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Column 409that jacks up the quality of the poor departments and rewards, in one way or another, the successes of the good departments. The right hon. Member for Gorton spoke in specific terms about how Members of Parliament are part of the process because, through our casework, we can judge where standards are falling, where standards are improving and how effectively problems are being dealt with. We can see whether there are proper complaints procedures. We can judge the attitudes being shown to the public, and we can get a good feel of the underlying service quality.
The quality is sometimes the result of policy decisions; it can be the result of funding. I am not suggesting that quality of service is purely a matter of attitude and efficiency within the department. There are external factors as well. It is, however, certainly true that we all know from our constituency work where there are problems and where there are attitude problems. I do not know why the right hon. Member for Gorton should have so many problems with Railtrack. I have not had those problems; perhaps he has a regional problem--
Mr. Merchant: Perhaps he has the wrong address; I do not know. I compliment him, however, on the effort he puts into the detail of his constituency casework. I try to do the same. Through constituency casework, we can find out exactly where the problems arise. The right hon. Member spoke about the importance of one-Member constituencies because of the relationship between a Member of Parliament and a constituent. I absolutely agree with him. It is extremely important. It is only right that any constituent should feel that they could go to their Member of Parliament if there is a problem, and that the Member of Parliament could get action to be taken.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is not a question of us massaging our egos and saying "Look, we have got a letter from the Minister concerned." It is question of accountability working. It is to my eternal pleasure that I know that I can write to a Minister on any topic within his responsibility and receive a personal letter of reply from that Minister. That is extremely important. However, it concerns me that there are other areas of public activity in which that does not happen.
Mr. Joseph Deva: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again; I know that he has little time. I wanted to draw his attention to another very powerful avenue through which Members of Parliament are able to bring complainants, redress and balance back into the system--the parliamentary ombudsman. I have the privilege of being a member of the Select Committee concerned with such matters. We see cases week after week of very powerful and sometimes quite appalling circumstances, with which we are not only able to deal, as the ombudsman does, but to set a pattern, a methodology, a procedure, to avoid the same thing happening elsewhere.
Column 410I shall draw my remarks to a close by referring briefly to a few local experiences--not in detail, as the right hon. Member for Gorton did, but in mere headings, to illustrate how the citizens charter is working and to show the areas in which there are still deficiencies. I almost considered awarding my own charter marks to the various organisations with which I deal, so different is the response I get. Some deserve praise and some deserve condemnation. The organisations go across the whole range of activities.
For example, in local government, I have mentioned that the libraries and the environmental services in Bromley have charter marks. My experience of them merits exactly the same award. I have had very few complaints about those departments. Those I have had have been dealt with entirely efficiently and very quickly. The planning department does not have a charter mark, but it should. In that department, no end of constituency cases are raised because planning is such a sensitive issue in my constituency. Nevertheless, the response of the department is superb. Public concerns are taken on board immediately. Response is extremely fast, thorough and efficient. The engineer's department is similar. There are not so many complaints to the treasury department, but when there are, about wrong billing and so on, again, they are dealt with very efficiently.
However, the education department in the same authority, under the same overall control, does not show the same degree of efficiency. I do not get the same speed of response, the same effectiveness shown, the same concern. It is very much an old-fashioned view of implying "How dare you complain? We are getting on with our job, you get on with yours and don't let our paths cross."
Outside the local authority, I shall mention the service in hospitals and housing. There are real problems in the hospitals in my borough, because of the historic difficulties of hospital structure. I believe that there are some funding problems as well. Therefore, there are many complaints; but every effort is made by the hospital authorities to deal with those complaints.
There are very thorough, efficient investigations every time that there is a complaint. Fast responses are given and efforts are made to improve whatever went wrong. I pay great tribute to the chief executive of Bromley hospital, Mark Rees, for the efficiency with which he deals with the complaints. He personally looks into all the problems and replies himself.
