House of Commons
Thursday 19 April 2007
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
In 2005, the Department implemented 144 statutory instruments and the figure for 2006 was 150.
I am grateful for that answer. DEFRA says that it has a commitment to reduce regulatory and administrative burdens by 25 per cent. The Minister shakes his head, but I have a written answer to a parliamentary question in which it says, in terms, that DEFRA is committed to better regulation and reducing the burden of administration by 25 per cent. I will send it to the Minister if he has not seen it. What is the evidence that DEFRA is providing anything other than empty words and actually doing something to reduce regulatory burdens? On the basis of what the Minister has just said, the answer seems to be not a lot.
It is always advisable, before saying something in the Chamber, to check one’s facts. The hon. Gentleman is quite right to refer to the 2005 notice where we did commit ourselves to a 25 per cent. reduction. I am delighted to be able to tell him that last December I published our simplification plan, in which we exceeded our own target, and we have now produced a simplification plan for a 30 per cent. reduction of administrative burdens. That is approximately £159 million taken off business—over and above the baseline that was independently assessed in 2005, which I believe is the hon. Gentleman’s time scale.
I wonder whether any of those new regulations related to flood plains, where higher water tables could result in the flooding of new housing developments? Does he agree that there should be a regulation requiring those with responsibility for flooding to keep a public register, particularly when planning applications are granted, sometimes on appeal, to build houses on flood plains?
I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman which one of the 150 statutory instruments would have dealt with the specific instance to which he refers. I understand that the hon. Gentleman raised this matter recently and it has been referred to the Department for Communities and Local Government. Members often talk about regulations as if they bring only costs or burdens. They do not. They often create new frameworks for markets, new jobs and wealth. They often simplify a previous regime. The hon. Gentleman will know that the Environment Agency, which is indeed part of the DEFRA family, has responsibility for flood regulation, but in so far as the specifics to which he refers, it is a matter for the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Does my hon. Friend think as I do that that is a very strange question coming from an Opposition Member because prior to 1997, the general public were clamouring for regulation in the food safety area, which is why the Government set up the Food Standards Agency—and even today, the Conservative party’s own leader is clamouring for climate change regulation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. If we simply add up the costs of regulation without then offsetting its benefits, what results may be convenient for a bit of parliamentary slapstick, but it does not provide the best picture of the true value of regulation. My hon. Friend referred to the position before 1997, which reminds me of a good example in the Animal By-Products Regulations 2005, which the present Government introduced. The impact assessment showed a total administrative cost of £7.58 million. I have no doubt that that was part of the reason why the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), who tabled this question, did not pursue those regulations when he was a Minister at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Actually—
Order. The Minister has already given a very full response.
Surely what matters as much as the quantity of regulation is the quality, particularly where there is a potentially serious risk to human health. Given that we learned half an hour ago that, as with foot and mouth, the Government have failed to establish the cause of the outbreak of bird flu in Suffolk, is the Minister satisfied with the quality of the regulations dealing with importing poultry meat? Does he not agree that many people will be astonished—bearing in mind that there must have been a serious breach of biosecurity at the Bernard Matthews plant—that under existing regulations nobody will he held responsible and instead the company concerned will receive £589,356.89 in compensation, funded by the taxpayer? Is it not time to look again at the regulations concerning the importation of poultry meat?
Obviously the hon. Gentleman does not take a great deal of notice of his colleague, the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who is the local MP and who, only two weeks ago, praised the Government’s handling of the whole matter. The hon. Gentleman will note from the report of the Food Standards Agency two weeks ago that it did not have sufficient evidence to prosecute in this case. The Government have received many plaudits for the way in which the whole matter of avian flu has been handled, including from his colleagues.
The Government strongly support the principles of Fairtrade. The environmental standards required for Fairtrade accreditation are, of course, a key element of the scheme, complementing the better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers in the developing world, which are sometimes better understood by consumers.
I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I have been working with Fairtrade campaigners locally to try to make Tooting a Fairtrade zone. One of the criteria that must be fulfilled before an area can be a Fairtrade zone is for the local council to pass a resolution in support of Fairtrade. Unfortunately, the majority group on Wandsworth council refuses to pass such a resolution. Does the Minister agree that Fairtrade initiatives and zones can help the Government’s aim of tackling environmental degradation globally and what does he think about the stance of Wandsworth council, which is preventing Tooting from becoming a Fairtrade zone?
I commend the extraordinary amount of work that my hon. Friend has done on this issue over a sustained period of time, galvanising the local community and really beginning to explain to people the benefits of Fairtrade and the importance of buying Fairtrade produce. It is nothing short of shameful that the Tory Wandsworth council is obstructing the move to make Tooting a Fairtrade zone. I wish him every success with the campaign. It is vital that these issues, which are not simply about justice and fairness, but which are, at their heart, about the environment as well, are taken seriously by all parties in the House.
Surely the Minister will have noticed that some supermarkets now sell only Fairtrade bananas because their customers have pressed for that. Surely it must be right that the good citizens of Tooting or Wandsworth, or wherever it might be, should seek to choose to buy Fairtrade and should not have it imposed upon them by the local council if they do not want that.
The hon. Lady clearly does not understand that this is not a matter of banning other produce from the whole of Tooting or Wandsworth. Free choice still prevails. But there are sometimes important symbolic issues in relation to a mark such as the Fairtrade mark, and to galvanise the people of Tooting to understand that is a commendable purpose. The measure would do nothing to stop people choosing freely in their supermarkets.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, while Fairtrade is a method of getting poor countries out of reliance on aid, when we are firming up those local economies, it is important to chime a note of caution to campaigners who campaign on food miles? Fairtrade economies are criticised for extending the use of food miles, and yet they are a way of creating sustainable communities in those areas.
My hon. Friend has raised an important point. The argument that there are more food miles involved is often used against produce from overseas. In fact, often more food miles are used up by people driving to the supermarket than by bringing that produce to market. It is an essential part of Fairtrade that we look at the whole supply system and the way in which produce is grown. It is right that we take into account all the environmental factors, including the energy used to produce goods and transport them to market, but the issue must be looked at in the round. He is absolutely right to raise that point.
Part of my extended family comes from an area in Kenya around Nyeri. The people there who produced sugar got into deep problems—the sugar refinery had to close eventually—because of the production of sugar beet in the EU. I know that that will be phased out, as will the subsidy. What are we doing to support fairly-traded sugar in such places as Nyeri, instead of giving subsidies for sugar beet production in the EU?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She will know that one of the real successes of the UK presidency of the EU last year was the reform of sugar subsidy and production. Many companies in this country have taken advantage of that. British Sugar maintains its quota and is looking to diversify into biofuels through that. There are many ways in which sugar farmers and companies can diversify their crops. The fundamental reforms were put in place during this Government’s presidency of the EU and they have brought about the prosperity in developing countries about which my hon. Friend talks.
I am very glad to see the hon. Gentleman in the Chamber.
I, like my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and other Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Ministers, have held recent discussions with many colleagues from other Departments on the subject of reducing carbon emissions from the Government estate as part of wider discussions on combating climate change.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer—I am grateful to be here as well.
In June 2006, the Government said that their target was for the whole Government estate to go carbon neutral by 2012 and for emissions to be reduced by 30 per cent. by 2020. What progress have they made on achieving that?
We are making progress, but I have to admit that we are not moving as quickly as we would like, or as quickly as we need to to achieve our targets. We will meet our commitment of making the Government estate carbon neutral by 2012. I believe that the revised sustainable operations targets for the Government estate that were launched in June 2006 are stretching. We are making progress on a whole range of areas, such as on schools, about which an announcement has been made this week. DEFRA, along with other Government Departments, is implementing carbon management programmes that will have a significant impact in future years.
Does my hon. Friend agree that this is about not only the estate and buildings, but the people who work in those buildings? May we have a more vigorous education programme to raise the environmental knowledge and expectations of the people who work in those buildings? Will he especially consider the old Metropole building, which is just a stone’s throw from this building? That massive, old Ministry of Agriculture building, which has fantastic architecture, has been boarded up for many years. If it were turned into a centre for small campaigning groups and environmental groups, the building would be brought to life and would represent a great use of the Government estate.
My hon. Friend makes the good point that people’s use of energy in buildings is critical. That is one of the reasons why DEFRA is running a big switch campaign to encourage people to switch off lights and energy appliances when they are not being used, which can make a significant difference.
I hear what my hon. Friend says about the Metropole building and I will make inquiries into the situation. Over the past couple of years, DEFRA has been in a period of transition. We have moved into new buildings, refurbished buildings and vacated buildings that are still part of the DEFRA estate. That has not helped our carbon footprint, but we hope to make significant improvements in future years. I will examine the case to which my hon. Friend refers.
Does the Minister accept that it is sometimes better not to penalise people for doing what they have done for a long time, but to create energy that is less polluting? Why do the Government not direct more of their attention to the development of biofuels and clean-coal technology—that is, not to beating people, but to developing energy that is less polluting, and that therefore emits less carbon into the environment? I am sick to death of people being penalised, rather than being encouraged to do what is right through the Government’s development of new forms of energy.
It is perfectly right to say that we need to encourage people to adopt lower-carbon lifestyles. That is one of the reasons why Labour announced earlier this week that it would provide free real-time displays that people can decide to put into their homes, and which will show them, in real time, the amount of energy use in their home. That can make significant difference. Evidence shows that people who take advantage of the displays save anything up to 15 per cent. on their normal energy bills by becoming more energy-conscious. It is right that we should focus on campaigns to encourage people to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. That is one of the reasons why the Government launched our act on CO2 campaign. A great deal can be done to raise people’s awareness of their carbon footprint, and to encourage them to do more about it.
Further to the Minister’s answer, what discussions has he had with the House authorities? The issue is not just about the Government estate. When we look at the contribution that individuals can make, we should remember that there is a vast contribution that Members of the House, and particularly their staff, could make in their offices. I am delighted to say that there has been a major behaviour change on the part of staff in my office, and I would recommend such changes to others. I hope that the Minister will help to ensure that lights, and particularly PCs, are switched off, and that there are more and improved recycling facilities in the House.
My hon. Friend is right: there is a lot that we can all do. MPs and people in our offices, both in the constituency and on the parliamentary estate, can all do more to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has had discussions and has raised the matter with the House authorities. There are clearly some difficulties with historic buildings that will never be massively energy-efficient, but there are things that can be done, including on the parliamentary estate, and people from right across Government need to consider them.
Combined heat and power is a technology with great potential to reduce the amount of waste in our energy system. Will the Minister update the House on the progress that the Government have made on their target to deploy that technology across the public sector?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the importance of combined heat and power. We are seeing progress with CHP, but again, perhaps that progress is not as fast as we would like. That is one of the issues that we have discussed following the publication of the energy review, and in the lead-up to the publication of the energy White Paper. We believe that combined heat and power, which results in additional energy efficiencies, needs to be made more widespread, not just among those who use energy on a large, industrial scale, although there is significant potential in that regard, but when it comes to CHP district and community heating systems. Those are areas in which we are trying to encourage CHP, through the development of energy service companies, or ESCOs.
Does the Minister agree that the issue is not just the Government’s buildings, but their car service? As I cycle in and out of the Palace of Westminster, I have ample opportunity to observe the ministerial cars. I am delighted that everyone on the Government Front Bench this morning is leading by example with their hybrid cars, but there are still some Cabinet-level Jaguars around the place. As a Coventry-born woman, I am reluctant to encourage people to get rid of their Jaguars, but there is a point at which politicians have to lead by example. Will the Minister encourage his Cabinet colleagues to take up hybrid cars?
I think that my hon. Friend will probably find that the whole DEFRA team walked here this morning, rather than getting in our cars. That is the right thing to do, because we always say that we should avoid CO2 emissions first, then try to reduce them. Hybrid vehicles are certainly a way of reducing CO2 emissions. I do not think that the data are particularly reliable, but there has been a significant 10 per cent. fall in emissions from the Government’s road transport activities since 2002-03. As I said, the data are not as robust as we would like, and we need to do more to check them. We need to do more, too, on the procurement of new low-carbon vehicles. That is exactly what we are doing, as well as converting some Jaguars and other vehicles so that they can use biofuel.
It is obviously crucial that DEFRA and the Government should set an example, and it is rather worrying that the figures from the Sustainable Development Commission suggest that DEFRA’s own emissions have increased three times as rapidly as the overall national average. However, the quantification of the Government’s impact is crucial, too. As I challenged the Secretary of State in the Budget debate, can the Minister give an estimate of the impact on carbon emissions of the country as a whole of the new measures announced in the Budget?
First, on the DEFRA office estate, if the hon. Gentleman was listening a few moments ago, he would have heard me say that DEFRA has undergone a period of transition, moving into new buildings, refurbishing some buildings, and vacating others that are still part of the Government office estate. That means that our carbon dioxide impact has not made as much progress as we would have liked. In fact, as he rightly said, it has gone in the wrong direction. However, if we look at Nobel house, out of which the ministerial team operates, in 2001-02, 573 kg of carbon per member of staff was emitted, but that has gone down to 446 kg of carbon per member of staff. That shows the sort of improvement that can be made through refurbished offices and more efficient use of office space. Regarding the question that the hon. Gentleman posed about the Budget and the way in which it addresses carbon targets, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as he knows, has promised to write to him on the matter, and I am sure that that letter will provide all the clarification that he needs.
I find it astonishing that the Secretary of State could claim in the Budget debate that the Budget
“took important steps forward on curbing domestic emissions and contributing to international emissions reduction.”—[Official Report, 26 March 2007; Vol. 458, c. 1180.]
I await his letter, as we still have no estimate from him of the impact of the Budget. How on earth can he make those claims if he has no idea what the impact of the Budget is? Clearly, given his failure to respond so far he still has no idea of the impact of the Budget. Well, I will tell him—it is 0.15 per cent. of carbon emissions or 330,000 tonnes, which is negligible.
I do not think that we need to hear perorations or lectures from the Liberal Democrats on such issues, as they voted against air passenger duty increases, which will have the benefit of reducing carbon dioxide by 300,000 to 500,000 tonnes. We have a climate change programme that is on course to achieve our 2020 targets. The draft Climate Change Bill, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, will make us the first country in the world to legislate to put in place a legal framework for reducing carbon emissions. We will set up a committee on climate change, which will advise us on trajectories. I do not believe that any other major industrialised country has done more than we have done to tackle climate change, but we need to do more, and we are committed to do so. A range of policy initiatives in the energy White Paper and other measures in due course will show how we will continue to make progress on some stretching targets.
The Minister’s reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) was extremely worrying. We know that Labour Ministers are failing miserably to deliver their manifesto pledge of 10 GW of combined heat and power generating capacity by 2010, and a year of “Brains” at the helm has not made a jot of difference. Will the Minister tell us specifically how the Government are getting on with meeting their own target for CHP installation in their buildings? They were supposed to have 15 per cent. by 2010; will they achieve that figure? This matter is entirely under the DEFRA team’s personal control. Can we have a personal assurance that the target will be met?
We are committed to our CHP target. The hon. Gentleman should look at the detail of our action, for example, on the phase 2 national allocation plans for the EU emissions trading scheme, where we have provided greater incentives to the emergence of CHP. In the Government office estate, DEFRA has been examining the potential not only for CHP but for the further development of renewable technologies. We think that there are significant opportunities for biomass, in which a number of hon. Members are especially interested, and we have just started construction of a new building in Alnwick that will use a range of renewable technologies. Approximately two thirds of the DEFRA estate’s energy needs are met by renewable energy sources. The target for the Government office estate as a whole is 10 per cent., but we have achieved 63 per cent., which shows the progress that DEFRA is making. We are leading by example in renewable energy.
As the hon. Gentleman will know because we discussed it in a recent meeting, we are examining the possibility of reforming the quota allocation system affecting the under-10 m fishing fleet as part of our current fish quota management change programme.
I am advised that while our inshore fishing fleet remained tied up, unable to go out and fish because of the 50 kg per month quota allocation, Belgian beam trawlers moved into our fishing area within the 6-mile limit and hoovered up thousands of tonnes of sole. Will the Minister tell the House what he is doing to speed up the revision of the fishing limits, so that Thames estuary fishermen get a proper limit of 12 miles and we stop the intrusion of foreign vessels?
I would be surprised if foreign vessels had come within the 6-mile limit—[Interruption.] Actually, the hon. Gentleman did say that foreign vessels had come within the 6-mile limit. If he would like to provide details, I shall certainly look into the matter, because that would be against the rules. However, as I am sure he knows, if other countries have a tradition of fishing in the area between the 6 and 12-mile limits, they have traditional rights, just as we have traditional rights off the coasts of other countries. We cannot escape the fact that we have been seriously over-fishing some stocks in recent years and they are extremely depleted, so we will have to take tough action.
My hon. Friend knows that the by-catch regulations for skate and dogfish, which were rushed through the Fisheries Council last December, are completely unworkable for the under-10 m fleet. I welcome what he said about trying to get those regulations changed, but will he tell the House the likely time scale and what prospects there are of securing change? While he is thinking about reforming the quota for the under-10 m fleet, will he give special consideration to long-lining, which is an environmentally sustainable form of fishing that needs to be encouraged? Long-lining involves just one hook and one fish, not great big nets full of dead fish which are then discarded, so can we treat it in a better way to encourage it? Long-lining is good for the environment, good for fishing and good for jobs.
