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The hon. Member for Henley (John Howell) gave the House the benefit of his experience of introducing shared services in a diverse and complex organisation. I for one think that he has picked on the right areas for
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attention, and it is important that those who are thinking about removing duplication and achieving efficiency savings through shared services take into account the issues that he raised. We agree that there is great potential to make savings in that area, but it has to be done properly and effectively or else it can be counter-productive. We agree that there is potential to make central Government savings, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary has announced the operational efficiency programme, which has a particular strand to consider the potential for shared services. I shall point out the hon. Gentleman’s observations to those who are doing that work.

The enthusiasm felt by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) about his appointment to the Committee was obvious to all who listened to his speech. His enthusiasm has not dimmed since his last contribution to such a debate, which is always a good sign. We know that the trend is possibly even up when it comes to enthusiasm. I agree that it is a pleasure to work on the Committee, having done so twice. I also agree that it is very good training for a ministerial post. I am sure that those Members who have had the privilege to serve in government and who have been on the Committee would agree that it gave us a great deal of insight and never leaves us when we are making our decisions. It has a positive bearing on how we approach ministerial life. If my hon. Friend aspires to a ministerial post, then he never knows—stranger things have happened. I wish him luck if he has any ambitions in that direction.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: I am grovelling hard.

Angela Eagle: I have to say that in 16 years in this House, I have never seen my hon. Friend grovel. He has obviously decided that I have no influence in these matters and his grovelling must be going elsewhere. I wish him luck with it.

My hon. Friend made some extremely important points about the culture of tax avoidance and evasion. Obviously, we take that issue extremely seriously, although I suspect that he doubted that. I shall draw his comments to the attention of HMRC.

The hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) did what many other hon. Members have done today and went from the specific to the general. Common themes always come out when one is considering value for money, such as how one can create a process that minimises the chances for waste and increases the possibility that we will get the best value for money that we can. She identified that core management skills and project management skills are important. As a former Minister, she will know that some areas of Whitehall are better at that than others. There is a general recognition in the senior civil service that there is a shortage of project management skills for many reasons, but I can assure her that the Office of Government Commerce and senior management figures in Whitehall are extremely aware of that and are taking action to try to deal with it.

Angela Browning: I recall, in a former life, being required at very short order to remove all ruminant feeds from every mill in the country. We did not have the staff with the project management skills to do that at
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the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food at the time, so we borrowed people from the Department of Trade and Industry, who were very competent. Obviously, one would like every ministry to have its own skill set, but is there enough identification between ministries of people who could be seconded to do specific tasks?

Angela Eagle: I agree with the hon. Lady’s general observation. There are weaknesses in particular Departments, but there are also weaknesses because of the silo nature of Whitehall. The connections between Departments are often not as strong as any of us would like to see. I reassure her that the OGC is apprised of that fact, particularly with respect to procurement. I know that procurement is not everything, but £175 billion of public procurement a year, of which £70 billion is carried out centrally by Whitehall Departments, is quite a big slug of money to focus on to begin with. That is why we are conducting procurement capability reviews in every Department, and they will be published. We are having a very good exchange with senior managers, who are engaging not in a defensive way but in a way that demonstrates that they are willing to learn.

As part of transforming the Government procurement process, we are also trying to give much more training and recognition to procurement professionals across Whitehall. We want to begin to create a cross-Whitehall and cross-departmental culture of procurement. That will benefit both procurement and project management, and there are solid foundations for the development of an approach that will break through the silo mentality that everyone who has been in Government will have experienced. Everyone in the House who deals with Departments can sense that mentality and knows that it exists. I am optimistic that we are making progress in that area, but I cannot say that all the problems are solved and that there is not a shortage of procurement skills in the public service.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough asked whether the hopes of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to raise £100 million from the private sector to go to the training and support of elite British athletes were still realistic. Obviously, I should like to begin by joining him in congratulating our sports men and women on their excellent performances in Beijing. We will all remember their various triumphs for a long time, but we also need to recall that, in addition to the lottery funding, £265 million of Government revenue was given to elite athletes for training and support ahead of the Beijing games. For the first time ever, that money included individual living cost allowances that enabled the athletes to focus on full-time training for their sports. That was very successful in helping them to achieve the excellence that they did achieve. We stand by our commitment to give our elite athletes the best possible preparation. There can be no absolute guarantee of private sector funding, especially in circumstances that are changing as much as the present ones, but we continue to work towards securing it.

