Previous Section Index Home Page

so there is no prospect of that happening. It just was not thought through. We issue the promise-rightly, because it becomes something that we want to achieve-but we do not take account of the practical considerations in delivering it.

There are more examples of things that have not been thought through in our "Widening Participation in Higher Education" report, the result being:

has not developed

If participation is to be widened, that is a fundamental, straightforward requirement, but it was not done. Guidance to young people on how to access higher education is a variable quantity. The Department and its partners should develop guidance on the financial support available. Again, we will the end, but do not define the means. It is another failure to think things through.

The same problem is seen in improving adult literacy. We proclaim the intention, but we do not use the practical means of fulfilling it, such as educating people in prison. The same is true when it comes to energy use reduction. There is a confusingly wide range of energy saving advice. In that case, we will the end but provide
22 Oct 2009 : Column 1117
too many means, none of which make enough of an impact to achieve the objective. That is the third common pattern of weakness.

I also include tax credits, which have been the subject of a long series of considerations by the Committee and the NAO. Tax credits were well intentioned. It was right to put money in the pockets of less well-off working people and to pay it to them directly through the tax system. But because of the excessively strict rules on which the Treasury insisted, the system was inflexible. The earnings of people who are in and out of work fluctuate wildly, and the result is overpayments or underpayments, and poor families end up facing demands for enormous sums that they cannot possibly pay back in the time allowed.

Mr. Breed: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman's analysis is shared by us all, but does he agree that part of the problem is that face-to-face meetings have almost been abolished, due to the use of IT, so people cannot sit down and go through their details with someone? When people are trying to sort out their tax credits, they have to go through up to four different offices, never speaking to the same person more than once. Trying to sort the problem out has been vastly too expensive and protracted, and has only increased the agony and stress of the people the tax credits were designed to help.

Mr. Mitchell: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The tax credit system has been combined with the dreaded efficiency savings, which have led to the closure of offices in Manchester and Bristol, and the concentration of services in Birmingham. Grimsby has lost the ability to conduct face-to-face meetings. The Child Support Agency is another case in point. It tried to provide face-to-face meetings through regional facilities, which quickly failed. A particular problem with the tax credits is that MPs have a hotline, and direct access, but the public do not. People want the system to be explained to them, so what they can apply for is explained to them and what they cannot apply for is justified. That cannot be combined with efficiency savings that reduce the staffing levels of HMRC offices up and down the country.

The same problem happens with jobseeker's allowance. People want face-to-face advice, but increasingly they have to obtain advice through the internet or on the telephone. That is not an adequate approach to dealing with a sector of society that does not have the greatest understanding of the system-I do not, and they certainly do not-and how to work it. In all these instances, the failure to think through how to implement the Government's good intentions more effectively is a major weakness.

The Chairman dealt with the issue of defence procurement effectively, and we have had effective control over that area. The major problem in that respect is that we have entered into commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq-in my view, we should not have entered into them-without the means to fulfil them. The result has been an enormous increase in spending, including last-minute increases, and unsatisfactory performance.

The basic problem is that we are trying to fight a war that is over-the cold war-with weapons of high-technology, aircraft carriers that need frigates mustered all around to protect them and nuclear submarines. Those are weapons from a cold war era that is over. We
22 Oct 2009 : Column 1118
now face continuous bushfire wars scattered around the globe, for which we need not high-technology equipment, but simple, straightforward and reliable equipment and a power to intervene rapidly.

I shall not go into that further-I just wanted to mention it-but it is part of the weakness of failure to think through what we are doing. I am not criticising the Government's good intentions-as I said, I, myself, am overflowing with them-but I am questioning their practicability and the Government's failure to think through the problems.

Another of our difficulties is that we are deal with everything posthumously. We are trying to close the stable doors after the horse has bolted; we are dealing not with the people who caused the problem, but with their successors, who naturally come along, profess every good intention and promise that it will not happen again. They go away and, in the main, implement our reports, but if we cannot get the perpetrators, it is a very unsatisfactory way to proceed. We got them once on an issue concerning the Rural Payments Agency, and it was very illuminating, but we did that only after exceptional effort. It should be part of our routine that we are able to speak to the people directly responsible for the problems.

We need a power to ensure that our recommendations are implemented-in other words, we should be able to audit them after a year to see whether they have been implemented. We also need wider access to bodies. As the Chairman of the Committee said, it is ludicrous that we cannot cover a major spender such as the BBC, which would be less criticised for being over-grandiose and imperialistic in its ambitions to run everything if it gave the assurance that it would be effectively audited by the Committee and the NAO. That would guarantee that BBC spending was efficient, effective and welcome.

I think also of the Financial Services Authority, the Bank of England and the civil list. I do not particularly want to remove the glitter that surrounds the civil list-I have lost my earlier enthusiasm there-but Buckingham palace, in its attempt to explain to us exactly what was involved in the maintenance and repairs at the palace, missed a good opportunity: we were invited along, but not given any food, which did not produce the best and most welcoming mood. I did not go for that very reason. If we were not to be fed, I did not want to know, although perhaps that was selfish on my part. As an ambitious over-eater, going to the palace would have satisfied my social-climbing ambitions, but not my culinary ambitions. We should certainly cover the civil list, but I say that with no great enthusiasm.

