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Commons Chamber

Volume 264: debated on Monday 23 October 1995

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House Of Commons

Monday 23 October 1995

The House met at half-past Two o'clock

Prayers

[MADAM SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions

Transport

London Tilbury And Southend Line

1.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on progress made in privatising the London Tilbury and Southend line. [36458]

Good progress is being made with the LTS rail franchise. The franchising director has short-listed bidders, and aims to award the franchise in December.

As the bids for the franchise have to be in by Friday, will the Minister pull out all the stops to ensure that LTS becomes the first privatised line in the, United Kingdom? LTS has been such a continuing disaster under British Rail control that it got the name of the misery line, so can my right hon. Friend give some information about the benefits that will accrue to the public? For example, what about the replacement rolling stock which is urgently required?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his staunch support of the Government's policy on privatisation. I can confirm that the franchising director has decided that the LTS line should be one of the first for which a contract will be let. I hope that the service will be up and running early next year and that the benefits of privatisation will shortly be apparent to my hon. Friend's constituents. For example, my hon. Friend will be aware that fare levels have been frozen in real terms as from January and that service levels will be guaranteed, which his constituents have not benefited from before. I understand that the details of the arrangements governing the provision of improved rolling stock will be agreed imminently with the leasing company. I hope that it will not be too long before the safety clearances are completed so that that new rolling stock can be on track.

Did the Minister see the report in The Sunday Telegraph yesterday which said that City analysts believe that the sale of Railtrack before the spring or autumn of 1997 could lose public finances as much as £750 million? I am sure that the Minister will have noted that that estimate was not been made simply because City analysts expect a Labour Government, although they do—I warn anyone contemplating bidding for any part of the rail network that there will be no gravy train for fat cats out of that privatisation and that Labour intends that the rail system should remain in public ownership—but—

I have already asked two questions.

Did the Minister note the serious criticism that the information provided to City analysts by his Department is so inadequate that they cannot properly value Railtrack? Will he give a solemn undertaking that it will not be sold cheaply before the election merely to fund a Tory tax cut?

I welcome the hon. Lady to the Dispatch Box in her new role. I notice that the Opposition's entire transport team was so demolished by us during the debate on the railways last week that they had to be replaced and a fresh franchise secured.

As for receipts, we have not speculated about the proceeds that will be secured, but a full prospectus will of course be published in due course for those seeking to invest in Railtrack. I hope that at some point the hon. Lady will respond to the questions put to her predecessor on several occasions last week. How will the Opposition pay for their policy of buying back the railways? Will it be achieved through higher fares, higher taxes or higher borrowing?

Is my right hon. Friend aware that what he proposes for the London Tilbury and Southend line is extremely good? We are very pleased that that line will be one of the first, if not the first, to be franchised. For many years, there has been a great need for replacement rolling stock. I am glad that my right hon. Friend has said that it will be replaced, but could he give us some more detail?

As my right hon. Friend may know, a number of Networker express units currently under construction by ABB Transportation are to be deployed on West Anglia's Great Northern services. That will permit what is called a "cascade" of 25 four-class 317 units to my right hon. Friend's constituency, which in turn will allow the scrapping some old class 302 units, which are more than 35 years old.

South Yorkshire Rapid Light Transit System

3.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what representations he has received regarding the effect on local authority standard spending assessments of the South Yorkshire rapid light transit system. [36460]

I answered a question from the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Betts) on 22 May. I have had no more recent representations on this subject.

The Minister will be aware that today Sheffield is celebrating the completion of the rapid light transit system, the supertram. In my constituency, which is part of the South Yorkshire passenger transport authority, there is considerable concern about the impact on local authority budgets of debt charges arising from the cost of the supertram system. Is the Minister aware that, despite the fact that the Government agreed fully to fund the system, the debt charges were allocated to the budget of the four authorities that make up the South Yorkshire passenger transport authority? The charges are having a considerable effect on the spending powers of the four authorities. I understand that discussions are taking place—

Oh, shut up.

I understand that discussions with the Department are well advanced. Is the Minister able to give us any encouragement? Is he able to tell us whether the pressure on the standard spending assessments will be relieved for the forthcoming financial year?

I share the hon. Gentleman's pleasure that today marks the opening of the Hillsborough extension of the supertram system. I am pleased that it is now able to operate at its full potential. I understand that supertram is offering the residents of the area free travel for the next couple of days so that they can come to know what an excellent system is being offered.

I appreciate that there is concern about the way in which the financial arrangements impact on the capping levels of each of the member authorities of the passenger transport executive. The hon. Gentleman has raised the matter with me before. He will appreciate that it is a matter for negotiation between the local authorities and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I shall pass on the hon. Gentleman's concerns.

Dartford Bridge And Tunnel

4.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what plans he has to improve access to both ends of the Dartford bridge and tunnel. [36461]

Major improvements were made in association-with the opening of the Queen Elizabeth II bridge a few years ago.

We have a number of further proposals for improving access to the Dartford bridge and tunnel.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the bridge has been one of the Government's great success stories? In co-operation with the private sector, the bridge was built to relieve awful congestion at the Dartford tunnel. With the growth of developments in the area—Lakeside and now Bluewater, and the proposal that there should be a new depot at Ebbsfleet—it is reckoned by those who are running the bridge that congestion will return in three or four years. Does my hon. Friend consider that now is the time, while the bridge is making massive profits, which will soon return to the taxpayer, to reconsider the east London river crossing proposed for Woolwich, which would take a great deal of traffic and be another great Government success story?

My hon. Friend will know that the east London river crossing is the subject of consultation. She is right to say that the Queen Elizabeth II bridge at Dartford is a wonderful example of a private finance initiative in operation.

Raf Northolt

5.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what conclusions he has reached about the sharing of runway capacity by civil aircraft at RAF Northolt; what discussions he has had with the Ministry of Defence on this matter; and if he will make a statement. [36462]

Consultation with business aviation users this summer demonstrated a positive reaction to shared use of the newly commissioned facilities at RAF Northolt. As outlined in the 1995 competitiveness White Paper, my Department is currently working closely with the Ministry of Defence to identify further ways of enhancing the service offered.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is concern in my constituency that the sharing of runways at RAF Northolt could result in increased traffic noise? Will he give me an assurance that, in the event of sharing, there will be no increase in the permitted number of air traffic movements at Northolt?

I am indeed aware of the local concern that my hon. Friend has expressed to Ministers in my Department on several occasions. The station continues to operate on the basis of 7,000 movements a year.

Will there be any consultation with people in the locality with regard to further aircraft movements, particularly civil airline movements, because that part of London already suffers excessively from aircraft noise?

Yes, of course; local opinion will be taken into account in connection with any plans to change the use of the airport.

Local residents feel most strongly that the current limits should be maintained, as my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby) has said, and that the existing operating hours for civil air transport movements should be kept at 0800 to 2000, with no weekend operation.

I am aware of the strong feelings in the area, which are well represented by my hon. Friend. As I said a few moments ago, we will, of course, ensure that local opinion is taken into account when we look at any future use of the airport.

Road Casualties

7.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what new proposals he has to reduce road casualties. [36464]

The Department is currently considering, with other representative organisations, the next casualty reduction target and the measures needed to achieve it. The trend in fatalities and serious injuries is that they continue to fall. A package of measures is being introduced to improve the safety of newly qualified drivers and we have invited bids to participate in the safe town initiative.

Will the Minister congratulate DHL, which recently removed all bull bars from its 300 vehicles? What assessment has he made of the Australian evidence that proves that bull bars represent an increased risk not only to pedestrians and cyclists but to those who are driving, and to passengers in vehicles with bull bars? Why does he not take action on the three practical steps outlined by Commissioner Kinnock from Europe, who said that the British Government could take steps to banish them? Why does he hesitate to remove these fatal fashion accessories?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has chosen to express his interest in the subject of bull bars in the way that he has, because not only is his interest entirely appropriate but I join him in congratulating a major company that has decided that an unnecessary fashion accessory that can also be dangerous is inappropriate in a responsible company. It is ludicrous of the hon. Gentleman, frankly, to describe the Government's attitude as being prepared to delay while Commissioner Kinnock rushes to the fore. All the proposals that the Commissioner has made rely on precisely the evidence of the survey, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are conducting into the incidence of bull bar-related accidents. He will appreciate that, to invoke any of the three measures that Commissioner Kinnock outlined in his letter to me, there is a precondition that we should have that evidence. I believe that bull bars, which make the fronts of vehicles less safe than they would otherwise be, should be removed without delay.

Has my hon. Friend carried out an examination of the possible impact on the number of road casualties in London of a strike on the London underground? Would he like to draw a contrast between his policy of upgrading the Northern line with that of certain trade unionists of disrupting traffic in London?

Sadly, my hon. Friend is entirely right. One of the many sad consequences for Londoners of disrupting underground services is that there will indeed be more congestion on London's roads and, indeed, inevitably more accidents. This underlines the futility of this kind of neanderthal action. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers is the only union not to have accepted London Transport's package. I hope that, even at this stage, it will see the wisdom of getting on with the job and keeping London moving in the way that any responsible trade union ought to be prepared to do.

What progress is the Minister making on the vexed issue of cut and shut vehicles? He will recall that I brought a delegation to see him some months ago on that matter. It is extremely serious; vehicles that have been involved in accidents and should not be on the road are stitched together without any controlling mechanism. What progress does he expect to be made to control those very dangerous vehicles?

I wrote to the hon. Gentleman a couple of days ago and asked him to pass on a copy of my letter to Mr. George Austin, whom he brought to see me on this subject. It is indeed a serious matter. As the hon. Gentleman understood when we discussed it, there are some practical difficulties in implementing a system that identifies vehicles that have previously been involved in serious accidents, particularly when, for example, they may be insured only for third party and therefore the insurance company concerned is not notified when the vehicle is effectively written off.

Sadly, some of the initiatives suggested to us earlier have not proved effective, and the Association of Chief Police Officers, responding to some of our inquiries, has said that it is unhappy with some of our proposals. As I said in my letter to the hon. Gentleman, I therefore propose to continue to explore other ways in which we can deal with this serious problem.

Is my hon. Friend familiar with research that suggests that, if we adopted double summer time, we could save more than 140 lives a year on the roads? Does he agree that the putting back of our clocks only yesterday ought to remind us that that opportunity is within our grasp?

The issue of summer time and double summer time interests a number of Departments. I speak only for the Department of Transport when I say that it is a simple matter of fact that allowing for more daylight in the way that my hon. Friend suggests has a demonstrable impact on accident statistics. For that reason, certainly, such action is to be encouraged.

No doubt the Minister, like other drivers, has felt a frisson of fear when overtaking or being overtaken by a heavy goods vehicle on the motorway lest its driver has put in far too many hours on the road. Did he read yesterday's article in The Observer which claimed that 200 deaths a year could be prevented if that danger were eliminated from our roads? Will he now end the Department's complacent attitude, and present proposals to ensure that tachographs cannot be tampered with? Will he also undertake some serious research into the effect of over-long hours on drivers who are forced to work those hours by bullying employers?

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the transport team as one who has managed to survive as a Front Bencher for longer than almost any other Member on either side of the House. It is a pleasure to see him join the ranks of the instant transport experts, one of whom he clearly considers himself to be.

The United Kingdom inspects more than twice the European average number of tachographs, because we are pre-eminent in the Community in recognising the problem of overtired drivers as extremely serious. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify it as a major source of accidents. Indeed, simply listing the number of fatal accidents that may have involved tachograph offences probably underestimates the true figure.

The hon. Gentleman should understand two points, however. First, the practice is much more widespread in all the other European countries, in which the issue prompts very much less interest. Secondly, only the very worst operator would recognise the description of the robber barons of the transport industry grinding drivers' faces into the dust. As the hon. Gentleman will come to recognise, being the fair man that he is, the standard of operators in this country is excellent.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the serious concern in my constituency about the safety record of the Birmingham A456 road from Kidderminster to Blakedown? There have been two fatalities on the road in the past 12 months, and the average speed at Blakedown—in a 30 mph area—was recently gauged at some 50 mph.

Is my hon. Friend aware that the problem would be alleviated by the construction of a Kidderminster-Blakedown-Hagley bypass? Does he realise that we have now been waiting for no less than 12 months for the Government to publish the inspector's report, and will he ensure that progress is speeded up?

I note my hon. Friend's observations, and acknowledge his consistent concern about the scheme on behalf of his constituents. I hope that he will appreciate that I can make no firm announcement today.

Woolwich Rail Tunnel

8.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what assessment he has made of the benefits of the proposed Woolwich rail tunnel. [36465]

London Transport, British Rail, Railtrack and the London Docklands development corporation continue to co-operate in their study of that proposed project and I await their further report with interest.

Will the Minister acknowledge that the proposed east London river crossing, if built, would produce increased congestion and pollution in the Woolwich, Belvedere and Plumstead regions, which already have some of the highest rates of asthma and respiratory illness in the south-east? Does he recognise that, in terms of economic regeneration, the Woolwich rail tunnel would provide enormous benefits to a region that has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the United Kingdom? In view of the support for the Woolwich rail tunnel—which is environmentally acceptable and cheaper to produce than the east London river crossing—of the London Docklands development corporation, London Underground, British Rail and local authorities, will he now get the Government to pull their finger out and start construction of that vital rail project?

The hon. Gentleman would not expect me to anticipate the outcome of the consultation exercise on. east London river crossings in general, which was embarked on several months ago, and I cannot do so; nor can I anticipate the dedication of resources before considering the wider pattern that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will need to examine in the public expenditure settlement. As for the hon. Gentleman's point about the east London river crossing, he will know that we withdrew the original scheme for the long east London crossing, but that a number of other proposals, which interrelate in east London, are still on the table in the consultation document. There again, at this moment it would not be appropriate to pre-empt the conclusion of that consultation.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, in my borough of Bexley, considerable support exists for that rail tunnel, that there is also, however, considerable support for additional road crossings between Tower bridge and the Dartford crossing, and that it is essential, if we are to develop the east Thames corridor-Thames gateway, to have them as soon as possible? When are we likely to have an announcement on those developments?

I hope that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have had a chance to consider all the consultation responses and to issue a further statement on this subject before the end of the year, but I note what my hon. Friend says. I fear that it is always convenient and, in a sense, something of an intellectual cop-out merely to assume that a public transport scheme, however desirable, will be able to absorb all the demand in a particular transport corridor. The consultation exercise points out—frankly, it is not a matter of great political disagreement—that a mixture of further access across the river will be necessary if the river is to cease to be an impediment to economic and social progress, and to be an asset.

West Coast Main Line

9.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what further progress has been made on the west coast main line reinvestment project; and if he will make a statement. [36466]

The west coast main line modernisation programme is moving firmly forward. Tenders for the development of a new signalling system for the line have just been received by Railtrack. Railtrack expects to let a contract for the main modernisation works next year.

I thank my hon. Friend for that reply and congratulate him and his colleagues at the Department on the work that they are doing in that regard. It is important that the work goes ahead as soon as possible. This is an important route that serves many communities and is so important to the business sector the length and breadth of the country, from Scotland to south England. Will he take this opportunity of telling the House how successful he has been in obtaining European moneys to add to the private finance initiative, and give me an assurance that he and his colleagues will deal with the present Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen in the same way that they dealt with the last lot?

On the latter point, we will do our best.

