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Duchy Of Lancaster

Volume 227: debated on Monday 28 June 1993

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Market Testing

31.

To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer what comparisons he has made between the costs arising from the implementation of market testing over each of the last two years and the savings arising therefrom.

Annual returns from Departments indicate that in previous years savings arising from market testing have typically been around 25 per cent. of the original cost, even when the activity has remained in-house.

I shall report on the costs and savings arising in the current period, which runs until September 1993, as soon as possible after that date.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his helpful answer. Does he not think it extraordinary that although certain Labour-controlled councils take on competitive tendering with great gusto, which results in enormous savings, the Opposition Front Bench has no enthusiasm whatsoever for market testing?

My hon. Friend is right. Labour authorities thoughout the country have found, after resisting a great deal at the beginning, that there is great benefit for their local taxpayers and for those who use local services in buying in services that can better be provided by the private sector.

Does the right hon. Gentleman intend to market test the jobs of grades 1, 2, 3 and 4 civil servants, or is market testing a mandarin-free zone?

I look forward to discussing those matters with the hon. Gentleman in the Select Committee. No one knows better than the hon. Gentleman that an increasing number of grade 1 and 2 jobs have been put out to open tender. We have thrown it open to competition. Two people, of permanent secretary rank, have come in by that route.

Could my right hon. Friend extend market testing to ensure that when civil service jobs are about to be moved from one constituency to another area, the civil servants who are doing those jobs are given the opportunity to bid for them under private management?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting and constructive point. It is part of the policy that we should enable civil servants to show, as they often can, that they can do the jobs very well, both by management buy-outs, which sometimes they have achieved, or by straight in-house bids, and sometimes by transferring successfully—as, for example, at Devonport dockyard—to private sector contractors and working very well with those private sector employers.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has announced that he believes that there is a cost saving of about 25 per cent. in the civil service as a result of market testing. Can he confirm that there is no evidence to suggest that that 25 per cent. cost saving is the result of internal efficiency—as would be the case with many Labour local authorities, if they were allowed to make the decision at local level, as opposed to being dictated to by central Government at Westminster—but that it is solely as a result of cutting wages and changing the terms and conditions of civil servants? That is the result of the right hon. Gentleman's market testing. There has been no increase in the quality of service.

I think that the hon. Lady has got her brief back to front. The wages issue is normally raised by local authorities. Labour local authorities have got used to compulsory competitive tendering. can give the hon. Lady one example. It happens to be the latest. RAF Finningly has stated that it expects to achieve savings of£3·5 million in the first year, 1993, and£29 million over 10 years through efficiency savings, including market testing of the technical maintenance of aircraft. That represents between 20 and 25 per cent., which is exactly the point that the hon. Lady does not understand. She will find that it has nothing to do with pay. It is the result of greater efficiency in the organisation of the function.

Citizens Charter

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.

Technology Transfer

36.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what specific measures he will take under the Technology Foresight programme to increase technology transfer.

The Technology Foresight programme will promote technology transfer through a new partnership between science and industry. Improvements in working relationships between academics and industrialists have been a major feature of foresight processes overseas. This programme will help the Government to determine their own priorities for spending on science and technology.

I think that the Minister would agree that the Technology Foresight programme looks constructive on paper, but that, as in science itself, translation from theory into practice is not always easy and requires resources and imagination. In view of the transfer of responsibility from the Department of Trade and Industry to the Office of Science and Technology, can the right hon. Gentleman assure me that funds have followed the transfer and that he has the necessary funds to launch and promote the programme? What measures has he taken to encourage to join his steering committee people with the creativity, imagination and commitment to ensure that the programme translates from theory into practice?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very fair point. It is perfectly easy to describe the process, but what really matters is to get it established well and working well. My Department is now involved in a series of regional visits across the country, discussing how best to take forward the programme—officials have doubtless been to Leeds to discuss it with the relevant players there. It is essential that we have the involvement of those working at the laboratory bench and those in industry who really understand markets.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the more industry is involved in the Technology Foresight programme, the more likely it is that industry will pick up the fruits of that programme and carry them through to the marketplace?

My hon. Friend makes an essential point. The Technology Foresight programme here must be like the successful programmes abroad and not be dominated by Whitehall; it must be led by practitioners in the field including scientists, engineers and industrialists. We at the centre should simply be the secretariat for the process. That is the intention.

Citizens Charters

37.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what plans he has to introduce further charters during 1993; and if he will make a statement.

