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Departmental Business Plans

Volume 518: debated on Monday 8 November 2010

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on today’s publication of departmental business plans. When we formed the coalition in May, we committed to a programme of fundamental structural reform that would change the nature of government. Of course, I recognise that it was the aim of the Labour Government to improve public services, to get value for money and to deliver their stated aims. The problem lay in the fact that, to achieve those laudable aims, they set up a system of bureaucratic accountability in which almost everything was judged against a set of centrally mandated, politically determined performance targets. They then used a succession of short-lived bureaucratic interventions to try to make people fulfil the targets.

Alas, the evidence of the past 13 years shows that targets and short-term bureaucratic interventions simply do not work. Despite all the new learning strategies in schools, the gap in educational achievement between the richest and the poorest widened; despite all the NHS targets, cancer survival rates in Britain were among the lowest in Europe; despite all the police form-filling and bureaucracy, there were more than 100,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour every day; and, as the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) has famously remarked, the money ran out.

So, we have argued for a power shift that will take power away from Whitehall and put it into the hands of people and communities, rebalancing the relationship between the citizen and the state. We recognise that Britain can make progress only if the Government establish frameworks that help people to come together to make life better. We have also argued for an horizon shift—[Hon. Members: “Hooray!”] Opposition Members will hear a lot of that term over the next four years, so they should get used to it. We have argued for an horizon shift, moving away from short-term bureaucratic interventions towards governing for the long term, establishing the right frameworks of incentives in the public services, sorting out the public finances and investing where it counts to create sustainable economic growth.

The publication of our departmental business plans is a significant part of achieving both that power shift and that horizon shift. In June, the Prime Minister launched a series of draft structural reform plans, in which Whitehall Departments publicly set out their reform priorities and the actions that they will take to achieve them, with a specified timetable. In July, August, September and October, we issued monthly reports on the draft plans, setting out the actions that had been completed or started, and giving explanations of any missed deadlines. Today, taking into account the results of the spending review, we are publishing the final departmental plans, setting out the vision, priorities and structural reforms of each Department.

These plans are a key part of our transparency agenda. They do not set out hopes for what we might achieve by micro-managing all the public services. They set out what we need to do, to manage the Government properly. That is, after all, our business, and we expect to be judged on whether we do it properly. The publication of the plans will bring about a fundamental change in how Departments are held to account for implementing policy commitments, replacing the old top-down systems of targets and central micro-management with democratic accountability. Every month, Departments will publish a simple report on their progress towards meeting their commitments—[Interruption.]

Order. In a way, it is a good thing that the House is in a jocular mood. I realise that the right hon. Gentleman is no longer a philosophy tutor, but I feel sure that he is accustomed to a slightly more cerebral response and deferential hearing than he is getting.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker, for that help, but I have to say that I had not anticipated anything better than I received, because Labour Members presided over a Government who acted like a magazine and we intend to preside over a Government who act like a Government. That is a profound difference and I recognise that it is very uncomfortable for Opposition Members.

Before I go on, I should correct myself as I believe I slipped into referring to 100,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour when I meant 10,000. I apologise to the House. That is an example of transparency and straightforwardness, which I hope will be replicated as we move forward.

In addition, the second part of each business plan explains how Government will give people unprecedented access to the data they need—in a simple, easily accessible form—to scrutinise how we are using taxpayers’ money and what progress we are making in improving society through our reforms. These transparency sections of the plans are being published in draft to allow Parliament and the wider public to say whether each Department is publishing the most useful and robust information to help people hold each Department to account.

Select Committees will, of course, play a vital role in the task of holding the Government to account. My Cabinet colleagues are therefore contacting Select Committee Chairmen to inform them of the new processes and to invite them to discuss the business plans in more detail in their Committees.

Once the reforms described in these business plans are fully implemented and the transparency reports are fully in place, we will have a real people power revolution— where people themselves are equipped with the power and information necessary to improve our country and our public services, through the mechanisms of democratic accountability, competition, choice and social action. I commend this statement to the House.

I start by welcoming the new Minister for milestones to the House. I could tell that he was the right Minister for this job when I received his statement three hours before he stood up. I thank him for that and urge the same habit on his hon. and right hon. Friends.

