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Public Accounts

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of the 41st and the 42nd and the 46th to the 65th Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2006-07, and of the Treasury Minutes on these Reports (Cm 7275, 7276 and 7322); and of the 1st to the 4th, the 6th and the 9th to the 13th Reports of the Committee of Session 2007-08, and of the Treasury Minutes on these Reports (Cm 7323 and 7364).

It is a pleasure to open this debate. I will never tire of extolling to Members the importance of these bi-annual opportunities to address the issues raised by the Public Accounts Committee’s scrutiny of the spending of more than £800 billion-worth of public money. As the Committee’s 45th Chairman, I was proud to mark the Committee’s 150th anniversary last autumn. At the event, I noted that two former Chairmen had fallen prey to the assassin’s knife; I hope that my speech today does not give the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury any wayward thoughts.

May I reassure the hon. Gentleman that thoughts of assassin’s knives have never been further from my mind? He has absolutely no worries on that score.

That is very reassuring. On these occasions, it is tempting to recite from our canon of reports a litany of Government failures, sugaring the medicine with the occasional acknowledgement of hard-won success. I want to focus on three themes arising from the reports referred to in the motion—themes that reach the core of not just the Committee’s work, but its very purpose.

I hope that hon. Members will recognise that the Committee seeks to protect the public’s interests in public spending—that is what we are there for—but the public are not just providers of ready money to Her Majesty’s Government: their interest goes beyond the question of how efficiently taxes are collected and spent, important though that question is. The Committee seeks to represent the taxpayers’ interests in the efficiency and productivity of public services, but we recognise that taxpayers are also patients, parents and pensioners. Many of those “consumers” are those with the least voice and yet the greatest vulnerability. Alone, they are small citizens faced with a large state.

Obviously, the public—whether as taxpayer or consumer—benefit most from the Committee’s activities when we have most impact. There is power in our bark, hard and even horrible though it may be to some witnesses at our hearings. There is power in our bite, too—the power of our recommendations to lead to savings for the taxpayer and better services for the consumer. I want to use this opportunity to highlight several such bites.

Recent reports have shown both light and shadow in the way in which vulnerable consumers are treated by public services. There is a clear need for the Government to design services around the needs of citizens, not the convenience of those who deliver them. For instance, our 12th report examined the compensation scheme for former miners suffering from work-related lung disease and hand injuries. The early stages of the implementation of the two schemes were seriously mismanaged. Many of those claiming were elderly and ill, and in no position to wait 10 years or more for compensation, as some did. Some claimants died while they were waiting.

I welcome the fact that money has now come through to many claimants, but the scheme’s failings offer a clear example of the human suffering that was a consequence of poor planning at the start of a project. The taxpayer, too, has taken a big hit. The cost merely of administering the schemes is expected to total nearly £2.3 billion, not least because the relevant Department’s negotiation of solicitors’ fees was weak. I do not hesitate to say that some solicitors engaged in what I can only term profiteering.

Solicitors also featured not too creditably in our report on legal aid and mediation for people involved in family breakdown. In one third of cases, solicitors did not advise their clients that professional mediation was an option, yet mediation is often a swifter, less acrimonious path—and it is, of course, cheaper. That is not to ignore the wider social problems that family breakdown creates, but we should never forget that it is children who are the most vulnerable party, and they warrant special consideration. Even when the mediation path is taken, children are not routinely consulted.

Our work also illuminates neglected or unfashionable issues. To my great pride, we have raised greatly the profile of hospital-acquired infection and stroke care. The Committee has played an important role in bringing those issues way up the political agenda. This year, we want to do the same for dementia, one of the last great taboo subjects. We tackled it in a report this year. It affects more than half a million people in England and costs some £14 billion a year. The number of cases is predicted to soar by more than 30 per cent. in the next 30 years, yet dementia remains relatively neglected by health and social care services.

If the NHS is to discharge its duty of care to the vulnerable and those without a voice, awareness is key. Too often both the public and professionals believe that little can be done to help sufferers. Many general practitioners lack the knowledge to make a formal diagnosis of dementia. Often a diagnosis is not early enough and specialist care is not available. As a result, carers—usually family members—bear a heavy burden and play a vital role, saving the taxpayer many millions of pounds by caring for relatives with dementia at home. They need and deserve better support. In my view, dementia must be given the same priority that is accorded to cancer and coronary heart disease. Like those conditions, it should be given a single leader within the Department of Health with the power to drive through improvements in diagnosis, treatment and care.

Such reports have highlighted how Government can better serve the citizen as consumer. We have also championed the needs of the citizen as taxpayer. Spring may finally have arrived—well, not today, perhaps—but the economic climate has become distinctly chilly since our last debate. In the Budget, the Government said that they had exceeded their target of more than £21 billion in efficiency savings, and announced an even more ambitious savings target of £30 billion by 2010-11. That is all very interesting. The issue is now at the centre of political debate. Undoubtedly, as the major political parties have come closer together in ideology, ever more focus is put on efficiency savings and how much benefit they can deliver for the taxpayer. In that sense, our Committee is at the heart of political debate.

The Government say that they want to save £30 billion by 2010-11: just think what we could deliver with that amount. But how solid are any of the savings made? Our 48th report cast doubt on the reliability of nearly three quarters of the efficiency savings achieved. Smoke and mirrors are the last things that we need. Efficiency savings are nothing if they do not free up hard cash or improve delivery. We made a number of recommendations on the subject in our 48th report. For instance, we noted that

“There is evidence that some efficiency projects may be having an adverse impact on service quality. The Department of Health, for example, claims efficiencies through patients spending less time in hospital despite the rate of readmissions rising.

We pointed out that

“Improvements in efficiency may not be sustainable. Some projects, such as the Ministry of Defence's early decommissioning of some of its fast jets have achieved one-off financial savings rather than improving efficiency for the long term.”

I suppose that that very detailed work might be considered anorak territory, but it is vital that we have well-informed debate in the Chamber about what is going on, and I think that we can illuminate the debate.

Some efficiency savings are hard to calculate. For instance, the closure of some of our embassies or high commissions across the world may, on paper, seem to save us money, but we could lose trade and investment in the United Kingdom as a result.

Yes. We all have a personal view on our embassies and high commissions. I often think that those historical buildings, right in the centre of town, achieve so much more for this country, in terms of trade, prestige and contacts, than would be achieved by closing them. Often, as with the Dublin embassy—an issue on which our Committee reported—nothing is achieved by getting rid of the building, anyway.

We have some important things to say. I am pleased to say that the Treasury has listened and sought to improve measurements of savings. We have achieved something—

I hesitate to intervene on the subject of the UK ambassador’s residence in Dublin, but as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee I am frustrated about a monumental screw-up by senior officials who then are preferred in the honours system—one of them made the House of Lords. It seems that the biggest screw-ups get the biggest rewards in this country. Why do we not sack people who are responsible for malfeasance and irresponsibility? I shall answer my own question: it is because there is a cosy carve-up—

That was a good intervention. There is a tradition in our civil service. We never interview Ministers. Our witnesses are only senior civil servants, particularly Permanent Secretaries, and we often make the point that nobody is ever sacked. But things are changing a little. In the case of one or two people whose appearances in front of the Public Accounts Committee were poor—without going into detail; I do not want to become personal about it—their careers have been seriously compromised. The culture is changing and we are making progress.

I was saying that the Treasury has made some progress in the measurements of savings, and I give credit to it. All this sounds basic, but savings claims are now required to take account of costs incurred, which they did not originally—a fairly obvious point. I also firmly support the proposal for the National Audit Office to review value for money savings Department by Department. I note that the Government intend to look at all major areas of public spending to identify scope to improve value for money. All this is good stuff. A good start would be to examine the back catalogue of the Committee. We spend years looking into such matters, and we have a real contribution to make.

Spending taxpayers’ money is what Government do, but we know that spending money is the easiest thing in the world: getting something for it is harder. Government spending on the NHS has nearly trebled over the past 10 years—we want to give them credit for that—and is set to grow still further. Where there has been such an increase in Government spending, it is important to look carefully at productivity.

It is not for me to question the level of spending, but I am entitled to voice my suspicion, based on several of our reports, that we are not getting enough bangs for that barrage of bucks. It is lazy thinking to increase spending rapidly on a service, point to more doctors, nurses and operations—I agree that there are more doctors, nurses and operations—and not to insist at the same time on maintaining improvements in productivity and efficiency, so that we pay back to the taxpayer who has contributed so much more to the service real, identifiable improvements in productivity on the front line.

Let us take one example—the pay deal for NHS consultants. The aims of the consultants’ deal were commendable, but so far generous pay settlements have been awarded without any increases in productivity being achieved. Consultants’ pay has, on average, increased by 27 per cent., working hours have actually decreased and, as yet, measurable improvements in productivity have been notable by their absence. With GP contracts, on which we will report shortly, we found a similar picture. Pay increases of up to 56 per cent. have been accompanied by a 2.5 per cent. decrease in productivity, plus £1.7 billion worth of extra costs. We all agree that those who work in the NHS deserve to be paid a decent wage, but those one-sided deals have produced little in return for an enormous amount of investment by the taxpayer.

Is there enough focus on making economies? In our second report on prescription drugs, we found that the NHS could save more than £200 million a year, without affecting patient care, by GPs prescribing lower cost but equally effective medicines. A further £100 million a year could be saved by reducing the amount of unused and wasted drugs. To give the NHS due credit, these are paths that it has already begun to tread, but there is still a long walk ahead.

It is not just in the NHS that money could be saved. Our examination of sustainable employment showed that some £520 million a year could be saved if the Department could only break the debilitating cycle of insecurity faced by too many unskilled jobseekers bouncing back and forth between short-term jobs and welfare.

I regret to say that our most recent look at the sorry saga of tax credits shows little sign of improvement for recipients or for taxpayers. The amount of tax credit being lost to fraud and error is still running at some £1 billion each year. The Department has accepted our recommendations on the need to set targets to reduce this, yet still no targets are in place. The system has also generated massive overpayment to claimants, £6 billion in three years, and £2.3 billion has been written off or is unlikely to be returned.

I make no criticism of the concept of tax credits, and it may indeed be the right thing to do, but we are entitled to look at how efficiently the scheme is being carried out. About 2 million families a year have been placed in debt to the Government as HMRC seeks to recover overpayments. The vulnerable ones face a future of trying to repay the money they owe, with all the hardship that that involves. The taxpayer, in all guises, has been let down.

The Government’s response on tax credits is the one glaring omission from the Treasury minutes before us. I understand that the response will appear in June, which is more than four months since our report appeared. I am sure that the Minister, twice a member of our Committee, will recognise that that is not good enough, and I ask her to see that the delay grows no longer. If the Treasury cannot provide its own responses on time, it is hardly setting an example for the rest of Whitehall to follow. I trust that the eight-week deadline will be adhered to from now on. I thought we had an agreement with the Treasury that in order to make our reports and its response reasonably topical, there would be an eight-week deadline for the Government to reply.

Let us turn aside from that sorry tale. I am proud to be able to say that our previous recommendations are now bearing fruit. In 2007, we identified potential annual savings of £500 million from better use across the public sector of external consultants. The Office of Government Commerce has launched a new programme to improve the value for money of spending on consultants. Several Committee and NAO reports on HMRC issues such as fraud, self-assessment and debt management led to savings last year of £200 million. Already, our report on prescription drugs is having an impact. I welcome the recent announcement by the Department of Health, in response to our recommendation, that it will commission research into the scale of medicines wastage and why people do not take their medicines.

Our criticism is intended to be constructive. Government action is always necessary to deliver our recommendations. We rely completely on the Government. In that respect, as in others, our Committee is truly non-partisan. Change could be accelerated and spread more swiftly across Government, but what we have already achieved is testament to the positive value of public accountability. Money is saved and services are improved by our activities, and by our working in tandem with the Treasury, which we view not as our enemies but as our allies.

We have the advantage of hindsight, of course, but hindsight also brings the foresight to do things better in the future. To paraphrase Confucius, a man who has committed a mistake and does not correct it is committing another mistake. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “The Terminator”, Departments should know that we will be back, and not just on tax credits. We have looked on a number of occasions at the dome and at the 2012 Olympics. We are about to revisit the perplexing project that is the NHS programme for IT. That is the strength of the Committee. When the Government, through the Treasury, accept our recommendations, we increasingly ask, as the Committee for the National Audit Office, to look at that acceptance and see what has happened 12 and 24 months later.

