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I want to concentrate on the broad principles of this issue. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, made some very interesting and challenging points, which were followed up in the debate, and I shall seek to reply to those in a moment. Possibly the most interesting thing that he said was that he was not addressing this debate to the Government, on whom he has long since given up, but to some futureI know not whenConservative Government. If he was looking to his Front Bench to provide a constructive stance on IT, he must surely feel that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, has singularly failed him.
The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, accurately identified some challenging IT issues, and I am the first to recognise that we have areas of difficulty as well as areas of conspicuous success. The House will not be surprised if, in the short time available to me, I comment on some of those areas of success, if only to right the balance of the debate as a whole. However, I do not think that the noble Lord identified an alternative strategy to that of the Government to improve the situation.
We do not think of projects as IT projects. We see the extensive use of systems and technology as being of huge advantage to government, but the technology
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However, I want to emphasise that the complexity of change is now on an unparalleled scale. It is suggested that the Government should be less ambitious, but how, without being ambitious, can the Government serve the public in a modern age with their ever-increasing demands for information and for government to interact with them on a prompt and proper basis? That is why we have introduced a range of systems which bring significant advantages to our nation.
By the same token, such schemes will not produce value overnight. I was not at all surprised, and nor will the House be, that, despite criticism of National Health Service projects, my noble friend Lord Warner immediately identified how the NHS Connecting for Health project has considerably improved the service that we offer the community. He was well aware that, if no one else did, the noble Earl, Lord Howe, would draw attention to some of the problems. We are still in the early days of the project and, as the noble Earl, Lord Howe, noted, it will take years before such a development meets his demands in full. However, unless we lay the ground at this stage and unless we are indeed ambitious with regard to IT, we will not get the delivery that is possible.
It is startling that more than 50 per cent of the NHS has gone from wet-film X-ray images to digital technology in just three years. That is saving lives and money and improving the satisfaction of dedicated health professionals. In many parts of the country, patients no longer need to visit their GPs to collect repeat prescriptions. They can have them sent electronically to their chosen pharmacy, and already 10 per cent of new prescriptions are delivered in this way. Of course, 10 per cent is not 100 per cent, so it can be looked on as a 90 per cent failure. That is merely a reflection of the obvious fact that it takes time for all the local inputs, such as the GP and pharmacist, to be brought into the system. My noble friend Lord Warner largely spoke on the health service and covered areas that I would otherwise have needed to cover. It represents a conspicuous advance, greatly valued by the public, and an indication of how we need to be ambitious. But we also recognise that we will always be open to the charge that, in the short term, we are falling short of the ultimate goal established for such programmes. For instance, citizens can now obtain their passport in four hours for urgent over-the-counter applications, and 99 per cent of passport applications are completed within 10 days. There is not a single Member of this House who cannot recall a time when we have renewed our passports in rather more arduous circumstances. It is another product of IT services and change which brings real advantages to our communities.
The Government produced the Transformational Government strategy in November 2005 and set outcontrary to what has been contended on the
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I accept the point that my noble friend Lord Mitchell made in his extremely perceptive contribution, which was also emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, who introduced the concept at the beginning of the debate. There is a necessary skills gap which needs closing. The Civil Service was not equipped to deal with the programmes we are introducing, and there is a necessity for enhanced skilling. Several contributors to the debate suggested that the problem was the transition of civil servants who could not see projects through because they were not in post long enough. The aimand, increasingly, the practiceis now that senior civil servants concerned with these projects are in post for at least four years. It may again be that that is suggested as a limited time against the bedding down of such projects, but I emphasise that the Government are fully cognisant of the necessity for the right skills and experience, that they are built over time and that people must stay in post to see projects through and be answerable.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, is right when she says that Ministers are responsible. Of course they are responsible, both for the development of policy and its implementation. She will know that when things go seriously wrong, Ministers must quite properly answer for that. However, within this framework, there are bound to be difficulties as the Government struggleas do private corporations and companieswith the demands of implementing new technology against a background of a limited level of available skills within the community. They are much in demand. That means that, as time goes on, we get greater security of the efficiency of government provision because we have the right number of people within the departments to ensure that it takes place.
Within that framework, I recognise that there have been problems in the past. Particular problems have been identified with procurement issues, a point emphasised by my noble friend Lord Mitchell. We accept that on some contracts it would be unwise and unsafe to position a small group to take the lead on a large government project. That is why when we call in support we need to call it in from organisations that have large resources because such projects can be beyond the capacity of a small organisation to deliver. A balance has to be struck on contracts. We wish to drive value for money, quality and delivery but government and government services serve the people and the important thing is that people can relate effectively to the service being provided.
