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29 Jan 2003 : Column 899—continued

Greenbelt Protection

Mr. John Baron accordingly presented a Bill to require local authorities to provide a designated number of permanent sites for the traveller community; to make additional provision in relation to the powers available to local authorities in relation to unauthorised development of greenbelt and greenfield land; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 March, and to be printed [Bill 49].

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Public Accounts

1.39 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): I beg to move,

The motion stands in my name and those of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) and the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel).

It has been an extraordinarily busy year for the Public Accounts Committee. In the past 12 months, we have produced almost 70 reports—probably more than in any one year in our 140-year history. If I were to devote only five minutes to each report, I would have to give a speech of Gladstonian length—[Hon. Members: "Excellent—go for it!"] That is the bad news. The good news is that I shall take only a few examples.

Our reports have covered almost every part of Government, from the vast Departments of State such as Health, Education, Defence and Revenue, to smaller but very interesting bodies such as the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. We have examined major defence spending programmes and high-profile health and education topics, as well as some of the behind-the-scenes operations that contribute much to the quality of public services, such as the roles of various regulatory bodies.

The rich and varied range of topics that we examine each year places the members of the Public Accounts Committee in a unique position in the House. Our remit spans the whole spectrum of government, our perspective is comprehensive and our conclusions and recommendations for improvement are pragmatic and, I believe, well founded. That claim is borne out by the fact that the Government accept more than 90 per cent. of those recommendations, which is a record unmatched by any other Committee—in fact, no other Select Committee comes anywhere close. The National Audit Office calculates that the work of the Public Accounts Committee has led to savings of £1.5 billion in the past few years.

Our role is twofold. We exist to hold to account those who are responsible for spending the hard-earned money of taxpayers, and we are bold and outspoken when we find that the expected standards of financial management have not been met. We are also anxious to ensure that lessons are learned and mistakes not repeated, so we cast a retrospective eye over events, but we adopt, we hope, a forward-looking and positive approach, and we are prepared to commend when it is right to do so.

Some senior officials may regard an appearance before my Committee as little preferable to an audience with the Inquisition, but the purpose of our rigorous questioning, which we try to do politely, is to make a difference and provide an effective check on the actions of the Executive. That is surely what Parliament is about. However, we do not stop there. This year, we showed that we are prepared to take on a major company, Imperial Tobacco, by questioning its chief executive and posing severe questions about an aspect of the company's activities.

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I am extremely proud to be Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the best and most influential Committee in Parliament. Our work load is staggering, but shouldered with great competence by my colleagues on the Committee. I hope that I am giving nothing away, but when I recently spoke to the Clerk of another Committee who was watching the progress of our work, he said, with some surprise, "But they ask their own questions! In our Committee, we give the Members the questions." In the PAC, we ask the questions and we do the research.

Our success is due to our solid cross-party consensus, which again makes us unique. On my watch, I shall never allow party politics or advantage to influence our work—

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Shame.

Mr. Leigh: It is not a shame at all. It is central to our achievements. As our inquiry into Portcullis House showed, we are prepared to look to our own without fear or favour.

We are well supported by our Clerk and his staff, who also have a vast work load because of not only the number of reports that we issue, but the mountain of correspondence on every aspect of public life that we receive. I pay tribute also to the organisation with which we work so closely, the National Audit Office. I thank Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, whose reports to Parliament do so much to inform the work of the Committee—indeed, they make the work of the Committee possible.

I shall focus on three themes that have characterised the Committee's work in the past year: improving service delivery to the public; fraud; and improving the quality of public administration. Improving the quality of public services is not a party political issue. The Prime Minister himself has placed great emphasis on the need to make rapid progress in that respect, and the PAC welcomes that initiative. Over the past year, we have looked, from the point of view of service delivery, at a number of different areas. We have found the picture to be mixed; we have found much good practice and staff dedication, but also evidence of major shortcomings and the need for improvement. Let me give some examples.

Perhaps the most visible example of public service delivery is the provision of health services. In our 45th report, we focused on efforts to reduce NHS waiting lists and waiting times. A lot of money is being spent on the problem and we were keen to find out what progress had been made. At the time of our inquiry, over 195,000 people in England and Wales had been waiting for more than 13 weeks for an out-patient appointment, and just over 1 million people were waiting for treatment.

Waiting a long time can be a painful and dispiriting experience, as I found out myself a week ago at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital, where I was kept waiting for more than two hours for a four-minute appointment. It makes people angry that the money that they see being put into the health service is not being used wisely. In addition, over a third of patients stated that their condition worsened while waiting.

Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): The Chairman of the Committee may remember that the following report was

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about occasions when some parts of the NHS had tried to fudge the waiting lists, and had made people wait inappropriately for that reason. Does he recall the suggestion that the NHS should have told those people if they had been inappropriately put down the waiting list because they might have been due compensation? The NHS did not seem very happy about that. Would he like to take up that point?

