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Prioritising expenditure is an absolute basic for any Department or Government agency, so why does a significant and important agency, such as the Environment Agency, have such difficulty doing something as basic as prioritising expenditure? Once again, what is the Treasury doing about the situation—I hope that someone is doing something—to ensure that that lesson is being learnt elsewhere and that people are capable of prioritising expenditure in the way that they should?

I commend the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on confining his speech to the issue of dementia. I thought that our hearing on dementia was one of our most important in that Session. Professor Bannerjee, one of the chief witnesses, was an exceptional witness. The right hon. Gentleman made the point that is covered in recommendation 2, which states:

The Treasury’s minutes of reply state that it is considering

That reply was published at the end of March, but our hearing took place in October, so six months had passed in between. I distinctly recall the officials before us saying at the time that they would not regard any bureaucratic hurdles spoken of as a reason for delay or as preventing them from acting, and that if there were a case for a national clinical director for dementia, they would get on with it. I think that Professor Mike Richards has proved a success as national clinical director for cancer and that that system has proved a success. I urge the Treasury to apply as much pressure as possible to the Department of Health to get this matter moving along, because there does not seem to be any obvious or easily explicable reason for further delay.

The next report that I want to examine is entitled “Helping people from workless households into work”. I think there is agreement across the political parties that something needs to be done in this area. Much more needs to be done than has been done hitherto in terms of welfare reform and helping the hard core of people who live in workless families. They have not experienced people going out to work, because they do not have that around them in their own households.

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In recommendation 9, we say that the Department for Work and Pensions could not tell us how many of the 2.9 million people who had started a new deal programme were still participating in it, nor what proportion of workless households chose not to work rather than being out of work because of personal circumstances. That suggests that there is still a lot to do. How can we assess objectively the success of the new deal programme, which we would all like to do—there is much party political banter about the new deal, but I would like a reliable, objective assessment of its successes and failures—if the Department cannot even tell us how many of the people who started a new deal programme are still on it or what proportion choose not to work?

The coal health compensation scheme was an extraordinary subject—I know that the right hon. Member for Islwyn has a personal constituency interest in it. The scheme provided compensation for miners afflicted by various industrial diseases and was very worth while. What was extraordinary about it was that the then Department for Trade and Industry—now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—managed to make several solicitors multimillionaires. A small firm in Doncaster called Beresfords had a senior partner, Mr. Beresford, who had a personal salary of £16.7 million. I asked the permanent under-secretary, Sir Brian Bender, about that:

He agreed that that was not the purpose of the scheme. Notwithstanding the difficulties about people’s common-law rights, it was extraordinary that a way could not have been found—statutorily if necessary—to get the money that Parliament had voted for the purpose to the people who needed it and to contain and control the risk of people such as Mr. Beresford clawing it up for their own purposes. To me, that was unacceptable and obscene—

Andrew Mackinlay: He’s good for a knighthood.

Mr. Bacon: I hope not.

The next report I wish to consider is on the efficiency programme. We have had much discussion about the extent to which efficiency savings can be relied on and whether they are cashable or non-cashable. We accept that there are technical difficulties in that area, but I hope that the Minister will accept that we all have an interest in having efficiency numbers that we can rely on so that we know that real efficiency is delivered, not measures that cut into the bone of Departments. Real efficiency will help to deliver better public services while providing more taxpayers’ money for other areas. That is especially important in the light of the article in The Guardian that I read the other day, which said that the Government are now embarking on Gershon 2, a second round to identify savings in addition to the £21.5 billion to which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred.

I do not know what the second round will be called yet, although I suggest that it should be called Eagle. Then when the efficiency savings have been delivered, the Treasury can tell the Prime Minister that the Eagle has landed.

Angela Eagle: I was seven years old when the eagle landed before, and the hon. Gentleman may also remember that occasion.

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Mr. Bacon: I do remember that occasion, and it is time for a reprise. Harrison Ford has made a comeback, so I do not see why the eagle should not do so.

Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): My alternative suggestion would be “Gershon and on”, because that is what it will do.

Mr. Bacon: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

The Assets Recovery Agency has recovered only £23 million against expenditure of £65 million. Most of us are at a loss to explain how £65 million can be spent to recover only £23 million by an agency that has the law on its side. The only thing to do with the people who were responsible for the agency—I think that they have now moved on—is plant them in the institutions of this country’s enemies to find out whether they can destroy the economic and financial viability of those countries as well as they have managed the Assets Recovery Agency.