Furthermore, we are trying to get involved and have a genuine look at fashionable projects such as the academy programme. We have issued hard-hitting reports based not on ideology or whether we like academies—I know that the issue is controversial—but on what is happening on the ground. For instance, we found that literacy and numeracy levels are still too low among academy pupils and that the Department should ask successful academies to identify and disseminate good practice. We looked at cost overruns, which have been common because cost control is not robust enough and found that the Department should disseminate the lessons learned about project management and so on.

We operate from the sound base provided by the staff and skills of the National Audit Office. Everybody knows that the Committee could not do its work alone and that it works so well because 400 civil servants work for it. We do not claim much of the credit; we are simply the voice of the National Audit Office, although it also relies on us to give our own parliamentary experience of what goes on.

In that context, I must express our gratitude to Sir John Bourn, who retired as Comptroller and Auditor General in January after nearly 20 years of unstinting support for the Committee. Every member of the Committee shares that view. I also thank Sir John’s successor, Tim Burr, under whose stewardship the NAO’s independence and authority continue to be secure.

I am also a member of the Public Accounts Commission, the body that oversees the National Audit Office. We have welcomed John Tyner’s review of the NAO’s corporate governance arrangements and have set out our own proposals for strengthening them. We agree with John Tyner and I think that the Government agree with us; there is no controversy about that. I thank the Government for promising to incorporate the necessary legislative changes into the draft Constitutional Renewal Bill.

However, Mr. Burr’s appointment is an interim arrangement; a permanent successor still needs to be found. Progress is not being made at the pace that I would want. I urge the Government to make a bit more haste; surely it is not good to have an acting Comptroller and Auditor General. The process of appointing a new CAG should not be unduly delayed.

In conclusion, I should say that we are not only one of the busiest Committees of the House; I also like to think that we are one of the most effective. I pay tribute to the Committee’s members, who continue to work hard to hold the Government to account. I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has left the Committee. I welcome the galaxy of stars who have joined: the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) and the hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Burstow), for Edinburgh, South (Nigel Griffiths), for Sedgefield (Phil Wilson) and for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith). As ever, we thank our Clerk, Mark Etherton, and his team for their support and help.

Finally, I should say that the Public Accounts Committee helps to give a voice to Parliament—and, through us, to the citizen—on the delivery of public services. When services fail those in greatest need, we provide a voice for the vulnerable. When inefficient spending fails those who contribute most in taxes, we provide a voice for the taxpayer. Furthermore, we serve the citizen in all guises by putting our bark and our bite into the pursuit of real change. I commend the motion to the House.

I welcome this debate because it is right that the House should have the opportunity to consider the reports of the Public Accounts Committee, although very few colleagues have availed themselves of that privilege today; there are probably more Members of Parliament in Crewe and Nantwich at the moment than there are in the House of Commons.

In the previous debate on a PAC report, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) referred to the Committee’s work as a blood sport in which members chase civil servants and attack them, spurred on by a sort of lust to kill. He is certainly right that when Departments are found to have made significant mistakes or to have misspent taxpayers’ money, we are not known for our gentleness or docility. My hon. Friend has discovered the one blood sport of which I am an enthusiastic devotee.

Nevertheless, we on the Committee had an enjoyable sitting on 30 April when, much to our astonishment, we found ourselves praising the chief executive of Jobcentre Plus, Lesley Strathie, for achieving the roll-out of the organisation’s office network successfully, largely on time and under budget. Such success should be seen as an example of best practice across Government, and I hope that other Departments will learn from it.

This afternoon I am going to focus my comments on one particular report among those under consideration: the sixth report of this Session. It addresses the issue of services and support for people with dementia, a matter to which our Chairman has already referred.

When health care is debated in the House, in the media and in the public arena at large, dementia services are often the elephant in the room. It is an astonishing fact that as a nation we spend more on dementia care than we do on cancer, heart disease and strokes combined, yet the national consciousness of problems associated with dementia can appear worryingly low when compared with the scale of the problem. In our Committee’s sixth report, we state that dementia affects 560,000 people in England, a figure that is set to rise to 728,000 in the next 15 years. In Wales, the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that the figure is 36,500, which is expected to rise to 50,000 over the same period. Faced with that problem, it is time that we as a country woke up to the urgent need to improve our dementia services.

The Committee has also raised the immensely difficult situation faced by carers. The National Audit Office, in its report on dementia services, said that some 476,000 people act as unpaid carers for people with dementia. It costs each one about £25,000 a year to provide that care. The Government have accepted that nowhere near enough of those carers receive their carer’s assessment and the help to which that entitles them. I welcome the Government’s response that the NHS will now address that problem through the Prime Minister’s carers strategy.

The NHS has also promised a carers’ helpline and specific guidelines to support carers. I hope that those measures will be in place as soon as possible. When our report was published in January, our Chairman expressed the hope that the Committee would move dementia up the NHS agenda. I join him wholeheartedly in that aspiration.

The challenge must be thrown down to the NHS—let us see it respond promptly and effectively. I am encouraged by the news that the development of the national dementia strategy is under way, with public consultation beginning in June, and that it will be published in October. There must be no delays and no slippage, and a full consultation must be completed within the given time frame.

We need to keep the National Dementia Strategy firmly in our minds over the coming months, maintaining a watchful eye to ensure that it remains a priority. It must not be allowed to disappear into the long grass, as many well-intentioned strategies are wont to do if we in the House take our eye off the ball.

In the meantime, it is imperative that, as the Committee has recommended, a single individual should be appointed to lead dementia services in the NHS as soon as possible. That has been done for cancer and coronary heart disease, and I welcome the Government’s response that they are considering appointing a national clinical director to that role based on the model used for cancer services. That appointment should be made now, so that the national dementia strategy can be driven forward by the same team who led its development. It is a constant frustration to those of us who serve on the Committee that a strategy that is begun by one civil servant frequently has to be dropped and picked up by another, who has a vast job to do to learn the ropes before they can implement what their predecessor developed. Consistency of leadership enabled Jobcentre Plus to be successful and that is, again, a lesson that can be learned across government.

Clear leadership and accumulation of experience from the strategy’s inception will ensure that this vital but long-neglected area of health care is rapidly improved. Obviously our first priority must be the care of those affected by dementia, but the speedy improvement of dementia services should also be a matter of great economic interest to the Treasury. Dementia already costs the economy more than £14 billion each year, and the figure is set to rise as the number of dementia sufferers also increases.

Making dementia a high priority in the Government’s approach to health care is not simply about the state providing care for those who need it—a principle to which I am passionately committed. It is also an economic necessity. If dementia is diagnosed early, more can be done for the patient and the cost of the services is much lower. If time is wasted, it becomes much harder to help the patient and the cost of treatment soars. I hope that my hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench will keep up pressure on the national health service to deliver early diagnosis of dementia, both for the sake of the patient and because of the money it will save.

The most shocking fact the Committee heard on the matter is that between half and two thirds of people with dementia never receive a formal diagnosis at all, let alone an early diagnosis. Absurdly, many dementia sufferers are not diagnosed unless they go into hospital with another illness or an injury. That is a disgrace. Reversing that situation should be a high priority for the NHS.

The main obstacle preventing correct and early diagnosis is GPs’ poor knowledge of dementia and lack of the training necessary to recognise it. Currently, GPs can go through their entire career without learning about dementia at all. At undergraduate level there is no compulsory medical component on dementia or older people’s mental health, and little general coverage of the condition. Once qualified, there is no requirement for GPs to spend any of their continuing professional development on older people’s mental health.

The situation is hardly any better for nurses. The Royal College of Nursing told the NAO that most student nurses receive between only two and five hours of teaching on older people’s mental health. That is completely baffling when we are faced with a problem that is the greatest health care challenge the country will encounter now or in the coming decades. The NHS should insist on dementia training for health care professionals. Let us see that absurdity remedied as soon as possible, with a clear requirement on the NHS that all trainee doctors and nurses learn about dementia. My hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary has a direct interest in that happening: the saving to the economy of achieving early diagnosis of dementia will benefit the whole country significantly.

The final point from the report that I want to highlight is the lack of dementia awareness in care homes. It is a sad fact that although 62 per cent. of people in care homes are thought to have dementia, only 28 per cent. of care places are registered specialist dementia places. The shortage of specialist dementia care places is a scandal, and it is a matter of which we as a country should be thoroughly ashamed. It is tantamount to neglect of some of the most vulnerable people in our society. It is a wrong that we have to put right, and I look to my Government to take the lead in that just cause.

Furthermore, two in 10 care homes do not meet the medicines management standards required of them. Neuroleptic drugs such as haloperidol and risperidone are over-used to sedate difficult patients in far too many cases, even though those drugs are known to make dementia worse—a point well made by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) in his ten-minute rule debate only yesterday. Professor Sube Bannerjee, an adviser to the NHS on dementia, told the Committee that those caring for dementia sufferers should resort to neuroleptic drugs only after other methods of managing difficult patients had failed. The guidelines for care homes are clear, yet the Committee found that they were being disregarded in too many cases. It is time for the Government to ensure that such unacceptable and counter-productive abuse of dementia sufferers is brought to an end.

The Committee has brought the massive issue of dementia before Parliament, and I hope that the changes advocated in the report will be introduced as speedily as possible. I cannot over-emphasise the impact of dementia on our national life. It must become a priority for the national health service, and it is up to Members of the House to ensure that the Government and the NHS make it a priority.

I rise as a bit-part player in our Treasury team and also as a member of the PAC. In preparing for the debate I thumbed through the whole back catalogue of PAC reports, and was struck by the analogy between the Committee and an ageing pop supergroup. As with many groups that show longevity and staying power, the membership changes although certain key core figures remain—rather like the Drifters. The distinctive sound and character of the group survive despite the departure of some and the arrival of others who are usually destined to play minor, supportive and not so well recognised roles. The PAC even has its own fan base. We invariably fill Committee Room 15 with our groupies, and we feature in Private Eye.

Like any other supergroup, we require extensive back-up staff to put the show on the road, in the shape of the National Audit Office, the clerking team, the press officer and the excellent Mark Etherton, who plays the Brian Epstein impresario role. We have our own front man in the shape of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), known for his forthright, punchy delivery and wild, flowing locks; the incisive tones of the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon); the accusatory Welsh lilt of the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig); and the uncompromising sound of working-class Glasgow from the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson)—plus lyrical inventiveness and flights of fancy from the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). None of us has yet been destroyed by excess, despite the constant heady infusions of bottled water at every meeting. As a result, a quality product emerges that is genuinely appreciated, although it has to be recognised that our following among senior civil servants and Cabinet Ministers is not what it could be.

It would be ludicrous in a brief review to try to do justice to our entire back catalogue, or even to the 33 reports under review, so I will concentrate on some of my favourite and more impactful reports—our greatest hits, I guess. To be fair, not all our reports are of equal quality. It is dangerous and tedious on occasions such as this to engage in an orgy of mutual back-slapping—such behaviour is more appropriate to their lordships in another place. We have to be self-critical at times and acknowledge that we have not got to the bottom of every issue. Largely for procedural reasons, we have not been able to follow up some fairly critical issues. Our programme of work depends on cherry-picking of the NAO, which genuinely tests the polymath abilities of elected Members and cannot be guaranteed, within the time scales, to leave no stone unturned. Important issues escape scrutiny because of a lack of time or timely information. Vehicle excise duty is a good example of that. Other long-standing issues such as BBC expenses and salaries and Saudi arms deals escape our attention because of indefensible legal inhibitions.

I will concentrate my remarks on areas that I understand reasonably well, leaving Icelandic trawlermen for other Members to fulminate on. The first of those areas is health. We have reported on clinical governance of primary care trusts, the consultants contract and prescribing costs in primary care—all areas that have been victims of the Government’s reform programme. Unsurprisingly, we found that the Maoist permanent revolution in NHS structures fomented by the cultural revolutionaries in the Department of Health left PCTs ill equipped to commission effectively, to manage the private sector—although they are encouraged to take it on—or properly to understand what was expected of them. It is no wonder that we have problems with the delivery of out-of-hours services. We identified the prevalence of a “commission and go” philosophy—not an unexpected finding. Nor was it surprising to find that consultants negotiating a new contract had successfully outwitted hospital trusts and got more money without increasing productivity.

Vested interests were in play when we examined the prescription drugs market, where useful potential savings were identified and there were clear disparities between one PCT and another as regards how capable they were of getting at those savings, which could be engineered only if the driver was the interests of patients, not those of the pharmacy industry. The report contained remarkable evidence of sheer waste and over-prescription. That was not particularly to do with the behaviour of PCTs but more with the fact that people retained drugs that they no longer needed or got them when they did not need them. The crude moral that one might draw from this is that vested interests must be challenged—in one respect, the Government are endeavouring to do so—but that Maoist permanent revolution might not be the best way of doing so. Interestingly, that conclusion was arrived at in China some time ago.