The Committee also needs a bigger staff. The NAO has a big staff; its work is welcome and important, and its staff are very good-I am constantly impressed with them. However, we need a Committee staff to fill in the gaps between the NAO reports and our inquiries. Those are often media gaps: what has the debate centred on since the NAO reported, which quite often happens a few months before we deal with a given matter? What is the measure of public opinion? What have the media been saying about the issue? What has Private Eye-often a valuable source of information-been saying? What has happened in the Departments concerned since the report? Addressing those issues would allow us to make more effective and trenchant inquiries.

22 Oct 2009 : Column 1119

However, with those reservations-and, I am afraid, a somewhat excessive contribution, justifying my desertion of Grimsby's needs to be here tonight-let me say that, for me, this has been six months of real pleasure, interest and effort, in one of the best jobs on the best Committee serving the House.

3.15 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am sure that we are all equally horrified by the fact that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) has finally brought his remarks to a conclusion. I thought that he was just getting into his stride, but alas, we shall have to wait until next time.

It is a great pleasure to take part in this debate and a particular pleasure to see the Exchequer Secretary in her place, because she was for some time a doughty member of our Committee, bringing an expertise in defence. I remember being in the Pentagon with her on a Committee visit when we were all jaws agape at her penetrating analysis of world defence problems. I only hope that she brings the same penetrating glare to public expenditure from inside the Treasury and applies what Sir John Bourn described as a necessary maxim in defence procurement generally: namely, that we should have rather less infanticide and rather more contraception.

I will be relatively brief and concentrate on two issues, one general and one specific-the National Audit Office and its strategy, and one of our reports, about the national programme for IT in the health service. The hon. Gentleman was right that there is nothing that I like better than wallowing in the interstices of the national programme for IT. I am delighted to say that on this occasion I can do so within the terms of the motion, because one of the reports that we are focusing on is about that subject.

However, I would like first to say a quick word about the Comptroller and Auditor General, whom we were pleased to see in his post and giving evidence recently about the NAO strategy. He said something in the new strategy that I thought was particularly interesting. It is quite obvious that his beady eye has been caught by the fact that permanent secretaries have to sign statements of internal control. That sounds pretty anorakish-perhaps because it is-but it is important, because it means that permanent secretaries have to write, in their own blood, that they have no reason to believe that their control systems are not up to the job in hand of controlling the resources of their Department.

Depending on how the NAO treats it, that is potentially a serious thing for permanent secretaries to be saying, and it is clear that the new Comptroller and Auditor General intends to hold them to their word. Indeed, in its new strategy, which runs from 2010-11 to 2012-13, the NAO has been quite explicit that:

The strategy continues:

Amen to that, although some may wonder why that has not been happening hitherto. Some people may say that
22 Oct 2009 : Column 1120
it has been happening, at least in outline or process form, but it has plainly not been happening to a sufficiently strong degree.

The central issue is how people in Whitehall are promoted and end up running Departments. Indeed, Mr. Amyas Morse, the Comptroller and Auditor General, made that point in evidence to the Public Accounts Commission just the other day when he said that the NAO is to set out some thought leadership on the elements

He continued:

He added:

In fairness, he also pointed out that

It has already been pointed out that, in the present financial climate, the capacity to control resources very tightly against particular objectives is going to be an essential feature of successful management in the public sector in the years ahead.

That brings me neatly to the national programme for information technology in the health service. That was the subject of our second report, which was published on 27 January 2009. Members will know that the programme is now expected to cost £12.7 billion, although the original figure that was floated was £2.3 billion. It went up to £6.2 billion, then it became £12.4 billion, and now it is £12.7 billion. In a nutshell, the central problem is that, in the entire period since its inception, no serious public work has been done to compare what is to be delivered by the programme with the original output-based specification in the contract-not least because the contracts are all secret and we cannot see what they say. If such a comparison were to be done, it would show an enormous gap between the two. It was only the extremely high ambition of the output-based specification that justified the enormous cost of the programme in the first place.

Over the years, the programme has been steadily de-scoped further and further-in many cases, behind the backs of NHS managers-so that, one day, the providers will be able to say, "Look, we've delivered, and it's a success. We've achieved our objective." It will not be the original objective, however. These actions make it extremely difficult to compare the outcomes with the original objective, but some of us remember that objective.

The Treasury minute that responded to our Committee's report is liberally sprinkled with the sentence

That is very welcome news. I want to turn in particular to PAC conclusion 6, which I shall quote briefly for the record. The Committee stated that

22 Oct 2009 : Column 1121

a software system provided by a company called Cerner-

another software system, from a company called iSoft-

That is good news. The Committee's conclusion continued:

I want to take a moment to look at some of the Treasury's responses to those points. The Department's response No. 17, on page 11 of the minute, states:

I do not think that anyone would disagree with that. Indeed, the Exchequer Secretary's predecessor did not disagree with it, when she wrote to me on 14 November 2007, following a debate on the work of the Committee on 23 October 2007, in which I raised concerns about the Lorenzo system and said that I was worried that the statement in the Treasury minute that Lorenzo would be available by the end of 2008 was incorrect.

The hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle) was Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury at that time, and she replied that it would indeed be okay in the end, because Lorenzo was going to be deployed around what were called early adopter sites in the summer of 2008. She went on to say that

that is, spring 2008-

The fact is that there has not been a single deployment of Lorenzo in 2009, and there has not even been a plan to have a single deployment of it. The reason is that the handful of deployments attempted have been an absolute mess, causing chaos in the hospitals where they were tried. That brings me back to the Treasury's conclusion in response No. 15, where it says that it

Next Section Index Home Page