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hardly a real commitment to change. On the question of the time between different meals, it said that it “accepts the conclusion” but that “fully implementing the recommendation” would be “highly expensive”—hardly a resounding admission of change on the way.

We have had three recommendations from the Committee on prisons and nutrition; three failures to act by the Prison Service; and three responses that demonstrate a lack of respect for the Committee by the Prison Service. My fear is that in a further 10 years or so another piece of research or another report by the Committee will find that those things still have not been acted on. For me, this is not about being nice to prisoners—it is not about giving porridge to them because it is a nice thing to do. It is about helping to reverse the cycle of violence in our prisons—violence and disruption that undermine their ability to rehabilitate offenders and cut re-offending rates.

The three reports may seem unconnected, but I believe that they tell a bit of a story: a story of Government who have a desire to jump into bed with the private sector at the cost of waiving crucial protections for taxpayers’ money; a story of a Government whose desire has led them to pour money into urban green spaces without targeting, planning or regulating their expenditure; and a story of a Government who are happy to allow a public body—the Prison Service—run with public money to ignore the recommendations of an important Committee of this House for 10 years. Taxpayers deserve better.

1.33 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It is a great please to take part in the debate, as indeed it is a great pleasure to serve on the Public Accounts Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who fulfils his role not just with great energy, but with great good
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humour. I shall begin by addressing thematic points that are illustrated by several of the reports and then consider two or three reports on which we have played a fruitful and productive role in improving public services.

My first point comes back to the original purpose for which the Committee was set up, which is to ensure that public money is properly used and that propriety is followed at all times. Two reports that we considered in the past 18 months demonstrate that it is still necessary to focus on that. The first was the 46th report, “Governance issues in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment” in Northern Ireland. It tells a bizarre and complex story, which I cannot possibly repeat, of a number of inappropriate relationships and a failure of the Government Department overseeing that body to ensure that there were no serious improprieties. The second report, “The joint venture between Dr. Foster and the Department of Health”, was considered more recently. In that case, taxpayers’ money was used to inject equity without a clear rationale or open competition. In both cases, family connections and a mediaeval approach to public money had taken hold. That is totally unacceptable. It is a very good thing that the NAO delved into those labyrinthine problems and that we can speak out on that important issue.

My second point—which should be fairly straightforward to deal with, but clearly is not—is the simple issue of significant cost overruns. There are two recent examples of that. One is the road building programme, where there seems to be a systemic failure, with continuous increases in the region of 25 to 30 per cent., which is significant on a large capital programme. The other example, obviously, is the Olympics. The cost at the time of the initial bid was £3 billion; the latest estimate is £10.6 billion. When we took evidence, there was a great deal of confusion about what items of expenditure on the Olympics would be part of the legacy and what would be part of the two-week sporting event itself. Even taking account of the legacy, it was not clear that there would be value for money. For example, the officials said that there would be 4,000 homes, but there could have been 100,000 homes for the amount of money that is being spent. Altogether, it is a most unsatisfactory episode.

One of the things that concerned me was the attitude of the officials. I felt that once they move into something in which the numbers are very large, they begin to lose sight of the principles at stake and to be ignorant of the issues at stake. I asked whether they knew and were satisfied with the cost of the temporary structures. They immediately realised that I would draw an analogy between those and Henry VIII’s field of the cloth of gold, but they did not know that they were spending $240 million. The culture of irresponsibility should be looked at systematically.

We need to consider two things to shift people’s attitude and behaviour: the skill level and accountability. The British civil service has a number of important strengths, but delivery, practical implementation and management capacity do not generally rank among the greatest of them. Many of us have a feeling that there is not a high price for failure in terms of practical implementation and that there is an insensitivity to management realities and time scales. Obviously, the skills needed vary from Department to Department.
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The Foreign Office and Treasury are largely policy oriented, so a policy approach is perfectly sensible and effective. In the case of the Treasury, its delivery has been largely hived off to the Inland Revenue and the Bank of England. However, in many Departments delivery is the essential business of the Department. Policy is about delivery.