Mr. Leigh: I shall deal with that point later, but the hon. Gentleman is right that the NHS could have been more forthcoming about compensating people if their waiting times had been inappropriately adjusted. That is a good point and we shall want to debate it at greater length.

We found some evidence of improvement in waiting lists and waiting times, and we give credit to the efforts of the Government; where credit is due, we give it. But we also found significant variations in waiting lists and times in different parts of the country and in different specialisms. The accuracy of the figures remains uncertain, partly because not all hospitals check their waiting lists often enough. We found that pressure to reduce waiting lists had led to significant numbers of consultants treating less urgent patients before others with higher clinical priority. That was entirely unacceptable and the Department issued clear guidance that clinical priorities must be adhered to. We wanted annual surveys to be carried out to make sure that consultants were observing the guidance that was now being given to them.

The large amount of extra money—there are huge amounts of extra money going into the health service—is to be welcomed, but only if it is spent wisely and effectively. There is no virtue in throwing money around, with no clear idea of whether it reaches desired targets. It will also be necessary to change the culture and working practice of all medical professionals and foster greater co-operation between health and social workers. Ultimately, the public will be convinced that their money is being spent well only when their experience of the NHS improves.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I am grateful to my hon. Friend, whose industry is matched only by his ingenuity. Following through the train of thought that he has been pursuing, and given that the Government spend approximately £400 billion a year—or £700,000 per minute—can he offer the House any indication of the size of the savings potentially available from the 70 reports issued over the last year?

Mr. Leigh: As I said, we reckon that our work in previous years has saved £1.5 billion. The NAO calculates that, for every pound that it spends, it saves £8. I never quite understand that argument. Presumably, the more the NAO spends, the more will be saved; there must be a limit somewhere. We reckon that our activities help the Treasury; indeed I pay tribute to Treasury Ministers. Our agenda is very similar to theirs. We work closely with the Treasury, but when we find it falling down from its own high standards, we will not be slow to criticise it. We work closely with the Treasury to try to achieve some of the savings to which my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) refers.

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A different aspect of service delivery is the opportunity created by the development of electronic services. I am a bit of a technophobe myself, but I accept that this is a very important part of Government, and certainly a high priority. It is clear from our work that Departments recognise the potential, but in several areas we have found a failure to deliver e-services that people in the real world can, and want to, use. The Government aim to have all their services available electronically by 2005. That is fine, but there is little point in having e-services available if the public do not use them.

For example, Customs and Excise has made it possible to submit value added tax returns electronically, but we found that only 2,500 out of 1.65 million VAT-registered traders signed up to do so.

Another timely example for any of us who have yet to complete our tax returns—I hope that everyone here has done so—comes from our 52nd report, which looked at the Inland Revenue's progress in introducing e-services. The Revenue has a target of 50 per cent. take-up of its services by 2005. However, last year fewer than 100,000 out of a potential 9 million people filled their tax forms online. If we are to bring these e-services online, we must be able to complete the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) once tried to access the Passport Agency and went through the whole process, but, at the end of the day, he still had to deliver his application by post. There is not much point in that.

The public will see no point in using e-services when new systems fail or are difficult to use, or where there are concerns about system security. It is important to assure people that e-services are potentially quick, easy and secure. More generally, e-services need to be better thought through. Departments will not reap the rewards if they simply convert existing ways of delivering services to electronic applications. They must fundamentally rethink what they are offering.

That was demonstrated by NHS Direct, the subject of our 40th report. NHS Direct has been a real success story for the Government. It provides easier and faster health advice and information to the public and quickly established itself as the world's largest provider of telephone health care advice, handling some 5.3 million calls in the last financial year. It is popular with the public. We felt that other Departments could learn lessons from how that large new service was introduced.

Our praise was tempered slightly by concerns that many callers were waiting too long to speak to a nurse, as I found myself when I called them after suffering from severe headaches—no doubt caused by chairing overlong meetings of the PAC. There is a risk that NHS Direct could be a victim of its own success. The Department should take stock, set a clear strategic direction for the service and plan what impact it will have on other parts of the NHS.

There are few areas where the need to improve the service to the public is more important than health and education. We looked, in our 58th report, at access to higher education. We found that the Government will surely fail to meet their target—that, by 2010, 50 per

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cent of 18 to 30-year-olds will go into higher education—unless universities recruit and retain more students from poorer backgrounds. That is highly topical because a major barrier to increasing participation is the system for funding students. Its extreme complexity and the fear of debt are barriers to increasing participation. We called for the Department to simplify the situation and make it more certain. In response, the Department has already developed proposals radically to streamline funding. That will give students greater certainty over their finances.

