HC Deb 15 November 1991 vol 198 cc1335-403

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Lightbown.]

9.36 am
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Francis Maude)

I am glad to have the opportunity to debate in the House today the White Paper which we published in July this year entitled "The Citizen's Charter". The citizens charter is simply the most comprehensive programme ever launched by any Government anywhere to improve public services. It will cover all the public services, including Government Departments and agencies, local authorities, hospitals, schools, courts, railways, buses the Post Office and the utilities, such as gas, electricity, water and telecommunications. No part of the public service will remain untouched and the citizens charter will improve the life of every citizen in the land.

For too long, it has seemed to us, involving the citizen in how public services should be provided has been seen as an optional extra. It is important that we should question that. All public services are paid for by individual citizens, either directly or through their taxes. In return, citizens are entitled to expect high-quality services which are responsive to their needs and provided efficiently at reasonable cost. Certain essential services such as health and education should be available from the public sector irrespective of the citizen's means.

The citizens charter is all about achieving what I have described. It starts by recognising that the best way to improve standards of services is to increase competition. In a free market, where the consumer has choice, competing firms must strive to satisfy their customers or they will not prosper. Where there is limited choice or competition, as in many public services, individual citizens cannot as easily make their voices heard or their views count. Often, they simply cannot make the ultimate consumer's choice, which is to vote with their cash and their feet and go to someone else for the service.

Wherever possible, we need to increase choice and competition. Where that is not possible, we need to develop other ways of ensuring good standards of service—for example, through regulatory bodies which have real powers and responsibilities. As promised in the citizens charter, we shall shortly publish a White Paper which encourages and makes possible a much more open attitude to the buying of services in the public sector.

The citizens charter sets out principles that will govern the way in which every public sector organisation treats those who use their services. It builds on what is best in the public service. The first principle is standards. Each organisation will have to publish explicit standards on what it will offer to its customers. Standards should not be hidden away for internal use only, but should be clearly displayed at the point of service delivery. They should include a commitment to prompt and effective action. That will be expressed perhaps in terms of target response, waiting time and accuracy in carrying out the service, and always in terms of courtesy and helpfulness from staff. The standards should improve as the service becomes more efficient. Every year, we expect public service standards to be ratcheted up.

Another important principle of the charter is openness. There should be no secrecy about how the service is delivered, how much it costs, who delivers it and whether it is meeting the standards set for it. The days of faceless, nameless bureaucracy are gone. That is welcomed by those who work in the public service as much as by those who use it. Unless there is a real threat to personal safety, all those who deal directly with the public should wear a name badge and give their name on the telephone and in letters. Even now, visitors crossing the hallowed threshold of the Treasury are met by an individual wearing a name badge.

Information is another vital principle to enable the citizen to influence the provision of services. Again, the citizens charter builds on past achievements. For example, the days of dull, impenetrable forms that seemed designed to obscure rather than to convey information are passing. Much excellent work has been done, and the work of Government Departments and agencies has resulted in 29 awards from the Plain English campaign. This is not just about forms; it is about telling people about all the available services, explaining properly how to use them and what to do when things go wrong. It is about making services easy for people to use and telling people what to expect.

Not only should targets be published: more importantly, the results achieved against those targets should be published. They, too, should be made more straightforward for people to understand and should be provided in a comparable form. In that way, people can see how effective the organisation is against other providers or against a regional or national average. That creates strong pressure to emulate the best and so will lead to improved quality and efficiency. Quality and efficiency go firmly hand in hand. The Education (Schools) Bill, which was published last week, aims to do precisely that. In future, schools will publish more information in a comparable format, so that parents can see easily whether their child's school is up with the best.

Choice should not be just a private sector option. Wherever possible, the public sector should provide a choice of services. That choice should not be limited to "the way we have always done it" or by the organisation's view of what it should be delivering. Decisions should take account of the views of customers. Their views should be sought regularly and systematically to inform decisions about what services should be provided.

British people are sensible. They know that they cannot have everything and that on occasions they may have to wait. They will consider paying a bit more for a premium service. What they do not like is being let down. If a public sector organisation says that it will do something at a certain time, the customer wants that to happen. We should ask the people what they want and trust them to answer sensibly. I intend to commission a survey soon to find out more about what the public want from the citizens charter and what their expectations and priorities are in taking forward this work.

Access is another important principle of the citizens charter. Services should be run to suit the convenience of customers, not of staff. Services should be easy to find and to use. That means flexible opening hours to suit local users, telephones that are answered promptly, inquiry points that are helpful, informative and efficient in directing the caller to the person best placed to help him or her, and signposts to help the citizen locate whatever he or she wants.

Inevitably, there will be times when things do not go right. When that happens, it is not a question of simply saying that money should be poured into the organisation as a remedy. One of our primary responsibilities as a Government is to the taxpayer, and we will not neglect that responsibility. When things go wrong, the citizen wants to be told fully, honestly and, preferably, there and then why it has gone wrong.

For example, most people will not mind waiting a few extra minutes in a hospital waiting room if they know that the doctor has been called away to deal with an emergency. They will not put up with simply being left without being told the reason for being apparently let down. When things go wrong, people want an apology properly expressed, and they should be entitled to one. There should be a well-publicised and readily available complaints procedure. Lessons should be learned from complaints, so that mistakes are not repeated.

People want to have the sense, when things go wrong and they complain legitimately, that the system about which they are complaining is taking some notice of what they are saying. No one wants to see money diverted from service improvement to the detriment of the existing service, but where compensation can be made to increase rather than detract from efficiency, compensating procedures should be set out.

I make no apology for setting out in such detail the charter's principles. They are important, and together they form the charter standard. How are the public to know who has adopted those principles and is improving services as a result? Organisations that can prove that they are living up to the charter standard and are providing high-quality services that put the customer first will become eligible for the Charter Mark award. This voluntary scheme will be an acknowledged and easily recognisable sign of quality. It will provide an incentive to staff and management alike to bring about a progressive improvement in the delivery and quality of their services and to provide value for money through progressive improvements in service.

Every public sector organisation that serves the public directly will be able to apply for the Charter Mark. So, too, will privatised utilities, such as the water companies or similar regulator regimes. The award will be within every organisation's reach, but not necessarily within immediate grasp. It will not be a soft or easy option. I look forward to announcing the details of the scheme before long.

The implementation of the charter is an ambitious task. It is a programme which has set a lead. No programme so ambitious or comprehensive has ever been attempted anywhere in the world. Great interest in the charter has been shown in Europe, north America, Australia and elsewhere. We are determined to implement it successfully. I pay tribute to Sir James Blythe and his fellow members of the advisory panel for their energetic and imaginative work in driving the programme forward.

The real results are the improvements that take place on the ground locally. It is in the local tax office, the local hospital and the local school that the citizen will look for improvements and judge whether the charter is a reality.

Much has already happened. The next steps programme has played an important part. In the case of the Benefits Agency, for example, more telephone calls than previously have been handled in five languages with specialist help lines, and waiting times have been reduced by half. The Employment Service achieved more than 95 per cent. accuracy in its benefits payments in 1990–91. It is integrating its local office network with benefit offices, to offer users a one-stop shop. For example, at the Driving Standards Agency, waiting times for driving tests have been reduced.

Another example of what has started to happen and will happen under the citizens charter programme is that, in the national health service, there will be fixed-time appointments for patients from April next. No patient should have to wait more than 30 minutes. We want to say a final goodbye to the old arrangement whereby 50 patients were called for appointments at 9 o'clock in the morning but many of them were not seen until well into the afternoon. That is no way to treat people. The patients charter will put an end to it.

There will also be guaranteed waiting times for NHS treatment. Each district health authority will set maximum waiting times for each specialty, and none of the maximum times can be more than two years. Once again, waiting times should come down and people should know they can expect, what standard the local provider of that service has undertaken to deliver.

All parents will receive school reports on their child's progress at least once a year. In the utilities, to take two examples, East Midlands Electricity has introduced fixed-time appointments for customers, and SEEBoard has introduced a new, simple, flat-rate compensation system for its customers.

We have also taken steps to introduce legislation, where needed, to take forward work on the charter. The Competition and Service (Utilities) Bill, published last week, will give customers a better deal by giving tougher powers to the regulators—allowing them, for example, to set guaranteed service standards for individual customers, such as fixed appointment times—no more waiting for the gas man.

The regulators will also be able to ensure that compensation is paid where those service standards are not met, that each utility has satisfactory procedures for handling customer complaints and that those procedures are published. As the utilities operate in the private sector, they are already going fast down that track of improving customer services. We want that to continue.

The Local Government Bill, published on 4 November, will require local authorities to publish information showing what standard of service they are providing and at what cost. The Audit Commission and its Scottish equivalent will have powers to report on the performance of local authorities both individually and collectively, to which all local authorities would have to respond publicly.

The Education (Schools) Bill sets up a framework to implement the main proposals of the parents charter, published in September. It will ensure regular and independent inspection of schools, and that the inspection report is made available to parents. It will empower the Secretary of State to collect and publish information about schools. That will be published annually by region and will include public examination and national curriculum test results, truancy rates and the first destinations of school leavers. That is all vital information that parents are entitled to have. Under the legislation, in future they will have it.

I shall shortly publish a White Paper entitled, "Competing for Quality" which sets out the Government's commitment to improving public services by expanding choice and competition. That is a key element of the citizens charter programme. It sets out how, in setting targets and freeing managers to buy services in open competition, public services can respond better and more efficiently to the wishes of their users. Buying services in open competition is good news for the taxpayers, who will get better value for money, and for managers and their staff, who can work together to achieve the best deal for customers. Last, but by no means least, it is good news for local businesses, giving private firms new opportunities to market their services in free and open competition.

Other legislation will be needed, too, to take forward the proposals outlined in the charter White Paper. When we are returned to government, we shall introduce legislation to give the citizen a right to challenge unlawful industrial action affecting public services, and legislation to privatise the railways and to deregulate London buses. We also plan to limit the Post Office monopoly, to establish a new regulator for postal services, and to give the Secretary of State powers to set standards and targets for the Post Office. We plan to extend delegation in the civil service and to deal with the problems of technical redundancy.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

Am Ito read into what the Minister says that the Government intend to put more and more services out to arm's-length agencies which are not effectively accountable to Ministers, and certainly not accountable to Members of the House? Does he not think that the citizens of Britain would be better served if Ministers were more prepared to answer the questions asked by the House, rather than avoiding them by putting everything out to agencies?

Mr. Maude

The hon. Gentleman betrays a woeful ignorance of how the process works. I am also interested to hear the devotion of the new-style modern Liberal Democrats to old-fashioned bureaucracy.

