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The Committee has obvious strengths, including the fact that it is cross-party in nature, leading to a need to find common ground. That forces people to remove the politics from the situation and focus on the underlying issues. It also has a particularly clear ethos, which is
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about unashamedly shining a spotlight into crevices of Government activity—some deep and dark, others very large—where it feels that things are not working quite as well as they might. The spotlight may be blinding and perhaps not particularly welcome to the Government, but the light cast on the issues that are subjects of the Committee’s inquiries is ultimately extremely productive.

The contributions we have heard today, and the knowledge base of Committee members, demonstrated the impressive breadth of issues that they have to consider. I pay tribute to the Committee members, because it is clear from the numbers of reports talked about that the amount of briefs they have to read every week must be phenomenal. I remember when I was lucky and privileged enough to serve on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that we had to deal with a lot of briefs, but that was nothing compared to what the members of the Public Accounts Committee have on their desks, which they have to digest fully, understand and make the most of when they are carrying out their work. I also pay tribute to the Committee for developing its reports. Given the diverse group of people serving on it—I got a sense of the individual personalities whom the Chairman has to cope with—it is incredibly impressive that it is able to come up with reports of such quality, decisiveness and forensic detail.

As well as having real breadth, the Committee covers a variety of topics, unlike perhaps any other Select Committee. Its focus on public accounts means that it can cover the whole range of activities across Government, in an almost unrestrained way, which is a helpful ability. I welcome the Committee’s reports not only for that reason, but for a number of others.

First, the value of the reports lies in the meticulous way they are pulled together. Critically, they are undeniably fact-based, as I have mentioned. Whether the reports are on the conclusions reached on efficiency savings processes across Government in dementia policy, which the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) mentioned, or other issues, it is the facts contained in the Committee’s reports that make them so hard for Ministers to ignore.

Obviously I am disappointed to hear that the Committee is still awaiting a response from the Treasury to one report, but Treasury Ministers have probably been slightly busy over the past few months on other matters, including the Budget, re-writing the Budget, re-writing policies on capital gains tax and non-doms, and various other matters. On this occasion, one can understand why Treasury Ministers have not had the time to get back to the Committee so promptly. However, I am sure that, having listened to the Chairman’s comments this afternoon, Ministers will respond promptly with the outstanding comments that they owe the Committee.

If one wanted to pick a success metric for Select Committees, the most effective would probably be the number of recommendations made in their reports that the Government took up. The Public Accounts Committee has a particularly good record on producing reports whose recommendations are so constructive that the Government take them up. The other key point about the Committee’s success is its clear willingness to take a second look at issues that it has already examined closely and produced recommendations on, if it is concerned
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that action has not been taken and feels that considering the issues again will bear fruit. That tenacity is a further reason why the Committee’s work is so well regarded.

The flip-side to the Committee’s unrelenting desire to get to the bottom of the situations that it investigates and to take a fact-based approach is that it sometimes discovers that the facts are not there. The facts that exist are not the problem that the Government face, so much as the fact that people do not understand or have the information that they need to take good decisions.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) mentioned that issue in the context of the Committee’s inquiry into university drop-out rates and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who made a brilliant speech, mentioned it in relation to the new deal. He made the particularly valid point that projects such as the new deal can become mired in politics. In that policy area, what was so badly needed was a dispassionate look at the flaws in the implementation of the new deal, such as the lack of data available for the people trying to run it. The Committee’s fact-based—or often lack-of-fact-based—approach is critical.

The second reason why the Committee’s work is of such value is its attempt to look at Government in a more holistic, joined-up way. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who I think would fit into the Committee quite well in terms of personality, made that point incredibly well. For what it is worth, judging by when I have been shopping at Thurrock Lakeside, I would have thought it was a regional centre. I base that on the fact that pretty much every time I have been, I have got stuck in traffic on the M25 trying to get in. Clearly, it is being used by people who are not particularly local.

Returning to my point, the way in which the Public Accounts Committee ranges across Departments means that its reports have a broader aspect than those of other Select Committees, as well as forensic detail. It therefore does a more valuable job by giving an overarching view of particular issues from an holistic perspective, which, critically, reflects how the Government’s performance affects the public.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made the point, when he opened the debate, that what the Committee can do incredibly well is reflect the experience of the public in its reports. People experience public services through joined-up government, and, when a Select Committee focuses on a particular Department, it often might not have the chance to reflect on the impact that the Department’s failures or pieces of work have across broader government. Critically, that aspect works very well for the Public Accounts Committee. That is another reason why the Committee is listened to both inside and outside the House when it publishes reports. I am sure that many Select Committee Chairmen would love to be on Radio 5 Live and Radio 4’s “Today” programme as often as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is.

