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Better Government

5. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): If he will make a statement on the progress made by the ministerial group on better government. [83644]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): We set up the ministerial group on better government to develop and implement the Government's programme for public service reform. The group oversaw the work leading to publication of the "Modernising Government" White Paper, and will oversee the implementation of the whole modernising government agenda.

Mr. Chapman: NHS Direct is a fine example of a public service that has been modernised using information technology. Does my right hon. Friend propose to apply that example to other public services, and ensure that they are similarly modernised and that people have access to them 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

Dr. Cunningham: Yes, we shall do that. As the "Modernising Government" White Paper makes clear, we have set ourselves targets. By 2008, we intend that all Government services will be accessible using information technology. Where there is a demand, let us say to fill in self-assessment forms for the Inland Revenue, people should have access to services via their own equipment at home. Similarly, small businesses and others should be able to complete their VAT returns at their leisure and send the information electronically to the appropriate Government Department.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire): When the ministerial group on better government next meets, will it

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reflect on the plea for pay restraint made last night by the Chancellor? Will it reconsider the huge increases that Ministers have given to their special advisers--increases far more substantial than those same Ministers have given to teachers or nurses?

Dr. Cunningham: I have already published the figures for the average increase in specialist advisers' pay. In the current financial year, special advisers have not yet been paid their annual increment, let alone had any regrading. I advise the right hon. Gentleman not to believe everything that he reads in the newspapers.

Service First Programme

6. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West): What recent representations he has received on the service first programme. [83645]

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Peter Kilfoyle): We have received no representations, but there has been a great deal of interest in and support for the service first programme, which is an important part of our modernising government initiative.

Mr. Amess: Now that the service first programme can be seen for the public relations exercise that it is, amounting to a lot of codswallop, will the Minister tell the House how many of the 5,000 people on this ridiculous panel are my constituents? How will his policy improve services? It seems to me that ever since we have had this dreadful Government, services have got much worse, especially services from Ministers.

Mr. Kilfoyle: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reflect on the fact that Southend council is one of the councils interested in networking in the better government for older people pilot network, which is part of the service first unit. I hope that he will reconsider the position before he tells his local council that the process is, to quote him, a load of codswallop.

Public Appointments

7. Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): What progress he has made in ensuring that people from a wider range of backgrounds are appointed to public office. [83646]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): The Government are committed to ensuring that public appointments are open to candidates from all backgrounds. We are making progress in increasing the numbers of women and ethnic minority people who hold appointments.

I am also taking forward work to mainstream equality of opportunity issues into all Government policies.

Fiona Mactaggart: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I am glad that progress is being made on appointing more women and more members of ethnic minorities to public bodies. However, I am still concerned about the appointment of young people to public bodies. The most recent report of the independent Commissioner for Public Appointments revealed that in the year before the election of this Government there had been no

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appointments of anyone under 38 years of age to a public body. I was struck by a report published last week by Demos and Save the Children Fund, which showed the degree to which young people feel alienated from a political system that they feel has turned its back on them. Is my right hon. Friend able to do more to appoint young people to public bodies?

Dr. Cunningham: My hon. Friend raises an important point. She is right to say that it is a recurring weakness in the system. We can do much better than has been done in the past. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall be devoting some time and attention to trying to make better progress in the aspect of public appointments to which she has referred.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): Does this approach extend to the appointment of special advisers, and has the Minister discussed it with the Lord Chancellor?

Dr. Cunningham: I certainly will not make any public comment about the impending court case involving my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor. As the right hon. Lady and some of her hon. Friends, especially the hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie)--incidentally, he was a special adviser for six years and was one of the architects of the boom and bust policies of the previous Government--have had much to say about special advisers, I would point out that, in the last two years of the previous Conservative Government, Ministers and their special advisers spent far more on travel abroad than has been spent by Ministers in the first two years of this Government.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Is it not a fact that for 18 years we saw public appointments filled by Tory lapdogs? In the past two years, have not the present Government made appointments based on merit, involving people living in the local community who use services such as the local NHS?

Dr. Cunningham: Yes, indeed. It is because of the abysmal performance of the Conservative Government that we have the Nolan principles and the Neill committee report on these matters.

Drug Misuse

8. Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): If he will list the initiatives taken by the anti-drugs co-ordinator over the past 12 months in relation to reducing the level of drug misuse in prisons in England and Wales. [83647]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Dr. Jack Cunningham): The prison drugs initiative, launched in May 1998, operates within the framework of the Government's anti-drugs strategy. The comprehensive spending review for anti-drugs activities included £76 million between 1999 and 2002 for the implementation of the prison drugs strategy in England and Wales. The Prison Service is taking forward the implementation of the strategy.

Mrs. Winterton: The Minister will be aware that, last year, 88,304 mandatory drug tests were conducted

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on prisoners and that 20,152--almost a quarter--tested positive. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that although some prisoners may have been tested more than once, these figures illustrate the severity of the drug problem in prisons? Will he suggest to the Home Secretary that if we are to assess the true position more accurately, mandatory drugs tests should be carried out on the entire prison population in selected prisons when least expected, perhaps, for example, during or after a weekend? Without more accurate statistics, the effectiveness of the measures undertaken cannot be gauged. Will these matters be covered in the drugs co-ordinator's first annual report, and when may we expect publication of it?

Dr. Cunningham: I hope to make a statement on the first annual report on drugs shortly. The hon. Lady is certainly right to say that the baseline information throughout this aspect of policy is exceedingly fragile. Some of it, as she implied, is not particularly reliable. That is why we are using some of the money in the drugs programme to create databases in which we can have confidence. With the £76 million that the Prison Service has been allocated, as I mentioned earlier, it is working closely with the Home Office, the probation service and the police to try to improve the situation in prisons. The hon. Lady is right to say that we need to do much better than we have done in the past.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): Although every step should be taken to deter staff and visitors to prisons from bringing in drugs, does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem starts earlier, at ports of entry? How does he react to complaints that those manning controls at our ports have neither enough staff nor the right equipment to do that job as effectively as they would wish?

Dr. Cunningham: My hon. Friend is right to say that Customs and Excise is an important part of our defences against the importation of illegal drugs. It is a matter of record that between 1989 and 1996, 500 front-line members of Customs and Excise were cut from the service. When we came to office, we took action to prevent a further reduction of 300 Customs and Excise officers. In the comprehensive spending review, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer provided an increase in support for Customs and Excise, precisely because it has such an important role to play in these matters.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): The Select Committee on Home Affairs is conducting an inquiry into drugs in prisons. We recognise that it is an extremely serious problem. A number of prisons are doing some good work. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on three possible remedies--first, sniffer dogs in all our prisons; secondly, the appropriate equipment for screening all staff and visitors to prisons; and thirdly, suitable punishments for all visitors who are found to be bringing drugs into our prisons?

Dr. Cunningham: Prison governors are taking new initiatives and introducing new measures to control a serious problem, as the hon. Gentleman points out. I will study the recommendations of the Home Affairs

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Committee with interest, but principally it will be for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to respond. I will consider with him the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

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