|Previous Section||Home Page|
Column 394as I have served on the Select Committee, is jargon. Almost all the problems we see, especially those relating to the health service, come from jargon or from communications in one way or another. There has been a spawning of pseudo-commercial job titles and acronyms so that, unless one is part of the small, tightly knit group of professionals, one does not really understand what on earth people are talking about. Those intimately involved understand, but the general public, of course, do not.
One of my famous stories--I suspect that I may have already mentioned it in the House--is that of the role of a line manager. On one occasion in Committee, I was quizzing someone about that. As I went down in the lift after the Committee, the policeman who normally sits in the Committee went down with me. He told me how pleased he was that I had made a point about jargon and the job title of line manager. As we went down in the lift, the constable said to me, "You know, Sir, I have a line manager now. I used to call him my sergeant."
In some ways, that sums up the whole situation. Imagine any member of the public going to the police station and saying "Excuse me constable, I do not want you. I would like to see your line manager." It is nonsense. We want to talk about nurses, sisters and doctors. In a moment, I shall come to my favourite topic: matrons. My final example of jargon is from a recent Committee sitting. One of the witnesses said that he had "two providers" in his constituency. When questioned in more detail, he said that he was talking about hospitals. What member of the general public would understand somebody talking about two providers in their constituency? I explained that to him, and I thought that he saw its wisdom. I hope that, from that day, he has called them hospitals and not providers. Now I shall link everything together. I hope that I have conveyed to the House that leadership, individual responsibility and communication are more important in the long term than the charters and the structures. I am not saying that the charters, structures and codes are not important, but, at the end of the day, to deliver proper public service, we need leadership and, individual responsibility. Care, teamwork and all such attributes are important too, but it comes down to the individual.
I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with the question of the individual in great detail. The individual that I would like to see reinstated is the matron.
I honestly believe that it was the worst day's work ever done when the role of matron was removed from the health service. In 1988, I put down an early -day motion and 129 people signed it. That early-day motion said:
"That this House believes that the only person in the history of the hospital service who was able to deal with consultants and doctors, understand nurses and patients and at the same time keep a careful eye on morale and efficiency was the Matron; and urges the re-introduction of this indispensable post as a matter of urgency." Since then, some hospitals have reinstated the post. Guy's hospital in 1991 was one of them.
Nothing in my experience encapsulates more the gulf between so-called experts and ordinary people, doctors, nurses and patients than the reaction one gets when one says that we should reintroduce matrons. From the experts one gets a slightly cynical smile. They have seen it all before. They do not mind paying a little lip service, but they do not really want it to happen.
Column 395All the other people who deliver the service say "Yes, please. Why not do it as soon as possible?" I very much hope that my hon. Friend will give me the assurance that he will not only pay lip service to the idea, but that the Government see the value of matrons and that they will recommend to every hospital in the land that they reintroduce that post.
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East): It is interesting to reflect that the two brief speeches in the debate so far have come, commendably, from two members of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord). I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) is also a member of that Committee. [ Hon. Members:-- "He is a member of another Committee."] Then my hon. Friend was referring to another Select Committee. At least it showed distinguished Committee members of two different Select Committees giving us a good example.
Perhaps there should be a citizens charter for Members of Parliament on the length of speeches, especially on Fridays. I know that there were many interventions and one must make full allowance for that, but I think that I am right in saying that the two Front-Bench speeches took one hour and 35 minutes. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who has just left--I shall tell him that I have referred to him, because he may miss my remarks, although that may not be a particular loss on his part-- also took an exceedingly long time to tell us something that rather shocked and surprised me. He does not seem to be doing his job very well as a Member of Parliament in dealing with local problems. I was absolutely amazed that he seemed to be having such trouble in getting responses promptly from various different bodies, institutions and agencies.
Certainly, I have not had the experience of having trouble getting responses. It is one of the great attractions of the structural changes in policy. More flexible, more tangible, more approachable bodies for dealing with the problems facing citizens at local and national levels mean that the accountability is more easily identifiable, or should be, if those institutions and bodies are properly run. I hope that, although we are in the early days of this change in policy, which is welcome, we will insist collectively, as parliamentarians of all parties, on that accountability.