I concur with my hon. Friend that the long-lining off Lowestoft falls into the category of a sustainable fishery, but long-lining is not necessarily sustainable. It can cause environmental problems—for example, it can pose a threat to albatrosses in the southern Atlantic. However, I shall look into the points that he makes.
We recently managed to swap some sole quota with the Germans to mitigate the impact felt by some of the under-10 m fleet in the Thames estuary and around our south-eastern coasts. We shall consider carefully what more we can do through the change programme that I outlined earlier.
The Minister will know that hand-liners employ a very good way of sustainable fishing and are big users of under-10 m boats, yet they are still caught within quotas. Is there any movement at all on taking them out of any quota system?
It depends on what stocks the hon. Gentleman is talking about. The simple answer is no. It would not be possible to create rules whereby fishermen using certain methods were allowed to catch whatever they liked whereas others were not. Quotas are an important means of controlling the level of fishing on stocks that may be depleted. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to imply that some of the hand-line catching that goes on off the Devon and Cornwall coast is very sustainable. I would encourage consumers always to ask about the provenance of their fish where possible, not least because of the pair-trawling problem with dolphins, and to go for line-caught, rather than net-caught, bass.
The Department’s under-10 m factsheet refers to
“estimates that it is now clear were seriously inaccurate”.
However, when I asked the Minister whether his Department had miscalculated the under-10 m quota, he simply answered—on 1 February at column 352—“No.” Would he now like to apologise for his Department’s miscalculation and put the record straight, because it is possible that he may have inadvertently misled the House?
No, because the estimates to which the hon. Gentleman refers were made in the 1980s under a Conservative Government.
DEFRA is currently researching ways of calculating the embedded carbon in imported goods and assessing the international biodiversity impacts of goods imported to the UK. We have also given great prominence to the ideas of the WWF about so-called one-planet living, which makes the point that if all citizens of the world lived as we do, we would need three planets to support us rather than the one that we have. That suggests the scale of the eco-debt that my hon. Friend mentions.
The world as a whole is consuming beyond the capacity of its ecosystems to regenerate, while in the UK our 2007 consumption patterns mean that we are living beyond our natural resources and start to eat into nature’s capital from mid-April each year. Does the Minister agree that this arises mainly from declining UK food self-sufficiency, decreasing energy independence and ecologically wasteful trade? Should not our nation aim to live more sustainably within our environmental means?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. He is a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which is conducting an inquiry that is relevant to his question; its Chairman is here as well. His point about energy independence is particularly important. We have been relatively independent over the past 20 or 30 years, but in an environmentally damaging way. The big challenge as our oil and gas supplies decline is to ensure that we replace them with low-carbon or zero-carbon sources of energy. That is what we are determined to do, because in that way we will tackle the flow of greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere.
Countries such as China and India argue that rich countries like us have a large eco-debt in the form of carbon concentrations already produced, and that therefore they should not exercise the same degree of restraint until their living standards have reached the same level. Does the Minister accept that argument?
I wholly accept the argument that countries such as India and China have not only a right but a duty to help themselves to develop, but they also have a duty and an opportunity to avoid the mistakes that we made. The old choice was economic development versus environmental protection; the new choice is about whether development is high-carbon or low-carbon. Our duty is twofold. We must put our own house in order and grow our economy while cutting our greenhouse gas emissions, as of course we have been doing under this Government, but we must also ensure that we help countries such as India and China and some of the poorest African countries to develop in a low-carbon way. That requires massive flows of finance, primarily not through aid programmes, which may be relevant as regards issues such as deforestation, but through the markets for carbon reduction that have been created in Europe and elsewhere. That is why the European emissions trading scheme is so important and why measures such as the clean development mechanism are so vital.
It may help the House if I note that, this evening, I am meeting the Indonesian Forestry Minister. That is obviously important because of deforestation, which represents nearly 20 per cent. of the world’s greenhouse gases, but I hope that it is also significant because Indonesia will be the host country for the next United Nations framework convention on climate change in December. The Minister for Forestry, who is visiting this country, will play a critical role, along with other colleagues in the Indonesian Government, including the Prime Minister. It is strongly in our interest to work closely with Indonesia.
It may also be useful if I report that Sir Nicholas Stern’s visit to Indonesia—
Order. The answer is far too long.
Why are aviation emissions excluded from the targets in the Climate Change Bill?
My hon. Friend knows that domestic aviation is included in the targets that were adopted under the Kyoto protocol. Clause 16 makes special provision to include aviation and shipping in our climate change targets as soon as two issues are resolved. The first is the international discussion on calculating the right level of aviation emissions because there are specific issues about emissions at high altitudes. The second is to which country aviation emissions should be apportioned. If one is flying from country A to country B, to which country does one apportion the emissions? As soon as we have resolved those matters, we can include aviation and shipping in the Climate Change Bill. We now have agreement throughout Europe to include aviation in the European Union emissions trading scheme by 2010 or 2011, which suggests that, although the time scale is longer than we would like, it is not beyond reach.
Given the plan to increase by 10 times the biofuels that we use in this country, what steps are the Government taking to make certain that they are ethically sourced and, as far as possible, from the United Kingdom, so that we do not go on contributing to the destruction of the rainforest in the name of the environment?
Now that is a good question.
I agree, though I could not help noting the element of surprise in the hon. Gentleman’s voice when he complimented the shadow Secretary of State on an unusually good question. That he was surprised is the only conclusion that we can draw from his remark. I do not know whether I can provide an unusually good answer to match. I am sure that I cannot.
The hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) makes an important point. I presume that by “ethically sourced” he means sustainably sourced. If one is simply growing biofuels by tearing down rainforests, one does nothing for the environment. Obviously, we are pursuing the matter at European level. The Environment Council has done important work, including with Commissioner Dimas, to ensure that European targets involve sustainably sourced biofuels.
The hon. Gentleman made a critical point about British sourcing. There is a shared agenda about the reform of the common agricultural policy, especially set-aside. Ending set-aside provides potential for us to grow biofuels in this country in a way that does not compromise food or other environmental matters. We have made that point regularly recently. My recent discussions suggest that the UK agenda for CAP reform has growing support. The health check that Commissioner Fischer Boel will conduct next year offers a genuine opportunity not only to do something about milk quotas and other matters, but to take forward the set-aside agenda, which could have big environmental benefits.
That was a better answer.
The Government will continue to take measures aimed at bearing down on TB. Our decisions will be based on the science and on what is practical and cost-effective, and will ensure a fair balance of the costs of the disease between farmers and the taxpayer.
In thanking the Minister for that answer, may I remind him that 58 weeks tomorrow will mark the start of the consultation exercise that the Government carried out on ways of controlling bovine TB using culling? He will also be aware that herd restrictions are now at their highest level for a decade, and that the cost to his Department of dealing with the disease is now about £90 million a year. The Independent Scientific Group will report at the end of April, but the Secretary of State has confirmed in a letter to me that, following the ISG’s findings,
“We have no timetable for an announcement.”
There is a great deal of uncertainty in the farming world. Will the Minister now tell the House what timetable is to be followed, and what criteria his Department will deploy to assess the ISG’s findings and to come to a conclusion on this matter, once and for all?
The right hon. Gentleman will know, because he chairs the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee and because he has followed this issue closely, that we have not yet received the final report from the Independent Scientific Group that carried out the badger culling trials, although we expect it some time this summer. He will also know, because he has studied the matter closely, that this is a complex issue. There are no simple solutions, as some people claim, not least because the science shows that piecemeal localised badger culling could actually make the disease considerably worse. There would be considerable organisational challenges involved in any potential badger cull, but we have been discussing those with the farming industry over the past few months and trialling various culling methods. A decision will be made based on the science and on what is practicable and deliverable.
What conclusions has my hon. Friend come to about the levels of compensation to farmers hit by bovine TB? How do they compare with the overall economic impact on farmers hit by a bovine TB breakdown?
I would refer my hon. Friend to a number of independent reports, including one from the National Audit Office that concluded that serious overpayment was going on under the previous individual valuation system. As I said in my answer to the original question, it is important when dealing with animal diseases such as these that it is not only the taxpayer who has to foot the bill, and that the agriculture industry itself should have a responsibility to maintain good biosecurity and disease control measures. We are obliged to pay compensation for cattle that are culled as a result of TB, but we think that the new table valuations provide a fairer balance between the costs that are expected to be carried by the taxpayer and those that are expected to be carried by the farmers.
Some time ago, I asked the Minister what the total cost to his Department of bovine TB had been over the past 10 years. He was unable to give me the total cost at that stage. Will he do so now, and, if not, will he put the information in the Library?
Yes, I will certainly do that. I can also tell the right hon. Gentleman that the costs have reduced significantly over the past year, partly because of the fall in the number of cases last year, but also because of the change in the compensation system that I have just outlined to my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins).
I hear what my hon. Friend has said. This is a devilishly difficult disease. Would he accept, however, that no country in the world will use a culling policy as the primary way of controlling bovine TB? Most scientists now recognise that there has to be a solution involving vaccination, yet that solution always seems to be 10 years away. Experiments are being carried out in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) to determine whether a BCG vaccine can be used on badgers. Is it not about time that we put proper resources into such research and, along with our friends in Ireland and New Zealand, tried to eradicate this disease in the way that we have done with human TB, namely through vaccination?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, wherever this disease occurs around the world, wildlife controls alone are not the answer. In fact, every other country that has bovine TB concentrates on cattle controls as the most effective and useful way of controlling it. We are investing a considerable amount of money in vaccine research—we have invested £10.5 million over the past seven years—and we have started to test candidate vaccines in naturally affected cattle and badgers. So we are making progress, but, as my hon. Friend will understand, we cannot always hurry science.
Last night, I had a long conversation with a constituent from Hengoed who was desperate because bovine TB had now spread to that area, where it had not been seen before. The Minister’s answers are complacent and unacceptable. I visited Michigan 18 months ago, and countries such as America are bearing down on the disease—
Order. The hon. Gentleman should be putting a question.
Will the Minister take lessons from countries such as America where, by bearing down on the disease in both cattle and wildlife, the disease has been eradicated?
Of course we will learn lessons where we can from other countries that have had similar disease experiences. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know from all his globetrotting, this is a complex disease. We are not the only country in the world to face the challenge of it. Across the Irish sea, the Republic of Ireland has had an even more serious problem than we have. We have implemented a package of measures. Opposition Members always concentrate on badger culling, but they have little to say about the very important cattle control measures, which my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) referred to, which are far more important in terms of controlling the disease.
Ten years ago, the then Minister responsible, the noble Lord Rooker, said that bovine TB was the most serious animal health issue facing this country apart from the tail-end of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, which affected us then. Yet here we are, with the number of incidents going up again, returning to the trend after last year’s reduction, and still we do not have a decision on culling and have made no progress on many other areas—for example, the use of gamma interferon testing is at 1 per cent. of total tests.
Does the Minister agree that putting the issue into the too difficult file is not good enough for a disease that is affecting countless herds and, more seriously, countless families and households up and down the western side of the country? Will he introduce a comprehensive package of measures? Yes, we must develop vaccines; yes, we must use pre-movement testing, on which we support him, much to the disgust of some of people in the industry; but we must also test other systems, such as polymerase chain reaction, which we have constantly pressed on him, and actually make a decision. Rumours abound that the Government are about to announce licences on badger culling. Will he tell us: yes or no?
The issue has not been put in the too difficult file. As the right hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) implied when he asked about how much it is costing, the Government—the taxpayer—are paying considerable sums, both in trying to control and reduce the disease and on research. As the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), who chairs the EFRA Committee, was gracious enough to acknowledge, it is a difficult and complex problem.
The hon. Gentleman will be interested to learn that we have rolled out a threefold increase in gamma interferon tests in the past few months. We think that we have managed to catch a significant number of animals and therefore avoid further spread of the disease in a number of areas.
Packaging recycling has doubled since 1997 and statutory binding targets will ensure further improvements in the years to come. All the major retailers and several major brands have also agreed to a Government request to reduce the amount of packaging in the first place, designing out packaging growth by 2008 and delivering absolute reductions in packaging by March 2010.
Will the Minister consider implementing the principles set out in the Retail Packaging (Recycling) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), which would impose on larger retailers a duty to take back excess packaging from customers, a system that works well in Switzerland and Germany?
I am afraid that I have not seen full details of that Bill. It would, of course, be subject to discussions with Government colleagues, but it sounds like a very good idea and I would like to have a look at it.
As we have just left the season that has some of the most wasteful packaging—the Easter period with Easter eggs—will the Government consider coupling the measures the Minister mentioned with a mandatory requirement or a strong recommendation for local authorities to consider recycling not only tin and glass when they offer such a facility to residents? They do that because those products are quite heavy and they reach their targets quicker, whereas the packaging on an Easter egg, for instance, is plastic and cardboard.
A growing number of local authorities are recycling plastic and cardboard, but my hon. Friend is right to draw attention both to the excess packaging around Easter eggs and to the difficulties involved in our weight-based system for recycling targets. That is one of the issues that we are examining as part of the review of our waste strategy, and we intend to publish a new strategy shortly, which I hope will deal with the problem identified by my hon. Friend.
The measures in our Marine Bill White Paper published last month will, when enacted, make the UK an international leader in marine environmental policy. We are also continuing to play a leading role in Europe to improve the operation of the common fisheries policy, and to persuade the Commission and other member states to pay more heed to protection of our seas.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about proposals for ship-to-ship oil transfers in the Firth of Forth, which runs up my constituency? Fin whales have been sighted in those waters very recently. Any catastrophe involving oil in that beautiful stretch of water would be devastating.
I certainly share my hon. Friend’s concern, and I will look into the matter, although as she knows it may well be devolved.
We have been working with the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly in recent months on our Marine Bill White Paper, which will address some of my hon. Friend’s concerns. I hope that that co-operation and commitment to the marine environment will remain after the Scottish elections in May.
Belgium and the Netherlands have placed restrictions on marine aggregate dredging in their waters. We now export 30 per cent. of the sand and gravel that is dredged from our waters to those countries and to France. Does the Minister intend to take measures to restrict the damage caused to our marine environment as a result of measures taken by other countries to protect theirs?
Marine aggregate dredging is regulated in this country. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is calling for more regulation, in contrast to what his hon. Friends were saying earlier.
This is one of the important issues that we are considering in the round as part of our Marine Bill White Paper proposals. For far too long we have viewed the oceans in a piecemeal way, approaching the issue with different sectoral interests rather than bringing everything together in a strategic and holistic way as we hope to do when the Bill has been passed.
I welcome the Bill and the White Paper, which some of us will debate later today. Within what time scale—subject to legislation—does my hon. Friend expect the marine management organisation to be established, and will he ensure that the long-term data sets to which it will need access are protected in the forthcoming funding from the research council?
I am afraid that the research council is not part of my brief, but I will ensure that one of my colleagues writes to my hon. Friend about it. As for the time scale, we want to introduce the legislation as soon as possible. It was a manifesto commitment that we would deliver it during this Parliament, and I am confident that we will fulfil that commitment. But we must get it right rather than rushing it, because it deals with a very important issue.
I note that my hon. Friend has already made a spirited bid for the marine management organisation to be based in Plymouth, championing her city as she always does.
As a result of the decision to co-finance voluntary modulation for environmental schemes in England at a rate of 40 per cent., more funding overall will go into pillar II rural development, from which both farmers and the environment will benefit.
In evidence to the Select Committee, the National Farmers Union estimated that of funds used to support agriculture under pillar II, only 40 per cent. would accrue to the profitability of the industry. Before rushing into ever more voluntary modulation, as opposed to what the Commission has made compulsory, will the Minister ensure that farming businesses still exist to deliver the pillar II programmes which everyone considers so important, particularly in the hill areas?
Our position is clear: we believe in targeting public money for public good. That means phasing out subsidy dependency and paying farmers for the environmental benefits and the landscape management that only they can provide. We are trying to make that compulsory in the health check, as I believe the hon. Gentleman is aware.
As suggested in previous answers, we currently have no set date, but the final report of the independent scientific group that ran the badger culling trials is expected this summer.
I listened with interest to the earlier debate and to the answers that the Minister gave to questions on this issue. He should bear in mind that the link between badger TB and bovine TB was established as long as 10 years ago in 1997 by Professor Krebs, and that up to May last year there were 859 new cases of bovine TB. When can we be given an exact date for when the consultation will be brought before the House and action will be taken to tackle this desperately important issue?
We will have an exact date when we are ready to announce one. The hon. Gentleman is right that the link between badgers and bovine TB has been known for some time, but what was not known, because no previous Government—including previous Conservative Governments—had done the research, was the extent of the relationship between bovine TB and badgers and the infection rates in cattle. That is exactly why this Labour Government when we came into office in 1997 set up the badger culling trials. They took place over several years. They were delayed somewhat by the outbreak of foot and mouth but they have now finished, and the hon. Gentleman and other Members should read the final report before they reach their conclusions.
Business of the House
May I ask the Leader of the House to tell us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week—the week commencing 23 April—will be:
Monday 23 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.
Tuesday 24 April—Opposition day; ninth allotted day. There will be a debate entitled “Modernising Medical Careers”, followed by a debate entitled “The Future of Local Government”. Both debates arise on an Opposition motion.
Wednesday 25 April—A motion relating to the Crossrail Bill, followed by opposed private business that the Chairman of Ways and Means has named for consideration.