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport announced during the monumental debate last Wednesday, the west coast main line upgrade project is one of the top priority projects in the trans-European network programme, being one of the Christopherson group, and we have secured a first-year allocation of £7 million from the TENs budget towards the—

Seven million pounds is not to be sneered at. If the hon. Gentleman considers the total amount of money to be allocated to all the projects across the Union, he will find that the allocation for the west cost main line, plus the allocation for the channel tunnel rail link, are a fair share of resources for this country, as compared with other member states.

Would the Minister like to tell us simply how much has been spent—wasted—on privatisation up to this point?

Does my hon. Friend agree that his announcement today about the signalling contracts and the full contract for the west coast main line upgrade will be welcome not only to my constituents but to constituents living up and down the route? Does he further agree that the successful completion of the project will once again demonstrate that the Government's policy of bringing in private sector finance to help upgrade the railways is vastly more successful than the policy that the Labour party would put in place, which would waste taxpayers' money?

My hon. Friend is right. The signalling competition is being developed under the private finance initiative. In addition, the modernisation programme will bring major improvements in safety and reliability, the right quality and the capacity for more trains. The new state-of-the-art signalling system will create potential for reductions in journey times and will, of course, provide automatic train protection.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that services on the west coast main line depend on the reliability of the rolling stock. Will he confirm that the turnover last year of the three rolling stock companies was £800 million, with a profit of £450 million? Will not those companies have a guaranteed income stream for the next eight years? In those circumstances, does he recognise that it would be a monstrous fraud on the taxpayer if the rolling stock companies were sold for £1.5 billion, which is about half their true value? Does he accept my assurance that, under Labour, the rolling stock companies will be brought under the control of the regulator to prevent them from holding the rest of the industry to ransom?

I am confident that once the line has been upgraded there will be both operators wishing to operate the services on the line and rolling stock providers prepared to provide the necessary rolling stock.

North-West Main Line

11.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he last travelled on the north-west main line. [36468]

I travelled on the line to Blackpool on 9 October for what proved to be an excellent party. conference.

That is a funny old thing to say. Who would believe that? Will the Secretary of State have a word with British Rail and ask it to withdraw the rail passengers charter, in particular as it affects the west coast main line, so that timetables can be restored? Does he realise that, when the Government introduced the nonsense of the so-called charter, all that happened was that BR extended the journey times so that it did not have to pay compensation?

I am genuinely surprise to hear the hon. Gentleman suggesting that the passengers charters should be removed. That is no part of our manifesto. Indeed, far from removing them, we want to improve them and drive up the standards so that railway passengers get an even better service under privatisation than they did under nationalisation.

Is not the best way to restore reliability and investment on the north-west line—and, indeed, across the whole railway system—to proceed as quickly as possible with privatisation? We no longer have questions about lack of investment in telephones, water, gas or electricity because those industries were privatised and they have access to the capital that they need—something that the amateur corporate financiers on the Opposition Front Bench would not understand.

The whole House is grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that he read the Sunday Express yesterday, as I hope Opposition Members did. It contained an interesting article by John Edmonds, Railtrack's chief executive, in which he said:

"It is unquestionable that rail privatisation will lead to more investment."
That is exactly what my hon. Friend said.

The Secretary of State will know that the electric west coast main line does not go to Blackpool because the through train service has been discontinued. Does what he has just said mean that he is committed to ensuring that, when the west coast main line is upgraded, Blackpool has an electric train service running from London to Blackpool?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, it is a matter for the franchising director to decide whether to permit that service. However, I travelled via Preston, which is indeed on the west coast main line.

When my right hon. Friend next uses that excellent service, will he take the trouble to stop off at the city of Chester, where he will see the new improved station? He may realise that the station would have been improved some years ago, had it been privatised earlier, because the potential for investment in our railway stations is considerable. Will he also please pay tribute to the people who work on the line and are giving us an improved service of a very high standard despite the carping comments from the Opposition?

Invitations from my hon. Friend to visit his constituency are difficult to resist. He invited me to visit the tax office in Chester when I was Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and I am sure that my visit to his railway station will be every bit as exciting as my visit to his tax office.

Public Transport, Manchester

13.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement about public transport in Greater Manchester. [36470]

Public transport in Greater Manchester is primarily a matter for the local authorities and transport operators concerned. Subject to financial constraints, the Government will continue to consider funding worthwhile public transport schemes in Greater Manchester.

The Minister will appreciate that there has been great difficulty maintaining a reliable bus service in the Ashton and Denton areas of my constituency because of the problems of traffic spilling off the M66, which at present stops in my constituency rather than continuing to Oldham. My constituents had been hoping that the motorway would be completed so that pressure on ordinary roads would be relieved. Can the Minister assure the House that the rumours circulating in Tameside to the effect that there are to be further delays with that motorway are ill founded?

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention to me the nature of his question shortly before Question Time began. From the inquiries that I have been able to make, I can confirm that progress on the M66 contracts is proceeding normally, so I do not believe that there is any foundation for the rumours that the hon. Gentleman may have heard.

Is my hon. Friend the Minister surprised that the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) did not mention the tens of millions of pounds of investment by the Government in Manchester in support of its 2002 Commonwealth games and Olympic games bids? Does he not accept—

Order. Had the hon. Gentleman done so, he would have strayed far from the question and I would have stopped him.

But is not it a consequence of that investment that the tram system and other public transport systems now operate in Manchester?

Rushing to the aid of my hon. Friend, I entirely agree that the £140 million investment in the Manchester Metrolink has substantially improved the public transport scene there and put it in an even more agreeable position than heretofore to mount a very credible Olympic bid.

I should like to raise that matter on a point of order after Question Time, Madam Speaker.

European Union Transport Networks

14.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport when he next expects to meet his European Union counterparts to discuss the improvement of European Union transport networks. [36471]

I plan to attend the Transport. Council on 7 and 8 December at which I would expect progress with the development of trans-European transport networks to be discussed.

When the Secretary of State attends that meeting, will he press the very strong claims being made in south and north Wales to complete the European transport networks, which are currently under threat due to privatisation? Will he also give a commitment that there will be high quality rail services from our west Wales ports to Europe?

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to accept the premise on which he based his question—that privatisation poses some threat to the railway service in Wales. Having put that on one side, however, I assure him that I shall of course fight the United Kingdom's corner in the discussions as hard as I can. It is worth pointing out that of the 14 priority projects endorsed by the Essen European Council, four are projects in which the United Kingdom has an interest. As for the future programme, the hon. Gentleman is entitled to suggest some of the networks to which he referred as they are eligible under the TENs framework.

In discussions with his counterparts in Europe, will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the importance of the A120 as a strategic network? Is he aware that the dualling of that road is badly needed, not only for traffic travelling from the east coast ports, but to serve the airport at Stansted.

I am happy to confirm to my hon. Friend that I am well aware of the strategic importance of the road to which he has referred.

Is the Minister aware that my colleague Robin Teverson, a Member of the European Parliament, persuaded the European Parliament to make rail links through to the west country, Exeter and Penzance the highest European priority for investment, bringing in European funding towards those improvements? It is understood, however, that Ministers are opposing that inclusion. Given that Ministers need to approve the inclusion, will the right hon. Gentleman argue for the improvement that the west country needs?

My understanding of the situation is somewhat different from the hon. Gentleman's interpretation. My understanding is that at the June Transport Council the Government put forward the addition of both the Waterloo-Exeter rail line and the Taunton-Reading line to the draft trans-European networks. Those additions were approved by the European Commission and by the Council of Ministers.

Public Accounts Commission

National Audit Office

30.

To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission how many statisticians are employed by the National Audit Office. [36502]

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer that I gave on 19 June at columns 15–16. The numbers have increased marginally since then. Thirty of the staff of the National Audit Office have degrees in statistics or mathematics, and there are nine full-time professional statisticians or operational researchers.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in praising the quality of the work of the National Audit Office? Does he believe that the office has sufficient powers to check the accounts of agencies and organisations such as the national lottery, which disburses large sums of public money?

Yes, I am happy to agree with my hon. Friend. The Public Accounts Commission and the House are extremely grateful to the Comptroller and Auditor General and to the National Audit Office for the work that it does on our behalf. At present, the NAO is responsible for the audit of about half the executive non-departmental bodies. Both the Commission and the Public Accounts Committee are in favour of its being responsible for the audit of all of them and are making representations to that effect.

On the last part of my hon. Friend's question, I understand that the Public Accounts Committee would like to have the right of access to Camelot. The difficulty appears to be that the Department of National Heritage may not have the right to give it permission to do so. However, I understand that Camelot is happy to have conversations with the NAO to see how that might be done.

I call Mr. Llwyd. The hon. Gentleman rose earlier to put a supplementary question. Does he now wish to do so?

The point that I wished to make has been made, so I shall not ask the question.

Given that there are reports in today's paper that the Secretary of State for Social Security may introduce legislation to enable bailiffs to track down over-payment of benefits, will the Chairman seek an urgent meeting with the head of the National Audit Office and the Secretary of State to find out why the Benefits Agency makes mistakes of the order of £600 million per year? Should the bailiffs not be put on the Benefits Agency rather than the claimants?

I think that that would go beyond the work of the NAO. It is certainly true, however, that the NAO has the right of access to the Department of Social Security and no doubt will continue to uncover such faults. As for the activities of bailiffs, perhaps the hon. Gentleman would like to table a question to the appropriate Ministry.

31.

To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission how many inquiries were undertaken by the National Audit Office in the last 12 months. [36503]

The National Audit Office achieved its planned level of 50 published reports to Parliament in 1994–95, as well as a wide range of additional outputs.

Is it not about time that the National Audit Office found a way to look at organisations such as Nirex, which has so miserably failed in its research programmes? As that organisation is, in effect, owned by the general public, in so far as it has' mucked up its research programme and in so far as the project that it is now promoting in the county of Cumbria is a waste of money and is upsetting the wider public, should not the NAO be allowed to move in?

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman will make his own point in his own way. In terms of the National Audit Office, I can at least give him this comfort. If the body concerned is a non-departmental executive body, the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Accounts Commission are agreed that the National Audit Office should be responsible for its audit. To that limited extent only, I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I do not, however, agree with his other remarks because I have no idea whether they are right or not. I strongly suspect that they are not.

House Of Commons

Parliamentary Papers

33.

To ask the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, as representing the House of Commons Commission what plans he has to ensure sufficient financial provision to make parliamentary papers more readily available to the public. [36489]

Negotiations have been proceeding in recent months between the House authorities and Her Majesty's Stationery Office on a new agreement for the printing and publication of House documents. One of the objectives of the negotiations has been to achieve significant price reductions to the public. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the price of the weekly Hansard was reduced from £22 to £12 from 6 June this year at no additional cost to the House.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that an effective democracy demands freedom of information about what happens in Parliament and that £12 a week is way beyond the means of most ordinary people? Does he agree that the cost of parliamentary documents, even if they are falling substantially in price, is way beyond what ordinary people can pay and that this simply increases the power and influence of mercenary commercial lobbyists? Will he seek to make information much more readily available to the public, perhaps by making documents free of charge to public libraries?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the dissemination of information is of the greatest importance in a democracy. Significant progress was made by the Commission and the scale of the reduction, especially when it was at no cost, was quite large. There is also a discount scheme which further reduces the cost to public libraries of having the information available. I hope that public libraries will continue to stock Hansard. Some are declining to do so on the ground of space rather than of cost. The Select Committee on Information is looking at many aspects of the matter, including the more electronic means of disseminating information, and the Commission will be ready to consider the advice that it receives.

The right hon. Gentleman has almost answered the question that I am about to put on the electronic dissemination of documents. Has he been able to establish what it would cost to allow Internet access to parliamentary electronic documents and does he intend to put forward a time scale for when this could come about?

The House of Commons Commission has not had any detailed discussions about the possibilities of using the Internet in that way. The Information Committee is, I understand, considering it, as is a working party of officials. I know that the matter is of great interest to many hon. Members. The Commission will certainly want to consider the advice it receives as soon as possible.

Transport

Cycling

15.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what steps the Government are taking to make it easier for people to cycle to work. [36472]

We have taken a number of initiatives, building on the Government's policy statement last year. The most recent is our £2 million cycle challenge competition, which is designed to generate new ideas and partnerships capable of widespread application in the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State agree that this country has the lowest percentage of cyclists compared with our European counterparts and that there is, therefore, much more to be done? However much the Government blow their own trumpet about the difference that £44 million from the millennium fund will make, that is no substitute for real action across the country through Department of Transport spending. I hope that the Secretary of State, as a well-known cycling enthusiast, will back up his words with action. If he is really concerned, will he consider making new money available from his Department's budget to make cycling available to people in all our villages, towns and cities?

I agree with the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's question: there is scope to increase the percentage of journeys travelled by bicycle in this country, as the percentage in many other European countries is far higher than in the United Kingdom. So far as policy is concerned, the hon. Gentleman will know that we are bringing forward a national strategy for cycling in concert with a wide range of other interested parties. On resources, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the very welcome contribution from the millennium fund, and the Department is supporting the national cycle network—particularly where it crosses roads owned or managed by the Department. On local authority investment, we are promoting the package approach by local authorities, and I shall certainly look for transport policies which make fuller provision for cycling so that the potential for cycling is unlocked.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there are many ways to heaven? Will he legislate to enable people wishing to ride a horse to work to use cycle paths?

This exchange has so far been exclusive to Members representing the London borough of Ealing, but I am sure that the interest in cycling goes far wider. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand if I say that I will take note of his suggestion about the greater use of cycle paths by horses; perhaps I may write to him when I have completed some extensive research into the possibility of combined use.

Buses, South Yorkshire

16.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the effect of bus deregulation in south Yorkshire. [36473]

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having left a steaming cup of tea when he realised that Transport Question Time never ends—it is merely interrupted.

Deregulation has brought great benefits to bus travellers in south Yorkshire. There are now more operators providing more bus miles and better services. Competition has led to lower fares and new buses on some routes. Substantial savings in bus revenue support are still being made.

There must be two south Yorkshires in this country, because the reality is that bus fares have gone up five times since deregulation, there is no timetable to which anyone can refer and whole sections of the community are left without transport after 6 pm and at weekends. The buses on the road look more tired and worn out than Government Ministers and while there are 40 per cent. more buses in service, 40 per cent. fewer people are riding on them since deregulation. Is not the transport policy a shambles? Should not the Government give powers back to the transport authority to enable it to integrate services, not least with the supertram system which is now in competition rather than co-ordination with the bus services?

No. The reality is that subsidies have been halved, operating costs reduced by one third and the mileage run increased by nearly one third, all of which represents a substantial improvement on the previous appallingly overregulated local authority system. I can understand why that system might appeal to the hon. Gentleman and to his hon. Friends, and he is obviously prepared to ignore last week's news that Stagecoach has just ordered 1,000 brand new buses to buttress the considerable success that it, among many other bus companies, is having throughout the country. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends simply never want to see success. The bus industry is a huge success and—thank goodness—that will continue under the Government.

Traffic, London

17.

To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what is his latest assessment of the percentage of traffic within Greater London carried by (a) road, (b) rail and (c) river. [36474]

In 1993, 80 per cent. of freight lifted in Greater London was carried by road, 16 per cent. by river and 4 per cent. by rail.

Is it not regrettable that one of the least used highways in our congested capital is the River Thames? Is my right hon. Friend prepared to make a mark in his new role—perhaps to mark the millennium—by supporting proposals submitted to him by me with the Transport On Water organisation for a series of piers along the river like a string of pearls to facilitate a regular river-borne passenger traffic service before the year 2000?

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that I will look at the imaginative proposition that he has put to us. I assume that it was piers rather than peers that he had in mind. I agree entirely with what he said at the beginning of his question: we must unlock the potential of the Thames as an important transport network and do better than we have done so far. My hon. Friend will be pleased to learn that total freight lifted on the Thames increased by 8 per cent. from 1993 to 1994.