Over the past 40 years, numerous attempts have been made to broaden the practical experience of senior civil servants. Generally they have not succeeded, for a very good reason: the world is too complex. When we expect people to know about giving policy advice to Ministers, being sensitive to political realities, and drafting legislation and steering it through the House, and also to know how to run large bureaucracies, we are expecting them to be good at two completely separate jobs. We need to get away from the idea that civil servants can be superbly gifted in every field. We can run a system of government on the basis of a cadre of able, intelligent, committed people, but we cannot run it on the basis of exceptionalism.

It is interesting to note the instances when things seem to have worked well. When the Committee took evidence, I was struck by what had been achieved when vital technical skills were imported from specialist professions. There have been two success stories. The seventh report of the Session 2006—07, “Department for Work and Pensions: Using leaflets to communicate with the public about services and entitlements”, might appear obscure, but it has a very interesting background. The Department took a broader look at its problems and, having encountered considerable difficulty in organising information on benefit entitlements, recruited a logistics expert from the Canadian army whose previous job had been directing United Nations operations in Sarajevo. There was a person who really could crack the problem. We recently produced a report on national health service food procurement, in which there had been numerous inefficiencies. The Department of Health had recruited someone from the financial sector, who had also had a significant impact.

Departments need to build up skills within the civil service and the public sector. We recently considered their use of consultants, which was not a particularly happy experience. We concluded that although expertise was being brought in, we were not achieving very good value for money.

I think that all the Committee’s members have been probing the issue of whether particular groups working in the public sector should be paid significantly more than other mainstream civil servants. It is clearly a tricky issue for the Chief Secretary, because we do not want public sector pay to go rip-roaring off. Medical consultants are an example of that. A report published only yesterday shows that sometimes we are too generous. However, in other instances, because we underpay staff in the public sector, we buy in services from the private sector. That means paying not just for the people providing the services, but for profit margins, marketing and so forth, so that the whole exercise becomes much more expensive. It is quite pleasing that both the Office of Government Commerce and the Shareholder Executive, whose
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representatives we met recently, have said that they want to build up groups with, in particular, financial expertise to solve that problem.

As I said earlier, I believe that accountability matters. On a number of occasions, weaknesses in accountability have led to overspends, inefficiencies and poor value for money. Obviously, there will be a problem if there is a long chain of command in a large organisation, but it strikes me as a basic, simple principle that in the public sector accountability should be to the public, either in their role as users of services or in their role as citizens. All chains of accountability should flow to them. However, we have seen too many instances when things do not work in that way.

When we examined NHS deficits, the National Audit Office produced an amazing spaghetti junction-type diagram. The most alarming information was that foundation hospitals are accountable to Parliament. When I asked the officials how that was to be effected, they said “Through you”. That filled me, at least, with horror, because I did not believe that we were capable of fulfilling such a role in respect of all the foundation hospitals in the country. The idea that the buck could stop with us in any systematic way struck me as rather unrealistic.

For the fifth report of the Session 2006-07 we looked at a regulatory body, Postcomm. Under the structure that had been established, the industry would report to the regulator, who would then report to us. One of the problems that struck me as we took evidence was that Postcomm was not very sensitive to the needs of post users. It had not taken adequate account of the costs of lost or late mail, or of the needs of rural areas. Having decided on a strategy and introduced the market, it then proposed to consult the public. Again, we saw a weakness in the chain of accountability.

A third example, mentioned by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, is the Rural Payments Agency, which failed to pay farmers their entitlements. The chief executive has been relieved of his position and there have been some ministerial changes, but we are bound to ask whether that was a reasonable response to the circumstances. Did responsibility for those failings lie at ministerial or official level? There is a case for saying that the English system was too complex in comparison with the Scottish and Welsh system and that the policy design fault lies with Ministers, but it is clear that there was also considerable incompetence at civil service level.

