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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 5 December 2001

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Public Services

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Ainger.]

9.30 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Before I call Helen Jones, I wish to explain to the Chamber that there is a problem with the annunciator system. The power is down. When it comes back, there is a danger that it will be at high volume until it can be adjusted. Please do not be scared.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North): I open the debate as a member of two unions that recruit in the public sector: the Manufacturing Science and Finance Union and Unison. I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak about public services, which are often taken for granted and sometimes criticised. They were neglected for 18 years under the Conservative Government. Nevertheless, they continue to deliver major improvements to people's lives. Despite the problems, those services provide excellent services for the majority of people every day. They represent some of the best aspects of our society, such as a sense of civic responsibility, a commitment to communal action and a belief that we all have a responsibility to one another. I am part of the generation that has always expected good public services. I am also old enough to remember the great changes that they made in people's lives.

It is a cliché to use one's family in a debate, but I shall do so because mine is representative of millions of other families. My grandparents brought up their children in the most appalling poverty. Although they worked hard all their lives, they lived in slum housing and there was no chance for their elder children to stay on at school past the age of 14, let alone to aspire to higher education. My older uncles and aunts still remember what it was like to struggle to pay a doctor's bill after a new baby was born or when a child had been seriously ill.

Yet my grandmother lived to see her grandchildren born under a national health service, grow up in decent local authority housing, and go to university. We did not go there because we were more clever—we were not—or because we were more prudent. I could not manage on the budget on which my grandmother had to manage. It certainly was not because we worked harder. It happened because public provision made it possible. Public services allowed families to move forward and improve their lives, which could never have been achieved by individual effort alone.

Over two generations, lives completely changed—so much so that my son now finds it difficult to believe the stories that his grandmother tells him. People live longer. We have wiped out many infectious diseases. Educational attainment is higher. People now have higher aspirations, and rightly so. That has come about through public provision. Meeting those higher aspirations is the next challenge that faces our public services.

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We must remember the lessons taught by those people who set up public services. They were not afraid to have a vision. They thought on a grand scale. That was true not only of the founders of the welfare state, but of the great Victorians who set up the public water and sewerage systems in our major cities. It is true of the people who built cities with big public buildings and open spaces. They thought big and were able to do that because they had the support of the public. They kept that support by meeting those aspirations and by fostering a sense of confidence, which enabled people to make changes with the belief that they could achieve their aims.

This country had that in full measure. That was why, even in the midst of the second world war, it could plan for a health service and a welfare state, and have the determination to implement it afterwards, even in times of economic problems. People did that because they believed that they could, and people are coming round to that view again. They are ready to take the steps needed to improve our public services. Years of constant privatisation have told them that there are some things that they cannot buy for themselves. Years of under-investment in transport led to jammed roads and a collapsing railway system. The privatisation of hospital cleaning services resulted in dirtier wards and an increase in hospital-acquired infections, for which, at the end of the day, we all pay.

The scandalous neglect of public housing was one of the little noticed effects of the Conservative Government. The decline and social problems on many estates affected not only the people living there, but the whole community. That was the price we paid. With the collapse of Railtrack, people saw that the theme that private was always good and public always bad was no longer tenable. There have to be changes, but our public services are already demonstrating that they can rise to that challenge. Services such as NHS Direct and the university for industry demonstrate that flexible and responsive public sector services can be delivered when people need them.

There are many examples of innovation and service delivery of the highest standard in my constituency. Our libraries are now installing computers so that even those who cannot afford computers in their homes can have access to the internet. Health visitors in my area set up a project called "tackling men's health", where they worked with the local rugby league club to raise awareness of men's health issues. In Orford in the middle of my constituency, a personal medical services pilot demonstrates some of the best practice. By changing the way it works, it has met the health needs of the area. For example, under the direction of the practice nurse, it offers a good smoking cessation service. Its front-line staff have been retrained. Receptionists have become primary care assistants and can check blood pressure or test urine samples. They can then take NVQs, allowing them to do other tasks such as taking blood samples or nebulising asthma patients. In doing so, they free up the time of other practice staff. A patient who is worried about whether he should come to the surgery can have a telephone consultation with a general practitioner. That is the sort of public service innovation that we want to encourage.

Some believe that our public services are in decline but I do not buy that. Of course, there are problems and there is much more to be done. However, many of them

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still deliver excellence every day. We tend to appreciate such services only when they are not there: for example, refuse collection or the much talked about health service.

My wonderful secretary, Lynn, has given me permission to use her recent experience of the health service as an example. A year last July, she had a brain haemorrhage. She could have died, but was treated in the Walton neurosurgery unit and in Warrington hospital. She later developed eye problems and was treated at St. Paul's eye unit in the Royal Liverpool University hospital. Throughout that time, she received excellent nursing and medical care. The surgeons not only saved her life but restored her sight and got her back to work.

When Lynn later developed cataracts, as she was warned that she would, they were dealt with speedily and efficiently. She went to see the consultant on Tuesday 26 November about the last of her cataracts. She was in hospital the following Sunday, and the operation was performed on Monday. She could not have bought that kind of care in the private sector, however hard she tried. She could never have met the costs at the point of use.

Lynn compared her most recent hospital experience with the time that she went for a minor operation in 1994. She said that the wards are cleaner, the food has improved, and staff morale is much better. It is better because we believe in and support public services whereas the previous Government did not. They opposed the creation of many hospitals, neglected them for 18 years and then tried to privatise them.

I give an example, taken from my constituency, of the result of that neglect. The previous Government allowed the creation of a private wing in the grounds of Warrington hospital. The wing went bust because no one could afford to use it, so we bought it for the NHS. Its facilities are now available for all local people according to need, not ability to pay. It is officially called the Daresbury wing, although staff refer to it as the Dobson wing, after the person who bought it.