In comparison, Bromley housing is appalling when it comes to complaints. It is slow; the chief executive never replies. He directs it to the deputy chief executive, who never replies. The complaint is directed down the line to somebody much lower in the structure, who writes back a standard letter. There is no response, and the public say the same. One constituent telephoned me the other day. He said that he had made a complaint in reasoned terms, and that the response of the housing association had been "sod off".
My last example relates to the rail service, which leaves much to be desired in many areas of London including the service to Beckenham. However, there has been a clear
Column 411improvement in attitudes and in the quality of service. I suspect that that has come about because of the rail charter. For the first time, people know what they are entitled to expect, and, for the first time, the rail operators have a standard against which they must match performance. That is very significant.
The second report on the citizens charter, which was published in 1994, contains a splendid chart on rail services. However, I am worried about the setting of the standards. According to the standards set for Kent coast, 82 per cent. of trains should arrive within five minutes of the scheduled time.
Within five minutes of the scheduled time might not be particularly late if one is travelling a long distance. However, for a 20-minute or 25-minute journey, the kind of journeys made by many commuters, five minutes late may be a quarter of the expected journey time. If only 82 per cent. of trains are expected to meet that target, and if trains are late at commuter times in the morning and afternoon, the service will be much worse than the standard makes it appear to be. Although I understand that there must be a gradual process, step by step, the sooner the target is 100 per cent. and perfect timekeeping, the better. We would then really be able to assess the performance. Passengers will accept that the 100 per cent. target will never be achieved, but the target should be the highest as we could then measure the real achievement against that target.
My remarks have been longer than I intended. There is much evidence to show that the citizens charter was an excellent idea and a superb concept, and that it is achieving what it set out to achieve. Let us hope that that continues and that, in another four or five years, we can look back and say that the achievements have been miraculous and that they have been made in areas where no such achievements were reached by other means. Let us particularly hope that the public will recognise what is, after all, rightfully theirs--the highest possible standards from every area of local and central Government services. 1.32 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam): I welcome this debate and it is significant that it is the first debate on the subject for nearly three years. Everyone in the Chamber today has agreed that the citizens charter has changed the face of public service to our citizens. No other country pays so much attention to the rights of the individual.
Anyone who has sat on the wrong side of a desk, facing heavy red tape, buck -passing, officialdom and, frankly, plain off-hand rudeness will know what a blessing it is to be regarded now as a consumer with rights and dignity. In short, a revolution has taken place. The fury and frustration over the delivery of public services have been brought under control.
We now take for granted the improvements in our lives. As has already been said, the achievements have been considerable. Since 1991, 40 specific charters have been introduced, covering everything from social services to education and transport.
Column 412is clear that Labour Members have taken for granted the fact that the citizens charter is such a success that they can contribute nothing to this debate?
Lady Olga Maitland: I have always tended to agree with my hon. Friend, but in this regard I could not agree with him more. It is very telling to see a lonely figure on the Opposition Benches. I echo previous comments about the utter hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats. I have seen examples of it in my constituency. The Liberal Democrats control Sutton council, and they have the nerve to publish their own charter for council services. It is the same old story: they make declarations and they say that they will consult, but do they ever pay attention to people's representations? The answer is no. The emptiness of the Opposition Benches is significant. Let us consider the way in which matters have changed so significantly. It is no accident that we now have more flexible opening hours for benefit and employment offices. It is no accident that, nowadays, public servants must identify themselves in person and on the telephone. It is no accident that council tenants are entitled to have most repairs done right away when their lethargic local authority fails to deal with them promptly. That is a particular problem in Labour and Liberal Democratic authorities. It is no accident that we can claim a refund from British Rail if trains are cancelled or are delayed unreasonably.
I have received a refund and had an expensive taxi fare paid for me by British Rail after a disastrous train journey from Falmouth to Norwich. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. There are compensations and achievements in the citizens charter. However, I should not like British Rail to think that all is totally satisfactory. I refer to the problems of one of my constituents. His latest letter is one of total fury. He says:
"I thought you might be interested that one calendar month later"--
having written to British Rail--
"they have yet to even send me a letter of acknowledgement. Naturally I am livid".
