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The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): This major review has elicited 250 responses. The Government are looking in great detail at these responses and the evaluation of them will be announced before Easter.
Tony Wright: I am grateful for that answer. My hon. Friend will know that we had the ombudsman review because ombudsmen came to the Government and said, "Our work is being impeded, particularly where the boundaries cross health and social services, for example, because we cannot run a seamless, integrated service." The Government are to be congratulated on initiating the review, but will they now give a commitment to bringing forward early legislation to implement it?
Mr. Stringer: As my hon. Friend knows, I cannot pre-empt decisions on the next legislative programme. I agree that an extremely important review is taking place. The ombudsmen told us that they were not working as efficiently and effectively as they could. We accepted that, and that is why the review is taking place.
On the other side of the equation are those who use the ombudsman service. We must ensure that the service is accessible, and we shall do that by taking into account many of the comments that have been made. It is worth bringing it to the House's attention that some of those comments are asking for further reviews in areas that are currently considered out of bounds by the ombudsmen. It is part of our modernisation programme to get the ombudsman service right, and it is important that we do so, rather than hurrying the process.
Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I shall raise an issue that relates both to the Cabinet Office's responsibility for the future of the ombudsmen and to the co-ordination of rural policy. Is the Minister aware that there is real resentment and frustration among farmers in England and Wales at the fact that there is no effective external and independent arbiter of maladministration and
Mr. Stringer: The hon. Gentleman is extending the review to areas that are not covered by the question. It is clear that people in rural areas as well as in urban areas benefit from the service of the ombudsmen. Improvements in the efficiency and effectiveness of that service will help people in rural areas.
Mr. Chope: I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that response. Given the overall figures for the civil service, there has been an increase of about 15,000 in one year. Does she not think it rather a perverse sense of priorities on the part of the Government that they find it easy to recruit new bureaucrats to deal with red tape and the propaganda machine, including special advisers, while at the same time reducing the number of policemen? Surely it would be better for the Government to comply with the people's sense of priorities--more police and fewer bureaucrats.
Marjorie Mowlam: Let us start with the facts. Spending on central administration is down since 1997. The numbers of civil servants are down by 8,000 since 1997. I accept that there has been a small increase this year, and that relates to programmes that we want to put in place, such as pensions increases. We want to deal with fraud, the implementation of child support reforms and immigration cases. That is why there has been an increase in the numbers of civil servants over the past year.
As the Neill committee said, there is no objection to special advisers. I readily acknowledge that their numbers have increased. That is because of the volume of legislation on which we are working. We have been open and transparent. We have published what they are paid. We have a code, we have guidelines for civil servants and special advisers, and we have a model contract. Nothing has been hidden from the public and the information is in the public domain. On the first point, I believe that the hon. Gentleman has his facts wrong. Secondly, what we are doing is perfectly clear.
Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): My right hon. Friend will be aware that last year the Public Accounts Committee, in its report "Government on the Web", said that the Cabinet Office did not know how many websites
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): One group of civil servants where there has clearly been a huge increase are the political civil servants, the special advisers. Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking to match the Conservative pledge to reduce the number of special advisers to their far more modest level when the Government took office in 1997?
Marjorie Mowlam: I partly answered that question in reply to the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope). No, we will not. We have never denied that we want special advisers to assist us in the volume of legislation that we are putting through. The hon. Gentleman cannot have it both ways. If he does not want the civil service to be politicised, special advisers perform an important role. As the head of the civil service, Sir Richard Wilson, said, to suggest that 73 special advisers will swamp 3,000 high-level civil servants is a myth.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer): My hon. Friends and I have regular meetings with all sections of business. Yesterday, I visited the constituency of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and talked to representatives of its chamber of commerce and a number of businesses. Last week, I attended a debate organised by the Social Market Foundation with the chief executive of the British Chambers of Commerce.
Ms Kelly: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government's approach to dialogue with trade unions and business, as manifested in the setting up of the Low Pay Commission, is the best way of building consensus and driving forward social change? Will my hon. Friend consider setting up a similar body to drive through and monitor the recommendations that will follow the consultation on the Government's Green Paper on working parents, so that we can further improve the lot of workers?
Mr. Stringer: My hon. Friend makes a good point. There is no doubt that the Low Pay Commission has been successful in improving the pay and working conditions of many British people. I hear what my hon. Friend says and we shall consider that point.
Mr. Stringer: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that figure is considerably less than the number of jobs lost every year in the industrial sector under the Conservative Government. If the hon. Gentleman cares to consider Britain's regulatory performance as against that of comparable countries, he can look to the report of The Economist Intelligence Unit, which found that, taking into account 70 different factors, among comparable countries Britain was the best placed for foreign investment.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): Will my hon. Friend confirm that, with the regulatory reform legislation going through the other place, it is the Government's objective to get rid of unnecessary and unhelpful regulation and move increasingly to good and positive regulation which will help British industry and people?
Mr. Stringer: My hon. Friend is right. We shall not repeat some of the simplistic and asinine comments made by the previous Administration who, for example, said that they would burn vast amounts of red tape, yet proceeded to introduce 13 times as many petty regulations as existed before. As my hon. Friend knows, the Regulatory Reform Bill seeks to remove unnecessary red tape, particularly that resulting from overlapping regulatory regimes. We have put before Parliament a number of examples of how that legislation will improve regulations.