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The report acknowledges the difficulty of measuring with total accuracy projects that are not stand-alone
initiatives. Indeed, it admits that some areas of programme efficiencies achieved might actually have been understated owing to weaknesses in departmental data systems and complex relations between inputs and outputs. Furthermore, the NAO report declares:
Projects across the programme are making significant improvements in the efficiency of public services.
I look forward to working with the Committee on improving our data and measurement systems, but we should also give credit where credit is due as the largest and most complex efficiency programme ever undertaken in government proceeds.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough also mentioned the NHS information technology programme. The programme has moved on a long way since the NAO produced its report and the PAC took its evidence. Without the programme, the NHS could no longer function, and it is already providing essential services and significant benefits to tens of thousands of clinicians and millions of patients. It is therefore a success story that ought to be acknowledged. For example, more than 5.5 million appointments have now been made using the choose and book system, representing 44 per cent. of first referrals. In addition, 397 million diagnostic images are now stored centrally, and 42 million electronic prescriptions have been used in a service that is now available in 41 per cent. of pharmacies and 47 per cent. of GP surgeries. Nearly 400,000 users are registered to use the NHS care records spine, with 45,000 NHS staff accessing it daily. National leadership has been strengthened by the appointment of a chief clinical officer and national clinical leads, and the programme proceeds.
The hon. Gentleman made a point about primary care trusts, and I acknowledge that providing out-of-hours services has cost the trusts more than the Government anticipated. However, with improved commissioning, there is significant scope for reducing those costs in the future. In fact, the NAO report on out-of-hours services confirmed that we were on the right track to provide quality, round-the-clock out-of-hours services, and recognised that patients experiences of the services were generally positive. Eight out of 10 patients were satisfied with the services, and six out of 10 rated them as excellent or good.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) mentioned two issues that he has mentioned before, as I have seen from reading some of the previous debates on PAC reports. I noted with interest that my advice to share with him bore remarkable similarity to advice that previous Ministers had been given on these occasions. On the issue of child obesity, and the question of whether the results of the national child measurement programme should be shared with parents, I know that the relevant Department is exploring and weighing all the options. My right hon. Friend will be aware that parents are being encouraged to inquire about the results, should they wish to do so, including through the provision of tear-off slips on the forms that they need to sign to give permission for the programme to proceed.
On whether the BBC should fall within the auspices of the National Audit Office for accounting purposes, the Governments view is that the matter was decided as part of the charter review. The consultation that went along with that review demonstrated that the
public did not want any increased power over the BBC to be given to either Parliament or the Government. Let me assure my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West and Opposition Members that the NAO works very closely with the BBC Trust, and the BBC audit committee has close discussions to frame a programme of reviews, which it then undertakes. Members of the PAC then make it their duty to call the BBC to account. The reports are presented to Parliament in full and are looked at closely by the PAC.
Mr. Alan Williams: The consultation on whether the Government should have more power or influence over the BBC is utterly irrelevant. The National Audit Office has statutorily and deliberately been made completely independent of the Government. That is why it audits Government Departments. If there is a falling back on the basis of that evidence, it needs to be said that it is happening on the basis of no relevant evidence whatever.
The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) has never sat on the Public Accounts Committee, but said how much she appreciated and understood the importance of its work. Clearly, so do we all. I take issue with her view that fixed payments in respect of tax credits might be a fairer way forward. It is not particularly fair for people whose income goes down in-yearthey can lose outand estimates suggest that about 700,000 people who did not have their tax credits reduced would lose out under a fixed payments system if their income fell. As with all such matters, there is a tension between simplification and having too blunt an instrument on the one hand and complication and a more finely tuned instrument on the other. The hon. Lady will understand that from her experience in her own advice surgeries.
Mr. Philip Hammond: The Minister is right about that tension. However, is not the message from our debate that we have to start from what is doable and recognise the limits of the systems capacity rather than design products or services that meet some theoretical requirement but cannot be delivered?
Angela Eagle: That is true, but equally the hon. Gentleman must recognise that fixed payments would make many people worse off. I do not underestimate problems with the tax credit system, but let us remember that it helps 20 million people and has lifted 600,000 children out of poverty. The figures show that 97 per cent. of those on the lowest income levels of below £10,000 a year claim this tax credit. If we compare it with its predecessor, family credit, we find that it is much more effective.