The cause of his problem was a train journey that he tried to make some time ago. He arrived at the station and was informed that the train that he wanted to catch had been delayed. He was then told that it was expected at a certain time, but much later he was told that the train was cancelled. As a result, that poor gentleman was vastly late for his appointment. He had to take a very roundabout route. He felt very aggrieved indeed. Matters are worse when British Rail fails to respond. I hope that that gentleman will get the justice that he deserves. The citizens charter is now in place to help travellers such as that gentleman. I hope that he receives the positive response that I received.
I now refer to the rather disappointing response of the Labour party. I listened with great care and attention to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He seemed to be rather peeved when my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) referred to people who have centrally heated homes, together with Volvos and fax machines. He seemed to think that that was unfair. It should have been pointed out to him--I was tempted to do so at that time--that the prosperity of people who drive Volvos and, therefore, pay much higher taxes as a result of their success, provides the social
Column 413services that the right hon. Gentleman demanded for his constituents, who clearly have great need. Therefore, it is rather unworthy to jeer at other people's success.
I come now to the Labour party's reaction to the citizens charter. We should look back to the days when the charter was launched, when Neil Kinnock--the then leader of the Labour party--described the concept as "banal and ineffective". He then brought out his own version, which offered layers of extra and unnecessary bureaucracy. Where he was short of ideas, he echoed measures which had already been put forward by the Conservative party. It seems to be the same old tale of copycat politics and of the Labour party trusting to luck that the public will be duped into accepting its propaganda, as against the real version offered by the Government.
Although I am tempted to spend time tearing apart the Labour party's position on its failed charter ideas, time is precious and I shall press on. The best way for me to illustrate the citizens charter is to describe the progress of the patients charter on behalf of my constituents. Our local hospital, St. Helier's, holds trust status. It is a flagship with an enviable record, and its waiting lists have come down dramatically.
The first commitment of the patients charter is respect for privacy and dignity. I welcome the fact that, in April, there will be a patients charter commitment to warn patients when their operations are confirmed if there is a likelihood of their having to be placed in a mixed-sex ward. I accept that patients can object and opt to wait for a later date in the hope that they can be put in a small, four-bedded ward. This subject causes acute embarrassment--especially to women--and we must work harder to return to the traditional segregated-sex wards.
I have been rather disturbed to find that, when talking to hospital authorities, there is a feeling that they will retain mixed-sex wards unless the issue rises higher on the agenda. I very much hope that, in the end, the message will get through that there are intense feelings about the matter. I shall never forget the day my mother found herself in a mixed-sex ward, and it was not an experience which she ever wanted to repeat. We should place a high value on personal dignity and modesty. I welcome St. Helier's commitment to experimenting with flexible solid screens which can be put into a ward as room dividers; that may go some way towards relieving the problem.
The patients charter revolutionised the management of the accident and emergency department. Today, 93 per cent. of patients are given a full medical assessment--not just a cursory glance--within five minutes of their arrival at St. Helier's. That can be compared with one year ago, when 62 per cent. of patients were assessed in five minutes. One can see that progress has been remarkable.
There has also been a remarkable change in the out-patients department. I can well remember attending an antenatal clinic as a national health patient at Westminster hospital 23 years ago. I was called in with 30 other mothers for a 2.30 appointment, and it was quite normal to have to sit around for up to two hours
half-undressed. Even then, I had no idea who was attending me, let alone the name of the nurse in charge. The very idea of continuity, or of being cared for by the same person, was quite unknown. There was also the obvious risk that
Column 414symptoms could perhaps be overlooked. I just wish that I had been able to take advantage of the patients charter, as it would have made the arrival of my first child a much more pleasant experience. My experience may be compared with the fact that, today, 83 per cent. of out-patients at St. Helier's are now seen within 30 minutes of arriving at hospital. Good management has meant insisting that consultants and other clinicians are on time and that they start their surgeries promptly. The pressure goes all around.
