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Mr. Andrew Turner (Isle of Wight) (Con): My hon. Friend will not be surprised to learn of a case in my constituency of a mother who is faced with the recovery of tax credit. The process began in August last year. I   wrote to the Department in September, but the case has still not been resolved and the lady has had to remortgage her house in order to pay back the Inland Revenue.

Angela Watkinson: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Sadly, that is all too typical of the stories that we hear in our surgeries from people who have been overpaid but are unable to make the repayments.

Mr. Stunell: I am following what the hon. Lady is saying and I have great sympathy with her point. Does she agree that it is quite unreasonable for the Inland Revenue, having made a mistake, to blame the recipient for failing to detect it and to impose a repayment schedule of sometimes purse-breaking proportions?

Angela Watkinson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. I agree absolutely; the repayments are often unmanageable. It is galling for people to be told by the Inland Revenue, "Yes, it is our fault, but it is your fault for not knowing that it is our fault." I ask the Minister to bring pressure to bear not only to simplify the system but to overcome that basic problem.

A Conservative Government will allocate more funding to early-years partnerships with parents, Sure Start programmes and the national parenting fund, to   support parenting programmes provided by the voluntary and community sectors. In addition, local authorities will be refunded for all VAT incurred in the provision of welfare services such as child care and children's centres.

I believe passionately that if we get early years right, the long-term benefits will be felt throughout the education system. If every child who enters primary school is self-confident, socially well adjusted and ready to learn, the job of their teachers will be so much easier. Teachers will be able to concentrate on teaching. Of course children will have differing ability levels, but they will all have the opportunity to develop to their individual full potential. The knock-on benefit of successful primary education would then be felt in the secondary sector with, I predict, fewer disruptive or disaffected teenagers and the consequential early retirement of demoralised teachers.

I was speaking recently to some experienced long-serving teachers who plan to take early retirement not because they are fed up with the job but because they are
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unable to maintain discipline in the school. One teacher of senior boys said, "Some of these boys are bigger than me and they have attitude, and I am not even allowed to adopt what is described as an aggressive stance towards them—and they know it." That simply has to stop. The awful thing was that he added that a lot of his colleagues were also planning to retire. That large school will see an exodus of experienced staff and therefore an influx of less experienced staff, who will not have more experienced teachers as mentors and role models. That could have a serious effect on the overall management and on attainment levels in the school.

Getting early years right is not a panacea—life is more complicated than that. The education system cannot make up for all the problems that a child might have, but it can make a major impact. Early years must not drop down the list of priorities to make room for after-school clubs and holiday care. I hope that the Minister will take up that point specifically in his summing up.

8.53 pm

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham) (Con): One of the issues that will be at the core of the debate over the next few weeks is how we improve our public services. One reason why people question the growing burden of taxation is that, although they have seen their taxes rise over the past eight years, it is difficult to discern the improvement in our public services.

I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) about some of the issues we see in our communities. My primary care trust, rather like his, is suffering from a financial deficit this year and is trying to make it up, but I suspect that it will end the year with a deficit, which will need to be recovered next year.

It is difficult for my constituents to find a NHS dentist, despite the Prime Minister's promises about ensuring that everyone would have access to one. A dentist in Fareham treating NHS patients is as rare as hen's teeth. If people cannot find an NHS dentist, where has all the money that has been spent on the NHS gone?

Council tax bills have risen by 70 per cent. since the Government came to office. The Chancellor's one-year-only council tax rebate is a bribe or a con—people know that their bills have gone up because of the transfer of resources from the south to the north. In south-east Hampshire there is greater pressure on our infrastructure as a consequence of housing developments. Major routes such as the M27, the A27 and the A32 are clogged up at rush hour as more and more people seek to use the same stretch of road. There have been no major road schemes in Hampshire, however, for the past five years.

People want to know where the money has gone and how their increased taxes have been spent. Part of the answer concerns the way in which the Government have sought to manage and control public services. We have witnessed the development of a tight, rigid, centrally driven and controlled framework that has absorbed money in the processes of monitoring, recording, inspection. I shall give some examples, to demonstrate where the money goes on many occasions. Late last   year, the Government produced an outcomes framework for their Green Paper, "Every Child Matters". It is a complex document that sets out various
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outcomes, inspection criteria and public service agreement targets. There are 26 PSA targets for the agenda of "Every Child Matters" involving nine Government Departments and agencies, ranging from the Department for Work and Pensions to the Crown Prosecution Service. In addition, there are 18 key indicators and 52 separate inspection criteria. The targets range from targets to reduce child obesity and mortality to targets on the take-up of cultural and   sporting opportunity by over-16s and on the number of young people taking part in mock elections.