Julia Goldsworthy: Does the Minister agree that people on low incomes are most vulnerable to fluctuations in their income and that they are most likely to suffer if there is an overpayment, as their tax credits would suddenly be stopped?
Clearly, those who have less of a margin will suffer if problems occur, but it is equally the case that tax credits are more generous to those on lower incomes, so they provide a greater incentive for
people to go into work. In my constituency surgeries, I have talked to many people who have been enabled to go back out to work and begin to earn a living by the extra help and assistance given by tax credits. As always, there are difficulties when systems go wrong, but the hon. Lady should not underestimate the amount of assistance that the tax credit system has given to many people. We must put these issues, important and difficult as they are, into perspective.
My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has left the Chamber, but he is clearly enjoying serving on the Public Accounts Committee. As all of us who serve on the Committee realise, it is one of the most enjoyable, effective things that a Back Bencher can docertainly, that was my experience as an Opposition Member and a Government Back Bencher. Even after the many years that my hon. Friend has been in the House, I am glad that he has finally appreciated the finer things that can come from membership of the Public Accounts Committee.
My hon. Friends comments about politicians being the problem, and civil servants not standing up to politicians, were interesting. My experience of the tension between policy and practical enforcement in government is not that civil servants do not stand up to politicians, or that politicians try to force civil servants to do things that are undeliverable. It is more subtle than that. As a Minister, I have had many a robust conversation with civil servants and much prefer to be told what is actually happening. If a measure is not seen to be practicable, any Minister worth their salt would want to know about it, and I have been involved in many discussions about the practicality of doing things. If things go wrong, however, the matter does not always come to light at an appropriate level to prevent disaster. As the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) said, the work done by the Public Accounts Committee demonstrates what can be done to ensure that such things do not go wrong systemically.
The hon. Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond) and the Chairman of the Committee were right to refer to the fact that the Public Accounts Committee praises as well as damns. That is a good innovation, as it shows that there is a good way of doing things, which tends to reduce risks and increase the chances of major projects being delivered. If we simply take the worst caseswhich the Committee is right to look atwe can go into a downward spiral of thinking that everything is bad, nothing works and nothing can ever be delivered on time. But we must also remember that a great deal of good change is delivered, day in, day out, by the public sector, central Government Departments and local government, without the great splurge of publicity that can happen when something goes badly wrong.
The hon. Member for South Norfolk asked a series of questions. I suspect that the most important one was about Lorenzo software. I will investigate the matter and write to him about it, because I will not pretend that I have his oversight of that piece of detail. I am happy to consider what he has said and to do what I can to provide him with an answer.
Mr. Bacon: May I ask the Minister to beware of snake oil salesmen who might try to divert her attention from what was originally contractually promised, as opposed to what is actually delivered? There are products out there that have been called Lorenzo, but which are effectively rebadged old software that predates the existence of the national programme.
Angela Eagle: If the hon. Gentleman is an expert on that snake oil, I am sure he will not be backward in coming forward to point out any sleight of hand in any of the responses that I have managed to produce for him. I shall be more than happy to talk to him about that in due course.
The hon. Gentleman also raised some interesting points about the culture of the civil service, the way in which promotions are usually acquired, and the weaknesses that he feels that that inflicts on the ability to deliver on major projects. I like to think that the culture is changing, especially as a result of the strengthening of the power of the Office of Government Commerce and the increasing seriousness with which project delivery and change programmes are viewed, in the civil service in general and politicallywith both a small and a large p. The hon. Gentleman, however, clearly has his own observations to make about the effect that has been produced by that culture and that approach, as he has spent the last six years reading the reports that land on the Public Accounts Committee desk.
The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) made an interesting speech. He mentioned the Committees 32nd report, on the right of access to open countryside, and DEFRAs problems with its budgets. In such circumstances, the Treasury would not see it as its role to decide on DEFRAs behalf which budgets should be top-sliced.
If there are unfunded pressures in a Department, the usual approach is to leave the Department to deal with them unless or until a claim is made on the reserve. Only then will the Treasury become involved in the nitty-gritty of deciding whether the claim is justified. It certainly would not want to become involved in telling a Department how to deal with unfunded pressures within its own internal financial envelope. If any changes had come about as a result of that, DEFRA would have decided how to deal with them. Clearly, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the allocation of funds to Natural England had a direct effect on arrangements for access to the countryside.