Given the huge imbalance between the amount of freight carried on London's roads and that carried by other means, why have the Government lifted the London lorry ban, which at least managed to keep some heavy goods vehicles off residential routes? If there is a commitment to using our river to transport heavy freight, why do the Government insist that millions of tonnes of London's waste which is normally carried on the river must be taken off that route and put back on the roads?

I understand that we have not lifted the London lorry ban. The decision by Westminster council to transport most of its waste by road rather than river was disappointing. From 16 September, two thirds of the waste will be transported by road to the incinerator at Lewisham. It is worth pointing out, however, that it will be used there to generate heat and power. The remaining third—some 50,000 tonnes per year—will continue to be transported by barge and on to landfill.

House Of Commons

Standing Order No 143

35.

To ask the Lord President of the Council what representations he has received about the operation of Standing Order No. 143 (Withdrawal of Strangers from House). [36492]

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons
(Mr. Tony Newton)

None, but my hon. Friend may wish to draw any concerns that he may have to the attention of the Procedure Committee.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the mechanism of "I spy Strangers" either does not or should not have any useful purpose in this day and age? Does not this archaic procedure, which is inexplicable to the general public, lower the reputation of the House and should it not be abolished without further ado?

Leaving aside any views that I might have on that matter, one view that I strongly hold is that changes to the procedures of the House are best made after proper consideration by the Procedure Committee and consultation through the usual channels. I know when I am getting into dangerous water, so I will refer my hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Sir P. Emery), the Chairman of the Procedure Committee.

As the procedure in question is a way for Opposition Back Benchers from time to time to cause difficulties for the Government, does the Leader of the House agree that in the next Parliament it is far more likely to be used by Tory Back Benchers than by Labour ones?

It has already been used, I believe, once in the current Session, by a Tory Back Bencher sitting not. very far from me in a new capacity. However, I do not want to take any party position on the matter, which is for all of us to consider as good Members of the House of Commons.

Divisions

36.

To ask the Lord President of the Council how many Divisions there were in the House between January and 19 July 1995 and in the comparable period in 1994. [36494]

The number of Divisions in the House between 10 January 1995 and 19 July 1995 was 185. That period covered 116 sitting days. The number of Divisions in the House between 11 January 1994 and 21 July 1994 was 246. That period covered 118 sitting days, including an extended period during which the usual channels were blocked.

Does the Leader of the House accept that what has really happened is that the House of Commons sits for a smaller number of hours and the result is that there have been fewer Divisions? Does it not also indicate that there is not so much clear blue water between the two Front Benches? Perhaps in future he will remind all the speakers at the Tory party conference that the clear blue water looks a bit purple at the present time.

I readily accept that there is even more clear blue water between the Government Front Bench and the Bench below the Gangway on which the hon. Gentleman sits than between the Government and Opposition Front Benches. What I suspect is also revealed is that there is a lot of clear red blue water in the Gangway.

May I ask my right hon. Friend to do a little further analysis of those figures? Will he enumerate the occasions on which the official Opposition Front Bench has voted against measures to try to reduce crime, to reduce Britain's competitiveness and to increase public expenditure? Will he also analyse how often the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has actually voted against the wishes of the Opposition Front Bench?

I think in both cases the answer is probably that the occasions are too numerous to recall.

Electronic Information Services

38.

To ask the Lord President of the Council what plans he has to provide more information from his Department to the parliamentary data and video network and to improve electronic information services for hon. Members and the public. [36496]

The parliamentary data and video network is a private network exclusively for the use of the Houses of Parliament. Public access is expressly not permitted. As part of the recently installed Internet link, however, plans are in hand for the provision of a public World Wide Web server, which would allow access by the general public to limited information. Possibilities for future developments on the data and video network are considered by the relevant staff Committees of both Houses, together with the House of Commons Information Committee and the House of Lords Library and Computer Sub-Committee.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He will have noted that I specifically asked about Members' services as well as access for the public. I welcome the fact that the public will be able to obtain more information on the Internet. However, as we are spending a large amount of public money putting in a network for the use of Members and their staff, would it not be better to move very quickly ahead with getting as much information as possible about what is happening in the House on to the parliamentary data and video network so that we can cut out an awful lot of the paper currently being created day by day?

I find myself quite in sympathy with that as a general proposition. However, as I have said, those matters would need to be considered by the appropriate Committees of the House.

We have a statement first. I shall, of course, come back to the hon. Gentleman.

Oral Contraceptives

3.30 pm

With permission, Madam Speaker, I wish to a make a statement about the steps taken last week to inform women of the latest evidence about the safety of some oral contraceptives.

In July this year, information was brought to the attention of the Medicines Control Agency by the World Health Organisation which appeared to show an increased risk of thrombosis associated with certain oral contraceptive pills. That information was discussed at a meeting with the World Health Organisation in Geneva on 10 and 11 July. The Medicines Control Agency immediately concluded that further evidence was necessary to test the preliminary conclusions from the work carried out by WHO.

The Medicines Control Agency was aware of another study on the same issue being carried out by Professor Spitzer, and requested accelerated analysis of his data. It also agreed with Professor Jick that he should conduct a further study using evidence from United Kingdom general practitioners.

Information from the studies conducted by Professor Jick and Professor Spitzer became available in early October. These data led the Medicines Control Agency to convene a special meeting of the Government's independent expert advisory body, the Committee on' Safety of Medicines, for 13 October. That committee advised:
"there is an urgent need to communicate the new evidence and appropriate recommendations to the professions and to the public prior to publication of the evidence."
On 16 October, Ministers accepted the advice of the committee, and asked the Medicines Control Agency to make arrangements to release the advice later in the week.

The following arrangements were therefore put in place by the MCA. First, letters were dispatched on Wednesday 18 October by first-class mail to 190,000 doctors and pharmacists. Secondly, every director of public health was contacted during working hours on Wednesday and told that he or she would receive important health information through the chief medical officer's Epinet electronic communication system overnight and asked to make arrangements to disseminate it to GPs and relevant hospital doctors immediately. That aspect of the communication arrangements reflects the method of urgent communication between the Department and doctors that we have agreed with the British Medical Association. Thirdly, faxes were sent directly to hospital drug information pharmacists.

Against that background, the Medicines Control Agency planned a public announcement on Thursday afternoon in order to allow doctors and pharmacists time to assimilate the information being provided to them. However, the first inquiries from the electronic media were received in the Department at around 9 am on Thursday. The Medicines Control Agency therefore decided to bring forward the public announcement to midday in order to ensure that a properly balanced message was made immediately available.

The key points of that message are the same today as they were last Thursday: first, that the increased risk of thrombosis from taking the seven relevant brands of pill remains roughly half the risk of thrombosis associated with pregnancy; secondly, that women who are taking one of the seven relevant brands should continue to do so until they have seen their GP or family planning doctor.

The Government have a duty to evaluate information on the safety of medicines as soon as it is available, and to ensure that doctors and their patients are in possession of the information necessary to allow them to make informed choices about their own health. That is what we have done. Such information inevitably involves extra work load for professionals, and I am most grateful to those who responded over the past weekend to the extra work load that has unavoidably been placed upon them.

I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House and making his statement. He will be aware that I do not seek to question the judgment of the Committee on Safety of Medicines, and that I entirely accept that, as a lay person, he must accept its advice. If it advises that three new studies must be acted on, he had no option but to act.

I should like the right hon. Gentleman to deal with two points that are his responsibility: first, what happened last week; and secondly, what action he will take in the future. Is not the heart of problem the fact that over 1 million women were told that they must seek advice about a serious risk to their health, but that the doctors to whom they turned for advice were themselves in the dark?

Does the right hon. Gentleman admit that it was wholly unsatisfactory that GPs and doctors in family planning clinics were not informed in advance, and had to base advice to their women patients on what they saw on Thursday's news and read in Friday's papers? Does he agree that GPs are right to be angry that they had to rely for medical advice on page 2 of The Guardian and the BBC's "Nine O'clock News"? Would it not have been possible, in this age of information technology, to ensure that GPs got the information ahead of the press, or, at the very least, at the same time?

The press conference was planned for Thursday, but some doctors had still not received notification by the end of Friday. The notification was so slow that some doctors are calling it "snail mail". The Epinet urgent procedure, to which the Secretary of State referred in his statement, is supposed to notify doctors on the next working day after it is activated: that did not happen. Will the right hon. Gentleman agree to review its operation?

Does the right hon. Gentleman admit that the Department of Health also woefully underestimated the number of calls to the helpline, which was swamped with calls and engaged all day on Friday?

The Secretary of State has just told the House that the Government have a duty to ensure that doctors and their patients are in possession of the information necessary to allow them to make informed choices about their own health. That did not happen; last week, the Government failed in that duty. What action is the right hon. Gentleman going to take to make sure that this does not happen again?

Does the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, although he has been saying all weekend—and is saying again to the House today—that he is satisfied with what happened, GPs have been saying all weekend, and are saying again today, that they are not? As it is they who are the front line to whom patients who have been alerted must turn, is it not essential that GPs have confidence in the system? Will he, at the very least, undertake a review, and agree procedures that restore the trust of GPs?

Finally, I would like to join the right hon. Gentleman in thanking all the doctors, nurses and other health staff who, although completely taken by surprise, laid on extra telephone lines and clinics throughout the weekend, printed their own leaflets for their patients and generally worked their socks off. Our GPs and their patients deserve better than the complacency and incompetence that the Government have shown.

All my hon. Friends will join me in welcoming the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms Harman) to her new responsibilities. I am grateful for the fact that she does not question the advice from the Committee on Safety of Medicines. In that, at least, I entirely agree with her. We are dealing with serious information concerning the health of women. We are dealing not with the stuff of party politics but with matters that people care about, which directly affect people's lives.

The hon. Lady says that not every GP knew at the ideal moment to give advice to his or her patients. I concede that that is true, and recognise that, after any incident of this kind, we must ensure that the arrangements are reviewed to learn any lessons available to be learned.

But the hon. Lady offered me no suggestions from the Dispatch Box about how the arrangements could be further improved. She did not respond to the fact that the. arrangements planned for Thursday demonstrated that we expected to be able at least to have the morning for GPs and other doctors and pharmacists to assimilate the information made available to them. The Secretary of State for Health simply cannot carry on a cosy correspondence with 190,000 health professionals. These are issues in which the public have a legitimate interest, and it is neither possible nor desirable to carry on that correspondence in private.

The hon. Lady offered no method whereby I can ensure that professionals are briefed before their patients come to see them. She talked about electronic communication—we used it; she talked about prompt use of the mail and faxes—we used them. All those procedures were used. We shall ensure that any lessons are learned, but let us not imagine that we can deliver such information to GPs and health professionals in an orderly fashion hours before their patients come to see them. That is not the real world.

May I thank my right hon. Friend for issuing that information as soon as he received it? Had he not done so, he would, quite legitimately, have been accused of a cover-up. Does he accept that, once he knew that there had been yet another leak—goodness knows where it came from—and that the media knew about it, he had no option but to hold a press conference? We all thank him for dealing with the matter as he did.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Obviously, I agree with her. I am encouraged when I consider what the hon. Member for Peckham would have said at the Dispatch Box today, had the impression got around that the Government were somehow sitting on that information without making it available promptly to every professional and patient with a legitimate interest in the availability of the information. My first duty was to make it promptly available to every person who had a right to know.

Although I readily acknowledge that the Secretary of State found himself in a difficult position and did what he thought was right, will he give the House the benefit of his comment on Dr. Bogle, chairman of the British Medical Association's General Medical Services Committee, who remarked:

"I see no reason as to why the profession could not have been alerted to the potential risks of these drugs well before alarmist statements were issued to the press"?
In that context, although Dr. Bogle's comment may not be justified, will the Secretary of State undertake to consult the profession to ensure that such issues can be dealt with more professionally in future, including the need for doctors who receive information to maintain confidentiality so far as possible for whatever time is needed?

To reassure women following this episode, will the right hon. Gentleman embark on a campaign of public information about contraception and the risks associated with it, including the problems arising from different types of contraceptive and further information on the much higher risk of taking oral contraceptives and smoking at the same time?

The responsibility for reaching clinical judgments about which contraceptives satisfy the standards required by law rests on me, subject to the advice from the Committee on Safety of Medicines. I do not propose to seek to interfere in its assessment of clinical risk. It is qualified to make such assessments, and its advice is that on which any sensible Secretary of State will rest.

The hon. and learned Gentleman asked me to look again at the procedures and to learn lessons. Of course it is true that we have a continuing dialogue with the medical profession and with pharmacists. We will seek to learn any lessons that are to be learned, but the hon. and learned Gentleman cannot get away with quoting Dr. Bogle and then seeking to distance himself from Dr. Bogle's remarks.

The question for the hon. and learned Gentleman is whether he agrees with the view he attributes to Dr. Bogle. Does he think that it is possible for us to carry on a correspondence with Dr. Bogle and the medical fraternity in secret from their patients, or does he recognise that, in the real world, information on such issues is almost bound to be provided simultaneously to health professionals and their patients? That is the real world in which we live, and it would be nice to have a clear answer to that question from the hon. and learned Gentleman.

I assure my right hon. Friend that he has the full support of the Conservative party for the action he took, and for coming to the House as soon as he possibly could to make a statement. Once furnished with the information, he clearly had a duty to bring it into the public domain. Once that information had been leaked, he had no alternative either but to call a press conference.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he took every possible step, not only via the mail, but through electronic or other means, to communicate with all those who should have had the information? If those lines of communication were subject to delay by some means or another, can he assure me that the fault does not lie with him?

I told the House about the steps we took to draw the relevant information to the attention of health professionals and their patients. I believe that we took all the steps that were open to us to make that information efficiently and promptly available. I have given the House the only rational answer: following an incident of this nature, we will, of course, review what happened and learn any lessons that are available to be learned.

Does the Secretary of State think it might have been better if he had come here this afternoon and said sorry for the real distress he caused to many millions of women who were absolutely frightened out of their lives by a half-perceived threat? When obvious chaos and consternation has been caused, is it not a Minister's responsibility to come to the House to say that he will ensure that that does not happen in future, and to apologise to the doctors and, above all, to the women concerned?

As for the hon. Lady's proposition that millions of women were upset and rang up to seek advice, I can give the hon. Lady the relevant figures. We set up an information service to make available the information to all affected women, in fact to anyone who rang us up over the weekend.

I heard the hon. Lady try to ring up that line when she appeared on "The World Tonight" on Friday night, but it was engaged. The problem for her was that the presenter had rung up before her appearance and had got through, so that tack did not work so well. As for callers seeking information, on Saturday 1,174 calls were received, and on Sunday 1,658 calls were received. This morning, I took the precaution of asking about the tone of the women who rang, and I was told, frankly, that they were a great deal more calm and more sensible than many of the people who have commented on the subject in the past few days.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Family Planning Association, to which many women turn in such circumstances, said that there was very little panic, and that women were asking simple and sensible questions? It said that my right hon. Friend behaved perfectly sensibly in making the information known. As has been said several times, the panic was on the part of members of the Labour party and the press in pursuit of some story to fill their papers on a Friday afternoon.

I agree entirely. The evidence, not just the impression, is clear; most women, when given information about the health risks associated with oral contraceptives, understood the message clearly. The message was straightforward. It was that the thrombosis risk associated with pregnancy is almost exactly twice the thrombosis risk associated with the seven brands of pill.