One public service that we use daily is the postal service, which I take a particular interest in because I once had responsibility for it. It is true that it still retains a high level of customer satisfaction. Not long ago, the service was regarded as one of the best in the world. In recent years, it seems to have lost its way. In examining the topic, we took evidence from the regulator, Postcomm, and from Consignia, now once again known, thankfully, as the Royal Mail. A key element of the service is the early morning delivery, but this may soon be lost to us, inconveniencing people and damaging small businesses.

We found that the Royal Mail was experiencing major problems. Profitability was affected, and job cuts were proposed. Those difficulties had impacted on the quality of the universal postal service—something that we all support in this House and something for which we have all fought, particularly those of us who, like me, represent rural areas. The Royal Mail had consistently failed to meet its own target of delivering 92.5 per cent of first-class mail the next day. Performance also varied substantially over the country.

Our work showed that something had to be done. Postcomm intends to encourage improvement by rapidly opening up the market, way beyond what the European Commission is planning to do to liberalise the mail markets. We were concerned that Postcomm was making critical decisions that could jeopardise the universal service without the right information to judge the consequences. I believe that competition must be the way, but there is a real risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water. Postcomm needs more information about how changes to the levels and types of service that the Royal Mail provides will affect its customers.

In our 28th and 49th reports, we looked at the variety of initiatives designed to promote better policy making. We had a wealth of examples: some were good and some were not. Those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them. If we are to avoid a repeat of the millennium dome, the benefits payments card or the state earnings-related pension scheme fiasco, Departments must get better at all aspects of the process of making policy. That has nothing to do with Labour or Conservative Governments: we are all as bad as each other. Dare I say that? I suppose that I can get away with that much. In particular, Departments must carry out sound analysis and consult both potential customers and those who deliver the service properly. That might sound rather obvious—it is rather obvious—but it does not always happen in practice, as we found again and again.

I shall conclude the theme of improving service delivery on an up-beat note. Earlier this month, the Committee took evidence on the acquisition of the London Heart hospital. What is striking about this case

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is the way in which a hospital trust, aware of undercapacity in cardiac treatment, took rapid action to resolve the problem. When the private London Heart hospital came on the market, the University College London Hospitals NHS Trust saw a chance, went for it, slashed through the usual pernicious red tape that can envelope much of Government, broke a few rules in the process and took a risk. The deal to acquire the London Heart hospital was completed in months—a record. The result is a boost to patient treatment, as we saw when we visited the hospital.

The case stands out against the quagmire of bureaucracy that all too often hampers Government bodies. If Departments keep using the same processes, they will achieve the same outcomes, and it is likely that extra funding will exacerbate many of the problems that we encountered. A radical improvement in the standard of service delivery across almost all sectors will require a radically new approach to service delivery. Providing they are managed well, my Committee will welcome innovation and creativity. Although we recognise that they might not always work, we are not trying to create a culture in Whitehall that is averse to risk. We say take a risk, as long as it is a carefully considered risk.

I turn to my second theme—tackling fraud. We are fortunate—we should say it more often—to have very few cases of serious fraud committed by individuals in the public sector. We have a record second to none in the world. That is a tribute to the honesty of our public servants, and the robustness of the systems and controls that are in place. However, fraud against the public purse is a major concern. There is a wide spectrum, from individuals exploiting weak control systems for agricultural subsidies to fraud of epidemic proportions in the benefit payments stream.

One of the most serious individual cases that the Committee considered was described in our 51st report, which examined the activities of a farmer who was found guilty of committing £157,000 worth of fraud against the common agricultural policy. The fraud was perpetrated over a number of years because controls operated by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the former Intervention Board were laughably weak. There was no cross-checking of claims between different subsidies, and the fraudster was able to claim for different crops on the same piece of land. Map references for fields were not always required from the farmer, or checked. His crimes came to light through a chance transfer of a member of staff.

Our hearing on the episode could almost be described as surreal. Notwithstanding the seriousness of the offence, a number of scams were pulled that would make Joe Grundy jealous. It was a case of appallingly lax controls—or perhaps I should say flax controls. The farmer had a particular problem with a series of combustible barns. His losses might have provoked a comment from Lady Bracknell, but they apparently did not evoke any interest in the Ministry. Over a two-year period, three of his barns, together with the crops that he claimed to have harvested, burned down. Indeed, so fond was the farmer of his barns that he even applied to the Ministry for a grant for a barn that had already been built.

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In our hearing, my colleague the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. Davidson) asked the Department

To which the reply was:

Our colleague then remarked:

The farmer also had an unconventional approach to geography. To disguise the fact that he was claiming to grow different crops on the same fields, he made up the Ordnance Survey map references for them and claimed for fields in Iceland, Greenland and the North sea. In our view, the Ministry and the Intervention Board did not pursue the irregular claims with sufficient vigour and recovered only £1,325. Clearly, there were a large number of lessons to be learned from the case, and I am pleased that controls have now improved.

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