Ministers cannot be expected to line-manage their staff in such detail. It is perfectly reasonable for Ministers arriving at a Department to assume that, by and large, the Department can either tell them that something is not possible, or deliver what it says is possible. If there is not that relationship between Ministers and officials, Ministers lack the levers that they need in order to implement policy. We need to strengthen ministerial control. In the name of neutrality, Ministers have been left with no leverage. For example, a Minister cannot ask a permanent secretary to leave if the relationship between them breaks down. That would not be tolerated in any part of the private sector. The chief executive of BP, for instance, was recently asked to leave by the chairman because the relationship was not functioning adequately.

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Another possibility is that we simply rely on professional standards. I am sorry that that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is not present, because he alerted us to the different patterns in different parts of the public sector. If we assume that professionals are able to distinguish their personal interest from the public interest, we can use professional standards as a form of accountability. The report, “Progress in implementing clinical governance in primary care” found that the Department of Health used that system. There is no inspection of the doctors; their professionalism is relied on. We found that the standards of governance were directly related to the quality of patient experience, albeit more work needs to be done to improve both of them. That is in stark contrast to the situation in schools. We produced a controversial report, “Poorly performing schools”—the 59th report of the 2005-06 Session. Interestingly, the evidence was largely gleaned not by the National Audit Office but by Ofsted, the regulator. There is a completely different system of accountability in respect of schools.

To summarise, I suggest that good policy delivery requires having the right skills in place, strengthening public accountability—partly through democratic structures and for citizens as well as consumers—and relying on both professional standards and independent inspection and regulation.

I want to give some examples of where I think that the NAO and the Committee have helped to improve services and service delivery. The hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned the inquiry into reducing brain damage by addressing stroke care—the 52nd report of the 2005-06 Session. That is a serious problem: it is the third biggest cause of death, and there are huge costs to the individual and the economy. Early action has a significant impact on outcomes. I was interested in the report as this is a significant health problem in County Durham, because of the health overhang from the heavy industrial work many people there did in the past and because of lifestyle. In my local hospital—Bishop Auckland general hospital—there is an excellent centre led by the consultant, Mr. Mehrzad. Last December, the local patient and public involvement forum held a one-day conference on stroke facilities in the area and stroke care. It brought together patients and practitioners and it used the PAC report as a basis. We now know that the Department of Health is taking this matter seriously and that they will prepare a proper strategy that will be produced later this year.

Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), I was interested in the eighth report on tackling childhood obesity. Again, there was a delivery chain that looked like spaghetti junction; 27 agencies were involved in that process. We took evidence from three Departments: the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The Department of Health has huge NHS costs that are projected to rise significantly, but in the DCMS and DFES this matter is not a priority, yet they are the Departments that have the policy levers. There has been a certain dilatoriness in respect of how the policy has been pursued. When we took evidence in May last year, the DFES permanent secretary was unaware that the extra money that it had provided was inadequate to
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equip school kitchens. Since then, great progress has been made. The School Food Trust under Prue Leith is tackling the problem.

There is a similar problem in the DCMS. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West talked in detail about the proposed controls on television advertising which Ofcom will produce. Action was originally promised in 2004, and we were told that if voluntary action was not achieved by 2007 we would have legislation. That timetable has now been pushed back to 2008. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the 2010 target will be achieved. In an interesting intervention, Stephen Carter—the previous head of Ofcom—wrote an article in the Financial Times in which he straightforwardly admitted that it was not his first concern to regulate the broadcasting industry in the interests of public health. He said that if that is what Parliament wants, it should set things up differently. He said that his first concern was the broadcasting industry and its health. We need to think more clearly about how cross-departmental efficiency is to be achieved. Members might wish to take a look at early-day motion 404 on controls on television food advertising to children and join with the 211 other colleagues who have agreed that they need toughening up; I commend doing so.

If we are to be successful in fighting childhood obesity, we also need to look at non-broadcast promotions. Yet another structure has been set up to deal with that. The Committee of Advertising Practice looks at matters such as texting, posters and press advertisements. Which? has described the code that the CAP has produced as “woefully inadequate” and as

It wants there to be consistency between the non-broadcast code and the broadcast code, proper Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling and an approach that covers the whole under-16 age group.