I commend to the House the programme of putting all the executive operational parts of the public service of central Government out to executive agencies under professional chief executives who are directly accountable to Ministers who are themselves directly accountable to the House. That will provide ever-better services to the public, because they are accountable and because they have the freedom to manage. I make no apology for that programme. I am sorry to hear once again that the Liberal Democrats seem to be devoted to the process of reaction and opposition to any progressive improvement or reform.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Do we riot need a Members of Parliament charter, so that, when we send letters to benefit agencies, instead of their taking ages to answer, we will begin to get some response? It is said that the citizens charter allows more information to be generally available to individuals, but less and less information is available to Members who ask questions in the House, as areas are hived off to agencies and privatised, so that the service providers are no longer democratically accountable. Democratic socialism adds parliamentary accountability and parliamentary avenues.

Mr. Maude

Once again, I say that there will be no reduction in accountability. There is an improvement in transparency, and we are moving away from the old bureaucratic culture to which the Opposition, whether Labour or Liberal Democrat, seem devoted. We can achieve much greater accountability, efficiency and effectiveness and delivering real and good services to citizens by moving in the direction of open and accountable executive agencies than by saying that the man in Whitehall knows best, and that we shall have a nice pyramid of bureaucracy in which everyone is concerned about what happens inside the organisation, but fewer people are concerned with what happens when the service is delivered to the citizen.

Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

One of the agencies that serves my constituency is the social security office at Wentworth house. I have to admit that, even before that office became an agency, it was extremely good, and answered my letters within seven days. Its benefit service was exceptional. Since becoming an agency it has got even better. Payments now go out within four days of a request being received. That means that the office deals with the paper work, the calculation, checking and the provision of a cheque within four days. That is staggering. The carping from Labour Members should be put down to sour grapes, because this is something that they did not think of for themselves.

Mr. Maude

My hon. Friend's experience of the improved service provided by the new agencies reflects similar, widespread experience. I make no apology for saying that the Government propose to press ahead full steam with the process of transferring services—the operational parts of central Government—to executive agencies.

It is not for me to speculate on the motivation behind the Opposition and Liberal Democrat resistance to this excellent process. Perhaps it is not so much sour grapes as simply the fact that they are stuck in the mud. They are devoted to adhering blindly to the old way of doing things. They suffer from a straightforward reluctance to look to the future to see what can be done to make things better.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

The comments from the two socialists are insulting to those who work in the new agencies. Those workers are already aware of the progress that has been made and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) has said, they know that a better service is being delivered. However, the Opposition parties want to try to turn the clock back to a system that did not work as well.

Mr. Maude

My hon. Friend is right. Those who have had dealings with the new agencies are aware that the managers and staff find it far more satisfactory to work for an agency whose sole purpose is to deliver high-quality service to the customer with as much efficiency as possible. Those who work in the public services are beginning to rediscover pride in what they do, and the Opposition should support that.

The programme of reform will last for a decade—it is not an overnight miracle. There are a number of things we need to do to drive it forward. We must ensure that pay throughout the public services becomes increasingly dependent upon performance and the delivery of service to the customer. Pay review bodies will take that into account when considering future pay claims. We want a much clearer link between rewards and performance. The process is already yielding results, and I believe that there are many more to come.

We have been pleased with the response that we have received from commentators and from those who work within, or use, the public services. We have had a sour, griping, sneering and mean response to our initiative from two quarters alone—the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats.

I can understand why the Labour party is so opposed to the initiative, because the citizens charter puts people first. They are put ahead of politicians, councillors, bureaucrats and the producers, and ahead of Labour's vested interests—ahead of Bickerstaffe's big battalions.

I have some questions for the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), and I hope that he will take the opportunity of this full day's debate to provide the House with the answers that it is eagerly awaiting.

Does the Labour party support our commitment to extend competition and to provide greater choice for the users of services, or does the Labour party want a Soviet system of no choice for the citizen? If the Labour party supports the idea of choice for the citizen, why has it opposed every reform to extend choice that the Government have initiated in the past 12 years?

Why did it oppose, root and branch, the right to buy for council tenants? Why did it oppose our school reforms that have given parents greater power to choose what they want for their children? Why did it oppose our NHS reforms to provide greater power for patients and greater choice? Why did the Labour party oppose our deregulation of the bus services, which has provided greater choice for the customer? Why did it oppose the introduction of competition into telecommunications?

Mr. Harry Barnes

That is all easy to answer. Give us the hard stuff.

Mr. Maude

The House is interested to know the answers. If the Labour party proposes to justify its opposition to those excellent reforms, let us hear which of them it proposes to reverse.

Mr. Barnes

The Minister appears to suggest that we have had 12 years of preparation for the citizens charter and that all the principles that have been propounded during that time will be capped by the charter. If so, the people will understand what that charter means—it is just the load of rubbish with which the Government have been involved in the past 12 years.

Mr. Maude

It is nice to hear a coherent argument, put with eloquence and elegent rhetoric. The House wants to know the answer. Does the Labour party support choice or not?

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

Real choice.

Mr. Maude

That sounds like the voice of the old Soviet Union—go to the Gum store and have a choice of something or nothing. That is not what the Government propose to offer the people of this country.

We expect to hear the answers from the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. Does the Labour party support the extension of choice and competition in the public services? Will the Labour party support the Education (Schools) Bill that will provide more of the information that parents want so that they can exercise their choice in a more informed manner?

Will the Labour party support the Local Government Bill that will enable the Audit Commission to identify those authorities that provide good services at good cost and with efficiency? Will the Labour party support such transparency and openness, or will they oppose it out of the dogmatic fear that that will expose Labour councils to justified contempt?l

Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)


Mr. Maude

I shall finish the list of questions; then the hon. Gentleman can provide a portmanteau of answers to them all.

Will the Labour party support the waiting time guarantee scheme that we have introduced in the health service? The Opposition claim that that scheme is too little, too late, but if it is so easy to do, why on earth did the Labour Government not introduce that reform when they were in power? Do the Opposition understand that one cannot introduce a waiting time guarantee scheme without having first introduced the NHS reforms that we have put through? That scheme has provided evidence of how the NHS reforms have benefited patients in the way that patients want.

Will the Labour party support the introduction of a compensation scheme for passengers on British Rail? Do the Opposition join Jimmy Knapp in saying that that proposal is a con trick and a gimmick? Do they believe that British Rail frequently does not provide the service that people expect? Will they support the provision of compensation to those who are cheated by the system? Does the Labour party support the notion of performance-related pay, related, for example, to absenteeism and punctuality among those who work for British Rail and London Underground? Will the Labour party support that proposal or will it go along with what Jimmy Knapp lays down?

Will the Opposition support the introduction of an independent, lay element into the inspectorate of schools? Do they remain doggedly wedded to the idea of professionals cosily inspecting other professionals? Do they support our idea to introduce an independent element—a voice for the consumer—into the inspecting process? Will the Labour party support the introduction of league tables in the NHS to compare the performance of one health authority with that of another? Will it support such transparency and openness?

Mr. Chris Smith

Will the Minister give way, at last?

Mr. Maude

I shall do so if the hon. Gentleman will answer the questions.

Mr. Smith

I have risen twice to put an important point. The Financial Secretary keeps on talking about the importance of transparency and openness. How about transparency and openness in the workings of government? Why do the Government not support a freedom of information Act?

Mr. Maude

The citizens charter is all about transparency and openness. The thing that provides the greatest openness about the way in which central Government services are provided to the citizen is the next steps initiative, because that transfers the operational part of central Government to agencies.

I strongly support the principle of openness, and we shall pursue it vigorously. Does the hon. Gentleman propose to support our commitment in the patients charter to limit the waiting time for out-patient appointments to 30 minutes?

We expect answers to all those questions, but I suspect that I know what the answer will be. I was interested to see a distinguished periodical describe the Labour party the other day as the "preservative party"—dedicated to preserving all that is bad, and opposing all progress and improvement. That craven indebtedness to producer interest means that Labour Members must maintain that all public services are in perfect condition, unimprovable save by the additon of more money. That is Labour's answer to all problems—write a cheque, drawn not on our money but on other people's.

Why, if money is the answer to all our problems, are there such startling and marked differences in efficiency between different parts of the public service? Why does it cost three times as much in Southwark as in Wandsworth to empty a dustbin? Is it simply a question of money? Does Southwark need more money so that it can provide a worse service at greater cost?

Why should one hospital's administration cost three times as much per patient as another, or its operating theatre cost twice as much to run? The answer is simply that one operation is far more efficient than the other, and we need not put in more money to make the less efficient as good as the best. It must be made more efficient. If we can do that, we shall improve the public services without spending more money.

That is anathema to Labour, because it means being prepared to take on some vested interests and face some tough fights on behalf of the consumer and taxpayer. Those vested interests must be taken on, and we must win. Labour will never do that. Would the Liberals be prepared to do it?

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

It is all very well for the Minister to talk about inefficiencies in the public services. Nobody is denying that there is room for improvement and that mechanisms for improvement are worth exploring, but the Minister is throwing up a smokescreen to obscure the accountability of Government. It has been estimated that the poll tax debacle has wasted £19 billion of taxpayers' money—[Interruption.] Ministers have admitted that hundreds of millions of pounds have been wasted on it, and they can easily lose a nought here or there. In those circumstances, what satisfaction can the citizen get in calling the Government to account for their incompetence and waste of public money?

Mr. Maude

It is easy to see why even the Liberal Democrats have not appointed the hon. Gentleman their shadow Treasury spokesman. His grasp of arithmetic is slight, and he seems firmly entrenched in the world of fantasy. He has obviously thought of a figure, multiplied it by 10, doubled it and ended up with a figure from the realms of fantasy.

The hon. Gentleman dismisses talk of extra efficiency and says that, if there has been any, it has simply been a bit of extra efficiency here and there. If one hospital is two or three times more efficient than another, is that simply a little more efficiency at the margin? It represents a huge amount of extra public resource being converted into service to the customer instead of being used inefficiently.

Does the hon. Gentleman support us in trying to root out such inefficiency and ensure that every pound we take from the taxpayer and spend on his behalf on patient care is spent as well as possible? Will he now support our NHS reforms, which are devoted to providing that greater efficiency and the better care that will flow from it? I will willingly give way if he wishes to say whether he now supports that initiative to achieve those efficiency gains for the patient and the NHS.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

The Minister well knows that any hon. Member would support such steps if that degree of efficiency could be achieved. He also knows that the citizens charter obscures incompetence and inadequacies in government. If the charter is such a good idea, the Government should have introduced it 12 years ago.

Mr. Maude

I have made it clear many times that the citizens charter continues the programme of reform that we have put into place. We could not have introduced the maximum waiting time guarantee scheme without having had in place the NHS reforms that were introduced under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). The two are inextricably linked.

If Opposition Members intend to oppose, as they have consistently, doggedly and dogmatically opposed, our NHS reforms, they must be honest with the British people and admit that they oppose our plans to introduce maximum waiting time guarantees for operations. Or do they accept our plans? I fancy not.

Labour is interested only in what is spent and what is put into public services. It is never concerned with what is bought and what comes out of those services. Labour consistently tries to hide that fact, whereas we know well that it is not what one spends but what one buys that matters. That is why Labour Members fear a real citizens charter. It is why the Government will press on with the charter and our programme of reform on behalf of our citizens, so making sure that the services they get, provided by the taxpayer, improve and get ever better.

