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Citizens Charter

Volume 227: debated on Monday 28 June 1993

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32.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what is the total number of civil servants engaged in activities subject to citizens charters.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science
(Mr. David Davis)

The charter approach is integral to the delivery of public services. Many civil and other public servants are now involved with the charter programme as part of their normal duties. The citizens charter unit in the Cabinet Office has 32 staff.

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Is he, perhaps like me, concerned that our business community will soon need its own charter to protect it from the growth in the inspectorates that are now visiting it almost daily: environmental health inspectors, agricultural inspectors, safety at work inspectors and weights and measures inspectors—you name it, there is an inspector for it? Does he agree that it is very important that we as a Government, and he as a Minister, keep an eye on the growth of that sector of the civil service, because otherwise we shall kill the goose that lays the golden egg?

I agree entirely about the need to reduce the regulatory burden, especially on small companies. The citizens charter and deregulation go hand in hand; they are not alternatives. They are both about providing a better quality of service to users and improving efficiency. I agree with my hon. Friend that we must ensure that unnecessary regulation is avoided and that new regulations are not excessively onerous for the business community. In that context, it is no coincidence that the policy to deregulate London Buses was mentioned in the citizens charter White Paper.

Instead of wasting civil servants' time on these useless public relations exercises that are called charters, why does not the Minister do something sensible for a change and transfer civil servants to the disability living allowance unit at Blackpool, where applications for mobility allowance and attendance allowance are still weeks behind? People are living in great difficulty because of the delays, which result from the Government not providing enough civil servants for the job.

That is an extraordinary statement. The hon. Gentleman should have read the ombudsman's report on the disability living allowance, in which he identified the charter as a very important tool in achieving better terms, improvements and recompense for people who had suffered under the scheme.

33.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster how much has been expended on citizens charters since their inception.

The charter applies to all public services, which is reflected in their individual expenditure programmes. Centrally, the charter unit spent£1·6 million in 1991–92 and£2·14 million in 1992–93.

Would I be right to assume that the global figure is much more than£2·14 million? An extraordinarily large amount of taxpayers' money is being wasted on what most people regard as nothing more than propaganda puffs to give the appearance that the Government are actually doing something, when we know they are incapable of doing anything. These charters are a joke—a very expensive joke. It is little surprise that they give most people the impression that the country is being run by a bunch of train spotters.

Perhaps that would be better than being run by the panel game on which the hon. Member excels. All public services should give clear information to the people who use them. That is a proper use of the resources that are voted by the House for public service. I find it extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman, with his background, does not understand that it is an essential part of public service to let people know what their rights are.

34.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what representations he has received about complaints procedures in the public services as part of the citizens charter; and if he will make a statement.

I announced the citizens charter complaints task force on 10 June. As part of its work, it will be seeking the views of public service and other organisations and, of course, those of members of the public.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Is he aware that many people still find it a bureaucratic nightmare to make a complaint to and about a public sector organisation? Can he assure me that the complaints task force will draw up a set of principles to make it easier to make a complaint and to encourage public service organisations to treat complaints more positively and as a means of ensuring their own effectiveness?

I am happy to give my hon. Friend just such an assurance. He is right to state that complaints systems must be easy to use and that complaints must be responded to by the people who operate those systems. I cite an example: just such an attitude is engendered in the Department of Social Security's OTIS system. It stands for "opportunity to improve service", and the evidence so far is that improving services is exactly what it has done, precisely because it is simple and quick and enables the service to analyse complaints and to respond to them effectively and speedily.

May I refer the Minister to a complaint that I received About the Cheshire family health services authority, which gave some of my constituents five days' notice that their doctor's surgery was about to close? I checked the citizens charter, which states that patients have a right to be-consulted about their services, but when I checked with the family health services authority, I found that there was no law to ensure that they were. The Cheshire family health services authority closed the surgery regardless of the views of my constituents. Will the Minister take on board my ten-minute Bill, which would amend the law to ensure that in future patients are consulted about doctors' surgeries and the services that they receive?

Naturally, I should be happy to consider the matter if the hon. Gentleman would write to me or give me some notice, rather than bouncing it and trying to score political points. If he cares to write to me, I shall deal with the matter.

35.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster which other Governments have contacted his Department for information about the implementation of the citizens charter.

At least 15 other Governments have been in contact with me or my Department to find out more about the citizens charter. Last year's service to the citizen conference attracted delegates from 21 countries, and we expect that the next event will attract even more.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he confirm that among the 15 are the new French Government, who are committed to introducing a form of citizens charter? Does not the international interest prove that, just as Britain led the world in introducing private enterprise into tired and inefficient nationalised industries in the 1980s to make them more competitive, Britain is again leading the world in the 1990s by dispelling the myth that the only way to improve the efficiency of public services is by throwing more money at them?

The previous French socialist Government sent a speaker to our conference last year, and I am happy to say that the new French Government retain that interest. Throughout the world, Governments across the political spectrum are having to reassess the way in which public services are run so that people's legitimately higher expectations can be met against the background of very tough resource decisions. Everyone faces the same issues.