I could be wrong; perhaps the right hon. Member for Gorton is justified in his complaints about the particular distressing examples that he mentioned. I have my doubts, because in my area there are bodies similar to some that he mentioned. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is my local colleague in the borough of Harrow, he will be able to confirm--in fact in an intervention he did, at least tangentially--that we would not accept the tardiness of those responses or the attempt to deny logical accountability. However, I have certainly not experienced that myself.
Column 396I make allowance for the fact that, for one reason or another historically, there may be greater difficulties in the inner-city areas in the north in providing high-quality services than there are generally in the outer London suburbs. That is not so true nowadays. The pressure on public finances affects every local authority area, almost irrespective of whether they are in the north or the south and regardless of topography, geography and characteristics. The citizens charter therefore acquires an even greater importance. I am very glad that we are having a full day's debate on it.
I intend to be brief because time is passing and I have already referred to the excessively long speeches of others. I shall make a few important and telling points. It is still early days. It is not an excuse for the Government and their supporters to say that more time is needed to change the culture and attitude of public officials towards members of the public.
I agreed with the right hon. Member for Gorton when he objected to the use of the word "customer". I particularly object to the use of that word by British Rail. It is part of the trendy jargon of the modern age. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central seemed to be making a light point about the problems of jargon. I believe that he actually made an extremely profound point. He concentrated, quite rightly, on the medical world where it is crucial that patients or their families and friends should understand what is said by medical practitioners, advisers and staff in hospitals who, in the old days, often regarded patients as a nuisance.
If my memory serves me correctly, I believe that a new version of the patients charter is to be published shortly. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will refer to that when he replies to the debate. It is very important that we implant this new culture deeply in society. The Labour party is embarrassed and grudging about the citizens charter because Labour knows that the charter, which was launched under the personal auspices of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister three and a half years ago, is becoming increasingly popular.
Thanks to the citizens charter, a change in attitudes will permeate our society. The public will wake up to the charter. I did not think that it was depressing that only 35 per cent. of people in the opinion poll said that they could remember having seen documentation about the citizens charter. That is a very high figure for the early days of what could be a massive change in our culture, if we achieve the right results.
We must bear in mind the acute pressure at the margins on public finances. That is a worrying problem for all Members of Parliament. I am aware of that problem at my surgery. Because of the economic and financial pressure in recent years, I have become aware, for the first time, that even Members of Parliament do not have the financial and other wherewithal to achieve results promptly for our constituents when they come to our surgeries--and between surgeries and through telephone calls and correspondence--with their problems. It is crucial to implant the culture correctly despite the financial weakness as the demands for services rise and resources are inevitably limited. Many taxpayers want them to be limited because they want to make their own choices in the private sector, instead of simply relying on the faceless bureaucrats who provided services in the old days at the margin. We must ensure that the citizens charter general programme in respect of the key zones of
Column 397activity is not just a public relations exercise. It is not a public relations exercise now and it has not been such an exercise in the three years since its conception. The danger is that cynicism among the public might return in future.
I have a specific and practical example of something that can be intensely irritating. I accept that we are still only in the early stages, so I have reached only a preliminary judgment on the matter. If resources are under severe pressure in a body or agency, it will resort increasingly--as is already happening--to the dreadful syndrome of the answerphone instead of having someone answer telephone inquiries.
At least the answerphone provides a response. Answerphone messages are often extremely detailed and helpful. However, we can imagine what might happen if that practice is carried too far. We will live in a world of answerphone messages about how to write in to apply for information or a service. A citizen who may or may not be aggrieved may call for the first time, and then be frustrated.
With regard to British Rail's obsession with making announcements, it is possible to go too far the other way in terms of live announcements on trains and elsewhere. It is possible to over-announce, particularly when there are problems and train delays. I note that recently drivers have been told that it is very good customer service to keep people in touch with what is happening. However, when I travelled on the District line from the City to Westminster recently, the driver triumphantly announced, "This train is subjected to what is probably a severe delay." His announcement inevitably caused dismay because his use of words was so unskilled. I criticise motor men and motor women--if there are any--on London Underground reluctantly, because they are doing a marvellous job. The train driver's words caused a collapse in the morale of the passengers, although he was probably not aware of that. It would have been more encouraging if he had said, "I shall let you know what is happening as soon as we get moving in a few minutes time." That may seem to be trivial, but it is very important in view of the natural and justified insistence of the public for better services in general. I am glad that the Government have launched the programme and that they are building on it and developing it for the future. I am pleased that they are going to give us regular reports. We all pay our respects, and offer sympathy to, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I am glad that, as a senior and talented member of the Cabinet, he is in charge of the policy. I am pleased that he is ably aided and abetted by my local colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science.