I also welcome the thrust of the Minister’s statement. When Labour came to power in 1997, we discovered that the Conservatives had run public services into the ground. Now, thanks to Labour’s investment—and, yes, Labour’s management—crime is now down 43%, hospitals have the shortest waiting lists on record and our schools and teachers are delivering record results for our children aged 11, 16 and 18, with 70,000 a year achieving good results.

The question was always going to be: what was the way forward after Labour’s job of repair? I am glad that the Government have seized on some of the principles set out in our White Paper, “Smarter Government”, published last year. It was described at the time as

“a radical dispersal of power to patients, parents and citizens”.

Today, however, the Minister tells us that his first step is to make departmental plans transparent. May I tell him that the only revolution he has delivered this afternoon is to make bad plans transparently bad plans? There will be no power shift if he is going to destroy the power of NHS patients to be treated within 18 weeks; the power of parents to get one-to-one tuition for their children if they are falling behind at school; the power of citizens to summon police officers to talk about issues of local concern.

I have only one question: if the Minister is serious about improving government—and I believe he is—will he review the ending of basic rights to high-quality public services across this Government? When it comes to public services, the public want guarantees, but all he has offered them this afternoon is an online gamble.

First, I should welcome the welcome. As I think the right hon. Gentleman knows, I am one of the longest-term proponents of consensus not only between members of the coalition but across the whole House. If the right hon. Gentleman is in effect saying that the Opposition will now back the general principle of having a clear timetable for actions, input measures, outputs—

Mr Speaker, perhaps you will forgive me if, to avoid further confusion in the hon. Gentleman’s mind, I explain the difference between a target and a milestone. A target is an effort by a Government, of which there were many under the previous Government, to determine what the whole of the public service would achieve through micro-management. Such targets were often not met. What we are talking about are actions that lie under the direct control of Government and which it is absolutely right that we should manage ourselves.

To return to the point I was trying to make, if the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) is welcoming the idea that we should set these things out clearly and he is going to sponsor that as an approach to government, that would be in the interests of the nation, because we could continue that process over many years and that would be a huge advance.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we can achieve a power shift if we do not do certain things, and he mentioned citizens talking about policing with police officers.

Yes, summoning police officers to talk about that. We propose something very different, which goes beyond that. Yes, we will have beat meetings, but we will also allow people to vote for police commissioners so that they actually have accountability. That is what we mean by choice and power, as opposed to the mere window dressing of the ability to talk.

May I make a suggestion? My right hon. Friend says in his statement that every month Departments will publish a simple report on the progress they have made towards meeting their commitments. On the day each month when ministerial colleagues from different Departments come to the House to answer oral questions, might they not also make a written statement that all of us can see? I confess that I find it difficult to keep my own website up to date, so watching the websites of 22 Government Departments will be quite challenging. However, we are all focused once a month on each Department’s oral questions, and a written statement coinciding with that would be very helpful.

As so often, my hon. Friend makes an extremely valuable suggestion, which I shall discuss with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and others. I see no reason whatever that we should not be able to do that to assist the House, at the same time as we assist the general public by publishing the information on the website.

Will the Minister explain what the process will be when the public disagree with a ministerial decision that changes the business plan? That question comes to mind because of the decision to cut school sports partnerships, which will affect sports provision in schools throughout the country. The public have not had the opportunity to have any say on that.

That is a very sensible question, and I am happy to explain that to the hon. Gentleman. The point of laying out these plans is so that people can see what we intend to do. Manifestly, as we move through time, external circumstances may change and decisions may be taken to change this or that—I hope not very much, but that could occur. Where it does, we are forcing ourselves to explain that, because it will become apparent—in the House in written statements, as my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) suggested, and also on the website—that something we said we would do by a certain date we are not doing because we are doing something instead. We will have to explain that, and Select Committees and others will be able to interrogate us on it. That is what I mean by transparency.

Is not the danger that this “Yes Minister” Sir Humphrey language of horizon shift will disguise the real need for change? We should not just publish more reports that will go straight into the waste paper bin. We should, for instance, give professionals in our schools real power to manage the schools in the way they want, in hiring and firing staff, setting the curriculum and selecting pupils if they want. That would produce real change, not just more words from Whitehall.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend that it is only by making the kinds of changes that he describes that we can really improve public services. That is why I have the good news for him that under the programme laid out in the Department for Education business plan my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education will do exactly what my hon. Friend requests. That is why we have a programme of academies and free schools which gives those kinds of powers locally to the professionals on the ground. By doing that we enable parents and pupils, by choosing the schools of their own desire, to create real competitive pressure for excellence in the system. Combining that with the efforts to create a proper pupil premium means that the least advantaged will be most advantaged in our system, and the combination of those effects will be to give excellence and improvement for all.

