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29 Jan 2003 : Column 923—continued

Mr. Alan Williams: The National Audit Office report made it clear that friendly fire is not a new occurrence and that it has been part of warfare for a long time. One can understand that, on the ground in close battle, friendly fire causes a high proportion of deaths; it is not a new experience. That does not mean that we do not want to stop it, but the hon. Gentleman might inadvertently have given the wrong impression that it was a recent phenomenon.

Mr. Rendel: I accept the right hon. Gentleman's point that it is by no means a new experience. However, the

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extent to which civilians are in danger in modern warfare is new. When armies met on a battlefield in Europe in the middle ages, that was different.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not continue with that point for long.

Mr. Rendel: I shall not wander into the middle ages any longer, but one of our reports made the specific point that we should consider whether our armed forces need to pay more attention to the possibility of identifying the difference between enemy forces and enemy civilians.

It struck me as rather odd that the witnesses who came before us on that occasion did not seem to recognise that it was an important point. They seemed to think that the only important point was to identify our forces from the enemy forces, and they had not taken into account the important psychological effects of modern warfare—not just on our armed forces, but also on our civilians back here in this country—and how important it is, if we are to fight a modern war, to have the support of the public behind our armed forces, which they could lose if we do not pay proper attention to this question.

I turn now to what is my own specialist subject, in so far as I have one in this House: higher education and widening participation in it. As the Chairman mentioned, that is another matter of important topical interest.

The NAO report confirmed that people from poorer backgrounds are already significantly less likely than others to participate in higher education. The previous Secretary of State and the current Minister for Higher Education have both confirmed over time on different occasions that the fear of debt is one of the main reasons why young people are being put off going to university.

A report from Universities UK, the joint vice-chancellors' body, is, I believe, to come out in a few weeks' time. Baroness Warwick, chief executive of Universities UK, announced some of its findings to a conference that I attended just the other day. She pointed out that about 84 per cent. of the group of young people that it surveyed who were thinking of going to university—they were either in further education colleges or sixth forms—said that they were concerned about the levels of debt, which were among the problems deterring them from possibly going to university. It also found that 15 per cent. of these young people had decided that they would not go to university, and that 50 or 60 per cent. of them had decided not to go because of the fear of debt.

The Government are rightly determined to get more of those young people who can benefit from university education to do so. They are rightly concerned to widen participation in that sense. As we all accept, widening participation means widening participation particularly among the less well-off sections of our population, those who perhaps do not come from families that traditionally have gone to university.

If we are to achieve that wider participation, it is absolutely clear that we must reduce the fear of debt. Indeed, it was the Prime Minister's recognition of that fact that led to his announcement in his famous

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conference speech immediately after the last election that he would set up the review of higher education financing, and of student financing in particular. The present situation is therefore somewhat ironic. The Prime Minister having decided upon that, because he knew the problems the matter had caused for Labour party candidates on the doorstep in the previous election, as a result of the perception of the debt and the fear of debt at the levels it was then, after the introduction of tuition fees, we now find that as a result of that review the fear of debt will be much greater. Indeed, the debts that students end up with will be much greater.

There is possibly a need for a further National Audit Office investigation of how we have reached this point. The Government knew that they had a major problem over widening participation among less well-to-do families. They set up a review to answer it and ended up with proposals that will make the problem far worse. If that is not some error in the way in which the Government work, I do not know when in the time that I have been on the PAC I have seen a worse case.

3.19 pm

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth): I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel). Listening to his contribution, particularly what he said about prisoners, one can readily see why he has the reputation for being someone who does not naturally court popularity.

Following the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), is always difficult. As a member of the Committee, one realises that he always takes the best shots first, and in his extensive, well-presented opening he covered a wide range. If I repeat some of his remarks, it is only because I feel they need repeating.

Being a member of the Public Accounts Committee is one of the most challenging and rewarding positions to hold in the House. The PAC is unique among Select Committees. No other Committee has the same work load or breadth of remit. No subject is left untouched. One of our great strengths is that we can question different Government Departments; we go across government and can therefore judge the degree of joined-up government.

The Committee's aims are unique compared with those of all the other Select Committees. We do not look at policies; we look at the management, at the effective delivery of the civil service. The intricacies of policy analysis are left to the other Select Committees. We interview permanent secretaries rather than Ministers. Our role is to put a unique spotlight on the operation of the civil service and its relationship with the Government.

We have enjoyed some fine verbal exchanges with the witnesses, at times producing from both sides turns of phrase of which Sir Humphrey would be proud.

The PAC's success rate in being listened to also makes it unique. Over 90 per cent. of its recommendations have been accepted by the Government. Is that because they are so easy and are not challenging enough? No. Working with the National Audit Office we have

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brought about savings of £1.5 billion over the past few years. My colleagues on the team are well supported and are probably the best briefed in the House, having over 700 members of staff in the NAO to draw upon, as well as the excellent professionalism of the Committee staff.

The PAC can highlight the culture of the civil service. It is worth drawing attention to the present culture. As the Chairman pointed out, the present permanent secretaries have a background in policy rather than management. Yet the Government have expectations of delivery that the civil service will work towards, and different types of individual may need to rise to the higher echelons. Good management makes all the difference to the success of a project. Without those skills being prioritised internally in the civil service and, equally important, in external dealings with private sector suppliers, a project can fail to be delivered on time and in its full scope.