10.15 am
Mr. Chris Smith (Islington, South and Finsbury)

When the Prime Minister announced that the citizens charter would be the centrepiece of his governmental activity, he said that it would be nothing less than a revolution and the most comprehensive quality initiative ever launched. The Financial Secretary has also been at the hype game this morning. He talked about the largest programme ever launched anywhere to improve public services.

Mr. Maude

If the hon. Gentleman disputes that, will he point to another initiative anywhere which is more comprehensive and rigorous?

Mr. Smith

I intend to dispute it bit by bit as my speech progresses, because the Government's claims for their citizens charter must be weighed against what their proposals will achieve. Despite the great fanfare with which the charter was introduced, what has emerged is half-baked, minimalist, inadequate and in some cases positively counter-productive. It is as though an elephant has laboured long and brought forth a mouse.

The Financial Secretary asked why Labour Members were opposed to the initiative. We are not opposed to the idea. We are not opposed to the principle of ensuring that the customers and users of the public services achieve an efficient, courteous and proper delivery of service. But we believe that the Government's proposals will not take us in that direction. We are not opposed to the idea: we are opposed to what the Government are offering.

The answer to the Minister's question whether we have relented in our opposition to the so-called reforms of the past 12 years is a resounding no. Most of those reforms have produced overwhelmingly worse public services than existed previously. He asked whether we intended to oppose this year's planned legislation by the Government. We shall, because in the great majority of cases it will not produce any real extension of choice for the British people.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

The hon. Gentleman appears to be doing himself and his party an injustice. Among the reforms to which the Minister referred was the right-to-buy scheme. Labour Members opposed that root and branch for a long time, until they realised how popular the scheme was with the public and then they decided to support it. So it is not true to say that Labour Members have maintained their opposition to Government proposals for change. In a number of key areas they have abandoned their opposition.

Mr. Smith

Our opposition to the right to buy when it was introduced was that it would reduce the opportunities for those who wanted to remain council tenants and for people in need of council accommodation. We were subsequently proved right on both counts.

We say now, correctly, that it is entirely right and proper that tenants should have the right to buy their council accommodation, but local authorities should have a duty to replace accommodation that is disposed of in that way. The Government have totally failed to introduce that crucial element into the system.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

That issue is of great importance in Northern Ireland, because there is a contradiction between the actions of the Conservative Government there and in England. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Northern Ireland Office will not allow council tenants in the Province to buy their houses?

Mr. Smith

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The Government refuse the right to buy not only to council tenants in Northern Ireland but to private sector tenants. There are inconsistencies in the Government's actions.

I suppose that we should be glad about two aspects of the citizens charter. The first is that the Government seem to realise that the public services matter. They have spent the past 12 years running down our public services, closing local government and depriving our citizens of a real voice. It is little wonder that we are somewhat sceptical of the sudden conversion that appears to have occurred with the Government's dawning realisation that the people believe that public services are important, want them delivered properly and want a Government who are determined to improve them. The Government realise that public demand, but cannot deliver on it.

Mr. Arbuthnot

In describing the operations of Islington council, which will be familiar to the hon. Gentleman, a recent Queen's Counsel's report said that having the cash office staffed by the innumerate, the filing done by the dyslexic and disorganised, and reception by the surly or charmless, seems to us a recipe for administrative chaos. Do not the Government have some justification for their attitude towards local government?

Mr. Smith

The Government cannot justify their treatment of local government over the past 12 years. Of course there are instances in local authorities under all shades of political control of services being discourteously or inadequately delivered. No one contests that. The key question that the House must address is how to achieve the necessary improvement. The Government's actions over the past 12 years and their proposals for a citizens charter will not achieve that.

Our suspicion is that the Government's conversion to the importance of public services is more of a pre-election gimmick than a change of heart.

We should also be glad—I suppose that it is a form of flattery—that the basic idea of a citizens charter was plagiarised from Labour. As long ago as 1921, Herbert Morrison wrote a pamphlet for the Labour party entitled "The Citizens' Charter", which argued rumbustiously for the role that local government could and should play in enhancing the quality of service received by the public.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is reverting to the days of Herbert Morrison. I expected him to develop and to put more meat on his earlier point about the Government's attitude to public services. One of the most sensitive and controversial public services and one which has featured in recent debates is the national health service. Can the hon. Gentleman deny that the Government's record of investment in the NHS over the past 12 years is infinitely better than that of his Government in the 1970s? Can he deny that before the citizens charter came along, reforms were proposed and, in my own constituency for one, effectively implemented for hospital trusts, which will bring better services for patients? That happened before the citizens charter was conceived.

Finally, can the hon. Gentleman deny that Labour is opposed to competitive tendering in public services and thus threatens worse services to patients and other consumers?

Mr. Smith

If the hon. Gentleman talks to patients, he will find that their perception of hospitals opting out, the internal market and the way in which the Government's so-called reforms have been implemented do not accord with the version that he just gave.

I said that Labour has for a long time been arguing for the kind of approach that the charter is supposed to represent.

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith

Perhaps later. I am sure that other things that I have to say will bring the hon. Gentleman to his feet.

In April 1986, when my right hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) launched Labour's "At Your Service" charter for better local services, he said: We will require every local council to set clear target standards for every service, so that the community knows exactly what they should expect. We'll require the council to publish every year a rating of performance and public satisfaction for every service, so that the community knows exactly how far the council has gone in reaching its aims. And we'll ensure that local councils consult with local people on public transport, social services, and other key issues. It comes a little rich from the hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) when he says that the citizens charter was not something that my party had thought of. We did and put it forward—and at last the Government have woken up to the fact that something must be done.

To build on the document that we published in 1986, in April 1989 we issued our "Quality Street" proposals on the work of local government, in which we set out the kind of quality programme that we wanted to be introduced. We insisted, for example, on a system of quality audits: We would introduce local quality audits for council services, whether provided by the council's own staff, by voluntary organisations, the public sector, a housing association, or managed by community groups. This year, we launched our own citizens charter setting out a series of new proposed rights—rights much more real than those that the Government seek to trumpet and which I will describe later.

The idea of having a citizens charter is right. Indeed, it is essential. However, the Government's execution of that aim is failing miserably.

I shall now examine some of the specific proposals in the Government's citizens charter and consider some of our principal criticisms of it. First, it excludes any of the Government's decision-making processes from the system of accountability. The Financial Secretary made much of the importance of transparency and openness; he stressed that several times. But the citizens charter and the Government's legislative programme contain no commitment to provide for freedom of information legislation to give our citizens the right of access to information on what the Government are up to.

Information and access to it are the absolute preconditions of power in a democracy. The Government arc restricting people's right of access to that democratic power. The Government have an opportunity to reverse that. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who I was delighted to see was placed sixth in the private Member's Bill ballot this year, has said that he will introduce a Bill on freedom of information. If the Government's rhetoric about the citizens charter, openness and transparency is genuine, they have an opportunity to say now that they will support the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills and not use the payroll vote on a three-line Whip to vote down an eminently sensible measure, as they did previously when the hon. Member introduced a similar Bill. They could state that they were going to enforce, support and even improve the provisions of his Bill.

I challenge the Financial Secretary to say that the Government will support the Bill on freedom of information which will come before us in a couple of months. If he does, we shall have more reason to believe that the Government's devotion to openness in the processes of government is genuine. I suspect that the Government will do nothing of the sort, but unless and until legislation on freedom of information is introduced—as the Labour Government will in their first year of office—talking about citizens' rights is nothing more than windy rhetoric.

Mr. David Nicholson

If the Labour party is now so keen on freedom of information, why did not it extend that freedom and introduce a Bill on the subject when it was last in power, particularly as it was pressed by the Liberals to do so during that strange period of the Lib-Lab pact?

Mr. Smith

I suspect that, like me, the hon. Gentleman was not in the House then, but he will recall that the then Labour Government did not have a majority. Even in the days of the so-called Lib-Lab pact, they did not have an overall majority towards the end of their term and when the opportunity arose for a private Member's Bill on freedom of information, it proved impossible to enact it because the Conservative Opposition opposed the idea root and branch, as do the present Conservative Government.

Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith

No, I have given way many times and although I have considerable respect for the hon. Gentleman and his record on the issue, there is still much more for me to say. I do not wish to detain the House for too long.

Our second major criticism of the Government's citizens charter programme is that it contains no proposals for the necessary funding of any improvements to the public services that it might introduce. It is no good the Government saying that they will improve schools' performance by publishing league tables of exam results, which the Government should recognise can be misleading—although I have no objection in principle to publishing such information—when children are sitting in classrooms with leaking roofs, insufficient school books and inadequate pupil-teacher ratios. Those are the real challenges that should be addressed, but the Government are not doing so. It is no good the Government saying that there should be compensation for the late arrival of a train when, for year after year, they have under-invested in the railways and the public transport networks. Investment could have procured a better service.

Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

Is not the hon. Gentleman aware that since 1979 the Government have invested £12 billion in British Rail and are investing £1.5 billion this year and £2 billion next year? How much does he believe should be invested and how much would a Labour Government set aside to invest in British Rail?

Mr. Smith

Were the hon. Gentleman to take a trip to France or Germany, he would see that those countries have invested far more substantially in their public transport networks than we have and also have more sensible ways of ensuring that that investment can take place. The French railway system can raise money from the private sector in ways currently denied to British Rail.

The Government make much, and the Financial Secretary made much, of the importance of factors such as name tags, plain English awards, signposts in offices, Charter Mark awards and so on. We have no quarrel with the aim of such changes. They do not add up to a revolution, but are a necessary improvement in courtesy and efficiency with which no one could disagree. The Government have failed to realise that unless they devote the growth in our national resources to the improvement of public services, we shall not achieve the sort of improvement in quality that we want.

Mr. Maude

The hon. Gentleman has now come to the issue that I thought would arise and which I foreshadowed in my remarks: the Labour party's remedy for any defect in public services is to pump in money. Will the hon. Gentleman come clean and say from which of the Labour party's spending pledges, which we costed in our document earlier this year, he now seeks to resile? Which of them does he now believe is wrong? Let us have a full, clear and honest answer for once.

Mr. Smith

The Government's response to public services during the past 12 years has been to starve them of resources, which is not a policy that we want to follow.

Mr. Maude


Mr. Smith

The Financial Secretary must restrain himself a little; I am about to answer his important point.

The Labour party is saying to the people of this country and will continue to do so during the coming general election campaign, that citizens have a choice between a party that has said that its primary aim is to reduce the rate of direct taxation and a party—the Labour party—which has said that it will not pursue that policy. We shall devote the increased resources available to a Government through the proceeds of economic growth, year by year, to the improvement of public services. The electorate has a clear choice. It can decide whether it wants a Government who give priority to cutting taxation or a Government who give priority to improving public service. A Labour Government will be offering those improved public services.

Mr. Maude

Will the hon. Gentleman now answer my question? From which of the £35 billion worth of Labour spending pledges does he now dissent?

Mr. Tony Banks

It is a rubbish figure.