Thursday 26 April—A debate on defence in the United Kingdom on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 27 April—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 30 April will include:
Monday 30 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Tuesday 1 May—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 2 May—A motion to approve a European document relating to the protection of critical infrastructure, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill, followed by a debate on a motion for the Adjournment of the House on a subject to be announced.
Thursday 3 May—A debate on policing in London on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
Friday 4 May—The House will not be sitting.
I thank the Leader of the House for telling us the future business. He has in the past announced his intention to improve the notice of oral statements to the House. Usually, advance notice of such statements is given in his response to business questions, but will he confirm to the House whether it is his intention in future to enable notice of such statements to be put on the Order Paper, regardless of whether they have been announced in business statements?
This morning, as referred to in Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions, the Government published their final epidemiology report on the outbreak of bird flu, but it is clear that we still do not know how bird flu came into Britain. Despite the Government finding serious failings at the Bernard Matthews farm, that company will receive more than £589,000 of taxpayers’ money in compensation. Can we have a debate on the bird flu outbreak?
On Monday, the Defence Secretary came to the House to make a statement on the double fiasco overseen by his Department, but he failed to explain why, three years after the last such incident, the Iranians were allowed illegally to hold our people hostage. He said Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton’s inquiry would take about six weeks, but he did not set out a full and proper timetable. We need a clear timetable so that we can ensure that the Defence Secretary does not escape scrutiny by being moved to a new position by a new Prime Minister. Can we have a clear timetable, set out by the Government? The Defence Secretary also failed to say whether the whole House of Commons, rather than just the Defence Committee, would debate the findings of the two inquiries. Will the Leader of the House commit himself to such a debate?
One Minister who never says sorry is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. In 1999, he sold 400 tonnes of the Treasury’s bullion reserves, when the price of gold was at a 20-year low. That cost the taxpayer £2 billion, but the Chancellor claimed that he had the backing of the Bank of England. Indeed, the Prime Minister told the House on 14 July 1999:
“We sold gold on the technical advice of the Bank of England”—[Official Report, 14 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 403.]
However, the Bank’s spokesman says:
“The Bank was not asked for advice.”
Can we therefore have a debate on the Chancellor’s response to the views of the Bank of England?
On the Chancellor’s watch, more than 60,000 occupational pension schemes have been wound up, and only one third of final salary pension schemes remain open to new members. Typically, however, the Chancellor denies that that has anything to do with his £100 billion pensions tax. He claims that the Confederation of British Industry agreed with his decision, but its former director general says that it is completely—
The Opposition want to talk about pensions again!
We dealt with this on Tuesday.
Order. Members should let the shadow Leader of the House speak.
The Government Chief Whip complains from a sedentary position that the issue of pensions is being brought up again, but it is one that matters to the many thousands of people who have lost their pensions under this Government.
The Chancellor claimed that the CBI agreed with his decision, but its former director general says that that is “completely untrue”. The Chancellor’s officials advised him that his tax decision
“would make a big hole in pension scheme finances”,
but he ignored them. In addition, Lord Simon, a former Treasury Minister, said that the plan
“was a particular concern to us”,
but he was ignored too.
We have had a debate on the Chancellor’s mishandling of occupational pensions, but can we have one, in Government time, on the Chancellor’s response to the views expressed by business, and by his officials and Ministers?
Again on the chancellor’s watch, 125,000 people have lost at least part of their pension because their pension fund went bust. Yesterday, we tabled amendments to the Pensions Bill to help those who had lost their pensions, but the Government Whips—on the orders of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor—made sure that they were defeated. So can we have a statement on how the Government intend to support those people who have done the right thing and saved for their retirement but subsequently lost their pension?
We know what a Government led by the Chancellor will be like. He ignores the advice given by officials and business. He makes the wrong decisions, and then denies that anything has gone wrong. Will not the following be the hallmarks of a Brown Government—arrogance and incompetence, but never repentance?
Until just now, the identity of the right hon. Lady’s scriptwriter was a mystery to me. However, I now realise that it is the shadow Chancellor, the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne)—although I concede that she says her lines rather better than he managed on Tuesday.
I turn now to the points that the right hon. Lady raised. First, on the gold bullion: if she wants to put down a motion about that, I advise her to do so. In fact, the Government would welcome a further motion of no confidence in the Chancellor because my right hon. Friend would slaughter the shadow Chancellor’s case once again, just as even Conservative newspapers concede that he demolished it on Tuesday.
Of course we accept that a serious problem exists as a result of the fact that many people lost their pensions when the firms that employed them—and consequently those firms’ pension funds—went bankrupt. That is why my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the Chancellor have put in place arrangements to help compensate them that are far better than anything that existed before. Frankly, what the Conservative party indulged in yesterday was another example of blatant—and uncosted—opportunism.
Overall, I do not in the least diminish the problems faced by those particular pensioners, but nor do I diminish the work that we are doing to help them. In terms of the generality of pensioners, we have worked extraordinarily hard to ensure that the standard of living of pensioners overall is raised significantly. It was not me or any Labour Member, but the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field), who said:
“Nevertheless, despite orchestrated campaigns by today’s pensioner groups, the fact is that today’s pensioners have never had it so good.”—[Official Report, Westminster Hall, 20 February 2007; Vol. 457, c. 69WH.]
I put that comment from a Conservative Member on the record for the right hon. Lady.
I accept what the right hon. Lady said about oral statements. A little while ago I announced that we would give notice on the Order Paper where notice of an oral statement had been given elsewhere in the House. I now accept that where notice has been given, even outside the House as it had to be, for example, in respect of the statement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and even if no notice has been given externally, if it is at all possible we will put notice of a statement on the Order Paper. It may be for the convenience of the House if I issue a comprehensive written ministerial statement about these new arrangements after consultation with the right hon. Lady and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats.
I know that the Bernard Matthews case was raised with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment a moment ago. Of course we will look for an opportunity to debate the matter. We are all uncomfortable about the reports of high levels of compensation to Mr. Matthews’ firm.
On Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Fulton’s report, the right hon. Lady will be aware that there is a debate on the defence of the United Kingdom next Thursday when there will be every opportunity to question my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. She asked whether there would be a debate on the report. It will go in full to the Select Committee. Because part of it is bound to be confidential, not all of it can be made available publicly. We will certainly look sympathetically at whether there should be a debate on the Floor of the House, depending on what the Select Committee has to say about it.
May we have a debate on discrimination in the workplace, particularly in relation to those who are discriminated against because of their political views? My right hon. Friend may recall the dark days of the Economic League, which denied decent, honest people the right to earn a living. There is now anecdotal evidence that the same organisations are operating within the construction industry, again denying people the opportunity to work. Could he use his good offices to send a clear message to these companies that are engaged in this heinous practice that they will be exposed and could be in danger of losing major contracts, particularly those surrounding the forthcoming Olympics?
I share the considerable concern of my hon. Friend and this side of the House about that practice. It is completely unacceptable to single out and discriminate against people who are simply exercising their rights as shop stewards on behalf of the members of their workforce. I will certainly take the matter up with our right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Trade and Industry.
There are about 70 sitting days until Prorogation and therefore the end of the Session, yet we have not had sight of two major Bills announced in the Queen’s Speech: the criminal justice Bill and the counter-terrorism Bill. There may be some confusion about which Department is responsible for the criminal justice Bill, but given its importance and how often we have slipshod and spatchcock legislation from the Home Office, is it not proper that the House should have an early sight of what the Government intend so that we can debate it properly?
While on the Home Office, can we have yet another debate on Home Office IT procurement? I do not know whether the Leader of the House is aware of the Phoenix programme, under which a national shared service centre was set up in Newport between the Home Office and the Prison Service to find
“new ways of working in finance, procurement, and HR, to reduce costs while providing consistent high quality support”.
It has been in place for almost a year, yet it has no IT services to enable it to deal with about 400,000 paper invoices every year. Instead, we have 34 people doing it by hand on paper. May we have a debate yet again on the incapacity of the Home Office in respect of IT?
The Leader of the House will be aware of the public inquiry that has now opened, chaired by Lord Archer of Sandwell, into those who were sadly infected with HIV or hepatitis C through contaminated blood products in what has been suggested to be the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS. Given the importance of the inquiry, will the Health Secretary make a statement to the effect that her Department will provide full co-operation with the inquiry and will be committed to responding efficiently and effectively as the Government, and that there will be an opportunity for this House to debate the outcome?
I am sure that the Leader of the House will agree with me that no Member of the legislature should be non-resident for tax purposes. That being the case, will he find time to debate the Bill first introduced in 2004 by my noble Friend Lord Oakeshott of Seagrove Bay—the Life Peerages (Residency for Taxation Purposes) Bill—which he now proposes to reintroduce? Such a debate would enable us to make it absolutely clear that those who seek to sit in either of the Houses of Parliament and make laws in this country should pay tax in this country.
The criminal justice Bill and the terrorism Bill will be brought forward in due course. It is something of an irony that the hon. Gentleman normally complains about the number of Home Office Bills and the speed with which they are brought forward. No doubt he is looking for an opportunity to vote against yet another couple of sensible measures.
I will write to the hon. Gentleman about Home Office IT procurement. The hon. Gentleman referred to the inquiry chaired by Lord Archer of Sandwell—not to be confused, Mr. Speaker, with the other Lord Archer—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I am glad to hear approbation from the Conservative Benches in that respect. My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary has already said, as of course she would, that there will be the fullest co-operation with the inquiry.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, I do not always agree with him, but I agree about the need for at least life peers—those who sit in this legislature—to pay tax in this country. I think that we are all surprised and shocked that Lord Laidlaw, a Conservative peer, should turn out to be a tax exile, and were even more surprised when the hapless shadow Chancellor on the radio yesterday washed his hands of the matter and said that Lord Laidlaw’s tax status was a matter for him and for the House of Lords Appointments Commission. I thought that it might be a matter for someone like the shadow Chancellor as well.
Mr. Speaker, I know that you are aware of this, but is the Leader of the House aware that 180 years ago today one of our most famous poets of the environment, John Clare, published “The Shepherd’s Calendar”. Here is a poet who 180 years ago was forced to work on the enclosures. In an era when we seem to apologise for everything, is it not about time that we had a debate on what happened in the enclosures? In a move led by the other House, before there was true democracy in this Parliament, the English common land was stolen from English people. Is it not about time that we looked at what happened and whether measures could give back to the English counties the common land stolen from them by the House of Lords, the Tories and the Liberals?
I have personal reasons for welcoming such a debate, which is that my forebears were among those in what is now suburban Essex who fought the lords of the manor, including one John Whitaker Maitland, then lord of the manor of Loughton. In the end, they were successful in preventing the further enclosure of what is now Epping forest. It was a nasty, bloody battle that went on for 30 years in the middle of the 19th century, and I am proud that my great-great-grandfather and many others in that part of Essex were successful in standing up for the working classes of Essex, to ensure that Epping forest remained for the people of Essex and London for ever.
The Leader of the House will be aware of the widespread concern over the failure to fly the flag of our country from Portcullis House since its opening a number of years ago. He will also be aware that the early-day motion that I tabled has been signed by no fewer than 44 Members of this House. Will the Leader of the House give us a progress report and tell us whether the flag of our country will at last fly from the parliamentary building of Portcullis House?
I am delighted to give the hon. Gentleman some good news—after a lot of to-ing and fro-ing. There was a health and safety problem that I insisted on inspecting, although I was originally told it was too dangerous for me to do so, and I went up there yesterday. It is genuinely difficult to get to the flagpole. The problem was that two bronze trap doors, which were, as I saw, unsecured, were in danger of decapitating—literally—anybody who put up a flag. However, I am pleased to say that the House authorities have decided on a number of inexpensive safety measures and they have promised me that the flagpole will be fully operational—certainly by the recess and, we hope, well before.
The Leader of the House will recall that last month we had a good debate in the House on nuclear disarmament and the replacement of the Trident system. Before next week’s debate on defence, will he make sure that the Secretary of State for Defence can set out what the Government’s position will be at the non-proliferation treaty review committee preparation meeting in Vienna, which is due to open at the beginning of May, so that the House can be informed exactly of what the Government’s position is on nuclear non-proliferation?
I shall do my best, because my hon. Friend makes an important point. Our position on the revision conferences of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty has been consistent, and very much in the vanguard of reform. We in the United Kingdom led the case and the call for improvement and change at the revision conference that took place in May 2005, almost exactly two years ago, but I regret to say that other members of the Security Council—permanent and non-permanent—blocked the measures we were trying to introduce.
Clearly, good work is going on in New York to secure a United Nations-sanctioned resolution to ensure a no-fly zone over Darfur that would allow its beleaguered people to have proper support and aid. Will the Leader of the House make absolutely sure that next week an appropriate Minister comes here to make a statement so that the whole House can express its horror about what is happening in Darfur and, we hope, congratulate Ministers on a successful resolution?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for referring to that point. I think the whole House will want to applaud the work of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the fact that she went to New York and chaired a meeting of the Security Council where, frankly, she forced some pressure on the Sudanese Government and the Chinese, who had been supporting them, so that there is now a prospect of serious progress for the first time in a number of years. I shall certainly give consideration to a statement; indeed, I know that the whole House wants us to look for an opportunity for a debate on Darfur, too.
As the Leader of the House knows, the Mental Health Bill goes into Committee next week and obviously there is important work to be done to make sure that the legislation is in the right shape before we finish with it. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has written to many Members inviting them to what he calls a special all-party committee, which suggests that it is a Committee of the House and that it is all-party? In fact, it is a committee of only some Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, so bearing in mind the fact that the House makes it clear that there should be rules about all-party committees and groups, is it not wrong for people to pretend and abuse the public in that way? [Interruption.]
Order. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has made a criticism of another Member. Did he notify the hon. Gentleman that he would make that criticism?
I tried to ring the hon. Gentleman’s office earlier—
Order. I call the hon. Member for Dover (Gwyn Prosser).
Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to the excellent work done by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, in particular the volunteer rescue teams, to protect our seaways and coastlines? Does he share my surprise that the inadequate insurance cover those people receive means that if they have an accident that stops them carrying on their main occupation—their livelihood—the compensation does not meet their future requirements? Can he find a way to help us air that important matter in the House?
I certainly understand my hon. Friend’s surprise and the distress of those affected by the inadequacy of the insurance policy. I promise him that I shall take the matter up with the Minister concerned and look for an opportunity to debate it.
I declare an interest as an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Midwives. Will the Leader of the House request that a Health Minister come to the House next week to make a statement about the problems faced by independent midwives on account of the proposal that they should have liability insurance? They are a vital part of the profession and will be essential if the Government’s proposals on maternity and midwives are to be effectively implemented. The matter is critical; otherwise many of them will be unable to practise and to be part of what the Government want—a successful maternity and midwifery service.
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious issue, which we acknowledge. Health questions are on Tuesday and although I am not certain whether there is an appropriate question in which the matter can be raised, I shall certainly ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health is made fully aware of the concerns raised by the hon. Gentleman.
May we have a debate in Government time about the behaviour of Tesco management, particularly in my constituency? They are moving a distribution centre 200 yd and are sacking the men, reducing their terms and conditions and de-recognising the trade union. Will my right hon. Friend join me in urging the company to go back to the negotiating table or to use the good offices of ACAS to resolve what could be a messy dispute?
I have certainly seen early-day motion 1304, tabled by my hon. Friend.
[That this House expresses its deep concern that drivers at the Tesco depot in Livingston have been threatened with dismissal unless they sign up to new terms and conditions proposed by the company; notes that the new depot from which the drivers would be working is only 500 yards away from their current depot; further notes that some drivers fear that the new terms and conditions would cost them up to £5,000 per year; is concerned about allegations of management attempting to bully the staff to accept the new conditions; and urges Tesco to come back to open meaningful negotiations with the drivers' trade union, the TGWU.]
Obviously, we understand my hon. Friend’s concern and very much hope that the matter can be resolved satisfactorily, perhaps by the involvement of ACAS.
Some months ago the Government announced that they would abandon the system of automatic, 50 per cent. remission for serious offenders in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it appears that the measure may not come into effect for some considerable time; we have yet to see the legislation, which is a matter for the House, not the Northern Ireland Assembly. I urge the Leader of the House to speak to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland so that we can have a statement announcing when that will happen. People are fearful that there may be other cases and people convicted now will be able to benefit from 50 per cent. remission in years to come. That is something that appals the people of Northern Ireland right across the board.
Northern Ireland questions are on Wednesday and the hon. Gentleman may want to raise the matter with the Secretary of State. Meanwhile, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend is made fully aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns.
May I suggest a debate on the merits of setting up a national car-sharing scheme? I propose a website for such a scheme, so that it can be national rather than just local, and I have spoken to Transport Ministers about the idea. Local authorities are looking into supporting local car sharing, but a website along the lines of “Friends Reunited” could be a popular way of organising a scheme across the country.
My hon. Friend raises an interesting idea. Car sharing has an important contribution to make in reducing congestion at peak times, especially in certain travel to work areas—[Interruption.] I am not sure what the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is muttering from a sedentary position—he is saying either that the matter is the responsibility of Government or that it is not. However, I shall ensure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport is informed of my hon. Friend’s suggestion.
