Committee appointed to draw up Reasons to be assigned to the Lords for disagreeing to certain of their amendments to the Bill: Nick Ainger, Mrs. Cheryl Gillan, Huw Irranca-Davies, Lembit Öpik and Chris Ruane; Nick Ainger to be the Chairman of the Committee; Three to be the quorum of the Committee. [Huw Irranca-Davies.]
That this House takes note of the 4th, the 7th to the 9th, the 12th to the 34th and the 36th to the 42nd Reports, and the Second Special Report from the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2005-06, and of the Treasury Minutes and the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda on these Reports, Cm 6699, 6728, 6743, 6766, 6775, 6789, 6843, 6863 and 6884.
It is a pleasure to welcome Members to the Public Accounts Committee debate, albeit a bit late. In view of the late hour, we should perhaps question whether our procedure in years gone by, when we had an annual debate, was not a better way of generating interest, but we can no doubt pursue that later through the usual channels. I am sure that the debate will be interesting. We will potentially be here until a quarter to midnightand why not? This is a very important subject.
The last such debate, which took place in January, was considered worth while by Members in all parts of the House. We examined the Committees work in driving value for money in public services, and the encouraging assurance was received from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury that the Committee would make an important contribution to the 2007 comprehensive spending review. Given its continuing preference for objectivity over partisanshipnot something for which this Chamber is generally notedthe incisiveness of our investigations and the quality of our reports, thanks to the help of the National Audit Office, I hope that todays debate will act as a powerful engine for both discussion and change within Whitehall.
The Financial Secretary described as a tour de force the paper on delivering efficiency savings that we published before the last debate, and I understand that it is now widely used in Whitehall. I will quote widely from a report that we published only today, entitled Delivering High Quality Public Services for all. I hope that it, like the last generic report, will be widely used in Whitehall.
I am of course proud to be the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, which is the oldest Committee in Parliament. Until recently, we thought that it was set up by Gladstone in the 1860s, but I have done some research and I found that a Public Accounts Committee met as long ago as the 17th century. For instance, in 1690 the Public Accounts Committee, which, I am afraid to say, was not friendly to the regime of James III regret that, as a Jacobitereported that:
The ships built, rebuilt and repaired by these commissioners were fully and well performed, and the buildings and other works by them erected and made during the continuation of the same commission were done with great exactness, sufficiency and frugality of expense in the managery and conduct thereof.
I have searched for a Treasury minute in reply to that excellent report, but I have not found one. I am sure that that incompetence is entirely due to the current Treasury teamthree and a half centuries later and we are still waiting for a reply to the PAC report of 1690.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): I rise because the hon. Gentleman mentioned 1690. Is he aware that many of my constituents demonstrate regularly to celebrate an event that took place in that yearindeed, many demonstrate against events that took place in that yearbut that none of them demonstrates to celebrate the anniversary of the PAC?
Mr. Leigh: Well, we have obviously failed to make our mark. But of course, we live nowadays in times when venality is not an issue in public life, is it? The Committee to which I referred earlier looked at the affairs of Pepyss friend Richard Cooling, the Lord Chamberlains secretary, no less, who
told us his horse was a bribe, and his boots a bribe; and told us he was made up of bribes...and that he makes every sort of tradesman to bribe him; and invited me home to his house to taste of his bribe-wine.
Given that the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) takes an interest in the Royal family, I shall point out another such debate that I found. The Committee took place on the Floor of the Whole House and, according to the journal of the House of Commons,
Some expressions were frequently used which seemed to glance at the licence and disorders and extravagant expense of that place
not without some reflections which, aimed at the lady
and the exorbitant power exercised by her and this imperious way of proceeding, confirmed those in their wariness who had no mind to oppose or contradict the party that they would and meant should prevail.
For instance, only this year we published 31 reportsat least twice as many as any other Committeeon a range of vital issues since the last debate. We found, to take one example, that as of September 2005, one third of our armed forces were not as ready as they should have been, and we called on the Ministry of Defence to clarify its plans for bringing the armed forces back up to required readiness. A plainly ridiculous situation was also uncovered whereby massive overpayments were an inherent part of the tax credit system. In short, whoever designed the schemeperhaps it was the Treasury, although I do not knowknew that it would lead to overpayments before they even introduced it. This created a worrying situation for hundreds of thousands of vulnerable families who had to find money to finance repayments.
It has to be said that many people have been helped by tax credits, and I acknowledge that. However, many families have been made sick with worry about the need to pay back money that they do not have money that they have been given and have now spent. With more than £1 billion lost through claimant error and fraud in 2003-04 alone, money is leaking from the tax credit system faster than the water from Londons antiquated pipes.
We have also concluded that consular service staff have shown tremendous dedication and determination in helping British nationals in distress, and we pay tribute to them. That is particularly in relation to the nine major overseas emergencies of 2005. In the same report we recognise also the steps that have been taken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to improve its emergency plans, especially in the light of its experience during the tsunami, when its call-handling system was overwhelmed.
We are also, I am afraid to say, the Public Accounts Committee for Northern Ireland while Stormont is suspended. We took evidence from the Department of the Environment on the problems that had been developing in implementing a waste management strategy for Northern Ireland. In particular, we took the Department to task for failing to show strong leadership under the greening Government initiative. It responded by agreeing to establish waste reduction and recycling targets equivalent to its Westminster counterparts.
We found again and again that the quality of governance in Northern Ireland has been below par compared to the rest of the United Kingdom. It is a hugely over-governed part of the United Kingdom and perhaps too much emphasis, understandably, has been placed on peace and security, and not enough on good governance. I was talking to a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office this evening, who assures me that that is now changing and that the Department is trying to achieve the same sort of value-for-money targets in Northern Ireland that have been the norm in the rest of the United Kingdom. That is to be welcomed. I hope that the Treasury will keep a close eye on what is happening there.