Mr. Maude

The hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) says that it is a rubbish figure. Let us hear in what way it is rubbish. From which of those spending pledges—all made clearly by Labour spokesmen—do they now resile?

Mr. Chris Smith

It is a rubbish figure: Ministers sat down together to produce a global total so absurd that I do not think any sensible commentator takes it seriously.

Mr. Maude

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith

I shall give way to the Minister for the last time, although I might add that he did not extend a similar courtesy to me.

Mr. Maude

I sought to intervene only to help the hon. Gentleman by giving him, once again, the opportunity to come clean with the House. He says that Ministers sought to give a global total. That is nonsense and he knows that it is nonsense. We took the pledges from what Labour spokesmen had clearly said. We then set out the specific details and made plain the method used to calculate the cost of each pledge. As the hon. Gentleman knows well, commentators have taken that total very seriously.

Mr. Smith

The Financial Secretary is really trying it on. The figures that he, his ministerial colleagues and their friends in Tory central office have come up with are completely ridiculous. The Financial Secretary knows it and the people know it. I might add in passing that it comes ill from a Government who imposed the poll tax and the cost of the poll tax on the British people to start complaining about the spending aims of other parties.

The Government have given no commitment to devote more resources to the improvement of public services. Instead, £8 million worth of taxpayers' money has been spent on glossy advertising to promote the idea of the citizens charter. That is extra spending and the money could undoubtedly have been better spent.

Our third objection to the citizens charter and the way in which the Government are going about implementing it concerns the reliance on privatisation to ensure an automatic improvement in public service. The Government seem to have failed to realise that there is bad private provision as well as bad public provision. The task should be to secure and guarantee improvements in both and not simply switch from one to the other and think that one's aim has been achieved. Take the Government's proposals for the Post Office. I very much doubt whether people living in rural areas in the regions would applaud the effects on their service of the introduction of competition and the removal of the Post Office monopoly on the delivery of mail. The principle of a universal service at a universal charge is the basic one on which the Post Office has operated for decades and it is extremely important in ensuring that, no matter how expensive it may be to deliver a particular letter, everyone, everywhere gets the same quality of service. The Government assume that the introduction of competition and an element of privatisation will somehow bring improvements. In fact, they are going in the reverse direction and their proposals are likely to make a substantial portion of the service worse.

It is worth having a careful and critical look at a number of specific aspects of the citizens charter. The Government have made much of the introduction of the Competition and Service (Utilities) Bill, which we shall be debating next week. But that Bill contains no proposal for a statutory ombudsman and no regulation of profiteering by the privatised utilities—no requirement on British Telecom to give back to the customers some of the absurd profits that it is now making. The Consumers Association says that, in introducing the Bill, the Government have missed a golden opportunity for a thorough review of the regulation of the big utilities. The Bill gives the regulators no real teeth although it should. All in all, the Government have introduced a very inadequate measure.

The Government have recently introduced the so-called patients charter. It is interesting to note that seven of the 10 so-called rights that the charter gives to patients already exist. We welcome the fact that they are being publicised, but there is not very much that is new in the charter. Most of the three new rights that the Government propose are already operated by the majority of health authorities. In the overwhelming majority of cases, for example, the aim of admission to hospital for an operation within two years is already achieved. Of course, we welcome the tightening up of such rights, but the patients charter hardly represents major progress, as the Government claim.

At the same time, the Government are pressing ahead with their proposals for changes in the national health service, such as the introduction of the internal market and the opting out of hospitals, some of which run directly counter to the provisions of the patients charter. For example, the patients charter refers to appropriate plans for discharge from hospitals, yet the Government are introducing financial systems that place hospitals under intense pressure to empty beds and to bring in new patients as rapidly as possible. How do the Government square that with the appropriate plan for discharge proposal in the citizens charter?

Let us consider the proposals for school inspections. The Financial Secretary made much of what he called a lay element in the process. What does that mean? It means that the Government plan to cut the number of Her Majesty's inspectors from 500 to about 175. Moreover, of the 175 who will be left, only 39 are earmarked by the Department of Education and Science for involvement in the quality assurance of independent inspections. In other words, the Government are establishing a privatised inspection process, but only 39 inspectors in the entire country will be designated to monitor what the private inspectors are up to. That is no guarantee of quality assurance. We shall vigorously oppose the Government's proposals on that.

Such inadequacies are to be found throughout the charter. An examination of the fine print shows that the proposals for improving motorway service areas simply mean that they will he built more quickly, less properly spaced and will make a bigger profit. There is no way of ensuring that they provide a better service to the people who use them. What has happened to the proposals for commonhold legislation and rights for leaseholders which we were told would appear in the Queen's Speech? What about the need for a fully independent investigation system for complaints against the police? The charter contains nothing to improve the present procedures.

It seems that the Government have suddenly woken up to the fact that the Department of Social Security, through its face-to-face contact with people in Benefits Agency offices, sometimes falls down in its dealings with the public. The charter says: Visiting benefit offices should never be a daunting or demoralising experience". Coming from the Government, that is rather rich. Every week for the past eight years I have met constituents who find visits to DSS offices and Benefits Agency offices thoroughly demoralising and daunting. I raised the matter in the House five and a half years ago. At one particular DSS office, some of my constituents were treated as Dickensian supplicants rather than as citizens seeking to secure their rights. There are still inadequacies in the way in which the Benefits Agency treats people.

Mr. Maude

May I assume from the hon. Gentleman's indignation that he wholeheartedly supports our proposals to improve matters?

Mr. Smith

I wholeheartedly approve the Government's aim of seeking to improve matters, but I am not convinced that their specific proposal will achieve it. If the Government are serious about removing the demoralisation and the daunting nature of approaches to benefits offices, it is about time that they removed the most grotesque form of demoralisation, which is the operation of the social fund. That was dreamt up by the Prime Minister when he was a social security Minister and is the most demeaning aspect of the social security system. Reform of the way in which that operates would be a real benefit for the citizen. New name tags and nicer offices are all very well, but fundamental parts of the system need to be changed.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. I hope that he will forgive me for saying that his approach to the citizens charter is beginning to sound a little churlish. The impressive aspect of the charter is not so much the individual actions, impressive though they are, but the fact that it will change the entire public service approach to citizens. It is not the individual programmes but the approach of the public service to citizens that matters. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be a little more welcoming than he has been so far.

Mr. Smith

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is not living in the real world. The proposals that the citizens charter purports to contain will produce little real change in the way in which our citizens receive the services to which they are entitled.

Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Smith

No, because time is pressing and I want to make some progress.

Mr. Tony Banks

Go on, give way.

Mr. Smith

In response to the blandishments of my hon. Friend, I shall give way to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson), who used to be one of my constituents. This is the last intervention that I shall allow.

Mr. Summerson

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the charter would improve the performance of the Clerkenwell neighbourhood office in his constituency? Following a recent council by-election, the staff in that office are refusing to co-operate, not only with the local council, but with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Smith

I have said loudly that the performance of that neighbourhood office, which was the subject of some doorstep discussion before the council by-election, leaves something to be desired. Precisely the same can be said of many local authorities, whether controlled by Tories, Liberal Democrats or Labour or where no party has overall control. The citizens charter will not make much difference to the way in which those authorities deliver the services that they should deliver efficiently, promptly and courteously.

The hon. Member for Walthamstow fails to recognise that many Labour-controlled local authorities are already implementing many of the aims to which the Government are now waking up in the charter. For example, over the past three years, York city council has been implementing a citizens charter containing guaranteed levels of service. I have here a leaflet which the council has issued about street cleaning in part of the city. It lays down the exact standards of performance that are expected, the timing of street cleaning, the standards to be achieved, the rota on which the work will be done and the provisions that the residents in the area can expect to achieve from the council. York city council is a pioneer in ensuring that such a contract between the local authority and the people whom it serves will deliver the standard of service that people deserve.

Oxford has a nine-point customer contract on refuse collection which guarantees a whole series of provisions to the citizen. Milton Keynes has a customer contract which includes a guarantee to remove graffiti within specified times. The London borough of Hounslow has published a service charter on answering the telephone and responding to letters. Those are examples of Labour-controlled authorities which are getting on with doing what the Government are only talking about.

A Labour Government will seek to ensure for citizens a wide range of additional rights that the Government do not propose in their citizens charter. We shall ensure that all users of public services will have access to complaints procedures, which will include strict timetables for responding to complaints and an appeal to an independent ombudsman.

We shall ensure that, for council services where a fee is charged and for public utility customer services contracts, compensation will be paid where a service falls short of the published standards. We shall ensure that firms and public bodies that breach or fail to meet environmental standards will bear the cost of abatement and cleaning up of pollution. We shall ensure that people suffering from excessive noise pollution from factories, airports, railways and other commercial sources will be entitled to compensation for the installation of better insulation from those causing the noise nuisance.

We shall ensure that complaints against the police will be investigated by an independent police complaints authority. We shall ensure that prisoners will be given access to an independent prison ombudsman. We shall introduce a right to have misleading or inaccurate personal information held by public or private bodies corrected or erased. We shall ensure that individuals will have the right to publication of a full apology, or the award of a right to reply, where their privacy has been unreasonably invaded by the media. We shall ensure that, where there is prima facie evidence of a miscarriage of justice, an individual will be able to have his case investigated by an independent body, separate from the courts, in the last resort.

We shall strengthen the accountability of local authorities to their electors for the budgets that they set and the services that they provide by ensuring that a proportion of every council is elected each year. We shall ensure that tenants will have the option to be active partners in their housing, with the right to take over estate management if they wish. We shall ensure that the right of community health councils to be present at all health authority meetings—a right removed by the Government—will be restored. Community health councils will be encouraged to speak for all patients across the range of NHS services and will be given funding independent of the regional health authorities.

Those are just some of the measures that a Labour Government will introduce. They will provide real rights for people—rights which they can exercise to ensure that they get the quality of service that they deserve. We shall also have in place a proper system of monitoring, of satisfaction surveys, of regulation and of annual elections and we shall establish a quality commission to examine quality as well as value for money. There will be a complaints procedures and redress, to follow up the rights that we shall ensure that people have.

Above all, we shall give priority to the improvement of public services over and above the offering of tax cuts to the electorate. That is the basic choice that will be in front of people at the next election. It will be a choice between a party that offers tax cuts and a party that offers better public services. We realise that one cannot put right the damage of 12 years of neglect and deterioration with a few cosmetic gestures. We understand that, to achieve real rights for citizens and real improvements in the quality of our public services, we require a Labour Government and the people of this country will vote for one—the sooner the better.

Mr. George Galloway (Glasgow, Hillhead)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Have you received any notification from the Government of their wish to make a statement about the extraordinary new revelations in The Guardian this morning about the bizarre and mysterious death of Robert Maxwell, a former Member of Parliament? Around the world, speculation is mounting about the theory that Mr. Maxwell may have been murdered, for the reason that dead men tell no tales. Surely the Government must soon allow a debate on Mirrorgate. Have you heard whether that will be sooner rather than later?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I have heard nothing about that, and I have had no request from a Minister to make a statement.

