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House of Commons

Wednesday 15 December 1999

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Minister was asked--

Information Technology

1. Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central): What steps she is taking to achieve full compatibility between the IT systems of Government Departments. [101542]

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Ian McCartney): Compatible IT systems can make a real difference to people. We are using the Government secure intranet to link up public servants. We are well advanced with the first phase pilot system to allow members of the public to notify Government of a change of address and we are publishing frameworks for call centres, websites, digital television, smartcards and authentication, which are the building blocks of a world-class Government IT environment.

Mr. Cousins: I welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend has taken on the job of sorting out computers. The House recognises that he has the qualities and toughness needed to knock heads together and to get the job done right. However, we currently have two big computer systems--for the Inland Revenue and for the Contributions Agency--that were inherited from the previous Government; and we are commissioning new systems for Customs and Excise and for the Department of Social Security. The Government's objectives require all the systems to work together. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that happens, with the result that we have joined-up computers as well as joined-up government?

Mr. McCartney: I give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance that the problems with the previous Government's legacy and the range of computer systems will be resolved. As important is that the Government are drawing up an IT strategy for the future that covers procurement, objectives, positive outcomes and value for money. When I answer Question 4 tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) I shall set out more detail of that strategy. However,

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I assure the House that the quality and standards objectives of the current Government are greatly different from those of the previous Government.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): How does the Minister reconcile his IT policy with the fact that 11 of 17 Home Office IT projects are way behind schedule? Will he undertake, as a matter of principle and priority, to publish before the Christmas recess a list of all the IT projects currently under way in every Department and the success rate of those projects, including how many are late and how many are on time?

Mr. McCartney: I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have risen to apologise for the legacy of the previous Government. Their approach to IT procurement was shambolic: no Minister took any interest in the projects, in delays, in safeguarding the public purse, or in ensuring successful outcomes. The result is that the current Government have a big job of work before them. I give the hon. Gentleman the same assurance as I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cousins): the current Government will get it right and we are on course to do so. In the next few months, to spring of next year, we shall review both current and previous projects to learn from mistakes made by the public and private sectors and to ensure that they are not made again.

Anti-drugs Strategy

2. Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the anti-drugs strategy at local level. [101543]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): There is clear evidence that drug action teams--DATs--in some areas are producing good results. In other areas there are more difficulties. We have many good examples of DATs working successfully with more than 300 voluntary organisations throughout the country on all aspects of Government policy, from rehabilitation centres to prevention work in schools. We need a fuller picture, so we have a comprehensive programme of research in place; by April, we will have a full regional breakdown of the statistics.

Mr. Blizzard: Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that it is difficult for a single drugs action co-ordinator to drive the fight against drugs throughout a large shire county? We in Suffolk have more localised drugs and alcohol forums, but they tend to consist of the usual busy people who receive little support in their locality. Will my right hon. Friend consider establishing more localised drugs action co-ordinators in the towns where the worst drugs problems are found, so that they can more effectively spearhead the fight against drugs and eradicate that menace from communities?

Marjorie Mowlam: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. In some rural areas, such as Suffolk, implementing his suggestions might help. Some areas have already established such a co-ordinator by using some of the money made available by central Government, and we are in the process of consulting DATs so that we can learn from the best practice

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employed by those that have already done that. It is important both to share good practice and to build flexibility into the system, so that we do not dictate to big city areas, many of which already cope well on the drugs front. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall return in the new year with fresh proposals, if we believe that they will help.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton): The Government have set ambitious targets for reducing drug abuse, especially among the young. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the most effective way to prevent young people from taking drugs is to stifle the supply entering the country and available on the streets? Although seizures have increased, availability has not declined--in fact, quite the opposite is true. Therefore, is she confident that, within the budgets available, sufficient resources are being devoted, through Customs and Excise and the police, to curtailing both supplies and the activities of dealers?

Marjorie Mowlam: The hon. Lady should remember the cuts that the Conservative Government made to Customs and Excise--[Interruption.] To answer her question, we have provided an extra £50 million to the Department of Health and £60 million for treatment. Those are only two examples of extra money being given, out of a total of £250 million across Departments.

Mrs. Winterton: What about supply?

Marjorie Mowlam: The issue of supply is crucial to solving the problem. The police and Customs and Excise are working hard and I commend the actions that are taking place. It is crucial that the work is done. The money that has come in from Customs and Excise will be recycled and used to fight the problem. That is extremely helpful.