With another hat on, the DCMS is promoting sport and children’s play as a solution to the problem. We have examined the Olympics. New evidence has come out suggesting that if we wanted to maximise the participation of children and young people in sport, it is highly unlikely that we would go about that by spending £10 billion on the Olympics. However, the DCMS was pleased to tell us of the £155 million that the national lottery is putting into children’s play, and that is a positive new development. If Members want to ensure that the money for children’s play is not siphoned off to the Olympics, as might also be threatened in respect of some other lottery moneys, they might like to attend the meeting of the all-party group on play next month, at which we will meet the lottery to discuss this issue.

As the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) said, this matter is also related to the 58th report, “Enhancing urban green space”. I take issue with one aspect of his remarks. I think that the story in this respect is basically a success story, as more than 90 per cent. of urban authorities have satisfaction levels of 60 per cent. However, he is right in that when we probed the Department for Communities and Local Government on the situation in respect of children, we found that their needs were not well understood. We found that two thirds of local authorities had not considered the needs of children and young people.
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The official who appeared before us used a wonderful expression—he said that thought was being given to consolidating parks and urban green spaces. He did not mean that they would be consolidated, of course, because how can anyone consolidate something that is two miles away from something else? What he meant by that was that lots of money will be spent on some of them to make them really nice and that builders will be allowed to have the others.

That is of relevance to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) found when he conducted a review of children’s play, which is that what children really want is things that are local to them and that they can easily access so that they can go to them independently without their mums or dads. In that connection, we looked at interesting maps for antisocial behaviour. Again, it is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby is not here, because he pointed out the striking contrast between Hull and Grimsby. The level of antisocial behaviour is much higher in Grimsby than in Hull, and he did not know why as both areas are very similar, sociologically. However, I can tell the House that Hull city council runs a very good play programme. It would be interesting if the NAO looked more widely, initially in London, to determine whether there are similar correlations around the country.

I do not want to take up more than my fair share of time, so I shall conclude by saying something about the work that we did on the NAO report entitled “Gaining and Retaining a Job”, which focused on the support for disabled people provided by the Department for Work and Pensions. The original report compared the broad range of schemes run by the DWP with the Remploy factory network. The Remploy factories fared extremely badly in the comparison. I was interested in that as I have a Remploy factory in Spennymoor in my constituency. I have talked to the people who work there, and I know that they value the factory very much. The NAO review found that £330 million is spent on getting disabled people back into work, of which £120 million goes to subsidising the Remploy factory. However, only 9,000 people work in those factories, compared with the 120,000 to 150,000 who access other schemes.

At first blush, the Remploy factories seem to be 10 times more expensive than the other schemes, but two things became clear when we looked into the matter in more detail. First, we discovered that we were not comparing like with like. The Remploy factories get a full subsidy so that they can offer permanent jobs, whereas the other schemes offer small interventions with the aim of trying to help someone to find a job. Although it is possible that the job might be permanent, it is far more likely to be the sort of short-term employment that people with disabilities do not value nearly so much.

Secondly, we were able to get to the bottom of the management costs problem that had aroused much conflict. The trade unions believed that the main problem was that management was wildly inflated, and that no other changes would be needed if that problem could be cracked. In contrast, management adopted a very defensive position. Our report was able to uncover some of the relevant facts. The House will know that
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there have been many changes in Remploy as a result of a ministerial review. This afternoon, the trade unions will publish a strategy document compiled by the accountants Grant Thornton. As I understand it, the strategy will enable most of the factories to stay open and to remain within the financial envelope that Ministers, quite reasonably, have set.

That is an example of how the work done by the PAC, in respect of a very serious matter, has increased the level of facts available and reduced the amount of conflict. The PAC is sometimes critical of organisations or of how public funds are used, but I hope that the examples that I have given of how we have acted constructively demonstrate that the Committee is not against the public sector. We do not look at public sector organisations and say, “They’ve messed everything up. It’s clear they can’t manage anything and everything has to go to the private sector.” The examples of how we have improved public sector efficiency demonstrate that it is possible to deliver better public service for all citizens.

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