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Mr. Lidington: I am all in favour of disseminating best practice. The problem is that it is not enough simply to announce national targets or standards, if people do not have the commitment and sense of ownership at local level to drive up those standards and to take pride in delivering them to those whom they are responsible for serving.
That leads me on to the way in which the Committee follows up the reports that it produces. We have heard good examples of marked improvements in the quality of public services as a result of what the Committee has said in its reports. One example was the Committee's report on hip replacement, which helped to persuade the Government to set up a national joint registry. The Government should be given credit for responding in that way.
There have, however, been other examples in which a long time has elapsed between the problems being identified and action being taken. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough referred to the Public Trust Office, in which problems were identified in 1994, and to the fact that no effective action had been taken five years later. The same criticism could be made of the inaction of the Housing Corporation after problems with the Focus housing association were identified in the early 1990s.
I want to say a few words about the Sharman report, which is relevant to the sixth report of the Committee for 2000-01. I hope that the Financial Secretary will say something about this when he winds up the debate. It is nearly two years since the Government commissioned Lord Sharman to carry out his review, and nearly a year since he delivered the report. It is not unfair to ask the Government how much longer they intend to keep us waiting for their response. That response will be a big test of the Government's commitment to striking a fairer balance between the Executive and Parliament. At the risk of introducing a note of partisanship, I think that they have so far failed that test on issues such as the selection of members of parliamentary Select Committees, their failure to accept the report of the Liaison Committee, and the reform of the second Chamber. I hope that their response to Sharman will give them the opportunity to pull back some of the ground that they have lost.
I support the call from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough for the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee to have access, as of right, to non-departmental public bodies. That would sit well with the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) a few days ago, when he called for the heads of major NDPBs to be subject to interrogation and confirmation hearings by parliamentary Select Committees before taking up their appointments.
I also agree with the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough about bringing the BBC within the scope of NAO and PAC inquiries. It seems logical that, so long as licence fee payers continue to pay what amounts to a form of poll tax, the BBC should be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the way that my hon. Friend advocated.
I hope that the Minister shows us that, on this issue at least, the Government are on the side of greater accountability and greater openness. That is the right way to go and the way to secure the qualitative improvement in public services that we all want to achieve.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Paul Boateng): This excellent and wide-ranging debate does credit to the breadth, depth and quality that one associates with the Committee and its reports. The Committee has a proud tradition, and Gladstone has been mentioned. He often is when the traditions of the House are discussedand with good cause, as the Public Accounts Committee is one of his great creations.
I say that having had considerable experience of the hon. Gentleman over a long period. In the 1980s and 1990s, he and I spent many hours in Committee with my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg), who sends his apologies for being absent. He must attend an urgent constituency function, so he has left for Durham. We have all had the opportunity to observe each other at close quarters and, having listened to the hon. Gentleman's speech, I am bound to say that it did not disappoint in any way.
Membership of the Committee, and certainly its chairmanship, requires an acute, sceptical, inquiring and independent mind, which the hon. Member for Gainsborough has always had. He has a further quality that is important when considering such subjects as those dealt with by the Committeea sense of humour. Without that, one simply could not get through.
This afternoon has been an eye opener in a number of ways. I have been exposed to two of the new boys on the Committeethe hon. Members for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne). Both show the qualities that I have described as being essential to Committee membership. The hon. Member for South Norfolk showed his skills as a wordsmith. Indeed, I note from "Dod's" that he founded a company dedicated to words, so his threat to detain us long was taken seriously.
The hon. Member for Tatton has hopes for the fare at the away day. Although a member of the Committee, I do not seem to have been invited. Perhaps the fare will be too rich for my taste, but not rich enough for the hon. Gentleman, as I note, again from "Dod's", that he is related to a delicatessen on his mother's side. That might explain the nature of his appetites. By the sound of the Chairman's pre-emptive strike in terms of extending the Committee's scope to the Financial Services Authority, the royal household and the BBC, it will be an interesting away day and we look forward to the outcome of the discussions.
On a serious note, Treasury Ministers and civil servants owe the Committee and those who serve it a debt of gratitude. On behalf of my Department, I associate myself with the gratitude and respect offered to the Clerk and the staff, particularly the outgoing Clerk, who gave a great deal of service over many years to the Committee and the wider public. Liaison between the Committee, its staff and various Departments of State is vital to the success of its work.
The Committee benefits from the assistance of the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, and his staff at the National Audit Office. Their financial audit work and value for money studies are key aspects of the structure of accountability that we are all concerned to promote. Their professional approach is welcomed by all.
The Government are committed to improving the management of Departments. The Committee and the hon. Member for Gainsborough have been receptive to working with us to raise standards, and we look forward
This year, the Committee has inquired into a wide range of areas, which has resulted in many valuable recommendations. Its recommendations have undoubtedly helped to improve the delivery of public services, and stand as a record of the efforts of members of the Committee.
I shall deal in some detail with the report on "The Management and Control of Hospital Acquired Infection in Acute NHS Trusts in England", which is of particular importance and a tribute to the Committee's work. I was interested in the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Geraint Davies) in that regard. His speech added to our understanding of the thought processes behind that report, and cast a searching light on some of the challenges for the health service.
The Committee has reported on the NHS no fewer than five times in the period covered by these reports. That is a telling indication of how far the Committee shares with the Government a concern to improve that key public service.
I was particularly struck by the Committee's report following the valedictory appearance of Sir Alan Langlands, the former NHS chief executive. I had the pleasure of serving in the Department of Health as an Under-Secretary of State during his tenure. He was a dedicated public servant and, in many respects, an inspirational leader. The report strikes an excellent balance between recognition of the progress being made to improve the NHSit is undoubtedly being made, and we should pay tribute to it, as Members have indeed been good enough to doand the need to identify, clearly and frankly, areas that still need attention.
The particular power of the Committee's own hearings and subsequent reports lies in the fact that they serve as a real stimulus to Departments and other public bodies to consider and, where desirable, implement the options for improvement identified by the NAOwhich has been rightly dubbed Parliament's financial watchdog. Members in all parts of the House, particularly the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel), emphasised that the NAO was an instrument of Parliament. That is an important point, which ought to give the wider public a sense of the significance of the Committee's work.
The wider public will not, of course, see reports of today's debate that reflect its importance, because the press are simply not interested in debates of this kind. Both press and public, however, are interested in the Committee reports themselves, and in what the Committee's Chairman and members say while they are being published.