It clearly follows, first, that a woman on a course of these pills is better advised to continue to take them, as the Committee on Safety of Medicines said. Secondly, she should continue to take them until she has have received advice from her doctor, general practitioner or family planning doctor. Those were the messages that were put out on Thursday. The evidence is that they were understood by almost every affected woman. The only people who seem to have difficulty understanding them are a few commentators, some of whom are in the Chamber now.

May I assure the Secretary of State that the women who contacted me in Halifax were not in the category that he has described? Will he accept that women were confused and frightened when Professor Spitzer came from Canada to reassure women that everything was all right, and then the Committee on Safety of Medicines said that there was a slight risk?

Would it not be in the best interests of all women if they were given a clear answer and complete reassurance about taking the pills in question? Never mind messing about with statistics and saying that it is safer if women do not get pregnant. Surely it would be better if the pills were withdrawn if there is any risk to women's health.

The thrombosis risk associated with pregnancy is a relevant consideration if we are talking about a contraceptive pill. Professor Spitzer must account for himself. My responsibility is to form my own judgment, based on the evidence available to me from the Government's independent advisory committee. The hon. Lady describes it as confusing, but the evidence is that most women do not find it confusing. There is a clear piece of advice from which I quoted. It was given to me by the Committee on Safety of Medicines. That led the Government to act, and I believe that the Government were right to act.

My right hon. Friend was right to castigate the Opposition for putting fears among people about a perceived threat. He is right that the matter is far too serious for political slandering, which the Opposition are doing. I believe that the evidence that has been made available is still in the hands of the Department of Health. Will he make the evidence available to other medical experts and to the manufacturing companies involved, which are still very much in the dark about it? They should be told, and should be able to make their own defence, if need be.

Yes. Arrangements are being made for publishing all three of the courses of evidence on which the advice was based. I remind the House that our decision of last week was based on the explicit advice of the CSM that there was an urgent need to communicate the new evidence and appropriate recommendations to the professions and the public prior to the publication of the evidence.

The reason for that was to ensure that the advice was available promptly, and that it did not filter out as a result of the publication of a scientific paper in a scientific journal. The key priority is to ensure that the conclusions from that data are acted upon by health professionals. The data themselves will follow at the appropriate time in the appropriate place.

Surely the Secretary of State is aware that general practitioners and family planning clinics, for more than 25 years, have been scrupulous in inquiring into a patient's family history. If there has been any history of thrombosis, blood clotting or varicose veins, they have advised against, and in many instances refused to prescribe, oral contraceptives. Therefore, the statement that referred to seven such drugs caused especial concern among women who believed that they were not at any risk because of their genetic make-up.

It would seem that the Department of Health was lamentable in not realising that, in placing an embargo on any sort of press release and in not involving the press, it was failing to make it clear that there was perhaps no real reason for panic among the majority of women.

I entirely agree with the last comment that the hon. Lady made: that there is no need to panic. I ask the House to consider what the reaction in the House this afternoon would have been—and, I venture to suggest, that of the hon. Lady—if there had been a report in the Sunday papers to the effect that the Government had received the advice from which I have quoted from the Committee on Safety of Medicines and had decided to ask for am embargo. I wonder how many newspapers would have observed at my request an embargo on information of that nature about the safety of women.

No, I did not, and I do not expect that any newspaper editor would have acceded to the request if it had been made.

Is this not a classic case, in which my right hon. Friend is damned if he does something and damned if he does not? On balance, would he not prefer to be damned by the men and women of straw on the Opposition Benches, whose fitness [Laughter.]—unfitness—for government becomes daily more apparent?

I think that what my hon. Friend meant was their relative fitness for government.

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. We are faced this afternoon with the fact that some Members of the House who have read a few newspaper reports over the weekend are looking for a way of causing trouble by allowing the story to run. What we have heard from none of them is a considered view about what it is right for the Government to do in circumstances in which they have been given advice of this nature. Not one of the hon. Members on the Opposition Benches has offered a conclusion to that question.

If I may assist the Secretary of State in two regards, it seems to me that one thing that went wrong last week in the handling of what has become a panic was that the GPs, who were to be the first port of call for the women who were taking one of the seven brands of pills, were informed of the dangers in the least effective way. What I fail to understand, and I ask the Secretary of State to consider this, is why he did not use electronic mail or faxes to communicate with those GPs. [HON. MEMBERS: "He did."[He did not; he wrote to them. That was in his statement.

What further steps are being taken to ensure that all the women who take one of those seven brands of pill will be written to, so that they can have a consultation with their GP to see what appropriate action should be taken for them?

The hon. Lady asked me about the use of fax and electronic mail to communicate to GPs—and, indeed, to other hospital doctors and pharmacists; we are not just talking about GPs. Yes, we did use faxes and electronic communication to GPs, because the approved system for cascading the results of the electronic communication from directors of public health to GPs is to use faxes where GPs have faxes, which is not in every case.

Fax machines were used. Electronic communication was used. First-class mail was used. The hon. Lady has not suggested a form of communication that was not used. However, I repeat to the House that we will, of course, consider the experience of the past few days, and if there are lessons to be learned, we shall learn them.

As regards communications between doctors and their patients about the conclusions to be drawn from this evidence and the way in which women should react to the evidence that was made available last week, that is primarily a matter between the doctor and the patient. The information is now in the public domain, and the advice has been given clearly that women should consult their GP or family planning doctor before embarking on the next cycle of any one of these seven brands of pill. The advice has also been clear that, if for any reason that is not possible, the health interests of the woman are best served by starting the next cycle of the same pill.

Does my right hon. Friend agree, in the light of what he just said about communication, that the bogus waffle from Opposition Members should not be allowed to overshadow the real achievements of last week, including the ability to dispatch simultaneously 190,000 letters from the Medicines Control Agency, and should it not be congratulated and praised for that?

I agree with my hon. Friend. A number of different communication modes were used, and the fact that they were all used together and over the same extremely short period is a tribute to the commitment and professionalism of the MCA and the people who work in it.

The Secretary of State asked for practical suggestions of what could be done to make such situations easier to manage if they occurred again in future. Given the present state of medical infomatics, there is no reason in principle why all GPs should not be able to use their computers to dial into an electronic database—basically, an electronic British National Formulary—which would give them the most up-to-date information.

Having spoken to both fundholding and non-fundholding practitioners in my constituency, I know that, since fundholding started, the lion's share of money for computers in GPs' surgeries has gone to fundholders. I have raised cases of individual non-fundholders who have not been able to secure the money. When the Secretary of State considers how improvements could be made, will he take account of the proportion of fundholders and non-fundholders with whom he has been able to communicate electronically, and then give the House a guarantee that computer resources will be put into all practices—those of both fundholders and non-fundholders?

The hon. Gentleman forgets that GPs are independent contractors. It is not up to me to go into a general practice and put in a computer system; what I do—or, rather, what the national health service does—is reimburse the expenses incurred in the installation of information technology. The initiative properly rests with the independent contractor—the general practitioner. It is for him or her to decide to use information technology for what seems the most appropriate purpose.

The NHS, through the system of fees and allowances, has a clear commitment to develop information technology as an important resource available to GPs. We shall continue to do that, but it is not up to us to impose it on them.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) made a ludicrous suggestion, which would lead only to hundreds of thousands of women traipsing into their GPs' surgeries and clogging up the system? It is much more sensible for my right hon. Friend to stick to his well-established method of communicating such facts to the public.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Amid all the excitement here, we need to keep in sight the key relationship between the health professional—the GP, hospital doctor or family planning doctor—and the patient. That is the channel through which advice should be given. A Secretary of State for Health should be extremely chary of intervening in that relationship, or. seeking to impose himself on it.

Responsibility for using the information that is now in the public domain rests with doctors, pharmacists and patients. The Government have ensured that that information is made available to those with a duty—in the case of professionals—and an interest—in the case of patients—in using it.

First-class post is not considered good enough for every hon. Member to receive the Whip each week; we must use special delivery. Was special delivery considered a more efficient way of sending documents to doctors?

No. As I have said, we shall review the arrangements, and if there are better ways of ensuring that information is available promptly, we shall seek to learn any lessons that can be learned. We must not, however, set ourselves the objective of conducting a private correspondence between the Department and doctors whose time scale is different from that governing the provision of information to patients. Our objective should be to ensure that such information is made available to all health professionals who need to use it in a timely and efficient manner, at roughly the same time as it is available to their patients—preferably a few hours earlier.

Can my right hon. Friend think back as far as last Thursday, when his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary was at the Dispatch Box defending himself from incorrect accusations that he was interfering with an agency and exceeding his powers? Does my right hon. Friend accept that complete humbug is today coming from the Opposition Benches?

Perhaps we are missing the major point in all this, however. The electronic and printed media did a wonderful job, albeit somewhat prematurely, in ensuring that all women who were taking the seven brands of pill took action to find out whether they should continue. Indeed, the information that was printed and broadcast by the BBC and ITV was clear about the real risks. We politicians often condemn the media, but they did a good job on that occasion.

I agree with my hon. Friend. When questions about the electronic media are posed to people at this Dispatch Box, it is not every time that the person answering feels inclined to offer generous praise. All the programmes I saw and heard on Friday gave a clearer and more balanced report of the advice that was coming from the Committee on Safety of Medicines than we have heard from the Opposition Benches this afternoon.

Any woman listening to the television and radio reports on Thursday and Friday last week was clear that the advice was, first, that it was safer to use the seven brands of pill than to get pregnant; secondly, that the course should be completed; and, thirdly, that, during its completion, medical advice should be sought. That was the message that was put out last Thursday. It was carried on all the electronic media, in clear language. It is only since then that some people have been trying to stir up excitement.

Further to the last question, does my right hon. Friend agree that, if the press announcement had not been brought forward as it was, a media scare story would have been running wild, with no official, definitive version of the facts available to the general public?

My hon. Friend is right. That is precisely why the timing of the announcement was brought forward on Thursday from afternoon to morning, to ensure that the first major coverage of it by the electronic media on the lunchtime news on Thursday carried a balanced message, not a leaked half-message.

Can my right hon. Friend please be kind enough to remind the House why, in principle, any form of contraception is offered on the NHS, which was never anticipated when the health service was set up with all-party support in the 1940s? As it is not an illness to have a baby, why should the prevention of a baby be regarded as a health measure?

The answer is partly that that has grown up over the years, and partly that the delivery of the objective of every pregnancy being a wanted pregnancy is an important objective of social policy. We cannot bemoan the problems associated with single-parent families and with parents who are not interested in their children, and remove the wherewithal for family planning and planned pregnancies; so the objective of every child being a wanted child is a desirable one that is served by this policy.

Listening carefully to what the Secretary of State has had to say today, I have two quite straightforward questions. First, will he tell us exactly the proportion of GPs who had faxes and were therefore faxed on Thursday, Friday, Saturday or whenever? Secondly, given that, during those three or four days, some of the women may have been out of the country, either on holiday or on business, will he take up the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms Hodge) that all the women who are prescribed these brands should be written to with a careful explanation of exactly what has been going on?

I do not have the answer to the first of the hon. Lady's questions, but if she puts down a written question and the information is available at acceptable cost, I will be glad to provide it. [Laughter.] The hon. Member for Dagenham (Ms Church) laughs. I put in the qualification because I do not know whether I have the information in the Department on the number of GPs with faxes.

How did the Secretary of State know which GPs to fax, then?

It was the responsibility of the local directors of public health, not of the Department of Health.

On the second question of the hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Mrs. Prentice), let us just be clear what she is saying. We are talking about 1.5 million women taking these pills. As she rightly says, it is possible that some of those 1.5 million—a few thousand, perhaps—were outside the country last weekend. Is she really suggesting that we should circulate the information to all 1.5 million of them to cover the possibility that a few thousand were out of the country?

I rest my case on the proposition that the responsibility for giving advice on the health effects of these pills rests with the clinicians who sign the prescriptions. That is their job. We have provided them with the information that allows them to do that effectively.

Points Of Order

4.9 pm

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It relates to questions today, in particular Question 12 in my name, relating to crossrail, and Question 5 in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby).

You will recall that I wrote to you at the end of last week intimating that Question 5 related to matters at RAF Northolt that are of acute concern to my constituents, because that RAF base is in my constituency. I said that, if possible, I would seek to catch your eye to ask a supplementary question. Your secretary, with great courtesy, did me the favour of telephoning me this morning to suggest that, were I to catch your eye for a supplementary to Question 5, I would not have the opportunity to ask a supplementary to my primary Question 12 on the crossrail project.

As you know, I was lucky enough to catch your eye, and I asked a supplementary about RAF Northolt. However, I was surprised when you judged that I had withdrawn my primary Question 12 about crossrail. That most certainly was not the case.

Is it not a fact that an hon. Member can withdraw a question only if he writes to that effect to either you, Madam Speaker, or the Table Office? What I suggested to your secretary—and there may have been a misunderstanding—was that I was quite happy to forgo the opportunity to ask a supplementary to my Question 12. Would it not be the case that, in those circumstances, the primary question would be put?

Whether an hon. Member exercises the option, which is entirely his, to ask a supplementary is for him alone. No precedent can be set in this matter, because it would be wrong for hon. Members not to be able to put a supplementary question relating to matters in their constituency if doing so deprived them of asking any primary question that they might happen to have on the Order Paper on that day.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. He did have Question 12 to the Department of Transport on the Order Paper today. He let it be known to me that he wanted to ask a supplementary to an earlier question which he said had a bearing on his constituency, which indeed it has. I let it be known to the hon. Gentleman that I did not look favourably upon hon. Members asking two questions within a 40-minute question period when there was great pressure at Question Time.

Therefore, I let it be known that it was a question of choice—we hear a great deal about choice in this House—and that either the hon. Gentleman asked a supplementary to the earlier question, in which case his Question 12 would be unstarred and would receive a written answer, or I would not call him on the earlier question and he would put his Question 12. The choice was his.

If there has been some misunderstanding, that is to be regretted, but I believe it right to uphold the system that I have always adopted, which is that hon. Members put only one question during Question Time. That is especially the case with the pressure during a 40-minute question period from Members who want to ask two questions.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. Just over 18 months ago, when this House was debating the Sunday Trading Act 1994, the Sunday Hours Reform Council—which includes all the major retailers—gave an unequivocal commitment to the House that it would maintain existing premium payments, including double payments on Sundays. That commitment clearly influenced and persuaded many hon. Members on both sides of the House to support the Bill.

Asda has just announced that it is unilaterally reneging on that commitment for newly employed workers after 1 November. As that flagrant breach of promise means that many hon. Members were deceived, I ask for an opportunity for this House to re-debate the matter and to secure whatever regulation is required, if the retailers cannot be trusted to deliver their promises.

From what the hon. Gentleman says, I am not certain whether anyone has acted illegally, but if so, it is a matter for the courts. The hon. Gentleman may be anxious to raise the matter again, but it is a question of the Government allowing the necessary time. On Thursdays, business questions can be put to the Leader of the House; the hon. Gentleman may find an opportunity then to ask for time to debate the matter.

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. We are talking about Sundays, and last Sunday, the lamp posts outside the House of Parliament were festooned with advertisements pointing out that apartments were available for sale in county hall. Surely it cannot be in order for a firm to have used the immediate environs of the House for that purpose. I borrowed a penknife from a courteous police officer and cut down the advertisements, of which I have sent you an example.

While on the subject of how the flats are being advertised—I am not questioning whether county hall should have been made into flats—I notice that, in the advertisements being circulated, in this country and abroad, constant use is made of the Houses of Parliament's icons. For example, something approaching a portcullis is used on the advertisements, and there is a superb view of the Houses of Parliament, purporting to have been taken from one of the flats.