I shall mention briefly the report that came out this week on maladministration. In case I could be accused of looking at the citizens charter through rose-tinted spectacles, I shall make this remark. It is entirely appropriate that, if we want the citizens charter to flourish, public service should be subject to close analysis and even criticism. There is no shame in faults being brought to light if there is then a concerted effort to put them right. It would also be great folly to be complacent and believe that all is well in the public sector simply because the charter exists. The report focuses on the right to full, speedy and courteous compensation when things go wrong. It made the telling remark: "We have come across unwillingness to admit fault, refusal to apologise, failure to identify and compensate all those affected by maladministration."
I entirely support the notion that those who suffer injustice as a result of maladministration should be compensated. I welcome the report's view that matters of redress should in future be examined less in the light of protecting the public purse and more in the light of a complainant's rights. Indeed, only as a result of pressure in that regard are ex gratia payments now considered.
Although we should always be ready to hear and act on complaints, we should also be ready to deal sensitively and appropriately with grievances. Complaints may have increased as a result of the public's greater awareness of their rights, but many people, I regret to say, maintain a stoical silence. Research still shows that there is a range of potential barriers in the way of making a complaint. The position is not helped by negative, defensive or discouraging attitudes in the organisation that is held responsible.
Sometimes, having the simple humility to say, "Sorry. I do apologise," can do more than anyone could imagine to repair a damage or injury, although it may not be completely resolved. Government Departments can grow in stature only if they keep in mind the slogan, "The consumer is always right." We should take careful heed of the report and profit from its lessons. Only in that way can we continue successfully to build on the citizens charter, which has undoubtedly changed the face of Britain.
Mr. David Shaw (Dover): The citizens charter is a major innovation of the Prime Minister. He deserves considerable credit for its introduction. It has afforded the ordinary citizen a unique opportunity to monitor government and demand improvements where standards are not high enough.
My interest in the matter goes back to a career in accountancy, which is also very much involved in the provision and use of information. In the accounting firm
Column 415for which I worked, I showed an interest in the performance of government. The firm did work for the Government, and still does to this day. One of the partners handed me a paper on performance measurement and the use of performance indicators. The paper had been presented by one of the senior partners to some civil servants and Government officials in the 1960s. Sadly, their response was not what we would expect today. Understanding was not high of how the Government should relate to performance indicators.
Indeed, in the 1960s and part of the 1970s, the Government and bureaucracy tended to take the view that performance indicators and measurement existed in the private sector but not the public sector. I am delighted that the Government have proved that there is every justification for using performance indicators and measurement. As a result of the citizens charter, we have also increased accountability. Now that we have measures of performance, we can go to the people who are responsible and point out where performance does not achieve the required level. That was not possible before. As a result, public services are improving everywhere. We need only look at education and the new policy on grant-maintained schools that the Conservative Government have introduced. It is so good that the Leader of the Opposition wants some of it. Indeed, he wants it so badly that he will drive his son eight miles, past nearly 100 Labour-controlled schools, to get some of it.
The way in which the citizens charter operates benefits my constituents to a great extent. In Dover, the district council's housing department obtained a charter mark award. The council is measuring performance indicators more closely than ever before, and there has been a realistic understanding among all public sector organisations in my constituency of what is expected of them. We have better telephone, gas, electricity and water services. The quality of those services is being monitored all the time. I wrote to each of the privatised utilities that delivers services to my constituents and asked for details of their performances, the quality of services and the way in which they monitor them. I received some impressive and detailed information on how those services are improving.
Mr. Deva: Is my hon. Friend aware that, at a time when we are trying to set the people free and get bureaucracy off their backs, the Opposition have come up with recommendations that, should they ever be in government again, they would create eight new Ministries, 15 new bodies for regional government, 15 more local government organisations and, would you believe it Mr. Deputy Speaker, 112 utilities and regulators for business and the economy?