The Minister says that Departments will publish a simple report on their progress towards meeting their commitments. What will happen if those commitments are often not met?

What will happen is a series of things that are inconvenient for the responsible Ministers, rising to something that is rather more than inconvenient. In the first place, a report will be made, which will be available to everybody—no Minister likes to see such a thing appear in public. Secondly, the Minister involved will find himself having a discussion with my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary and me to explain what has occurred—[Interruption.] I do not know whether Labour Members want to know about this, but I am trying to explain it. The second thing that will happen is that the Minister will meet the Chief Secretary and me, and the permanent secretary will have a conversation with the head of the civil service. Finally, if the problem is still not resolved, the Secretary of State in question will have a meeting with the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. This is a serious set of incentives; if one thinks about what it was like under the previous Government, or any previous Government, one realises that Ministers do not wish to go through that process and will therefore try to meet their objectives.

As a member of the Public Administration Committee I welcome the plans to shift some of this on to Select Committees. Will my right hon. Friend set out how the reports could be judged by those Committees and how their powers could be increased, so as to increase further the power of the legislature over the Executive?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the Select Committees play a vital role in that respect. This approach puts vastly more power in the hands of the Select Committees, because the biggest obstacle to their power is, of course, lack of information—and this approach opens the whole thing up. This is not just a question of the structural reform plans and the dates, on which of course Committees can interrogate, as they can interrogate explanations when things go wrong; it is also about the details of the input costs—what we are putting in—the things that have been achieved on the ground and the outcomes, by which I mean how good it is for the final customer. That gives a Select Committee the ability to haul the relevant Secretary of State up before it and say, “Look, you said you were going to do this.” The Committee could then say: “You did not do it”; “You did it, but at a greater cost than you said”; “You did it at the cost but it did not turn out to produce things”; or “It did produce things but the outcomes were not good enough.” That is a very powerful interrogative tool. Hon. Members may ask why we would subject ourselves to this. The answer is because we think that it is how we will produce a better Government.

A very strong partnership between central and local government, with targets and with dedicated funding, has brought about a vast reduction in the number of people killed on our roads. Does this statement mean that such a successful partnership, with its targets, will be abandoned?

No. As I think the hon. Lady knows, because she has great expertise in this area, one of the decisions that we made centrally during the spending review was to focus a very large part of total capital investment on the roads. That was done to reduce congestion, improve safety and achieve the kind of goals that she was describing. These plans are consistent with the spending review and with that focus on the need to improve our transport systems.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only way of achieving a movement of power from the top to the sharp end and a movement of the money from the Government monopoly out to the voluntary sector, which can very often deliver better value, is by very strong and transparent political direction?

Yes, my hon. Friend is of course absolutely right. Part of the purpose of these plans is to ensure that we hold ourselves to fulfilling that vision. We recognise that there will be all sorts of pressures on the Government to recentralise, to re-control and to lunge for immediate interventions that will ostensibly achieve a particular result, and we know that we need to be kept to the straight and narrow of the vision of the transfer of power in this country from the centre out to the people.

Does the Minister not agree that today’s trumpeting of the transparency agenda will ring hollow in Wales considering the actions of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on S4C? The decision to fund the channel in future via the BBC was made without informing the S4C authority, the Welsh Government or even the Secretary of State for Wales on the eve of the comprehensive spending review.

No, I do not accept that at all. This set of departmental plans will enable people to see on the face of it what we are going to do and when we are going to do it. Of course, there will be times when there are decisions involved in those plans that particular hon. Members do not like and there will be debate. We welcome that, we accept that and we are providing the means for people to have such debates.

May I welcome the opportunity for Select Committees to scrutinise the business plans? This year in particular there is a lacuna with the annual departmental reports not being published. What will be the relationship of the business plan to such annual departmental reports in future?

