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2.6 pm

Yvonne Fovargue (Makerfield) (Lab): No one disputes the fact that there is a place for sanctions in the benefits system, because there has to be a fair way of dealing with the minority of claimants who deliberately and repeatedly fail to comply with requirements. However, I think that everyone would agree that sanctions must be fair, that they must not be unduly harsh or punitive and that they cannot be based on information that is inaccurate or misunderstood. For many people who are sanctioned, their understanding of the regime fails the test.

Ultimately, we all want to get people back into the labour market if they are fit and able and there are jobs for them. Sanctions that are disproportionate and unfair, ironically, will have precisely the opposite effect; they impoverish people and leave them less able to move from welfare to work. The sanctions regime was ramped up in late 2012. As we have heard, the imposition of a sanction means the temporary suspension of jobseeker’s allowance for a minimum of four weeks. As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) said, it is different for universal credit, which is “until engagement” plus seven days, which seems a lot fairer. The maximum sanction period is three years. Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, has rightly described that as “excessively harsh”.

I understand that the Government like to see themselves as taking a tough and no-nonsense approach, which implies that large numbers of claimants are really benefit cheats, but the fact is that, in my constituency and many others, overly harsh sanctions mean that families are going without essentials. A minimum of four weeks without benefits can lead to desperate measures, and many of my constituents are visiting food banks for the first time. I have evidence of that. Three advisers from my local citizens advice bureau were recently offered employment by the council on the welfare support desk in Wigan Life Centre. During February and March, those three workers assessed 560 applications for food bank parcels as genuine. Of those, 130—in only two months—were identified as stemming solely from the application of a benefit sanction. Ironically, I think that those were the lucky ones. They were not like the young man with learning difficulties who came to see me in my constituency office. He had been eating out of bins for three weeks because he did not understand the letter he received and thought that his benefits had been taken off him permanently. He had got the letter too late to attend the interview.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg) that the sanctions are also counter-productive. Disproportionately long sanctions create barriers to the search for work. The four-week minimum means that claimants spend more time dealing with acute needs, such as obtaining food and heating, than looking for a job. Bureau advisers have reported to me that they see many clients who have been sanctioned spending a significant amount of time seeking alternative means to pay for essentials, such as food and utilities. Indeed, they are being forced into the hands of payday lenders, so they are getting into debt. As the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) said, benefits are not intended to pay debts.

Since the changes of late 2012, the number of people being sanctioned has soared. After the implementation of the new sanctions system in October 2012, there was

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an 11% rise in sanctions for jobseekers. The most recent full-year data show a 24% year-on-year rise in the number of sanctions for jobseekers. For ESA, the whole year shows an increase of 156%. In the period just after the ESA sanctions regime changed in December 2012, there was a 98% increase. That is a huge increase, and I cannot believe that that number of people deliberately did not engage with the system.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South that we need to review the effectiveness of the sanctions regime. If the sanctions are getting more onerous, why are more people being caught by them? Surely we would expect harsher punishments to bring people into line and lessen infractions, if indeed their behaviour is deliberate. What better evidence is there that these reforms are being driven by cost-cutting targets and have little to do with helping people to find work? Jobcentre staff are incentivised to get people off the dole; they should be rewarded for getting people back into employment.

There would be more faith in the sanctions regime if it were based on good decision making and proper assessments of individuals, but all too frequently people cannot comply with it. I was recently given a case by my local citizens advice bureau. A mother attended with her 19-year-old son, who did not engage with the interview. He looked down, and he patently could not read the letters he had received. His mother answered all the questions. Every time he was asked a question, he just looked at his mum for an answer; he clearly could not understand. He lives at home with his parents. In July 2013, he applied for universal credit, which he was awarded. However, he did not attend his interview in September, or his seven other interviews, so he got a low-level sanction. On 9 December, he got a medium-level sanction. In all this time, his mum had not seen the letters. He obviously could not read them and did not understand what was going on.

Eventually, his mum found the letters, inquired of the jobcentre what was going on, and found that her son had been sanctioned for 891 days. She accompanied him to interviews in February and March but was told that nothing could be done about lifting the sanctions. He went to my local citizens advice bureau, which is in touch with the specialist support unit to establish whether this is consistent with regulations and whether anything can be done. It is obvious that the people at Jobcentre Plus did not have the time to assess this young man, to put it generously, and did not see that he would not understand any of the sanctions letters or requirements on complying for work.

There is plenty of other evidence of poor communication. In Wigan, a significant number of ESA recipients applying for food parcels have complained that the letters notifying them of the work capability assessment were not received until after the date of the assessment, causing them to be sanctioned. Others have said that they could not attend because they had a hospital appointment and only learned of the sanction when their JSA failed to arrive.

We clearly need a better understanding of the individual needs of claimants. If we are going to apply this sort of regime, Jobcentre Plus staff need to have the time and the ability to assess the people who are applying for benefits and ensure that the sanctions are fair. There are two ways of encouraging people into work—the carrot

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and the stick. It does not seem fair that on many occasions the wealthy get the carrot of tax cuts and the people on benefits get the stick of unduly harsh sanctions.

2.14 pm

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Nearly 1 million people have had their benefits stopped—the highest number since jobseeker’s allowance was introduced in 1996—but 58% of those who appealed their sanctions won. That is what this debate is about.

Labour Members do not say that people should not be sanctioned, but we do say that sanctions should be fair. They should be imposed only when claimants wilfully do not do everything that they have agreed to do—unlike the young man I recently met at a protest against Atos, who was like so many people on benefits. He wanted to work, but had suffered a rugby injury and was on ESA. He has worked in construction and had had his own window cleaning company that employed two other people. He went to university but then got his rugby injury, which triggered chronic migraines. He also got depression. The medics are currently trying to work out whether the migraines cause the depression or the depression causes the migraines.

The young man was sacked from his last job because he had three days off with a migraine. He went on to ESA for three months, after which he was sent for another assessment. He contacted Atos to say that he could not attend because he was in hospital, but he was still sanctioned. He appealed, and Atos actually apologised. He was told that he would not have to have another assessment for at least a month, but was then immediately sent for more assessments. He gave up and went on to JSA, but not before he had attempted suicide. He suffers from a double whammy: as a 30-year-old, he has had to give up his flat because he is entitled only to the shared room rate. We should not be treating ill and disabled people in this way.

After pressure from Labour Members, the Government agreed to arrange for an independent inquiry into benefits sanctions. When will we see its report? I, for one, am disgusted by the way in which sanctions are being applied unfairly, without good cause, and with no humanity. I wonder how Mr Oakley, who is conducting the inquiry, is going to produce the report, given that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) asked how many benefit claimants had been sanctioned for different periods of time, the Minister—not this Minister but the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey)—replied that the information was not readily available and it would cost too much to get it.

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the problem is not just the number of sanctions but their length? The minimum period is four weeks, so those who are sanctioned spend too much of their time trying to deal with the acute financial problems that that causes rather than looking for work, which might be the purpose of the sanctions in the first place.

Julie Hilling: Absolutely; I agree. If the purpose of a sanction is to give somebody a bit of a shock—to say, “Look, you need to comply with the things that the

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Department is asking you to do”—then it does not need to be four weeks long, a year long, or three years long. We need action to get the person to comply with what they need to do; we do not need them starving, becoming homeless and living in the cold. As my right hon. Friend says, those things do not allow them productively to seek work.

I am a parliamentary patron of the YMCA, which has undertaken research and produced a report called “Feeling the Benefits”. The YMCA found that in the first seven months after the reforms of October 2012, more than a quarter of a million young people were sanctioned—1,000 every day. It also reported that there has been a significant increase in the number of vulnerable young people being sanctioned, detrimentally affecting their physical and mental well-being. Eighty-four per cent. of the young people surveyed reported that they had had to cut back on or go without food. They said things like: “I didn’t cope, I had no one.” Another said: “It’s how long they left me with no money, knowing I was pregnant and had to buy my own food.” Another said: “I was unable to eat and it was lucky that the YMCA could help.” Another said: “You have a much more negative attitude to life as a whole.” Another said: “It cost me my home and food.” Another said: “I went three months living on food parcels, which is really degrading because you lose all your dignity. It’s not just physically hard, it’s mentally hard.”

The YMCA reported that sanctions, instead of helping those young people get into work, actually made it harder. One said: “It stopped me searching for work as I had no money to get to different employers.” Another said, most tellingly: “My focus turned to survival rather than gaining employment.” The young people accepted the need for sanctions for those not doing what is required of them, but all believed that they had to be fairly applied. Three quarters of them felt that the way in which sanctions were currently being applied was not fair. They believed that there were three main areas where communication had failed: they were not given enough support on how they could avoid being sanctioned, an explanation of why they had been sanctioned or practical advice on what they could do once they had been.

The YMCA is calling on the Government to do a number of things, including ensuring that key information on the welfare system is better tailored and communicated to young people. It says that a claimant should have an individual as a single point of contact within their local Jobcentre Plus, who should remain constant wherever a claimant is in the system—whether on a work programme, work experience or wherever.

The YMCA also proposes that young people should receive a clear explanation, in writing and face to face, of why they have been sanctioned, and that claimants who are homeless or in emergency accommodation should be exempt from the same job search rules until they have found somewhere to live. It seems an absolute nonsense that we expect someone who is living on the streets to apply for so many jobs per day when what we need to do is get them into accommodation and make sure they are feeding themselves properly, and then deal with the issue of work. It is a hierarchy of needs—first of all, people need food, water and somewhere to live.

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The YMCA has also proposed that where claimants are living in supported accommodation, as well as providing the claimants themselves with information about a sanction, Jobcentre Plus should provide that information to the supported housing provider. There is an absolute logic there: if a young person who is in difficulty and is being supported is suddenly sanctioned and so is no longer able to pay their rent, they run the risk of falling out even of the supported system.

The YMCA also proposes that a duty be placed on Jobcentre Plus to provide people being sanctioned with a suitable notice period and an opportunity to have the decision reconsidered prior to removing any benefit payments. I will go on to talk about cases in which, if a proper review had been done in the first place, the sanction would never had been applied and people would not have been left in dire circumstances with no money for a period of time. I hope the Minister will take the time to read the YMCA’s report and will take action on its contents.

I recently met senior officers in my local Jobcentre Plus. We had a very productive discussion about the difficulties faced by many people and the particular difficulties faced by those whose lives are most chaotic. But as soon as I asked about sanctions, the atmosphere absolutely changed. I asked about targets, and they said that there were definitely no targets—I accept that. However, they then went on to talk about the performance management of Jobcentre Plus staff. An adviser will be spoken to if they do not refer claimants for sanctions often enough. That means the adviser cannot exercise common sense or accept explanations for why a claimant is a few moments late or has been unable to attend their interview that the rest of us would see as perfectly acceptable. The claimant potentially loses benefits immediately until the decision maker either accepts the reasons or applies a sanction. That could push the claimant into debt, leaving them with no food or money for rent, and getting them into difficulty with their housing.

I have been told that people have been given an appointment on a Sunday and have then been told that they should have realised that the appointment was for a day on which the jobcentre would not be open. They have therefore had their benefits suspended because they were not able to sign on and see their adviser—on a Sunday. There are cases of people who have applied for more jobs than are required but because they did so through a job club or through their own initiative rather than applying on universal job match the jobs were not counted and the claimants were sanctioned.

The young man who is now a volunteer in my office was given a job advert once as he was leaving the jobcentre and was told that he may like to apply for the job. The first line of the job description asked for a qualification that he did not have so he did not apply for it. He was honest: the next week he went in and said—even though he could have fibbed and said that he had applied for the job, as the jobcentre staff would not have known—that he had not applied for it and gave his reasons why. They sanctioned him, even though he had applied for more jobs than he needed to.