I was challenged particularly strongly by almost every speaker about the advantages of greater openness in the process of implementing technology. I recognise that we will be successful with the citizen
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In one area, I shall disappoint nearly everyone who spoke in the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Lucas, addressed a question directly to me and I shall answer it as best I can. He said that there would be great advantage if there were greater transparency through the publication of gateway reviews. The gateway process has helped to achieve more than £2.5 billion in value-for-money savings. In the Governments view, disclosure would seriously undermine the effectiveness of the gateway process, as confidentiality is essential to the whole process. The process is a crucial management tool to improve the success of the Governments projects and programmes. In our view, it is just not in the public interest to put that effectiveness at risk by disclosing the information in the two reports in this case. I recognise that that will disappoint the House. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, is always assertive about the necessity for open government. He also raised the issue and I know he will be disappointed by the response. However, a balance has to be struck between the undoubted merits of openness about the Governments actions and areas such as this where very delicate confidentiality issues are involved.
We undoubtedly have to recognise weaknesses in IT implementation and provision, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, mentioned the Rural Payments Agency. As she will know, that weakness has been fully recognised by those speaking from this Dispatch Box. However, the public sector performs some of the most demanding tasks in the world. Europe and the UK can learn much from the private sector about how to respond quickly to consumers needs. We are all aware that the very best private organisations can pride themselves on how quickly and effectively they respond to consumers needs. Government is, however, a good deal more complex than much of the private provision. We have seen that in todays debatewhich has focused on education, the Home Office, police, agriculture and, particularly intensively, the National Health Service. Scarcely any area of government has not been covered. That is a greater range of issues than the private sector has to address. Therefore, there will of course be illustrations of weaknesses. However, IT introduction is not an untrammelled success story in other organisations either.
We ought to recognise that we are still at the beginning of what the Government regard as their transformational strategy. We recognise that we have a great deal more to domore on using ICT to improve public services, more on improving the value we create for the investment that we make and more on improving the success rate of our business change programmes.
The IT profession within the public sector now comprises an estimated 50,000 dedicated individuals. Every day, their dedication and hard work supports those who keep the traffic flowing, ensure that benefits are being paid, save lives, educate our children and prevent crime. These services are vital
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In most cases, those occur at the origins of a successful IT introduction. The message that things will inevitably get better and improve tomorrow is not necessarily or automatically welcome, because the evidence shows some difficulties. But in processes of this kind, it is in the very nature of things that the early days will be attended with acute problems. The Government are committed to a strategy and already have successes to their name. We are prepared to provide the resources and manpower to guarantee that we reap the rewards of the investment. I give way to the noble Baroness.
Baroness Byford: My Lords, I tried to intervene a minute ago but was slightly frowned upon. The Minister indicated that problems happen also in the private sector. But it is no use apologising when we know that the mistakes made with the RPA in 2005 will not be rectified until 2008. Surely that is unacceptable.
Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we are hoping to reach a very high correction rate of such situations this year. But the noble Baroness is right: absolute achievement with regard to such a significant failure cannot be done overnight. Is that surprising? We are addressing a very large number of difficult issues concerning the RPA. As the House will recognise, it produced an unparalleled response by Ministers not happily matched in any other government departmentwho recognised an acute and substantial mistake. We should not look on that as illustrative of the future. We should look on it as a case in which the Government learnt a lesson from the mistakes. I have indicated areas of conspicuous success which point to successful implementation of IT in government. That is what I think this debate sought to identify.
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I was confident that I would learn a great deal from this debate and I was right. I was equally confident that the Government would learn nothing, and I was right. I remain confident that my honourable and right honourable friends will learn a great deal from it, and I trust that my noble friend on the Front Bench will make sure that I am right on that too.
I do not want to part on a sour note with the Minister. I can offer him some good news. He will have been wondering which Liberal Democrat Peer has been offered his job. I can assure him, and I have it on the best authority, that it was not the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. So he can cross her off the list. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion for Papers.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.
Read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.
Lord Davies of Oldham rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 18 December 2006 be approved.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Government believe that the public sector ombudsmenthe Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Health Service Ombudsman and the Local Government Ombudsmanplay an important role in contributing to the development and improvement of public services. The Government recognise that in order to investigate complaints as effectively and efficiently as possible, the ombudsmen would benefit from the removal of certain restrictions on their existing powers and working practices to enable them to provide a more efficient and streamlined service to the citizen.
Therefore, the Government have worked closely with the ombudsmen to develop the proposed reforms set out in the draft order. The order would amend provisions in the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967, the Local Government Act 1974 and the Health Service Commissioners Act 1993 to enable the ombudsmen to work together more effectively and efficiently.
Principally, the proposed reforms will enable the three ombudsmen to work collaboratively, including consulting each other, sharing information and working together on cases and issues that are relevant to more than one of their individual jurisdictions. The reforms would also enable them to appoint and pay a mediator or other appropriate person to assist them with any complaint that they are investigating.