These business plans are a vastly superior document to the annual reports. Of course, there will continue to be the publication of the accounts of each Department, but I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me the indelicacy if I say that on some occasions the previous Government’s annual reports from particular Departments contained a load of guff. One could not tell what the thing was about. I remember in opposition desperately struggling to find out what particular Departments were doing, and all I could get was a load of jargon. In these reports, one will be able to see the information—we are going to this, we will do it by this time, and this is the effect that we expect it will have. That is a jolly useful thing.

I am afraid that the Minister will have to go back to his drawing board for me. It would appear that he is so close to the ground that his horizon is very short indeed, and he might want to raise the stakes. On the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), in local government there is the power to vote people out on close-to-the-ground programmes. What has he put in this plan to give local government real power to deliver, apart from a promised freeze in their council tax?

I have such good news for the hon. Gentleman that it might lead to his crossing the Floor. Everything that he could desire is about to come in the localism Bill. We are going to give local government eye-watering increases in power that are stipulated in these proposals and that will be seen when the localism Bill is introduced. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consistently argue and vote with us as we transfer powers of competence and powers of retention of business rates, as we transfer powers over planning to local neighbourhoods, as we transfer powers to keep council tax and as we transfer a series of additional powers to new mayors. The hon. Gentleman will have a dream day when he comes to grips with the localism Bill.

In view of the fact that removing old regulations is necessary to boost economic growth, will the Minister confirm that, if a Department introduces a new regulation, it will be required to publish clearly which old regulation has been repealed?

My hon. Friend can also have an early Christmas. We have instituted from 1 October the one in, one out rule. I should explain that it is more powerful than the rule that a regulation should be eliminated when a new one is introduced—it is that a regulation of equivalent cost to business should be eliminated, or indeed a collection of them with an equivalent cost to business. I want to take this opportunity to tell my hon. Friend and the House that since we introduced the one in, one out rule, the large flow of domestic regulation that was crossing my desk and others before that has somewhat diminished. Since 1 October, there has been one proposal.

May I add my name to the list of Members who are mesmerised by the use of the language of horizon shifts? On the question of monthly reports, the Government have announced that about 500,000 public servants will lose their jobs under their plans. How many of those jobs will be saved in order to support the initiative that the Minister has announced today?

The first thing that I should say is that the Government have not made any such announcement; the Government accept the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast about the net effect on public sector employment. That does not mean anything like that number of current employees losing their jobs—nothing of the kind. Secondly, of course, had this initiative been introduced now by a Labour Government —to judge by what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) said it might have been, and that is a delightful prospect—it would have been accompanied by various things. Large numbers of consultants would have been hired to set up complicated websites and there would have been large reviews, huge expenditure and so on—and probably great expenditure on advertising. The total that we have spent on this exercise to date is zero. We have not employed a single consultant, we are constructing the websites ourselves and we are not advertising, because we are a Government and not a magazine.

Let me invoke the spirit of “Dragons’ Den” and ask my right hon. Friend which Department has done the best business plan?

I value far too highly my relationships with my colleagues to give any answer to my hon. Friend. All the business plans are excellent.

I welcome greater transparency in government. However, is the Minister aware that no business plan for the Law Officers’ Department is available on the transparency website, and that members of the public cannot see details of ministerial and special adviser meetings, hospitality, gifts and foreign travel for the law officers? As shadow Solicitor-General, I should like to hear why the Solicitor-General and Attorney-General appear to be exempt from such requirements?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her general welcome. I shall ask my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to look into the declaration, which should apply universally. The reason there is no structural reform plan for the Law Officers’ Department is that we do not intend to bring about any structural reforms in the Department, because it is not possible to give its powers to someone else. It is one of the irreducible minima of Government activity, and it will continue with business as usual. These are plans not for business as usual but for fundamental structural reforms. Therefore, the hon. Lady will see no reference to the Law Officers’ Department.

Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that the greatest challenge to the coalition reforms is motivating people to behave in the right way? One of the ways in which we get people to compare and contrast how the coalition is delivering is by having this sort of transparency.

I totally agree with my hon. Friend. It is all about people and the choices that they make. The fundamental failing of the method of doing business that prevailed for many years was not that it was ill-intentioned, because it was well intentioned, nor that it lacked energy, because it had a good deal of energy, but that it did not look into the reaction one can get from individuals when one does certain things in relation to them. This whole programme is founded on the presumption that when we trust people and give them power and make them accountable, they do the right thing, and that is what we are trying to do here.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his statement, but will he have it translated into plain English and place a copy in the Library of the House? A milestone tells someone how far they have to go to reach a target destination, even if it is on a moveable horizon.

