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House of Commons

Thursday 2 March 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


The unavoidable absence of Mr. Speaker having been announced, The Chairman Of Ways And Means took the Chair as Deputy Speaker, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—

Millennium Development Goals

1. Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with international Finance Ministers on financing the millennium development goals. [55117]

3. Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the role of an international finance facility in achieving the millennium development goals. [55119]

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): Next month, the international finance facility will start issuing its first bonds, supported by the United Kingdom and five other countries. We expect more countries to announce support next week. It will be a truly global facility, which will release an additional $4 billion to save 5 million lives between now and 2015. On Tuesday, France and Britain agreed a working group to push ahead with the full international finance facility to support health and education. We have invited other countries to join, and that is one way in which we can meet the millennium goals.

Mr. Joyce: My right hon. Friend has helped to ensure that the United Kingdom is the largest funder of the election preparations that are under way in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which the all-party group on the great lakes plans to visit in a couple of weeks. Does he agree that a responsible approach by all parties in that country is fundamental to ensuring that it can progress properly towards its development goals after the election?

Mr. Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that he takes a great interest in matters in the Congo and I wish the delegation well when it visits that country soon. We are in a position to give additional support to it and other conflict-ridden countries as they prepare for the future. The purpose of the international finance facility is to front-load finance and make it possible to
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achieve the millennium development goals by 2015. That applies especially to areas where there is high infant mortality. Of the 130 million children born each year, only 30 million are vaccinated. We need to do something about that.

Ms Smith: What contribution does my right hon. Friend believe that the international finance facility makes to ensuring environmental sustainability, which is one of the millennium development goals? Last week, I visited a secondary school where year 7 and year 9 children pressed on me the importance of development and climate change issues. Of course—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. The question is sufficient.

Mr. Brown: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for asking about development and the importance of the environment to it. Having met environmental groups this week—[ Hon. Members: "Ah!"]—as I have met them almost every month for the past few years, I see a huge interest in considering environmental and development questions together. [Interruption.] It is interesting that not one Tory seeks to ask a question on that important matter.

We are pressing the World Bank to introduce a new facility, similar to an international finance facility, for loans and grants for alternative sources of energy to be developed by developing countries and emerging market countries so that greater energy efficiency can be achieved there. We are already doing for the environment—for alternative sources of energy and energy efficiency in developing countries—what we do for health and education. I would have thought that there was all-party support for that.

Cash Machines

2. Mary Creagh (Wakefield) (Lab): What steps he is taking to promote access to free cash machines. [55118]

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Ivan Lewis): As we set out in our response to the Treasury Committee's recent report, the Government believe that access to cash is important. Although 96 per cent. of cash machine withdrawals are made from free machines, we know that many hon. Members have serious concerns. The Government would be especially worried if people on low incomes incurred a disproportionate cost in accessing their money.

Mary Creagh: The Economic Secretary is doubtless aware that British consumers will pay £250 million in charges to access their money this year. What steps is he taking to prevent banks from further selling off their cash machines and to ensure free cash machines in public places such as hospitals, railway stations and colleges? Wakefield college in my constituency charges students £1.85 to withdraw their own money.

Mr. Lewis: I understand my hon. Friend's concerns. In the past five or six years, as a result of the work of the Treasury Select Committee and the Treasury, there has been an improvement. However, there are continuing concerns about the danger that the position may
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deteriorate. That is why, in a recent debate, I said that I would facilitate a meeting in the next few weeks between representatives of the Select Committee, the industry and the financial inclusion taskforce to ensure that we do not go backwards on such an important public policy issue.

Mr. John McFall (West Dunbartonshire) (Lab/Co-op): I thank the Economic Secretary for his generous gesture in holding that meeting. Before that, two issues need to be considered: first, sharing postcodes in areas where there is concentrated financial inclusion or exclusion, and secondly, transparency. Approaching cash machines should be akin to going to a petrol station, where the customer knows what he or she is getting into. Knowing that is imperative.

Mr. Lewis: I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend, and pay tribute to the work that he has done on this issue. He is right to say that we should be concerned if there were evidence that paying for cash was more prevalent in areas with low-income families and financial exclusion. However, we cannot make a judgment about that unless we are able to collect the appropriate evidence, so it is important that we do that as part of the process. On transparency, I agree entirely with him. It is perfectly reasonable that, when consumers go to cash points, the nature of any charges should be made absolutely clear.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): Is the Minister not concerned that some of the changes mooted in the ongoing consultation on the arrangements for Scottish banknotes—involving changes to the till level, the fiduciary level and seniorage—might put additional pressure on the free-to-use cash machines in Scotland?