Mr. Shaw: I am incredibly aware not only of that fact, but of a question that my hon. Friend has forgotten to ask: how would the Opposition staff those organisations and quangos? In 1977 and 1978, 150 official posts were held by members of the Trades Union Congress and a large number of posts on quangos were held by Transport and General Workers Union officials. They were all Labour placemen. The Opposition talk about placemen on present-day organisations, but forget the many totally unqualified people they put on those bodies, who were looking after
Column 416the interests not of the consumer, but of those people working in the industries, who refused more efficient working practices to serve consumers better. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) not only mentioned one relevant point, but led me to another.
Before that intervention, I was stating how services are changing because of privatisation. In many of the utility and service sectors, we have regulators, and they are studying the efficiency of the industries in a way that never happened when the Labour party was in office.
I well remember trying to get a telephone at the end of the 1970s, when Labour had been running the telephone service. I could not get one, and I had to write to my Member of Parliament and create reasons why I needed one. Fortunately, I had a good reason, as my employer wanted to contact me at weekends and out of normal office hours. If I had not worked for that employer, I would not have had the benefit of a telephone. It is ludicrous that, under Labour, we had to go to our Members of Parliament to get telephones. Today we can telephone British Telecom and get one within a matter of hours.
I am saddened that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) had to leave, but I am sure that he had good reason. He said that BT was not improving its services and was not price-effective, and he said a little about the competition that is moving in from cable television. He did not say as much as he should have about the fact that, in his constituency and in Manchester generally, cable television has taken off in a big way, and that telephony is one of the services it provides in that area. British Telecom is having to react to the price competition that now exists. I understand that, in Manchester and other parts of the north of England where cable television is very advanced, the telephone services are provided at prices about 20 per cent. below BT's original prices. So we are now seeing considerable reductions in price as a result of the Government's deregulation and British Telecom's privatisation and the increased competition that it now faces.
One or two Opposition Members took a swipe at British Gas. It is easy to do so, as its public relations policy in recent weeks has been open to criticism. But before people rush in to criticise British Gas, they should remember that, before it gave them an opportunity for criticism in the past few weeks, an opinion poll carried out last year on people's perception of quality of service among major British companies listed British Gas as second only to Marks and Spencer. British Gas has moved on considerably, as have all the privatised utilities, in providing better services.
The Child Support Agency was criticised earlier in the debate. The criticisms were unjustified, because they could be levied at the agency's staff. It is unfair of Labour Members to criticise the agency's staff because they have had unprecedented problems, with a campaign of vilification and vitriol against them. Many absent parents and even some mothers with care have not completed their forms properly.
The Child Support Agency is working hard to improve the position but the problem has not been caused by the staff. It has been a problem of creating a difficult new
Column 417system, which everyone believes will be worth while in making parents more responsible for their children, even in homes that have broken up.
My constituents want British Rail to be privatised as fast as possible. The citizens charter has shown that it has not worked well in the public sector. In Kent Coastal, poor timekeeping is among the worst in the country. I hope that the British Rail Board, which this week announced that it could not provide Networker coaches to my constituency--we have been after them for some time--will now be asked to step aside so that we have a proper franchise and privatised operation that will provide a decent service to my constituents. It is simply not good enough at present.
The Labour party has done a bit of scaremongering this week on through ticketing. An actress on the Opposition Benches with more theatre than substance has issued a press release in my constituency. She is so concerned about accuracy and standards that she has managed to spell three of the railway stations in my constituency wrong, so we cannot have much regard to the Labour party's ability to set high standards in education, spelling or any other area of public service.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be interested in what I am about to mention. The Government should seriously consider an information provision charter, not only in terms of the response of public bodies, Government Departments and local councils to letter writing and setting standards, but also to ensure that those standards are widely known.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary developed the Internet in terms of putting the Government on it and giving citizens access to it. It now provides a service that was not available before last November. The World Wide Web server, which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary introduced, has a lot of information available to it. Its electronic address is HTTP://WWW.OPEN.GOV. I give that information in the hope that people will take advantage of having access to it.