Thirty-two charters have been produced so far. New charters during 1993 will include the further and higher education charters. In addition, the Benefits Agency charter and parents charter will be updated and improved.

I particularly welcome the further and higher education charters. May I ask for more action on schools charters and particularly the publication of league tables for school attendance, allowing for a proper value added section? Is not it legitimate and right that parents should know which schools achieve high attendance? Is not the charter a good way of achieving that? In my right hon. Friend's opinion, why does the Labour party oppose providing information about schools? The Labour party does not care about parents' right to know.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. The proposal to produce league tables will be one of the motivating forces for improving our education service. That is true whether it relates to educational achievement in its academic sense or to truancy. In respect of the latter point, I note that a report was published today which is very helpful.

With regard to my hon. Friend's point about value added tables, of course we believe that they would be the best kind of tables to have. However, as my hon. Friend will understand, it will take time to develop a database for those tables to work. In the meantime, we see absolutely no reason to deny parents the kind of information that would allow them to take the proper action in the best interests of their children's education.

Will the further and higher education charters include the right for students to claim housing benefit and income support during summer recesses? Some of my constituents will have less than£5 a week to live on this summer after they have paid their rent during the college recess. That is an unacceptable imposition of poverty on our youth and on the development of their educational potential in respect of industry. If the further and higher education charters are to mean something, there must be a right of access to housing benefit and income support for students when they are not at college.

Absolutely not. Housing benefit and income support are designed for people who need them because they are in poverty or in poor circumstances of one kind or another. They are not designed as a giveaway for students in our society. I believe that it is a very bad idea to start young people off on a dependent mode as they begin their careers.

Science And Engineering (Wales)

38.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he last visited Wales to discuss science and engineering issues; and if he will make a statement.

I discussed science and technology issues when I replied to the excellent debate at the Welsh Conservative party conference on 12 June.

I thank my right hon. Friend for corning to Wales to make the first speech on science and engineering at a party conference for many years. Does not that reflect the importance that the Government attach to science and engineering—unlike the Labour party, which attaches very little importance to that subject?

I note that the Welsh Conservative party lead on that matter as, doubtless, it leads on others. I also note that there is no proper spokesman for science and engineering in the shadow Cabinet and that is a matter of regret. I also note that in Wales there are major developments in this area. For example, the Agricultural and Food Research Council is now concentrating most of its work on grassland research in Wales and that is quite proper.

Investors And Risk Takers

38.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what intitiatives his Department has taken to encourage the investors, entrepreneurs and risk takers of the United Kingdom to produce scientific products for the world market.

Partnership for the creating of wealth lies at the heart of the White Paper on science, engineering and technology. As markers of that—there are too many aspects to go through in one question—each research council will have a mission statement that reflects that aim, and the Technology Foresight exercise will be identifying generic aspects of technology and research that are most useful for the United Kingdom's industrial base, a policy which has already proved to be successful in Japan. In support of that, the Department of Trade and Industry's innovation budget to assist small business will be increased by 15 per cent. this year.

Is my hon. Friend aware that trade and industry are delighted with the emphasis that the Government are now placing on the research councils' drive for wealth creation? That is just what industry and commerce want, and it is just what the doctor ordered.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is supported by several people, not least Richard Freeman, ICI's chief economist, who, referring to science and technology, said:

"A central feature of the White Paper is the commitment to the greater focus of S&T policy on United Kingdom competitiveness and wealth creation. Within more explicit guidelines … research is to have regard to its relevance and potential for appropriation by industry and other users. These are changes to be greatly welcomed."
I agree with him entirely.

Rolls-Royce

40.

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what discussions he has had with the chairman of Rolls-Royce about his White Paper on science, engineering and technology.

I expect to meet Sir Ralph Robins next month and I am looking forward to discussing the White Paper with him. I was greatly encouraged by the letter from him and 12 other senior industrialists in The Times on 1 June welcoming the White Paper.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Sir Ralph Robins letter was also signed by the chief executives of Glaxo, British Aerospace and many others? Does not that show that the vast majority of British industrialists fully support my right hon. Friend's White Paper on science, engineering and technology?

My hon. Friend is right. There has been a very broad welcome for the White Paper. As sometimes happens, the spokesman for the Labour party in the House of Lords, who had perhaps read the document before responding to it, got it right in welcoming it, whereas its spokesman in this House had not read it and did not welcome it.