Mr. Dunne: I am grateful for that explanation. Does it mean that when an external event takes place such as a fining by the European Union, the Treasury will not take the initiative but will rely on each Department to submit an application?
If an unfunded pressure of any sort was expected, there would be a dialogue with the Department concerned. However, if the Department then decided to make a claim on the reserve, the Treasury would make the decision. Although it might have suggestions to put to the Department, it would not insist that the
Department do anything in particular about its unfunded pressures; that would be a matter for the Department. As I said earlier, it is a decision for the Treasury only if a claim is made for allocation to the contingency fund. Despite its reputation, the Treasury does not micro-manage every departmental budget.
Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman has the better of me. We are dealing with 40 reports, and I cannot give him a detailed answer to a specific question of that kind. However, I should be happy to find out whether I can discover the answer for him.
The hon. Member for Gainsborough spent some time talking about the Olympics. The PAC recently initiated an interesting development in its scrutiny programme by conducting a hearing on preparations for the Olympic and Paralympic games, although of course the work has yet to be finished.
More such hearings are planned. That approach was welcomed by the Opposition Front Bench. It is a new approach. The PAC and the National Audit Office are no doubt aware of the risk that their current involvement could somehow affect their objectivity when they later review the Olympic arrangements after the event, but it will be interesting to observe whether, and how, the approach will improve the Governments effectiveness in delivering the games.
The Government look forward to staging the worlds oldest and largest sporting festival as an event of which the entire nation can be proud. We intend to provide a fitting venue for a giant celebration of human capacity for achievement and diverse talent. Beyond that global celebration, we are determined to ensure that it brings significant and lasting benefit. Our goal is to leave real and valuable legacies. We want to make the UK a world-leading sports nation. We plan to transform east London. We must inspire our young people to take part in voluntary cultural and physical activity. We shall have an Olympic park that is a blueprint for sustainable development. If we do all that, the UK will be a shining light as a creative, welcoming and inclusive societythe vision that won us the bid in the first place.
During its visit in June 2007, the International Olympic Committee co-ordination commission observed that good progress had been made and that the work was on track both operationally and financially. Its chairman stated:
we really consider London will be a model for future host cities of the Games.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab):
I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to take this opportunity to congratulate the Olympic Delivery Authority on bringing in the first construction contracts on time and under budget. Those contracts are managed by a capable engineer, Howard Shiplee. Will my hon. Friend also commend our Government on introducing project bank accounts and project insurance in an attempt to control any overspend outside the control of the ODA,
and to ensure that the construction companies involved get paid and we look after small and medium-sized enterprises as a result?
Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend is right, and it is nice to hear a contribution that celebrates our success in winning the games and is upbeat about our ability to deliver them. We already know that we are ahead of previous games in terms of preparation and planning, including in securing flows of private funding and sponsorship. Our public investment has generated private investment of about £1.5 billion in the Olympic village and £6 billion in Stratford.
To respond to what the hon. Member for Gainsborough said about preparations, there is one body, and ultimately one individual, with overall responsibility for delivery, and beneath them there are clear reporting lines, as set out in the Treasury minutes. The Olympic board is overseeing preparations for the games. That is being co-chaired by my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Olympics and the Mayor of London, and the Minister for the Olympics reports directly to the Prime Minister. It is also incorrect to state that strong monitoring and risk management arrangements are not in place. They have been explained in the Treasury minutes.
I wish now to discuss broader Government initiatives by briefly addressing five areas that might be of interest to Members. On 9 October, the Chancellor announced in his comprehensive spending review plans that will release £30 billion for reinvestment. The next stage will be for Departments to publish value-for-money delivery agreements by the end of the year. That will set out publicly how they will achieve their value-for-money savings. From then on, they will report biannually on their performance to ensure that the public are informed of progress towards meeting the value-for-money targets. As the hon. Member for Gainsborough has called for breakdowns of departmental performance, I anticipate that he will be keen to read them. The Government welcome the National Audit Offices continued vigorous interest in scrutinising the process to ensure that it achieves its goals.
A second area of great interest is the progress of the Government Department capability reviews. Fifteen Departments have already been reviewed, and the findings are published on the Cabinet Office website. We await with intense interest the results on the final two Departments: Revenue and Customs and my own Department, the Treasury. They should be published by winter 2008 at the latest. Furthermore, we are keen to ensure that this process has teeth, so once initial reviews are published, each Department has three follow-up board meetings to review progress against the findings.
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