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Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether I could seek your guidance on how Back-Bench Members of Parliament who table oral questions can be protected. You will have observed
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that there were only 12 questions on the Order Paper today. An additional five that were published on Tuesday were subsequently rejected by DEFRA on the ground that they were not for that Department. The Table Office handles 400 or so questions every day and people in the Table Office know how to deal with questions. I suggest that the fact that almost a third of the oral questions were rejected by DEFRA indicates that perhaps DEFRA did not want to answer them. In a case like that, there ought to be some form of appeal system, because quite often dealing directly with people in the Table Office and tweaking a few words gets the message through without the question being rejected. I have to say that the fact that five out of 17 questions were rejected by DEFRA suggests that DEFRA did not want to answer the questions.

Mr. Speaker: The hon. Gentleman should perhaps be careful with his words. The questions were transferred by DEFRA, not rejected. That happens to us all. When I was a Back Bencher, those things happened. It is part of our job—it goes with the territory, as they say. The Table Office is without blame in this matter.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In entirely endorsing the way in which you handled the question from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has many admirers on both sides of the House, including me, may I ask for your advice about one aspect of that issue? I think that the hon. Gentleman said from a sedentary position both that he had tried to telephone my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and that he had only had the invitation five minutes—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have said that the matter has been dealt with. It is finished and we will move on.

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Public Accounts

12.16 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I beg to move,

It is a pleasure to move the motion that stands in my name and that of other right hon. and hon. Members. Members will remember that the last debate on the Public Accounts Committee was held rather late at night. The uncivilised hour did not do justice to the important issues under discussion, so I am pleased that the usual channels have ensured that today’s arrangements are more fitting. The Committee responsible for overseeing Government spending each year of more than £500 billion of public money should never be shunted into the graveyard slot.

The hour today may be earlier, but the Committee’s output has in no way slackened since our last debate. Over that time, many have questioned whether some of our public bodies have the capability to deliver, or, as the Home Secretary might put it, whether they are fit for purpose. Some people say that Parliament has declined in the 150 years since the motion to create the Public Accounts Committee in 1857, but I do not think that anybody could argue that the Public Accounts Committee is less effective now than it was then. Indeed, I believe that it is very effective. All our reports are agreed by all Members of the Committee, but that does not stop them being hard hitting. It does not stop more than 90 per cent. of the recommendations in our reports being accepted by the Government.

There is no point, however, in simply accepting the recommendations. We have to ensure that the recommendations are implemented. With my encouragement, the Comptroller and Auditor General is increasingly returning to all the recommendations and Treasury minutes and ensuring that the recommendations are carried out. In that context, I say to Members on the Treasury Bench that timeliness is important. It is important that we get our reports out rapidly and that they are up to date. The Government should not use the excuse of saying that although a particular report is fine and that they agree with it entirely, it is based on a National Audit Office report that was published nine months or a year ago and therefore all the excellent recommendations are already being implemented—when, on certain occasions, the Government, or rather accounting officers and their civil servants, have delayed the whole process. The process relies on the National Audit Office reports being agreed between the National Audit Office and the Department and there is often a long period of negotiation.

That was particularly apparent in the recent important report on the NHS computer system—a system that is worth about £12 billion. I notice that the Government’s response this week says, “Well, excellent report by the PAC, but we’re doing all this—it’s an
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out-of-date report.” I am going to call the Government’s bluff. I have talked to the Comptroller and Auditor General about the matter and, following my encouragement, we are to have another NAO report on the NHS computer in the next year so that we can have an update to check whether all the excellent recommendations of the NAO and the PAC on this £12 billion computer system—that amount is equivalent to the entire cost of the Olympic games—are being carried out.

Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): I commend the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. It will also be important for the NAO and the PAC to scrutinise public expenditure on the Olympics. Does he welcome the fact that we will oversee expenditure before the Olympics, rather than after the event, to ensure that money is spent properly during the years leading up to the games?

Mr. Leigh: The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous member of the Committee. It is an important new departure that, following our encouragement and pressure, the Comptroller and Auditor General will quite rightly have a continuous oversight of spending up to the Olympic games. We do not want a situation in which there are massive cost overruns and numerous PAC reports have to be produced long after I have retired as the Committee’s Chairman to point to lessons from the Olympics. Such reports would be too late because when would we have the chance to host another Olympic games?

Mrs. Theresa Villiers (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Is my hon. Friend worried by the fact that the budget has already nearly trebled? Will his Committee keep a close eye on the progress of the run-up to 2012?

Mr. Leigh: We are worried, which is why we are insisting on tight scrutiny now. The venue and timing of Olympic games are absolutely fixed, so many host countries have found that the private sector has held the public sector to ransom at the last minute. I hope that I am not speaking too soon or out of turn, but I think that we are putting in place mechanisms that will mean that that will not happen this time. We will be able to keep a close track of any profits that the private sector makes. We will attempt to be the guardian of the taxpayer.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Will my hon. Friend, who chairs the Committee with great distinction, indicate what sort of attention the Committee is paying to the sums that will be allocated to the Olympic games and the way in which they might reduce the amount available for other deserving and vital charitable organisations?