I could not participate in this debate without mentioning the Committee’s work on value for money and on the challenging efficiency savings programme that is ongoing and will be moved up to the next level. At the heart of the Committee’s consideration is money—taxpayers’ money—and how effectively the hard-earned cash that the public hand over to the Government, in the hope
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that they will deliver effective public services in return, is spent. That key strand runs across all Government Departments and enables the Committee to take such a wide-ranging approach to its reports. Its work on efficiency savings was critical because it was about a programme that is being carried out across government, not just in one Department. It made some profound and positive recommendations about the efficiency savings programme that could have been implemented across the whole gamut of government activity.

Having been involved with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which considered concerns about the efficiency savings programme as it was carried out in Jobcentre Plus, I recognise many of the issues that the Public Accounts Committee raised in its report. One such key issue was mentioned earlier—that efficiency savings were being carried out without a clear understanding of the cost that was incurred to get those savings. Before I came to the House, I was an accountant who worked in industry. I remember asking a civil servant at the Department for Work and Pensions about the cost of the efficiency savings programme in Jobcentre Plus and being flabbergasted when he told me that he did not know how much had been spent on delivering savings. I am therefore pleased that the Committee highlighted that issue in a report, and I hope that Ministers will not only respond positively to that, but act on the Committee’s recommendations.

The Committee’s achievement of getting the Government to accompany claims of savings with the cost of achieving those savings was a real win, not only for the Committee, but for Parliament and for the public. As we address the challenging targets on saving resources that the Government have set across a range of Departments—we know that more are coming; it sounds as though there will be a next wave—it is vital for the public that those savings are made not only efficiently but in a way that does not undermine the quality of the public services that people receive on a day-to-day basis.

I know from my time before becoming an MP that it is possible to make savings in two ways. The first involves making a bit of a cut and taking short-term decisions to make the figures add up in whatever way is possible. The other way is far more challenging, but it is the right way to do it. It involves genuinely looking at how to improve the way in which the team and the organisation are working. The Public Accounts Committee has flagged up the fact that it is vital to put the processes in place to ensure that the second approach is taken, rather than the first.

I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. He set out the achievements of the Committee very well at the beginning of the debate. Given the venerable and individual personalities involved in the Committee, some of whom we have heard from today, it is no mean feat to be able to lead that group and to get it to produce a report at the end of any given inquiry. I am sure that, as long as the ability of a Chairman of a Select Committee to stay in post is performance related, my hon. Friend will remain in his position for quite some time. Given that the Government’s performance in any number of areas these days is all too often rather shambolic, there is
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probably enough work for several Public Accounts Committees working simultaneously.

The reports that the Committee produces are often challenging to the Government, and they might at times feel like harsh medicine. They might make uncomfortable reading, but they are always constructive, and the Government ignore them at their peril. We all look forward to the next gamut of reports from the Committee. As a group of people working closely together on a whole range of issues, they no doubt have a massive contribution to make to ensuring that scrutiny of the Government continues in the way that it needs to on behalf of the public. I congratulate the Committee, and we all look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the contributions from Committee members and Back Benchers today.

4.37 pm

The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): It is a great pleasure to respond to what has been a very good debate. We often get quality rather than quantity in our Public Accounts Committee debates, and we have seen that again today. I start by thanking the members of the Committee for their work. The Chairman, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), is rightly proud of its role in driving through efficiency and the accountability of all Government Departments to Parliament. That is a key part of its work, and it was that aspect of the work that I particularly enjoyed as a Back Bencher, and as a member of the Committee twice. I am now on the Committee for a third time, albeit in an ex officio role, which also gives me great pleasure.

The hon. Gentleman managed to get Confucius and Arnold Schwarzenegger into the same sentence.

Mr. Bacon: No mean feat.

Angela Eagle: Indeed. I would not even attempt to compete with that, even with three hours’ notice, and I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee on his achievement.

The PAC highlights problems and points out specifically where things have gone wrong. That is a key part of its work of ensuring that lessons are learned, that best practice can be spread and that bad practice can be driven out from whatever corner of Government it exists in. The hon. Member for Gainsborough was right to say that there were signs of changing cultures and increasingly positive responses to the Committee’s reports. It is important that there should be criticism when problems arise, but it is important to use praise as well, which the Committee does. When it sees elements of good practice, it rightly highlights them. For example, as mentioned earlier in our debate, the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus was done successfully and under budget, while the pensions regulator and NHS financial management could also be mentioned.