That World Wide Web server has had 300,000 accesses since November. Many people are already obtaining Government information from it. The server could be a fundamental basis on which a new information provision charter could operate. We should have more information about the quality and provision of services provided over the server. We should have more information about choices that can be taken by citizens involving different service providers in the public sector. There are many opportunities for health statistics, for example, to be put on the Internet. That would give citizens the choice of different providers of services that they may require. There should be comparative information on councils' performances. It should be put on the Internet World Wide Web server. League tables should be posted. They would be much more useful than the propaganda sheets that some councils put out, which relate to individual councils. Their performances are not compared with other councils.
The Government are doing a tremendously good job in introducing the citizens charter in a way that many people did not envisage, and enabling ordinary citizens to have real power over national government and local government. We need now to find new ways of giving people information that they can use so as to empower
Column 418them more than at present to monitor government and demand more of government. It is every citizen's right continuously to demand more of government. It is our job to try to provide more, but not necessarily by increasing the cost of government.
This has been an interesting debate. It has drawn out two basic philosophical approaches to public services. In a sense, philosophies have crossed the House. One group of Members believes that public services are all about satisfying consumers and that the consumer knows best. We do not need to go much further than that to say that we get the public services for which we can pay. That is the way in which consumers are dealt with in the private sector. I think that that is an erroneous philosophical position.
I am much more encouraged by the view taken by some Conservative Members, including the hon. Members for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). They said that they liked to be considered as citizens in their use of public services. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), they objected to the term "customer" in respect of British Rail and preferred to be recognised as a passenger. If, with a bit of luck, I catch the 3 pm to Newcastle, I hope that I shall travel as a passenger and not merely as a customer.
All our constituents use public services. They have a right to use them as citizens. As citizens, they have the privilege to exercise that right. That involves more than pure consumerism.
Several interesting common-sense points have been made. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) felt strongly about the need for public services to be sensitive to the consumer. He does not want things to go as far as they have in the United States, where "Have a good day" had to be said on all occasions. That reminds me of the time when I was in America telling Americans about the contrast between service in their country, whether in the private or public sectors, and in some parts of Britain. In America, someone in the hamburger stall to which the hon. Member for Beckenham referred, might say, "What would you like, sir?" A translation of that in Britain is, "Yes?" I think that we have all experienced that. Good private sector companies in Britain do not treat their customers in an abrupt way. As I have said, the public service should adopt the best practices that are followed in the private sector. The "What would you like, sir?" approach is one that I would like to see adopted.
The hon. Member for Beckenham wanted to dish out his own charter marks. We had Paddy marks earlier in the week, and we may have Piers marks today.
The hon. Member for Harrow, East said that accountability in the control of public services is important and that he is worried about some of the directions of Government policy and over-centralisation. Those are important issues that have been recognised by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
The hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) addressed us on his favourite subject--the matron. I wondered whether, like me, he looked back to the great
Column 419days of the "Carry On" films and was reminded of that concept, or perhaps he has a craving for the return of Baroness Thatcher; I am not sure which. He made some interesting points about the administration of public services. The whole question of identity of management at a local level is important, so I agree with his view on that.
A number of hon. Members raised the issue of standards and in many ways much of the debate on that concentrated on British Rail. The basic point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was that simply having a charter would not result in an improvement in rail services. Other things must be done to achieve that. That is true for all public services--charters are welcome as a test of what is happening, but services will not automatically improve unless other things are done. That is very clear in the case of British Rail.
I was surprised that the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) complained about the rail service to the Kent coast and argued that privatisation would lead to a great improvement. I would have thought that the one thing that would lead to an improvement in that service would be investment in a decent rail line from London to the channel tunnel, with links to that line. Surely the issue is whether that can be provided with either private or public funds. That is what will determine whether there will be a better rail service. It does not matter whether the operator is private or public; no private operator could ever afford the infrastructure investment for such a project. There is not a country in the world where that happens. Of course, if there was a decent rail link to Dover the hon. Member for Beckenham could have a station on the line.
