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Speaking personally, I am amazed that nothing is under way to put an additional barrier across the Thames in the wider estuary. Such a project could be self-financing
and include a road and/or rail crossing, which is much needed for the United Kingdom economy. That is the kind of ambitious engineering that should be advanced. It cannot be advanced entirely by the Environment Agency, which does not have the resources for a major engineering construction; it should be advanced by Her Majestys Government. If we ignore that need, there will almost inevitably be dreadful consequences. They might not come next week or in the next decadebut in the next century they will. People will look back at this Parliament and recent Parliaments, which have not really done anything to address the problem. I hope that the Public Accounts Committee reports criticism of some of the Environment Agencys stewardship will be taken on board, and I implore the Government to take on more.
I have referred to the Governments Thames Gateway strategy, on which the Public Accounts Committee produced an important and powerful report. I was much encouraged that, for the first time, some colleagues were addressing the flaws and failings of a Government initiative and strategy that was albeit well meant but was not being achieved. I intervened from a sedentary position on my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) when he referred to that report, the contents of which he is justifiably proud. He demonstrated some dismay when I intervened rather rudely and said that it is still the case that nothing is changing. Perhaps that was an exaggeration, but I want to share with the House something that illustrates that despite the Committees forensic, detailed report on the failings and problems arising from the Thames Gateway project, the Government are still in denial this afternoon.
I buttress my case by saying that this very week, the Government office for the east of England produced the regional spatial strategy for the eastern regionthat is parlance for a regional development plan. Almost two years ago, before the Public Accounts Committee hearings, I implored the Government, in both speech and writing, to address the fact that the bureaucrats in that Government office had decided, for some reason, that Thurrock Lakeside retail park was not or should not be designated a regional shopping centre. I do not know whether anyone knows my bailiwick, but that shopping centre is demonstrably a regional shopping centre. That decision is like suggesting that these green Benches are red. It is a barmy, crackpot view expressed by bureaucrats. Not only is it mad, but it has some consequences.
The fact that Lakeside is not designated as a regional shopping centre has an impact on the Thurrock urban development corporation, which is a creature of statute and a baby of this Labour Government. It frustrates the corporation in fulfilling its job of creating new training opportunities and ensuring that the right skills are in the right place in Thurrock and along the Thames Gateway. It needs to be able to develop the land around the Lakeside basinI call it the Lakeside shopping centre, but basin is the technical term for the areaand for it to do that Lakeside has to be designated a regional shopping centre.
I have complained about that fact in this Chamber a number of times. I think that it hurt the Government when I said that the process was the opposite of joined-up
government. People moved nervously and, of course, the Ministers were transient, because one of the great problems with the whole strategy is the turnover of Ministers charged with it. It is the opposite of joined-up government because in the Department that deals with the matter, one Minister is in charge of spatial strategy while another, to the best of his or her ability, enthusiastically tries to push the Thames Gateway strategy forward.
I have drawn attention to that problem time and again. This week, the spatial strategy came out. I agreed with a lot of it, but it had one caveatthat the Lakeside basin at Thurrock would be the subject of further consultation. The East of England regional assembly and the Government office will report in December 2009 about the category that should cover Lakeside. Ministers should not take my word for it. They should go back to their Departments and ask, Is what the hon. Member for Thurrock said true? They will then see that the process is the opposite of joined-up government.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am conscious of the fact that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the matters that he is putting before the House, but he must be careful to distinguish between a debate on the Public Accounts Committee and subjects that might be more suitable for Adjournment debates. He has not yet been sufficiently out of order for me to stop him, but I am simply giving him some advice.
Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I accept your advice, but everything that I have said is referred to in the Public Accounts Committees report and its deliberations. The full and thorough report was one of the Committees bigger reports. As you have mentioned the subject, I want specifically to mention a part of the 62nd report, which is about the Thames Gateway. It states specifically:
Local MPs do not feel sufficiently engaged with the Thames Gateway programme.
The Department has used several techniques to engage MPs in the Thames Gateway, including a standing group of Thames Gateway MPs meeting on a quarterly basis
at more informal evening briefings.
By that, it means junkets and dinners. I do not do business over dinner. I will not go to that sort of thing, and I have made that quite clear. There is far too much of that in general, let alone in relation to the Thames Gateway. There is a lot of bonhomie at those dinners, and lots of chat around the table about the problems of the Thames Gateway scheme. I made it quite clear that I would not go along with that in any circumstances.