Another case is that of Peter, who was sent to a Work programme provider. He turned up when he was told to but was told that the programme did not exist and that he should go home. He went back to the jobcentre and

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explained the situation. The work provider backed up his story, but he was still sanctioned for four weeks, because the provider and the jobcentre could not get their story straight.

I am aware that you are asking me to wind up, Mr Deputy Speaker, although I have many more cases that I would love to tell the House about—really dire, terrible cases, in which my constituents have been wrongly treated and, it seems to me, punished simply for trying to do the right thing. One thing I would say is that if the jobcentre would only talk to the person, find out what had happened and why, start from a point of believing their story and carry out the investigation before they applied the sanctions, we would not have people living in such misery.

Although I hate sanctions, I accept that some people do not engage or do the things that they are called on to do to receive benefits. I accept that those people should face sanctions, but those sanctions have to be based on common sense. If someone is in hospital or at a job interview, or is held up by a traffic accident, they should not have their benefits cut off. If they cannot read, are ill on the day of the appointment or are given the wrong day by the jobcentre they should not be left with no money to feed themselves and their family. The current sanction regime is not fair, is not working properly and needs to be changed.

2.26 pm

Dr Eilidh Whiteford (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and the Members on both sides of the House who secured today’s debate. Like other Members who have spoken today, I have been disturbed by the surge in constituents coming to me because they have been sanctioned in circumstances they consider unfair, and I am profoundly concerned about the way in which the new sanctions regime is working in practice. There is a broad consensus that there is a role for sanctions in those cases where an individual is determined not to comply with requirements, but sanctions need to be proportionate, consistently and properly applied and, if they are to act as any kind of deterrent, the last resort, not the first recourse. It is clear to me from what we have already heard today, from cases in my own constituency and from the evidence collected by Citizens Advice Scotland that the sanctions regime is not functioning as it should. In the time available, I will focus on just a few of the most pertinent issues.

The first is that sanctions are being applied in ways that are not always proportionate to the infringement, and do not adequately take into account claimants’ personal circumstances. Like the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson), I have personal knowledge of a case in which a claimant was sanctioned because they were attending a job interview at the time when they were supposed be at the jobcentre appointment. Citizens Advice has highlighted a string of similar cases. That is just nonsense—it is absolutely crazy. There are also instances of people being sanctioned who had hospital appointments or family funerals to attend. Most of us in work would expect our employer to be flexible about allowing leave of absence in such circumstances; it is only reasonable to allow jobseekers

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a similar degree of flexibility to deal with unavoidable personal circumstances such as hospital appointments or illness.

Some of my biggest concerns are about people who are living with health conditions or disabilities. Mental health problems or mild learning disabilities in particular are sometimes invisible—indeed, they might not even be diagnosed—but they can play a huge role in why someone struggles to find and stay in work, or why they may be struggling to comply with jobseeking requirements. I have encountered a number of people sanctioned who have low levels of comprehension, and in some cases cognitive impairment and very limited literacy. They have not deliberately flouted requirements; they have failed to understand them. It has been hard for my staff to explain the situation to them and it is very difficult for them to comply with what is expected of them.

Frankly, some of the people I have dealt with are very vulnerable individuals. Sanctioning has only exacerbated that vulnerability, in some cases pushing people into severe hardship and reliance on assistance from local food banks. Food bank use has soared in my constituency, which is one of the wealthiest parts of Scotland, and one of the main drivers of that has been the malfunctioning of the sanctions regime. We need to do a much better job of identifying disabled people, including those with mental health problems and learning disabilities, and should make sure not just that they have the necessary support to find suitable employment but that communication with them takes account of their ability to comprehend and process the information they are getting, and takes account of their health.

Another major concern that has not been dwelt on today relates to the challenges of job searching in rural areas. I am very fortunate to represent an area where unemployment is among the lowest in Scotland, but it is also one of the most rural parts of Scotland, with a very high proportion of people living in the countryside or in small villages. Public transport is very limited and there is a shortage of affordable housing. Those on the lowest incomes, who have the least choice about where they live, often find themselves in the most rural parts, where both the rents and the demand for housing tend to be lower. They may or may not have access to a bus service, but if they do it is likely to be fairly infrequent, there may be no direct route to where they have to attend interviews, and fares are really expensive. As of next week, a day bus ticket will be £7.70 for the Buchan area and £9 for Banffshire. For somebody living on benefits, that is a huge proportion of their spending power—money that they really need to be spending on heating, food and other essentials of daily life. If we expect people to attend interviews some distance from their homes, we need to understand that it could be expensive and difficult for them to do that.

Many parts of my constituency do not have broadband access, and even where it is available it costs significantly more than comparable services in urban areas. That makes it very difficult for claimants: it means they may have to travel to a public library to do even the most rudimentary job search. That costs them a lot of money—money that they just do not have. Citizens Advice Scotland has highlighted cases where sanctions have been applied to people in rural areas who then find

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themselves with no money to enable them to travel to jobcentres or libraries, thus compounding their original offence and leaving them facing further sanction. That seems entirely counter-productive and it compounds the rural isolation and poverty already faced by people on very low incomes.

The sanctions regime is not working as it should. There is significant evidence of sanctions being applied incorrectly, inconsistently, inappropriately and disproportionately. Looking ahead to the introduction of universal credit and a single household payment, I am worried about the significant potential for the situation to get a lot worse. Whole families could be pushed unnecessarily into severe hardship and destitution by all the extra costs and unintended consequences. Unless we deal with these problems now, we will store up much greater problems for the future, so I urge the Government to look at their guidance, review it and make sure that their regime is actually fit for purpose.

2.32 pm

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): I wonder whether it is a sign of the times that more Members sat in the Chamber to debate badgers than are present to debate the poor and the vulnerable.

I will begin by placing on the record my belief that personal responsibility and compliance are extremely important for individuals seeking employment. However, the current regime seeks to penalise those who offer responsibility but are, for various reasons, disproportionately sanctioned. In many cases, that means abject poverty not just for them, but for the people around them. I am totally convinced that this period in our history will be looked at by generations to come with horror. It is possible that people will think that MPs acted in a barbaric fashion. We are living through an era in which being disabled, poor or disfranchised basically attracts state punishment rather than help. That is a sad indictment of these times.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): My hon. Friend is making a powerful point. Is it not incumbent on Members to look on those who are vulnerable and on the margins with respect and to offer them support rather than condemnation and punishment?

Ian Lavery: Absolutely. This year is the 180th anniversary of the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834. The Poor Law contained some incredibly harsh ideas, but they seem to have found fertile ground and taken seed among a new generation of coalition MPs. The Act was based on a royal commission that was largely the work of Nassau Senior and Edwin Chadwick and that took some extreme yet strikingly familiar views. One was that poverty was essentially caused by the individual, rather than by the economic and social conditions. It was therefore claimed that the pauper claimed relief regardless of his merits; that large families got the most, which encouraged irresponsible marriages; that women claimed relief for illegitimate children, which encouraged immorality; and that labourers had no incentive to work. It was recommended that workhouse conditions should be less desirable than those of an independent labourer of the lowest class. It was a fight to the bottom. There was no attempt 180 years ago to improve the working conditions of the lowest class. They wanted people to work in a

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worse position, below even that of the lowest of the working class. That attitude pervades today. Mark Twain once said:

“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Have we really regressed almost 200 years socially?

Undoubtedly, welfare reform is causing misery for people up and down the country. It is an ideological crusade to shrink the state, led by people who I believe simply do not care about what happens to the individuals or the consequences for communities as a whole. The approach of the Department for Work and Pensions to sanctions has been characterised by the chaotic approach to universal credit and the personal independence payment. Statistics showing that nearly 60% of decisions on sanctions have been overturned have now been removed from the DWP website. This is a regime that is targeting the most vulnerable people in our society—the very people, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) correctly says, we should be helping.

Even in the worst cases of non-compliance with the DWP rules, who actually suffers when sanctions are applied? When crimes under the law are committed, it is the perpetrator who is punished, but when DWP rules are broken, the people around that person are also punished. No thought is given to the family, the partner or anybody else associated with the individual being sanctioned. It may well be that it is one person who is sanctioned, but it results in a broad swipe at everyone in a household, family or circle of friends who have the obligation of the state transferred to them. The situation has been described as torture by hunger. Should this be happening in a civilised society? Should we be engaging in sanctioning people and forcing them to go to food banks? These are people who generally need assistance in life. The reality is that for every person sanctioned for the things the right-wing press prints on its front pages, there are thousands more who are forced into degradation as the victims of circumstance, officious advisers and cruel policy.

Let me describe one or two cases. A man in my constituency visited my offices in desperate need. He had been sanctioned after missing an appointment with a work training provider. He had a problem with his heart and he had had to visit hospital—he was sanctioned for being in hospital. The sanction was later overturned, but not before he was driven almost to starvation and the local food bank after visiting my office in a desperate state. All he had eaten for three days was field mushrooms and eggs borrowed from a neighbour. I am not sure that anyone in this House wants to see that sort of thing happen. As politicians, that is not what we are here to do.

The benefits of a man from the south-east who had been blind since birth were stopped because he was not replying to letters. The DWP was failing to send him letters in Braille or any other accessible format. He did not reply because he did not even know he had them. This man had worked for most of his life, but because of the DWP’s error he was forced to turn to a payday loan to survive. The chaotic system forced him into hunger and poverty.

So out of control is the situation that a website now documents the cruel, arbitrary and ridiculous reasons why people have had their benefits stopped. I urge hon. Members to look at it, but I have some examples:

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“You get a job interview. It’s at the same time as your job centre appointment, so you reschedule the job centre. You attend your rearranged appointment and then get a letter saying your benefits will be stopped because going to a job interview isn’t a good enough reason to miss an appointment.”

Another example is:

“You get a job that starts in two weeks time. You don’t look for work while you are waiting for the job to start. You’re sanctioned.”

How ridiculous and how absurd is this system?

“You apply for three jobs one week and three jobs the following Sunday and Monday. Because the job centre week starts on a Tuesday it treats this as applying for six jobs in one week and none the following week. You are sanctioned for 13 weeks for failing to apply for three jobs each week.”

It is an outrageous situation.

There is of course a clear link between benefit delays or changes and people turning to food banks. As many hon. Members have mentioned, more than 650,000 people now use food banks, and there is a strong link between that and benefit sanctioning. Serious questions need to be asked about whether people are being deliberately sanctioned to massage the employment figures, because at any one time 100,000 people may be in the churn of those sanctioned. At such a time, they are not figures in the unemployment statistics; they are cases in a fiddling of the unemployment statistics. The Minister may wish to target that point.

In my last minute, I want to mention the pressure on staff in DWP offices. The failure to impose enough sanctions means that many of them receive performance improvement plans or notices to improve, which might ultimately result in their losing their employment.

In conclusion, as a society, we will be judged harshly by history for punishing the poor, the disabled and the vulnerable, as well as for not doing enough to stop the determined drive of Government Members to drag us back to the Poor Law of 1834, the shameful establishing of IDS UK—in dire straits.

2.42 pm

Stephen Timms (East Ham) (Lab): I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) on his initiative, as a result of which we have had a very interesting debate.

The debate raises this question: what has become of Jobcentre Plus? As my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) has just described, those who work in jobcentres say that they are under enormous pressure to sanction people’s benefits. In opening the debate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton referred to the “toxic” culture in Jobcentre Plus. People who depend on it for help say that too often its main interest is now in catching them out.

