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Mr. Beard: I shall come in a moment to the question of there being too many targets in the beginning. I want first to say a little more on the justification for the general idea of public service agreements.

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After 18 years in which the civil service and public agencies had become used to a culture of contraction, in which their projects were constantly thwarted because those started during the boom were cancelled or reduced during the bust, there was no reception of the idea that public services should be expanding. Those who were responsible for carrying out programmes needed an indication of what they were expected to achieve. They could not reasonably be expected to float in a vacuum, with the Government saying, "Here's the money to improve hospitals," and leaving them to work out how to do that. Targets gave those people some direction, and that was the second purpose of targets.

Public service agreements do not arise from the Chancellor or the Treasury dictating what is to be achieved by schools or hospitals but from a discussion between the Treasury and the Department concerned. The latter has connections with the professions and organisations that will be the implementing authorities. The idea, which is constantly put about, that a public service agreement is an imposition by the centre, made for financial reasons, is false. Targets that are not met were previously agreed, not set by some grey eminence in the Treasury.

Targets are not simply a matter of being able to tell when we have got where we want to be; they allow us to see whether we are moving off the track that we ought to be on, and of taking remedial action if necessary. They are the only means of controlling major strategic programmes. It is unbelievable that we could be arguing about that point. Targets are the only insurance that what the Government are spending on health and education will result in the performance that the public need and expect.

I accept that in the beginning there were far too many targets—some 160—and that they were somewhat general and difficult to judge. However, that was the first step towards bringing in a system in which public investment could be controlled in the way that I am talking about. The previous Conservative Government had no such system. Conservative Members are hardly warranted in talking about the discrediting of the system. The system that was discredited is the one in which there was no attempt to control public investment at all.

The motion talks about the PSAs being deeply flawed, but they go hand in hand with targets. The motion says that they stifle local initiative, diminish professional responsibility and divert time from the task of improving public services. I do not believe that for a moment. If one looks at the targets, as opposed to generalising about them, one finds that they are very broad. They leave ample scope for individual teachers and doctors, and indeed hospital administrators, to make judgments. They give a broad guideline and say what the priorities should be. Why should they not do that? The general purpose of the Department of Health is to provide the overall picture. If there are no targets, the overall picture is not represented in the decisions made on the ground.

What targets do not do is leave scope for obstructing reform. The programme of modernisation and renewal cannot possibly allow for obstruction, but there would be obstruction at every turn if nobody were watching and monitoring progress. The Opposition have lined up

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behind the idea that the old ways are the best. That is what the debate is all about. They want no change. They think that things were perfectly all right as they were.

The Opposition say that PSAs are deeply flawed, but, as I have said, no major company would dream of advancing on an investment programme 1 per cent. of the size of the Government's investment without putting in place a scheme such as this. It is time that the Opposition came not only into the 21st century, but into the 20th century. They are not acquainted with modern management techniques. It seems to me, from the speeches and interventions that we have heard, that they are a party of voyeurs. They have never disciplined themselves by determining what needs to be done to get things done, and that is essentially what PSAs and targets are all about.

David Taylor: They have never had a proper job.

Mr. Beard: They toil not and neither do they spin, and they do not understand the disciplines of doing either. It is unbelievable that in the 21st century we have a motion against the very concept of a target as a means of managing major projects. I am sure that before long we will be having a debate on the need to abolish long division and double entry book-keeping, because PSAs and targets are as fundamental to managing major projects as long division and book-keeping are to arithmetic and accountancy.

Paul Farrelly: Does my hon. Friend agree that a party that does not believe in public services does not need any targets, because it wants to privatise the lot? We saw what happened with Railtrack, which lost control of all its operations. We are trying to claw back investment, which needs to be carefully measured for improvement in future.

Mr. Beard: I agree. The reason that the Opposition can be so cavalier with the basic concepts of managing major projects is that they have no intention of managing a major investment project in the public sector again. That is what their policy implies, so they can indulge in these games.

The motion demonstrates that the Tories cannot be trusted with public finance, the economy or public spending—in short, they are not much good with money. The PSA targets are an essential measure to ensure that public investment achieves what is intended and what people outside want.