The chief executive of Thames Gateway appeared before the PAC. I tabled a series of parliamentary questions about her management of the scheme, and eventually I told her that I would meet her over a cup of tea at the House of Commons, because I do not see people over dinner. The following week she resigned. The PAC issued its report, and as a Member of Parliament I legitimately pursued matters in the Chamber and in written questions. She was the second person charged with running Thames Gateway who resigned and disappeared quickly.
It might not be the fault of the chief executives, but the problems are indicative of those identified by the PAC. The strategy is flawed. I can give you references, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the matters are covered in the Committees documents and deliberations. The Committee noted that a plethora of bodies have responsibility for the so-called Thames Gateway strategy. There are too many organisations. It is stark, staring bonkers. If we had wanted to create a confusing organisation we could not have done it better.
Mr. Bacon: The hon. Gentleman is one of my heroes for the way he represents his constituents so independently and robustly. Does he recall that the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who was a member of our Committee, pointed out not only that a plethora of bodiesmore than 100was involved in the financing, but that the Thames Gateway area stopped halfway through his constituency? What kind of planning is that?
Andrew Mackinlay: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speakerindeed, I shall write to you next weekthat everything I have said is absolutely in the footprint of the documents.
Andrew Mackinlay: The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) raised a legitimate point. One of the things acknowledged by the PACthank goodnesswas that the Thames Gateway is covered by no fewer than three Government regions. There is the Greater London region and the eastern region, which we are in, although what goes on in Norwich has no relevance to my peopleI am sure we love Norwich and Cambridgeshire, but we are not oriented towards that area. The hon. Gentleman referred to our colleague from Kent, my hon. Friend the Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), and of course his constituency is in the south-east region. That illustrates just how many confusing agencies there are. Moreover, the motorway system bears no relation to the scheme; the motorways of the Greater London region go from my region and from Kent into London.
I implore the Government not to take the view they put in their responsethat everything in the garden is rosy. It is not. Sooner or later the Prime Minister will wake up to the fact that the developments he attaches such great importance tocreating new homes and quality communities with essential public services commensurate with residential growth and an increasing skills basewill not be achieved unless there is a root and branch review of the policy for the Thames Gateway, and particularly but not exclusively for Thurrock urban development corporation. The Government should use as their starting point the PAC report, which I commend to the House.
Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con):
It is an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). As a former retailer, I assure the House that the hon. Gentleman is not mad. Thurrock is one of
the UKs top 20 retail centres and for it not to be regarded as such by bureaucrats shows how out of touch they are with the reality of the commercial world.
I have served on the Committee with pleasure for the past 18 months and most of my remarks will address how relevant our work is to the world of Government today, rather than focusing on one of the problems identified at our previous opportunity to debate the work of the Committee, which was how often we look back with excessive hindsight at administrative failings. Too much distance makes things less relevant both to our constituents and when making improvements for the future. In some cases, as I will explain, we are highly topical and relevant.
It is essential for the accountability of the Executive that we have a body such as the Public Accounts Committee to provide accountability to the legislature, and that is the role that we fulfil. Without wanting to pat myself and my colleagues on the back too much for being one of the more diligent Committees in the House in the work that wesupported by the National Audit Officeundertake, that diligence is shown by the number of reports that we have before us for consideration.
The vast majority of our reports tend to be connected with events that occurred at some point in the past, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) illustrated in relation to the single farm payments case, some of which took place a number of years ago. During the period under review, we also reviewed the Icelandic trawlermens compensation arrangements, which meant going back not just years but decades to arrangements that were put in place in the 1970s.
Having said that, some of the reports were still topical while we were dealing with themfor example, the 55th report of the 2006-07 Session, The Delays in Administering the 2005 Single Payment Scheme in England, which was published in September 2007. We reviewed the report with the NAO after we had eventually managed to persuade the former chief executive, Mr. McNeill, to come before the Committee. We had a session in June 2007 at which point there were beneficiaries of the payment scheme who had still not been paid the moneys from 2005 to which they were entitled. Although that applied to a relatively small number of people, and in most cases related to farms that had gone into probate, it was still causing considerable anguish among the people who were entitled to the payments.
We encouraged the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to bring forward payments for the subsequent years of 2006 and 2007, and now of course 2008, in order to learn the lessons of the failures of the past and to try to ensure that payments were made in a much more timely fashion. I called on DEFRAs permanent secretary to give an undertaking that payments for 2008 should be made within that calendar year. DEFRA will have had more than three years to put this fiasco right, and we are talking about a relatively small number of claimants118,000 at the time of the report; I think that the number goes down slightly each year instead of going up. In terms of the scale of administration of support schemes, this one is relatively small, and most of the challenges of putting it in place should have been ironed out by now. We will await with interest how it gets on in relation to 2007 and the current year.