As we have heard, sanctions are vital to the system. They encourage effective jobsearch, and a sound rationale for them was set out in Professor Paul Gregg’s report for the Government in 2008. They featured in the new deal and the future jobs fund, and we have made it clear that they will also feature in our compulsory jobs guarantee. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) argued, sanctions need to be applied fairly and proportionately. Claimants must understand their responsibilities and the consequences of not meeting them. That is not the case at the moment, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) correctly pointed out. The Child Poverty Action Group

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has referred to the frequent very vague letters from jobcentres, which people cannot understand, telling them what they are supposed to have done or not done. The Work and Pensions Committee report in January set out an approach to sanctions that makes a great deal of sense, and I must say that I was disappointed by the quite negative tone of the Government’s response.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) was right to remind the House, as other hon. Members have done, that rocketing benefits sanctions have fuelled the extraordinary growth in food bank demand. Volunteers say that a lot of people at food banks have no idea why they have been sanctioned. We might expect that Ministers, after hearing that from the Trussell Trust, would want to find out what is going on. Instead, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has refused to meet the Trussell Trust and, quite bizarrely, has accused it of having a political agenda. The Trussell Trust therefore had to make do with meeting the Prime Minister. It is disappointing, but not surprising, that the Select Committee recommendation that the Department should compile data on the number of signposts to food banks it is making has been rejected.

The first that some people know about a sanction is when they find out that there is no money in their bank account. Sanctions are supposed to incentivise people to undertake fruitful jobsearch, but if people do not know which rule they have broken and they are not told, a sanction cannot incentivise them. What has gone wrong?

Last week, at the invitation of Tesco, I visited its new store in Woolwich. The company personnel director told me that of the 400 staff the store had recruited when it opened in 2012, 100 had been chosen who had previously been unemployed. She introduced me to four of them, and it was frankly inspiring to hear how the opportunity to work was changing their lives and to hear how they are now optimistic about their prospects.

I took the opportunity to ask the four members of staff about their experience of Jobcentre Plus. Their answers were uniformly depressing. They said that advisers wanted to catch them out and to come up with reasons for imposing a sanction. One of them told me as a matter of fact that Jobcentre Plus advisers have to impose eight sanctions per month. He might have a point, because I understand that eight sanctions per month is regarded as the norm for an adviser. The Minister will correct me if that figure is wrong, but I think that it is right. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) pointed out, the number of sanctions issued by each adviser features in their regular appraisals. It is therefore not surprising that jobseekers get the impression that advisers have such a target. Indeed, I suspect that jobseekers are probably quite close to the truth about what is going on.

The reputation of Jobcentre Plus is now terribly poor. Examples such as the one given by the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson), make it clear why that is the case, and there are too many examples like those given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck.

John Healey: My right hon. Friend is talking about the disincentives in the system that lead to more sanctions. Does he agree that one problem may be that the single

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measure of performance in Jobcentre Plus is the benefits off-flow, and that anyone sanctioned is counted in that way, even though they are not coming off benefits to get into work?

Stephen Timms: I agree. There are several problems with the benefits off-flow measure, and my right hon. Friend is absolutely right that that is one of them. Citizens Advice has made that point in the briefing for this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) drew my attention to a report from West Dunbartonshire citizens advice bureau called “Unjust and Uncaring: A report on conditionality and benefits sanctions and their impact on clients”, which was published just a few weeks ago. It is full of depressing examples of the kind that we have heard in this debate.

Community Links works in my constituency in east London. It produced a policy briefing on sanctions in January, which states:

“There is a culture of fear and misunderstanding surrounding sanctions: some people are afraid of making tiny mistakes such as being one minute late for a meeting.”

The briefing includes a case study of Rita, a young and strongly work-oriented woman who was employed for six years until being made redundant. She has a degree in journalism and aspires to a career, not just to a job. She was sanctioned for non-attendance at a meeting, even though she had agreed with her jobcentre adviser to participate in work experience elsewhere. We have heard a number of examples of that. She was also incorrectly sanctioned for missing a meeting while at a pre-arranged hospital appointment, even though she had informed her adviser in the official way. She avoided that sanction, but only by insisting on speaking to the line manager at the jobcentre. One sanction meant that she did not have enough money to attend a job interview. She blames the jobcentre directly for preventing her from potentially getting a job.

Rita made the following comments:

“I had times when I literally had no food and no gas. I just lay in my bed looking at the walls. I couldn’t travel or make any calls. I couldn’t even afford to get the bus to sign-on, but I knew that if I didn’t go I’d be suspended again. It’s like a vicious cycle. I turned up at the Jobcentre actually hungry. I hadn’t eaten for two days and I was scared that if I was five minutes late they would suspend me again.”

She was present on Monday this week at the launch at Church House of Community Links’ troubling study “Tipping the balance?” on the cumulative impact of welfare reform in Newham.

The evidence that we have heard in this debate makes it clear that there is a serious problem. A year ago, I asked a parliamentary question:

“what was the total amount of benefit withheld as a result of benefit sanctions in each of the last four years.”—[Official Report, 25 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 986W.]

The answer told me that in 2009-10, £11 million was withheld and that just in the first six months of 2012-13, £60 million was withheld. In cash terms, that is more than a tenfold rise.

I have since requested an updated answer. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), told me in an answer in February:

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“The information is not available in the format requested. Trends in sanctions are better understood” —[Official Report, 5 February 2014; Vol. 575, c. 268W.]—

in some other way. It is not clear to me why the information was available a year ago, but is not available now. It is not the job of the Minister to tell us what questions she would like us to ask; Ministers are required to answer the questions that we do ask. I tabled the question again yesterday and I ask the Minister here today who is much more reasonable in these respects, to have a word with the right hon. lady and ask her this time to answer the question that she is asked.

A very large number of sanctions are overturned on appeal. Those sanctions should not have been imposed in the first place. The Policy Exchange report, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton mentioned, said:

“After reconsideration and/or appeal, 29% of those who receive their first ‘lower’ tier sanction have it overturned, meaning around 5,600 of them a month are wrongly sanctioned.”

In February, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck said, DWP statistics showed an appeal success rate of nearly 60%. Those statistics are gone from the Department’s website and have not yet come back corrected. I wonder whether the Minister can tell us what the correct figure is and when the figures, having been corrected, will be republished.

Last summer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West reminded us, the Opposition forced the Government to set up a review of sanctions. Ministers appointed Matthew Oakley to carry it out, although they drew up rather narrow terms of reference. I have appreciated the opportunity to discuss the issues with Mr Oakley, who has set about his task with thoroughness and diligence. I hope that his report, when we see it in a few weeks’ time, will lead to important improvements. However, it is very disappointing that today’s Government response to the January Select Committee report reneges on the commitment to a further wider review.

The Policy Exchange report says:

“we recommend a series of cumulative increases in sanction duration for those who consistently fail to comply with the conditionality regime. This reflects an aim to make sanctions less punitive for those who may have made genuine mistakes”.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton said, that comes from the ideological standpoint of the Minister’s coalition partners. I hope that he will indicate whether he accepts that it is a helpful direction of travel.

Sanctions by Jobcentre Plus have become far more punitive. They explain a large part of the explosion in food bank demand. Many people have no idea why they have been sanctioned. It is agreed across the political spectrum that the system has gone wrong, as we have heard in this debate. I hope that the Minister will indicate that he understands the problem and that he intends to do something about it.

2.54 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Steve Webb): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton (Mr Meacher) and the Members who supported him on securing this

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debate. This has been a worthwhile discussion and a number of important issues have been raised to which I will try to respond in the brief time available to me.

I think that there might be more common ground between the Government and the Opposition than has been apparent. It is also the Government’s position, as a number of right hon. and hon. Members said, that we want a sanctions system that works and that is effective, proportionate and well communicated to claimants. We are united on that. I was struck during the debate by the overwhelming view—although not the unanimous view, because there was at least one exception—that sanctions have a part to play in the system. Those who sign on and claim benefit take on responsibilities. If those responsibilities are to mean anything, there have to be consequences for not adhering to them.

At the outset, it might be worth my setting out the claimant commitment, which is now central to the benefit system and to the process of rights and responsibilities. People who sign on for jobseeker’s allowance now go through the claimant commitment. When they have a first interview with a work coach, the coach reviews their circumstances and capabilities—that relates to the point that was made by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford)—and completes the “My Jobseekers Profile” to capture key information. Reflecting on that, the coach sets out the requirements that the claimant must meet to be entitled to JSA, ensuring that those are right for the individual. That is how the system is intended to work. The work coach must take account of any health conditions, disabilities or caring responsibilities. Those requirements are recorded in the claimant commitment, together with a clear explanation of the consequences of any failure to comply. The commitment must be agreed by the claimant.

The coach then works with the individual to help them construct a detailed plan that sets out what they will do each week to meet their requirements. The process is designed to ensure that our expectations and requirements are reasonable, and that the claimant understands them. It is intended to provide claimants with the support that they need to establish an effective plan of action that, if followed, will ensure that they comply and that they never face a sanction. That is what the Government are trying to achieve. We do not want to sanction anybody. Clearly, there are times when people do not fulfil their requirements. When sanctions are imposed, there are mechanisms in place for challenging them. They can be overturned when people have a good reason why they should be.

I want to clarify some of the points that were raised in the debate. First, Members asked whether 60% of JSA sanctions were overturned. As has been said, the figures appeared, but there was an error in them and they were withdrawn. Revised figures are being prepared, in line with the code of practice for official statistics. Those will be presented as soon as possible. To give the House an order of magnitude, the latest official statistics, which have been published separately by the Ministry of Justice, which deals with the appeals, show that in the third quarter of 2012-13 not 60% but 17% of JSA disputes heard by the tribunal service resulted in a decision in favour of the claimant. That provides a slightly different perspective.

Andy McDonald: Will the Minister give way?

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Steve Webb: I will not for now, because I only have a short period and I want to respond to all the points that Members have made. [Interruption.] It was a mistake. The hon. Gentleman asks why it was 60%. There was a miscoding. That was not the correct figure.

It is important that the sanctions regime is evaluated. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) for his positive comments on the work that is being done by Matthew Oakley, which is looking specifically at the sanctions regime. It is considering communications to claimants. A number of hon. Members have stated that for sanctions to be effective we must communicate to people what has happened to them and why. I accept that entirely, and if right hon. and hon. Members have examples—some of which they cited during the debate—the Employment Minister would be pleased to receive details of individual cases where the processes that we want to work are not working.

To return to the evaluation, Matthew Oakley will soon complete his report. It will come to the Department and we will respond positively and constructively. We will then publish not only our response but the independent findings of the reviewers in full. There is no secrecy about that; it will be in the public domain, and rightly so, together with the actions we are taking. That is not the only evaluation. We have published a range of evidence, including the Jobcentre Plus offer evaluation and the universal credit customer survey, which provide information about customer awareness of sanctions and the effectiveness of the regime in encouraging compliance. We also monitor the use of sanctions and publish quarterly statistics. In a sense, we could have a second and third review and all the rest, but the focus is on seeing what the first independent reviewer says and publicly responding constructively to that, making changes, publishing evidence, monitoring and taking action, rather than on starting another review with another reviewer for perhaps six or nine months, or whatever, so that it is Christmas before things change. We want to get on with learning from these reviews.