My message is that public services can deliver and, for most people, they can deliver well. Of course, we must make changes. We are investing in public services in order to make those changes and to put right 18 years of neglect. Spending, particularly on health and education, is now increasing faster than it is in most European countries. An extra £43 billion is to be spent on public services between this year and 2004, besides the extra £1 billion for the health service announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his pre-Budget report. We expect that reform will accompany that investment.

My examples have demonstrated that staff in the public sector are ready to make changes to the way in which they work. That is right, because most of our services were designed for the 1950s. Society has changed irrevocably since then. People expect more. They are no longer so grateful to have any service at all that they will put up with long waits and shabby premises. Our staff know that and are working to meet expectations.

We should not duck the need for change; it offers us great opportunities. We should lay down the principles that underlie public provision, even when we make

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changes. The first of those principles is that public services should support and help those who help themselves and allow them to move forward. However, public services must also recognise their duty to care for the weakest in our society, who cannot help themselves.

We can make public services more responsive to local needs and local demands by investing in and supporting front-line staff. In my experience, staff on the front line often know more about what is needed and what works in public services than anyone else. Staff are fizzing with ideas, which we must allow them to try out. We must be adult enough and honest enough to admit that, although most of those ideas will work, some may not. Change is always a risk.

We should recognise the expertise of staff who have spent many years in the public sector, often on low pay. We should be rewarding them and building on their commitment to ensure that we make the best use of their experience. The Government have taken steps in that direction by allowing health care assistants to train as nurses, for example, and classroom assistants to become teachers. However, a lot more needs to be done. The Government must examine the matter. People who make a commitment to public service should be rewarded with a proper career path.

We must create a proper public sector management ethos. We need to recruit the best and brightest managers, and to find ways to encourage them to be committed to a career in public service. We should explore the possibility of establishing a public sector management college that will attract the best and brightest, taking as our model the French Grands Ecoles, a prestigious institution that enables people who enter public service to have a good career. Managers who deliver must be rewarded.

Our public services must develop a greater culture of openness and accountability. They should be willing to learn from their mistakes; they should be able to admit it when things go wrong and to put them right. We are making great strides in the national health service, for example, in that respect. However, a lot more needs to be done.

The culture of accountability must be taken further. Local authorities must be freed, so that they can invest in reform and make improvements. I am glad that the Government have made a commitment to allow them to borrow, because we need to give real choices to the people on the ground. People who work in housing, for example, need to be able to choose between trusts, arm's length companies and staying with the council. They can have that choice only if local councils can invest in repairs and improvements in the same way as housing trusts can.

We should not be afraid of that. We should recognise that, in different parts of the country, that will result in different conditions and in different ways of doing things. That is local democracy: if a local authority gets things wrong, it will pay the price at the ballot box, just as hon. Members do.

We need to have a grown-up debate with voters about public services—about what our priorities are and how we are going to pay for them. We must be honest politicians and admit that we cannot perform miracles. There is a price to be paid for everything, and it is impossible to have American levels of taxation and

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European levels of public service. We need to say to people that if they are not prepared to fund public services, there is another price to pay, which we experienced under the last Conservative Government: not only poor services, but a fractured society.

The price that is paid for public services is a subscription for belonging to a decent society. Public services have delivered that consistently, for many years. They have delivered excellence and care, and have allowed many people to improve their lives in ways that were previously unimaginable. We should celebrate that, and look at ways to allow our public services to go forward, working with their staff to do an even better job in the future.

9.48 am

Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre): It is a pleasure to take part in the debate and, in particular, to follow the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). I agree with everything that she has said. Her eloquence is matched only by that of the 13 empty chairs that are facing us this morning. That speaks volumes about the Opposition's attitude to the celebration of public services. It is great to celebrate public services, and we should do emphatically.

My background is as a social worker with children and families in local authorities. That profession is the epitome of public service. Social workers with children and families carry out the fundamental role that is given to local government: the role of "corporate parent"—an appalling and horrible phrase—to young people in care. It is a good parent to young people who must be looked after. Social work is a service that practises unconditional positive regard: people are worthy of respect, hard work and compassion whatever they have done, and they have dignity, something to offer and can be worked with.

Social work with children and families is a service that attends to the needs of the needy and vulnerable and those whose behaviour can be extremely challenging and difficult. The service reaches out to people who have been bereaved, abused, wronged and hurt. It represents the last line of defence for many people; sometimes it is the only line of defence that they ever have. The service reaches out to people in custody and prison, those who suffer from mental illness and those who have absolutely nothing. Hundreds of thousands of people do social work with children and families in many ways. We must acknowledge that cleaners, domestics or handymen, who may not think that they have skills in social work but who can build good relationships, can often do the best work with children in children's homes. Their practical activities may strike a chord with people whom others have been unable to touch.

Many people work in social services and some are the best people I know or will ever know. They work with children and families not as a job, but as a vocation. They always go the extra mile and never give up on people. They keep on keeping on, work antisocial hours and always and unequivocally put the needs of children and their families first.

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Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is something very precious about the public services to which he has referred? The public service ethos cannot be bought. People have a real commitment to those for whom they care, which goes beyond mere payment. It is not only about remuneration. It would be bad to lose that ethos.

Mr. Dawson : I agree with my hon. Friend, who makes my point for me, but he leads me in another direction. The spirit of public service and the vocational emphasis have often been abused in the past, and people have not been properly paid or treated well at work.