Cynicism is an important part of the politician's general panoply of aids or disadvantages. We were probably quite cynical when the programme was first launched more than three years ago. As it has filtered through society, it is being taken very seriously-- [Interruption.] I am not suggesting that all aspects of physical technology should be taken to the point of my hon. Friend the Minister wearing his pager on the Front Bench. We are bound to be very impressed by that and I noticed that it went off
Column 398several times today. I shall be fascinated to learn later where the message came from. [Hon. Members:-- "Railtrack."] I thank my hon. Friends for the prompting.
I hope that it does not sound too frivolous--I shall not say who it was-- but one of my ultra-far right colleagues, a very congenial colleague, was very crestfallen some months ago when we were discussing the British Rail privatisation. I had to say to him that we had done very careful research and questioned people at the Centre for Policy Studies but that we had not been able to work out a way to enable one train to overtake another on the same track. He knew that it was subversive of me to say that, but it was definitely true and there was nothing that we could do about it.
I suppose that the message is that there must always be a balance in policy, and that is very important from the point of view of the modern Conservative party--which is rightly beginning to resist the old temptation of a few years ago to say that everything in the public service was wrong and badly run and that everything in the private sector was sacred and wonderful.
In the context of the private sector, I share people's misgivings about excessive executive salary packages compared with what is happening on the shop floor and the unfairness thereof, which produces acid reactions in the pubs and clubs of this country and which is ignored at the peril of Conservative Members. We really cannot say, "This matter has nothing to do with the Government; it is to do only with the free market." I cannot understand why so many chief executives get away with the absurd nonsense that they have to pay themselves more and more greedy quantities of money in order to compete in the international marketplace and that the electricians on the shop floor of their factories should depress their own wages to be more competitive. That seems to be a straight contradiction. I know that that is not a direct part of the citizens charter service, but if we impose too excessive a system of control of complaint on the public sector and let the private sector, particularly where strong monopolies are involved, get away with poor services, it is totally inadequate to say, "That is just a free market phenomenon; it is up to shareholders to make sure that a company is properly run."
Apart from echoing the fervent, almost hysterical plea that the Government have proper discipline in respect of motorway cones--I do not accept that the position is other than a marginal improvement on what we were promised a long time ago; far too often we now see motorway signs saying, "These cones are here for safety reasons" on a much too long stretch of road--my final comment is in respect of education and schools. I too welcome the publication of examination results and performance figures for schools and the annual report system. It is in its shaky, early stages and lots of mistakes are being made--we might as well acknowledge that; it is no shame for the Government to acknowledge that that is so--but it goes hand in hand with my plea, forensically and politically as well as socially and in human terms, for the Government to agree to a long period of peace, stability and cohesion in our grant-maintained schools. They need it--they have had many upheavals in recent years--the teachers need it and, above all, the pupils need it; but the parents do as well, even if they have access to greater information, which I warmly welcome.
Column 39912.37 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I welcome the opportunity to make what I hope, in view of the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), will be a brief contribution. I warmly welcome this timely debate. It is right that the House should debate such an important, wide-ranging subject. I should like to shift the focus of attention on to a matter that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster raised--standards, which are the key to the citizens charter.
It is a privilege to take part in the debate, having heard the very distinguished overview of the citizens charter by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). I can understand the avenues along which he took the debate. Standards lie at the heart of the citizens charter.
The citizens charter is part of the drive to improve standards of the past 15 years. It is certainly in keeping with the drive to improve standards through greater competition, privatisation, the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, market testing central Government functions and all the other reforms that have taken place. The citizens charter, when it was proposed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister three and a half years ago, was a valuable addition to the reforms that had already emphasised standards. The scheme was introduced in the right way as a wide-ranging measure with 30 charters proposed. There are now about 40 charters.
It was right to introduce the scheme in such a comprehensive way because it enabled a general standard to be set across a wide range of Government endeavour, and it gave users of services a general idea of the standards that they could expect across a range of services. Those included the right to more information, the right to make a complaint, the right to receive service with a good attitude from staff and so on. Those ideas are not always quantifiable across such a wide range of services. Users of services have come increasingly to expect that they should receive service in various fields according to those standards.
