed from the Secretary of State to the RHA to the FHSA. The latter authority has replied to me, but on different notepaper with different headings--one being the Manchester health services authority and the other the Manchester health commission. Again, after several letters, they are not committing themselves to providing what is a tiny amount of money in the national conspectus. That money is required to provide 9,000 people with a decent health centre. That is the sort of experience we have in my constituency.
Column 388Some people are not answerable at all. Two of my constituents, both severe schizophrenics, have walked out of a local health facility and committed suicide. One was found in a canal and the other on a railway line. In both cases, the hospital was told by relatives that those two constituents needed watching because they were suicidal--one of them had already attempted suicide. Over many months, we have had no response to how that was allowed to take place.
On the basis of public-spiritedness, a constituent of mine agreed to go along to Manchester royal infirmary hospital at the invitation of doctors who were giving a course to students. His medical experience was such that they found him a useful person to be present. But he did not return home overnight, and his family were extremely distressed and concerned. It was found that he had died in the hospital, and that his corpse had been left there. We are still trying to sort out how that happened.
We have no proper lines of accountability in a national health service that is simply a series of organisations that delegate to each other. Not one of them seems to be ready to accept responsibility.
That is what troubles me. The hon. Member for Wantage talked about accountability. Accountability is not some empty concept. Of course parliamentary accountability must change over generations and over decades- -I accept that entirely. The nature of a service may require different sorts of parliamentary accountability. But what is accountability about in the end? It is not about whether Members of Parliament have our egos inflated by a Minister replying to us in answer to a question or in a letter. It is about the fact that we come here to represent individuals and to obtain redress for them. The whole of the British parliamentary system is based on the constituent's right of redress of grievance. One of the reasons why I champion the single-member constituency, with a Member elected by a single majority vote, and disagree with systems of proportional representation, is that every individual should know who his or her Member of Parliament is. They should be able to go to that Member of Parliament and to receive a response.
I do not necessarily mean to get the thing put right--many things cannot be put right--but the constituent should be able to receive a response, an explanation and, if possible, redress. The creation of the next steps agencies is taking that right away from my constituents and from those of Conservative Members.
The Home Secretary has enunciated an extremely dangerous doctrine, which I hope he will think about carefully. It states that a Minister is responsible for policy and the agency is responsible for administration. When I questioned him about that in the House on Monday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he was responsible for the whole of the Prison Service, but he made it clear in his answers on Whitemoor and Parkhurst that that responsibility does not extend to responsibility when things go wrong. It apparently goes to Mr. Derek Lewis, but Mr. Lewis does not seem to be ready to accept that anything has gone wrong. Repeated escapes of high-security prisoners and the extraordinary lack of security in some of our major gaols are his responsibility, if they are anybody's.
Column 389I thought it sad that the Home Secretary appeared on Monday to penalise the governor of Parkhurst on the basis that, allegedly, he had not carried out what the Director General of the Prison Service had told him to do. Why did not the director general take steps to ascertain that his instructions had been carried out?
Chief executives of agencies receive salaries that are far above those of Ministers of the Crown, who answer to the House. Mr. Lewis has a salary this year, including his bonus, of £160,000. Mr. Bichard of the Benefits Agency has a salary of £83,000. Those salaries are way beyond what the Prime Minister receives, yet those people are accountable to no one for what they do. When they suffer injury or have a complaint, my constituents have no one who is accountable to the House of Commons.
I am not the only person in the House who has a grievance about the Child Support Agency--my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) has mentioned episodes, as will other hon. Members.
I have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State for Social Security for months about a case involving one of constituents, whom I shall, of course, not name but who lives in Levenshulme. In his most recent letter to me, the Secretary of State said that the agency's centre in Dudley had advised my constituent that he had not returned a form. My constituent told me that he did return the form and, what is more, he telephoned the agency to say that he had returned it.
My constituent is still having to pay support not only for his child, whom he is perfectly willing to support, but for his ex-wife, who has married someone else. After six months, we cannot get any redress for my constituent. Thousands and thousands of other people are in that position.
Services are deteriorating through privatisation and through the creation of the next steps agencies. Enormous salaries, however, are being paid to people who are failing to deliver those services. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that the awards that people are giving to themselves in some privatised industries are odious and obscene. Executives in the water industry are paying themselves enormous sums of money, as are those in the gas and electricity industries. Those people have been provided with monopolies by the state, and they are dipping their snouts into the trough of those monopolies to give themselves huge salary payments and other perquisites.
A large number of executives in the next steps agencies receive salaries that are way beyond the salaries of the civil servants who did their jobs before. After months of trying to get information on this matter, I have obtained some of it. I shall give just one example, but I could give the House dozens. The chief executive of the Defence Research Agency is being paid £147,238. The civil servant who was doing his job before the creation of that agency received £59,020 two years ago. The chief executives of those agencies are paid large sums of money, but that is not the only problem. When the services were within Government Departments, they were part of the Government machine and covered by Government overhead. That is no longer the case.