We rarely hear about people who simply go about their ordinary lives and the business of social work, however high quality and heroic the work may be. I use the word "heroic" in its proper sense. Frankly, the world seems interested in many public services, certainly in social services, only when things go wrong. People are interested in failures and scandals, workers' incompetence, and villains. Every activity—social work, public service, every other activity in the world—has those features. It is right that incompetence, bad practice and downright criminal behaviour should be exposed but, for once, we have an opportunity to celebrate public service.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): An important point is being made about failure. Does my hon. Friend agree that, through the Office for Standards in Education, the Audit Commission and others, far too much focus is on identifying failure rather than looking for success, good practice and promoting, praising and celebrating that success and good practice?

Mr. Dawson : I could not agree more. That is an exceptionally important point. Far too often, we examine to detect failure and define problems when we could be looking at the details of day-to-day work, which is of high quality, and bringing it to the fore. It always amazes me to see the Oscar ceremonies and awards on television, when well paid and famous people queue up to slap each other on the back. I want to see loads of social workers getting awards for the good jobs that they do day in, day out.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I think that the hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the concept of the Audit Commission. Every Audit Commission report is based on looking at good practice, celebrating public service and saying, "If it can be done well in one part of the public sector, why can it not be matched in another part?" It is not about doing down the public services. It is about celebrating them when something is done well, and asking others to match that quality.

Mr. Dawson : To tell the truth, I do not recall mentioning the Audit Commission. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says about its role. However, the culture in which so much inspection takes place is about finding fault. There should be an emphasis on looking at good quality, extending it and supporting those who carry out such work, sometimes in the most difficult circumstances, where resources are poor and management structures are not as good as they should be.

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The best way to celebrate public services is to talk about the ways in which we can support public services better. In many cases, extremely valuable staff performing an important function are let down by a range of people. Often they are let down by local politicians—I speak as someone who has been a local politician—who do not value properly the services that they carry out, and sometimes do not understand the fundamental importance of their role. Sometimes, they need to be reminded forcefully, as they were only a couple of years ago by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), about their fundamental role in relation to corporate parenting. It must be emphasised and re-emphasised over and again that local councillors have the most important role to play in relation to the parenting of children in care and many other services.

Staff at the front line and the sharp end are often let down enormously by the grievous bureaucracy that still prevails, unfortunately, in many parts of the public sector, and in other areas, by inflexibility, departmentalism, and—my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North made this point extremely well—management who fail to listen to, value, understand and empower those staff at the coal face who know the job inside out, are utterly committed to their work and have brilliant ideas about how to develop and improve the service.

We should trust and empower people more and give them proper support. Giving those who do some of the lowest-paid jobs in public services their head would bring about far greater improvements to public services than the Fancy Dan, top-down approaches of privatisation and external management techniques. If we trust those who are committed to working in public services and support them properly, we will make much greater progress.

We must provide support by offering precisely the career structure to which my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North referred, and by paying such people properly. Every Wednesday, the "Society" pages of The Guardian advertise social work posts. Today's advertisements are asking for experienced people to work in child protection, with offenders with mental disorders, with children who need preparation for long-term placements, and with children and adults whose terrible disabilities have undermined their lives. However, we are offering such people between £16,000 and £23,000 a year.

On Tuesdays, The Guardian carries many advertisements for jobs in the media, in marketing and cultural services. Important and good as those jobs undoubtedly are, they do not hold a candle to those advertised in The Guardian today, yet they are paid tremendously better than front-line social work posts. We should pay those who work in public services a decent rate, particularly given that the economy is so successful and that a wide range of employment opportunities exists. No wonder we are finding it difficult to recruit staff for important public services.

We must ensure that our public services are staffed not only by paragons—those for whom such work is a vocation, and who will work all day, every day because

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that is what they want to do—but by competent, highly intelligent, well-motivated, career-minded people who see in such work a good way to earn a living throughout their entire working life. I hope that this debate contributes to that process.

10.3 am

Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing this debate, on making an excellent speech, and on giving us the opportunity to celebrate public services. I apologise for the fact that, unfortunately, I must leave before the end of the debate to attend a Select Committee meeting. I shall be brief so that others can contribute.

As has been said, we all tend to take for granted the invaluable contribution that those who work in public services make to our daily lives. We certainly need to give them greater reward and recognition. In particular, we need to tackle the continuing inequality in pay, which has been highlighted in today's news and which affects many women workers. I liked the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson): why should we not have a national Oscar awards-type ceremony every year for every sort and grade of public service worker ?

I should declare an interest: I am a member of Unison, the largest public service union. I came into politics through my activity as a shop steward; later I became a full-time official representing public service workers. I wanted to tackle the injustices that I saw in society in general, and particularly the injustices and inequalities that were affecting public service workers and the people to whom they gave such commitment.

I can offer one or two examples of public service workers from my own experience. I worked with and represented hospital domestics in Liverpool, Ayrshire, Renfrewshire and Fife. Prior to privatisation, they treated hospital wards as though they were their own homes. They were low-paid, part-time women workers but they knew the names of every single patient and would take the time to stop to say hello and have a chat. They would pay for from their own pockets and bring in a card or small present for an elderly patient whose birthday it was. They would provide comfort and support to patients and families, as well as the same high standard of cleanliness as they expected and provided in their homes.

They were not there for the money; they were on very low pay. They were there because of a genuine commitment. As my hon. Friends have said, when the last Conservative Government started to privatise cleaning, catering and other services, we lost those standards and that quality. Report after report has demonstrated that what we predicted at the time has happened: hygiene quality and standards have suffered. We must now show our commitment to restoring that quality and those standards and to giving women such as those hospital domestics a feeling that they are recognised and valued as equal members of our society.