May I encourage the Leader of the House to respond positively to the request of my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House for a debate on avian influenza? Could he extend the scope of that debate to include the whole remit of the agricultural element of DEFRA? It was December 2002 when we last had an agriculture debate in the House. Since then, we have seen the debacle of the Rural Payments Agency, the Government’s vision document on the reform of the common agricultural policy, the proposed health check for the CAP, bovine tuberculosis, the DEFRA capability review and the introduction of modulation—to name but a few of the subjects that have never been debated since December 2002.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a strong case for a debate on agriculture, and I will do what I can. While I am on my feet, may I, in an ecumenical spirit, wish my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant)—despite the fact that his question was ruled out of order—good luck in the marathon on Sunday?
Will there be a debate on the proposed points-based system to control the flow of immigration, which was announced by the Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality yesterday? I appreciate that we need a balance and that we should welcome foreign workers with skills into the country, but not at the expense of indigenous workers. Virtually all the indigenous workers in a mushroom farm in my constituency have been squeezed out to accommodate foreign workers on reduced pay, terms and conditions. That is something that must be ruled out, stamped out and sorted out.
Yes, there will be an opportunity to debate that. Part of the purpose of the points-based system, which will apply to non-EU workers, is to ensure that job permissions and work permits are given to those from overseas, outside the EU, only where they are fulfilling an occupational need that cannot be fulfilled already by someone in the UK.
Will the Health Secretary come to the House to explain why so many hospital trust boards are refusing to sign off their accounts? The West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS trust, which has a huge deficit, refused to sign off the accounts this week. Should not the Secretary of State explain why?
The hon. Gentleman should take that up with the regional health authority. I will certainly take it up on his behalf with the Secretary of State for Health.
The Leader of the House will be familiar with the ministerial code, which says that when Parliament is in Session, the most important Government announcements should be made in the first instance to the House. He will also know that the Prime Minister has indicated that he plans to announce his resignation over the next few weeks. Does he agree that there can be few announcements of greater importance either to the Government or Parliament than the resignation of a Prime Minister? Can he give us an assurance that any such statement will be made in the first instance to the House and that the Prime Minister will then be invited to answer questions about why he feels he has to go?
That is a clever idea, but I cannot satisfy the right hon. Gentleman. As he is an expert on the British constitution, he well knows that the appointment of a Prime Minister is a matter for Her Majesty under her prerogative powers. It is not, therefore, a matter for this House.
Can we have a debate on business support or even on which party business is actually supporting? We have found that the Government have very little support in Scotland. Today, a letter drafted by the Scottish Secretary’s special adviser and circulated to businesses in Scotland had to be withdrawn because no one was prepared to sign it. That is in the same week in which the Scottish Trades Union Congress gave grudging support to Labour by a majority of one. Given that the right hon. Gentleman is running the Chancellor’s campaign, does he accept that a defeat in his own backyard, which looks likely in two weeks’ time, will leave him fatally flawed and a lame duck Prime Minister?
The hon. Gentleman has done better than that in the past. He makes a rather complicated point, which I believe is designed to encourage people to vote for his party rather than the Labour party in the Scottish elections. However, as I could not understand his point—and I would like to be able to understand it—I am not sure that he will have much luck with it. What I suggest the hon. Gentleman starts talking about is the Labour Government’s record in Scotland, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom over the past 10 years. That record is spectacular and it is one from which Scottish people have benefited with lower unemployment, higher output and much improved investment in education and health, all of which would be put at risk if ever the SNP came anywhere near power.
The Defence Secretary announced an investigation into the operational aspects of the Iranian debacle—an inquiry by Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton—but will it cover personnel matters? Those involved in the operation showed such a compliant attitude and worryingly low state of morale and training that they actually thanked their captors after their release was secured. As the admirals and chiefs of staff have explicitly approved that performance, should it not form part of a separate debate by the House, so that we can help to restore the Royal Navy to its former pride and strength?
Although I am not privy to the inquiry’s terms of reference and do not have them with me, it seems to me that the right hon. Gentleman’s points are central to the inquiry, which is bound to look into those matters. In any event, if the inquiry failed to deal with them, I cannot imagine that the Defence Select Committee would refuse or fail to answer questions on them. I think that they will be dealt with as an inevitable part of the inquiry, but I will follow up the matter with my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary and, if necessary, I will write to the right hon. Gentleman.
Before the disastrous mismanagement of the sale of the sailors’ story came to overshadow everything else, on 28 March, when they were still captive, the Foreign Secretary made a couple of important points—namely, that the co-ordinates supplied by the Iranians had initially shown the boat to have been in Iraqi and not Iranian waters, and that even if the boat had been in Iranian waters, the most the Iranians would have been entitled to do would have been to warn it off and tell it to return to Iraqi waters. In the light of all that, may we have a further statement from the Foreign Secretary explaining what action the Foreign Office has taken in the interim to bring before the UN what is clearly misconduct by the Iranians in respect of the Royal Navy fulfilling a task laid upon it in accordance with a UN resolution?
I note the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I think that it is better to have the inquiry under Lieutenant-General Sir Rob Fulton and then to have it the subject of consideration by the Defence Committee. Any further questions that need to be answered should be dealt with at that stage.
Given that the number of people dead, dying and destitute in Darfur is increasing exponentially on a daily basis, may I tell the right hon. Gentleman that his answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) is warmly welcome. In view of both the urgency and the magnitude of the issues and the imperative requirement on this House to debate how we will stop the genocide and deliver to the people of Darfur peace, freedom and security, would the right hon. Gentleman accept that a debate on the matter must not be relegated to Westminster Hall, but take place on the Floor of the House?
I understand the importance of the issue and accept what the hon. Gentleman says. We will look for a date.
There is great anxiety throughout the country about the Government’s plans for sub-post offices. I received a petition from several hundred of my constituents in St. Martin’s about the future of its sub-post office, even though there is no formal proposal to close it at the moment. When will a Minister give a clear statement to the House about how the Government’s programme will be implemented and how my constituents can fight it?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has extended the consultation period. Because of public concern about the issue, I believe that after further consideration he will make a statement some time next month. Meanwhile, the House may wish to welcome the fact that WH Smith has announced its intention to open post office branches in about 70 of its more than 500 town centre stores, which is good news.
Last month, two amoral mindless thugs were found guilty at Peterborough Crown court of an assault on a resident, Paul Machin, which left him in a persistent vegetative state, effectively destroying that man’s life. They were sentenced to three years imprisonment. It subsequently became clear that the Crown Prosecution Service is unwilling to appeal against that grossly unsatisfactory sentence. When can we have a debate in Government time on the role and accountability of the CPS, especially its role in undermining people’s faith in the criminal justice system, so that we can reach a position where the punishment fits the crime?
Of course I understand the great distress of the family of the victim and the public concern, but I am in no position to offer a comment on whether the sentence was appropriate. We have to be careful about second-guessing the decisions of the courts. My right hon. Friend the Attorney-General is assiduous in looking at all applications for appeals against lenient sentence and referring them to the Court of Appeal where appropriate. I do not know of a single case where he has refused to do so when there has been any merit in the appeal. I will take up with my right hon. Friend the matter that the hon. Gentleman has raised and will ask my right hon. Friend to write directly to him.
May we have a debate on NHS dentistry? In the surveys that I carry out across my Shipley constituency, the number of people who say that they cannot find an NHS dentist is increasing all the time. Given the anger and frustration that the situation causes to my constituents, and no doubt the constituents of other Members, may we have a debate on this important issue?
There are plenty of opportunities to raise the issue, including in Westminster Hall. There has in fact been a substantial investment in dentistry. Notwithstanding the scare stories about the new contract, my understanding is that there are now more patients being treated within the NHS than there were before. No doubt the hon. Gentleman can raise the matter with the Secretary of State for Health if he wishes.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your advice? The Leader of the House, in replying to my right hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House in respect of questions that she put to him on pensions, quoted from a speech or statement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field). Would it have been appropriate for a Minister of the Crown—the Leader of the House—to have notified my hon. Friend that he intended to quote him during his responses to Question Time?
It was not a criticism of an hon. Member; it was a factual record. Right hon. and hon. Members are entitled to use factual records and speak about them in the House during the course of their work.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I know from your recent actions that you are keen to defend the rights of Members of the House who are here. The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is now in his place, referred to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in his question, and you quite rightly put him down. There is some confusion. I have spoken to my hon. Friend and he states quite categorically that somebody has been in his office since before 8 o’clock this morning and no telephone calls whatsoever have been received from the hon. Gentleman. I wonder whether you can guide us on this matter.
I gave good guidance. I stopped the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), as I would stop any other hon. Member. In doing so, I consider these matters to be finished. The hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) will note that I did not allow the Leader of the House to respond to the hon. Member for Rhondda. I wish the hon. Member for Rhondda well with the marathon on Sunday.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will have heard, at Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions considerable interest was expressed in the report on the epidemiology of the recent avian flu outbreak, which was released to the press at 10 o’clock this morning. Hon. Members were given to believe that the report was also available to them, but I am advised that, at least up until five minutes ago, it was not available in either the Vote Office or the Library. I wonder whether there is anything that you can do to impress upon DEFRA Ministers the need to ensure that the report is made available to all Members.
If that is the case, I am very disappointed and I instruct the appropriate officials to look into the matter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wonder whether I could seek your guidance on how Back-Bench Members of Parliament who table oral questions can be protected. You will have observed that there were only 12 questions on the Order Paper today. An additional five that were published on Tuesday were subsequently rejected by DEFRA on the ground that they were not for that Department. The Table Office handles 400 or so questions every day and people in the Table Office know how to deal with questions. I suggest that the fact that almost a third of the oral questions were rejected by DEFRA indicates that perhaps DEFRA did not want to answer them. In a case like that, there ought to be some form of appeal system, because quite often dealing directly with people in the Table Office and tweaking a few words gets the message through without the question being rejected. I have to say that the fact that five out of 17 questions were rejected by DEFRA suggests that DEFRA did not want to answer the questions.
The hon. Gentleman should perhaps be careful with his words. The questions were transferred by DEFRA, not rejected. That happens to us all. When I was a Back Bencher, those things happened. It is part of our job—it goes with the territory, as they say. The Table Office is without blame in this matter.
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In entirely endorsing the way in which you handled the question from the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who has many admirers on both sides of the House, including me, may I ask for your advice about one aspect of that issue? I think that the hon. Gentleman said from a sedentary position both that he had tried to telephone my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) and that he had only had the invitation five minutes—
Order. I have said that the matter has been dealt with. It is finished and we will move on.
I beg to move,
That this House takes note of the 35th and the 43rd to the 63rd Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2005-06, and of the Treasury Minutes and the Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel Memorandum on these Reports (Cm 6879, 6900, 6908, 6924, 6959, 6981 and 7017); and of the 1st to the 8th and the 10th Reports of the Committee of Session 2006-07, and of the Treasury Minutes and Northern Ireland Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda on these Reports (Cm 7018, 7019, 7020 and 7035).
It is a pleasure to move the motion that stands in my name and that of other right hon. and hon. Members. Members will remember that the last debate on the Public Accounts Committee was held rather late at night. The uncivilised hour did not do justice to the important issues under discussion, so I am pleased that the usual channels have ensured that today’s arrangements are more fitting. The Committee responsible for overseeing Government spending each year of more than £500 billion of public money should never be shunted into the graveyard slot.
The hour today may be earlier, but the Committee’s output has in no way slackened since our last debate. Over that time, many have questioned whether some of our public bodies have the capability to deliver, or, as the Home Secretary might put it, whether they are fit for purpose. Some people say that Parliament has declined in the 150 years since the motion to create the Public Accounts Committee in 1857, but I do not think that anybody could argue that the Public Accounts Committee is less effective now than it was then. Indeed, I believe that it is very effective. All our reports are agreed by all Members of the Committee, but that does not stop them being hard hitting. It does not stop more than 90 per cent. of the recommendations in our reports being accepted by the Government.
There is no point, however, in simply accepting the recommendations. We have to ensure that the recommendations are implemented. With my encouragement, the Comptroller and Auditor General is increasingly returning to all the recommendations and Treasury minutes and ensuring that the recommendations are carried out. In that context, I say to Members on the Treasury Bench that timeliness is important. It is important that we get our reports out rapidly and that they are up to date. The Government should not use the excuse of saying that although a particular report is fine and that they agree with it entirely, it is based on a National Audit Office report that was published nine months or a year ago and therefore all the excellent recommendations are already being implemented—when, on certain occasions, the Government, or rather accounting officers and their civil servants, have delayed the whole process. The process relies on the National Audit Office reports being agreed between the National Audit Office and the Department and there is often a long period of negotiation.
That was particularly apparent in the recent important report on the NHS computer system—a system that is worth about £12 billion. I notice that the Government’s response this week says, “Well, excellent report by the PAC, but we’re doing all this—it’s an out-of-date report.” I am going to call the Government’s bluff. I have talked to the Comptroller and Auditor General about the matter and, following my encouragement, we are to have another NAO report on the NHS computer in the next year so that we can have an update to check whether all the excellent recommendations of the NAO and the PAC on this £12 billion computer system—that amount is equivalent to the entire cost of the Olympic games—are being carried out.
I commend the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. It will also be important for the NAO and the PAC to scrutinise public expenditure on the Olympics. Does he welcome the fact that we will oversee expenditure before the Olympics, rather than after the event, to ensure that money is spent properly during the years leading up to the games?
The hon. Gentleman is an assiduous member of the Committee. It is an important new departure that, following our encouragement and pressure, the Comptroller and Auditor General will quite rightly have a continuous oversight of spending up to the Olympic games. We do not want a situation in which there are massive cost overruns and numerous PAC reports have to be produced long after I have retired as the Committee’s Chairman to point to lessons from the Olympics. Such reports would be too late because when would we have the chance to host another Olympic games?
Is my hon. Friend worried by the fact that the budget has already nearly trebled? Will his Committee keep a close eye on the progress of the run-up to 2012?
We are worried, which is why we are insisting on tight scrutiny now. The venue and timing of Olympic games are absolutely fixed, so many host countries have found that the private sector has held the public sector to ransom at the last minute. I hope that I am not speaking too soon or out of turn, but I think that we are putting in place mechanisms that will mean that that will not happen this time. We will be able to keep a close track of any profits that the private sector makes. We will attempt to be the guardian of the taxpayer.
Will my hon. Friend, who chairs the Committee with great distinction, indicate what sort of attention the Committee is paying to the sums that will be allocated to the Olympic games and the way in which they might reduce the amount available for other deserving and vital charitable organisations?
My hon. Friend might have noticed the publicity surrounding the last National Audit Office report, which made precisely that point. The way in which many good causes are being put at risk because money is being drawn into the great bottomless pit of the Olympic games is a serious matter on which the Treasury must keep a close eye. Many such good causes have no other means of support and are beyond the help of the taxpayer, unlike the Olympic games.
Whitehall’s capability matters deeply to the Committee because if there is a capability gap, a delivery failure often follows, with the most effective use of public funds being one of the casualties. The civil service publishes its own capability reviews. I want to highlight some of the key themes drawn from the work of our independent Committee. The Committee is genuinely independent and, in that context, I pay tribute to the majority party members of the Committee, who, without being party political, often have to make trenchant criticisms of the civil service. They do so with great courage, so we should pay tribute to them. The key themes from our work highlight where the Government must up their game if they are consistently to deliver the services that the public pay for and deserve.
The need for outstanding leadership in our public services has never been greater. The accounting officers who appear before our Committee not only have their formal duties, but are leaders with responsibility for driving through results. Their appearances before our Committee are often the only occasions on which they appear before a Committee. Permanent secretaries might appear before the relevant departmental Committee once a year, but they are held to account before the Public Accounts Committee.
Too often, poor leadership scuppers the effective implementation of public policy. Urgent leadership not only saves money, but can help to save lives. I am especially proud of our report on stroke care in the NHS, which I tried to push through as much as possible. The report called on the Department of Health to drive the message home to health care professionals that stroke was a medical emergency requiring a 999 response and rapid access to scanning to determine the most appropriate treatment, which is something that routinely happens in the rest of Europe. Encouragingly, the Department felt that implementing the Committee’s recommendations could save as many as 10 lives a week and some £20 million a year in the NHS. That extraordinary outcome shows that our actions as a scrutiny Committee are not merely dry paperwork exercises, but can actually save lives.
On the other side of the coin, we have recently heard about the failure of leadership displayed at the Rural Payments Agency, which could hardly have made a worse job of paying the new £1.5 billion EU subsidy to farmers. The agency’s disastrous handling of the single payment scheme brought distress to many, some of whom were my constituents. Indeed, there were some suicides, and farmers were driven mad with frustration, with some of their businesses threatened. The events should be recorded in a civil service textbook as an example of what not to do. The experience should be held up to every civil servant as an example of how not to run a project.
