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5.2 pm

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): I now know how those people feel who shake one's hand at parties but who, when asked what they do for a living, try quickly to change the subject. When, gradually, one steers the conversation back round to insisting on asking what they do for a living, they blanch, then say, in a most apologetic manner, as if they are killing off any possibility of an interesting conversation, "I am an accountant".

Many people assume that members of the Public Accounts Committee are a similarly boring, number- crunching group of people, who pore over sets of statistics in a dull, if worthy, way. Nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. As a new member of the Committee, I am the other type of person avoided at all costs at parties--the unashamed enthusiast. I thank the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), the Committee Chairman, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), who have given exceedingly good advice and helped me to settle quickly into the life of the Committee.

I am sorry that my hon. Friend will leave the Committee soon, but few will be surprised by her promotion, in which I wish her every success. Her unique and acerbic style will be missed by everyone except those

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unfortunate enough to have come before the PAC as ill-briefed or incompetent witnesses. To those people, she showed little mercy, and we shall try to maintain her high standards.

The PAC reviews the whole range of Government activity. We have investigated matters this year from alpha to omega, from the arable area payments schemes to the millennium bug. Our intention is always the same--to assess whether the Government are operating at maximum efficiency and obtaining good value for the money that they spend.

I am aware that the Committee has been accused of laying more emphasis on apportioning blame where things have gone wrong than on making constructive proposals. I have not found that to be true. Certainly, the Committee can be harsh on witnesses whom it believes have failed in some respect. However, I have always found that the focus of the Committee is to learn the lessons of why things went wrong and to ensure that the same problems do not recur. Its concern is always for those who have suffered by the failure under review. The principle is that, by holding people to account, the Committee decokes the engines of Government.

I shall cite one clear example of the human consequences of a failure that was investigated by the PAC this year. The national health service's cervical screening programme was first established as a national programme in 1988. It aims to reduce the figure of 3,500 women who develop invasive cervical cancer each year and the 1,300 who die as a result.

The Comptroller and Auditor General prepared a report for the Committee on the screening programme. He reported that early diagnosis and treatment in colposcopy clinics had prevented up to 3,900 invasive cancers and resulted in morbidity rates falling by 7 per cent. a year. However, there were notable breakdowns in the screening programme--most notably at the Kent and Canterbury hospital.

The Committee identified significant quality failings at every stage of the cervical screening programme, affecting thousands of women every year. The Committee found that 13 health authorities had not yet achieved the target of screening 80 per cent. of women between the ages of 25 and 64 within a five-year period. That is a disgrace when we know that reaching that five-year target would prevent 84 per cent. of cervical cancers.

The Committee was extremely forceful in stating that lives were being put at risk by that failure. Brent and Harrow--my own authority--was one of the 13 health authorities that was failing in that way. I was not a member of the Committee when it produced its report, but that report alerted me to the problems that women in my constituency faced. Why should they be exposed to that risk and why should one in 12 have to endure the terrible stress and worry of a repeat smear simply because the first was not taken properly?

Brent is one of the most ethnically diverse boroughs in the country. The Committee pointed out that women from ethnic minorities are under-screened and that adequate data are unavailable for many ethnic groups. Armed with the Public Accounts Committee report, I was able immediately to contact my local health authority and demand action to improve the screening available to local women.

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I was not alone. Within three weeks of the report's publication, the then Secretary of State for Health had met health executives from my area and a plan of action was set in place. Recommendations contained in the report about incentivisation of local general practitioners and targets for implementation were set. More recently, the Government have injected a further £23 million into cancer prevention and palliative care.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Public Health hasnow been given responsibility for implementing the Government's policy for tackling cancer and for effective screening. I am delighted to be able to tell the House that the health authority in my area has now reached a figure of 78 per cent. compared with the 80 per cent. target--an improvement that I and all the women in my constituency welcome.

However, my purpose is not to praise the Government for their response, nor to pursue a constituency matter, but to show how vitally connected is the work of the PAC to the lives of our citizens. The work of the PAC is not simply to save money, although its Chairman has set out how successful it has been in doing so. The Committee's work is not just about bringing people to book for their mistakes, although the reference made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) to backaches that lead to early retirement suggests that the Committee is also effective in that scrutiny role. Above all, the PAC's work is to improve the lives of our citizens by improving the service that they receive from Government. When I became a Member of Parliament, it was my belief that that was the job of all Members--I have not changed my view. That is why I consider it to be such an honour to serve on the PAC.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is sitting on the Treasury Bench. I welcome him to his new role as Minister concerned with the PAC, because I know him to be someone of absolute integrity and clear principles. The pleas that he has heard this afternoon, from all those Committee members who have spoken, about the vital importance of allowing the Comptroller and Auditor General complete and unfettered access, and of making him clearly accountable to Parliament, and not to Whitehall, will not have gone unnoticed. When he responds to the debate, I urge him to do so without reading the frantic scribblings of the civil servants in the box, but basing his comments on what he knows to be right, and on what he knows the principles of the Public Accounts Committee to be.

5.12 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I speak very much as an outsider. I am not a member of the Public Accounts Committee--unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), I have not just joined the Committee, and unlike the hon. Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle), I have not just left it--I simply observe what it does. If imposed on Departments, its record of productivity would be most welcome. To produce 38 reports as the result of a year's activity is a great tribute to the Committee in general and to its Chairman, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), in particular.

I was impressed by the comments of the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) on the way that political debate was replaced by consensus--or more,

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perhaps, that a pack of politicians was collectively hunting down inefficiency and bureaucracy not in competition, but in concert. That, too, is a tribute to the Committee's work.

I have a few brief points--especially on the Committee's twelfth report--but I am moved to comment on European Union financial control by the words of the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire. I realised that there were difficulties, but he impressed on me how bad they were when he said that they were as bad as those in a typical British university. Had I realised that, I might have spoken primarily on that subject.

I am a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, and I remind the House that we produced a detailed report on resource accounting and its implementation. We took evidence from a wide range of individuals and organisations, including the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Treasury. I do not think that it is a breach of privilege if I point out that, in drawing up its report, the Committee was nearly minded to recommend that the introduction of resource accounting should be delayed for a year, because we were worried whether there was sufficient resilience in the financial control systems--especially in individual Departments--to undertake the transfer and changeover process on a short time scale. Bearing in mind that things have not changed much for 100 years or so, the question arose whether it would be possible to make that change in the proposed time scale. It is interesting to read what the PAC has said about that and the concerns that it has expressed. I hope that the Minister will give not a bland reply, but chapter and verse about the implementation plans. The Government Resources and Accounts Bill will be debated in the House next week, and it is very much incumbent on the Treasury and Treasury Ministers to persuade the House that the necessary safeguards exist.

I speak as a strong supporter of the introduction of resource accounting. For too long, public accounts and public budgeting have been distorted by outdated procedures, but various splendid new systems of IT have been introduced to great hopes and a loud fanfare, only to crash flat on their face. We cannot afford that to be the case with the resource accounting system.

The second report on which I want to comment briefly is the twentieth report, which relates to the handgun compensation scheme. I do so as a constituency Member who is still in detailed dialogue and correspondence with Ministers about the scheme's failure to work in a timely and adequate way. There is every sign that those who administer the scheme have only the faintest and most tenuous idea of what is involved, and of the technologies and the implications. Many perverse and contradictory decisions have been taken. To those who are very much part of the shooting community and who know their art backwards, that is a constant cause of frustration, and such technically unsustainable decisions reflect badly on the Government and the process of government.


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