11.4 am

Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)

Listening to the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) saying that it was not the Government who had thought of the citizens charter but Mr. Herbert Morrison reminded me that old habits die hard—in particular, the old habit, much beloved of socialist Governments everywhere, of rewriting history. I remember the marvellous Soviet history that concluded that the Soviet Union was responsible for the invention of television, computers and penicillin.

I would put Labour's commitment to a citizens charter roughly in that category. A citizens charter could only ever be a creature of a Conservative Government, for one cardinal and overriding reason—the Labour party is beholden, in terms of funding, finance and philosophy, to the producers, rather than the consumers, of services. That fundamental divide will put them at a permanent disadvantage in endeavours to provide quality services to the citizen.

Mr. Galloway

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Norris

I am already beset by offers to interrupt my pearls of wisdom and, in deference to my good friend, I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Galloway

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way so early in his speech. Does not the concept of a citizen imply the existence of a society? Did not the former Prime Minister memorably state that there was no such thing as society, only individuals?

Mr. Norris

Much as I would enjoy debating this matter with the hon. Gentleman, whom I might also call my hon. Friend, I do not wish to go down this path. I have always felt that the great truth of the words uttered by my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister was that she had pierced the bubble of the omniscience of the social worker—the concept that every problem in society can be resolved by the intervention of a bureaucrat—and had identified the fact that the real core of social development is an individual's self-reliance and reliance upon the family. That was the virtue of my right hon. Friend's remark, which I wholeheartedly endorse. I am grateful to have the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Dicks

Does my hon. Friend agree that the very people of whom Labour Members complain, saying that they do not give a service in Government Departments, almost always belong to unions who support the Labour party? Why does not the Labour party tell union representatives to make sure that the staff who pay their union dues provide that service? The very supporters of the Labour party provide bad services to the ordinary people.

Mr. Norris

My hon. Friend anticipates what I am going to say. Those of us in public life are aware that, whenever complaints of poor service come before us., there are always Labout Members who will blame either the absence of public funds, although they never make any reference to where the money has to come from, or the Government. It is never—or perhaps only on occasion the fault of an individual who has not done his job conscientiously or with an adequate standard of service.

It is not always true that deficiencies in service are to blame. Governments of every political persuasion wish to spend more on an almost limitless number of service areas, but far too often—infinitely more often than Labour Members care to admit—the fault lies in the simple failure of an individual to deliver a conscientious personal commitment.

This is nowhere better exemplified than in the treatment that some consultants in the NHS offered those who had to visit them as out-patients. It is now common knowledge that there were consultants—were, because the Government have done something about the problem—who simply said, "I am a very important man. My time is extremely valuable, and I am not going to be kept waiting here while people like patients take up five or 10 minutes when I shall not be earning at a rate that would put the salary of Members of Parliament to shame. Instead of inviting my patients to see me at 10-minute intervals—generally I offer them each 10 minutes of my time—I shall invite the lot to attend at 9 o'clock in the morning. When we get to 12 o'clock, some of them will have waited for three hours. That is their problem. I am a very busy man who has to go and earn a lot of money in the private hospital next door." That sort of personal approach to the individual citizen is, more than anything else, likely to outrage the individual citizen who is being treated by the national health service.

Where does the fault lie that produces that outrage? First, it is clear that putting the National Union of Public Employees, the National and Local Government Officers Association and the Confederation of Health Service Employees back in the driving seat will never solve the problem. The Labour party's reliance on producers rather than consumers will constantly bedevil its attempts to convince the British people that it is serious on these issues.

Differences in quality standards, to which my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary referred, involve issues that are too serious for us to ignore. There are palpable differences between the quality of service that is offered at individual hospitals. The same can be said of individual schools. Differences in the quality of service of local authorities is evident, and London is a marvellous example.

Let us take Lambeth and Wandsworth. I shall not embarrass Labour Members by reminding the House in detail that there is no community charge in Wandsworth because the authority is such a good manager of its moneys, while a huge charge is levied in Lambeth, which unfortunately I have to pay. The difference between the quality of service that is offered by the two authorities is obvious on reaching the boundary between the two. The black sacks full of fetid rubbish that are to be seen in Lambeth do not meet the eye on entering Wandsworth. That is despite the fact that I am paying hundreds of pounds a year for the privilege of a so-called collection service.

Mr. Tony Banks

I have ridden in the hon. Gentleman's car, which is so large that it enters Wandsworth as soon as it enters the boundary of Lambeth. I agree with the hon. Gentleman's remarks about consultants getting everyone to attend between 9 o'clock and 10 o'clock, for example, and then keeping them waiting. He is right when he says that that should be stopped. He then said that that system is created by the National Union of Public Employees and the Confederation of Health Service Employees. Of course, no consultants are members of organisations such as NUPE and COHSE, so the hon. Gentleman should not try to run the two things together.

Mr. Norris

I shall make some concessions to the hon. Gentleman. First, I concede that not many consultants are members of NUPE or COHSE. He is right about that. Secondly, I have an extremely large car. He is right about that as well. However, the hon. Gentleman has never shown any reluctance to enter my car. I happen to pass his house on the way to my own. I extend to the hon. Gentleman an open invitation to join me on any subsequent occasion. I promise him the same standard of service in my car as that which he would expect to be provided by a Conservative borough, or even a Conservative taxi service operated by myself.

When we talk about a citizens charter and standards of public service, we must decide whether they are merely advertising hype and a complete waste of public money, or whether they are worthwhile objectives. We often refer to our mail bags, and hon. Members sometimes comment that over the past six months they have received only one or two letters about Europe, a subject which consumes the House beyond any other. I imagine that, if we added up all the letters that set out complaints about individual examples of poor public service, the total would outnumber those that we receive on weightier national issues by tens or hundreds to one.

There are some items that I regard as headlines in the citizens charter and sadly I find myself in conflict with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. The hon. Gentleman suggests that the identification of public servants by means of name badges is merely a bit of show, an unimportant piece of advertising hype. I suggest that the reality is fundamentally different.

Over generations, it has been possible for public servants to hide behind the cloak of anonymity. They have been able to offer an utterly inadequate personal service to individual customers and clients of whichever agency they represent. I am surprised that Opposition Members are not prepared to be more open about this. There have been some in the public service who have refused to answer their telephones. There are those who turn files over and are not prepared to act upon them. There are some who give dismissive answers to those who are not good at writing or reading.

I welcome the appearance in the Chamber of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I know that he was keen to listen to every word that I intended to say on these matters. My hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) and I "share" a Benefits Agency office at Wentworth house in Ilford, which is run by the excellent Miss Alice O'Carroll. I endorse entirely what my hon. Friend has said: Miss O'Carroll and her excellent staff have grasped wholeheartedly the idea of service delivery. They are now offering an infinitely higher standard of service in practical ways. For example, they have introduced a fast-track counter. It means that it is no longer necessary to stand in line for three quarters of an hour, for example, merely to ask which form should be completed. Simple reorganisation has eradicated delays of that sort.

It may be said that the example that I have given is extremely obvious, and that it is not necessary to introduce a citizens charter to make improvements of that sort. I doubt that. Without the impetus of the specific commitment of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to improving the quality of basic services, I doubt whether we would have seen simple but desperately important measures taken in the public service, at no cost to the public purse. Such actions have done so much to improve the standard of service that is offered to the individual citizen.

Mr. Arbuthnot

The new fast-track counter at Wentworth house has dramatically changed the lives of those who enter it. As my hon. Friend has said, they no longer have to queue with those who will take a great deal of time to collect their benefits or whatever. I am grateful to him for stressing that the improvement cost nothing. It is not right for those in the Labour party to say that an absence of funds is holding back the public service.

Mr. Norris

That is an extremely important point. I well remember, from spending years in local government, being a member of an education committee. The committee examined the way in which individual head teachers regarded the maintenance of standards in their schools. Some heads insisted that those standards should be maintained, and some did not. The evidence was before our eyes. The period between the cyclical redecoration of the school was not the only factor. The important factor was whether the head teacher and his staff were committed to maintaining the fabric of their school. There was no difference between the costs of individual schools, but the differences between the schools were obvious.

The citizens charter is a fundamental underpinning of commitment to quality of service. It is clear that quality of service does not necessarily depend on an open cheque book. The citizens charter is one of the most important contributions that we shall make to life in Britain in the 1990s and beyond.

I shall make some specific comments about the charter, and I hope that they will be of value and might be shared by some of my colleagues. First, I extend a considerable welcome to the steps that the charter envisages being taken to improve service on the railways in general, and specifically on the London underground.

I share with other hon. Members an interest in the operation of the London underground. The Central line is the artery that my constituents use to go to their businesses and it has offered an extremely inadequate service to the public over recent years. The inadequacy of the service has been very much in two parts. There has been historic under-investment in the London underground system, and there has been a poor quality of management of the service.

The Government have specifically resolved the first inadequacy. They are committed to, and have embarked upon, a programme in excess of £600 million to upgrade the fundamental infrastructure of the Central line. On behalf of my constituents, I am grateful for that. It cannot happen too soon.

So often, what rightly outrages my constituents has nothing to do with the age of the rolling stock, the adequacy of the staircase, the size of the signalling box, and so on; it has to do with simple discourtesies and inadequacies of communication. It has to do with simple management failures, often at station level, which are unforgiveable and which could be rectified without a single penny of additional funding. That is the key.

The citizens charter contains three proposals for London Underground. The first is the introduction of tough, new, quality-of-service targets for each station, with details of performance achieved available in the station foyer, and showing the comparisons between the targets for service and the number of targets that have actually been achieved.

Secondly, it proposes an acceleration of the contracting out of the cleaning and maintenance services. Anyone who knows the system knows that one of the major causes of disruption of service is suspected fires involving the ignition of pieces of litter on the railway system, which need to be taken away and dealt with quickly.

The third proposal is the introduction of performance-related pay for guards, drivers and signalling staff. I hope that that will especially relate to punctuality and absenteeism. We have all seen those marvellously short notices on the boards in stations that tell us that the reason for the failure of the 7.15 from Hainault is signal failure in Doncaster, when it is obvious to anyone who actually travels on the line that the real reason is that one of the staff failed to get out of bed on time.

I should prefer the system to concentrate on delivering that sort of quality of service and commitment in the most obvious way possible, which is quite simply to relate performance to pay. I assure the House that that will do more to improve the quality of service on London Underground than hundreds of millions of pounds expended by the Exchequer.

Mr. Dicks

With great respect to my hon. Friend, I must tell him that he made a slight error when he referred to funding. He said that London Regional Transport traditionally had been underfunded. In fact, in 1987, 1988 and 1989, LRT failed to spend an allocation of £120 million. When I raised that matter with its chairman during a Select Committee meeting, he said "Don't talk about the past; let us look ahead." I wanted my hon. Friend to know that LRT could have spent another £120 million on capital investment in the underground.