I know county hall like the back of my hand, and I know that one would have to be suspended from the roof to have got such a picture. It is rather like the old east London song which states that one could see the Hackney marshes
"if it wasn't for the houses in between."
Surely such use is wholly improper. I hope that you will tell the firm involved that it should not use the Houses of Parliament to sell its flats.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned about the future use of county hall. I have seen the notices to which he referred, as he sent me one, but as they were not attached to parliamentary buildings, it is not a matter for me. I have also seen the logo to which he refers, which is, in fact, quite distinct from the Crown portcullis, which is the emblem of the House. I think that it is in rather bad taste; nevertheless, I do not consider that its use can be interpreted as reflecting adversely on the House.

Even so, the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that I have asked the Serjeant at Arms to point out to the firm involved that, to avoid the possibility of any misunderstanding, it would be preferable that it discontinued the use of that particular logo. I have high hopes that it will do so.

I do not usually allow hon. Members to make a further point of order, but I shall of course allow the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) to do so.

I am grateful for the opportunity to ask a supplementary. As guardian of Back-Bench interests, Madam Speaker, I am sure that you are concerned about this.

When an hon. Member tables a question, he has no idea what other questions may be found, perhaps with one's own, among the first 12 or so on the Order Paper. If it so happens that a question tabled by another hon. Member, but relating to one's own constituency, is among the first 12 or so, one is on occasion honour bound to ask a supplementary question. In those circumstances, is it not entirely wrong that one's own primary question should automatically lapse?

Is it not the case that, for a question to be withdrawn, the hon. Member involved must write to inform the House authorities—the Table Office and/or you, Madam Speaker—that he is withdrawing it? I did neither of those things, happy in the knowledge that, were I to forgo my supplementary, the Minister's reply would be on the record. As it related to hybridity, it would be of interest to the House as a whole, and other hon. Members might or might not have been able to catch your eye thereafter.

Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. I had always understood from your predecessors that it was considered most inappropriate for an hon. Member ever to lobby the Speaker about being called to ask a supplementary question to another hon. Member's question at Question Time. Frankly, I think that that should be your ruling.

Let me respond to the first part of the question asked by the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson). At Question Time, many references are made to other hon. Members' constituencies. There is no way that the Speaker can pick up those hon. Members in order to allow them to ask a supplementary question. It is reasonable for hon. Members to discipline themselves: if they are keen to ask a supplementary question to another hon. Member's question, they cannot ask a primary question further down the Order Paper. The wise thing to do is to unstar the question, because, by that method, hon. Members get a written answer from the Minister. That is the reasonable way to do it.

As for lobbying me, I am lobbied by all sorts of people and hon. Members in the House. I listen to them all, but I make up my own mind. Without commitment, of course, I listen to hon. Members. I want to be helpful if I can. I have been a Back Bencher myself. Anyone can lobby me, but the bottom line is that I make up my own mind what to do about it. I think that we should now move on.

Next time anybody rings you up like that, Madam Speaker, you want to look at the number on the Order Paper. The question of the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) was No. 12. Anybody who knows anything about this place knows that, if the question is No. 12 and Question Time finishes at 3.10, the chances of being reached are on the margin. So if Members are smart, they think that, by ringing up the Speaker, they can get a commitment on No. 5 and play both horses in the race. That is roughly what happened: he wanted his cake, and he wanted to eat it as well.

Orders Of The Day

Public Accounts

4.20 pm

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of the 40th and 42nd to 51st Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 1993–94, of the 1st to 40th Reports of Session 1994–95, and of the Treasury Minutes and Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda on these Reports (Cm 2732, 2739, 2754, 2757, 2786, 2825, 2832, 2906, 2921, 2988, 2990, 3013), with particular reference to the following Reports of Session 1994–95:
First, Ministry of Defence: The Major Projects Report (1993);
Second, The Sports Council: Initiatives to Improve Financial Management and Control and Value for Money;
Fifth, Council Tax Valuations in England and Wales;
Twenty-eighth, Severance Payments to Senior Staff in the Publicly Funded Education Sector;
Thirty-third, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Overseas Representation: Irregularities at the Sana' a Embassy;
Thirty-fourth, Lord Chancellor's Department: Qualification of Audit Opinion and Alleged Frauds on the Green Form Scheme.
The Public Acounts Committee is presenting 51 reports to the House; 11 from the Session 1993–94 and 40 from the Session 1994–95. The number of reports indicates the amount of work that the Committee does—it is a large number and the Committee has been extremely busy, as is normal.

My first pleasant duty is to welcome the Financial Secretary to the Treasury to his post. We were very grateful to his predecessor, now the Secretary of State for Transport, for the way in which he welcomed the Committee's eighth report, on the proper conduct of public business. His welcome was of enormous help. The report paved the way, as we know, to some of the Nolan recommendations, which we watched with some interest. I look forward to the new Financial Secretary's contribution and I shall welcome him, in due course, to an early meeting of the Committee.

My next pleasant duty is to thank the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn; the Comptroller and Auditor-General for Northern Ireland, John Dowdall; and the Clerk to the Committee, Ken Brown, for helping to bring about the 51 reports which are being brought to the attention of the House.

Producing such reports is a burdensome task for members of the Committee, but it is essential. It is unquestionable that Gladstone got it right 130-odd years ago when he decided that the Public Accounts Committee should be set up. Surprisingly enough for those days, as well as for these, he decided that the Chairman should be an Opposition Member. I doubt whether that would have happened in any subsequent year. The choice of Chairman from the Opposition is central to the work of the Committee because it ensures that the examination is conducted with a more open mind than might otherwise be the case.

The evidence that the Committee gathers from accounting officers is of enormous importance. It monitors Government expenditure and looks for economy, efficiency and effectiveness. When permanent secretaries—accounting officers usually are permanent secretaries—come before the Committee, its members have in mind the assessment of their abilities and standing. I suppose that that in some way makes the PAC almost unique—I think that it is unique—among Committees of the House. Accounting officers come before the Committee again and again and we are able to assess their value to their work.

I know how much we depend on those servants of the country to prepare for their meetings with the Committee. I am aware that it is a great burden on them, but the result must be to ensure that their responsibilities are scrutinised properly.

Unanimity is the most important aspect of the roughly 500 reports we have produced since I had the honour of becoming the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee in 1983. We are utterly dependent on that unanimity which, strangely enough, is not difficult to obtain. We get it because, at the end of it all, we are there to protect the taxpayer. Anyone who came to our meetings would find it difficult to know, on most occasions, who was an Opposition Member and who was a member of the party in government—we are united in the defence of the taxpayer.

Even when we have discussed matters such as privatisation, which most divides the House, we have come up with unanimous reports, not fudged reports in which we try to show that we are agreed when we are not. We say that it is not for us to look at policy, but to examine how policy has been implemented. Although we may disagree with policies—very strongly, in many cases—we want to ensure that the taxpayer gets value for money once a policy is accepted. We have come out with important points even on issues on which we are obviously divided.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the key point is that, over a number of years, perhaps going back to 1981, many lessons, which have been taken up in subsequent privatisations, have been learnt from Public Accounts Committee reports?

That is undoubtedly correct. Some of the most important lessons were set out by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern), who I am pleased to see in his place. He pointed out the need to sell the issues in tranches. That was a valuable point. Why did the Government sometimes insist on trying to sell everything off at one go? They do not do that with Government debt. Sensibly, at the beginning of the year, the Government study the situation and try a billion pounds here or half a billion there—they test the market. Government brokers become expert in testing the market; that is what they are for.

When it came to selling off public assets in the privatisation procedure, however, the Government did not proceed in the same way. We should have had the expertise that Government brokers have in gilts so that we could have got the best price at any time. The Government could have saved themselves much of the strong argument that they experienced on the Floor of the House and elsewhere. We have welcomed the changes—there have not been enough in my view—that have come about as a result of that useful part of our reports.

We have also considered many other aspects of privatisation, such as brokerage fees and advertising. Even in the areas that divide us most as individuals—this is a most important matter—we are able to come to unanimous conclusions.

The National Audit Act 1983 gave us legislative rights to propose matters to the National Audit Office for investigation. Our success—and the success of the National Audit Office—is not only what we uncover, important though that is, but what our presence as a Committee prevents. We act as a deterrent to what would incur our displeasure.

We have the recruitment by Sir John Bourn and his staff of those who have a much better reputation than was the case years ago. In the old Exchequer and Audit Department, they were civil servants who were usually recruited as executive officers at the age of 18 and given training which amounted to not a great deal more than book-keeping.

Now, the civil servants involved are proper auditors. They have Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy qualifications and chartered accountancy qualifications. The enormous difference is that now, when they go into Departments and have discussions with senior officers up to the level of permanent secretary, they are seen as equals. Previously, they used to be seen as executive officers. Firms in the City now want their services and angle for them. Some have been made tempting offers but, fortunately, we have been able to retain their services. When they go into Departments, they are much more hightly respected as a result.

There have been considerable changes during the past 20 years since the days of the old Exchequer and Audit Department. Almost without exception, institutions—including the universities, the judiciary and the civil service—have been under attack and pressure, and had criticism levelled at them, but the National Audit Office's reputation has steadily improved, year by year. The reports of the old Exchequer and Audit Department were perfunctory compared with those produced now, as were the initial reports of the NAO itself.

In its 12 years of existence, the NAO has developed. Whereas in the beginning it produced tentative reports, it now displays a mastery of the subject. It has impressed us all. I am visited regularly—far too often for my poor battered diary—by people from different countries who want to see what we are doing and how they can learn from us.

Parliament should be proud that the Comptroller and Auditor General is now an Officer of the House—that was not the case previously—as that does more to maintain standards of probity, as well as those of economy, efficiency and effectiveness, than anything else that we could have done. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Garrett) realised that Gladstone's ideas had been whittled down, and he showed how they could be reformed.

I should like more changes in the work of the NAO. One of the areas it is to examine—it is starting to do so already—is the regulatory framework of the public utilities. There is a range of methods of regulating the utilities; the NAO will want to ask whether they are the most suitable. It will ask what lessons can be learnt from the successes of each regulatory operation.

Another success was our important report on the proper conduct of public business. I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Transport who, as Financial Secretary to the Treasury, gave the report a great welcome. The PAC report showed that there were great weaknesses in certain methods of dealing with fraud. Normally, fraud does not take up a great deal of the Committee's time—although it takes up more time now—but when it appears on the scene, it must take priority over everything else in our discussions.

I was pleased to see that, as a result of our eighth report and the evidence that I gave to the Nolan committee, the Treasury accepted that notes of dissent should be made available to the PAC. If a permanent secretary disagrees that an expenditure is correct, he can write a note of dissent. Previously, if the permanent secretary came before the PAC, the note could be held up as evidence that it was the Minister, not the permanent secretary, who had instructed the accounting officer with regard to the expenditure, but the Committee would know about the note only if there had been an investigation or if there was a question of fraud. In the case of the Pergau dam, the Committee was fortunate in that an examination, which allowed us to learn about the role of Sir Tim Lankester, was being undertaken. I note that he is to be moved. I hope that that has nothing to do with his notes of dissent. I wish that I could be completely happy about that one.

The safeguard that we now have is of great importance. Even if a note of dissent does not relate to a question of fraud, the Public Accounts Committee will now be able to receive details of it. I am a little worried that notes of dissent will become less common because people who might write them will be uneasy that details will come before the Public Accounts Committee and that that might prevent their having the success that they might otherwise have had if the matter had been dealt with between the accounting officer and the relevant Minister. I should like to offer some guarantee that that will not be the case. We will not seek to capitalise on notes of dissent. Such matters should be open, perhaps to the Comptroller and Auditor General, to ensure that notes of dissent are not handled in that manner.

I know that a number of notes of dissent have been written, and that even more are written at night but, in the cold light of morning, are not delivered to the Minister. There are some good reasons for that. The relationship between the Minister and the permanent secretary would obviously be weakened or even damaged by such a note of dissent.

Fraud and probity in the civil service represent a continuing aspect of our work. Value for money and saving money are important, but most important are standards in public service. We pride ourselves on those standards. The need to prevent any fraud arises from the fear that there can be collusion between a number of people. The great help that we have is the enormous reputation of standards of conduct in public life. The greatest protection is the honest person who is feared by anyone who tries to commit such acts.

The task of the Public Accounts Committee is essentially simple with regard to value for money. What is required—I made this clear when we first started with the National Audit Office—is to compare the objectives with the achievement; the input with the output. It is simple. There is a certain amount of monitoring, so if people get it wrong at least they are able to stop it. We want monitoring phased so that, at any one time, we can see where we are. Sometimes it is not easy to quantify things, but almost always it is possible to quantify in some way. It is a wonderful discipline. That is what we try to achieve.

Many of this year's reports have lessons of one kind or another for us. The Committee's first report in the Session 1994–95 was "Ministry of Defence: the Major Projects Report (1993)". In paragraph 19 we say:
"We are concerned that some 80 per cent. of major projects were unlikely to achieve their in-Service date. We note that the Department have in the past tended to take an optimistic view of the in-Service date and that they are now taking initiatives to improve realism, such as 'three-point timings"'—
the three points being the best case, the worst case and the most likely case. The report continues:
"The Committee intend to monitor the outcome of this initiative closely."
The report deals with 25 projects totalling more than £25 billion. Although that is a small proportion of the total number of projects, the amounts of money are very large. Except on Trident, the overspend on each project was just less than £1 billion. What worries us most is the slippage, which is more than 30 months.

Mid-life updates occur when, half way through a programme, it is decided that improvements can be made in the weapons system. That creates a danger of slippage and cost overruns. We note that there is a five-year slippage, which is unacceptable. In paragraph 41 we say:
"Most of the upgrade programmes examined by the National Audit Office have been ambitious in scope."
They have a
"wide variety of proposed enhancements."
We used to call that "gold plating", meaning improvements that exceeded what was essential.

The danger of being at the front end of technology is that one does not know how much that technology will cost or how long it will take to produce. If one continues on that basis year by year, one will seek further improvements and, in theory, never obtain the weapons system at all.

A line must be drawn somewhere, and we say that we must be sensible about drawing it. We say that that process has
"led to the scope of programmes being reduced during their implementation to make them affordable."
The Department starts off with great plans to improve the weapons system. Some way through, it realises that it has overdone the cost and starts scaling down the project. There is not only slippage, but a poorer result.

We say in paragraph 44:
"there had been very little dissemination of experience between the project officers involved in such programmes."
We understand and hope that the Department will improve matters in that respect.

The Eurofighter is one of the most serious of our expenditures. The National Audit Office detailed a cost overrun at 29 April 1994 of £573 million. The latest overrun is £1.25 billion for the development programme alone—44 per cent. over estimate. Cost overruns of the whole project will probably be about £2.2 billion. That is phenomenally expensive, and it leads us to embark on a fresh examination of the way in which collaborative projects are undertaken.

Collaborative programmes involving several countries—in that case, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom—unquestionably cost more than single-country programmes. At one time, it used to be reckoned that collaborative programmes cost 10 per cent. more. That figure is being revised. Language difficulties and pressure to obtain work in certain places add to the costs. We need to get that one right, because there will be much more international collaboration.

Ideally, one would have wished the smaller and well-defined programmes—the things that can be done more easily—to have come first, enabling us to learn lessons that would help with larger-scale expenditures. The trouble with smaller, well-defined programmes is that they can be done by individual countries, so there is less need for them, but we need to undertake some of them in collaboration. I believe that savings can be made there as well, because one obtains the advantages of scale and experience. That might be an approach to the large developments somewhere near the frontiers of technology in due course.