My second example of a report that had considerable topicality when we were working on it is the fourth report of the 2007-08 SessionEnvironment Agency:
Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England. We met to consider the NAO report in the week after the first of the dramatic floods had occurred last June. We therefore had the opportunity to quiz the chief executive of the Environment Agency about what it had been doing in the interval between that hearing and the previous occasion five years earlier when she appeared before the predecessor Committee. It was most revealing to establish that although the agency had then committed to produce a flood management action plan for each of the 67 separate river catchments, by April 2007 only four of those had been completed, one of which happened to cover the area that I represent.
Ludlow is within the catchment of the upper Severn river basin, where we had suffered very significant flood damage, if not as bad as some of the damage in the areas around Hull. More than 300 houses were flooded and a bridge on one of the main arterial routes into the town of Ludlow was swept away. That bridge was not even identified as being at risk under any of the categories in the flood management defence plan, which the Environment Agency proudly claimed that they had completed for our area. That throws into question the value of such plans if they do not even pick up significant infrastructure elements such as a road bridge. Our Committee was able to highlight, almost contemporaneously, some important aspects of Departments administration. That shows its significance.
We are not only occasionally topical or contemporaneous but increasingly forward looking. I shall cite two examples of that. We have begun a scrutiny role for the spending on one of the largest public infrastructure projects that the country is undertakingthe London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. I am vice-chairman of the all-party London 2012 group, the chairman of which is a former member of the PAC, the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who was mentioned earlier. He held a conference today to update Members of Parliament and other interested parties on progress.
I support the games, but our Committee has the opportunity to scrutinise the spending to an extent that is not otherwise available to the public. We intend to do so on a basis that, we hope, will allow the games to be delivered on time and on the new, revised and much increased budget, as opposed to looking back in several years to ascertain whether they were delivered on time and on budget. That would not be much use to anyone because I cannot imagine that we will host another Olympic games in my lifetime. The Committee therefore fulfils a valuable role and we are looking forward to seeing progress every year. It was apparent from our first session, which was held last November, that the information provided to the Olympic Board was perhaps not as full as it might have been. When we next consider the matter, it will be intriguing to learn how much more financial information has been made available.
The financial information that the Olympic Delivery Authority reported to its accountable bodythe Olympic Boardcould be included on less than two sides of a sheet of A4. For a project of more than £9 billion, that seems a little light. I hope that the most recently appointed member to the board, following the local elections, can bring his forensic eye for detail to its deliberations and
that Mayor Boris Johnson will insist on much more vigorous financial information and scrutiny of spending, as, indeed, we will.
The second more or less contemporary role that the Committee has undertaken in the past six months is that of shedding some light on the single largest potential security breach, which did so much to undermine confidence in the Administrations competencethe loss of data held by Her Majestys Revenue and Customs. Given that the loss occurred during transmission of data from Revenue and Customs to the NAO, our Committee was quite properly briefed by the Comptroller and Auditor General in a session last December. As a result of that session and our ability to question one side of the transfer, by asking the Comptroller and Auditor General I secured the exchange of e-mails between Revenue and Customs and the NAO, which explained what information was being sought, the manner in which delivery was requested and the individual titles of those in Revenue and Customs who had been copied into the correspondence. Without that, we would have been left with only the Chancellors statement, which shed little light at all on the detail of what transpired.
I believe that it was a result of that sessionin addition to the work of many hon. Members, particularly those on my Front Benchthat the Government were persuaded to appoint Mr. Kieran Poynter of PricewaterhouseCoopers to undertake a detailed review of what had happened. We have had the first part of that report, but we are eagerly awaiting the second stage to see whether it provides any further illumination on what happened, and whether Government procedures for information, transmission and management of personal information will be improved. Let us hope that the lesson learned from this sorry affair means that better procedures are put in place, which Ministers assure us will be the case.
I do not intend to go through the work that we have done on other reports because they have been adequately covered by other Committee members, but I would like to conclude by saying that the Committee is a pleasure to work on. It has been a great privilege to have the opportunity to work with Sir John Bourn during the final year or so of his tenure, and I would like to join other hon. Members in wishing him well in his retirement.
Justine Greening (Putney) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this debate on the reports of the Public Accounts Committee. The Committee plays a vital role, and its impact is felt not just in Parliament but outside the House. If we were to ask members of the public which Select Committees they were aware of, they would probably name two: one would be the Select Committee on Transport, which was chaired by the excellent former Member for Crewe and Nantwich, whom we all miss, and I am sure that the other one they would mention would be the Public Accounts Committee. Having listened to members of that Committee contribute to the debate this afternoon, I have a real sense of why it is so effective, and I shall come on to that later.
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