Mr. Norris

I defer to my hon. Friend's detailed knowledge of the subject. He is well known for having travelled some of the world's most exotic airlines and railways in his exhaustive endeavours to improve his expertise. The limits of my railway travel experience generally extend to going on to Lancaster Gate rather than getting off at Oxford Circus. I am sure that my hon. Friend is right in all that he says.

I consider the most crucial part of the citizens charter to be that which relates to performance-related pay. We need to be careful how we introduce that concept, because certain truths are self-evident. The first is that the concept of relating how people perform their duties to the remuneration that they receive must be fundamentlly correct, something of which we never lose sight, and something that we should promote wherever possible.

Mr. Tony Banks


Mr. Norris

I think that I can forestall the hon. Gentleman, who is passionate in his belief that Members of Parliament should also be subject to a performance-related pay system. I hope that it is no reflection on my performance, but I sincerely hope that that does not happen. It would greatly diminish the joy of being a Member of the House if my function in life were limited to adding to the intolerable burden on Ministers, which the Liberal Democrats appear quite content to do, by asking desperately irrelevant questions about minor personalities in parts of the world hundreds of miles away. In fact, the answer could be much more easily derived by writing to the local police station or the benefits office.

If we were to approach such a system, I should prefer to do so on the basis of rewarding hon. Members for the number of constructive ideas that they include in their speeches, and deducting £500 a time for the spurious points of order they make and the number of sedentary interventions that interrupt the Member who is speaking.

On that basis, there could be some merit in the hon. Gentleman's proposals. In fact, he may well be thinking along positive lines. For example, it would be grossly over-simplistic to imagine that performance-related pay for teachers should be limited to the simplistic criterion of examination results. I am glad that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science immediately made it clear that, while he is rightly wedded to the concept of performance-related pay, he recognises that there is a need for an extremely sophisticated assessment system if the relationship between remuneration and performance is to mean something.

Anyone in business knows that if, for example, a salesman is rewarded simply on the basis of the amount he sells, that could often be a desperate distortion of performance. This might appear to be frightfully obvious, but in a bull market it is easy to sell anything to anyone [Interruption.] I will accept no intervention on that subject. Of course, the reverse position is also true—a salesman has to work hard to deliver the business in a tough market, and he needs to be supported by, for example, reference to other criteria in the performance of his duties, such as attendance, willingness to go the extra mile in the performance of his duties, and so on. Those factors are what really mark out the ability to relate performance to pay, and I welcome them.

Another point that has caused me concern arose when I visited my local Benefits Agency office at Harlow—not the one that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford. It expressed the real concern that, if the Treasury is allowed to take efficiency savings produced by agencies and immediately consolidate them into the Exchequer's budget—that is, take the savings and then reduce the starting point for the next year—that could have two consequences.

First, it would demoralise the staff when they see savings that they have struggled to make disappear in that way. Secondly, and perhaps more damaging, it might encourage them not to seek the optimum saving available. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary is shrewd enough to know that. The staff want to ensure that they have a little put aside for next year; they do not want to give all the savings to the Exchequer, because they fear that the agency's global budget will be correspondingly reduced.

I urge my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to take a firm line on that matter even though his officials—in the interests of efficiency and cost-effectiveness—will urge him otherwise. We must always remember that the flip side of the coin that penalises poor performance is that we must be prepared to reward good performance. An agency that has carried out its job conscientiously will show an obvious difference in the standards offered—for example, better furniture, a better foyer area, larger offices, and better pay. That is as it should be, as that will offer an incentive to others in the same public service to do likewise.

One point which causes me exquisite agony was raised by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. Of course, I am referring to the question of freedom of information. This is probably my only opportunity as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Home Department to make this observation. If the Whip on duty will avert his gaze and ears, I must state that I believe that one of the fundamental underpinnings of citizens' rights to good quality service is information to know what is being done in his or her name.

This morning, my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary said that he strongly supported principles of openness. I welcome that. However, the hon. Member for Islington. South and Finsbury was sadly and dangerously misguided—I say "misguided", because I cannot believe that he wished to mislead the House—when he referred to the Labour Government's efforts in that regard. He should have allowed me to intervene, because he is such a fair chap. However, since he did not so, I am obliged to make my point now.

It is a matter of exquisite regret to me that the truth in these matters is that Oppositions love freedom of information and Governments hate it. The Wilson and Callaghan Governments hated it just as much—

Mr. Andrew Mitchell

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. At 11.30 am, we are expecting the latest inflation figures to be announced. Have you had a request for a statement, because many people hope that the figure will be below 4 per cent. this month?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I informed the House at three minutes past 11 that I have received no requests for permission to make statements.

Mr. Norris

Perhaps I should allow my observations on freedom of information to end at that point. However, I have always believed that the principle of freedom of information is a profoundly Tory principle. I have been saddened by the extent to which the arguments about it have been politicised so as to divide the parties on the issue.

I remind my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary that it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) who so trenchantly observed the virtues of freedom of information in the many years that she spent on the Opposition Benches. I urge my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary not to allow Sir Humphrey to win every time. I am aware of the tempting arguments placed before Ministers by permanent secretaries who perceive a problem in the area and who do not want to give away their most potent weapon in government. I urge my hon. Friend to put their blandishments in context.

As other hon. Members in this packed House are keen to contribute to the debate, I will make a final point about a matter which concerns me greatly because it relates to contracting out of services. I was involved in health authority management when the Conservative Government introduced the extremely welcome concept of contracting out. It is worth reminding the House that, in those early days when contracting out was introduced, those who wanted to tender or were successful in their tenders were subjected to vandalism, violence and the planting of incriminating evidence, an example of which was the deliberately fabricated evidence of dirty hospital theatres, where it was subsequently proved that the offending material had been planted by people who wanted to undermine the contractors.

Fortunately, all that is, I hope, long gone. The principles of contracting out remain, and the quality of care offered to a patient in a bed in a national health service hospital must be delivered at optimum value, to treat the greatest number of patients possible. If that means that we can achieve better value for money in laundry, cleaning and catering, then, regardless of our political aspirations, we should seek to achieve it.

I am also concerned about direct labour organisations. When we consider how some DLO contracts operate, I sometimes wonder whether the playing field is entirely level. Is my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary entirely satisfied that the same standards of rigid supervision applied by some local authorities to the performance of contractors are also applied when the contractor is a DLO or a former department of the local authority? I doubt whether that is the case.

Is my right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary—I am sorry, my hon. Friend; I am anticipating the inevitable—entirely satisfied that performance-related conditions of contract are applied equally to those in the private sector and former council employees? Again, I doubt whether that is the case. There are legions of examples and I will not waste the time of the House by enumerating them, as they are well known to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary.

I am very concerned about the dangerous concept of "cheapest is best". For all sorts of reasons, which all hon. Members understand, we must largely rest on the supposition that local authorities are obliged to take the lowest tender. I do not believe that any of us in our private lives ever adopts the principle behind that conclusion. We all want best value rather than the cheapest price when we purchase goods or services. There is a straightforward way around that. We need pre-qualification thresholds for companies, because that is what so often distinguishes tenderers.

Where there is an obnormally low tender which a local authority feels obliged to accept, and where the worst examples of contracts have invariably occurred, that has happened because there has been inadequate pre-qualification investigation of the ability of the organisation—occasionally a DLO—or company to deliver the service. Therefore, we must ensure that every council and authority contracting out a service has a very high pre-qualification threshold which only those who are competent to provide the right level of service can surmount.

I warmly welcome the White Paper, which concludes by stating: Its themes of quality, choice, standards and value for money will be fundamental to public service throughout the 1990s. The Charter will bring for all those in public service new pride and satisfaction. For the public they serve, it will bring commitment to quality and a power to secure it, that will put Britain ahead of any country in the world. I warmly endorse those sentiments and congratulate my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary and the Government team on the initiative, and I commend it warmly to the House.

Mr. Maude

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I believe that the House will want to know, following the point of order from my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell), that the annual retail prices index for October announced a few moments ago was 3.7 per cent.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

That is nearly an abuse of the procedures of the House; it is not a matter for me.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There was no point of order. Mr. Skinner: What steps are you going to take to deal with that Government Front Bench yobbo?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I deprecate the use of that kind of language.

Mr. David Nicholson (Taunton)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be in order—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I thought that I had made it clear that there was no point of order.

11.38 am
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) made a lengthy speech in which he catalogued an array of shortcomings in public services which he believes the citizens charter would address. He—or any other hon. Member—could have made that speech 10, 30 or 50 years ago and I have no doubt that it could be made in 10, 30 or 50 years' time. The citizens charter has been grossly oversold by the Government.

My earlier interventions were not designed to suggest that I do not believe that there is scope for machinery to improve public service. Some aspects of the charter can be welcomed and supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House. However, the title—citizens charter—is a gross, grand misnomer for what is nothing more than a public service consumers charter. It is worth while, valid and has merit, but it is not the great big idea that will save the Government from defeat at the next general election.

Mr. Dicks

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that an interest rate of 3.7 per cent., which has just been announced, would make more money available to implement the citizens charter?

Mr. Bruce

I should be delighted to find out where I can borrow money at 3.7 per cent.

The speeches of the Minister and the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) are good demonstrations of the motherhood and apple pie approach. Of course, things are wrong with public services which can be put right and mechanisms can be introduced. But the danger is in the Government's suggestion to people that there will be some great transformation. People will have unfulfilled expectations when they find that their ability to press complaints, obtain redress and have things sorted out is not as substantial as they had been led to believe.

One is also entitled to question why, if things are so appallingly bad and these measures are so urgently needed, the Government have taken 12 years and six months to come round to the idea of introducing them.

Mr. Norris

It is for a simple reason which the hon. Gentleman must appreciate. Every move that we have made during the past 12 years to introduce such measures has been bitterly resisted by both the Labour party and the hon. Gentleman's party. They now pray in aid their support for each of the measures, now that they see how valuable they are.

Mr. Bruce

I wish to make it clear that I do not pray in aid support for the way in which the Government have privatised the utilities. Indeed, the Competition and Service (Utilities) Bill, which will be debated on Monday, is a recognition of the Government's failure to create consumer protection at an adequate level before the utilities were privatised.

Before the hon. Member for Epping Forest intervened, I was about to make the second point that much of the citizens charter is a recognition of the Government's failures and mistakes over the past 12 years and six months and the need to introduce measures to ensure greater satisfaction. I have to concur with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) that there is anxiety about the way in which the Government put more and more public services into the private sector and yet continue to claim that they will maintain satisfactory standards in services over which they have given up control and accountability for which this elected House of Parliament has lost. That was the point of my earlier intervention.

The Minister said—other hon. Members have commented on it—that he was in favour of greater openness in government. The hon. Member for Epping Forest is well known for his commitment to the cause of freedom of information and is respected by hon. Members on both sides of the House for it. I was glad that he managed to put his commitment on the record. But the Government have resisted measures to introduce genuine freedom of information.