I shall take a little of the House’s time to talk about some of the general issues raised by the hon. Member for Gainsborough. He asked about the governance of the National Audit Office, and a great deal has happened in that respect since our last debate five months ago. We need to recognise the changes to the NAO that will take place in the coming year, and I am especially grateful to
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the hon. Gentleman for his continuing efforts, which he mentioned in his contribution, in helping to bring about essential reforms to the office’s governance, as recommended by the Public Accounts Commission. We all want those reforms to be introduced, and I am pleased that the process of appointing for a new commission chairman and new Comptroller and Auditor General has begun. I have every expectation that successful candidates of the right calibre can be announced in due course.

I should also like to record the Government’s gratitude to Tim Burr, who has displayed impressive abilities as CAG. He deservedly commands the respect of the Government and all of us in the House as he guides and leads the organisation through this period of transition. We need the NAO to hold the Government to account, and he is tenacious in ensuring that that continues to happen.

As I have said on previous occasions, I believe that full and open financial transparency is an essential characteristic of a modern parliamentary democracy. The hon. Member for Putney said that when all the political rhetoric is settled, in the end the numbers remain. It helps us to interpret them if we get them in a timely fashion. The PAC, supported by the NAO, has been at the heart of the scrutiny process for an extremely long time. I think that the Committee as an entity goes all the way back to Gladstone—although I am obviously not referring to its present membership; we might feel quite old sometimes, but I hope that we never feel that old, collectively or individually.

I recognise and applaud the Committee’s unfailing and challenging examination of the Government’s use of the money that Parliament has voted to them. It undoubtedly aids parliamentary accountability. However, we cannot allow ourselves to sit on our laurels just because the Committee has existed for so long and is venerable; we have to keep looking into how we can modernise the way in which the system works. Our alignment project, which the Prime Minister announced in July 2007 in the Green Paper “The Governance of Britain” aimed to carry out that modernisation. When implemented, it will simplify and put in a more consistent format public spending plans, parliamentary Supply estimates and published resource accounts. In essence, that means that Parliament and the public will be able to compare apples with apples, and pears with pears, instead of apples with pears, or chalk with cheese.

I hope that the project will greatly facilitate a reasonable understanding of where money goes, how it flows through the system, where it was when Parliament voted on its use, and to what effect it was used. Members of Parliament, Select Committees, the public and commentators should be able to track departmental spending more easily, all the way from the planning and budgeting stages to the out-turn. The alignment project does not sound particularly exciting, but those of us who have seen how it will work when it is finished are excited by it, and I am sure that the Committee is, too.

As we said earlier, the Committee has managed to publish 30 reports since our last debate on the subject. It is exhausting just looking at them. We have had a flavour of them today. Those listening to our debates will appreciate the sheer breadth of the work that has been done. It is no mean achievement, and it clearly demonstrates the Committee’s huge work load. I want to say a few words about the Committee’s 44th report.
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The formal Treasury minute has not yet been presented to the House, but the report is about the roll-out of the Jobcentre Plus office network, which I was involved in when I was a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions. It was heartening to read the Committee’s report, and it is pleasing to know that when things go well, the Committee fully acknowledges the achievement.

I agree with the report that there are important lessons to learn from any transformation project, and certainly from the transformation of Jobcentre Plus from a decrepit and inefficient network of 1,500 offices scattered randomly around the country. As I recall, the furniture was bolted to the floor when I was first responsible for them. The offices have been changed into a high-quality, well-located network of 800 offices fit for the 21st century. Staff in the offices will have a very important job to do, given what has happened to unemployment figures in the past few months. The offices are now more efficient and are equipped to do that job, thanks to the effective transformation of that public sector service.