The Chair of the Work and Pensions Committee, who is not in the Chamber at the moment, asked about sanctions for employment and support allowance, and it is important to stress the low level of ESA sanctions. At any point, fewer than 0.5% of individuals in the work-related activity group are sanctioned, so although volumes have increased because the number of people on ESA has gone up, that rate remains low. It is not the case that people on ESA are being sanctioned all over the place.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) mentioned the link to housing benefit—I felt a certain amount of nostalgia when he explained to the House where Sandwell is, because that is where I was born and went to school. He made the important point that if someone is sanctioned on jobseeker’s allowance, that should not lead to the loss of housing benefit. Although income-related JSA passports to housing benefit, housing benefit is available on the basis of low income and not necessarily on whether someone satisfies the requirements for JSA. We entirely accept that we must ensure that people are not incorrectly thrown off housing benefit because their JSA has been sanctioned in some way, and we are considering that issue as part of the Oakley review. It is not our intention for people to lose their housing benefit.

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The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan raised an interesting question of whether, for example, someone who is sanctioned under universal credit risks losing the whole household payment. Funnily enough, that problem is sorted out under universal credit, because instead of having JSA here and housing benefit there, and the JSA computer telling the council that someone is not on JSA any more and their housing benefit stopping, if it is all one payment the sanction is just to the personal allowance bit and housing help remains unaffected. It will be better under universal credit.

I was pleased to hear from a number of hon. Members that the universal sanctions regime is attractive and responds so that when people correct whatever caused the sanction, in many cases that sanction will stop. I will pass to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and the Employment Minister the view of a number of Members in this debate that the sooner we move forward with the universal credit sanction regime, the better. I am encouraged by that.

On the proportionality of sanctions, there has not been much discussion about the detail of the higher, middle and lower rates, but since the system was introduced the proportion of claimants sanctioned at the highest level fell markedly after the introduction of the new system. Hardship payments are available—again, that has not been discussed much—at a rate of 60% of the benefit. People may not be aware of that, but where someone has no income it is important to be aware that hardship payments are available at a rate of 60% of benefit.

Julie Hilling: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: I will not, if the hon. Lady will forgive me, because I want to respond to the points already made.

There was some discussion of targets—this is a bit of a chestnut—and to be categorical, there are no targets for sanctions; that is not the way it works. The point was made that statistics are gathered at jobcentre level and among advisers on their use of the sanctions system, and again the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan—I am wrecking her credibility here—made exactly the right point. We want consistency, and we cannot know that we have that if we do not gather data on what individual advisers are doing. If people go to a jobcentre and talk to adviser A or adviser B, and adviser A sanctions everyone who walks through the door and adviser B never sanctions anyone, the system is not working.

Andy McDonald: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: No, I will not.

It is not that individual advisers are expected to hit a target or number; we are monitoring because we expect both distribution and consistency. That is what we are trying to do. It should not be interpreted as a target; it is simply about us monitoring what is going on.

A couple of hon. Members suggested that sanctions are about trying to massage the unemployment numbers, which is complete nonsense. Somebody who is looking for work is still counted in the unemployment figures. The figures published every month and headlined on the BBC are the labour force survey numbers, and if people are looking for work, they count as unemployed.

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Stephen Timms: Will the Minister give way?

Steve Webb: Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue.

A further point missed by a lot of hon. Members is that two thirds of sanctions are not disallowances. Someone’s JSA might be reduced because of a sanction, but they do not come off JSA and still count in the claimant count numbers. Of all the sanction numbers, only a third are disallowances. On the unemployment figures, the JSA numbers have been coming down because of reduced inflows, not because we have been sanctioning people off benefit.

Stephen Timms rose

Steve Webb: I wonder if the right hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue. I have not given way to anybody else, and I hope he will forgive me if I am consistent. [Interruption.] If the House would like me to take the intervention, I will happily do so.

Stephen Timms: I am very grateful to the Minister. Will he confirm, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham West and Royton said, that sanctions contribute to the benefit off-flow figures, which are the key to incentivising jobcentres and advisers?

Steve Webb: As I say, in two thirds of cases where people are sanctioned, they do not actually flow off JSA. Their JSA claim is regarded as continuing, so only a fraction of those numbers count as coming off benefit. Most people are still on JSA, even though they are sanctioned. It is clearly not the case that this is anything to do with the claim—it patently is not.

I have sought to be as consensual as I can. The right hon. Member for Oldham West and Royton made extraordinary remarks about the Chancellor’s approach to the macro-economy. Given that we have record numbers of people in work and record rates of employment, the idea that that is somehow mishandling the economy is extraordinary.

The key point is that we recognise that the sanctions regime needs to be kept under constant review. An independent review is under way. We will publish that and respond to it positively. If right hon. and hon. Members have individual cases they wish to draw to our attention, we are very happy to look at them. I think the House is united in saying: yes people have responsibilities, and yes there are consequences when they do not meet those responsibilities, but we all want to see a sanctions regime that is fair and proportionate. That remains the position of the Government.

3.6 pm

Mr Meacher: The Minister talks, in his very earnest way, about the claimant commitment. He does not seem to realise that there is a complete disconnect between how the system is supposed to work and how it is actually working on the ground. We are not talking about a few isolated or exceptional examples. I quoted dozens of cases, as did hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber. He needs to take account of the realities, not a dream of what he would like to be real.

The Minister picked up on my remarks about the Chancellor. The most effective way to cut the deficit is not through prolonged austerity and sanctioning, but

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by expanding the economy and job creation. That is exactly what has been done in the United States, which is now 5% above pre-crash levels. Here, we are 1.5% below pre-crash levels.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (John Hemming) made useful points about the appeal procedure taking far too long and being far too costly. There should be an attempt to combine it with the procedure for universal credit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), the Chair of the Select Committee, talked about the very high numbers, contrary to the impression given by the Minister, of people being sanctioned. Some 5%—about 60,000 people—are still being sanctioned per month. The causes of sanctions are often unquestionably trivial, wrong and lacking common-sense discretion. She spoke about the need for another survey—not just the Oakley survey on how the system works—to consider the impact on claimants and whether they are more likely to seek work.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Dame Angela Watkinson) made the important point that sanctions should be used only as a last resort. That is clearly not the case at the present time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Yvonne Fovargue) rightly said that people are impoverished by sanctions and less able to find work, and that they often do not understand the process being imposed on them. DWP staff should be incentivised not for the numbers they sanction, but for the numbers they get back into work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Julie Hilling) made an eloquent case about how people are not helped to find work, and that finding work becomes harder as a result of sanctions. She gave examples of how sanctions are often applied unfairly, as did the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), who spoke of the system not being fit for purpose, particularly in rural areas.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) made a powerful speech, as always, which made a comparison with how sanctions work and the less eligibility principle of the Victorian poor law. He thought that no attention is being given to the impact on the victim, which is bad enough, but what about the family, the partner and the children who are being made to suffer?

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) made a very effective case for comprehensive reform. For all these reasons, I am extremely unconvinced by the Minister’s reply. However hard he was trying to convince us that his heart is in the right place, the results on the ground do not merit that. For all those reasons, I hope the whole House agrees that we need another review. We need a review that considers the impact, severity and targeting of sanctioning, and we need a reduction in the number of cases where it is used.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House notes that there have been many cases of sanctions being wrongfully applied to benefit recipients; and calls on the Government to review the targeting, severity and impact of such sanctions.

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Civil Service Reform

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): I call Mr Bernard Jenkin to speak for between 10 and 15 minutes.

3.10 pm

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Eighth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, on Truth to power: how Civil Service reform can succeed, HC 74, and the Government response, HC 955, and the First Report from the Liaison Committee, on Civil Service: lacking capacity, HC 884, and the Government response, HC 1216.

I shall be as swift as I can, Mr Deputy Speaker.

I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for giving me the opportunity to speak about these two reports. The main conclusion of both of them is that our civil service faces challenges that can be addressed only through the establishment of a cross-party commission on the future of the civil service in Parliament.

Let me make clear at the outset that there is far more on which we can agree than disagree. I support many of the current reforms, such as those involving procurement, the work of the Efficiency and Reform Group and innovations in IT and digital government, but who would disagree with the suggestion that reforms such as those, although necessary, are not sufficient? This is not to denigrate Ministers or civil servants; indeed, this is an opportunity for us to thank all civil servants and pay tribute to their dedication and achievements; but when concerns do arise, they all raise questions about accountability, trust—particularly trust between Ministers and officials—and leadership. Those are fundamental, and determine whether reform will succeed or fail.

The civil service is one of the great institutions of state. Under our constitution, the Executive exercises the royal prerogative, and enjoys substantial control over the legislature and appointments to the judiciary. Governments come and go, and, in the absence of a codified constitution or formal separation of powers, it is this body of permanent officials that underpins the constitutional stability of our country. That is why a permanent and impartial civil service was established. The civil service has no separate legal personality: the Crown, Ministers and the civil service are, in law, indivisible. However, under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, Parliament rather than the royal prerogative is now the legal source of authority for the management of the civil service, and it therefore falls to Parliament to address the future of the civil service. The only question is how that can best be done.

Some take the view that Ministers need more power, especially power to appoint and dismiss officials, while others believe that any move in that direction challenges the very principle on which the present civil service is founded. These questions should therefore be decided by Parliament, which is the only institution with the legitimacy and authority to do so. We can all agree that reform should be based on cross-party consensus, but that consensus cannot be a private one between Ministers and aspirant Ministers. It should be based on the widest possible range of evidence from those with practical and academic expertise and experience: think-tanks such as the Institute for Public Policy Research, Reform,

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and the Institute for Government. However, Parliament as a whole should be the guardian of that consensus, which is why any commission on the civil service should be a parliamentary commission.

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): Over the last 17 years we have been in a unique position, as Ministers in all three main parties have had relatively recent experience of working with the civil service. Would not cashing in on that recent experience—particularly coalition Government Ministers’ experience of interacting with the civil service—be very valuable to the understanding that Parliament can bring to this matter?

Mr Jenkin: I wholly agree. I am extremely grateful for my right hon. Friend’s support for the proposal, and for her indication of willingness to serve on the commission should the House of Commons invite her to do so.

The launch of GovernUp today—to coincide with the debate—by two of the sponsors of the motion is something to celebrate, but it is also further evidence of the urgent need for a commission. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) and the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), but I am sure they will agree that too many excellent think-tank reports on the civil service have sunk without trace. Only Parliament can put the necessary authority behind a programme of reform: a parliamentary commission could not be ignored.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): Will the commission’s remit include the Scottish civil service, which after all is the responsibility of the home civil service? It is not clear at the moment where the demarcation lines lie, or, indeed, where accountability lies, especially as there is quite a fevered political atmosphere in Scotland at the moment and it is not always clear that the Scottish civil service is acting with the impartiality one would expect.

Mr Jenkin: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s intervention, and I can in fact inform the House that the Public Administration Select Committee is doing something very specifically on the impartiality of the civil service—and we still only have one civil service in the United Kingdom—in respect of the conduct of referendums. I am going to avoid being distracted by that topic, however.

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General (Mr Francis Maude): On a pure point of fact, since 1922 the civil service in Northern Ireland has been separate.

Mr Jenkin: Touché, as they say. I am most grateful for that information. I am sure it would have been in the Government’s evidence to our Committee.

Before I continue, I draw the House’s attention to the names on motion 36 under “Remaining orders and notices” in today’s Order Book. Motion 36 would set a more limited remit than we originally proposed and determine the Commons membership of the commission on the civil service. The other place indicated last week that it would reciprocate and I can inform the House that the former Lord Justice General of Scotland and the former Deputy President of the Supreme Court, Lord Hope of Craighead, has indicated that he would

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chair this commission if invited to do so. The names of former Secretaries of State, former Ministers and the clear majority of chairs of Select Committees on our motion, along with the support of the other place, represent a real and powerful cross-party consensus that would give civil service reform the impetus and urgency it needs.