Setting up agencies is not wrong in itself. It can lead to greater efficiency. Neither I nor my party fundamentally objects to the principle. However, we object to the practice of Ministers denying their responsibility and accountability to the elected House of Commons for those agencies. It worries me that Members of Parliament are finding it increasingly difficult to obtain replies from Ministers or access to information.

In addition, the Government and the Conservative party seem to run down and despise public servants and public service. It is perfectly reasonable to set standards for public service and targets which people should attain, but too often the Government imply that people who work in the public sector and public service are inferior to people who work in the private sector and private enterprise. That attitude demoralises people and causes resentment. It makes it more difficult for them to fulfil their role. Interestingly, it alienates former supporters of the Conservative party.

As the hon. Member for Gordon and a campaigner in the Kincardine and Deeside by-election, I can report to the House that the thousands of people in those constituencies who formerly voted Conservative and have defected to the Liberal Democrats should give considerable anxiety to the Conservative party. People do not trust the Government with public services. They no longer believe that the Government can be trusted to maintain standards in education and health.

The Government can say that publishing school league tables and information about the health service reforms are positive improvements, but there is an enormous credibility gap between the Government and voters, who simply do not believe or trust them. The voters have seen that the motivation in the past 12 years has been to introduce commercial practices and competition into public services, thereby undermining the basic public service ethic. People go into public service because they are committed to the community. They are not necessarily motivated by the standards and criteria of the private sector which the Government wish to apply to the public sector.

Mr. Maude

Do the Liberal Democrats oppose the introduction of competition into public services? Do they believe that public service organisations should not submit what they do in fair and open competition with what could be done by others?

Mr. Bruce

I oppose the idea that competition is the answer to delivery of good public services. It is not even relevant to the delivery of all services. Where it is relevant, we support it. We differ from the Government in their belief that only competition can determine the quality of service in the public sector.

The issue that was uppermost in the Kincardine and Deeside by-election was the opt-out of Foresterhill hospital, which also affects my constituency. Foresterhill is the only district general hospital serving the north-east of Scotland and, for some services, the entire north of Scotland. There is no competition and there can be no competition. Indeed, the health board and Ministers have said that there will be no competition, even if the hospital opts out. There is an inherent contradiction in the Government's argument. They say that competition is a good thing, yet they intend to create a free-standing hospital which will operate in a market where there is no market and no one even pretends that there could be competition. That is extremely inconsistent.

People will also look for what improvements in services they can reasonably expect. For example, during the eight years that I have been a Member of Parliament I have been approached by numerous people about no-fault compensation in services such as the NHS and the abolition of Crown immunity. I see nothing in the citizens charter to address those issues, which worry citizens.

Simply improving the delivery of service in the public sector, without providing the necessary resources or enabling facilities, will not create public satisfaction. I am sure that all hon. Members could give examples from their area, but in my local council, Gordon, a thorough review of how employees deal with the public has been carried out since the Liberal Democrats became the lead party in the administration. The council has imposed standards of which the Government would approve. However, it is no consolation to people who go to the housing department to be told politely, quickly, efficiently and courteously that there are no houses available and it is unlikely that there will be any available to meet their demands. That is where the citizens charter will, fundamentally, fall short. People want results and although it may be admirable to make the trains run on time, it did not make Mussolini one of the world's great political leaders. Nor will the Prime Minister's ambition to make Britain a cone-free society make him go down in history as a great Prime Minister.

As I was coming here this morning, I listened to a report of a speech of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). She was speaking, extraordinarily, to business men in Tennessee. It may be of great benefit to both the business men of Tenessee and the people of Britain that it is a long way from here. She was speaking against the move towards European political union, which seems to be causing considerable consternation on the Conservative Benches, even to the point of unseemly attempts to vote in committees of which no one had previously heard, in an attempt to alter the balance within the party. The right hon. Lady said that she would resist all further steps to European political union because they would remove the rights of voters in Britain. Two points spring to mind, First, it is extraordinary that the right hon. Lady did not think of that when she introduced the Single European Act in the House of Commons. Secondly, I am not sure that the rights of British citizens are inherently superior to those available to citizens in other member states of the European Community. Indeed, the reverse may be the case. Some of us believe that a move towards closer political union in Europe may help to drag this antiquated political system into the 20th century, never mind the 21st century, and that we may get some of the benefits that citizens in other European countries have, such as freedom of information, a Bill of rights, a democratic voting system and a division of power between central Government and regional and local government. One of the great concerns of the past 12 years has been the concentration of power in the hands of central Government and the inability of Members of Parliament, never mind individual citizens, to call the Government to account or to influence control of direct public policy. I shall illustrate that by reference to the one Department of State with which I must deal regularly, the Scottish Office.

The Scottish Office is the Lord High Everything north of the border. It covers a range of policies which in England and Wales are covered by many different Ministries. English Members can question Ministers on policy almost every day, but Scottish Members can do so only once every four weeks. Even then, we must compete with Englishmen who wander in at the end of Scottish questions, having taken no part in the proceedings, simply to fill up the time and prevent Opposition Members from calling Ministers to account by asking real questions. That is of genuine concern.

Every other Department of State is shadowed by a Select Committee which can cross-examine civil servants and Ministers about the direction and administration of policy. In defiance of the rules of the House, the Government have persistently refused to set up a Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. As a result, the Scottish Office is not effectively accountable either to the people whom it is supposed to serve or to the elected Members of the House who are supposed to call it to account. Those are the types of issues that concern citizens, but the Government fail to address them.

I cite another specific example. British Coal closed Monktonhall colliery. For two and a half years a consortium of local mineworkers has been competing to take over the licence and operate the mine as a free enterprise. They are not looking for public money. The Government have persistently refused to answer any questions about British Coal's conduct and attitude towards the consortium. They have refused all meetings with representatives of the consortium and with Members of Parliament. I understand that two days ago, on the instigation, interestingly, of a Conservative councillor in Lothian, a Minister agreed to meet the consortium.

Those examples show how our lousy, corrupt system works now. The Government are siphoning off their responsibility and refusing to answer questions in the House, yet they are trying to set up a citizens charter as though it were some sort of guarantee. Their record in office is of ducking their responsibility, of not answering questions, of not being called to account and of not being available to elected Members.

Mr. Maude

Does the hon. Gentleman contend, then, that public services can be provided for citizens only through directly employed, bureaucratic, pyramid structures accountable to Ministers through long lines of management? Is he now the only person left in the country and, probably, the world who believes that those means of management remain relevant?

Mr. Bruce

The Minister knows perfectly well that that is not what I am saying. I have made it clear that neither I nor my party objects to the creation of agencies per se. I am complaining about the Government's use of that structure to abdicate their responsibility ultimately to be answerable to the House. It is not a question of the Minister being our direct line from a pyramid; it is that Ministers should accept that they are accountable to Parliament. Increasingly, they are ducking that responsibility.

Members and Select Committees are being treated dismissively and with contempt. The main function of Select Committees now is not to influence policy. The Government take not the slightest account of what they say. Their function is to call evidence in public. The witnessing and publication of that evidence is their most useful service. It is a valuable service, but it falls far short of what they were set up to do in the first place and what in a democratic House of Commons they should be able to do—to influence Government policy and call Ministers effectively to account.

Too often Ministers are engaged in almost nefarious activities. They have furthered their personal careers on the back of their ministerial office and lined their pockets on the basis of the merits that they have gained from their jobs. Yet, we have not been able to call them to account subsequently because they have moved out of the range of accountability.

I shall embellish that point. I notice that Conservatives are keen on talking about the sovereignty of Parliament. Personally, I find that concept rather obscene. I believe that Parliament should serve the people who it represents rather than be their master and that the people should retain the sovereignty. In Scotland we understand that concept.

None the less, the idea is that Parliament should be sovereign. Yet parliamentarians are denied the rights of effective access to information, of getting proper answers and of calling Ministers to account. That is a sign that the sovereignty of Parliament is not a great triumph for democracy but a means of concentrating power in the hands of an establishment that is not effectively accountable—it simply has to control the majority in Parliament and it can ignore the elected representatives of the majority of the people.

Mr. Dicks

Surely the hon. Gentleman's party is desperate to get us under the control of the unelected officials in Europe. That is his party's policy. He speaks with a forked tongue.

Mr. Bruce

That is not our policy. Our policy is to create a democratic Europe, a democratic Britain and, I hope, a democratic Scotland as well. That is fundamentally different. We wish not to put ourselves in the power of the bureaucrats of Europe, but to reform Europe in a truly democratic way. It is the obstinacy of the Conservative party, which is divided and incapable both of representing Britain's national interests and of leading the debate constructively, which is causing concern. This country needs a proper open, modern democracy. It needs a Bill of rights to enable citizens to challenge the Government—the Executive—when it abuses its power and a House of Commons which is genuinely representative of the way in which people vote and which can ensure that policy is directed according to the wishes of the people rather than those of a minority who, because of a distortion, happen to control Parliament at a given time. We need to decentralise power.

The Liberal Democratic party believes that Scottish and Welsh parliaments and regional assemblies would be a good thing not only because they would bring decisions closer to the people, but because they would divide power instead of concentrating it in the hands of the Government in Whitehall.

When the citizens charter was introduced the Government believed that it was the big idea that would temper Thatcherism and secure the present Prime Minister a new mandate. It falls far short of achieving that objective. The citizens charter is a modest gimmick, designed to paper over the cracks of a crumbling and decadent political system. The Conservative party is running away from the fact that it has power and that it has abused that power over the past 12 years and is treating the public with contempt. The public will not be conned any more. Until we have a society with genuine freedom of information, a Bill of rights, decentralisation of decision-making and a fair voting system, we cannot expect that the citizens of this country will have rights. This is not a citizens charter; it is a public service consumers charter. It is high time that the Conservative party recognised that if the citizens of Britain are to be treated as citizens they need rights that the Government have denied them.

11.57 pm
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Gedling)

It is most unusual for me to have the opportunity to attend a Friday debate. I cannot remember when I was last able to do so. About this time on a Friday, I am normally busy in my constituency, but when I saw that the Government had decided to spend a day discussing the citizens charter I knew that it was right for me to be here to listen to the Minister and to develop the excellent discussion that has already taken place on this important subject.

I decided to speak partly because I have had many letters from my constituents about the Prime Minister's idea of a citizens charter. The letters welcome and support the idea; above all, they show how the citizens, our constituents, want the ideas that we have already heard about this morning to be developed.

My second reason for contributing to the debate is that I have always taken a great interest in the Audit Commission, which is pivotal to the success of many of the reforms and ideas outlined by my hon. Friend the Minister.

The Opposition parties say that the citizens charter represents some sort of volte face from the changes made in the 1980s. On the contrary, it is a continuation of the theme pursued by the Government in the 1980s, which included the economic reforms, the supply side changes and the extension of competition through privatisation and competitive tendering of which my hon. Friend spoke.

The citizens charter is an authentic continuation of the reforms that we achieved in the 1980s. It will give citizens powers in those services where so far the reforms have had only a partial effect, if any. We have already extended choice and opportunity in education, health and in housing through the right-to-buy legislation. The citizens charter will extend that choice. It captivates our constituents and they look forward to further developments in the charter.