Another example of such commitment comes from my contact with home helps and home carers throughout the country. Again, the vast majority were women working part time who balanced low-paid jobs with bringing up their families. They were often carers for adult, elderly or disabled relatives and, in areas such

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as Fife and Ayrshire, had to deal with the horrendous consequences of the miners' strike: a year without pay and the devastation that that brought to their families and communities. However, time and again, they went beyond their contractual hours. They would call in at weekends, on public holidays, at Christmas and new year to ensure that wee Jeanie or wee Jimmie were all right and had all that they needed.

As we all look forward to settling down in our warm comfortable homes at the Christmas and new year break, we should remember that every day of the week, 24 hours a day, public service workers are out there providing services that we take for granted. We all give an occasional thought to ambulance staff, the fire service and the police, but it is too easy to forget the many other public service workers: those in residential and nursing homes; those who provide all sorts of hospital care; those who provide emergency repairs to the roof when stormy winds have blown it off; those who come out to tackle problems with and restore gas, electricity and water supplies affected by stormy weather.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North has said, we must also remember those who collect our refuse. We are all desperate to have our bins emptied after Christmas because they are full of turkey bones and wrapping paper, and we expect the bin men to provide that service. The refuse collectors in my area take time to check that people who are on their own are all right. If their bin has not been put out, they will ensure that someone knocks on the door to check that they are well.

I represent a Scottish constituency which is known for bad weather during the winter months and I want to mention the road gritters and the services that they provide in more remote and rural communities. They go out in blizzard conditions when the rest of us are told to stay at home and not venture out. They put their lives at risk to accompany ambulances, fire engines and other vehicles that may be trying to reach people trapped in their cars, or to get people to hospital for emergency or urgent treatment.

I back the excellent speeches and suggestions of my hon. Friends the Members for Warrington, North and for Lancaster and Wyre. I am proud to be a citizen of a country in which hundreds of thousands of people show a daily commitment to others. I am proud to be a member of a union that seeks to give equal worth and value to those people. I am proud and accept the responsibility of having been given the opportunity to be a Member of Parliament. We must deliver greater reward and recognition for our public service workers and give them the opportunities that public services give to us.

10.11 am

Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing this debate and on her excellent speech, in which she spoke passionately about the magnificent public services in Britain and the workers who are employed in them. My hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) and for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) also made admirable speeches. I endorse everything they said.

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I shall focus on privatisation. I urge the Government and my hon. Friend the Minister to keep public services public and not to pursue privatisation. Some weeks ago in this Chamber, I described the private finance initiative as irrational nonsense. I do not retract from that at all and was pleased that it gained some currency in the broadsheet journals. Since then, more evidence has come to light, demonstrating that what I said was correct.

I want to quote some research from Unison, which estimates that

Thus we get 5 per cent. extra costs or, to put it another way, 5 per cent. less for our money by using PFI schemes.

Other aspects of privatisation have been touched on. Contracting-out of services inevitably means that profits are paid from costs, public service workers' pay is squeezed and staffing levels are cut. The quality of services gets worse. Reference has been made to hospital cleaning. At Luton and Dunstable hospital, we have come to the point of taking cleaning services back in-house. We have deprivatised them and the hospital is becoming cleaner. It has recently had a magnificent report; it is one of the hospitals that received three stars in the Government's assessment. I understand that it is the 11th best hospital in the country.

There is other research evidence on privatisation and private sector costs. Public and private health care costs in the United States of America have been compared. Administrative costs as a percentage of total hospital costs in the USA are 22.9 per cent. in the public sector and 34 per cent. in the private sector. We all know what a bloated, over-expensive health service the Americans have in the private sector.

Australian evidence shows that the estimated average cost per medical episode in Australia is 10 per cent. higher in private than in public hospitals. Where does the money go? It goes into profits and into vast payments for company executives. Statistics provided by the Labour research department show where the money goes and what remuneration executives receive. At Rentokil, one of the contracting companies, Sir Clive Thompson receives a salary of £1,076,000 per annum. In Jarvis plc, Paris Moayedi receives £509,000 per year; last year he received a 46.7 per cent. increase on the previous year, as well as dividends of £368,000.

Comparisons can be made between that remuneration and the average pay of workers in the contracting companies; for example, the chief executive of Compass, Francis McKay, receives £660,250 per year, while his average employee is paid £8,545. That is 77 times greater, which is grotesque. The great majority of workers in such companies are low-paid women.

When we increase public spending, we want the money to go into service provision and patient care, not into the bloated profits of a private contractor or fat-cat executive payments. The problem is decades of underfunding of our public services. One example is health. We can refer to the European Union average, to which much reference has been made recently. During the past 30 years, we have spent nearly £10 billion a year

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less on our health service than the European average; the precise figure is £9.2 billion. That is the equivalent of £14 million per constituency every year for 30 years. The situation is getting worse: the difference between France, which allegedly has the best health service in the world—not the most expensive, but the best—and us is the equivalent of £40 million per constituency every year. No wonder we have stresses and problems such as queues in the health service, and health service workers not being paid as they should be.

GPs and consultants have visited me to ask me to intervene to solve some of the problems that they face daily. I frequently write to Ministers at the Department of Health, who know that my letters are sometimes intemperate in language, which I regret. However, we must sometimes speak the truth.

Recently, a friend retired from being a teacher and needed a bypass operation, which he could not get. He had to wait while in danger of having a heart attack and perhaps dying. A friend of his had a house in France and said, "Come and stay with me for a few weeks. If after dinner one night you have a slight pain in the chest, the local hospital will give you a bypass overnight. After that, you can spend a while longer with me and then return home." He could have a bypass in France free of charge, but could not do so in his own country. That is a shame. The health service is not unwilling, but the resources are simply not there.