I received a letter from someone who worked at an agency. He said:
Column 390"the 104 Agencies are busily reinventing the wheel. They feel compelled to create their own HQ organisations, often in new buildings at new locations, with their own central support services-- statisticians, Press and PR, Personnel, the Chief Executive's own Private Office, Boards of Directors imported from the private sector at private sector salaries, the new House magazine, the expense of trivialities like reprinting all the stationery, paying consultants to design a new logo and so on. The Chief Executive undoubtedly has his own official car, whereas the previous civil service incumbent had to make do with a pool car--if the occasion demanded it."
It is the taxpayer who is paying for those things.
Lady Olga Maitland: I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks reveal the politics of envy. Does he agree that the sums are more than justified to employ the most capable and able people to run the agencies, bearing in mind the fact that it is largely due to their managerial experience that they are able to cut costs, thus providing money for other services? Am I to understand that the right hon. Gentleman would commit his party to sacking those people and returning to the bad old days?
Mr. Kaufman: I am a humble Back Bencher; I cannot commit my party to anything, but, when my party is returned to office, I shall be pressing my right hon. and hon. Friends to get things done. It is not a question of envy.
The hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) who intervened on the hon. Member for Wantage, mentioned waste. My point is that such salaries are wasteful. We are talking about public money, but public services are not being improved. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) herself has called for the resignation of the Director General of the Prison Service. That agency is not an improvement on what it replaced. The chief executive of the Child Support Agency resigned in despair at her failure, and the agency admitted that 350,000 cases were no longer being pursued. If the hon. Lady cares to do so, she can see my files, which are full of cases involving poor service by the Benefits Agency and other social security agencies for which the Secretary of State has apologised.
If we were paying more and getting better service, there might be an argument for the increase in expenditure. If we were creating this massive, self-serving, ego-boosting bureaucracy to provide better service, I would not necessarily complain. However, tomorrow morning my constituents will be crowding into my surgery because the services are falling down. More money for better services may be cost-effective; more money for deteriorating services is not--it is an abuse of the taxpayer. I should have thought that the hon. Lady would wish to do something about that.
I am strongly in favour of anything that the citizens charter could do to improve services, but I am today reporting to the House what has been happening in my constituency, which has sent me here to speak for it. My constituents depend to a disproportionately large extent, compared to the national average, on public services, but they are not getting the services they require, which they have a right to expect. I hope that the citizens charter will improve that. If not, I hope that a new Government will.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central): I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I was heartened by the opening speech of my right hon. Friend the
Column 391Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. His commitment and determination to see an improvement in public services were well demonstrated. I am sure that we are all grateful that such a man is responsible for these matters.
A key figure in the battle to improve services to the public is Mr. Reid, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, otherwise known as the ombudsman. I am privileged to sit on the Select Committee that monitors his work, and I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate him and his staff, and also Mrs. McIvor and her staff, who are his counterparts in Northern Ireland, on their excellent work.
The Select Committee's recent report on maladministration and redress was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I shall deal with it later, but I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend acknowledge its arrival and its importance.
Since the ombudsman's post was first established, the ombudsman has been seen as the ultimate arbiter on public services. To a great extent, his value lies in his uniqueness. I am concerned about the proliferation of ombudsmen--like the dragon's teeth or the story of the sorcerer's apprentice, they seem to be spawning everywhere. There is a grave danger that the ombudsman's role will be devalued. There could be confusion about who the ombudsmen are, how many there are and what their purpose is.
It is not only the function but the name of the ombudsman that is important. We should guard the name jealously and be careful about how we use it and how we allow others to use it. If there is to be more than one ombudsman--that is already the case--it is important that they are seen to be wholly independent. It is no use having an ombudsman for a particular industry or service who is linked in any way to that industry or service. That would without doubt contaminate his work and devalue it.
In the context of the Parliamentary Commissioner, I deal now with the question of the "MP filter". We cannot debate it at great length now, because our debate is mainly about the citizens charter and charter standards. Some people believe that the public should have open access to the Parliamentary Commissioner--or ombudsman--but I cannot agree with that.
One of the briefs relating to today's debate was issued by the Consumers Association. It states that a Member of Parliament can be an "unnecessary obstacle" to complaints being dealt with. I agree with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the essential role of the Member of Parliament. I believe in the direct relationship between a constituent and his Member of Parliament in getting complaints resolved. The Consumers Association's comment reveals a misunderstanding of the present system. I am not suggesting that the system is perfect but, by and large, it works very well.
I do not have time to go into detail now, but I believe that to give direct access to the ombudsman would not only change for the worse the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituents, but could possibly swamp the ombudsman's office and greatly affect the way in which he does his work.
It is important that, when a complaint is upheld, redress should be immediate. It has been said that justice delayed is justice denied; that is entirely true. Investigations, by their very nature, undertaken by the ombudsman or by
Column 392any other body, must be detailed and lengthy. When the conclusions have finally been drawn and maladministration has been proved, there is no excuse for any delay in reparation.