I shall now discuss our second report, "The Sports Council: Initiatives to Improve Financial Management and Control and Value for Money". We point out that the Sports Council receives £48.8 million grant in aid, which is 95 per cent. of its income, from the Department of National Heritage. We were worried about standards of propriety. In paragraph 24, we said:
"We are particularly concerned that the former Director General and Accounting Officer and the former Finance Director had conflicts of interest".
They arose from the setting up of a private subsidiary company, which happens in several Government Departments. For good reasons, they set up subsidiary companies to deal with, perhaps, the marketing of one or two aspects of their work—and very good they are, too—but there must be a clear distinction between the work of the Government Department or Government-funded body concerned and that of the private organisations.

We say that there were conflicts of interest
"despite numerous reports by this Committee drawing attention to such dangers."
Clear dangers exist. At all stages there is a need to establish an arm's-length relationship.

We discovered that there was not an arm's-length relationship, and we noted specifically in paragraph 42 that, on the retirement of the director general of the council,
"the Trust Company appointed"
him
"as their part-time Chief Executive without the post being advertised."
He went from director general of the council to chief executive of the trust company without the post being advertised. It is obviously very dangerous to act in that way.

We say in paragraph 52:
"We are very concerned that the Council awarded a contract to Blenheim SportsCo Limited"
— another subsidiary company—
"for twenty years to manage the Council's annual exhibition as this does not allow the Council regularly to test the market."
There was no testing of the market, and preference was given to certain people.

Although commercial spin-offs are desirable, they must be handled with great care. We have the enormous advantage of the standards in public life, which we must do our utmost to protect. The Committee fully accepts that.

The fifth report is entitled, "Council Tax Valuations in England and Wales". The council tax came into effect on 1 April 1993. Properties were placed in eight broad bands from band A, for properties worth less than £40,000, to band H, for those worth more than £320,000. The bands were slightly different for Wales. The responsibility for valuing properties rested with the Valuation Office Agency of the Inland Revenue.

It is important to get the banding right. The major problem that we have had with the council tax—as with the poll tax—is the weakening of the discipline of taxpayers. We must do our utmost to return to the position in which people did not, in the main, try to avoid their responsibilities as taxpayers. People's respect for the system is enormously important to us. It is important, for that reason also, to get the bandings right. Accuracy is important.

The banding was undertaken. We found that 2 million properties might be in the wrong bands—that slightly fewer than 1 million might be too high, and that slightly more than 1 million might be too low. When we examined the situation, we found that many appeals would not be resolved until more than two years after the introduction of the council tax.

The "Treasury Minute on the Fifth and Sixth Reports from the Committee of Public Accounts 1994–95" says:
"the aim is to settle appeals within 12 months",
which is better, but there is a serious problem with the wide variation between the level at which the bands were set in different parts of the country.

Some bandings by the private sector were undertaken at 19p a valuation. That might appear to be a good deal, but if there is an appeal it is likely that it will cost 70 times as much to correct, so it could prove to be a rather bad deal. We note that the Valuation Office Agency has not yet analysed the number of appeals it has received to determine whether they relate to the private sector or to Valuation Office Agency valuations. We recommend that that be done to provide further assurance that common standards are adopted.

We note that the Valuation Office Agency was not able to record the time spent by its staff on the banding exercise, but it tells us that it intends to introduce a better time recording system to allow the work to be fully costed. We welcome that.

I shall now discuss two aspects of our report, "Severance Payments to Senior Staff in the Publicly Funded Education Sector". The first is the university of Huddersfield and the vice-chancellor's severance package.

There are 151 higher education institutions in England, 21 in Scotland and 16 in Wales. They are independent bodies that manage their own financial affairs. We are concerned at the way in which the whole undertaking was conducted. The root cause of the problems with the original severance agreement at Huddersfield was the decision made at the end of 1993 to exclude staff and student representatives from the membership of the university council there. That led to considerable upset among staff. In consequence, there was a breakdown of trust between the governing council, the vice-chancellor, staff and students.

As a result, although the university is independent, the Higher Education Funding Council objected when a severance package amounting to more than £411,000 was given to the vice-chancellor—let us be open about this—to shut him up and get rid of him in the easiest way. The university used our public money to satisfy its own purposes. We cannot accept that.

Worse than that, there was a gagging clause in the agreement which insisted that the vice-chancellor should not say anything about the reasons for his dismissal or the amount of money that was involved. Luckily, we heard about it indirectly, partly from my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) and partly from elsewhere. As a result, I stated clearly that gagging clauses cannot be justified. We cannot spend public money to enable people's positions to be changed on the basis that nobody will ever know about it.

The package included additional compensation and we understand that leading counsel for the HEFC advised that the settlement arrangements were irrational and excessive and could be ultra vires. As a result, we have agreed that, in nearly all cases, gagging clauses will not be allowed and that we must ensure that severance packages are justifiable and acceptable.

The second case involved the university of Portsmouth. The vice-chancellor there resigned after a no-confidence vote by the staff following an investigation into his expense claims. A settlement of £52,000 was paid to avoid possible legal action. We regarded that action as being similar to the first case and argued that public money cannot be used to keep people quiet. It might be done in private industry—that is its business—but taxpayers' money as voted by the House cannot be used to settle such matters. Purely as a consequence of that case, we came across the surprising fact that the former vice-chancellor had been paid an annual salary of over £17,000 as chairman of an NHS trust. The rate had been in accordance with a scale relating to the size of the trust and based on a notional time commitment of three and a quarter days a week. He got £17,000 for three and a quarter days a week and the rest of the time he was a vice-chancellor, for which he was paid £90,000. We stated:
"We are also surprised at the University's decision to pay the former Vice-Chancellor a salary of £90,000 a year while allowing him to continue with another important public sector job which had a notional time commitment of 3 1/4 days a week."
It is important that the National Audit Office should have the right to examine all such organisations.

We examine just over half of the non-departmental public bodies. I would want us to examine all of them. The National Audit Office should be able to examine them all. That does not mean that private firms of auditors would not be involved. There would be many cases, perhaps almost as many as there are now, where the National Audit Office could contract with the private sector to carry out the audit, but it would remain in charge. That way there would be more consistency between audits. In addition, the National Audit Office has the standing to which I have referred and its involvement would give the House reassurance.

There is the problem that many private sector auditors make a fair amount of their money through consultancies. It is difficult for them if their efforts are not well received by companies and they fear losing the audit contract and the profitable consultancies that go with it. By all means let auditors keep those consultancies if they wish, but at least let the audits be undertaken under the auspices of the National Audit Office.

The next report with which I wish to deal is the 33rd report, which deals with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and irregularities at the Sana'a embassy. "Irregularities" is a wonderful word for a disgraceful, scandalous fraud—one of the worst for some time.

A Mr. Ryan, who was a member of the diplomatic service, had access to a sterling account from which he could draw money and convert it into Yemeni rials. The money was changed at the black market rate. The report states:
"During 1993 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office became concerned about possible contractual and current irregularities at their post in Sana'a, in the Yemen. The existence of these irregularities was confirmed in November that year … Mr. Gerald Ryan … former Second Secretary, Management Officer/Consul in Sana'a was arrested.
Mr. Ryan admitted to the police that he and the accountant … had been involved in these irregularitio
He said that his share of the gains was about ikA),000 at the current exchange rate and he was released on police bail while under suspicion of false accounting and theft. The police discontinued the investigation after Mr. Ryan died on 24 December 1994. Mr. Ryan accepted that he made $50,000—about £30,000.

The Yemeni rials were
"drawn from the post's sterling account at the official exchange rate. Enough of that was then converted at the higher market, or 'parallel' rate to replenish the … account and the rest pocketed by Mr. Ryan"
or his associate.

The report continues:
"The 'parallel' exchange rate was up to four times higher than the official rate.
The Department estimated the potential for profiteering in this way to have been between £607,000 and £677,000."
We will never know the exact amount.

That was not all that Mr. Ryan did. He was involved in other irregularities, such as issuing visas without following established procedures and interviewing clients and completing application forms, apparently without the receipt of a fee. That is serious because 405 visa applications were made and it can reasonably be assumed that he did not deal with them without any financial recompense. The report states:
"we find it astonishing that the management at Sana'a also allowed their staff to use public money to gain up to £670,000 from manipulating the local currency markets. And we are concerned that the Department did not inform us of other possible irregularities at Sana'a, possibly involving the use of Overseas Development Administration funds until after the evidence session."
That is a serious matter. The report says that we were concerned that
"there were no job specifications for locally-engaged staff, that Mr. Ryan was able to recruit local staff known to him and that those appointed may not have been the best candidates."
Mr. Ryan might have got his accomplices in that way.

The report then deals with the role of the ambassador. Mr. Ryan arrived in Sana'a in January 1989 and returned to the United Kingdom just over four years later, but there were two ambassadors during that period. We asked why action had not been taken, because failures had been reported by internal auditors, but the warning signals had not been appreciated immediately. The report says:
"The Department told us that, although there had been much visiting, action subsequently taken had not been sufficiently decisive. Management of the post by the Ambassador, Mr. Marshall, had been defective."
We therefore asked why he had not been removed, or some other pressure brought to bear. We were told that the Department knew about the management weakness in the initial period and about serious shortcomings in Mr. Marshall's performance, but that they were not judged to have reached an unacceptable level. One and a half years later, in January 1994, a visiting officer from the overseas accounts section found that many of the deficiencies reported by internal audit still existed. The report singled out several weaknesses.

The report says that the management by senior officers at the embassy was "appalling"—that was undoubtedly the right word to use—that that was the root cause of the problem, and that we looked forward to receiving information from the Department on the outcome of disciplinary proceedings as soon as it was available. I hope that we shall hear from the Financial Secretary about that when he responds.

The next report is the 34th report on the green form scheme. The criminal legal aid concerned amounts to £432. million. The accounts have been qualified for the fourth year in succession, which is an extremely serious matter. That part of the operation of the Lord Chancellor's Department had its accounts qualified year after year without proper action being taken. Payments to solicitors on green form schemes amounted to £141 million. We say:
"the Department has failed to resolve satisfactorily the problem of inadequately completed statements of means."
Justices' clerks are supposed to have statements of means, which are used to decide whether legal aid should be granted. In our report, the justices' clerks say that, in too many cases, they are still failing to comply with regulations that have the force of law. We go on to say:
"We find this inexplicable given the Department's assurance about the continued co-operation of the Justices' Clerks Society."
We strongly believe that that failure to carry out the law and comply with the regulations should not be allowed to continue.

We know that, in many ways, this is a blank cheque and that the Government do not carry out a proper investigation of the green forms. Moreover, an increasing number of solicitors advertise their services—that is perfectly sensible and no one is against it—knowing full well that the green form system is available. It therefore occurs to some of us that the two can be brought together: the green forms as a blank cheque and advertising for those blank cheques. This is a serious matter.

The idea behind the green form system is first class because people with limited means are helped to understand the law and to deal with certain matters, but the scheme cannot continue in that way. Either the law must be changed or we must insist that the justices' clerks obey the law. If justices' clerks in a court of law cannot obey the law, one wonders who can. The matter is totally absurd. There is a legal requirement and they must follow it. If for some reason which I fail to comprehend they cannot, we must change the law.

We note that a system of franchising is being set up, which will be available to firms whose control systems have been rigorously audited. We understand that, by March 1996, the board hopes to have between 1,200 and 1,500 firms, accounting for one third of the expenditure, in the franchising system. I hope that the Financial Secretary can tell us how that is proceeding.

On the wider question of legal aid and the high fees paid under it, I note that the Lord Chancellor is urging, in a Green Paper, a fixed rate for lawyers. That matter deserves further examination and, in the light of public expenditure constraint, that area cannot be left untouched. The Public Accounts Committee may wish to examine it in due course.

Time allows me to deal with just one or two other reports. I wish to comment on more reports this year than in most previous years, which makes it difficult to bring out the issues. Even if I picked out one of our less contentious reports, we could have a whole day's debate on it, but the very number of reports frightens people off a little and, as a result, the reports do not get the examination that they deserve.

I should say a word on a few of the other reports and, if I hurry through them, it is only because I think that the issues that concern us should appear somewhere on the record.

The third report deals with the Merseyside development corporation, which was set up in 1981 to secure the regeneration of the designated area. In August 1992, tall ships went to Merseyside, there was a grand regatta of Columbus, a splendid programme was held to commemorate the quincentenary of Christopher Columbus's trip to America and there was a gala concert and fair for the new world. In the event, neither the regatta nor the concert recovered its costs. Some £1 million was spent and the net cost was some several hundred thousand pounds.

The aspect that concerned us most was that there were major overruns on hospitality and publicity. Certain firms gained advantages from that expenditure and public money was used to purchase and distribute, free of charge, concert tickets worth more than £100,000. We say in the report:
"We note the Corporation's explanation of the terms of the additional £150,000 payment to a separate company formed to stage. the concert … four days before the concert. However, we find it astonishing that the Corporation were … required to bail it out at such short notice"
by purchasing sponsorship tickets and rights. That was an obvious and notable failure.

Another failure to which I should draw attention was raised in the 19th report on business sponsorship of the arts in 1994–95. The programme director in charge of the scheme authorised payments totalling £175,000 to fictitious organisations. That is a serious matter. Mr. Nick Wood, an association programme director in charge of the scheme, authorised that programme having first constructed elaborate fraudulent documentation. He was prosecuted, found guilty of fraud and imprisoned. Some of the money was recovered, but some was not.

Our sixth report deals with the Wolds prison. A contract was given to Group 4 on the basis of best value for money, although it was not the lowest price. We have no objection to that, because contracts are sometimes not given on the lowest price, but one of the eight members of the panel that recommended Group 4 left the Prison Service nine months after the contract was placed—to join Group 4.

Although the final decision was that of Ministers, a full explanation about why Group 4 was awarded the contract was not given. The Committee advised that, to avoid any question of impropriety,
"detailed reasons should always be recorded whenever a contract is not awarded to a tenderer who submits the lowest bid and is judged capable of meeting the key performance criteria. This would also provide a basis for informing the other short-listed firms why their bids had been unsuccessful, a practice we would recommend the Prison Service to consider."
That applies to many cases. The award of a contract should be subject to greater openness and, when it is not given to the lowest bidder, the reasons for that decision should be given.

The Welsh Development Agency has caused the Committee a great deal of concern and has been the subject of lengthy discussion. Our 29th report on the WDA for 1994–95 is not as serious as some of our earlier ones on it—it has an exceptionally serious history. We note that Mr. Michael Scholar, from the Treasury, is now permanent secretary at the Welsh Office, and we look forward to his putting the Department into somewhat better order than it used to be in.

We were concerned about the acquisition and sale of a site in Aberdare to Tesco plc. We were concerned that, in a number of key areas, the WDA did not know what was going on when it should have done. The PAC's particular concern involved the sale of the Gadlys road site to Tesco plc. The agency received a late and unsolicited offer from Tesco and it did not notify that fact to other interested parties. We questioned whether it was wise that two directors of Tesco should have been directors of the agency with responsibility for deciding on matters such as the disposal of the Gadlys road site. We were deeply concerned that that action was not fair to the other offerers and that the agency appeared to have given preferential treatment to Tesco. The PAC noted:
"We consider that the assessment by the Welsh Office that the disposal of the … site was badly handled severely under-estimates"
the serious matter of probity in the public sector. We considered that the disposal had been handled in a totally unacceptable manner. I hope that we will not hear any more about the WDA and its failure to carry out its responsibility for the proper conduct of public money.