Luton and Dunstable hospital in my constituency is a fine one with dedicated people working for it. I am in regular contact with them and praise them to the skies for their work. None the less, they admit that their cardiac department is half the size that it should be. It is no wonder that there are problems and that a GP should contact me asking what to do when a patient needs an angioplasty and cannot get one because of lack of resources.

We must invest in the public sector and consider what has happened to it during the past 30 years. The figures provided by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which were recently published in a report, are incredible and show how public investment has fallen in Britain during that time. Since 1975, when it peaked, investment in the public sector has fallen from 9 per cent. of gross domestic product to 2 per cent. of GDP in 2000. No wonder we have difficulties. Spending must rise substantially, but it must go into public services and decent pay for public sector workers, not into private finance initiatives or private contracting.

I refer to a campaign recently started by Unison. I should declare an interest: I am associated both with the General Municipal Boilermakers union and Unison, two unions in the public sector, although I speak entirely for myself and my constituents. There is a campaign called "Remember 83". For Labour Members, remembering 1983 is a painful experience. I was a Labour candidate for Parliament that year, and I did well narrowly to beat the third-placed candidate in the same constituency where I now have a majority of some 10,000. That is how badly we did in 1983. The "Remember 83" campaign is about not 1983, but the 83 per cent. of the population who oppose introducing the private sector into public services. They do not want privatisation of the health service.

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I urge the Minister to remember that we must not lose the public service ethos —the sense of commitment to public service and to our fellow human beings. When people work for other people, they feel better about themselves than they would if they worked simply for money. Money goes only so far. We all need it to live on, so it seems right that people should be properly remunerated. However, when people are working for other people, they feel that what they are doing is of immense value, particularly when those people are vulnerable, young, old, sick or disabled. That is when they are at their best and when human beings are at their most noble. It is Labour Members' job to remember that and to promote it for the future, not to go down the route of privatisation.

10.24 am

Mr. Harold Best (Leeds, North-West): I was delighted to discover that the time for this debate had been obtained through the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones). I thought that her speech this morning was first class.

I am standing here today because of the success of public services. Two factors allowing me to stand here are due to the national health service. First, cardiology was important to me just a few years ago; I might not be standing here otherwise. Secondly, this summer, I had my left hip replaced again. That operation involved some re-engineering of work done 15 years ago by the NHS. Therefore, I stand here as a representative of the success of the NHS, one of the finest public services that it is possible to imagine. However, public services are not always as well run as one might anticipate or hope for.

There is a tendency for us sometimes to forget experiences that we have had in the past. I would like to tell the Chamber about an experience I had in the 1970s—a long time ago. My wife and I were going to be godparents in a town in Yorkshire called Knaresborough, which is not far from Harrogate. We had to travel from Leeds. We checked the timetable for the train on Sunday, and found the train we wanted. We turned up at the station, only to discover there was no train at that time.

I went to complain to the people in the railway station, and the man said, "There normally is a train, but the trouble is that we're doing some maintenance work on the track and we forgot to amend the timetable. Just a moment." He disappeared and then returned to say, " I've just cleared this with my boss." He climbed over the counter and said, "Follow me." We got into his car and within half an hour we were in Knaresborough.

That sort of dedication from a public servant in providing customer satisfaction cannot be beaten. Imagine that same type of service being provided by Arriva—those who know the area know what I am talking about. Arriva cannot even get the drivers to run the trains. Every day, at Leeds station, there is an announcement saying, "We regret to inform people wishing to travel to Huddersfield that there is no train because there is no driver. However, there is a bus running from Leeds station to Huddersfield station." Those are the essential benefits that one can get from a public service, as opposed to some examples of private service.

I do not want to be seen as someone who knocks private services. I am talking about successful public services. We all experience successful private services at

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some stage in our normal working day: one enters a corner shop and the service is first class because there is direct contact with the public. Shopkeepers need to know that they are satisfying their customers in a personal, direct way. There are similar examples. It is a case not of one against the other, but of managing the most intelligent form of service that is required to meet particular needs. We must maintain that balanced view.

Public service means more than the health service and the railway system. Today, we are taking part in perhaps the most important public service: that which democracy renders to the people, whom it claims to represent and work for. Regrettably, there has been a serious decline in the ability of local democracy to deliver for the people it is elected to represent. We must redress that balance in favour of public servants in local government. If we can do that, we shall be committing a great act in defence of public services. The demoralisation of local government by spending controls has been terrible to witness, and we must give back the power to deliver to public services such as democracy.

If hon. Members' constituencies are like mine, there will be problems with street litter. My constituency has a serious problem in that regard. More than 50 per cent. of my constituency's residents are transients, most of whom are students; shortly, they will vacate the area in which I live for Christmas. There is a huge take-away industry in my constituency, although it is really a throw-away industry. Vast quantities of material are deposited in public places, and it is deeply offensive to the public eye. It is time that we took action to defend those public spaces, which are ours. We should be able to do that through local government, which is the greatest public service.

Because I feel passionate about local government's role in public services and the democratic values that flow from the public service that councillors give, I want to give other hon. Members an opportunity to speak. I shall sit down, but I want hon. Members to notice how smoothly I do so, which is due to the success of the NHS.

10.28 am

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): I am always keen to follow a smooth act, and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best), I am keen to stress the importance of high-quality, world-class public services. We are on the road to achieving that.

Real investment is going into public services. Alongside that investment, we must reform the public services. Social workers, teachers and refuse cleaners are committed to that.

World-class public services are provided by involving the work force. The Government's position on public services seems to be linked to earlier reforms by previous Governments. That is dangerous. It is vital to consider how good public services are managed. There is a role for the private sector in the delivery of public services, but it is up to Ministers with responsibility for health, education and other matters to define what it is. Uncertainty about that definition is leading to a lack of morale in public services. There is still a feeling that public service delivery is bad and private sector delivery is good. It is important to ensure that services work for the communities that they serve.