Unless we invest in good public services, no amount of charters, charter marks or any other hype will provide a better service for the public. It is no hype that through-ticketing services will no longer be available from many stations. Hon. Members can get on the train at one station and, when they get to the end of that track, find another ticket office to buy the next ticket, or they might use their credit cards to pay the guard on the train. However, ordinary citizens, especially the elderly, just want one hassle at one ticket office. They want their tickets to carry them the whole way through their journeys.
The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) referred to her journey from Falmouth to Norwich. If she had aged relatives with her, they would not want to have to buy new tickets at each main station. It is important that the through-ticketing service is protected and charters alone cannot do that.
The hon. Lady referred to the need for housing repairs to be carried out promptly. I would not for one moment suggest that there should not be a charter that encourages or even demands that local councils do their best to ensure that when people have a problem with their windows, doors, pipes or whatever, they receive immediate service where that is possible. I am all in favour of that, but it would be wrong to jump from that to saying that that is how we can improve housing. My city of Newcastle needs to spend £200 million on housing to bring it up to the standards set by the Department of the Environment. No housing charter will achieve that-- there must be investment in housing.
Column 420I am not making an ideological point about whether the money for that investment should come from public or private funds, but unless it comes from some funds no amount of charters will improve the lot of those in Newcastle who need improved housing. I am sure that that is true throughout the country.
The citizens charter is about more than statistics. If it is to have an important role in changing things and if it is to lead to better investment in, more commitment to and better delivery of public services, I am all in favour of having as many and as tough charters as possible. Charters alone, however, will not lead to an improvement in those public services, which all of our constituents want. The test, of course, is whether that improvement takes place. As I said in my speech earlier, a new approach is needed in the delivery of public services. We must get away from the idea of using a tough stick to batter already low-paid workers into accepting worse conditions. The best private sector companies disregarded that approach long ago. They have recognised that they cannot compete internationally with that approach. To be efficient, private sector companies must adopt the best techniques and best operational systems. People must be properly trained and secure in their job because their employer values them and wants them to stay with the company. If we are to have good public services, the same ethos must exist in the public sector. That will be a central point in Labour's policy at the next general election.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes): On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who expressed their condolences to him on his sad loss this week. I know that he will be grateful for their words. This has been an extremely good debate. Seven of my hon. Friends have taken part, as well as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) made a number of interventions. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has been doing sterling work. He has not been able to take part in the debate, although I know that he would have wanted to. He has, however, been present throughout the debate. Hon. Members have mentioned that no Liberal Members have been present. I shall return to that matter in a minute.
I shall try to answer as many as possible of the points that have been made. In his closing remarks, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North, speaking on behalf of the Labour party, made a point that was echoed by the right hon. Member for Gorton. They talked about their distaste for people being called customers. They said that it was erroneous for public servants to think of people using the public service as customers. That reveals a great deal about their real position.
It is a matter of who exercises power. Under the last Labour Government, or before we had the citizens charter, there was no question that power was exercised by the people who provided the services. They decided the quality of service and opening hours, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) referred. Increasingly, however, people who use
Column 421the service decide such matters. They know what the service should be and how it should be delivered. They have information published regularly about it which was never published before. When something goes wrong, they know how to complain.
Mr. Henderson: The Minister has misunderstood the point that was made by not only me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) but one or two Conservative Members. It is a question not only of customers but of people being more than customers. Customers are people who might accept that there should be no through ticketing services on the London-Brighton railway line, provided that 10p is taken off their fare. Citizens are people who want to travel, like the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and perhaps some of her aged relatives, from Falmouth to Norwich because they have important things to do in relation to their family. They want a guarantee that they can buy a through ticket and that their rights are greater than those of the strict, pure consumer.