As we consider accountability, trust and leadership at the top of Government, it is important to understand what extraordinary demands we place on Ministers and senior officials. Ministers are accountable to Parliament for the performance of their Departments, like directors to their shareholders, but unlike in almost any other walk of life they have to rely on people they do not appoint and cannot easily remove. In addition, today’s Ministers feel accountable for a system that has become somewhat unaccountable.

PASC has watched the Government’s policy on the civil service evolve. To start with there was much talk about change in Government but no plan for how change would be led and implemented. In our 2011 report “Change in Government: the agenda for leadership”, PASC recommended that the Government should formulate a comprehensive change programme articulating what the civil service is for. The civil service reform plan of 2012 indicates that the experience of Ministers in Government has had an impact on their thinking about the civil service, but it does not meet our recommendation.

Mr Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): On the urgency of the task, I note that the date for this commission to report is my birthday, which will be a lovely birthday present, and I also note the juxtaposition of that date with the timing of when this House will be dissolved ahead of a general election. Does having this commission reporting just before the House is dissolved meet my hon. Friend’s desire urgently to address this whole issue?

Mr Jenkin: The alternative is that we put it off. Perhaps the commission could finish more quickly, but these are very large and difficult subjects to deal with. The proposal one hears in the corridors of Westminster is that people want to put this off until after the general election. I suggest we cannot wait and I will come on to that point.

The civil service reform plan was published two years later and most Ministers past and present today still agree that getting things done takes far too long and what is often presented to Ministers or implemented is too late or not of sufficient quality. The Minister for the Cabinet Office himself told us there had even been examples of “deliberate obstruction” of ministerial decisions by officials. My right hon. Friend has also described civil servants as:

“Fabulous...Able, bright, energetic, ambitious to change the world.”

I am sure he would agree that no one joins the civil service to block Ministers or Government policy. People join it with the best of intentions and motivations, to serve the country, so why would Ministers feel that those same civil servants are blocking or frustrating their decisions, or not giving truth to power? Why would officials feel that that was the right or only way to act?

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We do not need to rehearse examples of recent Whitehall failures, but we do need to ask why they occur and how Whitehall can learn from them. What are the common factors? We all agree that there is too much churn at the top in Whitehall, leading to discontinuity and loss of experience. How did it get like that? Problems such as a lack of key skills and competences are far from new, so we must also ask why, after repeated efforts to reform Whitehall in the conventional way over the past few decades, the same problems persist. The hardest thing to reform in any organisation is people’s attitudes and behaviour, yet there is little reference to attitudes or behaviour in the civil service reform plan, even though they should be the primary consideration.

There has been much attempted reform over the years, focusing on organisation and skills, but those leading change need to understand why people behave as they do. Unless they can change that, the job titles might change, but few will change how they work. Indeed, much of Whitehall is fatigued by reform. Many feel they have done all they can to embrace change but have become cynical and learned how to keep their heads down until the latest initiatives pass by. I think that Ministers refer to that as the “bias to inertia”—a prevalent attitude and a common behaviour that together militate against risk taking and undermine accountability.

When we speak of accountability, it is not simply a question of forcing obedience to ministerial orders so that instructions are carried out more directly, or finding who to blame when things go wrong. Accountability is much more about trust: not just about trusting people to take responsibility for carrying out their tasks and using their judgment, but about those people in turn trusting that the problems they face will be taken seriously, now and in the future, by those to whom they are accountable. Accountability and trust depend on shared understanding—it is a two-way street. Within that framework, people become willing to take responsibility and to be held to account. And when things get difficult and mistakes are made, as always happens, openness and trust become even more essential if there is to be learning and improvement.

This is the only way to improve accountability to Parliament and to citizens, and to avoid repeating mistakes. We need to analyse what accountability feels like in Whitehall today, given today’s intense pressures of the 24/7 media, freedom of information and more active Select Committees, and then to imagine what it should feel like. What, if any, change can be achieved unless we identify what attitudes and behaviour destroy trust? We need to identify those attitudes and develop a plan to change them. We do not have time to wait for attitudes to change. Far too many good people have got fed up with waiting, and they just leave. Also, far too much money is being wasted. As the Institute for Government pointed out this week, the spending challenge in the next Parliament will be much harder than in this one.

Another point on which all four signatories to today’s motion agree is that these challenges cannot be fixed by Whitehall from within. That is not to disparage the present Whitehall leadership. No organisation facing this kind of challenge can change without external analysis that is both independent and, in this case, democratically accountable. The lack of such analysis is the reason other reforms have failed. A sustained change in attitudes and behaviour has to be initiated by a

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renewed, united and determined leadership of Ministers and officials that encourages mutual understanding and co-operation and is enthusiastic to learn from external scrutiny and analysis.

This will mean Whitehall’s leaders listening and learning to develop new skills. Ministers and officials are so pressed by the immediate economic, political and international issues that they will surely need external support and scrutiny to achieve this. Of course, some will find this difficult to accept, but what is the alternative?

The remit proposed in motion 36, endorsed by the Public Administration Committee and the Liaison Committee, concentrates on the key issues: accountability, trust and leadership. I am pleased that the proposed parliamentary commission commands widespread and respected support. Professor Lord Norton of Louth, a leading constitutional academic, told my Committee that he supports a “full-scale proper review”. The Government’s lead non-executive director, Lord Browne of Madingley, said that such a review is “long overdue”. He also said that

“the biggest single obstacle to progress in government”—


“the question of organisational learning, in particular from experiences of failure.”

He made the key point that

“stories of failure... are the only powerful mechanism for learning.”

Jonathan Powell, the former chief of staff to Tony Blair, told us that without a commission

“we will lose opportunities to be better governed and to get more stuff done”.

We understand why Ministers fear that it could be a distraction from implementing current policies and reform programmes, but without this wider review no civil service reform will be sustained.

Some fear that this review will become too vast a project, but this is not another Fulton committee. Not only was Fulton allowed to take far too long, but the committee was not based in Parliament and so it became divorced from the reality of government, lacked parliamentary authority and had a flawed remit. In a brilliant “Yes Minister” act of sabotage, its remit denied Fulton the right to consider any aspect of the relationship between Ministers and officials. There is no vote on the commission today, but I hope that colleagues on both sides will endorse the view that the proposed parliamentary commission is not just a good idea, but Parliament’s duty. I hope they will join all those already pressing for this to be brought to a vote in the Lobby as soon as possible.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Lindsay Hoyle): May I suggest to Members that they take up to 10 minutes only?

3.26 pm

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the Chairman of the Select Committee, of which I, too, am a member. May I take this opportunity to applaud him on his strong, intelligent leadership of the Committee? I strongly endorse the report’s conclusion, which is that there should be a parliamentary commission

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on the civil service. Different views will be taken on this, and I have a different view from many other members of the Committee. I am an unapologetic and unreconstructed statist—indeed, as a student I wrote a paper in praise of the French prefecture system, which is statism par excellence.

As you can see, Mr Deputy Speaker, the report is substantial, and most of it is evidence. The evidence given to us was fascinating. It came from former Cabinet Secretaries, current heads of the civil service, academic historians, political commentators and, most importantly, trade union leaders. Listening to them all and asking them a range of questions was a fascinating experience.

The report came to some conclusions—not recommendations, as such. First, it supports the Northcote-Trevelyan principles, established in 1854, on the political impartiality of the civil service. That is fundamental and I want us to retain it for the long-term. Secondly, the Haldane doctrine of ministerial accountability is supported, although it is questioned. That may be discussed by the commission, as and when it is established. I was one who was appalled when a Labour Minister in the previous Government chose to blame a civil servant in this Chamber. That was a break with tradition; it was shameful at the time and it caused some consternation, and I am glad to say that it has not been repeated. I hope we will continue to retain the principle of ministerial responsibility.

I want to see the historical features of the civil service retained, although obviously we will look at every possible reform to improve it for the future. We should continue to recruit the brightest from the universities to be senior career civil servants, and we want both generalists and senior specialist professionals. I believe the Minister has a similar view to mine that generalists do have their place in the civil service. We do not just want technocrats; we want people who have a broad philosophical view of the world, who understand politics and economics, and who have some sense of history. We cannot have just scientists or just economists—especially not economists, and I say that as one myself.

There is a range of views. Some think that the civil service should be entirely politicised, which is a view that I utterly rejected in Committee. We have now confirmed that we do not want to see the civil service politicised as it is in countries such as the United States of America. We have a unitary system of government; we do not have separation of powers or balance of powers. The civil service has to have power to speak truth to power—that private responsibility to advise Ministers.

Some of our best Departments have made serious mistakes in recent years, so clearly there are things that are wrong, and I think I know why. The Treasury seemed to be stuffed full of monetarists—unfortunately, this was after my time at university—who had a particular view on how to run an economy, and they made some serious mistakes. When we joined the exchange rate mechanism in 1990, I predicted that it would fail, and sure enough it did. We might not have joined that mechanism had some civil servants in the Treasury said, “Ministers, this is a mistake.” If we had had some Keynesians in the Treasury, they might have said, “We have to retain currency flexibility for our economy, and if we don’t do that, we will be in severe danger.” Had someone said that, we might not have made that mistake. That decision led to the 1992 collapse, which destroyed

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the credibility of the Conservative Government at the time and led directly to the election of Labour in 1997. Some might like to claim credit for that, but it was, in fact, the collapse of the ERM and everything that went with it—the housing problems and so on—that led to political victory for my party.

We need a range of views. When I was student of economics, one of our lecturers was a former Treasury civil servant, and he said that within the civil service or the Treasury, there was always someone working on the alternatives. For example, in the 1967 devaluation debate, we had on the one hand, the sound money people arguing for preserving the pound’s parity and, on the other hand, others working on an alternative devaluation proposal. Eventually devaluation happened, which was sensible. What was important, though, was the range of views, which were privately held within the civil service. Those views were not political; they were based on, among other things, academic research.

I wish to submit my own views, as and when the commission is established. I have already written a paper on what I think is wrong with the civil service and submitted it to a recent conference. Although the civil service is not politicised as such, it was driven in a particular direction after the 1970s. Those who had a critical view of neo-liberalism, monetarism and the markets were marginalised, and it was taken as holy writ within the civil service that the market was right and that we should devolve as much as possible to the private sector. I thought that was profoundly wrong then, and I still do now and would like to see it reversed.

I want to see insourcing, not outsourcing. Outsourcing has been disruptive. It has reduced accountability and led to all sorts of failures, such as the failure in IT. Many of the IT catastrophes in the public sector come about because the civil service does not have the capacity to manage IT contracts. I would establish a public corporation for IT, where those changes to the way we run things would be done inside, not outside, the civil service. We would not have to give gigantic contracts to private sector companies, which then make mistakes and say, “Well, Ministers, if it is all wrong, would you like us to do it again?” They then get a second contract and make even more money, and the civil service is blamed for failures. Such a service should be in-house not out of house.

Outsourcing has caused all sorts of problems. In a recent report, the National Audit Office said that there was a

“crisis of confidence caused by some worrying examples of contractors not appearing to treat the public sector fairly, and of departments themselves not being on top of things.”

That is precisely what I have described in relation to IT.

There are so many details that one could go into. Some Departments have had serious problems, but I am reluctant to name names. However, the Department for Transport was in chaos over railway franchising; clearly, there were people involved who were not able to handle the situation. We had the west coast main line debacle. I understand that because of churn, those who had some vague understanding of franchising were quickly moved on, and there was nobody left to do the job properly. Keeping experienced staff—avoiding churn—is vital. That means not cuts at all costs, but making sure that we retain those civil servants with experience and skills rather than just reducing staffing come what may.