The Cabinet Office consulted widely on the proposals, including the bodies within the ombudsmens jurisdictions and key stakeholders and interest groups. There was broad support for the proposed reforms from the people we consulted.
I will briefly run through the detail of the order. Articles 2, 4 and 6 would add new sections to all three Acts to enable the ombudsmen to conduct joint investigations with one another where a complaint relates to more than one of their individual jurisdictions, and enable them to make joint reports. Articles 3, 5, and 7 would amend all three Acts to enable the ombudsmen to delegate their functions to each others staff, if required, to support work on joint investigations.
Articles 8, 10 and 11 would amend all three Acts to enable the ombudsmen to share information with each other in appropriate cases outside the course of their own investigation. Articles 12, 13 and 14 would amend all three Acts to enable the ombudsmen to
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Article 15 would amend the 1974 Act to enable the Local Government Ombudsman to investigate a complaint that had not previously been notified to the authority concerned. That provision would be used only in the very small number of cases where the Local Government Ombudsman is convinced that no benefit would be achieved in requiring that the case be considered first by the relevant authority.
Finally, Article 9 would make a technical amendment to the 1974 Act in respect of the law of defamation.
I thank noble Lords who are members of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee for their work in scrutinising the draft order. The committee considers that the order meets the requirements of the Regulatory Reform Act 2001 and recommends that it is appropriate for it to be made under that Act.
Implementation of the proposed reforms would result in a more modern and accessible service for complainants. The reforms would create more streamlined and efficient complaints-handling processes for the public, for bodies within the ombudsmens jurisdictions and for the ombudsmens staff. The reforms are also an important element of the Governments wider public service reform programme, which aims to ensure that public services are able to respond to the challenges and demands of todays society by redesigning and refocusing services around the requirements of their users. I beg to move.
Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 18 December 2006 be approved. 10th Report from the Regulatory Reform Committee.(Lord Davies of Oldham.)
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, as the Minister may know, I have a particular interest in the subject matter of the order because I have introduced several Private Members' Bills, each designed to secure a direct right of public access to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, as is the case with all other parliamentary ombudsmen in all other jurisdictions, Commonwealth or European. On each occasion, I have been told to wait until there are wider reforms. This is a very sensible order that no sane person would oppose, because it is a very good idea to enable the Parliamentary Ombudsman, the Local Government Ombudsman and the Health Service Ombudsman to work together collaboratively.
The very helpful Cabinet Office note accompanying the order refers to the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the other place. In paragraph 9, we are helpfully told:
As permitted by its Standing Orders ... the House of Commons Committee also commented in its report on a further matter that arose in their consideration of the proposal. As part of its detailed scrutiny, the Committee noted that the retention of the MP filter system, whereby complaints could only be referred to the Parliamentary Ombudsman via a Member of Parliament, was criticised by a number of respondents to the consultation.
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In the light of that, I have two questions for the Minister, and would be grateful for some information. First, I take it from the above that the House of Commons committee approached the Cabinet Office because it wanted to see some form of the present system in operationthere are ways of doing thisto ensure that the public had a more direct form of public access. The problem was that, even though that was its view, it was persuaded, for reasons that I understand, that this could be dealt with only through primary legislation. Is that the position, and is that why it approached the Cabinet Office? If so, I greatly welcome that.
Secondly, this anomaly has lasted since 1967, and successive Parliamentary Ombudsmen have drawn attention to it again and again as they have sought to be freed from this unnecessary restraint on access to them. This has resulted in far fewer matters of maladministration going to our Parliamentary Ombudsman than to any other, even in Ireland, which has a small population. Is there any hope at all that this reforming Government will make time for primary legislation so that this anomaly can be dealt with? I ask because, otherwise, I may be left in the unfortunate position of boring the House yet again with yet another Private Members Bill. I would rather derive some comfort from the Minister.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I have supported my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill on other occasions in his quest. He has expressed his case today with his usual clarity and force. I have another question today, which is asked more for information than for anything else. The existing arrangements under the respective Acts allow the appointment of a mediator to assist in finding a resolution to a complaint. So far as I understand it, the provisions of the order, which I regard as immensely sensible, give the ombudsman the power to pay the fees for such a person. I am anxious to learnif the Minister is not briefed to reply on this point, I will be happy to hear from him subsequentlywhether the mediators power, which may deal with the immediate issue of complaint, is terminal of the requirement on the ombudsman to report. There is often wider public interest in an investigation conducted by an ombudsman than in the complaint alone. It is therefore of interest to know what the consequences are. If the mediator is simply appointed to resolve a dispute, could he or she draw a line under the issue without full disclosure of his or her attitude to the circumstances that have given rise to the complaint? That would be unfortunate, but the different ombudsmen may already be considering it and the view may be taken that this is entirely a matter for their discretion.
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