On education, I shall deal with the academies programme. The NAO report slightly sold the pass on that, because it did not examine the effects on surrounding schools of the arrival of a bright, shiny, well financed academy. The evaluation was therefore skewed from the start in favour of the academy programme. None the less, it found that academies indisputably delivered no better results than the previous excellence in cities programme. Given the obvious point that children always work better in shiny, new, well financed schools, the report genuinely calls into question whether the structural upheaval that academies represent is justified by any gains in performance. It is clear that they are not the answer to every educational ill.

Expanding our scientific base might be a smarter move, and that brings me to our report on big science. It is genuinely difficult to establish value for money in science. We concluded:

“There is a risk of leaving decisions to a small group of scientists without input from the wider community.”

As a north-west Member of Parliament, I want to underline that vigorously. At Daresbury, the diamond synchrotron eluded our grasp for reasons that appeared to have more to do with the interests of the Wellcome Foundation than those of anyone else, unless it was due to the anxiety of key members of the Oxbridge and London research community about a possible dangerous move to the badlands of the Cheshire tundra.

Daresbury was offered the fourth generation light source, which, to be fair, was a reasonable consolation prize because it kept cutting-edge science at Daresbury and has strong relevance to commercial applications in the area. It has the potential to generate the highly skilled jobs that we need in the north-west. However, we now find that that is in doubt, and I should like us to return to the topic in future.

We identified no fit between science policy, regional policy and industrial policy. I hope that future PAC work will examine in depth regional disparities and the huge amount of money inexpertly spent on urban regeneration.

This happy band of interrogators has recently unearthed so much that it is worth reflecting on several conclusions. Some universities clearly do not know why their students drop out. We overspend on roads as much, if not more, than on rail. The lottery, post-Olympics, is in a fix, and that will have an adverse effect on lottery funding in the regions.

We discovered, from an extraordinarily interesting and oddly positive report, that the costs to society of dementia can be allayed by the distribution of good practice and early diagnosis. I agree with hon. Members who have already spoken that that report was one of the most important and useful that we considered.

I want to conclude with two big ticket issues. As the hon. Member for Gainsborough said, the jury is out on the Government’s efficiency programme because all and sundry are unsure about the distinction between front-line and back-office staff. Everybody wants to get rid of the back-office staff; nobody wants to get rid of the front-line staff, but nobody knows the exact difference between them. There is also confusion about the difference between sustainable and unsustainable savings. There is some debate about what might constitute a sustainable saving. There is also uncertainty about the distinction between an efficiency and a service reduction. We must agree with the Treasury’s somewhat philosophical conclusion:

“This can present a complex and difficult measurement challenge”.

We also discovered that the Government’s preferred capital investment vehicle—the private finance initiative—is in as much trouble as ever. It is the second major subject on which we should dwell at least a little more. We found inadequate benchmarking, sloppy contracts and rising unit costs. To be fair, we found evidence of a learning curve, but little evidence for elevating the PFI above traditional models of procurement and capital finance. All that simply whets our appetite for future sessions.

Although our relationship with witnesses can often appear adversarial—and, at times, confrontational, even bordering on the unnecessarily macho—our relationship with Government is not necessarily adversarial. No one in any party or position wants one pound of taxpayers’ money to be ill spent. I hope that our Committee has made a small contribution to that.

On a personal note, since becoming a Member of Parliament, I have found working on the Committee one of the most useful things that I do. I am proud to be a member of the band.

I was very keen to participate in this debate, particularly as our friend the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), was so heavy in persuading us to take part. The debate is a useful and interesting opportunity to get some sort of summation of the work we have done during the year. Reports come to us so quickly that it is often difficult to fit them into a framework or to keep pace with them. The schedule of reports up for debate today makes fascinating reading.

We have had a very successful year with some big subjects and some small, but all of them gave an insight into Government procedures that is not available to any other Committee. This has certainly been the most fascinating Select Committee that I have ever been on. If I may transfer my useful sycophancy from the leader of our party to the Chairman of the Committee, I must say that the Committee has been extremely well led. I very much admire the staccato series of bullets that he fires at officials, which gives us headings under which we do our own rifle work later in the debate. That gives an important lead to the Committee, and he has been an effective Chairman. He is effective in giving a lot of diverse characters—we are a high-powered Committee, and the Committee members here today, including former members, are particularly high powered—our heads and allowing us to do our own thing. I deprecate the kind of wry expression that he sometimes assumes as I launch into another insane attack on some institution—he should keep his feelings to himself—but he has the important skill of leadership.

The interesting thing about the Committee is that it is the one I have served on that is most relevant to the needs and interests of ordinary people. After all, it is their money that we are talking about. We produce reports on things that affect their lives, such as the cost of medicine, which hits home to many people, or the state of accommodation for servicemen, and who is responsible for the myriad failures in that area. As part of our inquiries, we have looked at whether people’s doctors provide a good service, and we have helped in that area. We have considered the cost and state of our roads as we examined the Highways Agency and the effectiveness of the vehicle licensing agency in Wales.

Highlighting the failures to report and deal accurately with evasion by motorcyclists was quite an achievement. I did not realise that it is impossible to photograph on an electronic device the registration plates of motorcyclists. Having seen how easily motorcyclists can evade the speed cameras, I am considering the purchase of a high-powered motorbike for my wife, who is accumulating points in a dangerous fashion. A motorbike might be the only way out.

We had an insight into the sort of problems that ordinary people face and we have had a direct impact. People pay taxes and tax will become an increasingly important issue as the election approaches and it becomes a battleground for the parties, and more so, as the economy moves into recession. It will then be essential to see that money is well spent. Tax will become a more important issue, and we are the main agency for seeing that taxes are well and effectively spent, and that people get value for money.

The infuriating thing is that our work is, to an extent, post-mortem work. The people we get to grill are usually not the perpetrators—they are not, as the US Securities and Exchange Commission would say, in its examinations of financial fraud in the United States, the people responsible for the decisions and the deficiencies being examined, but their successors. The people who made the mistakes have usually moved on and been rewarded with some kind of honour, as my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) has pointed out. We deal with the accounting officers and it is appropriate that we should do so. However, it would be nice occasionally to be able to call the perpetrators of the failures and problems that we deal with.

We did just that in the case of the Rural Payments Agency and the failure of the European payments, when we examined, after some delay and with some difficulty, the role of the agency’s chief executive. We were able to show, essentially, that the failure was not only his, but a failure all round. It was a failure by the civil service—by departmental officials, and those right at the top, too—to stand up to Ministers when asked to do the impossible and say, “This can’t be done, especially not with the staff resources that we have available.” It is the responsibility of the civil service not only to be a “can do” service, but to be a “can’t do” service when it sees that its work is impossible and when it sees the damage that will be done to the Department and itself. The civil service must have more confidence and speak out.

We should call the perpetrators. As my hon. Friend has said, all too often they are rewarded with an honour, just as people in business who fail are rewarded with high monetary compensation—the case of Adam Applegarth at Northern Rock comes to mind. Unfortunately, the civil service has its equivalents. There should be penalties for failure and they should be made clear.

I fear that we are occasionally bamboozled. I instance a recent inquiry into Postcomm, which seems to be dedicated to ruining the Royal Mail as a service. The other regulators seem to be concerned to give special concessions and advantages to those with power and money, who can get better prices, the costs of which are then imposed on the vulnerable, who pay more for the services that they receive. Postcomm says that it is protecting a universal service, but that service is deteriorating. We do not get Sunday deliveries now and Saturday deliveries are under threat, and there is only one delivery a day, when there used to be two.

However, after Postcomm had appeared before us and defended its procedures, it made an announcement saying not only that it continued to be dedicated to promoting competition and liberalisation, because they were providing a

“far better customer focus and strong incentives for all mail operators”

to serve larger companies, but that it wanted a part-privatisation, which was not mentioned at our hearing. Quite out of the blue, Postcomm admitted a major financial problem, with the pension funds in particular, which it had denied at the hearing. Having admitted that it had reduced the profitability of the Royal Mail, Postcomm went on to advocate making Royal Mail’s activities subject to the same rate of VAT as the private operators.

None of that was mentioned at our hearing, but it all appeared subsequently. We should have known that that would happen, because it is unreasonable to take one position at a hearing and then announce something totally different the next day. That makes me think.

The Chairman justifiably paid credit to Sir John Bourn and to the devoted work of his staff, which I heartily second, but is there not a case for the Committee having a small research staff of its own for the immediate preparation of briefings for Committee members before meetings? It is impossible for us to keep up with commercial developments, consultants, companies’ successes and failures and what is happening across Departments.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon)—I shall call him my hon. Friend for Committee purposes—assiduously keeps up with such matters and must have an enormous machine behind him. I hope that all those people have not been transferred to work for Boris in the cucumber. My hon. Friend’s sources of information are myriad and enthusiastic. He sits there with a pile of information that I do not have, and I try to peer at his notes so that I can ask some telling questions. The rest of us do not have that capability or support—or, indeed, the passionate enthusiasm that he shows. It would benefit our procedures to have a research staff to bring us up to date on the clippings, at least, and on the latest developments, between the publication of the National Audit Office’s report and our examination of it.

I should like briefly to follow the Chairman’s example—this is another example of my growing sycophantic tendencies—by following certain themes. One thing that emerges from the reports is the constant tendency to overreach, or to try to do too much. That is a political problem that comes from Ministers, who are subject to the temptation of promising certain things. They use tripartite phrases, saying that something will not only satisfy world peace and build up British defence, but will do good for Mrs. Bloggs of 13 Columbus way, Grimsby. We try to do too much, and in many cases Ministers try to impose too much on Departments that are not capable of carrying the load.

The RPA has been a disaster. There are now cuts in the British Waterways budget and proposals to sell lock-keepers’ houses as a consequence of the failure of the payments scheme. That disaster and the fines from Europe for being naughty stem from the tendency to overreach. Ministers committed themselves to the most complex payment system available on the ground that it was the best way of proceeding. It was a much more complex system than anyone else used, and the results were disastrous.

The agency simply was not capable of responding, particularly because it was faced with efficiency requirements that led to the redundancies of large numbers of staff. Its was firing staff and then was suddenly faced with the need to introduce and implement the most complex system of rural payments of any nation in the European Union. That was barmy, and the agency could not cope. Interestingly, civil servants and the agency tried to cope, and did not effectively warn Ministers that things were not going to happen. Ministers continued to get reports that programmes were rolling ahead and that everything was okay until a week before the payments were due, when they were suddenly faced with disaster. That was partly due to the civil servants being too diffident, but it was largely due to Ministers taking on a commitment and overreaching in the way that I have described. A ministerial head rolled: Lord Bach lost his job, although he was personally told by Tony Blair that that was not because of the disaster with rural payments, which makes me absolutely certain that it was.

That is just one example. We see the same kind of overstretch, and a tendency to try to do too much, in defence. Our major projects report showed that the budgets were being maintained largely because commitments were being shuffled on to other budgets, and therefore effectively concealed. This has led me to believe that we have too many major projects, and that they are too expensive and too technical for the system to bear. Added to all that is the commitment to update our nuclear deterrent, which is a very expensive project that has been heaped on top of other projects. All these projects are overstretching the Department’s resources, and the ability of the taxpayer to finance them. This is incredible.

We do not need the nuclear deterrent. The world has changed, and we are no longer in a cold war. We can never use our nuclear deterrent. Who would we use it on? Would we ever use it without the authorisation of the Americans? It is extremely expensive, yet, because of the system of political overreach, we are now placing an obligation on the Ministry of Defence at a time when it is already stretched because we are fighting two wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and putting in more effort than any of our NATO allies except the United States. There is already equipment strain, and problems with coping with those who have been wounded and damaged in the war. This is another example of overstretch that emerged in our report. It is a warning to us as politicians, and certainly to Ministers, to think through the commitments before they are made.

Another example involves efficiency savings. They are now part of the magic of government. There is a pretence that we can go on making efficiency savings of 2, 3, 4 or 5 per cent. every year, but this amounts to a process of continuous anorexia. My own figure does not testify to this, but I understand that anorexia is eventually fatal, which is why I have managed to avoid it through my own personal eating habits. When it comes to efficiency savings in Government Departments, it is also a myth.

Our report on this subject states:

“The Government’s Efficiency Programme is designed to achieve ongoing efficiency gains across the public sector of £21.5 billion”.

Whenever politicians are told that the tax burden is too heavy, they always say, “We’re going to make efficiency savings, and we’ll cut out waste.” But that never happens. Only two thirds of the £21.5 billion target was expected to release resources for other projects. The efficiency savings involved were often mythical. Our report also rightly pointed out:

“There is evidence that some efficiency projects may be having an adverse impact on service quality.”