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The vast tax gap has been caused, at least in part, by savage cuts to personnel in HMRC. Everyone knows—I have said this in this Chamber many times—that one tax officer collects many times their own salary in additional tax, so why not put in place hundreds if not thousands more HMRC officials and collect the billions that remain uncollected? That would perhaps help to solve some of our financial problems.

There are all sorts of problems that I want to address when I make my modest submission to the commission, when it is set up. There are issues that have to be addressed. I want to see the restoration of the strong big state that we had after the second world war, under which the lives of working people were transformed. A small state with privatisation and marketisation will, I think, bring no good to working people or the economy overall. I have a particular view, I want to put that view and I hope that others will think likewise.

3.36 pm

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on bringing this matter forward so determinedly. Indeed, I am glad that the debate will be responded to by a Minister who I know to be a reforming Minister, but we still feel he needs to raise his reforming game from the specific and valuable things that he has been doing to deal with a wider concept of the future of the civil service. We have a civil service with excellent qualities, and I will refer to some of them in a moment, but as the Government themselves have said, we want a

“world-class, 21st Century Civil Service capable of delivering”


“Government’s priorities and the best public services.”

When the Public Administration Committee produced its report, the Liaison Committee wanted to support its conclusions but also to bring together several Select Committees’ experience of failings in the system. That led us to question the Prime Minister last September, at one of our thrice-yearly sessions with him, about the civil service. He responded well on specific matters, but I am still not at all convinced that he grasped the fundamental problem that the civil service is now facing very different circumstances, and we need to assess how far it can change the way it does things without losing some of its essential features.

We published a short report that highlighted some of the problem areas, such as the electronic monitoring of offenders, the west coast main line franchise and universal credit, where there had been serious implementation problems. We also gave praise where it was due, for example for the success of the Olympic and Paralympic games organisation. We concluded that there was significant evidence that the civil service is not equipped to support consistent contract management and tends to be driven by short-term pressures rather than long-term value for money for the taxpayer. We were unconvinced that the Government’s civil service reform plan for Whitehall is based on a strategic consideration of the future of the civil service. We gave our support to the idea of a parliamentary commission, jointly involving both Houses.

The Government responded to our report earlier this week and published their response in time for this debate. They deal with all our specific points, but still do not, I think, grasp the overall point. They say

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“the Government does not agree that these examples indicate a wider failure, nor suggest that there is any systemic problem of trust and honesty in the critical relationship between Ministers and officials.”

However, the Institute for Government recently published a report saying that there is a “lack of collective leadership” at the centre and that “short-termism” is weakening Whitehall’s ability to plan ahead, while there is

“no co-ordinating…narrative for the Civil Service to lock into”,

and although:

“Leaders of reform report strong Prime Ministerial support for civil service reform in private...this has little visibility within Whitehall.”

The argument that the Prime Minister used was that a parliamentary commission could displace current reform efforts, which are urgently needed. If that view ever had any significance, it does not in the last year of this Parliament, when so many of the Government’s reform initiatives have already been introduced. We ought now to be considering what we can bequeath to the next Parliament. We in the Select Committees inherited a significant bequest as a result of the Wright Committee’s work and, in many ways, we would like the next Parliament to inherit some worthwhile things, including a clear concept of how to develop the civil service to meet modern needs. A joint commission would make that possible.

The other place has a ready supply of former Cabinet Secretaries, people who have run large private and public sector organisations and people who have political experience, who can join with those who have recent and immediate experience in this House in analysing what is needed and making proposals.

Mr Harper: I have studied the motion on the Commons Order Paper and the proposed names of Members of this House. On the point about membership, I was a little worried, given the right hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for reform, that he seemed to suggest that the Members of the House of Lords who should serve on the commission would be former Cabinet Secretaries. Is that a way to get reform or to ensure that reform does not happen?

Sir Alan Beith: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. My list was much longer than that. It included people with experience in the private sector and—as I was about to say but did not due to the shortage of time—in the armed forces.

Mr Jenkin: If the commission were chaired by a Cross Bencher in the other place, there would be no space on the committee for a former Cabinet Secretary.

Sir Alan Beith: I suppose I ought also to say that it would be an amendable motion in any event. Before I was elected to the House, I used to give university lectures about the civil service at the time of the Fulton report. My lecture notes would be of little use today as so much has changed. The Fulton report was itself trying to catch up with change, but so much has happened since then. The civil service is now far less an administrator of services and much more a buyer of services. Back-office outsourcing has been a major development. The Minister knows that I have some concerns that we will not have a

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footprint of the civil service in the smaller towns and communities around the country if we do not manage that carefully to take advantage of good people who are available, as in my own constituency.

The civil service can no longer be treated as a protected environment where private sector disciplines of personal responsibility, value for money and management of risk have no place. Much policy making is now international—in the European Union, the World Trade Organisation and the United Nations. We are a less centralised state, at least in Scotland, Wales and London, with some devolution to cities and combined local authorities. Departments cannot continue to operate as sole owners of policy, living in separate silos, when so many of the problems we have to address—crime prevention, public health and skills for employment, to name just three—can be solved only on a cross-departmental basis. This means that money needs to be spent in one Department when the consequent savings will be earned in another Department. Money spent dealing with alcohol problems will save money in prison places, for example. Our system is not designed to accommodate such decisions.

The Prime Minister’s office expects to be much more closely involved in many areas of policy, and questioning in the Liaison Committee has been developed to get at that and establish just what the Prime Minister’s office is doing when it has a guiding role—some would say an interfering role—in policy. Perhaps that is an unfortunately pejorative term. Many would say that it is right that the Prime Minister exercises a significant influence on policy development, but it has made a different character of work in at least some Departments.

The Treasury’s role is nowadays quite often one of encouraging specific expenditure as well as blocking other expenditure—a more active role than it sometimes played in the past. Select Committee scrutiny has pulled back the veil of ministerial responsibility and rightly opened up much more what actually happened when decisions were taken. Coalition Government has required new procedures to be developed, and Ministers are as impatient as ever to deliver policy change. The Government have sought to accommodate that through the idea of extended ministerial offices, but I am still unclear whether any Department has followed the Cabinet Office with an extended ministerial office. Perhaps the Minister can tell us.

Amidst all this there are key features of the British civil service that most of us are very anxious to keep, including political impartiality—a civil service that can serve any Government—high ethical standards and the ability to attract people of the highest ability. Resolving these things is not a simple matter. It needs some careful thought. We need to hand on to the next Parliament a well-thought-out understanding of the future of our civil service and how it can be achieved.

3.44 pm

Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on securing this hugely important debate, even if it is taking place in the twilight hour of a Thursday afternoon. I also congratulate the Minister for the Cabinet Office on undertaking important reforms, and we should wish him well across the House. I welcome the work that has been done by bodies such as the Institute for Public Policy Research and the Institute for Government to try

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to tackle some of the complex issues that we face. I am delighted by today’s launch of GovernUp, so I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert) on their hard work. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex on his Committee’s important cross-party work, as well as on the proposition that we should have a commission. My view on such things is that we should let a thousand flowers bloom given that, as there are so many complex issues, every new idea will add value.

To get to the meat of the debate, wherever we sit in the House the challenge that faces us all in an age of austerity is how we maximise the value of constrained expenditure to meet the pressing and ever-growing needs of our constituents. That interest in best value crosses political divides and, I hope, unites Members on both sides of the House. If we are to achieve that, however, radical transformation is essential, and that, too, should be a shared objective. Bringing about such transformation is a huge challenge that requires absolute commitment and will take a long time, so we need to work together across the House so that the vital reforms that are needed to deliver more effective and efficient government are taken out of crude party politics, which is why the work that is being done by the Public Administration Committee and in other forums is important. We need to build a cross-party consensus on reform that can be delivered across electoral cycles.

I want to talk about three issues, although I could talk about more: the capability of the civil service; the organisation of Government in managing and delivering projects and programmes; and responsibility and accountability to Parliament and the taxpayer for services and projects delivered. First, on capability, I think that we all agree that the civil service recruits the brightest and the best, and people who are committed to public service, yet all too often the Public Accounts Committee finds that they fail to deliver major projects and vital services efficiently. We find that they too often cannot manage major business transformation, such as universal credit, and that they waste money on big projects. For example, with the aircraft carrier project, which has spanned Governments of both parties, the original proposal was for two aircraft and delivery in 2016 at a cost of £3.65 billion, but now, if we are lucky, it will involve one aircraft by 2020 at a cost of £6 billion. All too often, people working for the Government liberally use other people’s money—taxpayers’ money—in a way that they would never use their own, and our Committee has seen the NHS and BBC pay-offs as cases in point.

Although people come into government with the best of motives and abilities, they are not trained in the skills that they need to carry out the job that is required of them today, so they do not have commercial, project management, financial and IT skills that we need in a modern civil service. My Committee has seen many examples of things going wrong, most recently with the letting of the interpreter contract by the Ministry of Justice and the contract for offshore power transmission to the grid.

Kelvin Hopkins: Managing contracts is the issue, because if less was contracted out and more was done in house, some of those problems might be overcome.

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Margaret Hodge: I know where my hon. Friend is coming from, but we need the capability in government effectively to manage contracts whenever and by whomever they are delivered. There is a legacy in the civil service of focusing on policy, which is valued, but not implementation, which is vital, so we must challenge that culture.

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): Was the right hon. Lady as impressed as I was by Michael Spurr, the new head of the National Offender Management Service, who started his career as a prison officer, has front-line experience and is now chief executive? He was a breath of fresh air when he appeared before our Committee, because he really focused on what we have to do to deliver good public services.

Margaret Hodge: I entirely agree, and that takes me very neatly to my next point. Promotion in the civil service is all too often about moving to a job in another area, rather than focusing on one job and seeing it through to the end. I think that the hon. Lady would agree that the worst example the Committee has seen was the attempt to implement the new FiReControl policy, for which we saw 10 senior responsible officers in a matter of five years. It is no wonder the project went horribly wrong.

I think that there is still a culture in the civil service of being hostile to outsiders, rather than embracing the talents that can be brought in from all sorts of backgrounds and experiences, which I think are often seen as a threat. When I was a Minister, I brought three incredibly talented women into the Department for Education to try to implement policies. None of them now works anywhere in Government, even though they could contribute to policy implementation.

I also think that too often the civil service and Government are—dare I say it?— exploited by consultants. My Committee will shortly be looking at the sale of Royal Mail, which might be just the last in a line of examples of that. I recognise that some steps are being taken, such as the development of the Major Projects Authority and the academy for training in project management. They are all steps in the right direction, but they are not enough and they are not happening fast enough.

Secondly, Government are just poorly organised for delivering what is wanted and needed. Government still work in silos, which always leads to unintended consequences. To take a current example, local authorities have had massive cuts, which inevitably has an impact on their social care expenditure. At the same time, we have a health policy that is trying to get people out of hospitals and into the community, but without any money to support it.

Working in silos leads to a failure to learn from mistakes, with one Department simply replicating the mistakes made by another. The Committee has seen that in the mistakes made during the early implementation of the private finance initiative, for example. If we look at how the contracts for energy have been implemented, we see that lots of those errors have been duplicated in the current contracts that have been signed by the Department of Energy and Climate Change.