I am giving little away when I say that the Committee’s forthcoming report will not pull its punches. However, it is being delayed because Johnston McNeill—I do not like naming civil servants, but I occasionally have to do so, although I have tried to avoid that during my time running the Committee—the former accounting officer who was suspended, has so far tried at every turn to avoid appearing before us, which is highly regrettable. The whole system of parliamentary accountability, which has developed over many years, depends on accounting officers being held to account in front of a parliamentary Committee, however difficult that might be for them. Frankly, no one ever gets sacked in our system, so the least that people can do is to turn up and be held to account, but so far this man has not done so.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be helpful if Helen Ghosh, the present accounting officer of the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, were to co-operate with the Committee? Although my hon. Friend said that civil servants never get sacked, Mr. McNeill was removed from office on 16 March 2006 and removed from employment on 1 December. I have calculated that he was paid a salary of about £80,000 during that time. He was probably paid another £120,000 on top of that in disbursements, payment in lieu of notice and so on. We are yet to hear from the permanent secretary an accurate account of the total expenditure of public funds since Mr. McNeill’s removal from office on 16 March, although we have been asking for it for five or six months.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Of course, I should not have said that civil servants never get sacked—they rarely get sacked. However, if they do get sacked, they have to be held to account over the often generous severance payments that are made to them. Parliament has a right to know about those payments. That is true not just for DEFRA, but for the Foreign Office, in which, as my hon. Friend knows, there have been other instances.
I am afraid to say that an increasingly unwelcome tactic is being deployed by accounting officers at our meetings. They give the enticing promise of notes containing golden nuggets of further information by saying, “I would like to answer the hon. Member’s question, but I do not have the information now, so I will provide a note.” Somehow, the notes do not arrive—tomorrow never seems to come. The notes continually fail to reach us, which delays our discussions and holds up our reports, which ensures that the Government can say that the reports are out of date.
I hope that it will be noted throughout Whitehall that accounting officers have specific duties to the Committee of Public Accounts within the terms of their appointment. Those duties exist for a purpose. Transparency and openness to scrutiny are hallmarks of strong leadership, not irritations to be avoided. We have a right to expect better from senior public officials than such a betrayal of their responsibilities.
Never again does my Committee wish to hear an accounting officer defending the unacceptable face of capitalism, as was the case during our hearing on the poor deal for refinancing the Norfolk and Norwich private finance initiative hospital. In that case, the private sector frankly took the public sector for a ride. Accounting officers’ duties to my Committee are a reflection of their broader duties as stewards of public funds. Those duties should be borne in mind at all times if we are to avoid such failures as the loss of £5.2 million of taxpayers’ money, spent while trying to save MG Rover. That is the subject of another report that we are considering today.
Before my hon. Friend moves on from the subject of the Norfolk and Norwich University hospital, I am sure that the chief executive and the finance director of that hospital would like it placed on record that they would have liked the contract to contain a clause requiring a sharing of the refinancing benefits. It was not that they did not want such a clause; they were advised by their advisers to try to get one, but they were prohibited from doing so by Treasury guidance at the time, which made it impossible.
I am glad that, thanks partly to the work of the Committee, we are now much more astute in dealing with refinancing gains, and I am confident that there will never again be a case similar to that of Norfolk and Norwich University hospital, although perhaps that is a dangerous thing to say.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a big fan of the Office of Government Commerce and welcomed it as an innovation, but does he think that sufficient lessons are being learned? He said that he hopes that they have been learned, but permanent secretaries who come before us give the same excuses time and again, and do not learn the lessons. We hear Permanent Secretaries make the same points that they made when they gave evidence three, four or five months ago. Does he think that the OGC is doing a good job in that regard?
The creation of the OGC, particularly when it was under the inspired leadership of Mr. Gershon, is a welcome innovation of the Government’s, and of course his work has influenced other aspects of government. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: we continually find that lessons appear not to have been learned, and although the OGC has an excellent remit and does good work, it lacks the ability to enforce its will in Whitehall. Perhaps it needs to be raised in the pecking order, so that we can ensure that the private sector knowledge that it has acquired is reflected in the public sector’s saving money, particularly in procurement. I do not want to be a merchant of doom. I see that there are people sitting in the civil service Box in the Chamber, and I acknowledge that we have to pay tribute to them. The civil service has thousands of committed people of outstanding quality at all levels, and we try to pay tribute to them when we can, particularly to individuals, including those civil servants, who are often younger, who take on a particular project and deal with it over a number of years with great dedication.
To turn to another key theme, I stress that those high-quality people have to work with low-quality information, poor systems and inadequate information technology. To come right up to date, yesterday we had before the Committee Mr. Ian Taylor, an interesting man. He has wide private sector procurement experience. Indeed, he is a past president of the Chartered Institute of Purchasing and Supply, so he is at the top of his profession in the private sector. He is now director of the centre for procurement performance at the Department for Education and Skills, and I congratulate the Government on bringing in a man with a particular skill. He told us yesterday that in his view, public sector people are every bit as skilled as those in the private sector, but the information systems in the public sector are so bad that no private sector firm could afford to put up with them. They would simply go out of business. They do not provide the data that public sector leaders need to manage effectively or to develop robust strategies for delivery.
In that context, the Home Office should step forward. The Committee has engaged in a persistent investigation of the Department’s decision to release from prison foreign nationals, many imprisoned for ghastly offences, without giving any consideration to whether they should be deported. It is a well-known issue that cost the former Home Secretary his job. We revealed a Department entirely unaware of the scale and political sensitivity of the problem. The Department revised its calculations on that matter with such rapidity that we, and indeed the present Home Secretary, concluded that the Home Office staff were running around like headless chickens, unable to produce reliable information or a coherent response.
At this point, I must pay tribute to one member of the Committee in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), without whom the picture may never have emerged. We greatly welcome his assiduous work on the Committee, even if he is a bit of an anorak; we forgive him for that. Perhaps the age of Lincolnshire cavaliers such as I must give way to the age of East Anglian roundheads in time. We are grateful for what my hon. Friend achieved. It was actually achieved on the back of one of the notes that I referred to earlier. There had been persistent delay in providing a note. We had asked for it again and again, and my hon. Friend, just a day before the hearing that the permanent secretary was due to attend, ensured that the note was delivered. The rest, as we know, is history.
In the NHS, the Committee found that a lack of accurate information meant that no one had any realistic idea of how many people die each year in patient safety incidents. To compound that, nearly one quarter of incidents and a staggering 39 per cent. of near misses were simply not reported at all. We demanded that the National Patient Safety Agency make it simpler for trusts to report incidents and collect information on the factors that lead to death and serious harm in hospitals. Again, that is not some dry bean-counting exercise; it is about saving lives.
Too often, Departments lack the basic capability to measure the things that matter and to learn from them, and to pioneer new approaches. When new approaches are introduced, they do not always take into account the complexities of delivery, and that is the subject that I next want to discuss. The Department for Work and Pensions contact centres are often staffed by people working on flexitime contracts. One might think, “What a sensible arrangement to save money,” but of course it means that they are not available when most of the telephone calls come in. We have all been at the end of a call centre line. Because IT systems are not linked up, customers have to give related Departments and agencies the same information time and again, and it drives them crazy. That wastes time, duplicates effort and infuriates customers. There is an obvious principle here that cannot be expressed too often: when developing strategies, put the needs of the customer first. The public sector is run not for the public sector producer, but for us, the public.
Reliable performance information is especially important when it comes to Government efficiency. We have had two hearings on the Government’s efficiency programme in the past year, both of which highlighted how crucial it is to measure progress accurately. Our first hearing highlighted the important point that there is a lack of agreed baselines against which to compare progress, and there are weak systems of measurement and validation. Our second hearing identified the progress that the Government have made in improving the robustness of how gains are measured, but even so, over two thirds of reported efficiency gains still carry a significant risk of inaccuracy.
There remain big opportunities to improve public sector efficiency. We are in a new era of politics. As the parties draw closer together, more scrutiny will shift from issues of ideology to the terrain of whether particular Departments are efficient, and to how much can be saved. The sums that can be saved are staggering. First, the public sector must aim to redirect resources to the front line. Hacking away at the complexity in the benefits system is one way to achieve that. My personal opinion is that we are far too reliant on means-tested benefits, which makes it impossible, year after year, for a Department to ensure that its accounts are accepted by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Secondly, as the Government are increasingly commissioning services, they must become a lot more commercially astute—we have already mentioned the OGC—and that will require a much better ability to manage contracts. Thirdly, we need to examine more closely how the Government estate is managed. That might sound a boring issue—how many debates are there on the Floor of the House about how the Government estate is managed? However, the potential savings are, again, enormous. We must include in any such study the potential for moving more civil servants to lower-cost locations beyond the Westminster village. We are often told that an agency or Department cannot move because it has to be close to Ministers, but how many civil servants ever actually meet Ministers? How many of them have to be in Westminster in central London, one of the most expensive places to locate in the world?
Fourthly, there is a tendency for Government to become more complex. To combat that tendency, Government must work to rationalise functions that have been duplicated and to eliminate entirely those functions and bodies that are unnecessary. I have been encouraged by a number of developments since the Committee’s hearings. The Government have promised that, in future, before they claim efficiency improvements—this is an important point—they will take into account how much they have spent to achieve those improvements. One might think that that is an obvious point, but it is now on the record. The Chief Secretary—and I welcome what he has done in this area—agreed to publish a breakdown of departmental performance, again, after we applied some pressure. I am sure that he was going to do it anyway, but we applied that pressure. That agreement will provide welcome transparency which, as we all know, is essential in measuring and analysing performance. We have a great deal to learn from the way in which the Office of Management and Budget and the Executive Office of the President in the United States ensure that there is complete transparency in all those areas to improve efficiency.
Reliable information, too, is a prerequisite for sound financial management. The effective management of public money is the bedrock, as we know, of successful policy delivery. It is at the very core, too, of the Committee’s work. That is another key theme: sound financial management should be straightforward, but many parts of Government simply cannot get it right. For instance, Government must collect the tax which is owed to them—a simple point—but due to financial mismanagement lots of revenue is not collected by HM Revenue and Customs. We found that not all information on VAT debt recorded on the main VAT computer system had been transferred to the so-called trader register. That may appear to be an obscure point, but it meant that some £900 million of debt failed to appear on the debt case management system. That is hardly a first-rate example of financial management by a department that should be at the forefront of such matters.
We have discussed weak financial management, but “weak” is too kind a description of financial management in the Home Office, which somehow failed to reconcile its cash records with its bank statements. The manager of even the smallest corner shop knows that it is crucial to carry out such a basic reconciliation. At one point, the Home Office appeared to value the sum of all transactions going through it at £27 trillion—more than every single transaction in the world in the past year. That was the result of confusing the value of an invoice with an account code. Those people are entrusted with public money, but they apparently thought that the value of transactions going through the Home Office was £27 trillion. We are told that splitting the mismanaged Department into two is the answer—we will have to wait for the proof of that particular pudding.
It is good news that the Government have acted to tackle weaknesses in EU financial management, and I pay tribute, again, to what the Chief Secretary is trying to achieve. Almost a year has passed since the Comptroller and Auditor General called on each member state to produce a consolidated account for all EU funds spent in that state. One would think that that was an absolutely basic point: why on earth should we not know how an EU state is spending EU money? I urged the Government to set an example by preparing such an account for the UK, as we had not done so before. The Government agreed, and they are developing that with the National Audit Office. I congratulate the Government on being at the forefront of that initiative, and we will watch the outcome with interest, as it may be the beginning of an era of much better management of EU money.
I remain convinced that Government Departments and other public bodies must urgently improve their financial and commercial expertise. Thankfully, there has been progress in appointing commercial directors and professionally qualified finance directors, as recommended by the Committee on many occasions. Only yesterday, for instance, we looked at further education colleges, and we found that there was a worrying tendency for governing bodies not to be interested in procurement and for their business members not to be consulted. That is common, and virtually without drawing breath we could save £75 million that could go back into education. Audit committee members with business experience are increasingly involved in the work of Departments, but are those business members encouraged to influence the main areas of projects, programmes and measures? Despite the unarguable experience of many audit committee members in dealing with the strategic financial management issues with which some Departments are unable to come to terms, the extent to which those expert outsiders are welcomed to the hearth varies. The attitude that people with private sector experience should not be in the highest reaches of government is still too prevalent in Whitehall. That may be unfair, but we have encountered that tendency.
Across the board, the Government appear to have introduced more initiatives, projects and programmes than they can effectively finance and implement at any given point in time. No doubt all Governments have been guilty of that, but we see it especially in the defence and health sectors, as well as in our road-building programme. In our last look at major projects in defence procurement, we were concerned about what was happening in that area. Yesterday, in his inimitable way, the Comptroller and Auditor General told me that to get quarts into pint pots individual projects are drip-fed with resources—again, I presume that has always been Whitehall’s way—time frames are stretched; and specifications are changed. The first consequence is often delay but, as night follows day, cost increases follow project delays. Those are the findings of a man who has a lifetime of experience at the highest reaches of Whitehall. That creates a vicious spiral: overruns cost more; budgets run dry and projects can progress only when extra funds can be freed up; time lines are further stretched; and specifications are subject to revision and reduction. In the end, as the Committee sees again and again, Departments pay more for something; they get it later than they wanted; and it does not do all the things that they need it to do. That worrying picture, I am afraid, is frequently seen in Whitehall.
The Government claim that efficiency savings will free up cash to spend on a host of valuable projects, and they produce anecdotes of isolated successes to cover up huge systemic failures. As we have made clear, however, they have massively overstated the savings that they have made to date. They still fall short of resources, and they continue to drip-feed and delay projects, winnow down their specifications and supply defective services to the citizens of this country. It is right for Departments to be ambitious in seeking to serve the taxpayer, but those ambitions, if they are to come to fruition, cannot but defy the iron constraints of Whitehall’s defective capacity to deliver. I absolve Ministers of blame in many cases—they come, they go—but I repeat, if those ambitions are to come to fruition they cannot but defy the iron constraints of Whitehall’s defective capacity to deliver and the Government’s inability to fund all the programmes that they claim to be implementing.
The Committee seeks to be a strong force for good by taking a balanced look at what is going wrong and identifying where improvements need to be made. We do criticise, but we also advise and commend. These observations are, I hope, valuable and constructive. I am able to make them only as the result of a great deal of hard work by members of the Committee. I should like to thank everyone who has left the Committee since the last debate: the hon. Members for Burnley (Kitty Ussher) and for Portsmouth, North (Sarah McCarthy-Fry), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). In their place, we welcome the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright) and for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) I pay tribute, too, to the Committee staff, including those who have departed or joined since the last debate. Mr. Nick Wright was an excellent committee Clerk, and we greatly enjoyed working with him. We welcome from the Foreign Office—we forgive him that—Mr. Mark Etherton. I thank, too, Chris Randall, the Committee assistant, for all her support, and I welcome her replacement, Phil Jones.
Of course, we thank Sir John Bourn and the National Audit Office, whose continuing support to the Committee is invaluable. Unbelievably, on average, the NAO publishes a value-for-money report every six days for us to consider, and its support above and beyond that greatly enhances the Committee’s effectiveness. During the period of direct rule, the Committee dealt with the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, but luckily that responsibility, thank God, is now about to be taken away. It is not that we did not enjoy it, but we always thought that it should be done locally in Belfast by people on the ground.
Our achievements were affected by other developments. In particular, I welcome the passage of the Companies Act 2006, which gives the Comptroller and Auditor General access rights to audit Government-owned companies. The Act was a long time in the making, but it is an important step. I should also highlight the Chancellor’s request that the NAO work alongside the Better Regulation Executive to develop a process of external review.
Unlike the Chancellor on another occasion, I shall resist making a final dramatic announcement—I am not sure that I have any power to do so, anyway. I shall therefore conclude my speech by saying simply that, with the coming comprehensive spending review, we face the probability of the Government’s tightening their money belt; we know that. True efficiency and sound financial management will be ever more vital in those changing circumstances. As we approach our 150th birthday, I can confidently state that the Committee on Public Accounts will continue to approach our scrutiny of public spending with the unbending commitment that Mr. Gladstone would have expected of us. The Committee is more than strong enough to take on the challenge, and I commend its work to the House.
I agree with our Chairman in welcoming the monitoring role being undertaken in relation to the NHS contract and the Olympics. Those are areas in which the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Accounts Commission could get together to devise a longer-term, more systematic way of ensuring that we identify individual cases that need to be reviewed, as well as a review procedure.
Like the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and all hon. Members, I congratulate the National Audit Office on its work and thank it for the support that it provides. In fact, it is more than support, because without the NAO we would not be able to do our job; we would merely scratch at the surface of problems. We depend utterly on the reports that the NAO produces. Producing a report can take up to six months; the detail of the reports—albeit not necessarily the value judgments they contain—is agreed with the Departments concerned; and they can cost more than £100,000 each to produce. That sounds expensive when one considers that we get two a week to deal with, but when we look at the other side of the picture we see that the NAO is one of the best investments in the public sector because the return it gives to Government is eight times its total expenditure. The money it receives from the Treasury is, in effect, recycled back into the system via the measures that the NAO recommends, and so efficient has the NAO become that, as a result of a request from the Chairman of the Committee and myself as Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, it aims next year to increase the rate of return from eight times expenditure to nine times—a remarkable achievement.
With my Liaison Committee hat on, I want to thank the NAO for its increasing participation in the work of the Select Committees. In the 17 years since I came back to the Public Accounts Committee—I was a member before I became a Minister in the ‘60s—I have noticed the other Committees’ understandable envy of the qualify of back-up that we receive. I am delighted that, increasingly, the NAO is providing support to the other Select Committees. I hope that the Chairman and I can discuss further with Sir John Bourn methods by which we can expand the NAO’s work into new areas in which it can help Parliament.