Mr. Leigh: My hon. Friend might have noticed the publicity surrounding the last National Audit Office report, which made precisely that point. The way in which many good causes are being put at risk because money is being drawn into the great bottomless pit of the Olympic games is a serious matter on which the Treasury must keep a close eye. Many such good causes
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have no other means of support and are beyond the help of the taxpayer, unlike the Olympic games.

Whitehall’s capability matters deeply to the Committee because if there is a capability gap, a delivery failure often follows, with the most effective use of public funds being one of the casualties. The civil service publishes its own capability reviews. I want to highlight some of the key themes drawn from the work of our independent Committee. The Committee is genuinely independent and, in that context, I pay tribute to the majority party members of the Committee, who, without being party political, often have to make trenchant criticisms of the civil service. They do so with great courage, so we should pay tribute to them. The key themes from our work highlight where the Government must up their game if they are consistently to deliver the services that the public pay for and deserve.

The need for outstanding leadership in our public services has never been greater. The accounting officers who appear before our Committee not only have their formal duties, but are leaders with responsibility for driving through results. Their appearances before our Committee are often the only occasions on which they appear before a Committee. Permanent secretaries might appear before the relevant departmental Committee once a year, but they are held to account before the Public Accounts Committee.

Too often, poor leadership scuppers the effective implementation of public policy. Urgent leadership not only saves money, but can help to save lives. I am especially proud of our report on stroke care in the NHS, which I tried to push through as much as possible. The report called on the Department of Health to drive the message home to health care professionals that stroke was a medical emergency requiring a 999 response and rapid access to scanning to determine the most appropriate treatment, which is something that routinely happens in the rest of Europe. Encouragingly, the Department felt that implementing the Committee’s recommendations could save as many as 10 lives a week and some £20 million a year in the NHS. That extraordinary outcome shows that our actions as a scrutiny Committee are not merely dry paperwork exercises, but can actually save lives.

On the other side of the coin, we have recently heard about the failure of leadership displayed at the Rural Payments Agency, which could hardly have made a worse job of paying the new £1.5 billion EU subsidy to farmers. The agency’s disastrous handling of the single payment scheme brought distress to many, some of whom were my constituents. Indeed, there were some suicides, and farmers were driven mad with frustration, with some of their businesses threatened. The events should be recorded in a civil service textbook as an example of what not to do. The experience should be held up to every civil servant as an example of how not to run a project.

I am giving little away when I say that the Committee’s forthcoming report will not pull its punches. However, it is being delayed because Johnston McNeill—I do not like naming civil servants, but I occasionally have to do so, although I have tried to avoid that during my time running the Committee—the former accounting officer who was suspended, has so far tried at every turn to avoid appearing before us, which is highly regrettable. The whole system of
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parliamentary accountability, which has developed over many years, depends on accounting officers being held to account in front of a parliamentary Committee, however difficult that might be for them. Frankly, no one ever gets sacked in our system, so the least that people can do is to turn up and be held to account, but so far this man has not done so.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if Helen Ghosh, the present accounting officer of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, were to co-operate with the Committee? Although my hon. Friend said that civil servants never get sacked, Mr. McNeill was removed from office on 16 March 2006 and removed from employment on 1 December. I have calculated that he was paid a salary of about £80,000 during that time. He was probably paid another £120,000 on top of that in disbursements, payment in lieu of notice and so on. We are yet to hear from the permanent secretary an accurate account of the total expenditure of public funds since Mr. McNeill’s removal from office on 16 March, although we have been asking for it for five or six months.

Mr. Leigh: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, I should not have said that civil servants never get sacked—they rarely get sacked. However, if they do get sacked, they have to be held to account over the often generous severance payments that are made to them. Parliament has a right to know about those payments. That is true not just for DEFRA, but for the Foreign Office, in which, as my hon. Friend knows, there have been other instances.

I am afraid to say that an increasingly unwelcome tactic is being deployed by accounting officers at our meetings. They give the enticing promise of notes containing golden nuggets of further information by saying, “I would like to answer the hon. Member’s question, but I do not have the information now, so I will provide a note.” Somehow, the notes do not arrive—tomorrow never seems to come. The notes continually fail to reach us, which delays our discussions and holds up our reports, which ensures that the Government can say that the reports are out of date.

I hope that it will be noted throughout Whitehall that accounting officers have specific duties to the Committee of Public Accounts within the terms of their appointment. Those duties exist for a purpose. Transparency and openness to scrutiny are hallmarks of strong leadership, not irritations to be avoided. We have a right to expect better from senior public officials than such a betrayal of their responsibilities.

Never again does my Committee wish to hear an accounting officer defending the unacceptable face of capitalism, as was the case during our hearing on the poor deal for refinancing the Norfolk and Norwich private finance initiative hospital. In that case, the private sector frankly took the public sector for a ride. Accounting officers’ duties to my Committee are a reflection of their broader duties as stewards of public funds. Those duties should be borne in mind at all times if we are to avoid such failures as the loss of £5.2 million of taxpayers’ money, spent while trying to save MG Rover. That is the subject of another report that we are considering today.