I turn to the delays in administering the 2005 single farm payment scheme in England, which is a good example of my earlier point about the unnecessary restrictions in the motion. On the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment scheme, the permanent secretary to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Helen Ghosh, told our Committee:

I am glad to have got that on the record, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it was out of order for me to do so, because that was said in a hearing that we had with the permanent under-secretary to the same Department on the same subject this January, and the report has not yet been published and is not part of report HC 893, which comes within the motion. I hope that that makes my point for me.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. To some extent, it does, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that he was out of order. He made some valuable points earlier, but it is now important that he stay within our guidelines.

Mr. Bacon: Not only will I do so, but I am nearly finished. I have the reports with me to try to ensure that I stay strictly on the rails.

The Thames Gateway report was also interesting for the wider issues that it raised. I quote very briefly from paragraph 13, where we said:

Those are among the most basic things that we would expect anyone who manages a large Department, agency or project to have taken on board from the start, but to have managed to spend £670 million without doing any of them takes some doing. I hope that the Treasury is not only on the case, but involved in allied areas where similar management failings may have arisen.

I want briefly to turn to the private finance initiative, because the figures published in the appendix of our report on tendering and benchmarking show that, when
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the whole stream of payments going forward is added up, the total liability that now faces the public purse is £170 billion. Of course, the Treasury was anxious to point out—Mr. John Kingman wrote to the Committee to make this clear—that, in doing so, one is adding future and non-comparable figures to present figures without applying any appropriate adjustment and that aggregating the stream of future payments gives a net present value of £91 billion. In complaining that he did not like giving us the £170 billion figure, Mr. Kingman said:

That takes the prize for being unnecessarily complicated and almost guilty of sophistry, because £170 billion is a fairly easily understandable number. It is fairly obviously true that £170 billion in 35 years’ time will not be the same as £170 billion today—we can all understand that—and that the two factors that must be taken into account to get from one number to the other are time and interest rates; quite where foreign currencies come into it I do not know. I can only assume that Mr. Kingman, whom I know to be a very bright man, is guilty of having a trait to which many bright civil servants sometimes fall prey: an attraction to complexity. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby said that the Rural Payments Agency chose the most complex scheme available, the dynamic hybrid. Quite why it had to choose that scheme I do not know. The Germans chose the dynamic hybrid, too, but they managed to make it work. We did not.

I fear—this is probably a subject for a book—that one of the problems facing our public sector, and affecting the way in which our senior civil service conducts itself and advises Ministers, is that senior civil servants are attracted to complexity like moths to a bright light. We need a bit of simplicity. We need to concentrate on basics, including having a budget for a project, making sure that there is an implementation plan, and ensuring that the delivery partners know what on earth the project is supposed to do. If we get back to that, we will have a greater chance of ensuring decent taxpayer value for the expenditure for which Parliament votes.

3.45 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I think that I can claim to be the only hon. Member qualified to congratulate unreservedly the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and his colleagues on their work, their diligence in their studies, the breadth of their work, and the speed with which they have made some very important, cogent reports. I say that because I think that I am the only Back Bencher present who is not a member of the Committee. Clearly, the Government and Opposition Front Benchers can and will congratulate the Committee on its work, but their role and functions are different. The Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), is charged with prosecuting the case, as it were, against the Government’s stewardship of many projects. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury will defend arrangements and explain why no blame can be apportioned to the Government.

I feel privileged to be able to say that I have come to the Chamber this afternoon because I believe that the job that the Committee does of monitoring Government
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expenditure and performance is profoundly important. Its work goes to the heart of the constitution and the role of Parliament. A distinguished and very senior Whip looked into the Chamber earlier, and when he saw me sitting here, he raised his eyebrows to heaven. I try to interpret body language; either he thought that I was barking mad to be here when there will be no vote, or malevolent. Far too often, members of the Government confuse Government Back Benchers’ scrutiny with malevolence and criticism. If a Government Back Bencher scrutinises a measure, the Government see them as mad or bad, or perhaps mad and bad, which is even more worrying.

Angela Eagle: I hope that I am not included in my hon. Friend’s characterisation. I know that he is not mad or bad, but I think that he might be dangerous to know.