Mr. Lewis: That is nonsense. The scare stories that the Scottish National party has put about on the proposed changes to Scottish banknotes simply do not stack up in relation to the facts. That should not surprise us about the SNP. We are going to consult further on any changes, to assuage any concerns, but the SNP scare stories are simply untrue.

Gershon Review

4. Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): If he will make a statement on progress on the implementation of the Gershon review of public sector efficiency. [55120]

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Des Browne): The Government are on track to meet the Gershon efficiency targets. The pre-Budget report of 2005 announced a total of £4.7 billion in efficiency gains as at the end of September 2005, with 31,000 head-count reductions and more than 6,000 relocations. This is part of our long-term commitment to improving value for money in public services. Indeed, the National Audit Office agreed, in its recent report, that we were making good progress in that regard.
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Mr. Burrowes: With reference to the National Audit Office report, is the lack of clearly measurable efficiency gains a problem of deficient management information systems or of a lack of will to bring about deeper and more systemic changes, or both?

Mr. Browne: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to read the National Audit Office report, of which I have a copy here. I will give him this copy if he has not had the opportunity to read all of it. I say that because I have recently had to debate this report with people who manifestly have not read it. The National Audit Office report was summarised by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, in the following terms in his press release:

We are now 10 months into the delivery of this process, and of course there are challenges in regard to the technical measurements involved. However, those challenges are being met in partnership with the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission. As the report makes clear, the measurement issues are being addressed and resolved.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Does the Chief Secretary accept that one important way to make efficiency gains is for central Government to have a more strategic, slimmed-down role, with resources devolved to local level, so that local solutions can be found for local problems?

Mr. Browne: Absolutely—[Interruption.] Let me just make the point that, in the whole of my public and political life, I have been arguing for and supporting devolution. Certainly, no Back Bencher needs to persuade me of its importance, or of what it has delivered for Scotland. The most important thing for my hon. Friend and his constituents is not only that decisions are made at the appropriate level—and some of them ought to be devolved—but that we devolve jobs out of the south-east. Part of the process of the efficiency agenda involves moving jobs from London and the south-east to the regions of England, Scotland and elsewhere, and we have been successful in doing so.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): In the Chancellor's last Budget, three weeks before the last general election, he claimed £2 billion worth of Gershon efficiency savings. On Monday, the National Audit Office will tell the Public Accounts Committee that it can find no evidence for half those savings. Will the Minister make a commitment, on behalf of the Chancellor, that, in the forthcoming Budget, he will use no figures claiming Gershon savings unless they have been signed off as above board by the NAO first?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Gentleman would also benefit from reading the National Audit Office report. It confirms that significant progress is being made, and says—particularly in relation to the Department for Work and Pensions, which accounts for a significant portion of the head count—that the published figures are "robust". It deals with exactly the issue that the hon.
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Gentleman has raised. We have not yet reached the end of the first year, but we have a transparent system. We have published the technical notes and the basis of measurement, and we have worked with the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission on the measurement.

As I have said, in our view the report published last week confirms that our figures are robust; and where they are not robust, we are dealing with the measurement issues. We will continue to report, in a transparent fashion, to Parliament and the country on the progress that we are making on this important matter.

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): In 2004, the Chancellor promised a reduction of 70,600 in the number of civil service posts by 2008. Most people would understand that to mean that in 2008, 70,600 fewer people will be working for the civil service than when the Chancellor made that promise. Will that be the case, or will the Treasury permit Departments to include head count reduction in full towards their Gershon targets despite additional recruitment for new projects? That would mean, paradoxically, that we could end up with more people working for the civil service in 2008 rather than 70,000 fewer—and I am not even taking into account the issue of civil servants being laid off and rehired as consultants. Have not the Government set the Gershon goalposts in such a way that they can claim savings without making real improvements to embed a culture of efficiency and value for money in our delivery of public services?

Mr. Browne: The hon. Lady has made the same error in comparing statistics that she made when we debated the issue on the "Today" programme. I say to her now, as I said to her then, that page 29 of the report deals with it in some detail, and explains why comparing different data is inappropriate.

Let me deal directly with the question of the number of civil servants. The hon. Lady relies for her argument on the fact that during the period of measurement the magistrates courts were transferred from local government to central Government. With that decision came 12,000 people, whom the Office for National Statistics redesignated as civil servants. It is not a case of more people working in the magistrates courts; those people were redesignated. However, the National Audit Office report confirms the opposite of what the hon. Lady has argued—that, in bald civil service number terms, there was a significant reduction over the period. We will meet the target as it was set out in the Gershon review, and we will maintain our approach to meeting that target.

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