There is clearly a mechanism in the 24,000 schools throughout the country to count the number of people who vote in mock elections. The bureaucracy involved in analysing and reporting on those inspection targets sucks money out of front-line services, and prevents improvements from being made to our schools, hospitals, and in terms of safety on the streets. Last year, the Government decided to draw some of those measures together, and I shall demonstrate the extent of the burden. A document that accompanied last year's Budget was entitled "Devolving decision making: 1. Delivering better public services: refining targets and performance management." Chart 2.6 in chapter 2 sets out the number of targets and external controls facing the health service. The number of external controls on front-line health staff is 17 times greater than the number of headline public service agreements. There are    12 PSAs, 23 PSA components and a further 58   PSA-related targets, measures and compliance requirements. In total, there are 81 PSA-related targets measures and a further 125 targets.

In education, there are six PSA targets, 27 PSA components and a further 13 PSA-related targets, measures and compliance requirements. There is a total of 40 PSA-related targets and, in addition, there are 167 non-PSA-related targets, measures and compliance requirements. Paragraph 2.26 says that the number of external controls facing police forces "follow a similar pattern". It is not surprising that the chief constable of Nottinghamshire police was moved in last weekend's press to complain about the amount of paperwork with which his force has to deal. This week, the chief constable of Surrey police said that about 90 per cent. of police officers' time is taken up in some shape or form with targets, monitoring and reporting.

If the Government were serious about the agenda set out in the Red Book, we would see a reduction in the number of targets, but I do not believe the Government are serious. They set out in the Red Book their plans to merge a number of inspectorates and replace them with a thematic inspector to look after a number of areas. They refer to creating a single justice and community safety inspectorate, bringing together five existing inspectorates. But merging all those inspectorates is not the way to cut down the burden of inspection. What people want is a more streamlined inspection process, not the old process re-badged.

The hon. Member for Edmonton (Mr. Love) spoke hopefully about the reduction of bureaucracy. He ought to bear in mind that the Chancellor has spoken of a reduction in bureaucracy in a number of Budgets, yet has conspicuously failed to deliver a reduction in red tape. If people in our public services believe that the
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merging of inspectorates will result in less bureaucracy, they should listen to people in business to find out how hollow those claims are likely to be.

The problem is not just the targets and the bureaucracy, but how decisions are made in our public services. Too many decisions are taken not out on the front line, but centrally. We gain a remarkable insight into the way the Government's mind works in the Red Book, in the chapter entitled "Delivering High Quality Public Services." The Government have a curious view of the role of professionals in public services. They say, perhaps with a note of surprise:

Most professionals in our public services assume that to date the flow of information has been in one direction—from the centre to the front line—and has not been an exchange of views.

It is breathtaking that a few weeks before the general election, in their eagerness to address the concerns of professionals, the Government suddenly realise that professionals can make services more efficient and can ensure that those services are tailored to the needs of users. If we free our doctors, nurses, teachers and police to deliver the services that local people want, we will see a transformation in our public services. Too often the problem is that the Government decide that there is a one-size-fits-all solution to the needs of every part of the country, not recognising that the needs of Fareham, for example, are quite different from the needs of a community in the north-east. If we do not free up professionals to make those decisions on the ground, we are unlikely to get the public services that individual communities need.

The issue is not just the role of professionals in helping to deliver better public services. In paragraph 6.35 the Red Book refers to involving users in the delivery of public services. It states that

But involving people in the design of public services is about more than getting them involved in the governance of local services. What is needed is an extension of choice in many areas of public services, to enable users to tailor the services to meet their needs—to give parents the power to choose the school that best fits the needs of their child, or to give patients the opportunity to choose a hospital that has a lower rate of hospital infection, a shorter waiting list for a particular condition or a consultant with an excellent record in a particular condition, rather than being forced, as they are now, to go to the hospital that their primary care trust has a contract with, even though that hospital might not be the right one to meet their needs.

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