I must also mention Dr. O'Connell, a consultant who was paid for 11 years because no one could bring himself to dismiss her or to bring her case to a satisfactory conclusion. That consultant was paid year after year until the matter came before the PAC and we saw what had gone on. I hope that we will not discover any similar examples.

Hospital catering was also the subject of one of our reports. We discovered that people inherit the catering requests of the previous occupant of their bed. In the week after the previous patient left, the new person in the hospital bed has to have the same meals that his predecessor ordered. That is nonsense. Some hospitals manage to change the catering orders on computer on the same day. I could detail a few more nonsenses, but time is pressing and colleagues would like to speak. Such matters deserve further attention.

This year, the PAC has had to deal with more questions of fraud than in most other years, and I hope that they will take up less of our time in the future.

5.13 pm

I join our Chairman, the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), in paying tribute to Sir John Bourn and his colleagues at the National Audit Office for the splendid work that they have done during the year and to the Clerk of our Committee, Mr. Ken Brown. I also pay tribute to our Chairman for the great assiduity he displays in his work and the impressive tour d' horizon of the reports of the Public Accounts Committee that he has given hon. Members.

This annual debate provides us with the opportunity to consider the PAC's outstanding reports, of which, as we have heard, there are 51. As I listened to the right hon. Member's speech, I could not help thinking that perhaps few members of the public realise what is involved in producing 51 reports. It might be appropriate to mention that the Committee meets twice a week when the House is sitting and sits on average for about two and a half hours. Any member of that Committee who is doing his homework will spend at least two hours preparing for each of its sittings. It is probably the busiest Committee of Parliament and, as the senior Select Committee, it carries considerable clout.

As usual, today the Chamber is populated by colleagues who are members of the PAC, including the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, whom we are pleased to see in his place. Also listening to our deliberations is that distinguished parliamentarian, my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission and a former member of our Committee.

I should like to drallo the attention of the House to the 34th report of the PAC, which deals with the Lord Chancellor's Department and the qualification of audit opinion and alleged fraud on the green form scheme. The Chairman of our Committee has already referred to it, but such is its importance that I should like to mention one or two other aspects.

Expenditure on criminal legal aid in 1993–94 comprised £194 million paid for legal proceedings in magistrates courts and £238 million for proceedings in the higher criminal courts—a total of £432 million. By any measure, that is a huge expenditure of British taxpayers' money and it is absolutely essential that it should be properly accounted for. Most awards of legal aid, which provide the authority for payments to solicitors and counsel, are granted in the magistrates court. It was in the light of the audit findings of those courts that the Comptroller and Auditor General qualified his opinion for the fourth year in succession. He did so because of the limited evidence available to ensure full compliance with the regulations relating to the granting of legal aid.

Grants to the legal aid fund total the staggering amount of £975 million. As hon. Members know, the fund is administered by the Legal Aid Board under the general guidance of my right hon. and noble Friend the Lord Chancellor. One of the schemes offered by the Legal Aid Board—the well-known green form scheme—relates to legal advice and assistance. Payments to solicitors under that scheme amounted to £146.6 million in 1993–94. The Legal Aid Board and the police are investigating allegations of fraud in claims for legal advice and assistance.

Given the serious nature and possible implications of the alleged frauds, the Comptroller and Auditor General reported the facts to Parliament. It was on the basis of his report that the PAC took evidence from the Legal Aid Board and the Lord Chancellor's Department about the alleged frauds. We say in our report:
"we are dismayed that, after four years in which the Comptroller and Auditor General has qualified his opinion of the accounts and eight separate initiatives, the Department has failed to resolve satisfactorily the problem of inadequately completed statements of means."
Despite all the efforts of the Department, in too many cases justices' clerks are still failing to comply with the regulations which, as the Chairman of the PAC has pointed out, have the force of law. To me, and I dare say to any hon. Member, that is an extraordinary situation. Justices' clerks, surely the most thoroughly respectable and upright citizens, are failing to comply with the force of law. The Committee considers that failure inexplicable
"given the Department's assurance about the continued co-operation of the Justices' Clerks' Society."
It is still not possible to find out whether legal aid should be granted and, as a result,
"irregular expenditure is likely to result".
The PAC is seriously concerned that the Lord Chancellor's Department has no means of enforcing the regulations. It is a matter of urgency and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell the House whether the legal aid regulations are enforceable.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there are two tests before someone can obtain legal aid? First, one has to ask whether it is in the interests of justice that the individual should do so. Secondly, there is a means test. As the Lord Chancellor's Department and the justices' clerks seem unwilling to deal effectively with means tests, is it not about time that the responsibility was taken from them and given, perhaps, to the Benefits Agency or another body that is more familiar with implementing means tests?

My hon. Friend is right. I have considerable sympathy with his suggestion. There is much concern about the matter in my constituency and in my hon. Friend's. I can say that about my hon. Friend's constituency without a shadow of doubt because I am one of his constituents. There is general concern, however, that stems to some extent from the publicity that has been given to some high-profile cases such as those of Jawad Hashim and the Maxwell brothers. It is unacceptable to most ordinary citizens that grants of legal aid were made in some cases, given the large sums of taxpayers' money that were involved. Contributions were assessed on insufficient information about the applicants' claims to financial resources. We must remember the huge sums of public money that are at stake and the anger that has been expressed in certain newspapers—especially in the London Evening Standard but in many others—about a scheme that seems to most people to be extraordinary in its implementation.

I put several questions to the distinguished civil servant who is the permanent secretary to the Lord Chancellor's Department. Sir Thomas Legg is also the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery. In one instance, he replied that he could not say why grants of legal aid were made improperly because
"these assessments, or the lack of them, were made by the courts and here we are talking about 500 magistrates' courts that are dealing with over half a million applications a year."
I asked Sir Thomas if the Lord Chancellor has responsibility for the operation of the magistrates courts. He replied in a fascinating way. He said that it was "yes and no." He told me that my question required a two-part answer. I wondered whether I was listening to one of those wonderful Gilbert and Sullivan operas all over again. I was told that the magistrates courts are undertaking an essentially judicial function in granting or refusing legal aid and that they are not in any sense part of central Government.

It seems that members of the staff are not civil servants. They are not part of Sir Thomas's Department. They are not subject to the Department's direct control. Central Government, in the form of the Lord Chancellor's Department, grant-aids 80 per cent. of the expenditure of the courts, but it does not control the courts' administration in any detail. That is done by more than 100 local magistrates courts committees. According to Sir Thomas, they are fiercely independent of central Government. There we have it. Fiercely independent people are responsible for an extremely important job that is not, unfortunately, being done very well.

We are told that the Department and the Legal Aid Board have together produced a comprehensive guide that sets out what they consider to be the proper application of the interests of justice criteria, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Smith) referred. It seems, however, that the various sets of guidance have not yet proved to be effective, bearing in mind the huge sums that are involved. I was assured that the Justices' Clerks Society is well aware of that view. I was told that
"if the present system, by which legal aid is granted by the magistrates' courts, cannot be seen to deliver propriety and regularity then the Lord Chancellor will have to consider taking that function away from the courts and vesting it in other hands."
I hope that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will tell the House about the progress that the Lord Chancellor is making. Has he considered recently taking the responsibility away from the courts? If not, why not? After all, the record to date cannot be said to be very good. Public concern must be responded to urgently.

The PAC was told by the Legal Aid Board that over the past three years, there have been 12 prosecutions following alleged fraud on the green form scheme. It appears that 90 firms of solicitors have been reported to the police and about 90 to the bureau dealing with complaints about solicitors for abuse of legal aid. That is an unhappy situation. After all, we are dealing with an important profession.

The Legal Aid Board told the PAC that it has recovered £250,000 and was withholding £550,000 pending the outcome of inquiries. It appears that it has secured agreements with individual firms to refund a further £85,000, which has not yet been paid. Of all the cases investigated over the past two years, the board estimated that the loss through fraud would be between £1.9 million and £3 million. That is a significant sum. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary will expand on the Treasury minute, which we have studied, which takes the matter a little further forward.

The 30th report, entitled "Entry into the United Kingdom", is one of the most important to come before the House. It deals with issues that affect almost every citizen. The decisions of the immigration service of the Home Office, which turn on whether many millions of passengers arriving each year at airports and ferry ports have valid documents and are entitled to enter the country under our immigration laws, are of the greatest interest and concern. The report is of especial interest to my constituents because my constituency is adjacent to London airport. The House will know that Heathrow is in the borough of Hillingdon. That fact brings some special and expensive problems to the local authority, especially in caring for unaccompanied child refugees at a cost of much more than £1 million a year to council tax and income tax payers.

When the PAC examined the permanent secretary at the Home Office on this and other matters he told me, in answer to my questions, about the steps that are being taken to ensure the detection of child refugees when they leave the airport or vessel. Their entry into the United Kingdom appears to be a growing problem. He made the important point that the problem rests not so much with unaccompanied children but with such children who claim asylum. There were 357 in 1994. The rate at which they came in increased during the year. It was 69 in the first quarter of 1994, rising steadily to 109 in the final quarter. Heathrow is the principal port of entry.

After a good deal of correspondence with the Home Office, I was glad to be told that surveillance officers will be operating at the gates of airports and that closed circuit television will be used to detect young people when they arrive by aircraft. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will tell us what financial assistance can be provided to the borough of Hillingdon. As I have said, substantial sums are at stake.

I strongly believe that it is important for the House to. approach the question of unaccompanied child refugees, bearing in mind the considerable problems that it poses for them and for those who have to care for them. I am glad to know that steps have been taken to investigate the possibility of the young persons concerned being repatriated to their country of origin—only, of course, where it is safe to do so—so that they can be cared for there instead of in the United Kingdom.

On the more general question of preventing illegal entry, I am glad that the immigration service has introduced a computerised suspect index at major ports. It provides the immigration service with almost immediate access to some 340,000 entries. It will even allow for the different way in which foreign names are spelt, so it looks as though we shall have some fairly sophisticated equipment to help with the difficult problem that is faced by the immigration service at Heathrow and elsewhere.

One or two of the comments in the Treasury minutes deal with these particular problems. The first is that on unaccompanied minors. In minute No. 84 of the Treasury minutes, which were published in Command 3013, we are told:
"The Immigration and Nationality Department continues to address the issue of children abandoned in the United Kingdom. A specialist section was established in May 1995 in order to consider asylum applications from unaccompanied minors. The Immigration and Nationality Department has agreed to co-operate with the British Red Cross Society in its project to establish a register of unaccompanied children to facilitate the restoration of family contacts and eventual reunion with their families. Additional measures and options to combat abuse of the immigration control, such as improved surveillance, procedures for documents/visa issue and extending the Airline Liaison officer programme are being considered and, where appropriate, pursued with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office."
I ask my hon. Friend to ensure that the investigation that is being carried out includes co-operation with the London borough of Hillingdon, which has unique experience of dealing with that difficult problem.

I just want to say how much I, and other members of the Committee, support the work that the immigration service is doing to build up its intelligence work so that it is able to detect the changes in the method used by people to gain illegal entry. The increasing use of forged documents is becoming a significant problem, which must be tackled with all the sophisticated technology that is available. The measures that have been taken have led to a significant increase in the number of immigration offenders detected, but there is no room for complacency. It is necessary for the service to use all the resources at its disposal if this illegal flow is to be stemmed.

The Committee also recommended that the immigration service keeps the size of the detention estate under review so that sufficient places are available to meet any increase in asylum cases and the number of passengers detained for further inquiries. Therefore, I was pleased to see from the Treasury minute that action is being taken to enhance the quality and size of the immigration service's detention estate, and to make more efficient use of available facilities. The Treasury minute tells us that there will be an increase in the total number of detention places available by mid-1997. It also tells us that it is intended to replace the 95-bed detention centre at Harmondsworth with larger, purpose-built accommodation. That move is very good, and long overdue. The immigration service also shares the Committee's concern about the use of police cells, which, as everyone who has studied this matter knows, are unsuitable for the detention of immigrants while their cases await examination.

Visa regimes are another important way of preventing illegal immigration. Pre-entry controls are supposed to transfer the problems back to the originating country. The PAC heard evidence to the effect that, out of 1 million applications for visas in 1994, 60,000 were refused. The controls that operate on entry into the country form the second line of defence, but the visa regime will, in my opinion, be effective only if our high commissions and embassies overseas are adequately staffed and entry clearance officers have sufficient time to interview each applicant properly. There also need to be adequate intelligence staff to investigate the information that is obtained, quite frequently from local sources.

Two weeks ago, I was in Sri Lanka for the annual general meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and took the opportunity to visit our high commission in Colombo and to discuss those matters in some detail with the visa officer. I was concerned to find that there is no intelligence officer in post in Colombo. Sri Lanka is a comparatively small source of illegal immigrants to the United Kingdom—there are about 1,000 a year, which is pretty small compared with a number of other countries—but if forged documents are to be detected, it is vital that adequate entry clearance and intelligence officers are in post overseas. I hope very much that my hon. Friend will look into that matter. I pay a warm tribute to the work of those entry clearance and intelligence officers overseas. A number of them are young officers, who have a difficult job to do in deciding that very emotive and personal question of whether a person should be granted a visa.

It is interesting to note that, between 1989 and 1993, the number of immigration offenders identified has steadily increased. Between those dates, the figure rose from 7,000 to 10,300. The Home Office told the Committee that, in 1994, the figure had gone up to 12,727. The proportion of people who were subject to further examination and subsequently refused leave to enter has also risen. The figures are quite dramatic. In 1992, 16,937 out of 60,623 passengers stopped for further examination were later refused leave to enter. In 1993, the respective figures were 19,000 and 63,000. In 1994, they were 23,000 and 66,000. Therefore, I hope that the Government will continue to make available to the immigration service the resources that are clearly necessary to deal with this rising trend.

The 27th report, dealing with general practitioner fundholding in England, is an important report because it is the first time that Parliament has, through the PAC, examined closely and at first hand the work being done by GP fundholders, and most important of all, the impact of the scheme on patients. It might be of some interest if I mention briefly to the House the evidence that we received from the national health service executive about the effect on patients. The report said:
"Many GP fundholders taking part in the National Audit Office survey said that they had achieved a wide range of benefits for their patients."
The report went on to say that GPs
"would not have said services had improved as a result of fundholding unless they believed this to be the case; GPs have been amongst the biggest critics of services provided by hospitals and other health services. They told us they had found that GPs had painted a realistic picture of the level of services provided and had demanded improvements in service, and that GPs had been quite successful in doing that … there was evidence that the impetus of GP fundholders had often led to faster turnaround times on pathology results and faster response times on discharge letter … The Executive stated that GP fundholders were often leading the way in relation to open access to physiotherapy, X-ray and reduced waiting times."
All the evidence that we received from the executive was very impressive, and led us to conclude that the fundholder service was working extremely well.

We also asked the executive
"whether all non-fundholding GP patients received all the benefits that patients of GP fundholders received. They considered that the fundholding scheme had not operated to the detriment of people who were registered with non-fundholding practices."
That, too, is important evidence.

The Committee was concerned about value for money; so we asked the executive
"whether the extra costs of administration would yield better value for money. They told us that GP fundholders were out performing non-fundholders in terms of coping with the ever increasing pressure on the drugs budget and that over the three years 1991–92 to 1993–94 they estimated that GP fundholders had saved in the order of £70 million on the costs of drugs."
That report should certainly be taken into account in consideration of the organisation of the national health service.