The scheme is also valuable for the providers of services. I use the word "providers" subject to the strictures that have just been given about it. I do not use the word as jargon, but in a more general sense to refer to all those who are responsible for the delivery of services to the public. The scheme is valuable for them too as they have the benefit of a standard to aim for.
We have heard a great deal in the debate about morale and the ethos of public service. The citizens charter contributes to the ethos of public service because it gives public servants a standard to aim for. They can have satisfaction in their public service in knowing that they have achieved a high standard.
The charter mark is an excellent complementary idea to the citizens charter. It has been a growing success, and more and more organisations have applied for it every year. There are 98 recipients of the charter mark this year, and many more applied for it. The receivers of services should have the right to nominate organisations for the charter mark.
The citizens charter has the effect of giving the providers of services an even higher standard to work towards. It is a way not just of measuring standards but of driving them up. The patients charter, about which we have heard a good deal this morning, is a good example
Column 400of that, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) drew attention to it. The way in which the patients charter has evolved--with higher standards to the benefit of patients being built into it--gives a good example.
The patients charter began by consolidating a number of existing rights for health service patients and created some important new rights. One of those was the right to have guaranteed admission from a waiting list within a period of two years. That was the situation when the charter was first issued in 1991. The health service has worked to improve on that and, in the charter to be issued this month, the standard will be revised to 18 months. I understand that my local health authority of Hertfordshire has set itself an even lower target, and is now working towards a guaranteed admission time of 12 months. That is generally being achieved throughout Hertfordshire. The debate about waiting time was interesting, because it gave an example of how the citizens charter can help to drive up standards. The focus of the debate from the Opposition--it is up to the Opposition to criticise--shifted from the guaranteed maximum waiting time to the average waiting time. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North said that, although maximum times had come down, more people were waiting longer for other operations. That is not borne out by evidence from across the country, which suggests that the average waiting time has been going down in the same period as the guaranteed maximum waiting time has also been reduced.
The average waiting time in the past four years has gone down from just over eight months to just over four months. In Hertfordshire, the picture is even better. It has achieved a reduction to just over three months for the average waiting time. That considerable success is a tribute to the health authority and the hospitals in Hertfordshire.
The Opposition argument moves on from there. They say that it is all very well that people are receiving more prompt treatment once they are on a waiting list, but what about the time that it takes people to get on a waiting list? Their new focus is the time it takes from a patient seeing his GP to receiving an out-patient appointment with a consultant. It is right that the question should be asked. I welcome the fact that one of the new targets being set in the patients charter this month is to make that specific target part of the charter and to measure the length of time that it takes to go from a general practitioner to an appointment with a consultant in out-patients.
It is right for the Opposition to ask such questions, but they would do better if they said not only that something should be a target but gave us some idea of how they would achieve it. That is the difficult part. Such ideas from the Opposition have been rather thin throughout the debate. Although the Opposition have given a commitment to the citizens charter, which we welcome, we have heard little from them about their ideas for improving the charter or delivery of the standards which are expected under it.
The parents charter is important for citizens. It has been a great success and it has certainly gone with the grain of the reforms that have taken place in education in the past 15 years, and especially since 1988. Parents have been given more responsibility, more opportunity to exercise choice and more decision-making powers in schools. Since the Education Reform Act 1988 was passed, we
Column 401have seen a devolution of power from local authorities to schools through local management of schools and grant- maintained status, where schools have opted for it.
The citizens charter sets out some admirable targets for schools to achieve. It sets out the standards to be achieved by pupils. It requires schools to allow parents to see whether they have been achieved by providing more information, establishing school performance tables and providing more information about truancy levels, length of taught time and so on. It is important that parents should have that information and should be able to assess the school and where it is not doing a sufficiently good job. Parents should have the opportunities that they have been given by our reforms to put things right.
I said that the trick for the Opposition was to say how they would improve the pattern of reform. We heard little about that today. One proposal that the Opposition have suggested as a way forward is the creation of more government. They emphasise not better government but more government. We heard yesterday the proposal for regional authorities in England and Wales to go together with Labour's policy of devolution for Scotland. There may be some demand for such authorities in other parts of England--I doubt it-- but there is certainly not much demand for them in Hertfordshire.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North is no longer here. One of his colleagues yesterday called for a north of England assembly. Hon. Members may call for it in the House, but I doubt that it is the talk of the pubs and clubs of Newcastle. I doubt that people have stopped talking about football and transfers and have suddenly spontaneously demanded a regional assembly. If, in the present circumstances, Newcastle were put in the same regional assembly as Manchester there would probably be a revolution. Newcastle has a distinctive local identity and proud tradition; Hertfordshire has no less a proud identity. There is certainly no demand whatever in Hertfordshire for a regional assembly to deliver higher standards in government. This week we have seen the publication of the Local Government Commission report on the future of local government in Hertfordshire. It has proposed the retention of the two-tier system of county and district councils. If the commission had asked when it carried out its research whether people wanted a regional government on top of that system, the answer would have been a resounding no.