6 pm

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): I do not intend to comment on any of the spurious remarks made by the hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford (Mr. Beard) in a half-hour speech that said very little and therefore requires no response.

There is nothing wrong with targets per se. They are a useful measure of the success or failure of management or of a policy. Problems arise, though, when the targets are the policy itself—when the targets are the levers of management, instead of just a measure of the success or

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effectiveness of a policy. Targets have become, in many instances, a substitute for policy. Foist on an NHS manager a target to reduce waiting lists on pain of the sack and, hey-presto, he will reduce waiting lists, but will do so by distorting other health priorities. It is rather like changing the dial on a thermometer. Moving the pointer up will not change the temperature of the room. To warm a room, one must turn on the central heating.

People argue that targets are a symptom of an over-centralised governmental system interfering in local management and delivery. I believe the opposite is true. It is a symptom of accountability and decision-making power being too decentralised and diffuse, with little management power vested with the Secretary of State, to such an extent that, almost in desperation, his or her only recourse is to targets, inspectorates and increasing volumes of guidelines.

No properly run large organisation in the private sector or successfully run state operations are managed in such a way. What the three key failing public services have in common—health, education and the fight against crime—is that the organisations have diffuse accountability. The NHS is made up of more than 600 separate organisations, each with its own board, chief executive and chairman. More than 130 local education authorities manage education, and the police are accountable to county or unitary authority police committees. It is clear that, despite Herculean determination on the Government's part, these public services are still failing.

Let us take one example, education. Twenty-three per cent. of adults in Britain cannot read properly. That is one of the worst adult literacy rates in the developed world. It compares with just 7 per cent. in Sweden. Children from poorer backgrounds too often go to secondary school with a reading age two years below their chronological age. Twenty-three per cent. of adults in Britain cannot add 50 and two to make 52. The hon. Member for Bexleyheath and Crayford mentioned long division, but a quarter of adults in Britain cannot even add two basic whole numbers.

Those figures come from a recent National Audit Office report comparing international education statistics. They are 1997 figures, but those are the latest available.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman is obviously very numerate. Will he assess the proportion of the 23 per cent. of fundamentally innumerate or illiterate adults who received their entire education under the 1997 to 2003 Labour Government?

Mr. Gibb: I am not making party political points in this debate. It is a sad indictment of the last Conservative Government that when we left office 49 per cent. of 11-year-olds did not reach an acceptable level in reading, but there has been no real improvement since the 1997 election. Standard Assessment Tests tests show that 75 per cent. of 11-year-olds now reach an acceptable level in reading, but that is still way below the target level of 83 per cent. and still means that one in four 11-year-olds go to secondary school unable to read properly. There is also real doubt about the validity of that figure of 75 per cent.

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Professor Tymms of Durham university has conducted his own tests, taken by 5,000 year 6 children in the same 122 primary schools every year since 1997. They show no improvement in reading ability. To quote Professor Tymms:


The social exclusion unit has warned that the Government have achieved little in bridging the huge gap in educational achievement, especially among males from unskilled backgrounds.

The question is why are we doing so badly in this country in teaching our children to read. In Switzerland, it takes six months to teach a child to read, compared with between two and three years in Britain, according to a study by Professor Prais of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. The question that we should be asking in the House is why. The answer seems to be that in Switzerland children are taught to read using a system called synthetic phonics, learning the sounds of letters and putting together those sounds to make a word—for example, C-A-T. In Britian we use a combination of "look and say" and analytical phonics. Children are taught to look at the shape of a word—"elephant", for instance—and to memorise that shape.

In a study by St. Andrews university in co-operation with Clackmannanshire education authority, about a dozen first-year primary classes in which a synthetic phonics approach to reading was used were compared with classes using various conventional British methods. Taken as a whole, the comparison showed that pupils taught using synthetic phonics learned about twice as rapidly as those on conventional analytic "look and say" approaches. The proportion of underachieving pupils was approximately halved.

Conor Ryan, a Labour former special education adviser, agrees and takes the view that now is "an excellent opportunity"

for the Government


of synthetic phonics


Of course, that has not happened, so improvements in reading, to the extent that there have been any, have, as Conor Ryan says, stalled.


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