In that context—I hope you will forgive me for straying from the subject of the PAC reports, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I want to take this opportunity to remind hon. Members that the NAO is Parliament’s watchdog, not just the PAC’s watchdog. It is a watchdog for individuals Members of Parliament, who can take problems to the NAO. They should not go on fishing expeditions or question matters of policy; the NAO deals with value for money, probity and similar matters. If an MP presents sufficient evidence to start an investigation, the NAO will burrow into the case for them.
Many years ago, I had representations from UK shipping interests worried that, in the first Gulf war, Britain had received only five of the masses of contracts for shipping to the middle east. I delved for a while, but could not get very far, so I spoke to a member of the lobby with whom I had worked on matters royal. He—David Henke—got permission from The Guardian to make inquiries elsewhere in the country and we built up a dossier that we took to Sir John Bourn. He set up an inquiry, which led to a change in the contracting procedures of the Department involved. In the Turkish university case, impropriety was alleged against the institution. No impropriety was found, but inefficiency was, and although the inquiry had cost £80,000, the NAO said that the Department saved more than that through the changes made as a result of the NAO getting involved.
I could cite various other examples of the way in which the NAO’s help is available. It is not to be abused or pushed into the political arena, because that will undermine its standing, but it is there to be used effectively and wants to be used effectively. Sir John often says that he welcomes inquiries from Members of Parliament. Last year, he dealt with almost 100 inquiries from our parliamentary colleagues. It is good to know that they are beginning to realise that that asset is available to them.
I shall not talk today about matters of great importance such as the Gershon inquiry. I have made my views on that subject well known to the Financial Secretary, who has had to suffer my irreverence in the past. Instead, I shall speak about two reports that I think will not be dealt with in any great depth—indeed, I do not intend to go into them in detail—but which are important because of the long-term benefit to be gained from them.
The first is the report on child obesity. We were aware in general that there was a problem of obesity, but I was surprised to learn from the NAO that it costs the NHS £1 billion a year and the economy between £2.3 billion and £3.6 billion a year, and that those costs will have increased by a further £1 billion by 2010. Child obesity is therefore a financial problem but, more important, it is a life problem for our constituents, leading to high blood pressure, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and reduction of life expectancy by up to nine years.
I told the Committee that almost 10 years ago I attended a conference in the United States. At one session, we were told that brand preference had been identified in children as young as two, because of the use in advertising of toys and cartoon images, which created not an awareness of what the product being advertised was, but an awareness that the product gave access to something else that was desirable. Two-year-olds were being corrupted into nagging or wailing at their parents to get the product in question, which was probably grossly unhealthy. At that time—a fair while ago—the Americans were anticipating seeing in the near future heart attacks in patients as young as 14. The problem was that severe. We have a chance to act before the problem becomes that severe in the UK.
The incidence of child obesity has increased in this country. Between 1995 and 2004, the percentage of two to 10-year-olds who were obese increased from 9.9 per cent. to 13.4 per cent. The relevant Departments have been set a public service agreement target—it might not sound dramatic but will be difficult to achieve—of stopping the annual rate of increase in obesity between now and 2010. If they achieve that, they are to be congratulated. It is a little worrying that they did not have up-to-date statistics—they were at least two years old—but they have only relatively recently become conscious of the seriousness of the impending problem.
During our hearing, we were told that Ofcom planned to introduce restrictions on the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar. Since then, it has done so, but those restrictions came under attack for their inadequacy. Which?—in my days as a Consumer Affairs Minister it used to be called the Consumers Association—is singularly critical of them and points out that the method used to define which television programmes are to be subject to restrictions does not cover those that are watched by the highest number of children. Those advertising restrictions relate to those programmes that are designed for children and fail to recognise that children watch programmes other than those designed for them. Indeed, the top 27 programmes most popular with children are all excluded from those restrictions because they are not children’s programmes. The relevant index used shows that the majority of those programmes’ viewers are adults, so, regardless of how many youngsters watch them, they are not covered by the restrictions.
Ofcom’s self-assessment of its proposals claims that exposure to such advertising will reduce by 41 per cent. for 10 to 15-year-olds and by 51 per cent. for four to nine-year-olds. Which? carried out a survey in which 86 per cent. of its members said that that they want restrictions based on the time of broadcast, which would be more logical. It argues that the times when children are most likely to be watching television should be advertisement-free as regards particular products, and estimates that the introduction of such a watershed would reduce by 81 per cent. children’s exposure to advertisements for foods that are damaging to them. I should like Ministers to ask Ofcom to look at the matter again, from the consumer and health point of view, and not so strongly from the financial point of view of the industry. I understand that financial considerations must be taken into account, but the case for profit as against child deaths, heart attacks and illness is not a difficult one for me to assess—I know which side I would be on.
I was a Consumer Affairs Minister many years ago. In fact, it was I who persuaded Harold Wilson to set up a Department for consumers. Having said that it would be better value for money if we gave more money to further education than to universities, I was discreetly moved to a competition remit. When I looked at it, my heart sank and thoughts of my political future disappeared. Then I saw that the last words were, “and consumer affairs”, at which I thought, “This is promising.” Since then, Departments for consumers have become stronger and stronger.
I welcome the revelation that primary care trusts have been asked to weigh schoolchildren annually. However, when I asked what information was given to parents, I was amazed to be told, “Oh no, we don’t give information to parents, but we do feed it back to schools”—presumably in terms of broad statistics rather than individual instances.
Is not that lack of information one of the reasons why parents and carers wrongly thought that this was an example of Big Brother rather than the good thing that my right hon. Friend suggests?
It seemed anomalous that information would be fed back to schools, PCTs, children’s centres, local authorities and Government offices, but not to parents. When I asked for an explanation, the Department of Health provided a supplementary memorandum, which said, at paragraph 2(a):
“It is unethical to screen children (ie take children who do not know that they have a health problem and tell them that they do) and inform their parents, when services to treat overweight and obesity are not uniformly available”.
Frankly, that is one of the most unethical comments I have ever heard, yet it was the unanimous decision of the expert advisory group. It is unethical not to be able to tell parents that their children are at risk, when the local trust knows that. Later on, the memorandum says:
“Schools are aware that parents can ask their PCT for their child’s height and weight following measuring.”
Schools are aware—note that—but no one tells the parents. It continues:
“We will take action to let parents know that they can do this.”
That is a preposterous situation. This shows the value of a Select Committee-type inquiry. The Department was forced to backtrack between the time of the hearing and the time that it sent out the memorandum, but the original position remains implicit in the wording of the eventual submission.
I turn to a subject on which I want to get at the facts. I do not expect Ministers to be able to give me an answer today, as it is a very detailed issue; I will be perfectly happy if they write to the Committee subsequently. We had a recent inquiry about the gas distribution network and I asked questions about pipeline replacement. I discovered that 58,000 miles of pipe is regarded as being at risk and that it would take 51 years to replace it, although it represents a third of the total network. That does not mean that every pipe into every house, or anything like it, is at risk, and I emphasise that much of the mileage will be in the major pipelines. However, I suggested that 58,000 miles and 51 years was “staggering”. Mr. Buchanan replied:
“It is very serious quite clearly.”
“Not just serious, but very serious.”
“Yes, very serious.”
We then established that the 51 years had been reduced to 30 years to try to accelerate the replacement process. It will cost approximately £430 million over a five-year cycle to replace the pipeline.
We discovered that there were three different types of pipe. The use of the original cast iron pipes started at the beginning of the last century and continued until 1970. Those pipes are subject to corrosion but, because they are cast iron, their vulnerability can be reasonably predicted, as long as no earth movements occur. A second type of pipe, called ductile iron, was introduced in 1970 to replace the cast iron pipes. However, it emerged that, although the old, cast iron pipes were subject to predictable failure, the failure of the new pipes was unpredictable. That is clearly serious. People have no idea where to start work.
I asked whether a major part of the new piping was in new housing estates that were built since 1970, and that was the case. To be fair, the matter was not the witness’s direct responsibility. He said that he guessed that
“the large majority of it would be in urban areas”.
That applied to the cast iron and the ductile iron piping. I asked when the pipes would be replaced, but it was a frustrating series of questions. I asked three times when work would be completed and got no answer. Eventually, I asked for a report.
We had a written report from Ofgem, but it is not the easiest to read. It is two pages and I assure hon. Members that I shall read only a bit of it. It is important to stress that I do not want to be alarmist. The encouraging aspect of the report is:
“HSE required Transco to decommission all medium pressure ductile iron… mains within 30 metres of property by 30 April 2003.”
As far as I can make out from the report, that happened. We understand from the Health and Safety Executive that that resulted in more than 2,800 km—1,750 miles in my non-metricated language—being decommissioned.
However, buried towards the end of the two-page report is the line,
“serious concerns remain about the integrity of MPDI mains; and… any additional lengths which are found or become at risk must be replaced as soon as reasonably practicable and in any case within 12 months of being found.”
I appreciate that it is not the Financial Secretary’s Department’s responsibility—and I do not mind if a response comes from a Minister who is responsible—but I want to ask him whether the precise “serious concerns” will be spelled out and whether a risk assessment will be conducted of the pipeline network.
I am sorry to have spoken for so long.
I begin by paying tribute to the work of the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office. They are the jewels in Parliament’s ability to scrutinise the Executive and the Government. I was struck by the remarks of the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) about the development of the NAO’s work and its support for other Select Committees. As a former member of the Health Committee, I can tell the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee that some of our work would have greatly benefited from input from the NAO. We all benefit from work such as the report on hospital- acquired infections and many other issues, which the Chairman mentioned.
So many reports are outstanding—in both senses of the word—and are worth the House’s time today. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who opened the debate, referred to the previous occasion when the House debated outstanding reports as a “graveyard slot.” I fear that a Thursday so close to local elections almost gets into that category. Nevertheless, it is an opportunity for good quality contributions, such as those that have already been made, to draw attention to the work of the Committee and the NAO.
I underline and echo comments not only about the value of the work of producing reports and making recommendations, but about the essential element of following up and ensuring that recommendations are acted upon. For example, the Committee has produced more than one report on hospital-acquired infections over the years and I am struck by the number of recommendations from the first report, which was published more than 10 years ago, that were not implemented. The NAO had to upbraid the Department of Health in its subsequent report of a couple of years ago. I await with interest further reports on the subject to ascertain whether substantive progress has occurred. I fear that much remains to be done.
I want to concentrate briefly on three reports, which are on the Norfolk and Norwich private finance initiative hospital; urban green space, and diet and exercise in prison.
The Norfolk and Norwich PFI hospital is an astonishing example of Government miscalculation, perhaps even negligence. Indeed, the Chairman described it when opening the debate as taking the public sector for a ride. The Committee covered the refinancing of the Norfolk and Norwich PFI hospital in its 35th report in the last Session.
The right hon. Member for Swansea, West mentioned the role of individual Members of Parliament in using the NAO to flag up issues that it evaluates and then pursues, if it sees fit, through inquiry. The NAO’s investigation of the scandal that I am considering was in response, at least in part—a significant part—to referral by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) who, with others, rightly drew the matter to public attention.
In 1998, Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital NHS Trust let one of the first PFI contracts to a private sector consortium, Octagon. As one of the first examples of a PFI scheme, Norfolk and Norwich was something of a guinea pig. The trust might, therefore, reasonably have expected to experience the teething problems that are normally associated with new initiatives. However, it could not have expected that, in 2003—a mere two years after the completion of the hospital—Octagon would refinance the project, tripling the rate of return for its investors from 19 per cent. to a staggering 60 per cent. On the other hand, the Department of Health appears to have expected that to happen. In its response to the report, it states that the
“potential for gains from a refinancing were recognised prior to the contract being signed”.
Indeed, it goes on to state that the policy at the time was not seek a share for the public sector partner
“while the market was still so volatile”.
The Department did not want profit sharing in case it scared off potential investors. It feels as though the intention in trying to secure the implementation of this change in public policy and the financing of major capital undertakings was an attempt to grease the wheels to get the policy off the ground.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last comment about greasing the wheels. Does he agree that one of the most astonishing aspects of the refinancing of the Norfolk and Norwich hospital—which is on the borders of my constituency and which many of my constituents use—was that, at the time of the refinancing, the main contractor, Octagon, ladled on to the contract an extra £106 million of debt? This was not done in order to build an extra ward or the cardiac unit that Norfolk badly needs; it was done solely for the purpose of accelerating Octagon’s rate of return, thereby enabling it to get most of its profit up front without having to go through the bother of running the contract for the subsequent 33 years. What does the hon. Gentleman think that says about the likelihood of Octagon’s running that contract effectively, efficiently and in the interests of the people of Norfolk, when it has already had its profit out of it?
It says that the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office will be spending many years to come looking at these issues and their impact on the public purse, and at the burden that they will place on the taxpayer. It also says something about profiteering, which was certainly a hallmark of the early pathfinders in respect of PFI.
In addition to the obvious short-sightedness involved in all this, such attitudes shows scant regard for the risks that were being faced by the public sector in these situations, not least in regard to the increasing emphasis in public health policy on being flexible and moving more services into the community. PFI locks NHS organisations into models and structures of care for many years while they are paying the debt costs involved.
The trust secured the right to receive less than one third of the total gain from refinancing—just £34 million of the £116 million gained. In exchange for that, the minimum period of the PFI contract was increased by five years, and the trust faced having to pay up to £257 million more, in the event of early termination, than originally agreed. I really must question what kind of a deal that was. While Octagon walks away with the lion’s share of the cash, the trust has been left to shoulder the burden of debt. This smacks of the worst kind of profiteering, and the fact that it was Government sanctioned is a disgrace. I am assured by my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk that the impact on the Norfolk health economy has been severe, and that the PCT now faces a £47 million deficit. No account has been taken of this in the Government’s drive to balance the books in the NHS, yet it is a direct consequence of Government policy that the local NHS in Norfolk finds itself in this position.
Some lessons have been learned. PFI contracts are now expected to include provision for the profits from refinancing to be shared equally between public and private sector partners. However, there are still grounds for concern. Does the NHS have the ability, or the Department of Health the will, to prevent such profiteering from happening again? If the Government are to avoid a repeat, NHS staff must be appropriately trained, supported and instructed in how to conclude deals of this kind. The Department of Health, in response to the Committee’s recommendations, agrees with this proposition. It speaks of the need for staff to refer to the code of conduct and the application note, and to consult the refinancing taskforce. Codes, notes and taskforces are all very reassuring, but the Department goes on to say that staff in the trust
“commissioned experienced advisers to assist them in reviewing the private sector’s proposals, including the value for money of the refinancing”.
This leaves a simple question: if Norfolk and Norwich had assistance from experienced advisers, how did it end up agreeing to this deal? And if other trusts have only the benefit of this kind of assistance to rely on, how can we be sure that they, too, will not find themselves involved in such refinancing fiascos? The report acknowledges that the lot of public sector partners in PFI deals has improved as a result of what happened in Norfolk. Yet the adequacy of training and support for staff involved in these deals is still in question. The Department, and the Government as a whole, must ensure that these matters are addressed, if the taxpayer is not to be ripped off in future.
I would like to turn to the issue of urban green space, an issue that was addressed by the Committee in its 58th report of the last Session. I represent a constituency on the outskirts of London, and this is an issue of real concern there. I have seen for myself the passions that a threat to treasured open space can provoke in my constituents. Surrey county council recently sought to grab control of the management of Nonsuch park, which is adjacent to my constituency. Since its joint acquisition in the 1930s by the Sutton and Epsom borough councils and the Surrey and London county councils, the park has been managed and paid for jointly by Sutton and Epsom. For 70 years, Surrey has taken no interest in it and made no contribution towards the running costs.
Then, out of the blue, and without consulting residents, park users, local councillors—anyone, really—Surrey county council announced its intention to draw up plans for the park, including disposing of an historic house. A public outcry, the largest public demonstration that Surrey county councillors had seen in years, and a compelling legal and moral case forced a rethink. The sell-off plans have been dropped, but the unilateral action continues, and concern remains about Surrey’s intentions.
I refer to this local example because the report on urban green spaces highlights the importance of public engagement—something that had been lacking in the case of Nonsuch park. The Committee’s report draws some interesting and alarming conclusions. In one in six of the areas assessed in the report, the quality of open space is declining. Sixty-five per cent. of authorities have not completed an audit of current green space provision, and 70 per cent. have made no assessment of future needs. Two thirds of authorities have not considered the needs of children and teenagers—a key demographic when considering planning green space and, indeed, when tackling issues such as antisocial behaviour and obesity.
The report makes it clear that more must be done to target resources at the areas in most need. It also makes the point that the areas of greatest deprivation need green space the most, yet they often lack such facilities. There is a black hole in terms of provision and needs assessment. Planning policy guidance note 17 requires local authorities to plan for open space by undertaking assessments of both community need and current provision. However, the report found that, four years after the guidance was introduced, one in three urban authorities had not yet started to assess need, and one in five had yet to begin to audit current provision. Given that £700 million of public money went into green space provision in 2004-05, this lack of robust assessment should be a cause for concern.
As I have already said, the involvement of local people in decisions about the provision of green space is crucial. Yet the report found that the needs of one group— children and young people—are
“seldom well reflected in councils’ green space priorities”.