There is a failure at the centre to recognise the importance of a strong centre. My Committee has just received a letter from Sir Bob Kerslake, Nicholas Macpherson

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and Richard Heaton. We had written to them about the importance of having a strong centre. I will quote a few lines from their letter:

“Your Committee urges the Cabinet Office and the Treasury to take a strong strategic lead, as the Government’s corporate centre, in civil service reform and associated issues… However, the… central direction and integration that you appear to recommend does not reflect the model that this government and previous governments have operated.”

I do not know whether that is true. I have asked the Minister whether he agrees.

The letter goes on to state that

“the Centre does not and cannot take decisions or set a strong direction on every item of the £720 billion of public expenditure… the government machine is not like a holding company dominating its subsidiaries from a corporate centre.”

Well, I do not know what business of that magnitude would not have a strong centre and would wash its hands of its responsibility for the performance of its constituent parts. Since when have we, as politicians, signed up to the mantra? It is almost like claiming that there is no such thing as Government; only Departments with their Secretaries of State. Reform, if it is to ensure that coherence, efficiency and effectiveness are delivered across Government, must mean that we have strong central direction and much better integration than we currently enjoy.

Sir Alan Beith: I agree with the point the right hon. Lady is making. It comes back to what I was saying about the role of the Prime Minister’s office, which often seems to get involved in specific policies because they are politically significant, rather than to exert the central management she describes.

Margaret Hodge: I entirely agree with that comment.

Finally, I want to talk about the conventions on responsibilities and accountabilities within the civil service and between civil servants and Ministers. The system is no longer working, and we need to rethink it. That is the extent of the complexity of the issues we are confronting. We need to deliver this in a sustainable way that will work across the political parties. The current position is frustrating for Ministers and for civil servants. We can look at the situation at the Ministry of Justice and at the Department for Work and Pensions, where I think there is a reluctance to speak truth to power, or at the Home Office, with the experience regarding the UK Borders Agency and the frustrations felt by Ministers.

As the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex said, the doctrine of ministerial accountability is constructed on a basic lie. If Ministers are to be held accountable for the work of their civil servants, it is nonsensical that they can neither hire nor fire them. If we do not challenge that basic lie, we will never achieve the effective changes that we require.

Mr Jenkin: The right hon. Lady might be surprised to know that when I addressed 200 civil servants at lunchtime today and asked how many had read the Haldane memorandum, which remains the absolute basis of the doctrine of ministerial accountability and should affect every one of their working lives, no one put their hand up. Does that not suggest that we need to rework the

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whole concept of accountability into the education of civil servants so that they understand why they are accountable?

Margaret Hodge: The hon. Gentleman has had a very telling experience, and I agree with him.

Right across today’s world, not just in Government but in every sphere of life, better accountability and more transparency should be the order of the day, and that must feed into the way that we govern ourselves and are governed. Analysing the fact that we have a problem is much easier then finding a sustainable solution over time.

In this short contribution, I have been able only to skim the surface of some very tough issues. We need a radical overhaul of how we do Government. We need cross-party co-operation if we are to make progress. We know that we have the brightest and the best working for us in Government and the civil service, and we need to work with them to ensure that between us we properly serve the people in whose name we are privileged to govern.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I appreciate that Mr Deputy Speaker advised the House that if everybody takes approximately 10 minutes for their speeches, then everyone who has indicated that they wish to speak will have an opportunity to do so. The arithmetic has changed a little since he made that pronouncement. If everybody who has indicated that they wish to speak takes approximately seven minutes, all their colleagues will have an opportunity to speak.

3.57 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): In 2010, when I accepted an invitation to join the Government of Britain, to coin a phrase, I found myself as a Minister in two Departments—the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. My experience was precisely that outlined by the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) as regards the problems of silo Departments. They were two Departments created from one, and they found it very difficult to co-operate to address holistically the problems that clearly needed to be addressed; how to tackle crime, at source, at the earliest possible stage. Just as people were trying to deal with those problems in a joined-up manner on the ground, the Departments had been split nationally.

It was a salutary experience. When I walked into the Ministry of Justice for the first time, I was shown the lifts by my private secretary. The MOJ had a more intelligent allocation of lifts than the Home Office: you indicated the floor you wanted to go to and the right lift would arrive for you. My private secretary told me that it was possible to override the programme in the event of a Division so that a lift would immediately arrive for me, the Minister. I tried this out on what I thought would be a quiet afternoon. The lift hurtled to my floor, and a sign on it said, “This lift is under ministerial control.” The doors opened, and out stepped the then Justice Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), who questioned whether the lift was indeed under his control. If so, it was about the only thing there that was under ministerial control.

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The serious point I want to make is that, just as my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) and the right hon. Member for Barking have said, although set by an historical doctrine, questions of accountability arise today. If, in the mid-19th century, a form of permanent government was effectively created, that is fine when that permanent government happens to do things in the way that accountable Ministers like and that is satisfactory, and when it happens to be performing well. The problem comes when that permanent government does not perform well. Accountability then falls on Ministers who have little ability to wrest improvements from the system.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex suggested, the failures do not need to be rehearsed. As the right hon. Member for Barking said, there have clearly been major and costly project failures. When this Government came to power, only a third of major projects were running to time and to budget, and the problems have persisted. There are issues with skills, given the commissioning failures we have seen. There is also the issue of poor financial control. It is a paradox that in our centralised state the willingness of the centre to exercise careful financial control over Departments is actually very limited. The Treasury does not wish to exercise that detailed financial management or scrutiny, and it shows. All these things often lead to poor value for money, a waste of resources and poor outcomes. It is the weakest in our society who pay the price, but we all pay a price through higher taxation. I think it is common ground that these issues need to be addressed.

Every time a Government come to power, they arrive believing that there are few problems that cannot be solved by the arrival of an enlightened Government with a different set of political objectives, and that all the problems are the fault of the outgoing Government. That was certainly the case in 1997 and in 2010, when most Ministers—my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office was one of the notable exceptions, and it shows—had little experience of government. Soon the scales drop from Ministers’ eyes as they realise that not all the problems can be laid at the political door—the door of the Opposition—and that there are systemic problems.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) said, we have an opportunity for forging a cross-party agreement about the changes that need to be made. Why? Because, for the first time since the second world war, every party has had recent experience of being in government and understands that while the political debate goes on, there are issues that we need to address. That is why I am pleased today to have launched GovernUp with the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), a non-party project with cross-party support. I am delighted that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is a member of the advisory board. The board also includes the Government’s lead non-executive director, Lord Browne; Lord Bichard, a former permanent secretary; Lord Birt and Baroness Lane-Fox—all Cross-Bench peers with important experience to bring.

Over the course of the next year the project will do important research in the areas of accountability, skills and international comparisons—work that needs to be done. It will not do that work alone, or simply be an isolated research project, but will draw on the experience

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of former Ministers, in this place and outside, and of civil servants, whom we wish to appoint to a reference panel. We have secured agreement to that proposal from the leadership of the civil service and the Minister.

That approach will be evidence-led, will involve detailed and careful research, will be open, involving outside bodies, will involve dialogue with the civil service itself and will draw on the experience of parliamentarians in both Houses. I want to suggest that that is a better approach than that of a parliamentary commission. I have grave doubts about the capability of a parliamentary commission to do what is necessary. Indeed, I think that the concept of a parliamentary commission—an old-fashioned, inquisitorial model—is entirely wrong, quite apart from the question of who would be on it. The real question is whether it is a body that looks backwards or forwards: do its members wish to be a part of it because they think that proposals for civil service reform are dangerous and wrong, or are they looking forward to addressing the challenges that face this country and the kind of system we need to develop? The danger of the commission as currently constituted, with a judge leading it, is that it would be the worst kind of backward-looking and reactionary body, so I do not support the proposal.

Although the Public Administration Committee report has some interesting content, I think it is evidence of some of the weaknesses of a parliamentary approach. After months of deliberation and evidence-taking, what is the report’s conclusion? It is that there needs to be an inquiry. Where are the detailed recommendations? Where is the detailed analysis and evidence of the kind of change we need? We have only a year left and I believe that now is the time to do the careful work.

Kelvin Hopkins: I am disappointed at the right hon. Gentleman’s criticism of the concept, but the fact is that there are enormously wide ranges of views about the civil service. A conclusion would not have been consensual: there would have been serious division among members of the Select Committee and we would have gotten nowhere. A parliamentary commission could do that job.

Nick Herbert: I find great difficulty in understanding how a cross-party Select Committee would find it impossible to come to a conclusion, but a parliamentary commission would not. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could explain that.

Mr Jenkin: Why does my right hon. Friend think that the think-tank he has set up would be any more objective than a parliamentary commission? Indeed, how would it be more objective when it has been sanctioned and approved by the Cabinet Secretary and the civil service—the very thing he seeks to reform?

Nick Herbert: I agree with the right hon. Member for Barking that we should let a thousand flowers bloom. Many will wish to do work in this area, but I doubt very much that the GovernUp initiative, which I and the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne have set up, is sanctioned by the leaders of the civil service. What I specifically said was that they had agreed that civil servants could perhaps sit on a reference panel. That does not mean that they would have control over any of the body’s work. My argument is that we now need to do the work. It is the detailed research and

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analysis that we need to do; we do not need political grandstanding or an inquisitorial approach. That is why I think that the proposed parliamentary commission would be wrong.

I believe that the narrative of Whitehall wars, whereby Ministers are at loggerheads with civil servants, is wrong and misplaced. There is plenty of evidence that civil servants themselves seek change. Indeed, the Public Administration Committee report notes that Lord O’Donnell, the previous Cabinet Secretary, said in his evidence that

“if you really want to improve public sector outcomes, I think there is a radical transformation necessary.”

It seems to me, therefore, that the question is not whether change is necessary, but what is the nature of the change and who will make the case for it? Do we have a system that is equal to the challenges facing this country, with rising demand for services, the need to adjust to further spending reductions in the next Parliament and in the future, and the fact that we face ever greater international competition? All parties need to understand that Government reform is as significant as, and essential for, public service reform. That is why this is such an important issue.

4.8 pm

Mr Nick Raynsford (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): May I at the outset draw attention to a non-pecuniary interest? I chair the Centre for Public Scrutiny. I think it is right that that should be placed on the record before I make my comments.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on securing this debate and I strongly support his Committee’s recommendation for a parliamentary commission on the civil service. I listened carefully to the views of the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert). I do not wish him ill with his initiative, but I cannot see how a think-tank set up in the spirit of letting a thousand flowers bloom will be able to produce an authoritative report that carries the weight necessary to lay the foundations for the future of our Government and civil service for decades to come. Frankly, it is a distraction. I note that the Government, in their grounds for rejecting the PASC recommendations, have said that they do not see the need for any more analysis or evidence gathering, but want action. If the Government welcome this initiative, I am not quite sure why they believe that evidence is not necessary, but are happy for this particular think-tank to gather evidence.

Few people would dispute the fact that our system of government faces huge challenges, partly because public confidence, which was badly damaged by the parliamentary expenses scandal, remains fragile, but equally because people are worried about the series of well-documented failures of the current Government and previous ones. The Chair of the Liaison Committee, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), has highlighted a couple or three examples, and Ivor Crewe and Anthony King’s book, “The Blunders of our Governments”, provides much more documentation.

All that is reflected not only in negative perceptions of the system of government, but in evidence of increased tension between Ministers and civil servants. As the PASC report demonstrates, there is too much evidence

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of a blame culture, with Ministers seeking to evade responsibility for their failings by blaming civil servants and civil servants responding by showing a less-than-eager appetite for implementing policies they believe are inept or driven by party political motivation. Those serious and corrosive problems need to be addressed and dealt with, and we must have an authoritative group of people who are genuinely seen as impartial and as seeking a serious long-term solution to the kind of tensions that, sadly, are all too rife.