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Yesterday, I met a group of Unison stewards from Nottinghamshire. I must confess that I am a Unison member; I have been involved in the delivery of public services all my life. What struck me was their determination that services should meet the needs of families and communities.

In strengthening the resources of the Cabinet Office and the delivery unit, we should be aware that setting targets can create problems. Resources should be devolved to a local level to let local people deliver local solutions to local problems. We should celebrate the fact that people in Luton, Lancaster, Leeds, Nottingham, Newcastle or Nuneaton come up with different solutions and responses, but there is some anxiety about that. We hear a lot about the control freak tendency. I say on the record very quickly that I do not think that that exists. However, unless we empower local people we will lose the commitment of public sector workers.

Regulatory bodies such as Ofsted, the police inspectorate and the Audit Commission focus too much on the nuts and bolts of service delivery. They are good at looking for efficiency measures, but not so good at identifying and promoting success. I accept that the Audit Commission has changed its position, but the district auditor's approach to best value continues to focus on failure. If there is one body that has created a lack of morale in the education service it is Ofsted, with its consistent focus on failure. We need to identify success and to treat the work force who are producing it as beacons of excellence.

We should celebrate what is good in public services. There is a great deal of it about. We should be proud to use public servants to roll forward our public services to ensure that they meet local needs. Investment is taking place and the work force are committed to reform. The messages that we send out to them, both at national and local level, must aim to facilitate and encourage them in their work.

The central focus on targets is a danger. Let us loosen the lead a little, devolve resources, and let local people and work forces consider local problems and introduce local solutions. That really would be a celebration of success in our public services.

10.34 am

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester): I am delighted to take part in this excellent debate. I congratulate warmly the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on bringing us together to focus on success and to celebrate public services. All too often, Members of Parliament hear in their constituency surgeries about the bad side and the difficulties. All too often, the debate is about the problems. It is important to celebrate the good work that takes place.

The hon. Lady was right to say that we often take public services for granted. She was also right to highlight current innovation, use of the internet and development. Public services are moving on. I agree that we need a mature and sensible debate about their future.

The hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) was right to talk about the need to empower staff. Front-line staff know a lot about what is involved in their work day to day. We should trust and empower those individuals more, so that they have a greater say. He was right to touch on the issue of pay,

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and to compare the salaries for jobs advertised in The Guardian on Monday with those for jobs advertised in that newspaper on Wednesday.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) highlighted the public sector ethos—on Christmas day, people nip in to see the folks for whom they care, and are prepared to put their hand into their pockets to pay for a Christmas card and a present. That is an important point.

I disagree with several points made by the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). He did not have an open mind on private sector involvement. I agree that PFI is not a satisfactory model, but there are many other ways in which the public sector can become involved in public services apart from PFI. We are too hung up on thinking that PFI is the only way in which that can be achieved. I would describe the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) as the bionic man—I am delighted that the operations have been successful—and I was pleased that he had an open mind about private sector involvement.

It is a big disappointment that we did not have a chance to hear more from the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping). If he had had more time to speak, we would have heard much more interesting information. I agree entirely with his remarks about Ofsted and his critical point about falling into the trap of assuming that everything that the private sector does is good, and everything that the public sector does is bad. There is good and bad on all sides. In a mature debate, we need to look at best practice.

I want to focus on a few key issues in relation to public services, and to allow time for the two winding-up speeches. Money is an issue. I quote one example that had a profound impact on me. A couple of years ago, I visited the pathology department in my local hospital. I was able to avoid passing out at seeing blood everywhere, but the other big impact was made by the comments of two individuals who worked in that department. The first person said that he was going to leave the department to work for a food manufacturer and to test chicken for bacteria. He was going to earn more money doing that. I looked at the second person and said that she looked absolutely exhausted, and that she must be working extremely hard. She said that she did work hard, but the reason why she was exhausted was that she finished her pub job at midnight the night before. She had to do that job to be able to work in the pathology department. What a ridiculous situation.

Another issue is to try to reward some of the people who work in public services. Currently, there is a Queen's police medal and a Queen's fire service medal. That leaves a big gap. Will the Minister consider the idea of a Queen's ambulance service medal? The work carried out by the ambulance service is phenomenal. It is often the first service on the scene, and is involved in horrendously difficult situations such as air and rail accidents. The people who work in that service put themselves into difficult situations with great bravery. I tabled an early-day motion on that issue during the previous Parliament, which attracted about 100 names. Support also comes from the Red Cross, the fire service and the police, who want their colleagues in the emergency services to be rewarded.

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I want to speak briefly about work loads. We can talk about pay, awards and rewarding staff, but the other big issue is the amount of legislation and initiatives coming from central Government, which impact on our public services. Since this Government came to power, 4,500 targets have been set in the key area of education. The first thing that happens to me when I visit a school is that the head takes me into an office and shows me a pile of legislation and initiatives. Heads would probably say that the individual ideas are good and worthy. However, the problem is the collective amount of stuff that comes through. I hope that the Government recognise that they could help those who work in the public service by pacing change more and acknowledging that the pile of red tape and legislation is too great.

It is important to involve and engage some of the professions. They would be prepared to move with change, and many public service workers would be prepared to examine a model using the private sector. It is critical to have an open mind, to involve those individuals in the debate and to listen to them more. We hear the criticism that the Government do not appear to want to listen to them.

Mr. Hopkins : The hon. Gentleman mentioned my speech in passing and talked generally about the success of the private sector in public services without giving specific examples. I have dozens of examples of the failure of the private sector in public services. Will he tell me about the successes?