In Hertfordshire a regional authority would be a third or fourth level of government. We would have parish councils in some parts of the county, district councils, a county council and a regional council.
For Hertfordshire, not the least of the problems of having a regional council would be knowing in which part of the region to put it. Would it be put in an eastern region, possibly centred on Norwich, an east midlands region centred on Nottingham, or a south-east region along with Sussex and Kent? Hertfordshire's local identity would not be supported by its inclusion in any of those regions or the creation of any other conceivable region.
The people of Hertfordshire feel that they are part of the home counties. Hertfordshire is close to London, which apparently will have its own extra layer of government.
Column 402There is certainly no demand or belief in Hertfordshire that higher standards would be delivered through regional government. Perhaps the most ironic part of Labour's proposal is the inclusion of education as one of the responsibilities of the new regional councils. That must seem strange to parents in my constituency, so many of whom opted for grant-maintained schools for their children. A clear majority of secondary schools and an increasing number of primary and middle schools have opted to go grant maintained. Apparently the parents involved are members of the quangos denounced by the Labour party. Grant- maintained schools contribute to the Labour party's quango count, but the parents and governors involved do not think that they are part of a quango. It must seem strange to them that, in the name of devolution, power and decision making are to be taken away from their schools when the overwhelming majority of parents in Hertfordshire opted for grant- maintained status. Power will be taken away from those schools and handed upwards to a remote regional assembly, even beyond the county council, which has sometimes been said to be a little remote. That is not the way forward, or the way to achieve higher standards.
The emphasis that the Government have placed, through the citizens charter, on achieving higher standards within existing levels of government and the increasing number of functions that it undertakes within one society, is the right way forward. There is no excuse, in this day and age, for citizens to receive a second-rate service from the Government and any of the functions that they provide. The citizens charter is an extremely important step forward and it is right that we should be having this debate. We should keep the focus of the debate on higher standards.
Public service is important, but I do not remember the 1960s and 1970s as being the golden years for public services that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) claimed. His example was British Telecom, but the telephone service was an especially bad example of public service during that period. I speak as one who can remember finding telephone box after telephone box out of order and all the rest--the failure to install telephones, high prices and the provision of few additional services. It was not a good example and there are precious few other examples of public services operating better in the 1960s and 1970s than they do now.
We needed the 1979 revolution to bring about higher standards and we are continuing that revolution through the citizens charter. I look forward to the charter evolving in the years to come and being the focus for ever- improving public services.
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham): I have listened to the entire debate with great interest. There have been some heavyweight and very interesting contributions on a subject that is important for the efficiency of Government and the public sector and for the consumer--the average citizen- -in terms of provision.
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for the work and the expertise that he has put into the development of the citizens charter, and for the comprehensive analysis he gave us today of its progress and development.
Column 403I also compliment the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). Although I did not agree with his entire contribution, he was not grudging in accepting the benefits of the citizens charter, and rightly said that he would accept and praise it if it worked. We all agree on that. Ample evidence shows that it is working, but it is a long-term project over at least 10 years. It is therefore right that we judge it by its results as they develop. I was also interested in the remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The emphasis that he placed on the responsibilities of hon. Members and the peculiar but detailed knowledge we gain of the operation of public services is a valid element in this debate.
Most significant, however, is the lack of contribution from the Liberal Democratic party, due to the complete absence of Liberal Members at any stage in the debate. It was not even represented by one Member for five minutes at the beginning of the debate. That is typical of that party, which claims to place great emphasis on helping individual citizens, case work and what is often called the drains and pavements, yet when there is a major debate on an element of that, no Liberal Democrat Member is present for even a minute.