Throughout the past year the PAC has risen in prominence, owing in no small part to its excellent chairmanship and support staff. I hope that that trend will continue. With the commitment of staff, Members and the NAO, I am sure that it will.

Our job as parliamentarians is to ensure that we ask the right questions—the questions that the public demand—and obtain publicity, highlighting both successes and failures in our administrative set-up.

A notable moment for me last year was our visit, an away-day, to Kensington palace to view the accommodation. Regardless of the merits of the present living arrangements, the team on the PAC should feel justifiably proud that it was they who gained access and saw the accounts for the first time and brought into the limelight a sector of public expenditure that should be accountable.

I should like to give the House a quick sample of what it is like for some of our witnesses to appear before us. It is not all bad. We had the Radio Communications Agency before us. On the auction of radio spectrum for the third generation of mobile telephones, we thought congratulations were in order. In fact, that auction was a great success and raised a great deal of money—much more than anyone originally anticipated. But when we put the operation under scrutiny we found that £6.1 million had been spent on advisers who were so out of touch with the market that they were looking for £1 billion in the sale. We raised £22 billion. Was the £6.1 million well spent? Many Departments spend a great deal of money on advisers. Is it always well spent? The £22 billion was, indeed, good news.

Another report that the Committee considered last year was "Giving Confidently: the Role of the Charity Commission in Regulating Charities", on the Charity Commission for England and Wales. As a citizenry, we have a right to believe that the charities that collect on our streets are run effectively and efficiently and are above board. We found that in 1999–2000, 38 per cent. of charities had failed to submit annual accounts on time or at all. We decided that the Charity Commission must improve on that. If it does not and the public believe that the money that they donate does not reach its final destination, their contributions will diminish.

The Chairman referred to Joseph Bowden. That is a classic case. Mr. Bowden was a farmer who claimed money off that well-known Department MAFF—I am

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not sure whether it stands for the Ministry of Agriculture and the Farmers' Friend—for farming flax. Not only did Mr. Bowden develop a new technique and get paid for planting two crops in the same field, he did even better by claiming for planting crops in the Irish sea. Of course he had some difficulty when he had to collect the flax and send the crop off, so he burnt down the barn.

One would have thought that the insurance company that inspected the barn and paid out would have been efficient, but Mr. Bowden burnt down the barn in January 1996 and, lo and behold, again in December 1996. The insurance company paid out £85,400. There was no problem with him pleading guilty to that deception. But if the MAFF investigation was inconsistent, what about the investigative procedures of the insurance company that paid out twice in one year? We could go so far as to say that Mr. Bowden was a serial abuser of benefits.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has since renewed its operations so that fields are logged. Satellite technology allows us to tell when one crop has been planted in a field and it is not possible to claim for another crop in the same field. We know where fields are located, which is amazing, and the Department has come to grips with one of its major problems.

Many farmers complain about red tape because of the number of forms that they have to fill in. I have much sympathy with them. But they must understand that the only reason for that red tape is to stop fraud and the misappropriation of public moneys. Unfortunately, the Department was not quick enough to impose controls on Mr. Bowden or to get back much of the money that he managed to squirrel away.

Appearing before the PAC can give rise to difficulties. I always think of the PAC members as a pack—an apt term, I think. The way in which we follow each other when questioning a witness can be a tortuous experience for the person giving evidence. That was the case with the 57th report "The Operation and Wind-up of Teesside Development Corporation". The corporation left a large debt of £40 million when it was wound up. We put one or two questions to the chief executive that are a good example of the Committee working well.

The chief executive sold land on behalf of the corporation even after the board had been wound up. He received valuations from a team of valuers on selling the land and advice from a team of lawyers on the wind-up. The lawyers had no other client and advised Mr. Hall to shred the documentation. I said to him:

The witness replied:

When asked

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Mr. Hall said:

However, I pursued him by saying:

to which he replied,

I had to recite to Mr. Hall one of the things that people in public life believe in. I said:

but that

If the media are on our back, we have to prove with documents that we have done things correctly and in accordance with the law. Anyone who is told by legal advisers to shred files has received bad legal advice.

When an accountancy officer appeared before the Committee on that issue, we explained that the Department's guidelines were left in tatters, yet he continued to support the corporation, for reasons best known to himself. I asked

He replied:

I said:

The accountancy officer replied:

I countered:

He said that although the corporation was effectively trying to wind down,

it was

One is left in no doubt that although the corporation ignored the Department's financial guidelines, it was allowed to do so because the Department lacked the will—the political will—to get involved and ensure that things were done in accordance with strictly observed guidelines.

One lesson that any Secretary of State or Minister must learn is that they will be held to account if they start interfering with strict financial guidelines—they will be brought before a Committee to answer for their actions. We get Sir Humphrey answers, but sometimes if we push a little harder, we get more revealing answers. That is the PAC's role. The breadth of subjects that we cover gives us a spotlight on the public sector that few parliamentarians have. I look forward to the challenges

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that 2003 will bring for the Committee, and I hope that the Government, especially the Treasury, recognise that openness and accountability are essentials of good government. They should join us in insisting that all public expenditure, including that of the BBC, the Financial Services Authority and the civil list, comes under the auspices of the PAC.

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