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Volume 181: debated on Monday 26 November 1990

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To ask the Minister for the Civil Service what further progress has been made towards the creation of agencies.

Since I last reported to the House, the Government have published the first annual review of "next steps" agencies and the Government's response to the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee's third and very helpful report on "next steps".

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that he will continue the sensible policy of his predecessor in making a top priority in the creation of any new agencies improved services to the general public, particularly as it is the general public who fund them?

Just because it is not well known, people should not overlook the significance of the "next steps" development, which I have reason to hope is a bipartisan policy and not a matter of political controversy. It affects organisational changes, not as ends in themselves, but towards better services to the public and better working conditions for people within the service, for whom the agency framework offers a much better quality of working life. We shall certainly proceed with that. We are determined to achieve our ambition of half the civil service being in "next steps" agencies by the end of 1991.

Whether the establishment of these agencies is a bipartisan policy depends on what the Government do. The Minister is certainly right that many things are not well known. It is important that standards of quality and service to the public are part of any agency programme. They must not fall below levels determined by the Minister. Can the Minister be helpful and make these things better known? Can he put them together and make all these standards of service available to the public in an effort to achieve greater awareness?

That is a most helpful and constructive point. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the key basis for the agency relationship is that accountability to Ministers and Parliament is not lost. There is firm agreement between Ministers and the agencies about what should be achieved and about setting standards. The payment of performance-related pay to the heads of the agencies depends on their ability to deliver on those. That is of the essence and creates an incentive towards good and effective service, which may have been absent previously. I should be only too happy to consider the hon. Gentleman's remarks sympathetically. I am grateful to him for making it clear that this positive framework for change in the civil service is something in which he and his hon. Friends are happy to be involved.

Can my right hon. and learned Friend go one step further and say what financial and manpower savings, if any, are achieved by the agencification process rather than the current system?

The principal aim is efficiency in the service to the public. In some circumstances that may yield savings; in others, it would not. I shall be only too happy to let my hon. Friend know, from the records that we have, what the effect has been so far.