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Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Committee's work is valuable because it does not simply isolate opportunities for improvements but provokes them? He mentioned hip replacements, consistency, hospital-acquired infection and the regulation of waiting lists. There have been significant responses to our work, such as improvements in the NHS from which people have benefited.

Mr. Leigh: I am happy to accept that. The value of our Committee is that we do not try make party political points and we can therefore focus attention on issues, sometimes through pretty hard questioning and embarrassing the civil service. Most of the time, the Government respond. I pay tribute to those who respond and take our Committee's work seriously.

I was about to consider flooding, a serious matter that came to the fore in the autumn of 2000 when approximately 10,000 properties were hit by floods. Up to 5 million people and 2 million homes, businesses and other buildings in England are at risk from flooding. Yet the protection that homes and families might receive and whether flood warnings are issued depends on where one lives. That is remarkable. I did not know that before I began to study the Committee's work. When we took evidence on that serious issue, we learned that fewer than half those at risk of flooding live in areas covered by the Environment Agency's flood warning systems.

The Environment Agency needs to examine why different regions use different warning systems. It must satisfy itself that the methods used are the most effective in the circumstances and that they do not simply reflect local attitudes or the willingness to make funds available for warning systems. We were appalled to discover the poor condition of flood defence assets.

Nearly half the flood defence structures and a third of the barriers were categorised as fair, poor or very poor. We found that 165 km of flood defences are derelict. When someone is unfortunate enough to experience flooding, they can sometimes only use sandbags. However, in 2000, not everyone who wanted them could get them. Members of the public whose properties are at risk should not have to live with uncertainty about whether they will receive warnings or whether sandbags will be available.

Of course we welcome the extra investment for flood protection, but it will take years to take effect. A country-wide strategy is now required to deliver appropriate flood defence measures to the public, where similar flood risks exist regardless of where they live. This reflects our belief in equity. The current organisational responsibility and funding arrangements for inland flood defences are extremely complex. They involve a significant number of bodies—as I know, representing a low-lying area. They are confusing to the public, and possibly a hindrance to a consistent level of service.

To take a completely different example—one can range over the whole of government; I am just going to pick up one or two examples—there is also disparity in the

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treatment of benefit claimants across the country. For example, when we considered those who undergo medical assessments to determine their eligibility for disability and incapacity benefit, we heard another tale of large regional variations. The money involved is significant: more than £19 billion is paid each year in such benefits. Timely assessment is vital to avoid unnecessary delays for the prospective claimant, which could cause them worry or hardship. It is also important to protect the public purse by ensuring that people are paid only what they are entitled to.

The Committee heard that the time taken to process cases due for review varied across the country from 90 days—quite good—to 170 days. For example, those living in the west of Scotland have to wait nearly twice as long to hear the decision on their case as those living in the west country. The simple question that we want to ask is why they should have to do so. The Department for Work and Pensions needs to step up its efforts to ensure that claims are processed quickly, so that claimants across the whole country get their benefit without delay, and people who are ineligible are speedily removed from the system.

Equal access to public services and consistency in the quality of those services are essential. People across the land pay the same levels of tax, and we believe—this is a central part of our work—that they rightly expect to, and should, receive the same levels of service. My Committee will, I hope, continue to highlight cases of inconsistency. We will continue to define the elements of success where services work well, and provide a pointer so that the quality of services across the country can be brought up to the level of the best. There is no doubt that so much in our public services is of the best, but so much lags far behind. If our Committee can focus a spotlight on the worst services, and drag those responsible—including civil servants and officials—before us, we will have done our work.

If someone in the private sector fails, they may lose their job. In the public sector, perhaps the worst that can happen is that they come before the hon. Member for City of Durham, or my hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, but we will give them a hard time. We will not flinch from doing so because it is their job to provide the best public services throughout the nation.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the NHS seems to be the only organisation in the country in which someone who fails can get a £95,000 bonus?

Mr. Leigh: The Committee has studied that case recently, and will produce a report to which the Government will have to reply. I cannot go into too much detail until that has happened, but we were horrified by the case, and held a very hard-hitting hearing on it. It is simply not acceptable that people who fail in the public sector can be shuffled off—even into another job, in the NHS—so that those who are trying to investigate them cannot do that. We have to sort that out. We must ensure that people do not have a job for life just because they are in the public sector. Those who use the NHS have paid for their health care, and they deserve the best. If people are fiddling the waiting lists, they will have to go, and they will have to pay the price.

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I turn to the theme of innovation and risk management. Innovation is essential if public services are to improve, and it entails risk. We are not against risks. They are not something to be avoided, but they must be carefully identified, evaluated and managed. That is so easy to say. One might think that those are just words, but how often have those words been taken into account over the past decades?

Numerous reports by the Committee have focused on the issue of risk. Two, in particular, demonstrate the flexibility of our approach to the issue. In December, we reported on the debacle—there is no other word to describe it—surrounding the benefit payment card, which was a vast and complex project that failed at vast expense. Estimates vary, but the figure involved could be up to £1 billion. Some clear learning points surfaced in our inquiry.

The other report was published in November. It considered risk management across government and identified important gaps in risk management systems. If risks are not managed, enormous sums may be paid out. The benefit payment card is a classic example, although we acknowledge that the project was innovative and that it had special features that added to the risk, notably its status as a pioneering private finance initiative project and the need to join up the systems of two purchasers with different business objectives. While the various parties identified many risks at various stages, they underestimated the difficulty of tackling a huge and complex project at the heart of achieving benefit delivery and post office automation, all in one go.

We also investigated many basic management failures. When projects go wrong, which they inevitably do, management must face up to the prospect of failure and take prompt action to avoid abortive costs. Time and again in our work, we witness management's failure to get a grip. We might use fine words—the jargon and the long phrases in National Audit Office reports—but everything comes down to getting a grip. It took the former Department of Social Security a laboured 18 months to put the project out of its misery. The Government have set up better IT project management arrangements and I am sure that they take on board many of the lessons of good practice highlighted in our reports.

Our first report this Session considered what has been done to encourage Departments to improve risk management. For risk management to become a standard feature of how they carry out their activities, the benefits that it brings to service delivery and safeguarding public money need to be understood and accepted by all staff. One would have thought that obvious and clear, but if it is so obvious and clear why has it not been done? For example, we found that only 25 per cent. of Departments set clear risk management objectives. The initial Cabinet Office assessment of departmental risk frameworks shows that some are much more developed than others.

I hope that the report puts an end to the myth going round Whitehall that the Committee is a barrier to innovation and risk. Some permanent secretaries criticised my predecessor—in private, of course, not in public. The myth is, "If people in the civil service innovate and take risks, they might end up in the hot seat before the Committee." We will criticise Departments if they fail to identify and manage foreseeable risk, but we support greater innovation and we are prepared to accept that, on occasion, something unforeseeable will scupper even the

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best-planned project. One can at least plan for the future, but that is often not done. That was particularly the case with the former Department of Social Security's IT systems.

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