It gives an example in the Department of Health, where there has clearly been an impact on service quality. The report goes on to state:

“Improvements in efficiency might not be sustainable.”

For example, the Ministry of Defence’s early decommissioning of some of its fast jets gave a one-off financial saving but reduced the capability of the Royal Air Force to deal with certain situations. So I believe that there is a good deal of myth involved in these efficiency savings. A large proportion of them are phoney.

Jobcentre Plus made efficiency savings, but as I pointed out in Committee, they are often made by shifting costs on to the clients, who now have to be dealt with by telephone. If they do not have a telephone, too bad; they then have to sponge on the citizens advice bureau or my office in Grimsby or a centre for the homeless and use their telephones to get through to fix up an appointment. It has to be done and dealt with by telephone and personal bonding between the Department and the recipient is damaged. That is one example and, as I have pointed out at some length, the Rural Payment Agency provides another.

Another example of overreach applies to consultants. There have been fewer examples this year of overpayments and excessive use of consultants, but whenever a problem arises, there is still a tendency to say “Bring in the consultants”. The assumption is that the civil service cannot deal with the problem, but that consultants have access to some form of higher wisdom; they are the way, the truth and the light, as far as the Government are concerned, so they bring them in at inordinate expense.

What we need is an audit of the efficiency of consultants. Some are bad, some are good, some are brilliant and some are bums. I think the hon. Member for Gainsborough mentioned the role of the Office of Government Commerce. It is not providing effective advice on who to use and it is not auditing performance on a continuous basis so that it can make serious recommendations. It acts as a sort of agency for the employment of consultants rather than providing a critique of their employment.

There are certainly problems with the competence of Departments in some areas. I would cite the issue of Icelandic compensation in the fisheries industry as an example. The Department of Trade and Industry, as it was, did not have enough expertise or knowledge of the industry to provide a foolproof system. Some of the mistakes it made were laughable, and I engaged in a long correspondence over this matter. The DTI seemed to think that the Icelandic limits were 200 terrestrial miles rather than 200 nautical miles, which is much more. Indeed, the area extending to 200 nautical miles included large chunks of Faroese waters, so many people should have had compensation accordingly. Because the Department did not understand, it took ages to convince it that this was the case. It did not know the practice of the industry, decreeing that a 12-week break in service precluded people from compensation.

In Grimsby, when the fisherman who used to fish in Icelandic waters could no longer do so, he was forced to fish in the North sea. That was deemed as being a break in service, although it was part of the structure of the industry and a Government necessity. A ludicrous situation developed: some fishermen got compensation because although they had had a 12-week break, they had served it in prison and had not been paid; while others who had spent that time on the North sea and consequently had been paid were not entitled to the compensation.

Clearly, some Departments make mistakes by not listening enough to the voice of the industry, while other Departments listen too much. I was very worried by the tendency of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to schmooze with the big taxpayers in its dealings with big companies. I find it difficult to believe that these companies, some of which are chiselling crooks like the rest of us, comprise honest and honourable people who always rush to pay their taxes. That attitude—of rushing enthusiastically to pay taxes—is associated with no company that I have ever known on the market, yet that is what HMRC appears to believe. I was a bit concerned about that, and also by the small number of staff employed to deal with big-company tax evasion and avoidance in comparison with the number employed to deal with social security fraud, who bring home much smaller sums than are available to those dealing with companies properly.

I do not want to go on for much longer, as I have already exceeded my welcome. I sense that from the growing indifference to my jokes as the debate proceeds. However, I want to issue a few more congratulations. We have produced some excellent reports. We have speeded up the dilatory progress of the Thames Gateway scheme, which was plodding along far too slowly.

Is it? We suggested that it needed a driving central authority, and our recommendation was accepted. I certainly feared that it was proceeding too slowly, but I think we achieved something.

When we examined the academies programme, despite all the new techniques, solutions and approaches that were supposed to be on offer—after all, the academies had been given 20 million quid of Government money to go away and play with—we found that although there had been an improvement it was no greater than the Hawthorne effect, in which change means improvement, which then fades away.

The Chairman may not know of one brilliant achievement of mine while the Committee was examining the use of Government buildings and space in London, as opposed to the rest of the country. As I passed the Treasury each day and looked down into the basement, I saw endless equipment, particularly coffee-making equipment, but no sign of human life. I took that as an indication that the Treasury was wasting space. However, I did achieve something. The following week when I walked past the Treasury the blinds were down, so I could not see what was going on in the basement. I am sorry to have to produce that as my one success of the whole programme.

It has been a challenging year, and the programme has been very successful. I think that a little self-congratulation is very much in order for the entire Committee, its backing by the National Audit Office, its staff and its members.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). He is a colourful member of the Committee, and he certainly enlivens our proceedings. It was also interesting for me personally to hear him confirm what I had long suspected—that he cranes over to look at my notes in order to steal my best questions. I am glad that he has finally “fessed up” to that.

I too pay tribute to Sir John Bourn, the recently retired Comptroller and Auditor General. He has rendered the country an extraordinary service in the way in which he has led the National Audit Office over the past 20 years, and the way in which he has built it up. He has done nothing less than create a world leader among supreme audit institutions. We need only speak to people in those institutions to understand that that is their view of the NAO. Having visited the Bundesrechnungshof in Germany, the Cour des Comptes in Paris, the Tribunal de Cuentas in Madrid, the Government Accountability Office in Washington and the Kyrgyzstani national audit institution in Bishkek—I will not try to pronounce its name—I can confirm, on the basis of worldwide experience, that the NAO is held in very high regard. I also pay tribute to Sir John Bourn’s successor, Tim Burr, and to the entire staff of the NAO. As our Chairman said, we could not possibly do our work without them.

Before I deal with the reports that are the subject of the motion, let me briefly discuss the terms of the motion itself, which require the debate to be confined to the reports from our Committee—named and numbered on the Order Paper—to which the Treasury has issued a minute in reply. There are good reasons for that, in particular that it ensures that the Treasury Minister—in this case, our distinguished colleague the Exchequer Secretary—can be properly briefed and give informed answers. It might also be argued that it prevents the debate from drifting off in too many different directions—although I think that our friend the hon. Member for Great Grimsby has proved that wrong. However, we are in any case discussing 32 different reports, whose subjects vary from the coal health compensation scheme to the Icelandic trawler compensation scheme; from costs in primary care to use of the Heritage Lottery Fund; and from the recovery of the ill-gotten assets of criminals to the management of sickness absence in the Department for Transport, so the argument that the motion as constructed stops the debate going off in lots of different directions is a non-starter, as that is in the nature of what we do.

The key question for me is whether the terms of the motion restrict the topicality of our debate in a way that is unhelpful to the public interest and to effective scrutiny by Parliament of what the Government do. I think that they do, and although I do not want to make too much of this point, I shall give two brief examples of why that is the case before I move on to discuss the reports listed in the motion.

The national programme for IT in the health service is an ongoing concern of the Public Accounts Committee, the NAO and commentators on health IT. It is the world’s largest health technology programme, and it is not unfair to say that it is in serious trouble. A report will be published on the subject tomorrow. It is a curious fact that in the last of these PAC debates we could, and did, refer to the NHS IT project, whereas we could not do so in the one before that. If your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, was sufficiently acute in attending to the 32 reports on our list for today, you will be aware that we cannot refer to it. It seems rather arbitrary that in some debates we can and in some we cannot, when this concern is both long running and ongoing. There have been developments since our last debate. Ministers have made statements about the timetable for the deployment of systems into acute hospital trusts, and there have been problems with slippage on those timetables. It would be appropriate and topical to be able to talk about that, but it is not technically in order to do so.

My second example involves Postcomm and the regulatory framework that Royal Mail works under. We have frequently looked at regulators, including Postcomm; we did so most recently yesterday. This is an important issue for our constituents. In particular, the maintenance of the universal service obligation, which has been referred to, is a matter of great importance in rural areas such as my constituency, and it has also been a matter of some controversy in the press recently, as Postcomm has commissioned an economic consultancy firm to study the costs underlying the universal service obligation—or, to be accurate, some of those costs, because it failed to include the international component. It would be good to be able to raise this matter, and to hear the Treasury’s thoughts on it. Once again, however, it is outside the terms of the motion. That seems a little odd given that yesterday we could discuss it in Committee, and that this morning the chairman of Postcomm went on Radio 4 and said that a universal service obligation that is viable for the future is most likely to be achieved through a radical transformation of the governance and structure of the Royal Mail, including the introduction of private capital to safeguard the universal service obligation. The best adjective to describe that remark might be “startling”, and it at least seems worthy of debate—and debate now. However, we cannot discuss that.

For future debates, I propose the slight change—I would be interested to know what the Exchequer Secretary thinks of this—that we add that the House takes note not only of the numbered reports and the Treasury minutes, but of “the work of the National Audit Office and of the Public Accounts Committee in general.” This is not an attempt to catch the Treasury out. It will plainly be the case that the Minister who appears before us will want to talk about our most recent reports, and the Treasury employs some very bright civil servants—it attracts some of our brightest university graduates—and I think they are more than capable of briefing Ministers on the work of the NAO and the Committee in general.

I must say to the Exchequer Secretary that we miss her on the Committee. She is still a member of it ex officio, but when she was a full-blown member she was a very incisive questioner, and I have no doubt that were we to have a more wide-ranging debate, technically speaking, she would have no difficulty at all in coping with it, and I doubt whether any of her Treasury colleagues would either.

With those preliminary remarks, may I turn to some of the reports detailed in the motion? The first one that I wish to discuss is “Building for the future: Sustainable construction and refurbishment on the government estate”. The NAO’s trend of increasingly examining real estate issues in Government is a welcome one. We examined the national health service estate a while ago, and we have examined property issues across different Departments. There are huge potential benefits for the Government in managing those estates more efficiently.

I wish to raise one particular recommendation with the Exchequer Secretary. Recommendation 4 states:

“Departments are failing to implement Treasury guidance and assess costs and benefits of sustainable design options”.

What I want to ask her touches not so much on sustainable design options but on the generic question of Treasury guidance. The Treasury issues guidance on a range of subjects, and I am interested in understanding what the Treasury does to ensure that that is followed.

The theme that one finds repeatedly across Departments—we examine £600 billion or £700 billion of income and expenditure across virtually every public sector activity—is that guidance, advice and clear instruction was given as to what ought to happen, but that it just did not happen. Does the Treasury just rely on the NAO, which, after all, in its earlier incarnation was the Exchequer and Audit Department, to check that its guidance is being followed? Alternatively, do the responsible policy desk officers in the Treasury covering different Departments have an ongoing responsibility to check that what they say should be done is being done. I have had a deep suspicion for a long time that perhaps it is not that, as people often say, the Treasury is too powerful, but that it is not powerful and big enough, and that we need a stronger centre.

The second report that I wish to discuss dealt with maintaining river and coastal flood defences. Recommendation 2 stated:

“There are significant shortcomings in the Agency’s”

—the Environment Agency—

“ ability to prioritise expenditure on the highest risk areas and assets.”

Prioritising expenditure is an absolute basic for any Department or Government agency, so why does a significant and important agency, such as the Environment Agency, have such difficulty doing something as basic as prioritising expenditure? Once again, what is the Treasury doing about the situation—I hope that someone is doing something—to ensure that that lesson is being learnt elsewhere and that people are capable of prioritising expenditure in the way that they should?

I commend the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) on confining his speech to the issue of dementia. I thought that our hearing on dementia was one of our most important in that Session. Professor Bannerjee, one of the chief witnesses, was an exceptional witness. The right hon. Gentleman made the point that is covered in recommendation 2, which states:

“Unlike cancer and coronary heart disease there is no single individual with responsibility or accountability for improving dementia services.”

The Treasury’s minutes of reply state that it is considering

“as part of the strategy work whether there is a compelling case for a national clinical director.”

That reply was published at the end of March, but our hearing took place in October, so six months had passed in between. I distinctly recall the officials before us saying at the time that they would not regard any bureaucratic hurdles spoken of as a reason for delay or as preventing them from acting, and that if there were a case for a national clinical director for dementia, they would get on with it. I think that Professor Mike Richards has proved a success as national clinical director for cancer and that that system has proved a success. I urge the Treasury to apply as much pressure as possible to the Department of Health to get this matter moving along, because there does not seem to be any obvious or easily explicable reason for further delay.

The next report that I want to examine is entitled “Helping people from workless households into work”. I think there is agreement across the political parties that something needs to be done in this area. Much more needs to be done than has been done hitherto in terms of welfare reform and helping the hard core of people who live in workless families. They have not experienced people going out to work, because they do not have that around them in their own households.