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Mr. Bacon: Before my hon. Friend moves on from the subject of the Norfolk and Norwich University hospital, I am sure that the chief executive and the finance director of that hospital would like it placed on record that they would have liked the contract to contain a clause requiring a sharing of the refinancing benefits. It was not that they did not want such a clause; they were advised by their advisers to try to get one, but they were prohibited from doing so by Treasury guidance at the time, which made it impossible.

Mr. Leigh: I am glad that, thanks partly to the work of the Committee, we are now much more astute in dealing with refinancing gains, and I am confident that there will never again be a case similar to that of Norfolk and Norwich University hospital, although perhaps that is a dangerous thing to say.

Mr. Khan: I know that the hon. Gentleman is a big fan of the Office of Government Commerce and welcomed it as an innovation, but does he think that sufficient lessons are being learned? He said that he hopes that they have been learned, but permanent secretaries who come before us give the same excuses time and again, and do not learn the lessons. We hear Permanent Secretaries make the same points that they made when they gave evidence three, four or five months ago. Does he think that the OGC is doing a good job in that regard?

Mr. Leigh: The creation of the OGC, particularly when it was under the inspired leadership of Mr. Gershon, is a welcome innovation of the Government’s, and of course his work has influenced other aspects of government. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: we continually find that lessons appear not to have been learned, and although the OGC has an excellent remit and does good work, it lacks the ability to enforce its will in Whitehall. Perhaps it needs to be raised in the pecking order, so that we can ensure that the private sector knowledge that it has acquired is reflected in the public sector’s saving money, particularly in procurement. I do not want to be a merchant of doom. I see that there are people sitting in the civil service Box in the Chamber, and I acknowledge that we have to pay tribute to them. The civil service has thousands of committed people of outstanding quality at all levels, and we try to pay tribute to them when we can, particularly to individuals, including those civil servants, who are often younger, who take on a particular project and deal with it over a number of years with great dedication.

To turn to another key theme, I stress that those high-quality people have to work with low-quality information, poor systems and inadequate information technology. To come right up to date, yesterday we had before the Committee Mr. Ian Taylor, an interesting man. He has wide private sector procurement experience. Indeed, he is a past president of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, so he is at the top of his profession in the private sector. He is now director of the centre for procurement performance at the Department for Education and Skills, and I congratulate the Government on bringing in a man with a particular skill. He told us yesterday that in his view, public sector people are every bit as skilled as those in the private sector, but the information systems in the public sector are so bad that no private sector firm could afford to put up with them. They would simply go out of business. They do not
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provide the data that public sector leaders need to manage effectively or to develop robust strategies for delivery.

In that context, the Home Office should step forward. The Committee has engaged in a persistent investigation of the Department’s decision to release from prison foreign nationals, many imprisoned for ghastly offences, without giving any consideration to whether they should be deported. It is a well-known issue that cost the former Home Secretary his job. We revealed a Department entirely unaware of the scale and political sensitivity of the problem. The Department revised its calculations on that matter with such rapidity that we, and indeed the present Home Secretary, concluded that the Home Office staff were running around like headless chickens, unable to produce reliable information or a coherent response.

At this point, I must pay tribute to one member of the Committee in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), without whom the picture may never have emerged. We greatly welcome his assiduous work on the Committee, even if he is a bit of an anorak; we forgive him for that. Perhaps the age of Lincolnshire cavaliers such as I must give way to the age of East Anglian roundheads in time. We are grateful for what my hon. Friend achieved. It was actually achieved on the back of one of the notes that I referred to earlier. There had been persistent delay in providing a note. We had asked for it again and again, and my hon. Friend, just a day before the hearing that the permanent secretary was due to attend, ensured that the note was delivered. The rest, as we know, is history.

In the NHS, the Committee found that a lack of accurate information meant that no one had any realistic idea of how many people die each year in patient safety incidents. To compound that, nearly one quarter of incidents and a staggering 39 per cent. of near misses were simply not reported at all. We demanded that the National Patient Safety Agency make it simpler for trusts to report incidents and collect information on the factors that lead to death and serious harm in hospitals. Again, that is not some dry bean-counting exercise; it is about saving lives.

Too often, Departments lack the basic capability to measure the things that matter and to learn from them, and to pioneer new approaches. When new approaches are introduced, they do not always take into account the complexities of delivery, and that is the subject that I next want to discuss. The Department for Work and Pensions contact centres are often staffed by people working on flexitime contracts. One might think, “What a sensible arrangement to save money,” but of course it means that they are not available when most of the telephone calls come in. We have all been at the end of a call centre line. Because IT systems are not linked up, customers have to give related Departments and agencies the same information time and again, and it drives them crazy. That wastes time, duplicates effort and infuriates customers. There is an obvious principle here that cannot be expressed too often: when developing strategies, put the needs of the customer first. The public sector is run not for the public sector producer, but for us, the public.

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