Mr. David Shaw: Does my hon. Friend agree that the absence of the Liberal Democratic party today shows clearly that, far from introducing a general charter on how hon. Members should carry out their business, it is incumbent on the Liberal Democrats to introduce a charter on how all citizens can monitor Liberal Democrat Members on how they carry out their work. Their absence today shows their clear lack of understanding of what the country is about and how democracy works in this country.
Mr. Merchant: My hon. Friend is right: if we were awarding charter marks, none would go to Liberal Democrat Members. Their interest in the problems of the citizen is bogus, and always has been. They make claims in their newsletters about what they have done, but in reality they do nothing. To the extent that citizens believe those claims, they are being conned, although they are beginning to see through them now.
The citizens charter has represented a step change in the modern relationship between individual and state. It is, therefore, not just about the practical advantages, which have been ably highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy and others this morning. It is not just a convenient administrative mechanism to deal more effectively with complaints from individuals; it is certainly not a minor attempt to put a friendly face on the Goliath of bureaucracy and big organisation; nor is it a publicity gimmick simply to give the impression that action is being taken to deal with service failings. All the facts available show that it is much more than any of those. It is a bold, significant and long-term effort to empower the individual, and thus redress the balance between citizen and state.
Naturally, the citizens charter alone will not achieve that aim. It must be done alongside many other developments in the modern relationship between state, Government and individual, but it is an important part of that process. As such, it is more than just a political
Column 404initiative or a temporary phenomenon of Government. It represents a philosophical statement and is based firmly on Conservative principles.
Thus, the citizens charter stresses the primacy of the individual; the limited powers and accountability of the state; the Government's role as servant, not master; and, above all, the direct accountability of institutions to those who use them, and of bureaucracies to those for whom they are designed to provide. The citizens charter is also about the market, in the sense of contracts freely entered into between consumers and providers of services. It relates to the right of consumers to assert their own powers as equal partners in a mutually agreed arrangement. In some instances, the nature of the parties to a contract--the individual and perhaps a large state-run organisation--leads to an imbalance. In that event, the citizens charter becomes an important part of the relationship by helping to achieve a much better balance. The charter is not a substitute or a prop for competition or for enterprise, and it should not be so interpreted. It is certainly not a watering down of those two ideals. Nor is it an attempt to regulate because the market cannot or because it has failed. On the contrary, I see it as an extension of the two ideals. It is an extension of the values which drive the market. It has been initiated to bridge the gap that arises when the market is, in certain areas, as yet imperfect. It could be argued that, in some sectors, the market is unable to operate perfectly. We are talking of areas in which consumers cannot expect to be able to exercise their powers. The ultimate power of the consumer, of course, is to withdraw sponsorship of the organisation providing the service. That can be done in a perfect or near-perfect market in which there are many alternative providers to which to turn. In those circumstances, consumers can vote with their feet by going to or away from a provider. That is a tremendous power, especially when it is exercised by many consumers. It cannot be exercised, however, when there is a monopoly or near-monopoly, or when a specific service is provided by the state. That is where the balance has had to be addressed. The citizens charter runs easily alongside two other mainstream initiatives that have similar aims and need to be seen as part of a partnership with the charter in achieving the same objectives. I refer to privatisation and competitive tendering. The empowerment of the citizens charter provides a third force to supplement the two earlier initiatives, which were so successful in the 1980s. Indeed, they continue to be successful in extending the rights of the citizen.
I have talked so far about the ethical side of the citizens charter and the driving ideas behind it. All three of the parts I have mentioned are of course based on a practical responsibility and practical benefits. There is a flow of practical benefits, because motivation matches human nature. Privatisation and competitive tendering have delivered tremendous benefits because they, too, appeal to basic instincts in human nature. The 40 or so charters that have been established so far are doing the same.
It is not to be said that charters are needed everywhere. It could well be argued that the economy and society operate best where they are not needed, in areas where the market is operating well. We can make comparisons
Column 405between the quality of service provided by the private sector when it is operating at its best in the market and the dead hand of centralisation and the state.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) talked about the appallingly poor-quality telephone service in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember that only too well.
There are other examples. The gas industry used to have a terrible reputation for bad consumer relationships, poor service and high prices. Many years ago, when I was on a regional newspaper, we set up a small department called Action Desk, designed to help members of the public who phoned in with complaints about services. Within a few weeks, Action Desk was overflowing with complaints about Northern Gas from consumers in the north-east of England. They complained about its appalling service; how it was always promising to call, but never turned up; how, when its workmen did turn up, they did not know what they were supposed to do, or what they did went wrong; or how they had ordered a gas cooker but it had not been delivered.