In addition, we are addressing the question of how drugs come into the country and how to cut supply. That is crucial to making progress. Alongside that, we are trying to work at the underlying causes of drug addiction. We are working with the Prison Service so that when people leave prison they do not come out to nothing--they come out trained and have the chance of not reoffending. We are working with social services to ensure that when people come out of care the most vulnerable are not open to abuse.

We are dealing with the problem in many different areas. We hope that over 10 years, when we have the strategy set out--it is not a problem that can be solved overnight--we shall make the necessary progress.

Permanent Secretaries

3. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): What plans she has to change the designation, role and employment conditions of permanent secretaries. [101544]

The Minister for the Cabinet Office (Marjorie Mowlam): I have no plans to do so but, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister explained in his answer to a parliamentary question today, the permanent secretary heads of Department are themselves driving forward a radical programme of civil service reform. That will

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involve them adopting a corporate leadership role and participating in a management board for the civil service under the chairmanship of Sir Richard Wilson. That represents a major programme of change that will affect staff at all levels, including permanent secretaries.

Mr. Prentice: I take it from my right hon. Friend's answer that Sir Humphrey Appleby is dead and buried. If we are to have a new breed of civil servants delivering on the targets on which new Labour places such great store, surely there must be absolute transparency. Those who criticise us for politicising the civil service should get short shrift because new Labour would never do that.

There have been suggestions that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, to keep a grip on Whitehall, wants to establish a Prime Minister's Department, perhaps allied with the Cabinet Office. Has my right hon. Friend any comments to make on that speculation?

Marjorie Mowlam: My hon. Friend referred to Sir Humphrey. I had my trouble when I started working with the civil service and I did not find it easy. However, over the years of working with members of it, I have come to respect the work that they do and the impartiality and propriety that they bring to the job. I am not sure that my hon. Friend's initial comments are in any way helpful or constructive.

We support my hon. Friend's point about transparency. When he has had the chance to read all of "Modernising government", which relates to the public service, he will recognise that transparency is a crucial part of it.

The answer to the last part of my hon. Friend's question is no.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Does the Minister recognise that there is a remarkable coincidence, because the report to which she has referred appears just two days before the end of the evidence-taking sessions of the Phillips inquiry into BSE? Sir Richard Wilson's report on behalf of the permanent secretaries is apparently suggesting an extension of performance-related pay. Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that if there is any repetition of the bungles that were obviously characteristic of the previous Government over BSE, there will be reductions in the pay of higher civil servants?

Marjorie Mowlam: I get the gist of the point that the hon. Gentleman is making but the nature of the report is for the civil service. It is implementing it and it is in consultation over it. I am sure that those responsible have heard the hon. Gentleman's point.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that as a result of today's report from the head of the home civil service to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the permanent secretaries of the future will have experience of front-line delivery of services, experience of operational management and experience outside Whitehall?

Marjorie Mowlam: Obviously, I cannot give such a guarantee, but I can say that the appointments will be open and transparent. One of the objects of the report is to encourage greater exchange between the public and private sectors, and between the voluntary sector and

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both, so that best practice and good experience are shared. The process will be open and transparent. There will be some secondees--there are at present more than 100--from the private to the public sector. I hope, as does the head of the civil service, that that arrangement will continue. It is a two-way street, which can only promote the efficient use of taxpayers' money and more effective services.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Will the right hon. Lady confirm that Sir Richard Wilson's report includes among the core values of the civil service its political impartiality? Will she therefore give the House two assurances--first, that the performance measures for which permanent secretaries will be held responsible will be in relation to targets for which they are directly responsible as administrators, not targets derived from the policy decisions of Ministers, for which Ministers should be held accountable?

Secondly, given the undermining of political impartiality by political appointments such as the Prime Minister's chief press spokesman and the chief economic adviser to the Treasury, will the right hon. Lady guarantee that no further appointments in the senior civil service will be made on a political, rather than an independent, basis?

Marjorie Mowlam: To deal with the final point first, unfounded accusations are not helpful to either party in government. I could stand at the Dispatch Box and list appointments under the previous Government, such as that of the then Mr. Burns, but that would get us nowhere. We do not make political appointments to civil service posts. The political advisers are a valuable asset because they provide a political dimension alongside the civil service. Impartiality is crucial; it exists and will continue.

On performance targets, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman reads the report. They are Department-linked, and I believe that that will continue.

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