Mr. Bacon: Before the Minister moves on from the subject of praising Government Departments and the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus, I want to say that the report on that was exceptionally impressive, highlighting that the roll-out had won nine awards. One thing that greatly struck the Committee was that although the three witnesses in charge who came before us had between them 112
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years of experience of administering social security, not one of them had started out as a fast-stream administrative trainee. They had all worked up from the bottom and they plainly knew the consequences of their actions on the people who were still at the bottom.

Angela Eagle: That is a key point and I hope that the head of the civil service will have noticed it in his regular perusals of the Committee’s reports. When I was a Minister in the then Department of Social Security, I was anxious to ensure that there were feedback loops and mechanisms from the front line to those working on policy. Policy will be more successful when those feedback mechanisms are healthy, so I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. It is important to learn from good and best practice, as well as from criticisms. When they are justified, as they often are, we should accept them, hold up our hands and learn the lessons.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) made an impassioned speech. He rightly pointed out the importance of the report on dementia inaugurated by the Public Accounts Committee. In a powerful contribution, he highlighted the importance of making progress on that issue. The Department has said that it will consider whether a compelling case can be made for having a strategy and a national clinical director for dementia. The Department agrees with the Committee on the need for early diagnosis—an issue that will be addressed by the creation of a national dementia strategy—and it also accepts the need to improve public and professional awareness. It has already commissioned a public awareness campaign by the Alzheimer’s Society, which will be launched later this month. The PAC has done the country a singular service by raising this issue. As my right hon. Friend said, dementia does not often come to the forefront of debate, but it is an important issue.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that we were not getting a bang for our buck in respect of the extra money that we are putting into the NHS. He mentioned the second report on prescription drugs and pointed out that 752 million prescriptions were dispensed in primary care, which cost the NHS £8 billion. That is true. He rightly pointed out that 98 per cent. of those prescriptions were written by GPs. However, to put the other side of the argument, 83 per cent. were for generic drugs, which are cheaper than branded drugs, and that is the highest percentage in Europe. Although there is clearly scope for more savings, I want to put on record the fact that the percentage of generic drugs dispensed in the NHS as a proportion of the total number is high. We must all chase the possibility of making more savings, but I want to point out that the NHS does not do too badly in that respect.

Dr. Pugh: The Government are making appreciable progress in that area, but the remarks of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) about efficiency and getting value for money are more appropriate to the Public Accounts Committee report on the consultants’ contract, which showed an increase in costs but no gain in efficiency.

Angela Eagle: The hon. Gentleman is right to raise those important issues. We must continue to work on our definition of productivity in the public sector if we are not to produce perverse results, and we need the
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tools with which to analyse how well expenditure is being used. We must do more technical work on all those issues, as he suggests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) announced to the Chamber that he was developing increasingly sycophantic tendencies. I can hardly believe that that is true: having known him for as long as I have, I should be amazed if such a thing were happening. I am not sure that he has made the appropriate assessment of the way in which his character is evolving over time.

My hon. Friend said that he had made some interesting discoveries during his membership of the Committee, particularly the discovery that motorbikes escaped automatic number plate recognition technology and could thus evade vehicle excise duty and even, perhaps, speeding fines with impunity unless caught by a handy police officer. I am afraid I have bad news for him if he is thinking of mitigating the costs incurred by his household in the form of speeding fines: automatic number plate recognition cameras can now identify motorbikes, so I fear that his method of evading motoring law and potential extra costs has just slipped through his fingers.

Mr. Mitchell: Bang goes my wife’s Christmas present.

Angela Eagle: My hon. Friend will have to think of something more useful to buy his wife for Christmas.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) asked a series of, as always, relevant questions. He spoke of ending the ban on what can be debated under the motion so that our debates could become more contemporary. The Government do not have a particular view on that; it is a matter for the House. If the House decides that it wants to change the way in which we debate PAC reports, I shall do my best—or whoever succeeds me in my post will do their best—to respond in a timely fashion.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the following up of Treasury guidance. Such guidance takes a number of forms. A recent example is the “Dear auditor” letter which was sent to all Departments after I had been in correspondence with the hon. Member for Gainsborough about the follow-up to a PAC report in a certain non-departmental public body. It instructed Departments to follow up and publish in their annual reports what they are doing about the recommendations agreed in PAC reports. The NAO often alerts the Treasury to emerging problems in particular areas, and there is a great deal of constructive discussion and debate between them. We do not like anything to slip through our fingers, and we are trying to establish programmes that will ensure that no recommendations issued either to Departments or to other bodies slip through the net in future. Every Department has a team in the Treasury that has its ear to the ground and tries to keep an eye on things. It is obviously regrettable if something slips through the net, but we try to minimise that.

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