We do not hear complaints about the gas industry today. I can honestly say that, since I was elected in 1992, I have not received a single complaint from a constituent about the gas industry. I am not suggesting that mistakes are never made, but there is no doubt that there is a fundamental contrast between the gas industry under state monopoly according to the ethos of the time and the gas industry as it operates today.
I am not a great traveller, but I have been to the USA, where sometimes the enterprise culture operates in its most unrestrained from. That is not a criticism, because that often means the highest standards of service imaginable. It is quite astounding. One could go into what appears to be a tuppeny-ha'penny, down-market hamburger joint and be almost embarrassed by the attentions of the girl on the other side of the counter. Staff say, "Have a good day," every 10 seconds.
Of course, that would not go down so well in this country, and I certainly would not expect it when I call at the ticket office at my local station. However, it demonstrates a system whose culture drives consumer awareness, high quality, politeness and a desire to excel. That results in a high- quality service for the consumer.
That process goes even further in the far east. Not only are we wished a nice day--although not in such an impeccable accent--we get a bow as well. I certainly do not expect to be bowed at when I go to my local ticket office, but I am glad to say that, when I ask its personnel when the next train is due, I no longer get the reply, "Don't know, mate," or when I ask, "Will the service be put right by tomorrow?", the reply, "Don't know that, either."
I now receive a polite and, as far as possible, well-informed reply. That has not always been provided by British Rail; it has happened because of the greater awareness of the need to look after the consumer and to treat him as the number one person in a contract, rather than providing a service only from the point of view of the supplier. The balance has been redressed.
The citizens charter can be simply tested in the long term as it develops. We can ask a number of questions. Does it improve the various services on offer? To a large
Column 406extent, that is measurable. Does it give the public the necessary weapon with which to fight? Does it provide information on what the public should be entitled to receive? Does it provide the openness that gives them the means by which to register their complaints? Does it enforce accountability and, at the end of the day, provide redress? Great steps forward have been taken in all those matters. The question about the improvement of standards is the more difficult to answer. Comparative statistics can be compiled and monitored year after year, but one can be assured that standards have firmly improved in the long term, rather than that they are just experiencing a beneficial blip, only as the months and years go past.
Mr. Clappison: My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Does he agree that an improvement is more likely where a standard has been set? Is it not just as important, however, that the standard has been defined so that everyone will know whether it is being achieved? Surely that is an important and brave step for a Government or organisation to take, as it leaves them open to criticism if they do not achieve the standard. Defining a standard is a brave step to take.
Mr. Merchant: I agree with my hon. Friend. Setting out the essential, basic standard to begin with might perhaps strike us as obvious, but it did not happen before. In many of the services, one had no idea what one was entitled to receive because the culture was very much a suppliers' culture. They used to say, "We are here to provide a service. We decide what that service is, and we are not even going to tell you what it is." My hon. Friend is correct. I shall return to that issue, but I was answering my first question about improving standards of service and whether such improvements are measurable. The answer is a qualified yes. There have been improvements, and they are measurable, which is excellent, but it is too early--it is no one's fault; it is in the nature of things--to say how significant the improvement has been. That is where I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North that in that respect the citizens charter is to be welcomed but that we must to an extent suspend judgment and consider it again in the years to come to ensure that it is improving services in a significant way.
The second question involved having the necessary
weapons--information and openness--with which to fight problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere was correct in his intervention. There has been a significant change. We have clear, published targets and levels of service which the public increasingly know about--the information is readily available. We therefore know the service level that we are entitled to receive and the public can measure their experience of what is happening against the targets that are set. There is a dual approach. Members of the public can consider the targets and say, "They are not good enough. We want them to be improved." They can argue on that basis. They can also consider the targets, compare them with reality, ask why the organisation is not meeting them and put pressure on it to improve. Openness in Government, local government and the big services is an important part of that. Openness is part of an essential process. The individual must have access to it to obtain the information necessary to test and to judge.