Mr. Bacon: I was just looking through my pile of papers, having forgotten the Minister’s comment that the Treasury has not issued a minute on the report in question. The single most interesting aspect of that Jobcentre Plus report—this is reflected in its first recommendation—is that the three witnesses before us had, between them, 112 years of experience. Lesley Strathie, the then chief executive of Jobcentre Plus, and the other two witnesses had, between them, well over 100 years of experience. They started as clerical assistants, not fast-track administrative trainees. Are there not potentially huge lessons for Whitehall to learn from that, in light of what we have been saying about project management?

Angela Eagle: I would like to congratulate and commend Lesley Strathie, then chief executive of Jobcentre Plus, on the work that she and her team did to bring about that transformation. The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. I always found, when I was a Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions, that stress-testing reforms with the people on the front line who use the systems, and getting their feedback on what I was trying to do, was far better than any number of consultants’ reports, glossy though they may be. Consultants were completely unused to the experience of using and administering the system daily. Lesley Strathie and her team clearly learned that lesson when they were undertaking the transformation. I thank the Public Accounts Committee for giving credit where credit is due, because it is important that credit is given, as well as honest criticism.

Mr. Touhig: That was an exceptionally good report, and Jobcentre Plus made a huge difference; the staff have been empowered, and their whole attitude is completely different. Is not the report something that the Government should send to every permanent secretary in Whitehall, saying, “If they can do it, you can do it”?

Angela Eagle: I suspect that if we sent an e-mail to every permanent secretary and asked them to look at the report, that would be a better way of doing it, and I certainly undertake to draw it to their attention.

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I understand the irritation of the Committee and its Chairman at the publication in February by the Department for Transport of revised vehicle excise duty evasion estimates for 2007, which indicated that evasion was much lower than cited in the PAC’s fifth report published a month earlier. I am very sorry that the subsequent publication of a Treasury minute, made in error, compounded an unfortunate series of events. That sounds like a film or a book, but it is something that Committee members and the NAO had to put up with. I hope that Members accept that at no time did the Government seek to mislead or somehow embarrass the Committee. Lessons have been learned from that experience, and we will strive to avoid a recurrence of such an episode.

We should after all rejoice that following the introduction of an automated number plate recognition system, evasion of vehicle excise duty, with its implications for accurate licensing information and the detection of crime and public revenue, is at a low level, which is something we all welcome. People who see the police using that information to great effect, as I have in my local area, to prevent further crime, know how important it is to have accuracy.

The PAC has expressed continuing interest in the private finance initiative, and its recommendations and reports on the matter are invaluable. Hon. Members have helped us to review, reflect and revise our views. The Committee has added value by choosing a wide and useful range of topics over the years. It has helped us assess and analyse the risks in infrastructure projects, and improve the means of procurement and efficiency. We look forward to continuing that fruitful dialogue as we extend the range of approaches to complex procurement, always seeking best value for money for the taxpayer.

The PAC’s recent recommendations in its September report, “HM Treasury: Making changes in operational PFI projects”, were welcomed by the Treasury. I was pleased that the Committee endorsed recent Treasury guidance that will help to ensure that value for money is obtained when changes are made, and that it has also endorsed the roll-out of training programmes to support contract management. Before I conclude, may I touch on the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for Gainsborough about the apparent largesse of space at the Treasury, which I have addressed in a separate note outwith my speech? Finally, may I repeat my gratitude for the hard work of the PAC and the National Audit Office, which ably supports it. Together, they make a major and lasting contribution to the performance and delivery of public services across the United Kingdom, and they keep the Government and public servants on their toes. Their work will continue to be as effective as it has always been, and I look forward to working with them in future and, if circumstances allow—one never knows—to other occasions such as this.

4.34 pm

Mr. Leigh: It is a pleasure briefly to thank everyone who has taken part this afternoon. I thank the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who made the first speech in the general debate, and initiated an interesting theme to which we have returned several times and to which the Committee, too, may have to return. Why do civil servants not take responsibility?
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Are we rewarding them enough for success? Are we sacking those who fail? Of course, they are never sacked. The theme was taken up by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh).