Too often, public servants haggle and drag their feet, and are reluctant to admit fault, even after the ombudsman has found them at fault. Sometimes all that is necessary is a simple apology; sometimes something more complicated and expensive is required. Sometimes the redress can be quite simple, and it is wrong that there should be any delay.
In its introduction to the report, the Select Committee says: "The Citizen's Charter in 1991 promised `better redress for the citizen when things go wrong.' But in recent years reports of the Ombudsman and evidence taken by this Committee have revealed the inadequacy of much of the redress offered by departments and agencies. We have come across unwillingness to admit fault, refusal to apologise, failure to identify and compensate all those affected by maladministration."
In the conclusion to the report, we say:
"In previous reports we have stressed the need for effective complaints systems in the public service. But complaint is not an end in itself. The test of all recent government insistence on the importance of the citizen is the quality of the redress offered when things go wrong. Our Report proposes both the underlying principles of redress which must inform future actions and specific reforms to practice. It is time to end the grudging and defensive culture so evident in current Guidance to departments. A system of redress which is both prudent and fair, which acknowledges mistakes, makes amends, and improves services, is one to be welcomed not only by the citizen but also by Whitehall."
We must learn from complaints. Having dealt with our complaints, we must use them to improve our services. If we fail to do that, all that we shall create is a burgeoning complaints industry and little improvement. That is why it is important that the suggestions and recommendations in the report should be acted on.
I strongly believe that the citizens charter is a good idea. I believe that it has led to significant improvements, so I hope that any criticisms I make will be seen as constructive.
Any guarantee or assurance is only as good as the integrity of the authority giving it, and its ability and willingness to stand by its word. The House will remember a politician who came back from Europe waving a piece of paper and declaring, "Peace in our time." We all know how worth while that assurance proved. In a more trivial way, if one buys a Rolex Oyster for a few pence in an eastern bazaar, one would not put a great deal of credence on any guarantee that came with it.
In trying to improve standards in public services, charters, structures and codes of practice are all, obviously, extremely important and have their place, but by far the most important factors in providing that service are the qualities of leadership and responsibility shown by those in charge of them, and the way in which those qualities have their effect throughout the service. Individual responsibility--both at the top and throughout the whole organisation--and team work are vital.
I now pick up on two points made by the right hon. Member for Gorton and by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who talked about next steps agencies, which may or may not in the fulness of time prove to be the answers to all these complex problems. I am not too sure about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage made the point that a Minister cannot be
Column 393responsible for every dropped bedpan. The right hon. Member for Gorton referred to the rather more topical question of escaped prisoners. Clearly it is not possible for any Minister to be entirely responsible for every little detail of the running of any service. My point does not necessarily apply to the current incidents; it applies to a matter of principle--and not just to the present Government, but to all Governments. Perhaps all Ministers should spend a little more time out in the country seeing precisely for themselves what is going on. I know that they do that at present, and I know that they are very busy men. I believe, however, that they should spend more time having a look for themselves at exactly what is going on, and that they should then go back to their offices to deal with it. They should rely rather less on managers between themselves and their constituents.
Although I do not go quite as far as the right hon. Member for Gorton in his condemnation of the recent salary rises for people running public services, I agree very much with the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage. Many of the recent increases have been unwarranted, and have done a great deal of damage to the services that these people purport to serve.
A Minister said not long ago about the health service that complaints should be "jewels to be treasured". That phrase has been quoted to my Select Committee on a number of occasions. I understand and sympathise with what was meant when the phrase was coined. It means that patients in our hospitals should not be afraid to complain if they are not getting the treatment they think they deserve. I have two points on that subject. First, how realistic is it for us to expect that any patient, while receiving treatment, will complain to those who are supplying the treatment? My experience as a Member of Parliament and with my family leads me to believe that it will be a rare occasion when a patient undergoing treatment complains.
There are all sorts of obvious reasons for that. Patients may feel that complaints may affect the way in which they get the treatment. They often feel that the health service must know best, so they are reluctant to complain in the first place. We are probably mistaken if we believe that a patient will complain while receiving treatment. It is true to say that confidence is a large part of any treatment in the health service. If a patient has got to the stage where he feels he must complain, some damage has already been done.
Secondly, the other danger with treating complaints as jewels to be treasured is that, if we are not careful, we shall almost be at the stage where complaints are considered to be not a bad thing. There is a fine line between people being afraid to complain and those to whom they are complaining not worrying about the complaint being made. We do not want a situation in which, the more complaints we get, the better. That would be rather silly; in fact, it sounds silly when I say it. It is an "Alice in Wonderland" scenario. We should say that people should not be afraid to complain, but that we should aim at giving them far less reason to make a complaint in the first place. I now turn to two of my pet topics. One is a pet aversion and one is my favourite hobby horse. My pet aversion, which has been borne in on me more and more