The fact that the needs of this vital group are not even being addressed, let alone met, highlights a serious failure to engage. As the right hon. Member for Swansea, West has already pointed out, another recent Committee report, on childhood obesity, shows that the rate of obesity among children aged between two and 10 has risen from 9.9 per cent. 12 years ago to 13.4 per cent. in 2004. Save the Children, in two reports on “Child Wellbeing in the UK”, identified the overall decline in the amount of available play space and freedom to play between 2002 and 2005 as a key concern. The Committee report speaks to that concern and demands more action. The decline of available play space and the increase in childhood obesity are far from coincidental. In the war against childhood obesity, urban green space is a key battleground, yet the one group whose needs are not adequately addressed are young people.
The report makes it clear that Government investment in green space provision has helped to halt the decline in the quality and quantity of urban green space. However, much of that money is being wasted because of inadequate targeting, planning and engagement with key groups. It is good to see that the Department responsible for these matters accepts those findings, but it will be a critical test to see whether it will translate that into action. It is critical to the health and well-being of local communities that the Government now act.
Finally, I would like to turn to diet and exercise in prisons, which was addressed in the Committee’s 56th report of the last Session and in a previous report in 1998. The question of diet and exercise in prisons is important, not simply because of our duty of care for those in prison, but because of the clear link between nutrition and behaviour. In 1997, a study was carried out on 231 prisoners at Aylesbury young offenders institution. It showed a statistically significant link between a nutritious diet for prisoners and a reduction in antisocial behaviour in prison. The study is now 10 years old, yet the Committee found that the Prison Service had not acted on the findings of the research. It was felt by the Prison Service that further research was needed, but no such research has yet been undertaken. A clear evidence base has been in existence for 10 years, yet nothing has been done. The Prison Service response to those findings is, to say the least, rather vague. It speaks of efforts that are being made to commission further research and bemoans the “complex and expensive nature” of the research. Unfortunately, that is far from the only example of the service’s failure to act on the Committee’s recommendations. Two other key recommendations made in its 1998 report have not yet been met by an alarmingly high number of prisons.
In 1998, the Committee recommended that meals should be served within 45 minutes of cooking. Yet in 2006, 37 per cent.—more than a third—of the prisons visited by the National Audit Office failed to meet that recommendation.
On prison behaviour and diet, did the hon. Gentleman notice in one of the appendices of the report the analysis of the number of prisons in the United Kingdom where porridge is available to prisoners? It became obvious that porridge is not available in a significant number of prisons despite the fact that it is well known not only to reduce cholesterol but to have various other life-giving properties, including the ability to help the body to produce serotonin, which lifts the spirits and reduces the appetite. Does he agree that all prisoners in the United Kingdom should have daily access, if they wish, to porridge?
I could not but agree. Indeed, all hon. Members have access to porridge in the Members Dining Room every breakfast time. It is unfortunate that prisoners cannot avail themselves of that health-benefiting food and do their porridge in that way. Those comments reflect the work of research done in 1997 which shows clear links between behaviour and nutrition. That is why I wanted to draw the report to the attention of the House and the Minister.
Another aspect of the recommendations from the 1998 report was that prisoners should not wait more than 14 hours between meals. Yet in 2006, half of all prisons failed to meet that recommendation. Once again, the Prison Service’s responses are poor to say the least. On the question of the waiting time between cooking and serving, it said:
“The Prison Service will continue to aim to meet this recommendation”—
hardly a real commitment to change. On the question of the time between different meals, it said that it “accepts the conclusion” but that “fully implementing the recommendation” would be “highly expensive”—hardly a resounding admission of change on the way.
We have had three recommendations from the Committee on prisons and nutrition; three failures to act by the Prison Service; and three responses that demonstrate a lack of respect for the Committee by the Prison Service. My fear is that in a further 10 years or so another piece of research or another report by the Committee will find that those things still have not been acted on. For me, this is not about being nice to prisoners—it is not about giving porridge to them because it is a nice thing to do. It is about helping to reverse the cycle of violence in our prisons—violence and disruption that undermine their ability to rehabilitate offenders and cut re-offending rates.
The three reports may seem unconnected, but I believe that they tell a bit of a story: a story of Government who have a desire to jump into bed with the private sector at the cost of waiving crucial protections for taxpayers’ money; a story of a Government whose desire has led them to pour money into urban green spaces without targeting, planning or regulating their expenditure; and a story of a Government who are happy to allow a public body—the Prison Service—run with public money to ignore the recommendations of an important Committee of this House for 10 years. Taxpayers deserve better.
It is a great please to take part in the debate, as indeed it is a great pleasure to serve on the Public Accounts Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who fulfils his role not just with great energy, but with great good humour. I shall begin by addressing thematic points that are illustrated by several of the reports and then consider two or three reports on which we have played a fruitful and productive role in improving public services.
My first point comes back to the original purpose for which the Committee was set up, which is to ensure that public money is properly used and that propriety is followed at all times. Two reports that we considered in the past 18 months demonstrate that it is still necessary to focus on that. The first was the 46th report, “Governance issues in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment” in Northern Ireland. It tells a bizarre and complex story, which I cannot possibly repeat, of a number of inappropriate relationships and a failure of the Government Department overseeing that body to ensure that there were no serious improprieties. The second report, “The joint venture between Dr. Foster and the Department of Health”, was considered more recently. In that case, taxpayers’ money was used to inject equity without a clear rationale or open competition. In both cases, family connections and a mediaeval approach to public money had taken hold. That is totally unacceptable. It is a very good thing that the NAO delved into those labyrinthine problems and that we can speak out on that important issue.
My second point—which should be fairly straightforward to deal with, but clearly is not—is the simple issue of significant cost overruns. There are two recent examples of that. One is the road building programme, where there seems to be a systemic failure, with continuous increases in the region of 25 to 30 per cent., which is significant on a large capital programme. The other example, obviously, is the Olympics. The cost at the time of the initial bid was £3 billion; the latest estimate is £10.6 billion. When we took evidence, there was a great deal of confusion about what items of expenditure on the Olympics would be part of the legacy and what would be part of the two-week sporting event itself. Even taking account of the legacy, it was not clear that there would be value for money. For example, the officials said that there would be 4,000 homes, but there could have been 100,000 homes for the amount of money that is being spent. Altogether, it is a most unsatisfactory episode.
One of the things that concerned me was the attitude of the officials. I felt that once they move into something in which the numbers are very large, they begin to lose sight of the principles at stake and to be ignorant of the issues at stake. I asked whether they knew and were satisfied with the cost of the temporary structures. They immediately realised that I would draw an analogy between those and Henry VIII’s field of the cloth of gold, but they did not know that they were spending $240 million. The culture of irresponsibility should be looked at systematically.
We need to consider two things to shift people’s attitude and behaviour: the skill level and accountability. The British civil service has a number of important strengths, but delivery, practical implementation and management capacity do not generally rank among the greatest of them. Many of us have a feeling that there is not a high price for failure in terms of practical implementation and that there is an insensitivity to management realities and time scales. Obviously, the skills needed vary from Department to Department. The Foreign Office and Treasury are largely policy oriented, so a policy approach is perfectly sensible and effective. In the case of the Treasury, its delivery has been largely hived off to the Inland Revenue and the Bank of England. However, in many Departments delivery is the essential business of the Department. Policy is about delivery.
Over the past 40 years, numerous attempts have been made to broaden the practical experience of senior civil servants. Generally they have not succeeded, for a very good reason: the world is too complex. When we expect people to know about giving policy advice to Ministers, being sensitive to political realities, and drafting legislation and steering it through the House, and also to know how to run large bureaucracies, we are expecting them to be good at two completely separate jobs. We need to get away from the idea that civil servants can be superbly gifted in every field. We can run a system of government on the basis of a cadre of able, intelligent, committed people, but we cannot run it on the basis of exceptionalism.
It is interesting to note the instances when things seem to have worked well. When the Committee took evidence, I was struck by what had been achieved when vital technical skills were imported from specialist professions. There have been two success stories. The seventh report of the Session 2006–07, “Department for Work and Pensions: Using leaflets to communicate with the public about services and entitlements”, might appear obscure, but it has a very interesting background. The Department took a broader look at its problems and, having encountered considerable difficulty in organising information on benefit entitlements, recruited a logistics expert from the Canadian army whose previous job had been directing United Nations operations in Sarajevo. There was a person who really could crack the problem. We recently produced a report on national health service food procurement, in which there had been numerous inefficiencies. The Department of Health had recruited someone from the financial sector, who had also had a significant impact.
Departments need to build up skills within the civil service and the public sector. We recently considered their use of consultants, which was not a particularly happy experience. We concluded that although expertise was being brought in, we were not achieving very good value for money.
I think that all the Committee’s members have been probing the issue of whether particular groups working in the public sector should be paid significantly more than other mainstream civil servants. It is clearly a tricky issue for the Chief Secretary, because we do not want public sector pay to go rip-roaring off. Medical consultants are an example of that. A report published only yesterday shows that sometimes we are too generous. However, in other instances, because we underpay staff in the public sector, we buy in services from the private sector. That means paying not just for the people providing the services, but for profit margins, marketing and so forth, so that the whole exercise becomes much more expensive. It is quite pleasing that both the Office of Government Commerce and the Shareholder Executive, whose representatives we met recently, have said that they want to build up groups with, in particular, financial expertise to solve that problem.
As I said earlier, I believe that accountability matters. On a number of occasions, weaknesses in accountability have led to overspends, inefficiencies and poor value for money. Obviously, there will be a problem if there is a long chain of command in a large organisation, but it strikes me as a basic, simple principle that in the public sector accountability should be to the public, either in their role as users of services or in their role as citizens. All chains of accountability should flow to them. However, we have seen too many instances when things do not work in that way.
When we examined NHS deficits, the National Audit Office produced an amazing spaghetti junction-type diagram. The most alarming information was that foundation hospitals are accountable to Parliament. When I asked the officials how that was to be effected, they said “Through you”. That filled me, at least, with horror, because I did not believe that we were capable of fulfilling such a role in respect of all the foundation hospitals in the country. The idea that the buck could stop with us in any systematic way struck me as rather unrealistic.
For the fifth report of the Session 2006-07 we looked at a regulatory body, Postcomm. Under the structure that had been established, the industry would report to the regulator, who would then report to us. One of the problems that struck me as we took evidence was that Postcomm was not very sensitive to the needs of post users. It had not taken adequate account of the costs of lost or late mail, or of the needs of rural areas. Having decided on a strategy and introduced the market, it then proposed to consult the public. Again, we saw a weakness in the chain of accountability.
A third example, mentioned by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, is the Rural Payments Agency, which failed to pay farmers their entitlements. The chief executive has been relieved of his position and there have been some ministerial changes, but we are bound to ask whether that was a reasonable response to the circumstances. Did responsibility for those failings lie at ministerial or official level? There is a case for saying that the English system was too complex in comparison with the Scottish and Welsh system and that the policy design fault lies with Ministers, but it is clear that there was also considerable incompetence at civil service level.
Ministers cannot be expected to line-manage their staff in such detail. It is perfectly reasonable for Ministers arriving at a Department to assume that, by and large, the Department can either tell them that something is not possible, or deliver what it says is possible. If there is not that relationship between Ministers and officials, Ministers lack the levers that they need in order to implement policy. We need to strengthen ministerial control. In the name of neutrality, Ministers have been left with no leverage. For example, a Minister cannot ask a permanent secretary to leave if the relationship between them breaks down. That would not be tolerated in any part of the private sector. The chief executive of BP, for instance, was recently asked to leave by the chairman because the relationship was not functioning adequately.
Another possibility is that we simply rely on professional standards. I am sorry that that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is not present, because he alerted us to the different patterns in different parts of the public sector. If we assume that professionals are able to distinguish their personal interest from the public interest, we can use professional standards as a form of accountability. The report, “Progress in implementing clinical governance in primary care” found that the Department of Health used that system. There is no inspection of the doctors; their professionalism is relied on. We found that the standards of governance were directly related to the quality of patient experience, albeit more work needs to be done to improve both of them. That is in stark contrast to the situation in schools. We produced a controversial report, “Poorly performing schools”—the 59th report of the 2005-06 Session. Interestingly, the evidence was largely gleaned not by the National Audit Office but by Ofsted, the regulator. There is a completely different system of accountability in respect of schools.
To summarise, I suggest that good policy delivery requires having the right skills in place, strengthening public accountability—partly through democratic structures and for citizens as well as consumers—and relying on both professional standards and independent inspection and regulation.
I want to give some examples of where I think that the NAO and the Committee have helped to improve services and service delivery. The hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned the inquiry into reducing brain damage by addressing stroke care—the 52nd report of the 2005-06 Session. That is a serious problem: it is the third biggest cause of death, and there are huge costs to the individual and the economy. Early action has a significant impact on outcomes. I was interested in the report as this is a significant health problem in County Durham, because of the health overhang from the heavy industrial work many people there did in the past and because of lifestyle. In my local hospital—Bishop Auckland general hospital—there is an excellent centre led by the consultant, Mr. Mehrzad. Last December, the local patient and public involvement forum held a one-day conference on stroke facilities in the area and stroke care. It brought together patients and practitioners and it used the PAC report as a basis. We now know that the Department of Health is taking this matter seriously and that they will prepare a proper strategy that will be produced later this year.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), I was interested in the eighth report on tackling childhood obesity. Again, there was a delivery chain that looked like spaghetti junction; 27 agencies were involved in that process. We took evidence from three Departments: the Department for Education and Skills, the Department of Health and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The Department of Health has huge NHS costs that are projected to rise significantly, but in the DCMS and DFES this matter is not a priority, yet they are the Departments that have the policy levers. There has been a certain dilatoriness in respect of how the policy has been pursued. When we took evidence in May last year, the DFES permanent secretary was unaware that the extra money that it had provided was inadequate to equip school kitchens. Since then, great progress has been made. The School Food Trust under Prue Leith is tackling the problem.
There is a similar problem in the DCMS. My right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West talked in detail about the proposed controls on television advertising which Ofcom will produce. Action was originally promised in 2004, and we were told that if voluntary action was not achieved by 2007 we would have legislation. That timetable has now been pushed back to 2008. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that the 2010 target will be achieved. In an interesting intervention, Stephen Carter—the previous head of Ofcom—wrote an article in the Financial Times in which he straightforwardly admitted that it was not his first concern to regulate the broadcasting industry in the interests of public health. He said that if that is what Parliament wants, it should set things up differently. He said that his first concern was the broadcasting industry and its health. We need to think more clearly about how cross-departmental efficiency is to be achieved. Members might wish to take a look at early-day motion 404 on controls on television food advertising to children and join with the 211 other colleagues who have agreed that they need toughening up; I commend doing so.
If we are to be successful in fighting childhood obesity, we also need to look at non-broadcast promotions. Yet another structure has been set up to deal with that. The Committee of Advertising Practice looks at matters such as texting, posters and press advertisements. Which? has described the code that the CAP has produced as “woefully inadequate” and as
“vague and open to interpretation.”
It wants there to be consistency between the non-broadcast code and the broadcast code, proper Food Standards Agency nutrient profiling and an approach that covers the whole under-16 age group.
With another hat on, the DCMS is promoting sport and children’s play as a solution to the problem. We have examined the Olympics. New evidence has come out suggesting that if we wanted to maximise the participation of children and young people in sport, it is highly unlikely that we would go about that by spending £10 billion on the Olympics. However, the DCMS was pleased to tell us of the £155 million that the national lottery is putting into children’s play, and that is a positive new development. If Members want to ensure that the money for children’s play is not siphoned off to the Olympics, as might also be threatened in respect of some other lottery moneys, they might like to attend the meeting of the all-party group on play next month, at which we will meet the lottery to discuss this issue.
As the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) said, this matter is also related to the 58th report, “Enhancing urban green space”. I take issue with one aspect of his remarks. I think that the story in this respect is basically a success story, as more than 90 per cent. of urban authorities have satisfaction levels of 60 per cent. However, he is right in that when we probed the Department for Communities and Local Government on the situation in respect of children, we found that their needs were not well understood. We found that two thirds of local authorities had not considered the needs of children and young people. The official who appeared before us used a wonderful expression—he said that thought was being given to consolidating parks and urban green spaces. He did not mean that they would be consolidated, of course, because how can anyone consolidate something that is two miles away from something else? What he meant by that was that lots of money will be spent on some of them to make them really nice and that builders will be allowed to have the others.
That is of relevance to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Frank Dobson) found when he conducted a review of children’s play, which is that what children really want is things that are local to them and that they can easily access so that they can go to them independently without their mums or dads. In that connection, we looked at interesting maps for antisocial behaviour. Again, it is a shame that my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby is not here, because he pointed out the striking contrast between Hull and Grimsby. The level of antisocial behaviour is much higher in Grimsby than in Hull, and he did not know why as both areas are very similar, sociologically. However, I can tell the House that Hull city council runs a very good play programme. It would be interesting if the NAO looked more widely, initially in London, to determine whether there are similar correlations around the country.
I do not want to take up more than my fair share of time, so I shall conclude by saying something about the work that we did on the NAO report entitled “Gaining and Retaining a Job”, which focused on the support for disabled people provided by the Department for Work and Pensions. The original report compared the broad range of schemes run by the DWP with the Remploy factory network. The Remploy factories fared extremely badly in the comparison. I was interested in that as I have a Remploy factory in Spennymoor in my constituency. I have talked to the people who work there, and I know that they value the factory very much. The NAO review found that £330 million is spent on getting disabled people back into work, of which £120 million goes to subsidising the Remploy factory. However, only 9,000 people work in those factories, compared with the 120,000 to 150,000 who access other schemes.