In recommendation 9, we say that the Department for Work and Pensions could not tell us how many of the 2.9 million people who had started a new deal programme were still participating in it, nor what proportion of workless households chose not to work rather than being out of work because of personal circumstances. That suggests that there is still a lot to do. How can we assess objectively the success of the new deal programme, which we would all like to do—there is much party political banter about the new deal, but I would like a reliable, objective assessment of its successes and failures—if the Department cannot even tell us how many of the people who started a new deal programme are still on it or what proportion choose not to work?

The coal health compensation scheme was an extraordinary subject—I know that the right hon. Member for Islwyn has a personal constituency interest in it. The scheme provided compensation for miners afflicted by various industrial diseases and was very worth while. What was extraordinary about it was that the then Department for Trade and Industry—now the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—managed to make several solicitors multimillionaires. A small firm in Doncaster called Beresfords had a senior partner, Mr. Beresford, who had a personal salary of £16.7 million. I asked the permanent under-secretary, Sir Brian Bender, about that:

“Now under any view, the purpose of this scheme wasn’t to make individual solicitors in Doncaster multi-millionaires, was it?”

He agreed that that was not the purpose of the scheme. Notwithstanding the difficulties about people’s common-law rights, it was extraordinary that a way could not have been found—statutorily if necessary—to get the money that Parliament had voted for the purpose to the people who needed it and to contain and control the risk of people such as Mr. Beresford clawing it up for their own purposes. To me, that was unacceptable and obscene—

I hope not.

The next report I wish to consider is on the efficiency programme. We have had much discussion about the extent to which efficiency savings can be relied on and whether they are cashable or non-cashable. We accept that there are technical difficulties in that area, but I hope that the Minister will accept that we all have an interest in having efficiency numbers that we can rely on so that we know that real efficiency is delivered, not measures that cut into the bone of Departments. Real efficiency will help to deliver better public services while providing more taxpayers’ money for other areas. That is especially important in the light of the article in The Guardian that I read the other day, which said that the Government are now embarking on Gershon 2, a second round to identify savings in addition to the £21.5 billion to which the hon. Member for Great Grimsby referred.

I do not know what the second round will be called yet, although I suggest that it should be called Eagle. Then when the efficiency savings have been delivered, the Treasury can tell the Prime Minister that the Eagle has landed.

I was seven years old when the eagle landed before, and the hon. Gentleman may also remember that occasion.

I do remember that occasion, and it is time for a reprise. Harrison Ford has made a comeback, so I do not see why the eagle should not do so.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.

The Assets Recovery Agency has recovered only £23 million against expenditure of £65 million. Most of us are at a loss to explain how £65 million can be spent to recover only £23 million by an agency that has the law on its side. The only thing to do with the people who were responsible for the agency—I think that they have now moved on—is plant them in the institutions of this country’s enemies to find out whether they can destroy the economic and financial viability of those countries as well as they have managed the Assets Recovery Agency.

I turn to the delays in administering the 2005 single farm payment scheme in England, which is a good example of my earlier point about the unnecessary restrictions in the motion. On the Rural Payments Agency and the single farm payment scheme, the permanent secretary to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Helen Ghosh, told our Committee:

“Ministers were being told it was possible when it was not in fact possible”.

I am glad to have got that on the record, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but it was out of order for me to do so, because that was said in a hearing that we had with the permanent under-secretary to the same Department on the same subject this January, and the report has not yet been published and is not part of report HC 893, which comes within the motion. I hope that that makes my point for me.

Order. To some extent, it does, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that he was out of order. He made some valuable points earlier, but it is now important that he stay within our guidelines.

Not only will I do so, but I am nearly finished. I have the reports with me to try to ensure that I stay strictly on the rails.

The Thames Gateway report was also interesting for the wider issues that it raised. I quote very briefly from paragraph 13, where we said:

“The Department’s overall management of the programme has been weak. It is yet to establish arrangements for controlling the programme such as a budget, implementation plan, joint risk management, appropriate financial incentives, a performance management framework for delivery partners, public reporting on progress, and measurable performance indicators.”

Those are among the most basic things that we would expect anyone who manages a large Department, agency or project to have taken on board from the start, but to have managed to spend £670 million without doing any of them takes some doing. I hope that the Treasury is not only on the case, but involved in allied areas where similar management failings may have arisen.

I want briefly to turn to the private finance initiative, because the figures published in the appendix of our report on tendering and benchmarking show that, when the whole stream of payments going forward is added up, the total liability that now faces the public purse is £170 billion. Of course, the Treasury was anxious to point out—Mr. John Kingman wrote to the Committee to make this clear—that, in doing so, one is adding future and non-comparable figures to present figures without applying any appropriate adjustment and that aggregating the stream of future payments gives a net present value of £91 billion. In complaining that he did not like giving us the £170 billion figure, Mr. Kingman said:

“It is rather as if we were adding a figure in £ to one in $, without converting the currencies, and ending up with one that is not denominated in any currency at all. I am obviously uncomfortable providing the Committee with a figure which is meaningless”.

That takes the prize for being unnecessarily complicated and almost guilty of sophistry, because £170 billion is a fairly easily understandable number. It is fairly obviously true that £170 billion in 35 years’ time will not be the same as £170 billion today—we can all understand that—and that the two factors that must be taken into account to get from one number to the other are time and interest rates; quite where foreign currencies come into it I do not know. I can only assume that Mr. Kingman, whom I know to be a very bright man, is guilty of having a trait to which many bright civil servants sometimes fall prey: an attraction to complexity. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby said that the Rural Payments Agency chose the most complex scheme available, the dynamic hybrid. Quite why it had to choose that scheme I do not know. The Germans chose the dynamic hybrid, too, but they managed to make it work. We did not.

I fear—this is probably a subject for a book—that one of the problems facing our public sector, and affecting the way in which our senior civil service conducts itself and advises Ministers, is that senior civil servants are attracted to complexity like moths to a bright light. We need a bit of simplicity. We need to concentrate on basics, including having a budget for a project, making sure that there is an implementation plan, and ensuring that the delivery partners know what on earth the project is supposed to do. If we get back to that, we will have a greater chance of ensuring decent taxpayer value for the expenditure for which Parliament votes.

I think that I can claim to be the only hon. Member qualified unreservedly to congratulate the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee and his colleagues on their work, their diligence in their studies, the breadth of their work, and the speed with which they have made some very important, cogent reports. I say that because I think that I am the only Back Bencher present who is not a member of the Committee. Clearly, the Government and Opposition Front Benchers can and will congratulate the Committee on its work, but their role and functions are different. The Opposition Front Bencher, the hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), is charged with prosecuting the case, as it were, against the Government’s stewardship of many projects. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury will defend arrangements and explain why no blame can be apportioned to the Government.

I feel privileged to be able to say that I have come to the Chamber this afternoon because I believe that the job that the Committee does of monitoring Government expenditure and performance is profoundly important. Its work goes to the heart of the constitution and the role of Parliament. A distinguished and very senior Whip looked into the Chamber earlier, and when he saw me sitting here, he raised his eyebrows to heaven. I try to interpret body language; he thought that I was either barking mad to be here when there will be no vote, or malevolent. Far too often, members of the Government confuse Government Back Benchers’ scrutiny with malevolence and criticism. If a Government Back Bencher scrutinises a measure, the Government see them as mad or bad, or perhaps mad and bad, which is even more worrying.

I hope that I am not included in my hon. Friend’s characterisation. I know that he is not mad or bad, but I think that he might be dangerous to know.

I do not want to delay the House on this subject, but I think that it does go to the heart of the issue of scrutiny, which is what the volumes that we are considering are about. Without disclosing any private or personal information relating to my political party, I can say that I owe a debt to the Minister, because I know that she had a hand in ensuring that I stayed on the Foreign Affairs Committee when others wanted to take me off it, for reasons that I have mentioned.

Order. Foreign affairs is the last subject that we ought to stray into this afternoon.

Anyway, having got that off my chest, let me say that the reports that we are considering are extremely worth while. I want to refer to a few of them, some of which relate to my constituency.

First, I shall deal with the report on the Assets Recovery Agency. The appalling failure to recover substantial assets from criminals to offset the agency’s costs is a big disappointment. Clearly, the legislation was somewhat flawed, and the stewardship of the agency left an awful lot to be desired. I am not sure that merging it with the Serious Organised Crime Agency will prove to be sensible. Parliament should have done better. It should have worked harder and revisited the matter with new legislation, and the Government should have seen that the administration and management of the agency improved. It is a matter of powers and of stewardship, and the agency could have been much more successful.

I take an interest in Northern Ireland. Abandoning the Assets Recovery Agency, merging it with the Serious Organised Crime Agency, doing away with the Assets Recovery Agency in Northern Ireland and merging it in the blancmange of the new agency will prove to be a big mistake. Even if the Government had decided to merge the two agencies, they should have introduced a new statute that hived off the function in Northern Ireland. A designated Northern Ireland agency could have complemented and worked much more closely with the very successful assets recovery agency in the Irish Republic, which to some extent pioneered our legislation. It was a mistake not to ring-fence the function in Northern Ireland. There is an ongoing need to tackle organised crime and to recover the profits of crime in that part of the United Kingdom.

I commend the Committee for its work on reducing the reliance on landfill in England. I feel particularly strongly about that because my constituency, Thurrock, has been scarred by more than 100 years of landfill. It is unjust, unfair, appalling in its effect on the environment, and it is still going on. Successive Governments have not been energetic enough or enthusiastic enough in reducing the amount of waste put in landfill. Parliament has not taken seriously its moral obligations to reduce the amount of packaging and waste that is produced.

We feel strongly about the matter in Thurrock because landfill has altered the topography of Thurrock and continues to do so, with unnatural bunds in and around the Thames estuary. It is highly inappropriate. The Government should take on board urgently the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee and other organisations. Many local authorities are not doing nearly enough to encourage recycling and the sorting of waste. I notice that the Committee drew attention to the fact that the food and restaurant sector is finding cheaper ways of disposing of the waste that they generate, but it still ends up in landfill and it still ends up in my constituency.

I unashamedly say to the House that that is unacceptable. I see it every day. The little bit of river traffic that passes this building, the tugs pulling the long craft, is heading for Thurrock. It is London’s waste going to Thurrock. Each day there is an increment in pollution in my part of Essex. It is unacceptable, it is distorting the topography, and I make no apology for commending the report to the House and asking the Government to take the issue much more seriously and tackle it as a matter of urgency.

The Committee has done some important work on the Environment Agency, which is charged by Parliament with maintaining river and coastal defences in England. It troubles me that again we are fiddling while Rome burns. If one reads the report, one sees that very little has been done—that is not fair. I withdraw that. I should say that the energy and enthusiasm of the Environment Agency, and the stewardship that Parliament charges the agency with, have been seen to be deficient. It has to deal with things immediately, but it also has to have a long-term view. Clearly, the agency is not beginning to address the causes of what could be cataclysmic consequences—probably within your and my lifetimes, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and certainly within those of our children and grandchildren—if the problem in and around our coast is not seriously addressed.

As I said, I represent part of the Thames estuary, but not part that is covered by the Thames barrier. It is, however, part of the estuary that is the subject of another report—the Thames Gateway development, which clearly has ramifications for and raises issues about flooding. I do not think that there is joined-up government on the issue. I have some sympathy for the Environment Agency, in that it appears that it does not have the resources or responsibilities that it should. Furthermore, Ministers are transient and there are always reorganisations of Government Departments, which seem to merge and disappear and get new titles and so on. There does not seem to be a coherent, long-term strategy on how and to what extent we should defend the Thames estuary in particular.

Speaking personally, I am amazed that nothing is under way to put an additional barrier across the Thames in the wider estuary. Such a project could be self-financing and include a road and/or rail crossing, which is much needed for the United Kingdom economy. That is the kind of ambitious engineering that should be advanced. It cannot be advanced entirely by the Environment Agency, which does not have the resources for a major engineering construction; it should be advanced by Her Majesty’s Government. If we ignore that need, there will almost inevitably be dreadful consequences. They might not come next week or in the next decade—but in the next century they will. People will look back at this Parliament and recent Parliaments, which have not really done anything to address the problem. I hope that the Public Accounts Committee report’s criticism of some of the Environment Agency’s stewardship will be taken on board, and I implore the Government to take on more.

I have referred to the Government’s Thames Gateway strategy, on which the Public Accounts Committee produced an important and powerful report. I was much encouraged that, for the first time, some colleagues were addressing the flaws and failings of a Government initiative and strategy that was well meant but was not being achieved. I intervened from a sedentary position on my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) when he referred to that report, the contents of which he is justifiably proud. He demonstrated some dismay when I intervened rather rudely and said that it is still the case that nothing is changing. Perhaps that was an exaggeration, but I want to share with the House something that illustrates that despite the Committee’s forensic, detailed report on the failings and problems arising from the Thames Gateway project, the Government are still in denial this afternoon.