Mr. Oaten : The hon. Gentleman mentioned the case of his friend who went to France and had a successful operation. However, the French model is not purely funded by public money because parts of the model work differently. That is a classic example from the hon. Gentleman's speech.

I make a plea on the difficulty of recruiting individuals to public services. In Winchester and the south-east, property prices are phenomenally high and we have major difficulties recruiting police, care workers and hospital workers. We have to recruit people from abroad to work in hospitals and desperately try to fill gaps and vacancies in the police service. The Government have introduced concepts about key workers' salaries, but they must try harder to tackle the issue. Although we wish to celebrate public services and reward individuals, if we cannot recruit people, we are in a real mess.

10.41 am

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing the debate and on her passionate and informed speech. I was struck by what she said about how public services have helped to improve peoples' lives over recent decades and the changing experiences in her grandmother's lifetime. I am sure that she would acknowledge that Conservatives have formed the Government for 49 of the past 71 years. Therefore, the improvement is not wholly the Labour party's achievement.

In these debates, we should move away from slightly sterile exchanges in which the party in government claims that everything is perfect when it is in office and

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everything was dreadful when the other lot were in, while the party in opposition claims the reverse—everything was wonderful until it left office and has been dreadful ever since. There is excellence in the public services under this Government, and there was excellence under the last Conservative Government. There were problems in the past and there are problems now. The question is how we can address those problems and build on the successes.

I have often heard the hon. Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson), who is not quite a neighbour of mine, speak and he brings extraordinary knowledge, passion and care to all debates on social services. He has the greatest experience and expertise of any hon. Member on such matters and, yet again, he spoke with vim and vigour. He was correct to say that if we trusted public servants on the ground more, we would get more out of them and public services would run more smoothly.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) spoke from a background of considerable experience about injustices and inequalities that relate to public service workers.

Like the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten), I was struck by the remarks of the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins). He started in a non-partisan fashion with his scathing criticism of the private finance initiative, because that attacks both my party and his own Government. However, he described the French system as probably the best health service in the world. We must learn from the experience of other European countries.

Although many excellent people work in our national heath service—I would say that because my sister is an NHS GP—there are problems with our service. Health care outcomes are not as good as those in most other European countries. We should learn lessons from what works on the continent, and apply those lessons in Britain. If we reach non-partisan consensus on that, we will have made some progress.

Mr. Hopkins : As we all know, the problem is underfinancing. Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that French compulsory insurance, which makes a larger contribution to public services than direct taxation, is little different from British national insurance contributions? Compulsory insurance is less progressive than income tax, but because of France's more equal income structure, that is less of a problem. The French taxation system is less regressive.

Mr. Collins : I do not particularly want to intrude on the grief that apparently exists between the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In last week's Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister talked about social insurance in similar terms to those used by the hon. Gentleman, who may yet receive a call from 10 Downing street. The hon. Gentleman is back on the party line, as far as Downing street is concerned. In the pre-Budget report, the Chancellor was a little more scathing about funding health care by any method other than taxation. That debate is raging within Government, and we should discuss the issue, too.

I was delighted to see that the hon. Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) stood up and sat down smoothly. He mentioned that his first hip operation,

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which was performed successfully under the NHS, occurred 15 years ago. A Conservative Government were then in power, and that reflects the fact that there has been excellence and success under both Conservative and Labour Governments. It is not the case that public services were a terrible tragedy before 1997, or that there has been total excellence since then.

Mr. Best : I want the hon. Gentleman to acknowledge that a public service provided that service in both cases.

Mr. Collins : I do, and in the hon. Gentleman's case, it was a public service run by a Conservative Government, so we are all happy. What a delightful non-partisan note on which to proceed.

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) talked about the dangers of the Government's approach to health services. He was right to say that we must move away from the idea that the private sector is always good and the public sector is always bad. We should also move away from the opposite stance. The Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was right to say that it does not matter whether a cat is black or white; what matters is whether it catches mice. We should pragmatically consider what works.

We should reflect on the fact that our public services are important and are the fabric that holds our society together, whether their business is to save lives, defend national security, prevent crime, care for the vulnerable or pass on knowledge from one generation to another. I agree with the point about the importance of local government, which provides a vital public service by representing local communities.

We must move forward with clear principles. Many hon. Members have set out some of those. I should like to add a few, some of which are similar to those that we have heard. We must respect the professionalism of public servants. We must allow them to exercise independent judgment and to give those who depend on their services the benefit of their training and experience. That has implications for the quantity of regulation and inspection applied to public servants.

We must provide proper resources for our public services but we must also give them financial discretion. For example, there has been much debate on the state of cleanliness of our hospitals. Many hospitals in my constituency and elsewhere are grateful to the Government for providing additional resources for cleaning their hospitals but resent being told that the money can be spent on cleaning only those parts of the hospital that are visible to the public. Staff point out that to reduce the risk of disease or infection, they must clean the whole hospital, not just the bits that are on public display.

We must provide management and structures that ease, not hinder, the tasks of public servants. We must increase the choice available to those who use the services. That does not go against the public service ethos; the best public servants are strongly in favour of increased choice. We should thank our public servants, in a non-partisan way, for all that they do for us, our constituents, and residents and citizens of this country. Public servants are appreciated. Although hon. Members differ on many issues, Parliament strongly endorses, welcomes and supports the work of our excellent public services, and it looks forward to building on the best throughout the country.

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10.49 am

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Christopher Leslie) : This has been an interesting and wide-ranging debate, and I am glad that hon. Members have had an opportunity to examine the principles that underpin public services. It is impossible for me to address adequately in the remaining 10 minutes the many issues that have been raised.