Andrew Mackinlay: I do not want to delay the House on this subject, but I think that it does go to the heart of the issue of scrutiny, which is what the volumes that we are considering today are about. Without disclosing any private or personal information relating to my political party, I can say that I owe a debt to the Minister, because I know that she had a hand in ensuring that I stayed on the Foreign Affairs Committee when others wanted to take me off it, for reasons that I have mentioned.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Foreign affairs is the last subject that we ought to stray into this afternoon.

Andrew Mackinlay: Anyway, having got that off my chest, let me say that the reports that we are considering are extremely worth while. I want to refer to a few of them, some of which relate to my constituency.

First, I shall deal with the report on the Assets Recovery Agency. The appalling failure to recover substantial assets from criminals to offset the agency’s costs is a big disappointment. Clearly, the legislation was somewhat flawed, and the stewardship of the agency left an awful lot to be desired. I am not sure that merging it with the Serious Organised Crime Agency will prove to be sensible. Parliament should have done better. It should have worked harder and revisited the matter with new legislation, and the Government should have seen that the administration and management of the agency improved. It is a matter of powers and of stewardship, and the agency could have been much more successful.

I take an interest in Northern Ireland. Abandoning the Assets Recovery Agency, merging it with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, doing away with the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland and merging it in the blancmange of the new agency will prove to be a big mistake. If the Government had decided to merge the two agencies, they should at least have introduced a new statute that hived off the function in Northern Ireland. A designated Northern Ireland agency could have complemented and worked much more closely with the very successful assets recovery agency in the Irish Republic, which to some extent pioneered our legislation. It was a mistake not to ring-fence the function in Northern Ireland. There is an ongoing need to tackle organised crime and to recover the profits of crime in that part of the United Kingdom.

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I commend the Committee for its work on reducing the reliance on landfill in England. I feel particularly strongly about that because my constituency, Thurrock, has been scarred by more than 100 years of landfill. It is unjust, unfair, appalling in its effect on the environment, and it is still going on. Successive Governments have not been energetic enough or enthusiastic enough in reducing the amount of waste put in landfill. Parliament has not taken seriously its moral obligations to reduce the amount of packaging and waste that is produced.

We feel strongly about the matter in Thurrock because landfill has altered the topography of Thurrock and continues to do so, with unnatural bunds in and around the Thames estuary. It is highly inappropriate. The Government should take on board urgently the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee and other organisations. Many local authorities are not doing nearly enough to encourage recycling and the sorting of waste. I notice that the Committee drew attention to the fact that the food and restaurant sector is finding cheaper ways of disposing of the waste that they generate, but it still ends up in landfill and it still ends up in my constituency.

I unashamedly say to the House that that is unacceptable. I see it every day. The little bit of river traffic that passes this building, the tugs pulling the long craft, is heading for Thurrock. It is London’s waste going to Thurrock. Each day there is an increment in pollution in my part of Essex. It is unacceptable, it is distorting the topography, and I make no apology for commending the report to the House and asking the Government to take the issue much more seriously and tackle it as a matter of urgency.

The Committee has done some important work on the Environment Agency, which is charged by Parliament with maintaining river and coastal defences in England. It troubles me that again we are fiddling while Rome burns. If one reads the report, one sees that very little has been done—may be that is not fair. I withdraw that. I should say that the energy and enthusiasm of the Environment Agency, and the stewardship that Parliament charges the agency with, have been seen to be deficient. It has to deal with things immediately, but it also has to have a long-term view. Clearly, the agency is not beginning to address the causes of what could be cataclysmic consequences—probably within your and my lifetimes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and certainly within those of our children and grandchildren—if the problem in and around our coast is not seriously addressed.

As I said, I represent part of the Thames estuary, but not part that is covered by the Thames barrier. It is, however, part of the estuary that is the subject of another report—the Thames Gateway development, which clearly has ramifications for and raises issues about flooding. I do not think that there is joined-up government on the issue. I have some sympathy for the Environment Agency, in that it appears that it does not have the resources or responsibilities that it should. Furthermore, Ministers are transient and there are always reorganisations of Government Departments, which seem to merge and disappear and get new titles and so on. There does not seem to be a coherent, long-term strategy on how and to what extent we should defend the Thames estuary in particular.

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