I buttress my case by saying that this very week, the Government office for the east of England produced the regional spatial strategy for the eastern region—that is parlance for a regional development plan. Almost two years ago, before the Public Accounts Committee hearings, I implored the Government, in both speech and writing, to address the fact that the bureaucrats in that Government office had decided, for some reason, that Thurrock Lakeside retail park was not or should not be designated a regional shopping centre. I do not know whether anyone knows my bailiwick, but that shopping centre is demonstrably a regional shopping centre. That decision is like suggesting that these green Benches are red. It is a barmy, crackpot view expressed by bureaucrats. Not only is it mad, but it has some consequences.

The fact that Lakeside is not designated as a regional shopping centre has an impact on the Thurrock urban development corporation, which is a creature of statute and a baby of this Labour Government. It frustrates the corporation in fulfilling its job of creating new training opportunities and ensuring that the right skills are in the right place in Thurrock and along the Thames Gateway. It needs to be able to develop the land around the Lakeside basin—I call it the Lakeside shopping centre, but basin is the technical term for the area—and for it to do that Lakeside has to be designated a regional shopping centre.

I have complained about that fact in this Chamber a number of times. I think that it hurt the Government when I said that the process was the opposite of joined-up government. People moved nervously and, of course, the Ministers were transient, because one of the great problems with the whole strategy is the turnover of Ministers charged with it. It is the opposite of joined-up government because in the Department that deals with the matter, one Minister is in charge of spatial strategy while another, to the best of his or her ability, enthusiastically tries to push the Thames Gateway strategy forward.

I have drawn attention to that problem time and again. This week, the spatial strategy came out. I agreed with a lot of it, but it had one caveat—that the Lakeside basin at Thurrock would be the subject of further consultation. The East of England regional assembly and the Government office will report in December 2009 about the category that should cover Lakeside. Ministers should not take my word for it. They should go back to their Departments and ask, “Is what the hon. Member for Thurrock said true?” They will then see that the process is the opposite of joined-up government.

Order. I am conscious of the fact that the hon. Gentleman feels strongly about the matters that he is putting before the House, but he must be careful to distinguish between a debate on the Public Accounts Committee and subjects that might be more suitable for Adjournment debates. He has not yet been sufficiently out of order for me to stop him, but I am simply giving him some advice.

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I accept your advice, but everything that I have said is referred to in the Public Accounts Committee’s report and its deliberations. The full and thorough report was one of the Committee’s bigger reports. As you have mentioned the subject, I want specifically to mention a part of the 62nd report, which is about the Thames Gateway. It states specifically:

“Local MPs do not feel sufficiently engaged with the Thames Gateway programme.”

It goes on to show the lack of involvement and consultation. The Treasury’s reply, which I think that we are debating, states:

“The Department has used several techniques to engage MPs in the Thames Gateway, including a standing group of Thames Gateway MPs meeting on a quarterly basis”—

I want to emphasise the next words—

“at more informal evening briefings”.

By that, it means junkets and dinners. I do not do business over dinner. I will not go to that sort of thing, and I have made that quite clear. There is far too much of that in general, let alone in relation to the Thames Gateway. There is a lot of bonhomie at those dinners, and lots of chat around the table about the problems of the Thames Gateway scheme. I made it quite clear that I would not go along with that in any circumstances.

The chief executive of Thames Gateway appeared before the PAC. I tabled a series of parliamentary questions about her management of the scheme, and eventually I told her that I would meet her over a cup of tea at the House of Commons, because I do not see people over dinner. The following week she resigned. The PAC issued its report, and as a Member of Parliament I legitimately pursued matters in the Chamber and in written questions. She was the second person charged with running Thames Gateway who resigned and disappeared quickly.

It might not be the fault of the chief executives, but the problems are indicative of those identified by the PAC. The strategy is flawed. I can give you references, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because the matters are covered in the Committee’s documents and deliberations. The Committee noted that a plethora of bodies have responsibility for the so-called Thames Gateway strategy. There are too many organisations. It is stark, staring bonkers. If we had wanted to create a confusing organisation we could not have done it better.

The hon. Gentleman is one of my heroes for the way he represents his constituents so independently and robustly. Does he recall that the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who was a member of our Committee, pointed out not only that a plethora of bodies—more than 100—was involved in the financing, but that the Thames Gateway area stopped halfway through his constituency? What kind of planning is that?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, because I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—indeed, I shall write to you next week—that everything I have said is absolutely in the footprint of the documents.

Order. The hon. Gentleman should relax. There is no need for him to write to me. I shall guide him if necessary.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) raised a legitimate point. One of the things acknowledged by the PAC—thank goodness—was that the Thames Gateway is covered by no fewer than three Government regions. There is the Greater London region and the eastern region, which we are in, although what goes on in Norwich has no relevance to my people—I am sure we love Norwich and Cambridgeshire, but we are not oriented towards that area. The hon. Gentleman referred to our colleague from Kent and of course his constituency is in the south-east region. That illustrates just how many confusing agencies there are. Moreover, the motorway system bears no relation to the scheme; the motorways of the Greater London region go from my region and from Kent into London.

I implore the Government not to take the view they put in their response—that everything in the garden is rosy. It is not. Sooner or later the Prime Minister will wake up to the fact that the developments he attaches such great importance to—creating new homes and quality communities with essential public services commensurate with residential growth and an increasing skills base—will not be achieved unless there is a root and branch review of the policy for the Thames Gateway, and particularly but not exclusively for Thurrock urban development corporation. The Government should use as their starting point the PAC report, which I commend to the House.

It is an enormous pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). As a former retailer, I assure the House that the hon. Gentleman is not mad. Thurrock is one of the UK’s top 20 retail centres and for it not to be regarded as such by bureaucrats shows how out of touch they are with the reality of the commercial world.

I have served on the Committee with pleasure for the past 18 months and most of my remarks will address how relevant our work is to the world of Government today, rather than focusing on one of the problems identified at our previous opportunity to debate the work of the Committee, which was how often we look back with excessive hindsight at administrative failings. Too much distance makes things less relevant both to our constituents and when making improvements for the future. In some cases, as I will explain, we are highly topical and relevant.

It is essential for the accountability of the Executive that we have a body such as the Public Accounts Committee to provide accountability to the legislature, and that is the role that we fulfil. Without wanting to pat myself and my colleagues on the back too much for being one of the more diligent Committees in the House in the work that we—supported by the National Audit Office—undertake, that diligence is shown by the number of reports that we have before us for consideration.

The vast majority of our reports tend to be connected with events that occurred at some point in the past, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) illustrated in relation to the single farm payments case, some of which took place a number of years ago. During the period under review, we also reviewed the Icelandic trawlermen’s compensation arrangements, which meant going back not just years but decades to arrangements that were put in place in the 1970s.

Having said that, some of the reports were still topical while we were dealing with them—for example, the 55th report of the 2006-07 Session, “The Delays in Administering the 2005 Single Payment Scheme in England”, which was published in September 2007. We reviewed the report with the NAO after we had eventually managed to persuade the former chief executive, Mr. McNeill, to come before the Committee. We had a session in June 2007 at which point there were beneficiaries of the payment scheme who had still not been paid the moneys from 2005 to which they were entitled. Although that applied to a relatively small number of people, and in most cases related to farms that had gone into probate, it was still causing considerable anguish among the people who were entitled to the payments.

We encouraged the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to bring forward payments for the subsequent years of 2006 and 2007, and now of course 2008, in order to learn the lessons of the failures of the past and to try to ensure that payments were made in a much more timely fashion. I called on DEFRA’s permanent secretary to give an undertaking that payments for 2008 should be made within that calendar year. DEFRA will have had more than three years to put this fiasco right, and we are talking about a relatively small number of claimants—118,000 at the time of the report; I think that the number goes down slightly each year instead of going up. In terms of the scale of administration of support schemes, this one is relatively small, and most of the challenges of putting it in place should have been ironed out by now. We will await with interest how it gets on in relation to 2007 and the current year.

My second example of a report that had considerable topicality when we were working on it is the fourth report of the 2007-08 Session—“Environment Agency: Building and maintaining river and coastal flood defences in England”. We met to consider the NAO report in the week after the first of the dramatic floods had occurred last June. We therefore had the opportunity to quiz the chief executive of the Environment Agency about what it had been doing in the interval between that hearing and the previous occasion five years earlier when she appeared before the predecessor Committee. It was most revealing to establish that although the agency had then committed to produce a flood management action plan for each of the 67 separate river catchments, by April 2007 only four of those had been completed, one of which happened to cover the area that I represent.

Ludlow is within the catchment of the upper Severn river basin, where we had suffered very significant flood damage, if not as bad as some of the damage in the areas around Hull. More than 300 houses were flooded and a bridge on one of the main arterial routes into the town of Ludlow was swept away. That bridge was not even identified as being at risk under any of the categories in the flood management defence plan, which the Environment Agency proudly claimed that they had completed for our area. That throws into question the value of such plans if they do not even pick up significant infrastructure elements such as a road bridge. Our Committee was able to highlight, almost contemporaneously, some important aspects of Departments’ administration. That shows its significance.

We are not only occasionally topical or contemporaneous but increasingly forward looking. I shall cite two examples of that. We have begun a scrutiny role for the spending on one of the largest public infrastructure projects that the country is undertaking—the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics. I am vice-chairman of the all-party London 2012 group, the chairman of which is a former member of the PAC, the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt), who was mentioned earlier. He held a conference today to update Members of Parliament and other interested parties on progress.

I support the games, but our Committee has the opportunity to scrutinise the spending to an extent that is not otherwise available to the public. We intend to do so on a basis that, we hope, will allow the games to be delivered on time and on the new, revised and much increased budget, as opposed to looking back in several years to ascertain whether they were delivered on time and on budget. That would not be much use to anyone because we I cannot imagine that we will host another Olympic games in my lifetime. The Committee therefore fulfils a valuable role and we are looking forward to seeing progress every year. It was apparent from our first session, which was held last November, that the information provided to the Olympic Board was perhaps not as full as it might have been. When we next consider the matter, it will be intriguing to learn how much more financial information has been made available.

The financial information that the Olympic Delivery Authority reported to its accountable body—the Olympic Board—could be included on less than two sides of a sheet of A4. For a project of more than £9 billion, that seems a little light. I hope that the most recently appointed member to the board, following the local elections, can bring his forensic eye for detail to its deliberations and that Mayor Boris Johnson will insist on much more vigorous financial information and scrutiny of spending, as, indeed, we will.

The second more or less contemporary role that the Committee has undertaken in the past six months is that of shedding some light on the single largest potential security breach, which did so much to undermine confidence in the Administration’s competence—the loss of data held by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. Given that the loss occurred during transmission of data from Revenue and Customs to the NAO, our Committee was quite properly briefed by the Comptroller and Auditor General in a session last December. As a result of that session and our ability to question one side of the transfer, by asking the Comptroller and Auditor General I secured the exchange of e-mails between Revenue and Customs and the NAO, which explained what information was being sought, the manner in which delivery was requested and the individual titles of those in Revenue and Customs who had been copied into the correspondence. Without that, we would have been left with only the Chancellor’s statement, which shed little light at all on the detail of what transpired.

I believe that it was a result of that session—in addition to the work of many hon. Members, particularly those on my Front Bench—that the Government were persuaded to appoint Mr. Kieran Poynter of PricewaterhouseCoopers to undertake a detailed review of what had happened. We have had the first part of that report, but we are eagerly awaiting the second stage to see whether it provides any further illumination on what happened, and whether Government procedures for information, transmission and management of personal information will be improved. Let us hope that the lesson learned from this sorry affair means that better procedures are put in place, which Ministers assure us will be the case.

I do not intend to go through the work that we have done on other reports because they have been adequately covered by other Committee members, but I would like to conclude by saying that the Committee is a pleasure to work on. It has been a great privilege to have the opportunity to work with Sir John Bourn during the final year or so of his tenure, and I would like to join other hon. Members in wishing him well in his retirement.

It is a pleasure to participate in this debate on the reports of the Public Accounts Committee. The Committee plays a vital role, and its impact is felt not just in Parliament but outside the House. If we were to ask members of the public which Select Committees they were aware of, they would probably name two: one would be the Select Committee on Transport, which was chaired by the excellent former Member for Crewe and Nantwich, whom we all miss, and I am sure that the other one they would mention would be the Public Accounts Committee. Having listened to members of that Committee contribute to the debate this afternoon, I have a real sense of why it is so effective, and I shall come on to that later.