Mr. Hughes: I understand the point. I do not want to get into an argument about semantics, but I do not understand how one can be more than a customer. When I use my local hospital or when my children go to the local school, I do not have much choice about that. Those are the services that are provided and I want to be a customer. As a customer of Marks and Spencer, Tesco or Sainsbury's, I have a choice and I can take my custom elsewhere. The point is that people using public services do not have that choice, so to give them the rights of customers is to give them more rights than they had before. If we can agree on that point, I shall be delighted that the hon. Gentleman is coming around to our way of thinking.
A revolution is taking place and the citizens charter is a big part of it. When one goes to an out-patient department, one now receives a timed appointment, which was thought to be a ridiculous pipe-dream only a few years ago. Citizens can now find out how their child's school compares with others; before, it was a matter of hearsay and what other people thought of a school. Now, those of us who have to choose to which school to send our children have clear information about how schools are performing.
There is no doubt from my use of public services and in the experience of my constituents relayed to me that queues are shortening, letters are answered more quickly, telephones are picked up faster, faceless bureaucrats now have names, and even smiles and, if that does not happen, it is much easier to complain. That was not the case only a few years ago.
Telephoning a benefit, tax or council office about a minor matter, but one which was important to the individual, used to mean being passed from pillar to post. One did not know to whom one was speaking because no name was given. As for complaining, one did not bother because one assumed that one would not get anywhere. Much, if not all, of that has changed.
As has been recognised by many hon. Members, especially my colleagues, we are involved in a 10-year programme for the management of change. A great deal has changed but much has not yet changed. Improvements are made every year and standards are rising. When the
Column 422new patients charter is published, I am sure that all the leaks in the newspapers, including that in the Daily Mail today, will prove to be true. Standards will be improved still further, waiting times will be reduced and there will be more guarantees. That is the direction in which we are heading.
At the heart of the charters are some fundamental rights for us all. They include the right to expect certain standards of service, certain information to be provided and the right to be dealt with openly.
I deal now with the matters raised today. I shall respond to as many as possible. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North mentioned the cones hotline. It is true that it has not had a terribly good press. It is always easy to be wise after the event, but I think that, had I been the Minister involved, I would have pleaded for at least a different name for it. However, it has done a more valuable job than has been acknowledged.
There have been more than 10,000 calls to the cones hotline since June 1992 and callers do not merely wish to complain about the cones. I do not think that the name was satisfactory, because the line is part of a traffic information service. It provides a great deal of information to road users about what is happening on the roads. Its very existence has made the work of the Highways Agency easier in that the people doing essential repairs on motorways are aware that their progress is monitored. They know that they have to do the work in the shortest possible time and remove the cones quickly. I do not necessarily defend everything about the cones hotline, but it is important to recognise that it has been more valuable than generally presumed.
The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North mentioned a Trades Union Congress poll on the citizens charter. Personally, what he said did not surprise me. As I understand it, people were asked whether they had read the citizens charter, whereas they should have been asked whether they had read the citizens charters, because there is a patients charter, a passengers charter, a parents charter and others.
If one asks people, "What does this mean to you?" they will probably say, "Not very much." If one asks, "Does a timed appointment in hospital mean much to you? Does the information about the way in which your hospital is performing in the league tables mean much to you? Do the league tables for schools mean much to you? Does the fact that you are guaranteed to get an annual report on the progress of your child mean much to you?" the answers will, of course, be yes. The TUC poll was a very small poll. A larger, more recent poll, the British attitude survey, has shown increased public satisfaction with services, including health and education. That simply cannot be separated from the effect of the citizens charters.
I now turn to openness and the code of practice on open government. The code only came into effect on 4 April last year. Some 52,000 copies of a leaflet explaining the operation of the code of practice have been distributed to more than 1,300 outlets, such as citizens advice bureaux, libraries and other places. Information about the code of practice is available from the citizens charter publication line. My Department has sent out 5,600 copies of the code of practice, in addition to the copies sent out by the publication line. I do not think that it is appropriate to spend large sums on this. The code of practice is working. The question is, if people want to get government