We know only too well that the architecture of our system of government—based on the doctrines of civil service impartiality and ministerial accountability to Parliament—evolved in a very different world, when the scale and nature of the civil service and the responsibilities for which Ministers were held accountable were very different from today’s, and when the Government had time to reflect and discuss collectively how best to respond, rather than being driven remorselessly by the demands of 24/7 media, as they are today. All that suggests that we need a proper, strategic cross-party assessment of how those doctrines should evolve or be changed to meet today’s different circumstances. That is precisely why I strongly support the idea of a parliamentary commission.

As the proposal for a parliamentary commission has received the backing of not only the Public Administration Committee but the Liaison Committee, I am surprised that the Government are so resistant. Frankly, when I read the Government’s reasons, my surprise turns to incredulity. The Government’s alternative, which is offered as an excuse for rejecting the idea of a commission, is not just inadequate, but in some respects counter-productive. Essentially, the Government case is that their civil service reform programme is sufficient, and that a commission would effectively be a distraction.

The first problem with that analysis is that the Government’s approach is neither strategic nor coherent. It has been well described as comprising a number of disjointed initiatives, some of which might be very productive, but some of which will not. The second problem is that the Government’s response is partial, and will not generate the cross-party consensus that is vital for any truly workable reform. The third problem is that the Government’s approach totally fails to address some of the key problems underlying the current negative perceptions of the system of government.

To give just one example, in one of the most highly centralised systems of government in the world, we have a serious problem of overload on Ministers, with far too many relatively minor issues being decided by central Government, rather than devolved to the lower tiers of government that are far better placed to handle them. One consequence is that there are too many Ministers, as the PASC report points out. Against that background, it is astonishing that a Government who used to proclaim their localist credentials—I note that they are rather tarnished these days—are simply not, as part of their civil service reform agenda, considering how to reduce overload on central Government through devolving powers that are more appropriately discharged elsewhere. The bizarre consequence is that although there is a clear objective to reduce the size of the civil service, the number of Ministers is not falling and the number of special advisers is growing, contrary to what the governing parties aspired to before they came into power.

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I mentioned that some of the approaches in the Government’s civil service reform plan might be counter-productive. One example is the attempt to increase political influence over civil service appointments. I wholly concur with the views of Lord Hennessy, perhaps the foremost historian of 20th-century British government, who described the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms as

“the greatest single governing gift of the nineteenth to the twentieth century: a politically disinterested and permanent Civil Service with core values of integrity, propriety, objectivity and appointment on merit, able to transfer its loyalty and expertise from one elected government to the next”.

By contrast, the viability of the permanent civil service has now been called into question, against the background of an extraordinarily high turnover of permanent secretaries and the hollowing out of expertise from several Departments, which threatens their collective memory and experience, and leaves them increasingly dependent on external sources of advice, many of which will have partial, if not party political, agendas.

I have absolutely no doubt that the problems that afflict our system of government, which undermine trust between civil servants and Ministers, which contribute to ill-thought-out and poorly implemented policies and which leave the public increasingly sceptical about our ability to give them the good governance that they rightly expect, will persist and will not be remedied by the Government’s reform programme or the proposed think-tank. Some day—I hope that it is not too far away—Parliament will have to flex its muscles and insist on a full cross-party parliamentary commission to address the issue properly.

Several hon. Members rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs Eleanor Laing): Order. I have tried the polite and honourable approach, but it has not worked, so I have to impose a formal time limit of five minutes.

4.16 pm

Angie Bray (Ealing Central and Acton) (Con): The civil service is a critical national institution and part of the very fabric of politics. Since the 19th century, our administrative system has been based on the model of a politically impartial bureaucracy that serves the political masters of the day. One hundred and fifty years since Northcote and Trevelyan’s report, it is our duty to question whether the system is fit to meet the challenges of the 21st century. For that reason, I welcome the chance to debate the question of civil service reform and to put on the record my support for the Government’s programme, which was launched one and three quarter years ago.

I was the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General when the Government’s programme was formulated. It was painstakingly and carefully developed through consultation with civil servants, including the current leadership of the civil service. Sir Bob Kerslake and Sir Jeremy Heywood approved every line of the reform plan, and the actions were drawn from suggestions made by civil servants, from permanent secretaries right down the hierarchy.

I speak as a Back Bencher with no huge experience of governance, other than in my former role as a PPS, but my overriding sense is that we need to get on with the reforms because they are badly needed. Many of us

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have understandably been appalled by failures such as that over the west coast main line franchise. It is clear that there are serious lessons to be learned. The Government must drive ahead with their programme to improve the commercial and contract management skills of the civil service. We also need to improve the way in which major projects are delivered. The appointment of John Manzoni, formerly of BP, is a significant boost to the Government’s Major Projects Authority. Taxpayers expect every pound that is spent on such projects to be carefully checked and managed. The Government must therefore push ahead with their reforms to ensure that projects are scrutinised properly.

As the Minister reported in June last year, the Government have not yet achieved the reforms that they want, but a great deal has been done in some areas. Anyone who has accessed the Government’s new website will have been impressed by this country’s online offering. The programme to move 25 key public services online will make a material difference to my constituents when they apply for a new driving licence or an apprenticeship.

One key proposal in the reforms is that Ministers should have a greater say over the appointments of the most senior civil servants in their Departments. Surely, it is not unreasonable and is, indeed, sensible that there should be some ministerial choice over the people who play such a key role. I am aware that the concern has been expressed that such a change would or could lead to the politicisation of the civil service. I think that such worries are misplaced. As I understand it, the proposal is that all candidates will have to convince an independent panel that they have the requisite merit for the role. The panel, which will be overseen by the Civil Service Commission, will ensure that politics plays no part in their selection for consideration.

This modest change will instead ensure that the most senior civil servants are in tune with the agreed policies of their Department, as well as with the direction of travel towards achieving the desired outcome and with policy implementation. I understand that. My time working with the Cabinet Office demonstrated how important it is that Ministers and their civil servants work together.

We have heard proposals for this place to support a parliamentary commission on the future of the civil service. At one level I thoroughly understand the desire to have another look at things, but Ministers and officials are not short of advice on how to reform Whitehall. There are endless reports—some more radical, some less radical—all advocating different elements of reform: historians, political scientists, Select Committees, august think-tanks, retired permanent secretaries, former Ministers, and a host of other pundits have thrown their suggestions into the mix. The danger is not a lack of advice but rather an excess, and as I have made clear, the Government’s reform plan drew heavily on suggestions from civil servants about how best to change things.

Without doubt, a parliamentary commission would delay the Government’s reforms. Indeed, the commission is a suggestion of which Sir Humphrey himself would have been proud. I urge the Government to press ahead with their important programme.

4.20 pm

John Healey (Wentworth and Dearne) (Lab): It is good to follow the hon. Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Angie Bray). I welcome this debate on the reform of the civil service, and congratulate the

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hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) on securing it. I do not think, however, that his proposal for a parliamentary commission at this stage of the Parliament is the answer, and had the House debated that proposal 12 months after the previous election, rather than 12 months before the next one, the case might have been stronger. I did agree with the hon. Gentleman when he said that there is more on which we agree than disagree, and this is a unique opportunity for us to start to forge a strong, cross-party consensus on the analysis of the problems, and the conclusions about changes that must be made to our system of British government if we are to do right by British taxpayers and those who depend on services.

In some ways, and for several reasons, I feel pretty confident about that. First, I was struck by the Minister for the Cabinet Office’s recent description of the civil service leadership as having a “bias to inertia”. I am not prone to quoting Tony Blair, but that echoed a comment he made in his book when he stated:

“As I discovered early on, the problem with the traditional Civil Service was not obstruction but inertia.”

The second reason for being confident about the potential for a cross-party, wider consensus is that excellent work has been done by think-tanks such as the Institute for Government, the Institute for Public Policy Research, the First Division Association, and the Public Administration Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex. A lot of that tends to be about the nitty-gritty weaknesses of government—the wiring, perhaps—and there is need for a much bigger view. Thirdly, for the first time since the second world war, all three major parties include people with recent or current experience of government, and all are looking forward to a closely contested election next May. We therefore have the potential and a unique opportunity to forge a consensus on how and why we need to change the civil service.

Despite its strengths, the civil service is still designed and run principally on a system that was established in the mid-1850s, but it is now simply not equal to the task given the changes and challenges of a modern society. In the time available I will mention four dimensions to the debate that I think are overlooked, but that I consider to be central. First, we cannot talk sensibly about civil service reform—or the civil service at all—without recognising the distinctions between policy and delivery staff, and between the 20,000 core policy officials or the 50,000 Whitehall-based staff, and more than 300,000 people who work in agencies and bodies, often outside London. Secondly, we cannot talk sensibly about better government if we look only at the civil service, because the questions are just as much about politicians as they are about civil servants: the capacity and culture of Ministers, the role of advisers, the adequacy of parliamentary scrutiny, the tyranny of short-termism, and 24-hour media.

I know when I was at my best as a Minister and when I was at my worst. When I was at my best I had a complex but clearly defined challenge. I had authority from the top to lead, including across Departments, and I had a team of good civil servants, some of whom were policy and some of whom were operations. I was at my worst when I came into sub-committees of the Cabinet with my lines to take from the Department and very little preparation or knowledge beforehand.

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Thirdly, we cannot talk sensibly about a modern system of government if we do not get to grips with what the powers, roles and responsibilities should be at the centre, and what would work much better locally. Fourthly, we cannot talk sensibly about civil service reform if we do not have an accurate appreciation of civil service staff. It is not just their commitment to public service and the values of integrity and incorruptibility. There are only 1,900 fast streamers out of more than 400,000 civil servants. This time last year there were only 3,695 senior civil servants, yet still they do a dedicated, committed job with a strong sense of public service.

I was proud that one of the first reforms of the previous Labour Government was to reintroduce trade union rights at GCHQ. Trade unions have a part to play, speaking up on behalf of staff and offering views on the sort of change we need in the civil service, just as they do in many of Britain’s best and leading companies.

4.26 pm

Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock) (Con): We in this House can make whatever decisions we like, but unless the machinery of government is fit for purpose we will not achieve the policy outcomes we desire and we will not achieve value for money for the taxpayer. It is therefore very important that we come together and debate the future of the civil service to ensure that our machinery of government is fit for purpose in the 21st century.

I pay tribute to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude). He is delivering a quiet revolution and is one of the unsung heroes of the Government. Dare I suggest that the kind of the leadership we are getting from the top of Government in driving change is far more effective than any initiative, such as a commission, think-tank or anything else? He is driving change from the top and showing real leadership.

As the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) told us, we on the Public Accounts Committee are witnesses to, and becoming experts in, government failure. It is a bit like “Groundhog Day”: over and again we see the same reasons for that failure. She has described some of those reasons today: poor skills and a failure to have consistent management and senior responsible owners who see projects through from start to finish. We need real accountability in the system. The Committee found that only a third of big projects are delivered on time and to budget. We see the same failings over and again, and there is no excuse for that. The machinery of government should learn from what works and what does not.

I welcome the introduction of the Major Projects Authority. It has started to do a good job to improve performance, but I think it could a lot more. I have a plea for my right hon. Friend the Minister: we would like see another performance review of major projects and I would like it to be as candid as possible. Departments need to be put on notice when they fail to deliver what the Government expect of them. In particular, I would like to know what is happening to deliver items in the national infrastructure plan. The Major Projects Authority can play a positive role in holding Departments to account for delivery.