The Committee has obvious strengths, including the fact that it is cross-party in nature, leading to a need to find common ground. That forces people to remove the politics from the situation and focus on the underlying issues. It also has a particularly clear ethos, which is about unashamedly shining a spotlight into crevices of Government activity—some deep and dark, others very large—where it feels that things are not working quite as well as they might. The spotlight may be blinding and perhaps not particularly welcome to the Government, but the light cast on the issues that are subjects of the Committee’s inquiries is ultimately extremely productive.

The contributions we have heard today, and the knowledge base of Committee members, demonstrated the impressive breadth of issues that they have to consider. I pay tribute to the Committee members, because it is clear from the numbers of reports talked about that the amount of briefs they have to read every week must be phenomenal. I remember when I was lucky and privileged enough to serve on the Select Committee on Work and Pensions that we had to deal with a lot of briefs, but that was nothing compared to what the members of the Public Accounts Committee have on their desks, which they have to digest fully, understand and make the most of when they are carrying out their work. I also pay tribute to the Committee for developing its reports. Given the diverse group of people serving on it—I got a sense of the individual personalities whom the Chairman has to cope with—it is incredibly impressive that it is able to come up with reports of such quality, decisiveness and forensic detail.

As well as having real breadth, the Committee covers a variety of topics, unlike perhaps any other Select Committee. Its focus on public accounts means that it can cover the whole range of activities across Government, in an almost unrestrained way, which is a helpful ability. I welcome the Committee’s reports not only for that reason, but for a number of others.

First, the value of the reports lies in the meticulous way they are pulled together. Critically, they are undeniably fact-based, as I have mentioned. Whether the reports are on the conclusions reached on efficiency savings processes across Government in dementia policy, which the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) mentioned, or other issues, it is the facts contained in the Committee’s reports that make them so hard for Ministers to ignore.

Obviously I am disappointed to hear that the Committee is still awaiting a response from the Treasury to one report, but Treasury Ministers have probably been slightly busy over the past few months on other matters, including the Budget, re-writing the Budget, re-writing policies on capital gains tax and non-doms, and various other matters. On this occasion, one can understand why Treasury Ministers have not had the time to get back to the Committee so promptly. However, I am sure that, having listened to the Chairman’s comments this afternoon, Ministers will respond promptly with the outstanding comments that they owe the Committee.

If one wanted to pick a success metric for Select Committees, the most effective would probably be the number of recommendations made in their reports that the Government took up. The Public Accounts Committee has a particularly good record on producing reports whose recommendations are so constructive that the Government take them up. The other key point about the Committee’s success is its clear willingness to take a second look at issues that it has already examined closely and produced recommendations on, if it is concerned that action has not been taken and feels that considering the issues again will bear fruit. That tenacity is a further reason why the Committee’s work is so well regarded.

The flip-side to the Committee’s unrelenting desire to get to the bottom of the situations that it investigates and to take a fact-based approach is that it sometimes discovers that the facts are not there. The facts that exist are not the problem that the Government face, so much as the fact that people do not understand or have the information that they need to take good decisions.

The hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) mentioned that issue in the context of the Committee’s inquiry into university drop-out rates and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), who made a brilliant speech, mentioned it in relation to the new deal. He made the particularly valid point that projects such as the new deal can become mired in politics. In that policy area, what was so badly needed was a dispassionate look at the flaws in the implementation of the new deal, such as the lack of data available for the people trying to run it. The Committee’s fact-based—or often lack-of-fact-based—approach is critical.

The second reason why the Committee’s work is of such value is its attempt to look at Government in a more holistic, joined-up way. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who I think would fit into the Committee quite well in terms of personality, made that point incredibly well. For what it is worth, judging by when I have been shopping at Thurrock Lakeside, I would have thought it was a regional centre. I base that on the fact that pretty much every time I have been, I have got stuck in traffic on the M25 trying to get in. Clearly, it is being used by people who are not particularly local.

Returning to my point, the way in which the Public Accounts Committee ranges across Departments means that its reports have a broader aspect than those of other Select Committees, as well as forensic detail. It therefore does a more valuable job by giving an overarching view of particular issues from an holistic perspective, which, critically, reflects how the Government’s performance affects the public.

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) made the point, when he opened the debate, that what the Committee can do incredibly well is reflect the experience of the public in its reports. People experience public services through joined-up government, and, when a Select Committee focuses on a particular Department, it often might not have the chance to reflect on the impact that the Department’s failures or pieces of work have across broader government. Critically, that aspect works very well for the Public Accounts Committee. That is another reason why the Committee is listened to both inside and outside the House when it publishes reports. I am sure that many Select Committee Chairmen would love to be on Radio 5 Live and Radio 4’s “Today” programme as often as the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is.

I could not participate in this debate without mentioning the Committee’s work on value for money and on the challenging efficiency savings programme that is ongoing and will be moved up to the next level. At the heart of the Committee’s consideration is money—taxpayers’ money—and how effectively the hard-earned cash that the public hand over to the Government, in the hope that they will deliver effective public services in return, is spent. That key strand runs across all Government Departments and enables the Committee to take such a wide-ranging approach to its reports. Its work on efficiency savings was critical because it was about a programme that is being carried out across government, not just in one Department. It made some profound and positive recommendations about the efficiency savings programme that could have been implemented across the whole gamut of government activity.

Having been involved with the Select Committee on Work and Pensions, which considered concerns about the efficiency savings programme as it was carried out in Jobcentre Plus, I recognise many of the issues that the Public Accounts Committee raised in its report. One such key issue was mentioned earlier—that efficiency savings were being carried out without a clear understanding of the cost that was incurred to get those savings. Before I came to the House, I was an accountant who worked in industry. I remember asking a civil servant at the Department for Work and Pensions about the cost of the efficiency savings programme in Jobcentre Plus and being flabbergasted when he told me that he did not know how much had been spent on delivering savings. I am therefore pleased that the Committee highlighted that issue in a report, and I hope that Ministers will not only respond positively to that, but act on the Committee’s recommendations.

The Committee’s achievement of getting the Government to accompany claims of savings with the cost of achieving those savings was a real win, not only for the Committee, but for Parliament and for the public. As we address the challenging targets on saving resources that the Government have set across a range of Departments—we know that more are coming; it sounds as though there will be a next wave—it is vital for the public that those savings are made not only efficiently but in a way that does not undermine the quality of the public services that people receive on a day-to-day basis.

I know from my time before becoming an MP that it is possible to make savings in two ways. The first involves making a bit of a cut and taking short-term decisions to make the figures add up in whatever way is possible. The other way is far more challenging, but it is the right way to do it. It involves genuinely looking at how to improve the way in which the team and the organisation are working. The Public Accounts Committee has flagged up the fact that it is vital to put the processes in place to ensure that the second approach is taken, rather than the first.

I pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. He set out the achievements of the Committee very well at the beginning of the debate. Given the venerable and individual personalities involved in the Committee, some of whom we have heard from today, it is no mean feat to be able to lead that group and to get it to produce a report at the end of any given inquiry. I am sure that, as long as the ability of a Chairman of a Select Committee to stay in post is performance related, my hon. Friend will remain in his position for quite some time. Given that the Government’s performance in any number of areas these days is all too often rather shambolic, there is probably enough work for several Public Accounts Committees working simultaneously.

The reports that the Committee produces are often challenging to the Government, and they might at times feel like harsh medicine. They might make uncomfortable reading, but they are always constructive, and the Government ignore them at their peril. We all look forward to the next gamut of reports from the Committee. As a group of people working closely together on a whole range of issues, they no doubt have a massive contribution to make to ensuring that scrutiny of the Government continues in the way that it needs to on behalf of the public. I congratulate the Committee, and we all look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to the contributions from Committee members and Back Benchers today.

It is a great pleasure to respond to what has been a very good debate. We often get quality rather than quantity in our Public Accounts Committee debates, and we have seen that again today. I start by thanking the members of the Committee for their work. The Chairman, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), is rightly proud of its role in driving through efficiency and the accountability of all Government Departments to Parliament. That is a key part of its work, and it was that aspect of the work that I particularly enjoyed as a Back Bencher, and as a member of the Committee twice. I am now on the Committee for a third time, albeit in an ex officio role, which also gives me great pleasure.

The hon. Gentleman managed to get Confucius and Arnold Schwarzenegger into the same sentence.

Indeed. I would not even attempt to compete with that, even with three hours’ notice, and I congratulate the Chairman of the Committee on his achievement.

The PAC highlights problems and points out specifically where things have gone wrong. That is a key part of its work of ensuring that lessons are learned, that best practice can be spread and that bad practice can be driven out from whatever corner of Government it exists in. The hon. Member for Gainsborough was right to say that there were signs of changing cultures and increasingly positive responses to the Committee’s reports. It is important that there should be criticism when problems arise, but it is important to use praise as well, which the Committee does. When it sees elements of good practice, it rightly highlights them. For example, as mentioned earlier in our debate, the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus was done successfully and under budget, while the pensions regulator and NHS financial management could also be mentioned.

Before the Minister moves on from the subject of praising Government Departments and the roll-out of Jobcentre Plus, I want to say that the report on that was exceptionally impressive, highlighting that the roll-out had won nine awards. One thing that greatly struck the Committee was that although the three witnesses in charge who came before us had between them 112 years of experience of administering social security, not one of them had started out as a fast-stream administrative trainee. They had all worked up from the bottom and they plainly knew the consequences of their actions on the people who were still at the bottom.

That is a key point and I hope that the head of the civil service will have noticed it in his regular perusals of the Committee’s reports. When I was a Minister in the then Department of Social Security, I was anxious to ensure that there were feedback loops and mechanisms from the front line to those working on policy. Policy will be more successful when those feedback mechanisms are healthy, so I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments. It is important to learn from good and best practice, as well as from criticisms. When they are justified, as they often are, we should accept them, hold up our hands and learn the lessons.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig) made an impassioned speech. He rightly pointed out the importance of the report on dementia inaugurated by the Public Accounts Committee. In a powerful contribution, he highlighted the importance of making progress on that issue. The Department has said that it will consider whether a compelling case can be made for having a strategy and a national clinical director for dementia. The Department agrees with the Committee on the need for early diagnosis—an issue that will be addressed by the creation of a national dementia strategy—and it also accepts the need to improve public and professional awareness. It has already commissioned a public awareness campaign by the Alzheimer’s Society, which will be launched later this month. The PAC has done the country a singular service by raising this issue. As my right hon. Friend said, dementia does not often come to the forefront of debate, but it is an important issue.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough said that we were not getting a bang for our buck in respect of the extra money that we are putting into the NHS. He mentioned the second report on prescription drugs and pointed out that 752 million prescriptions were dispensed in primary care, which cost the NHS £8 billion. That is true. He rightly pointed out that 98 per cent. of those prescriptions were written by GPs. However, to put the other side of the argument, 83 per cent. were for generic drugs, which are cheaper than branded drugs, and that is the highest percentage in Europe. Although there is clearly scope for more savings, I want to put on record the fact that the percentage of generic drugs dispensed in the NHS as a proportion of the total number is high. We must all chase the possibility of making more savings, but I want to point out that the NHS does not do too badly in that respect.

The Government are making appreciable progress in that area, but the remarks of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) about efficiency and getting value for money are more appropriate to the Public Accounts Committee report on the consultants’ contract, which showed an increase in costs but no gain in efficiency.

The hon. Gentleman is right to raise those important issues. We must continue to work on our definition of productivity in the public sector if we are not to produce perverse results, and we need the tools with which to analyse how well expenditure is being used. We must do more technical work on all those issues, as he suggests.

My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) announced to the Chamber that he was developing increasingly sycophantic tendencies. I can hardly believe that that is true: having known him for as long as I have, I should be amazed if such a thing were happening. I am not sure that he has made the appropriate assessment of the way in which his character is evolving over time.

My hon. Friend said that he had made some interesting discoveries during his membership of the Committee, particularly the discovery that motorbikes escaped automatic number plate recognition technology and could thus evade vehicle excise duty and even, perhaps, speeding fines with impunity unless caught by a handy police officer. I am afraid I have bad news for him if he is thinking of mitigating the costs incurred by his household in the form of speeding fines: automatic number plate recognition cameras can now identify motorbikes, so I fear that his method of evading motoring law and potential extra costs has just slipped through his fingers.