I am divided in my own mind about these matters. One part of me is rather old-fashioned—perhaps old Labour. I support the traditional concept of the British civil service as incorruptible, with staff remaining in it all their lives, and as not having a great interface with the private sector, which can cause many problems. So part of me is old Labour and part of me is old Conservative, in that I recognise the importance of financial inducements in promoting productivity. That is why we now have bonuses in the civil service. “Bonus” is almost a swear word because of what is happening in the banking sector, but we have to get it right.

If ever there were to be a change of Government, I know that the new Government would place great emphasis on saving money. If we are to save money in this respect, there must be inducements for the civil service. The Government have already tried it. It is a difficult area, but with the help of the National Audit Office, the Committee would be well placed to try, in a completely non-partisan way, to understand what is going on inside the civil service and how we are promoting efficiency.

That point was taken up by the third speaker this afternoon, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon). On the door of the Chairman’s office, there is the word “Assiduity”. That applies to my hon. Friend more than to any other member. He is incredibly assiduous. He had a first in the debate: he was the first Member, as far as I know, to refer to the words of Mr. Crapper without its being taken up by the Chair. That will no doubt be noted in “Erskine May” as a new form of insult.

Angela Eagle: I can tell the House that when I was a Minister at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, I had a debate on the thing that Mr. Crapper produced. I refer to toilet flushes, not what hon. Members might be thinking. So that has featured on the Floor of the House before.

Mr. Leigh: I apologise; it was not a first for my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell), who is a new Member of our House. He is not a member of the Committee. There is a grave danger that these debates become a Committee love-in and we all just slap each other on the back. We welcome him coming in from outside, with his private sector experience. He spoke with great knowledge about the value of shared services, which is not a sexy subject. I am not sure that his predecessor as the hon. Member for Henley would have been very interested, but it is an important subject and huge savings can be made.

As usual, we much enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), as we greatly enjoy him as a member of the Committee. He lightens the atmosphere so often with his biting tongue. He took us to task for not having the bite of congressional committees and seemed to suggest that we could get more publicity for our hearings and our reports. That is an extremely difficult tightrope to tread. We cannot be partisan. We cannot, and I never do, attack Ministers. We must be consensual and take the whole Committee
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with us, but despite all that our reports are hard-hitting and we get to the heart of matters. It is a difficult balance to achieve.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) for her comments and what she said about the importance of management information. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) who, as an accountant, comes with a particular financial expertise. We are grateful for her remarks. She, too, referred to the problem that has been a theme of the debate: civil servants and whether they should say no. I think civil servants need to seek directions more. There is a procedure for that, and this is where the Public Accounts Committee is intimately involved. If a permanent secretary thinks a Minister is asking for something that is not financially viable, he can seek a direction. If he seeks a direction, it will come to our Committee. Permanent secretaries should be more willing to use that ultimate weapon. Civil servants must say “No, Minister” more often.

Lastly, I thank the Minister. It is such a joy; one sits through so many debates in which Ministers do not refer in any great detail to what has been said, but she took half an hour to refer to virtually every point that had been made. In particular, she was careful to reply to some of the points that I had made earlier. By the way, I do not think that it does any harm to share one’s notes with the Minister before the debate, as I do—jaw, jaw is better than war, war after all. If a Minister is warned about what a spokesman is going to say, they will be more able to reply to the points, and this Minister does that extremely well.

I did not deal with the new governance in any great detail; we sorted that out through the Public Accounts Commission, and the National Audit Office now has a robust new governance. I now have a difficult job. Under the statute, the Prime Minister and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee have to appoint the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is a wise procedure; by definition, the Prime Minister is a member of the Government and by definition the Chairman of the PAC is a member of the Opposition.

We are now starting the process and trying to carry it out in a completely modern and open way. The old days, when such things were done in private and some senior civil servant was just tapped on the shoulder, are not with us any more. A very well regarded firm of head-hunters has been approached and advertisements have been placed in the newspapers. Anybody from the private or public sectors can apply. There will be a very small appointments committee; obviously, I will sit on it. The Prime Minister, who has other things on his mind, will be represented by the permanent secretary to the Treasury. We will be advised by Tim Burr, who has intimated to me that he does not wish to apply for the permanent role of Comptroller and Auditor General.

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