Column 407My last question was: does the citizens charter enforce accountability and redress? That is perhaps the easiest of the questions to measure. All one has to do is consider the detail of the charters, or the equivalent if an organisation does not have a charter, and ask whether a ready and well-known system exists to ensure accountability and to obtain redress. Is it obvious who one complains to and how one complains? Is there a complaint system? If so, what happens when one complains? Does it work? Does the system operate efficiently and quickly? Is there some form of redress? Redress need not necessarily be financial, although in some matters that is important and useful. Redress can be offered through apologies and explanations, which will often satisfy the citizen. If a citizen knows that he is being listened to and that there is a means of complaining, he will be satisfied even if, at the end of the day, he receives only an apology. It is only when he comes up against the brick wall of old-fashioned bureaucracy that he becomes frustrated.
Mr. Deva: Does my hon. Friend agree that the citizens charter was timely, in that it coincided with the ethos of the liberalised and deregulated market that we have created? It is timely because, as my hon. Friend said, we wanted to offer redress and put in place a means of ensuring accountability. At the same time, should we not be careful that we do not create a culture of complaint, or institutionalise a whingeing society?
The reason for the citizens charter was the need to correct what was wrong but, once the target has been achieved, should it not fade away? Once the standard of services has reached the required level, should not complaints decline and disappear? As has happened in other spheres, should we not be wary of creating an entirely new industry of complaint?
Mr. Merchant: That is a very interesting point. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the citizens charter is timely. In the 1980s, the focus was on correcting problems that had arisen over the years with the big nationalised industries which were not working properly. No one was able to make them work properly because, ultimately, the culture was wrong, something that was accepted throughout the world.
The emphasis was on privatisation, competitive tendering and market testing. They were excellent and were seen to work. People generally accepted them, but they then asked what could be done about those sectors which, for one reason or another, could not respond fully to the market or be privatised. Was there a deficiency?
The public rightly thought that it was all very well that British Telecom and British Gas had been put right, but what was to happen to those services or industries that had not, and for which privatisation was not the answer? There was a demand for higher standards of public service provision. In that sense, the citizens charter was timely, because it was an initiative that answered the valid questions that were being asked.
As for my hon. Friend's second point, the culture of complaint is a difficult problem. Having thought about it, I cannot share my hon. Friend's optimism, although I would like to do so. However, I agree that there has been a withering away of complaints in some services--that has clearly been the case in the gas industry. One can overcome and bring about a decline in the number of complaints by putting right the problems about which
Column 408people were complaining. I hope that he is right to think that we can look back in a decade or so on the withering away of the citizens charter because it has been so effective.
However, we cannot overlook the fact that people will always complain, sometimes without good cause but sometimes with very good cause. I fear that we shall never be able to provide a universally perfect system of provision, whether directly from the state or through various organisations. There will always be deficiencies, so there will always be an element of complaint, and there must be a mechanism to deal with it.
I shall not detain the House for too long, but I have several important points to make. First, I mention some of the direct achievements of charters. Reference has already been made to improvements in health care provision. It is very worth while studying waiting times in the national health system. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere rightly mentioned average waiting time and maximum waiting time. The achievements on maximum waiting time are significant.
In March 1991, 50,000 people had waited more than two years for in-patient treatment. That was quite unacceptable, and should never have happened. In the English regions, there is now no patient who has waited for more than two years. That figure has been brought down considerably, although not entirely, by the citizens charter ideas. The focusing of resources and the reorganisation of the health service have helped to achieve that figure, but an important role has been played by the process that motivates the citizens charter--in other words, an emphasis on the statistics of performance and the need to reach targets.
In education, where the parents charter now applies, the same sort of thing has happened. There are annual written reports on a child's progress, and league tables on performance in schools.
Mr. Merchant: Indeed, introduced by this Government. There are also the independent reports by Ofsted. All that has helped to improve the quality of provision, from the point of view both of parents and of pupils.
In transport, especially in rail transport, the targets set for Network SouthEast, Regional Railways and InterCity have been well publicised at all stations. The passenger--the consumer--can easily check not just whether standards are being reached, but that the standards are being increased all the time.
The charter mark has been an important part of the citizens charter initiative. I am glad to hear that it is being extended by giving consumers --the public--the right to nominate. I am pleased to see that, in my London borough of Bromley, two departments, libraries and environmental services, have won charter marks. I also compliment the Labour authority of Lewisham, which is next door to Bromley. Its direct refuse disposal team and its social services planned hospital discharge arrangements have won charter marks.
That shows that it is not just a question of who runs the local authority, but how the departments within it operate. We can all point to local authorities under all political administrations that have some good departments and some very poor departments. We must have a system