A number of our findings have reached the very top of the news agenda. Even today, I think that we might be making the news. April was the Committees highest-profile month given the number of articles published. This was largely the result of revelations regarding foreign national criminals. According to The Daily Telegraph,
this tale of incompetence has come to light only because of the assiduity
of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, one of the few agents of public accountability we have left in our neutered democracy.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon)I pay tribute to himwas rightly afforded special praise for his persistent pressing on this issue, not least by Ministers, who congratulated him. The former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), was a big enough man to acknowledge the role played by my hon. Friend. When people say that the only route that is worth while in this place is to be either a Minister or a shadow spokesman, they should bear in mind my hon. Friend, who has devoted his parliamentary years to serving on a Select Committee. That shows what can be achieved on Select Committees. We are grateful to him.
Other reports that we have published have received a large amount of publicity. One such report is the
cancer plan. Our reports on health are always of great interest. We have produced reports on our railway stations, the Diana fountain and many other matters. How instructive it is in our celebrity-obsessed society that we can waste billions on fraud and error in the Department for Work and Pensions, but if we are lucky our report will reach page 15 of the Financial Times. If we talk about a paltry £1 million or £2 million wasted on a concrete memorial in Hyde park, we have wall-to-wall coverage in all the newspapers. That is something that we have to live with.
I have been especially encouraged by the Governments acceptance of the Committees recommendations. The Department of Health accepted the need to provide all cancer patients with a formal assessment of the support that they need to manage the pain, stress, and anxiety caused by their cancer. The Department for Education and Skills agreed to review the curriculum after we recommended that school lessons be made more relevant to pupils who were reluctant to attend school.
In all, 94 per cent. of the Committees recommendations were accepted by the Government. I am delighted to pay tribute to the Treasury and the Treasury minutes in ensuring such a high strike rate. But we have to ensure that our recommendations are not just accepted but implemented, and we want to do more work with the NAO on that.
We would not be influential were it not for the quality and dedication of the Committees members and staff. I pay tribute to Mr. Nick Wright and his colleagues for all the work that they do. I thank those who have left the Committee since the last debatethe hon. Members for Bristol, West (Stephen Williams), for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael). I also welcome those who have since joinedthe hon. Members for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) and for Southport (Dr. Pugh). All the other existing members continue to work hard, to hold the Government to account and they all deserve congratulation, and I give it.
I also pass on the Committees regards to all its staff and their continuing commitment to the Committees work, and of course, and not least, to the NAO, whose professionalism and impartiality make our work possible. One of my ambitions in the time left to me serving on the Liaison Committee and chairing this Committee is to see other Select Committees make more use of the NAO. In the past, there has been a tendency for the PAC to be too possessive about the NAO, and we should use it more as a resource to help other Committees hold Government to account, particularly on the estimates and expenditure account side.
The trouble is that the scope of the Committees work is so wide-ranging that I could just go around a series of disjointed issues, but one issue in particular stands out. As the Government look forward to the 2007 comprehensive spending review, so the debate on the effectiveness of increased spending on public services in recent years gathers pace. This is now central to our democracy, particularly as apparently the two parties are growing closer in ideology and there is more and more emphasis on how to deliver more efficient public services, given the increased resources that are devoted to that.
To contribute to that debate, I want to discuss the extent to which increased investment in public services is meeting what should be the most important test of its effectiveness: its impact on the end usersuch an obvious remark, but something that may not always be at the forefront of our minds in political debate. I want to highlight six key ingredients of user satisfaction with public services. They are all very topical and they are all contained in the 63rd report that we published only this morning. Those six key ingredients indicate where public money has been spent well, and where there is still some way to go. They feed, I hopeand I hope that the Minister will respond to thisthe Governments fundamental review of public spending priorities.
I start by quoting paragraph 18 of the report. It is a significant paragraph and I hope that the Government take note of it. Bear in mind that this is an all-party report, agreed by 15 Members of the House of Commons. It states:
Public bodies also need to consider how the structure of organisations can affect the planning and delivery of services. The public sector becomes more complex as it grows in size, as the commissioning of new projects and services leads to overlap between departments. For example, if a new agency is created to tackle childhood obesity, headed by a government-appointed tsar and equipped with a small office staff, its powers and field of responsibility will overlap with those of other departments, such as the Department of Health, local education and strategic health authorities. As the agency becomes embedded within the overall government framework, its interaction with these other departments will evolve to iron out overlapping provision, but there will nevertheless be a time period in which less-efficient practices occur. The more rapidly the government decides to expand the public sector the more likely this is to occur. Political pressure to establish or expand the public provision of a service as quickly as possible will increase the likelihood of such projects being ill-defined and poorly planned, wasting public money in the process and possibly slowing down improvements.
Let me quickly go over the tests. First, the most basic requirement of a public service is that it should be accessible, but too often that is not the case. The Committee uncovered a wide geographical variation in the use of National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence-approved cancer drugs, including those for breast cancer, across the countryagain, there was a lot of publicity and public interest. We found that people in some less affluent parts of the countrytypically the northmay lose out when it comes to cancer care, because cancer networks in some deprived areas lack comprehensive service plans.
Access to public services can also be affected by complexity in how services are delivered. For example, complicated processes can deter people from claiming benefits. Language is another potential barrier preventing people from accessing public services, but it is an area in which the Government are making progress, which the Committee has acknowledged. Our report on adult literacy and numeracy highlighted progress in reaching those with language needs, thanks in part to the increased Skills for Life budget. There has been progress, but more can be done.