We also took account of the executive's view that
"fundholders have been achieving a faster delivery of patient care and improving the range and level of care; but that other initiatives, such as the Patient's Charter, will also have contributed to downward pressure on, for example, waiting times for hospital appointments."
There we have it: the GP fundholding scheme has not operated to the detriment of patients of non-fundholding GPs. It is working well, in conjunction with the patients charter, to achieve shorter turnaround times, shorter waiting lists and a better standard of medicine in our country.

As this is a highly political matter, I make no apology for stating that the PAC's work is not party political. One of our great attributes is that we try to examine impartially all the matters that come before us. I hope that all politicians who must decide whether the GP fundholding scheme is a good idea will pay attention to the interesting and useful report from which I have quoted.

I regard it as a great privilege to serve on the PAC. It is the one parliamentary Committee whose members have access to precise, factual information, and to an agreed report from the National Audit Office on which we can question witnesses. That is a powerful means of ensuring effectiveness, economy and efficiency in Government, and value for money for the taxpayer. When things go wrong, we can identify the mistakes and ensure that the Departments concerned learn the lessons. We always look forward to the Treasury minutes, which usually accept our recommendations. It would not stretch the figures too much, I think, to say that the PAC's work saves the taxpayer an average of well over £200 million a year.

5.43 pm

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) on his tour de force in opening our annual debate. As he said, we are considering 51 reports, which shows the depth and extent of the Public Accounts Committee's work in ensuring probity in the spending of money by the authorities to which Parliament has voted that money.

The report on general practitioner fundholding, referred to by the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Sir M. Shersby), reveals a number of problems to which the hon. Gentleman did not draw attention. It shows, for instance, that fundholders currently have nearly £100 million in their balances, which they are not required to spend for four years. That is a great deal of money, which would be much better spent on patient care. The report also points out that 20 per cent. of fundholders have underspent their 1993–94 allocation by more than £100,000. That money, too, would have been much better spent on patients.

Mr. Langlands pointed out in his evidence to the Committee that the establishment of GP fundholding had cost the NHS £150 million—money that would have been better spent on health care than on bureaucracy. I am glad that Mr. Langlands placed that information on the record, especially for the purposes of my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Milburn).

In opening the debate, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee mentioned the 33rd report, which concerns irregularities at the Sana'a embassy in the Yemen. Those irregularities concern me, as they have clearly cost the taxpayer a great deal of money. The financial transactions carried out by Mr. Ryan probably imposed a direct cost of £300,000 on the taxpayer, and Mr. Ryan's profits were probably of the order of £600,000, although the amount is difficult to quantify. The cost of the investigation of the fraud was some £41,000, and 17 visits were paid to the Yemen at a cost of some £100,000.

Another part of the report draws attention to the fact that while Mr. Ryan was in the Yemen he negotiated the lease for the ambassador's dwelling in Sana'a. The embassy is the most expensive in the diplomatic service. For a five-year period, it will cost the British taxpayer £1.35 million. It is clear that Mr. Ryan received what is known as a backhander for the contract. I find it astonishing that such an amount of taxpayers' money should be spent on an embassy, but I am even more astonished that a five-year lease cannot be renegotiated to save money for the taxpayer. That in itself is a disgrace.

We were not helped by the evidence of Sir John Coles, the permanent under-secretary of state and head of the diplomatic service. Just before the hearing, he submitted a note to the Committee saying that issues involved in some of the disciplinary hearings were sub judice, which made it impossible for the Committee to follow certain lines of questioning. I considered the attempt to constrain the PAC's role undesirable and criticism was made by the Committee itself.

The evidence given by Sir Jones Coles began straightforwardly: one ambassador had been removed from his post with no enhancement. By the time we finished taking evidence, however, two ambassadors had disappeared with enhancements at a cost to the public purse of £221,000 for the first and £131,000 for the second. They were given those enhancements so that they would take early retirement because they were incompetent at the job that they had been charged to do. That cost to the taxpayer could clearly have been avoided.

When we asked Sir John Coles why it had taken rigorous cross-examination to extract information from him, he came up with a number of less than convincing answers. He apologised for slightly misleading the Committee, saying that it was simply due to his "own poor memory": he did not set out to mislead the Committee, but his memory in regard to pension enhancement was defective and the facts had slipped his memory. He said that he was sorry if his evidence sounded evasive and stated:
"I appear to have misled the Committee"
. That was an unconvincing body of evidence, and the report is damning. I believe that the two ambassadors involved in that pitiful example of poor expenditure of public money should have been sacked rather than being told to take voluntary retirement or compulsory redundancy.

Out of that inquiry, 153 recommendations for improvements to the internal audit of the diplomatic service have been brought forward. I hope that every one of them is being carried out and that when the Financial Secretary sums up the debate he will be able to give us that assurance.

The 23rd report of the Public Accounts Committee was published on 17 May 1995 and entitled, "Value for money at grant-maintained schools in England: a review of performance". It contains the second set of evidence that the PAC has taken on the issue of grant-maintained schools. Clearly, a number of issues remain to be resolved in the GM school funding sector. The PAC has drawn attention to the double funding of GM schools, where the Government overestimate the central service charges of local education authorities and underestimate the amount of money that they delegate in their local management of schools budget. That means that when the Government recover the annual maintenance grant paid to GM schools from LEAs they take more money than necessary from the LEAs and give it to the GM schools.

That inflated payment to GM schools is made at the direct expense of other schools in the LEA. That is robbing Peter to pay Paul. In Tower Hamlets and Lambeth, two regions of high deprivation in London, state schools were badly affected by that double funding. The PAC has called straightforwardly for
"the central services element of annual maintenance grant … to reflect accurately local education authorities' delegation of central services to schools."
We are pleased to note that the Government have taken that on board. Clearly, earlier action would have allowed authorities in Lambeth, Tower Hamlets and elsewhere to have the right level of funding available for schools remaining with the local education authority.

If we have a state system of education, it is essential that all schools in that system are treated fairly, and that all pupils receive a fair amount of grant per head in each school. The example that the PAC has identified has been reluctantly taken on board by the Government and we hope that within the next two years the practice will have been removed. We are assured that new schools coming into the GM sector will not benefit from such double funding.

One of the other problems with grant-maintained schools is the lack of declarations of pecuniary interest by governing bodies. In 22 of the 70 schools visited by the National Audit Office, there was either no register of pecuniary interest or the register had not been kept up to date. The Public Accounts Committee is charged with ensuring probity in the expenditure of public finances. One of the best ways of doing that, where school governing bodies are involved, is to ensure that each individual member declares a pecuniary interest, so that when a governing body awards a contract there is no conflict of interest and no question mark over the probity of those schools' actions.

I have been told that a number of hon. Members are lining up to participate in the debate and to ensure that my remarks are succinct and to the point. To go back to pecuniary interest—

I am sure that that echo of encouragement will reflect on the points about pecuniary interest. Wherever contracts are awarded, whether it be in state schools under the local education authority or in grant-maintained schools, it is essential that a register of pecuniary interest should be maintained so that people who could be involved in the contract do not take part in decisions to award contracts to companies for which they work.

Clearly, we are concerned about some aspects of that matter in the incorporated and further education sectors. That approach is recommended by the PAC and its adoption by the Government would be a positive step. I look forward to hearing an assurance from the Financial Secretary that under the regulations of non-departmental public bodies it is a requirement to establish a register of pecuniary interest to ensure probity in the administration of public affairs.

Another example to which the Public Accounts Committee drew attention in relation to grant-maintained schools was their ability—or, currently, their lack of ability or legal power—to borrow money. We are assured that, where money has been borrowed or leased, its legality may be questionable and that the Government are examining the matter. In evidence, the PAC has been told that when GM schools are given permission to borrow money, so long as the governing body has acted properly, within the scope of its functions and procedures, with honesty and without ulterior motive, and it has reasonably carried out its business in a commonsense way, it will be protected from the risk to its assets. That is straightforward. If the governing bodies have done it properly, there will be nothing for them to worry about.

I am still concerned about what will be used as security for the loans that GM school governing bodies may take out. Will it be the school buildings? Will it be some other form of security? If a loan is not paid back but defaulted on, what will happen next? We want some assurances from the Government that they have followed that aspect through. If GM schools start to take out large loans on school buildings, the value of the school playing fields or some other asset, and then default on their loans, we shall start to experience problems with the delivery of education. We want to be sure that that will not be the case. I do not want to be a member of the PAC in the future, to be asked to sit in judgment and to find out that loans have been defaulted on and that the Treasury has underwritten them and paid them off.

Another aspect of grant-maintained school funding that is of great concern involves evidence given to the PAC by the chief executive of the Funding Agency for Schools. Under cross-examination, he conceded that if they opted out of the national pay scheme head teachers and deputy head teachers in GM schools would be entitled to have what is commonly known as a company car and private medical health insurance as part of their remuneration.

Having spent a lifetime in education before coming to this place, I think—and I cannot be faulted for believing—that if money is available for company cars and private health care for heads and deputy heads, the money involved would be better spent directly on education provision. It is not the state's role to provide private health care for head teachers in the state sector. That is a totally inappropriate use of public funds. I look forward to the Financial Secretary saying some words about that when he responds to the debate.

Clearly, we want confirmation that double funding has now ended, that the annual maintenance grant is calculated accurately in relation to the LEA's expenditure on central services and takes into account how much money it delegates to its schools, and that schools which remain within LEAs are not disadvantaged by preferential finance going to schools in the GM sector. It is a straightforward view that schools in the state sector should all be equally and adequately funded.

The 40th report of the PAC has already been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne. It deals with the suspension of Dr. Bridget O'Connell and it is a woeful tale of inadequacy. The sums involved are quite substantial, given that one individual is involved. The final settlement will have cost the taxpayer just short of £600,000—a total of £593,409, which includes £439,259 in pay for doing nothing for more than 12 years, £105,000 in settlement of the legal case out of court, and £11,000 in legal expenses and enhanced superannuation benefits assuming that Dr. O'Connell will live to the age of 75.

Dr. O'Connell was suspended in 1982 by North East Thames regional health authority because she did not get on with the staff in the paediatric unit where she worked and in the hospital generally. It took 12 years to resolve that personal difference in the hospital. It is astonishing that things could get so far and that the chief executive of the national health service management executive, Mr. Langlands, had to settle out of court. Clearly, the NHS management executive did not have a leg to stand on.

In my cross-examination of Mr. Langlands, I suggested that he "sued for peace". He did not agree with my analysis of what had happened, but said that he thought that the settlement was the best value that could be gained for the taxpayer after the case had gone on for so long. The case should have been resolved a great deal earlier.

The other extraordinary aspect of the case is that the evidence from Sir Duncan Nichol, the former chief executive, and from Mr. Langlands himself shows that the NHS does not like gagging clauses in severance contracts. However, under examination Mr. Langlands confirmed that there was a gagging clause in Dr. O'Connell's contract. He said that he did not like it, but that he was not too concerned about it because he knew that the case would hit the headlines. He was certainly right about that. In all fairness, it was not the NHS executive that asked for the gagging clause, but Dr. O'Connell's solicitor. It would have been better if the NHS executive had resisted that request and published the details in full. It would have saved the Public Accounts Committee a great deal of time and effort.

I hope that the case will prove to be an isolated one. We have received an assurance from Mr. Langlands that he has trawled the NHS to ensure that there are no other examples of people receiving full pay for 12 years and enjoying the full benefits of pay increases year after year without turning a tap for the health service. There has been poor management and weak procedures. We want an assurance that the weak procedures have been sufficiently strengthened to ensure that nothing like this case could ever happen again at the expense of the taxpayer.

I wish to refer next to a report that I have mentioned previously in the House, entitled "Merseyside Development Corporation: Grand Regatta Columbus and Fanfare for a New World Concert"—the third in this series of PAC reports. I am extremely disturbed by the report and astonished at the amount of taxpayers' money that has been lost through the incompetence of the MDC. The concert and the regatta were the brainchild of the chairman, Sir Desmond Pitcher, who is coincidentally also chairman of North West Water.

As the PAC Chairman has already said, the two events cost the taxpayer and private business £1.1 million. They actually exceeded the permission on expenditure granted by the Department of the Environment. A letter from the Merseyside task force dated 3 March 1992 stated:
"Further to my letter of 23 January, my Headquarters have now agreed to MDC's proposals as set out in your letter of 20 December. However, they do not consider MDC to be underwriting expenditure but rather estimating a potential financial contribution."
There is then the key sentence:
"My colleagues have been reassured by your having estimated the maximum possible contribution in a worst case scenario, by your recognition that MDC expenditure will have to be met from within the EFL, and by the scope that exists for MDC to prune costs if necessary."
The cost referred to was about £200,000. The letter then said that if the MDC expected to spend any further money on the regatta, approval from the Department of the Environment should be sought first.

That was a clear instruction about the maximum that the DOE expected the MDC to spend or lose. The letter clearly said that if further contributions were required, approval should first be sought. The warning was clear even before approval was sought because the MDC had spent money on the regatta and the concert before it wrote to the DOE seeking permission.

On 12 July 1992, in an estimate of what the two events would cost, the MDC in a handwritten memorandum estimated the loss for the concert to be £187,840. The MDC knew that the event would lose money, yet it proceeded with the concert. It did not cancel it, nor were strict measures taken to mitigate the losses. The MDC carried on with the concert, but in a rather peculiar way. Four days before the concert took place it signed a deal with a private shell company, with a share value of £2, to take over the whole of the financial responsibility for the concert and the regatta.

With the stroke of a pen, the MDC transferred the losses from the public purse to the private purse. That was deplorable. It knew that the events would lose money, so it moved the debt from the public to the private sector. Private business on Merseyside was left £375,819 out of pocket. That is a phenomenal amount of money which the MDC wrote off with the stroke of a pen for an event that. was the brainchild of its chairman.

Questions must be asked about the clear lack of supervision by the Department of the Environment. Questions must also be asked about the role of the Merseyside development corporation, which has played fast and loose with public money. From the response by the Treasury to date, it appears that nothing is to be done.

In addition to those losses, the MDC gave away £100,000 worth of tickets. Hospitality was overspent and the whole thing was a complete shambles. However, three and a half years later, not one member of the board has been removed from office and the chairman is still in place. The time has come for action. First, the private sector should have its losses reimbursed. Secondly, disciplinary action should be taken within the MDC so that future activities will be kept within the terms of its charter to oversee the economic regeneration of Merseyside, rather than fall in blindly with the wishes and whims of its chairman to produce glossy brochures about fanfares which prove to be a heavy cost on the taxpayer.

I end with the report entitled, "The Proper Conduct of Public Business", the eighth report of the 1993–94 Session, which draws attention dramatically to the failures identified by the PAC. It states:
"In recent years we have seen and reported on a number of serious failures in administrative and financial systems and controls within departments and other public bodies, which have led to money being wasted or otherwise improperly spent. These failings represent a departure from the standards of public conduct which have mainly been established during the past 140 years. This was the period following the publication of the Northcote and Trevelyan Report"
. The PAC has considered 51 reports this year and it is obvious that there are still serious problems with the proper conduct of public business. However, it is not the final tale of the PAC's work over the past 12 months because a number of reports are yet to come before the House. There are to be reports on fraud in the Metropolitan police, the royal palaces, the Mount Vernon sale, the sale of county hall and the incompetencies of the Child Support Agency. Those are five major reports that we can look forward to debating in 12 months' time. I hope that there will then be a far better picture of the proper conduct of public business within the United Kingdom.

6.8 pm

Mr. Chris Davies
(Littleborough and Saddleworth)