The Trades Union Congress rally which took place in Westminster yesterday rightly sought to celebrate the virtues of the public services, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) on securing today's debate. She spoke passionately about her experiences of the public services and those of her family. She also mentioned the high ambitions and ideals of the founding fathers—and mothers—of our public services.

Opportunities to examine in detail the fundamental philosophy that underpins the public services occur too infrequently. As elected representatives—and, in some cases, holders of public office who help to run the public services—hon. Members should grasp every one of them. We should address several key questions. Why do we choose to deliver public services? Who is best placed to deliver them? What services should we deliver collectively? How do we make decisions about those services?

The most famous touchstone remark is that of Baroness Thatcher that there is no such thing as society. That comment has frequently been cited, because it exemplifies the fundamental divide in British politics between those who see the nation as a random collection of individuals, and those of us who cherish the reality of communities, families and networks of interdependency, and who acknowledge that they make up the society in which we live and our collective consciousness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best) memorably commented on the tradition of community spirit that has been demonstrated by our historic decisions to form Parliament, Government and local authorities and to deliver public services, which is a more tangible expression of that community ethos.

Our public services are rightly cherished. The public have a great affection for them and hold them in the highest esteem. We should underline the value of the role that is performed by those individuals who provide basic services for the nation such as health, schooling, policing, protecting the environment and ensuring that Britain keeps going at all times. We should pay tribute to their hard work and commitment.

My hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) and for Warrington, North referred to the quiet stories of excellence that occur every day in our public services. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Dawson) talked about the vocation of social work, and about how, day in and day out, social workers put the needs of children and families first. He used the word "heroic". That is the right term, and I pay tribute to those people. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, West (Rachel Squire) spoke about her experience of working in the

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public sector, and reminded us that we must not take for granted day-to-day services such as road gritting and refuse collection, as they are also important. As has been mentioned, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West is a walking testament to the virtues of the national health service and other public services.

Why do we come together, through Government, to provide public services? At root, we do that because of our common recognition that, as a civilised society, we constantly advance if we create a climate that is conducive to fostering opportunities for all. Everyone should be able to realise their potential. Everyone should be able to learn and to develop their skills for work and for self-improvement. Everyone should enjoy good health and longer and more comfortable lives. Everyone should be able to travel more safely in a decent environment and to have security so that they can lead peaceful lives that are free from crime. The importance of fun, leisure and recreation should not be forgotten.

All those reasons and more justify our delivery of public services. They do not benefit only the less fortunate and the more needy in society; we all benefit collectively from public services. We do not have public services for altruistic reasons alone. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins) pointed out that economies of scale can be gained from collective provision, which sometimes cannot be so easily gained through individual insurance-based provision. In addition, efficiencies and cost savings can be made. Those are all reasons for having mutually provided public services rather than services based purely on profit extraction.

Helen Jones : Does my hon. Friend agree that the minute people begin to use widespread private insurance services, they become more reluctant to pay for public services for the people who cannot afford it? The key to good public services is that they are provided for everyone.

Mr. Leslie : My hon. Friend has touched on the points that we have debated, particularly in the past few days, about the national health service, comparative ways of funding and raising resources, and the efficiencies involved. Social insurance and other forms of private insurance need to be examined in more depth. I agree with the points that she has made.

These are testing times for public services; there is no doubt about that. Demands are high, pressures are constant and capacity is always being strained. In schools, there is a drive for ever higher standards of achievement. In the national health service, there are more operations and higher expectations because the population is living longer than ever before. In transport, there are more commuters and higher car ownership. There are great problems in meeting the ever-increasing expectations of our public services, and they need to be dealt with. In some quarters, there is a history of poor management and perhaps back-burner attention from previous Administrations. There has been chronic under-investment, asset stripping and a failed dogma of unjustified privatisation.

There are stark realities that we need to face. Cures will not come simply or overnight. We must find better ways of developing true partnerships between managers

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and front-line staff to foster the feeling of shared common endeavour. We need to look at restructuring management systems and building the management skills that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North mentioned. Nothing is free in public services and ways must be found of paying for them. The pre-Budget report talked about how new resources should be matched with public services reform.

There are lots of solutions, many of which have been mentioned today. In the reform of public services, the existing system must be shored up with better recruitment and retention of key workers. Salaries must be improved. There should be performance incentives, but there must also be flexible working, child care assistance and so on. We must ensure that we make the capital investment necessary to improve the infrastructure that public servants work with day in, day out.

The Prime Minister set out four clear principles of public services reform. First, a framework of national standards, inspection and accountability, not simply to find fault, but to highlight good practice, needs to be devised. Secondly, we must devolve more freedom to front-line staff. Thirdly, the work of front-line staff should be more readily recognised and the value and professionalism of public sector workers acknowledged through pay awards and better conditions. The

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suggestion about an ambulance service medal made by the hon. Member for Winchester (Mr. Oaten) is certainly one that I will take back to my colleagues in the Department of Health. Fourthly, we must consider ways of widening choice for public services users, increasing variety and expanding those areas that are especially successful.

Private sector involvement it is not about dogmatic privatising. It is not a panacea or magical device. Nor is it about changing the ethos of public services. We must bring the best customer-oriented aspects of the private sector into the public sector. The public should be treated as individual consumers who deserve and expect respect and the highest quality of service, rather than as faceless recipients of product.

I understand some of the misgivings that have been voiced about public-private partnerships. However, we must look not only at the costs of borrowing, but at project management, servicing and the transfer of risk in those areas. There are too many issues for me to discuss all of them today. There are great things going on in public services. The notion of the public service ethos is extremely important. I believe that public services encapsulate mutual interdependence at local and national levels. That proves that public services are a good way of delivering what we need throughout our communities.

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