My hon. Friend will have to think of something more useful to buy his wife for Christmas.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) asked a series of, as always, relevant questions. He spoke of ending the ban on what can be debated under the motion so that our debates could become more contemporary. The Government do not have a particular view on that; it is a matter for the House. If the House decides that it wants to change the way in which we debate PAC reports, I shall do my best—or whoever succeeds me in my post will do their best—to respond in a timely fashion.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the following up of Treasury guidance. Such guidance takes a number of forms. A recent example is the “Dear auditor” letter which was sent to all Departments after I had been in correspondence with the hon. Member for Gainsborough about the follow-up to a PAC report in a certain non-departmental public body. It instructed Departments to follow up and publish in their annual reports what they are doing about the recommendations agreed in PAC reports. The NAO often alerts the Treasury to emerging problems in particular areas, and there is a great deal of constructive discussion and debate between them. We do not like anything to slip through our fingers, and we are trying to establish programmes that will ensure that no recommendations issued either to Departments or to other bodies slip through the net in future. Every Department has a team in the Treasury that has its ear to the ground and tries to keep an eye on things. It is obviously regrettable if something slips through the net, but we try to minimise that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) made an extremely good contribution on landfill, and on the prospect of a new Thames barrier to mitigate flooding risks. He also spoke about the Thames Gateway in principle, as well as about his local shopping centre. He clearly has views on the way in which the gateway has been set up, but I cannot stray into them because they are not in my ministerial area. I will say, however, that major progress has been made in the development of the Thames Gateway. More than 42,000 new homes were built in the Gateway between 2001 and 2007. The number of jobs created in the Gateway has grown by 10 per cent. between 2001 and 2006, compared with an average 4 per cent. increase in England as a whole. The Government have never believed that a top-down centralised structure is right for the Gateway, which is an area 40 miles in length with a population of 1.5 million and dozens of different towns and communities. However, my hon. Friend has robust views on the matter and I am sure he will continue to express them to the appropriate Ministers. I undertake to write to the appropriate Minister about his retail park, which is clearly bugging him greatly; I would like to find out whether I can do anything to assist him in that.

The hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) has during his parliamentary career been involved in some of the same Select Committees on which I have, as a Back-Bench Member, had the privilege to serve: the Treasury Committee and the Public Accounts Committee. He is clearly enjoying himself, and he made an extremely good speech on some of the reports he has been particularly involved in. I hope he continues to enjoy his membership of the Committee as much as I did.

The hon. Gentleman made a point about hindsight and looking at things retrospectively—after the horse has bolted, so to speak. That is because the Committee looks at value-for-money issues. If the PAC wishes to change its remit, that is a matter for the House. The Committee would have to develop its views on that, and the House would then have to decide whether to agree to the change. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that accounting officers are questioned—my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby made this point, too—as the Committee has never concerned itself with policy, but deals with value for money and efficiency. That is an extremely important part of its focus.

The hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening) was right to highlight the strengths of the Committee’s cross-party structure and the holistic approach it takes, and the importance of the focus on value for money and efficiency savings, which are at the heart of its work.

The Chairman, the hon. Member for Gainsborough, drew our attention to the tax credits system. Tax credits provide support for 6 million families and take-up is now at unprecedented levels. The system has helped lift 600,000 people out of poverty since 1998-99. Figures published in March 2008 show that in 2005-06 take-up of the child tax credit was 82 per cent. with more than 90 per cent. of allocated money being claimed. Importantly, for those on incomes of less than £10,000, take-up is now at 96 per cent. For lone parents, it is now up to 95 per cent. Furthermore, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has established the tax credits transformation programme to improve the services that families receive. That includes a new service that allows couples whose relationship has broken down to initiate a new single claim by making a single telephone call.

We have also improved performance, so that far fewer overpayments are caused by processing or software error. Accuracy in processing and calculating awards has risen from 78.6 per cent. in 2003-04 to about 97 per cent. in 2006-07. HMRC has revised its code of practice on recovering overpayments, replacing the reasonable belief test with a clearer test that will set out customers’ responsibilities for checking factual information. In effect, there is a contract of responsibility. For instance, the recipient is expected to check that the amount going into their bank account matches the amount in the award notice. As before, they will not be expected to check the calculation; that will be a relief to all Members in terms of our constituency surgery work. If there is an official error and customers meet their responsibilities, the overpayment should be written off. The change will mean a fairer balance of responsibilities between the customer and HMRC. The Government regret the amount of error and fraud. The clear intention is for them to be reduced. HMRC will set targets to reflect that intention during this year.

Officials are working hard to publish at the earliest opportunity the Treasury minutes on tax credits that Members are awaiting. Although the delay is regrettable, I should add in mitigation that the record for meeting deadlines for such minutes is extremely good.

Various hon. Members have mentioned the Government’s efficiency programme. The Committee has, on several occasions, rightly focused on this ambitious programme and I welcome its support for what we are trying to achieve. I am, of course, aware of the Committee’s concerns about the robustness of the efficiency gains identified by the Government. Hon. Members are of course right that the savings claimed need to be genuine and credible. However, we should not overlook the National Audit Office’s view that

“projects across the public sector are making significant improvements to the efficiency of public services”.

I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will welcome that view. Nor should we ignore the fact that the programme is the largest concerted and continuous efficiency drive embarked upon by any Government in modern times.

By December last year, we had achieved some £23 billion of efficiency gains. Our target for the current comprehensive spending review period up to 2010-11 is to achieve another £30 billion of savings. We have already seen some 78,000 net reductions in staff numbers as well as 12,600 posts reallocated to the front line. We are incredibly proud of the dedication and professionalism shown by civil servants across the country who have accepted the message that the Government need to work smarter and faster to deliver public services.

We are determined to seize opportunities to provide taxpayers with genuine value for money wherever possible. We are also on target to reach our target of relocating some 20,000 jobs from London and the south-east by 2010 and, by the end of last year, had already moved 15,700 posts to the rest of the United Kingdom. That good progress has strengthened local economies and enabled the civil service to tap into a broader pool of talented recruits from across our country. All nations and regions in the UK have benefited from these moves, with 3,275 posts moving to the north-west, 3,259 posts moving to Wales and 3,268 posts moving to Yorkshire and the Humber.

Thirdly, I shall turn to financial accountability. Full and open financial transparency is an essential and defining characteristic of a modern parliamentary democracy. The PAC, supported by the NAO, continues to be at the heart of the scrutiny process in our democracy and its unstinting and challenging examination of the use of scarce public resources contributes to our story of accountability in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk gave a dizzying list of PAC equivalents that he had managed to visit the world over on his travels, but pointed out that the UK version is still a world leader. However, Parliament and Government cannot afford to be complacent about financial scrutiny. This point was clearly recognised in the Liaison Committee’s report, “Parliament and Government Finance—Financial Scrutiny”, which was published just over three weeks ago, on 21 April, and which the Government welcome.

We are particularly grateful for the Liaison Committee’s support for what has become known as our alignment project, which the Prime Minister announced last July. The project aims to bring all the Government’s publication of information about public spending into a common format. This comprises public spending plans, parliamentary estimates and published resource accounts. Implementation of the alignment project will make a significant contribution to greater transparency and accountability and will allow Parliament and the public to track more readily Government spending from planning and budgeting stages right through to actual out-turn. As a result, Parliament will enjoy greater financial control over departmental budgets and, at the same time, have clearer and better financial information on the efficacy of planned public spending.

The PAC must share some of the credit for these reforms, as is evidenced in its welcome paper, “Improving Financial Scrutiny”, published as far back as July 2006. Hon. Members will recall that my predecessor as Financial Secretary promised to work with Parliament in bringing about change in the public interest. The alignment project clearly demonstrates our commitment to this worthy ambition and the Government continue to look forward to working with Parliament to achieve our common goals.

Turning from projects, I should like to reflect on the developments under way to modernise the NAO’s governance structures—another matter referred to by the hon. Member for Gainsborough. Members have already welcomed the Public Accounts Commission’s 15th report on the governance of the NAO. I should like to restate the Government’s support for those reforms. We support the Public Accounts Commission’s objective in establishing systems of governance and internal control at the NAO that are consistent with best practice but that do not fetter its ability to form completely independent judgments.

The current governance arrangements for the NAO and the Comptroller and Auditor General give priority to independence at the expense of good governance. The Government believe that the Public Accounts Commission’s report strikes the right balance between the Comptroller and Auditor General’s independence and the governance expected of an organisation that operates in the 21st century, rather than perhaps the 18th or 19th centuries. The new governance arrangements will give the Comptroller and Auditor General and the NAO the authority that they need for the important work that they do and spur them to improved performance. As hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister agreed that such provisions would be included in the Constitutional Renewal Bill, which has now started its pre-legislative scrutiny under a Joint Committee. It is important that Parliament and the Government work in harmony towards our shared objectives.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for bringing about the agreed new governance arrangements at the NAO—a point that he made very powerfully in his speech today. However, the important thing is to settle on a robust governance structure and to ensure that it commands the public support that it must have for credibility.

I should like to thank Tim Burr not only for agreeing to serve as the Comptroller and Auditor General until the reforms are completed and in place, but also for presiding over a seamless transition from the previous regime. That reflects his outstanding ability as a public servant. He is clearly demonstrating his ability to preside over the NAO in these times and to prepare it for the new governance arrangements.

It has been a pleasure to listen to the debate today, and I congratulate all hon. Members on their contributions. Before I sit down, I should like to add my voice to those who have wished the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, under whom I served two terms as a Back-Bench member of the Public Accounts Committee, a long and happy retirement.

If I may crave your indulgence, Mr. Deputy Speaker, just for three or four minutes, I shall thank all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debate, particularly the right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Touhig), who sat through the entire debate and backed up what I and others have said about dementia. He made a very moving speech, and if people think that our work is rather dry and does not concern real people and that it is just about accounts, I hope that they will read and listen to his speech. I seriously think that that report is one of the most important things that we have done this year, and it will make a real difference to millions of people’s lives.

On a slightly lighter note, we much enjoyed the speech made by the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh), who referred to us as some kind of pop group. Seriously, I think that there is a need for the public sector to take a few hints from what is going on in the private sector. We perhaps need to engage the media more in what we do. Perhaps there should be a public sector version of “The Apprentice”, in which the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) or perhaps the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) could play the part of Sir Alan Sugar and say to some of those civil servants, “You’re fired.”

Indeed. Of course, that leads me straight on to the hon. Member for Great Grimsby, who brought us down to reality in a typically robust, wide-ranging speech. He reminded us again not only that much of our work is about helping the lives of ordinary people, but that many of the problems that we face in this country relate to our excellent civil service gold-plating European directives. We saw that particularly with the Rural Payments Agency.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) gave a virtuoso performance. The temptation in our debates is always to read out our speeches, because we want to get everything in and be serious, but he did not read his speech at all; he just produced about 20 reports and used them brilliantly as a prop. After what he has said today, we have to try to modernise our procedures in this debate and ensure that they are up to date. The concept of having to stick rigidly to matters on which there has been a Treasury minute is outmoded. It was outrageous that yesterday, when Postcomm was before the Committee, its representatives did not once say that Postcomm was to come out with a major announcement two hours after appearing before us, the senior Committee of Parliament. It is unbelievable. It is perhaps even more wrong that we cannot have a proper debate about that today.

Of course I thank the hon. Member for Thurrock, not least because he is not a member of the Committee. It is important that these debates do not become a Committee love-in, in which we all pat ourselves on the shoulder. We want to bring in people who are not Committee members. His constituency was the common thread in his comments on all the reports that he mentioned, including the reports on the Thames Gateway, flood alleviation and landfill; I thought that that was an excellent way to go about making his speech.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) for hot-footing it back from Crewe and Nantwich—I know that he has spent a lot of time there recently—to grace the Conservative Benches in his typically diligent way. My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening), the Opposition spokesman, is a newcomer to our debates. She put her finger on it: the point of our reports is that they are based on evidence and fact, as the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), who is the Father of the House and the longest-serving member of the Committee, always says. Our reports are only as good as the facts on which they are based, and that is why it was such an appalling let-down when the Department for Transport gave us incorrect figures on motorcycle evasion. We never want to see that happen again. It destroys the credibility of the Committee, and of Parliament, when we are given wrong information.

Lastly, may I thank the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury for a typically witty, charming tribute to our work? Quite rightly, she set us right a bit when we perhaps strayed into criticism of the Government on tax credits or prescriptions. As always, the debate was not a party political affair. It genuinely sought to shed light on the workings of Government, and not to generate only heat. I thank the House for its attendance.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House takes note of the 41st and the 42nd and the 46th to the 65th Reports of the Committee of Public Accounts of Session 2006-07, and of the Treasury Minutes on these Reports (Cm 7275, 7276 and 7322); and of the 1st to the 4th, the 6th and the 9th to the 13th Reports of the Committee of Session 2007-08, and of the Treasury Minutes on these Reports (Cm 7323 and 7364).