At first blush, the Remploy factories seem to be 10 times more expensive than the other schemes, but two things became clear when we looked into the matter in more detail. First, we discovered that we were not comparing like with like. The Remploy factories get a full subsidy so that they can offer permanent jobs, whereas the other schemes offer small interventions with the aim of trying to help someone to find a job. Although it is possible that the job might be permanent, it is far more likely to be the sort of short-term employment that people with disabilities do not value nearly so much.
Secondly, we were able to get to the bottom of the management costs problem that had aroused much conflict. The trade unions believed that the main problem was that management was wildly inflated, and that no other changes would be needed if that problem could be cracked. In contrast, management adopted a very defensive position. Our report was able to uncover some of the relevant facts. The House will know that there have been many changes in Remploy as a result of a ministerial review. This afternoon, the trade unions will publish a strategy document compiled by the accountants Grant Thornton. As I understand it, the strategy will enable most of the factories to stay open and to remain within the financial envelope that Ministers, quite reasonably, have set.
That is an example of how the work done by the PAC, in respect of a very serious matter, has increased the level of facts available and reduced the amount of conflict. The PAC is sometimes critical of organisations or of how public funds are used, but I hope that the examples that I have given of how we have acted constructively demonstrate that the Committee is not against the public sector. We do not look at public sector organisations and say, “They’ve messed everything up. It’s clear they can’t manage anything and everything has to go to the private sector.” The examples of how we have improved public sector efficiency demonstrate that it is possible to deliver better public service for all citizens.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), and I should like to start by agreeing with her about the importance of accountability. She also mentioned the possibility of paying some civil servants more, something that Partnerships UK has shown can be done. The Shareholder Executive to which she referred is looking into the possibility of doing the same and, although whether what has been done with the director general of the NHS IT service produced value for money is still open to question, it is true that civil servants can be paid more, and sometimes should be.
The hon. Lady was also right to say that the PAC must make sure that we are not regarded as being against the public sector just for the sake of it. There are some very good examples of good work being done in the public sector, and perhaps we could do a little more to make that clear. However, the PAC deals with public accounts, and that means that we must look at the accounts of public bodies. When things go wrong, the people in charge—the accounting officers—should expect to be accountable.
The PAC’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), earlier called me an anorak, and I have decided to try to rise to the challenge and prove him right. To that end, I can tell the House that the Comptroller and Auditor General has qualified 22 accounts including the armed forces pension scheme, the Assets Recovery Agency, the Department for Work and Pensions—which has had its accounts qualified since 1988—the House of Commons Members’ account, the NHS pension scheme, the NHS compensation for early retirement scheme, the Revenue and Customs prosecution office, and the Home Office.
In addition, a further 15 non-resource accounts are also qualified. They are Energywatch, the Ordnance Survey, the Marine Fisheries Agency, the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, the HMRC’s trust statement—which is a mere £1 billion or so adrift because of tax credits—the Civil Nuclear Police Authority, the social fund, the Child Support Agency client funds account, the NHS Pensions Agency administration account, the Northern Ireland national insurance fund, the British Transport Police, the Public Health Laboratory Service board, NHS Direct and the Health Professions Council.
I have read out the names of all those accounts to make sure that they are on the record. I believe that every one of the accounting officers involved should, as a matter of complete routine, be required to report to our Committee to explain why their accounts were qualified. Their job is to be the legal guardian of public funds voted to them by Parliament, and to account legally for how that money is spent. If, by marking the accounts as qualified in some way, the CAG is telling us that he is not able, in certain respects, to form an accurate opinion of how the moneys have been spent, the PAC ought to know about it. We ought to know why he has qualified the accounts, and we ought to discuss the matter with the accounting officers concerned. In many cases, of course, we do know those things. The HMRC chairman is a regular customer of ours. His accounts have been qualified in the past three or four years because of tax credits, but that is a relatively new development. However, I think that we ought to establish, as a routine principle, that accounting officers come before us when accounts are qualified.
The Chairman of the PAC mentioned the Home Office, whose accounts are qualified this year. They were disclaimed last year, and one member of the Committee asked Sir John Bourn what that meant. He replied that a disclaimer signified that he had no information at all with which to form any opinion whatsoever. My hon. Friend was right to mention that the Adelphi accounting system showed the Home Office accounts to have £27.527 trillion. In the Home Office’s defence, I point out that there was £27 trillion in both the credit and debit columns, but the total is 2,000 times the size of the Home Office’s actual turnover—and 1.5 times the gross domestic product of the entire planet. The Australian auditor who had been put in charge of the account inserted a rather blunt note to the Home Office audit committee to the effect that there might be something awry. The figures suggest that he might have been right.
My first point, then, is that I believe that all such matters should be referred to the PAC as a matter of routine because accountability is so important. My second point has to do with gateway reviews. That matter is a hardy perennial, and in the past the Financial Secretary has made speeches explaining why gateway reviews cannot be more public. I heard his predecessor—who is now the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government—use exactly the same wording, and people who scrutinise the trade press will know that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has used it too. It is clear that someone in Whitehall knows how to do copy and paste, but that does not alter the fact that not holding gateways in public has a deleterious effect.
Several colleagues have mentioned the Rural Payments Agency. Extracts from the gateway reviews are published in the back of the report into the episode involving the RPA, which was in many ways disgraceful. That means that they are available now, although they were not at the time. After a rosy start in March 2001 where the
“report concluded that the proposed change programme has strong stakeholder support and a focused and energetic management team”,
three years later by May 2004, the gateway review, now marked as red, stated:
“This is a complex Programme requiring fundamental change in the way the Agency operates. In respect of releases 1a and 1b, although testing has been delayed the process is under good control, the problems are understood and we believe that delivery will be successfully achieved in the coming weeks.”
Again and again one of the key points is testing being delayed or compressed, and it was testing being compressed to a point where it was inadequate which was one of the big problems in relation to tax credits. The review went on:
“In respect of releases 2 and 3, the combination of the timescale left, the number of serious risks identified and the fact that the final policy decisions will not be made until July, with the system well into design and build, result in a critical situation that will require urgent action.”
They were designing and building a system although they did not know yet what the policy was, which takes us back to what the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland said earlier.
Some seven or eight months later, in January 2005, the gateway review, still at red, found the review team under strong leadership but said that
“there is no room for further change requests, which would lead the programme into serious difficulties and overload the operation of the Agency.”
Six months after that, in June 2005, still at red, the review said:
“The programme is in considerable difficulties.”
Anybody with a farming constituency could have told the team that. The review continued:
“The Agency have sought to keep to the February timescale, but the risks of failing have continued to increase. The team were concerned that there is not a finalised and secured contingency plan, nor clarity about when it could be invoked.”
There was still a further nine months before the chief executive was removed from office.
In May 2006, some two years after the first red review, the next red review said:
“The computer system performed well technically but the business processes required to use it, in order to make full payments in the early part of the payment window, were not fit for purpose.”
When read twice that seems to contradict itself. It basically says that the computer system performed well but was not fit for purpose or that the processes required to use it were not fit for purpose. That is the sort of double Dutch with which the public, farmers and Parliament are confronted. The conclusion, as if we did not know it, was:
“The Agency is now in crisis management.”
My point from all that is that had everything been more widely discussed and publicised earlier, something might have been done earlier. The Financial Secretary might say that I do not understand, as if the gateway review had been public, these things would not have come out. The point is that we were all able to tell from our own experiences at the rock face that things were badly wrong, yet the process by which things were put right was extremely slow.
Although several hon. Members including our esteemed Chairman have referred to the Rural Payments Agency, everything that I have just said is outside the terms of this motion because we have not yet had a reply from the Treasury in the form of a minute. In future we should change the wording of our motion slightly because we are unduly hidebound. I refer to the Rural Payments Agency, the Olympic games, NHS IT and the Dr. Foster NHS information services, to which the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland referred. All four are important and of central concern to the Committee, but all are outside the terms of this motion.
We tend to rely on our esteemed Speaker or one of his deputies being not au fait with the anorak work that we do to such a degree that on any particular interstice or minutiae he or she cannot say whether something is within the terms of the motion. It is unfortunate that we should have to rely on that, as I found to my cost when I was trying to place on the record some points about NHS IT last July only to find that the Speaker had noted that they were outside the terms of the motion. I brought my remarks to a slightly more rapid conclusion than I had proposed.
Choose and book, the doctors’ appointment system, on which the NAO did a report to which we have replied, and which has been the subject of a Treasury minute, accounts for a small proportion of the total national programme for IT in the health service. Although NHS IT is costing, depending on whom one believes, at least £12 billion—if one believes the NAO—and although it was thought of in February 2002, the contracts were being let from autumn 2003 and here we are in the spring of 2007, it has yet to be discussed properly in a debate in Parliament. Earlier this week we issued a report saying that there is a significant danger that the clinical benefits will not be achieved by the end of the contract period. Our motion should be amended to take account in particular of the reports to which the Treasury has issued a minute in response and, more generally, to take account of the work of the PAC and the NAO. We unnecessarily hamstring ourselves if we cannot talk about matters such as NHS IT and the Olympic games.
A very good article appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Tuesday on that subject and I shall make it available to the Minister. I can probably be forgiven for saying that I thought it was a very good article because I wrote it myself. [Laughter.] It is certainly worth his attention and I shall make sure he gets a copy.
Finally, since I know that two other Members wish to speak, I want to talk about the efficiency programme. I am pleased to say that it is certainly within the terms of the motion. The NAO produced a review of the efficiency programme, on which we took evidence and on which the Treasury has issued its minute. In the original NAO report a chart showed the overall likelihood of delivery against the Gershon savings and said that although significant chunks of the programme were good, requiring only refinement, some were mixed with some aspects requiring substantial attention and some were problematic requiring urgent attention, a small percentage required urgent and decisive action and were “highly problematic”. In December 2004 that amounted to 3 per cent. of the programme, but by December 2005 that had increased by a third to 4 per cent. When I asked the then chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce which Departments were being referred to, his reply was, “I can’t tell you that. That’s advice to the Prime Minister.”
Earlier this year we had an interesting seminar with the Chief Secretary and chief executive of the Office of Government Commerce, to which a number of members and former members of the PAC came. I showed the Chief Secretary a chart which I got from the Office of Management and Budget website. When the Committee visited the United States last summer we had the opportunity to meet Clay Johnson, the deputy director in charge of management inside the federal Government. They have a different approach. Their score card is completely public and can be downloaded from the website. Not only do they say which Departments are responsible for which particular scores, but some Departments, for example the US Department of Justice, put their traffic light scores in the lobby of the Department so that all employees can find out where they stand. We could learn a great deal from their much more open approach.
Last summer I spoke at a conference at the French Ministry of Finance. One of the other speakers was Barry Anderson, a senior official at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. He used five words which are apposite. He said:
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
We understand what we are here to do, which is to scrutinise public money—money paid in taxes by constituents to the Government for public purposes—and to discharge a trust. That trust can be better discharged if there is greater openness and transparency. I hope that the Treasury will take that on board because there is still some way to go.
One of the problems when one is the seventh speaker in a debate is that almost everything that can be said has been said, so I apologise if some of my remarks are a repetition of some of the excellent points made by previous speakers.
One of the biggest advantages of the peace dividend in Northern Ireland is that we in the PAC have now examined the last ever Northern Ireland departmental report. That is a source of joy and pleasure for me, as I am sure it is for other members of the Committee.
First I pay tribute to the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, who showed tremendous enthusiasm and a remarkably dry sense of humour in his use of words such as “disclaim” before the PAC, and to all those at the NAO who do such a tremendous job. I also pay tribute to Mark Etherton, the Clerk of the Committee, and other of his colleagues for their work in servicing the PAC. I pay tribute, too, to the witnesses. Those permanent secretaries who come to the Committee who are open and straight, and get to the point, make far better witnesses, even when they are concealing mistakes, than those who dither, beat about the bush and waffle.
A wry smile crossed my face when my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) mentioned the good humour of the Chairman. I suspect that the good humour is shared only by those of us who sit around the table rather than those who sit behind the desk. I pay tribute to the Chairman. The way in which he conducts the meeting is remarkable. He is non-partisan; the Committee is non-partisan. Only one thing disappoints me, and I made this point last time. I understand the reasons, of course, but sometimes when the media pick up on the excellent work of the PAC it appears to the lay public that we are being critical of Government policy. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow) is not in his place now. Towards the end of his speech, he was being political. I was disappointed; it shows that he does not understand the PAC culture when we talk about government inefficiencies and the things that we can do to make government more efficient.
I also smiled at the reference to the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) as an anorak. There is a rumour circulating that the reason the anti-stalking and harassment legislation was introduced is the forensic skill that he demonstrates both on the Committee and outside it when he chases up the written questions that he has asked and the memos that he has sent. The Chairman of the Committee referred in passing to the fact that the PAC’s constitution requires a Chairman to step down after two terms. It also requires the Chairman to be a member of Her Majesty’s official Opposition. I look forward to the hon. Member for South Norfolk being the Chairman after the next general election.
One of my concerns is the fact that when it comes to public discourse on our work the PAC appears only to be critical of the work of Departments and permanent secretaries. The reality is that we often commend innovative work by Departments. A recent example is biometric passports; an innovation led to a project being completed not only on time but under budget.
When we have an unprecedented level of public investment, it is clear that after 10 years there will be significant inefficiencies. We must not forget that we have helped to uncover some inefficiencies and that that has led to savings. I believe that, because there has been so much public investment, there is a duty on those of us who voted in favour of it to scrutinise it and ensure that every pound is spent properly and we have proper value for money and maximum potential for saving.
I want to talk about two PAC reports. The first deals with the National Offender Management Service. My interest in NOMS stems from the fact that Wandsworth prison is in my constituency. One of the matters that we looked at is the increased numbers in custody, which has a direct bearing on the ability of Wandsworth prison and its excellent governor Ian Mulholland to do as good a job as possible in rehabilitating those who are guests of Her Majesty’s prisons.
The report examined the challenge of accommodating record numbers of prisoners and the action taken to do so. It considered the impact on education and other training of prisoners. It is worth thinking about the context of our report. One of the frustrations that all members of the PAC share is the time lags between the National Audit Office doing its work, the report being agreed by the relevant Department, the report reaching the PAC, the PAC interviewing witnesses, the publication of our report and the Treasury responding with its minute.
The point that my hon. Friend makes is right. On average, the time between the initiation of the NAO report and the Treasury minute is 18 months.
That demonstrates the point. I am sure that the Minister on the Treasury Bench will accept that due to the hard work of the PAC millions of pounds have been saved. Clearly, if it takes a minimum of 18 months between our making recommendations and change on the ground—it takes time for Departments to change their practices—there is a question about whether the PAC can provide value for money.
We looked at the prison population between 2002 and 2004, during which period there was a 17 per cent. increase. One thing that was clear from the report was that the rising numbers of prisoners caused major operational problems for NOMS. The real problem is that it is difficult to predict further increases in prison numbers. We cannot predict levels of crime, the success rate in securing convictions or changes in court sentencing powers. However, we have learned from the experience in 2002 that there is a need for the Prison Service to put in place contingency plans because sometimes things go pretty badly.
We know why prison overcrowding is a major problem. It means that prisoners cannot receive a suitable level of care or be properly rehabilitated. I know from my own experience in Wandsworth that it leads to increases in the incidence of self-harm and suicide. More than 700 prisoners are transferred to hospitals under the Mental Health Act because they live in overcrowded prisons. It also leads to disruption of the education and training of prisoners. I am afraid that all those points did not reach the same sunshine that the hon. Member for South Norfolk maintains led to his neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), losing his job as Home Secretary and to the excellent changes that were made with regard to foreign prisoners, which would not have come about were it not for the work that we did.
One of our recommendations was for the courses that prisoners follow in prison to be provided in shorter modules. When prisoners are transferred, if their education files are not transferred with them, it can lead to real problems, especially when it comes to the most ill-educated prisoners. If we magnify the problem with education files being transferred, we can see one of the reasons why there is a huge problem with foreign prisoners. Information may not be transferred between the immigration and nationality directorate and prisons when prisoners are transferred. It leads to debacles such as that which led ultimately to the Home Office being declared not fit for purpose.
The second report that I want to focus on is on improving poorly performing schools in England. All MPs have primary and secondary schools in our constituencies, so we are all interested in this report. We examined poorly performing schools, the development of relationships between schools and other organisations, strengthening school leadership and dealing with deep-rooted failures. It is worth looking at the context of the report. Earlier, I referred to the massive public investment of the past 10 years, and although there have been significant concerns about inefficiencies, now for the first time we have the data that will enable us to examine what has been happening to schools and whether improvements can be made.
In conclusion, there are thematic lessons that can be learned from the work of the PAC, and my hon. Friend the Member for Bishop Auckland referred to some of them. In a previous PAC debate, the Chairman told us of his discovery that the first PAC meeting was held not in Gladstone’s time but in 1690. Tongue firmly in cheek, the hon. Gentleman also told us of his concern that he could not find a Treasury minute of that first meeting. I hope that my colleagues on the Treasury Bench will have heard the concerns about time lags raised by me and other PAC colleagues and that there will be fast progress so that we can reap the rewards of the PAC’s work and learn lessons from it.