The hon. Gentleman’s plain English is wonderful to behold. I do not think that anyone has ever accused me of being any good at speaking English [Laughter.] I do not intend to try to cure my ways now. I am trying to assist this Government to carry out the most important programme of structural reform that has happened in this country for many years so that they can improve our public services and make life better for our citizens, which matters an awful lot. The point about horizon shift is that it is serious. The previous Government caught themselves repeatedly on the hook of trying to achieve a result on Wednesday that they could show the public by Thursday. Often, the upshot was to achieve nothing whatsoever. We are saying that we will try to achieve things in the long term without trying to achieve publicity goals on the way, which is an important change.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we want to increase numeracy and literacy standards in our schools and reduce the gap in educational attainment between the rich and poor, we need to reduce bureaucracy, micro-management and targets and increase real local accountability?

My hon. Friend is completely right, and that is the plan that is set out here. It applies not just to schools, but to hospitals and many of our other public services. The only way in which we can improve such services is to give the professionals the ability to get on with the job without micro-managing them through bureaucracies, and to hold them to account for the actions that they take and the successes that they achieve.

Will the Minister explain how he squares taking power away from Whitehall and putting it in the hands of peoples and communities with the Government’s plan to increase the number of Ministers by 10% relative to the size of the legislature, which is the representative of peoples and communities? Is this not the old Tory centralist state at work?

The hon. Gentleman is clearly an apprentice of the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), because that was the most marvellous manipulation of statistics. We propose to reduce the number of Members of Parliament, but the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) describes that as an increase in the proportion of Ministers to the number of Members of Parliament. That is a very strange way of describing the situation. We are keeping the number of Ministers constant in order to ensure that we can impose political will on the machine to get the fundamental reforms that give power out to the people of this country. That goal is far more important than particular numbers of Ministers.

Following on from that question, the Minister has said several times this afternoon that he wants to increase power locally, yet the Government have just published a report on waste that implies that if they want to do something serious, they will need to recentralise powers, such as by forcing primary care trusts to act together and forcing local authorities to act together. Is there not a contradiction in those two things?

In brief, no: we are not attempting to do what the hon. Gentleman describes. We believe that by placing the power of commissioning in the hands of general practitioners, by giving GPs and patients genuine choice over where patients go, and by making hospitals accountable on those choices by transforming them into foundation trusts, we can achieve the efficiencies that are needed in our health service through the medium of competition, which leads to the excellence that can be generated when professionals are able to run their own show. We are moving in exactly the opposite direction from that which the hon. Gentleman describes.

As the only time in nature when horizons actually shift is when a tsunami is on the way, can the House and the country expect to be inundated—the Minister gave an example today—with more bureaucracy, more gobbledegook and more management-speak?

I respect the hon. Gentleman for his long work in areas such as drugs, but if he reads the plans he will find that they include serious efforts to change things for the better, such as through a payment by results-based drugs rehabilitation programme, for which, I think, he has long argued. That is not gobbledegook, bureaucracy or micro-management. It says to providers, “You know how to provide and we will pay you if you get people off drugs and back into the mainstream,” and nothing could be more important to the people of our country than that.

I think I understand what the Minister has announced: a series of tough, demanding and transparent moving-horizon, non-target, milestone reports. If he has, I fully support him, but to build on the point made by the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), may I point out that publishing those reports on 22 websites will make things almost incomprehensible to citizens who wish to hold the Government to account? It would be better to place them in a single spot—perhaps directgov, the Cabinet Office website or Will the Minister also consider placing ministerial diaries and details on special advisers’ hospitality in a single place on the same site?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his brilliant translation. Incidentally, I have no doubt that he understood everything that I said because he understands everything that anyone says—he is very clever. Unfortunately, he is not very well informed because, as a matter of fact, we will enable people to go to a single place to get hold of all this stuff. Moreover, it will be put in a format that will enable people to mash it up and easily produce their own charts, and their own comparisons and analyses of everything that we issue. I anticipate that we will make more things transparent, including contracts for Government Departments right across the board, as well as all expenditure down to £25,000—and in local authorities down to £500 per item.