The other politicial parties are as lost on this issue as they were on the reforms of the 1980s. I listened with interest to the rather dyspeptic speech of the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce). On this matter, as on so many others, the Liberals cannot decide where they stand. I read with great interest the recent article on the citizens charter that appeared in The House Magazine by the leader of the Liberal Democrats. At first the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) dismissed the charter by stating that it was a rag-bag of policy proposals, many of which were no doubt around in Whitehall in any case and would have surfaced in time. Later on the right hon. Gentleman changed his mind and said: the Prime Minister is tapping into a strain of thinking that is, potentially, extremely powerful. The right hon. Gentleman is obviously right about that. He also made another point with which we can all agree when he said: The country does not want to return to Labour, which speaks more often for the corporate interests of the public sector than for the citizen. That is the critical point—the Labour party does not believe in a citizens charter because it is in hock to large power groups.

The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) has many redeeming features despite being an extremely dangerous left winger. During the week, when I am in London, I stay in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and the citizens charter will have a major effect on a number of areas in it. During the hon. Gentleman's speech we crossed swords briefly about the right to buy and I think that the hon. Gentleman managed to keep a straight face when he spoke about that.

The hon. Gentleman also spoke about the pamphlet published in 1921 by Herbert Morrison. He cited that pamphlet as evidence to prove that the citizens charter was an authentic Labour idea. However, since 1921 I calculate that there have been no fewer than six Labour Governments. Why did they not develop the idea when they had the opportunity? Why has it taken a Conservative Government and Prime Minister to implement ideas that the hon. Gentleman claims were originally proposed by that great former socialist? I cannot dispute that claim because I have never read the pamphlet.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Post Office. I believe strongly that that service should be opened to the type of competition that my hon. Friend the Minister outlined. There is no reason why the £1 rule should pertain. I believe that that sum should be lowered to 50p as that would allow the private sector—the operators in fringe services—to get involved and to offer a much better service to the consumer. That is what the citizens charter is all about.

The hon. Gentleman was wise to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris) about official secrets. Again, the hon. Gentleman just about managed to keep a straight face—

Mr. Arbuthnot

No, he did not.

Mr. Mitchell

I stand corrected.

Whether one is in opposition or in government makes a tremendous difference to the way in which one reacts to official secrets. I was new to the House when my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) introduced his Bill and I listened to his powerful argument carefully. I did not believe that there was a case, then, for doing what my hon. Friend wanted, and, despite my hon. Friend's powerful argument, I do not believe that that case has advanced since.

Mr. Chris Smith

I have considerable respect for the hon. Gentleman, but in one respect he is confusing official secrets and freedom of information. We need reform on both counts. Secondly, although we understand that traditionally Governments of any political colour have been reluctant to undertake freedom of information legislation, we are determined, when we are in government next year, to ensure that a freedom of information measure is put through the House.

Mr. Mitchell

In the unlikely event of Labour being in power, we shall see whether such legislation is introduced in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. I remind him, to answer the first part of his intervention, that reform has already taken place. The Minister who introduced the Official Secrets Act 1989, when he was Home Secretary—he is now Foreign Secretary—could hardly be painted an anti-liberal right-wing member of the Government. It is generally accepted in the House that he is a reasonable person, and he piloted that measure through.

Mr. Chris Smith

The hon. Gentleman reveals his misunderstanding of the issue. I accept that the official secrets legislation was reformed, but that Act, designed supposedly to reform the legislation, was deeply inadequate. It removed a few items from the list of official secrets, but put a stronger fence around those it preserved. The hon. Gentleman is falling into the trap; simply because the Government introduce legislation that purports to reform the official secrets or freedom of information laws, or anything else, does not mean that such reform is achieved.

Mr. Mitchell

While I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman's main point, I appreciate what he says about the difference between freedom of information and official secrets, and I shall explain the way in which the citizens charter does a great deal to assist the extending of freedom of information with the releasing of information that should rightly be in the public domain.

Opposition Members are impaled on a dilemma, because they cannot make up their minds whether to belittle the idea of a citizens charter or claim it for their own. We are intent on empowering individuals to get better and more accountable services and to enable them to seek and win redress. It is to enhance the right of the individual that we address the charter and Opposition Members have not dealt with that aspect of it.

The Minister praised East Midlands Electricity, which has its headquarters in my constituency, for having set up a fixed appointments and times system which provides compensation if times are not adhered to. I echo his comments about the work done by John Harris, the chairman of that company, which was the first of the distribution companies to have such a scheme. It is a great credit to him and East Midlands Electricity. By establishing those standards, the company has set an example to the other electricity companies which I hope will be widely followed.

The Minister also mentioned that benefit centres and jobcentres were increasingly being amalgamated to provide a better service for our constituents. I echo his remarks. I recently opened the new combined centre in Netherfield in my constituency. It is doing an excellent job for my constituents in one of the poorer areas that I represent and he is right to say that that reform has had a significant impact on the ease with which people can use the service and the effectiveness of it.

Although I see some movement among Labour Members in respecting the work of the Audit Commission, I hope that they will think carefully about their quality commission proposals and in particular about their plans to neuter the Audit Commission by filling it with people who are public sector oriented or who have come directly from the public sector. Nothing would more effectively destroy the work of the Audit Commission, which has proved to be one of the most effective reforms of the machinery of government to be introduced in the last eight years. It has managed to tackle a central issue that should concern us. Although we are all obsessed with the amount of money that goes into public services, and are quick to seize upon inputs and to note the extent to which Government funding has or has not increased, we are much less able to monitor whether that money is spent effectively, the quality of that spending and the realities of the output from that spending. The Audit Commission has successfully addressed those issues.

The commission's value-for-money studies into improving existing services or releasing funds to be deployed in providing other, more valuable services are immensely important. I salute the skill and expertise of the commission's controller, Howard Davies, and of his predecessor, John Banham, who both made significant progress in achieving greater accountability from the public sector. If the citizens charter builds and expands on the work of the Audit Commission in the way that it should, it will be all the more successful.

ery year, the commission identifies where huge savings can be made. It has achieved savings of nearly £1 billion, which is a remarkable success. It lives up to its reputation as the enemy of waste and inefficiency and the best friend of the taxpayer. I hope that it will be used extensively in relation to the charter.

Mr. Summerson

Does my hon. Friend agree that Labour wants to abolish the Audit Commission because it fears that the commission will continue to expose inefficiency and uselessness in local authorities, and particularly those that are Labour controlled?

Mr. Mitchell

My hon. Friend puts his finger on an important point. Labour's quality commission would neutralise the effect of the Audit Commission. Because Labour is in hock to the public sector trade unions, who are its paymasters, its proposed commission could not function effectively or defend service quality for the citizen.

The work of the Audit Commission will be extremely important in four areas. There has been a huge increase in the resources that the Government have made available to the police, but many of us wonder to what extent they are used efficiently. I am pleased that the commission has been deployed in the police service, though not as yet in the Metropolitan police.

There is a strong argument for allowing the commission to do for the Metropolitan police what it does for every other force in the country, in demonstrating how efficient or inefficient the police services are, and what can be done to improve them.

That is very much a matter for the citizens charter. The four areas of police work perceived by the public as being of most importance would probably trip off our constituents' tongues. They are the response time to 999 and other calls, crime clear-up rates, the number of police on the street and their effective deployment, and control and management of parking.

The latter is a complex issue, because it concerns not only the number of parking tickets issued by the police and related services but enforcement, and whether the situation in a particular area is improving.

Those aspects are all of great importance to our constituents and we must devise ways of making the police even more efficient in dealing with those and other matters. Disparities exist throughout the country.

Considerable strides are being made. The inspectorate of constabularies has done a good job in developing a matrix of 450 indicators of police performance. Under the terms of the Local Government Bill the citizen will, for the first time, be able to compare police performance in different forces. The Audit Commission is considering how to produce comparative figures to enable the public to see how the police are performing. It is clearly important that the Audit Commission, not the inspectorate of constabularies, should be responsible for producing the Comparative analysis of forces by the same logic that led to the provider-purchaser split that we have implemented in so many other public service sectors.

The key issue is that the Government have made great strides in the way that they monitor and supervise public services, but there has been less emphasis in the past on doing so in a way that citizens can easily understand. That is what the citizens charter is about; it shows citizens that the police service in their district is doing well in objective terms in some respects and perhaps not so well in others in comparison with other forces. The charter enables citizens to question and to see for themselves how services can be improved and how those improvements can be made.

The charter provides the opportunity to breathe new life into local government and help to rebuild local democracy in a number of sectors, including housing management. One need only consider the speech that the Secretary of State for the Environment made this week after visiting North Tyneside and seeing what was happening there. The charter will enable us to highlight those councils that manage housing stock badly and to see how long houses are left unoccupied and unrepaired. There are huge variations in housing management throughout the different authorities. I believe that in one metropolitan district, 9 per cent. of its accommodation stock was left empty, while in another comparable district, the figure was only 1 per cent. There are wide variations between the best housing authorities and the worst.

Housing management is important to many of our constituents. The Audit Commission recommend that out of London, a three-week period for repairs and for houses to be empty is probably long enough and, in London, a period of six weeks. But half of all local authorities cannot meet those reasonable limits. Citizens living in local authorities where they have to endure such housing conditions, need to know why their authorities perform less well than neighbouring ones, and the Bill will enable direct comparisons to be made.

Originally, the inclusion of the performance of the refuse services in the citizens charter was pooh-poohed as a subject that was beneath Parliament, which should not concern itself with such a matter. That is far from the truth; citizens want the best possible refuse collection as much as they want the best of any other service. The issue of "missed bins" an important one, and nothing is more infuriating to a constituent. The Bill will allow league tables of the effectiveness of refuse collection to be published.

The Litter Act 1983 was a great success and introduced many new techniques for monitoring litter and preventing it spreading. Nothing incenses our constituents more than litter and graffiti in the local environment. Some local authorities have introduced photographic monitoring. I think that the Local Government Chronicle was originally doubtful about whether the Litter Act would be successful. But only last week it made it clear in an article that it believes that it does work and is effective.

It is right that the citizens charter should cover environmental health departments and consider how often such departments in one district carry out inspections, what impact they have and how those services compare with those of neighbouring districts. As a Member of Parliament, I am conscious of the steep increase in citizens' complaints about noise and smells. There is a disparity in the way in which environmental health departments in different areas perform and we need to ensure that all perform at the standard of the best.

The effect of all these changes will be to breathe new life into local government and local democracy. They will ensure not only better service for the citizen but greater accountability, and far better morale in local government because the providers will be able to see how they are doing and take great pride in their success when they are doing well. Some services will always be in the public sector and we support those services. We want them to be truly excellent and we want to establish how they can be improved. There is no reason why those services should not have their standards set and their achievements published, and the role of the Audit Commission in that will be pivotal.

My third point concerns the health service and the patients charter. The monitoring needs to be very robust and, in the interests of public credibility, we must ensure that there is external scrutiny. I was slightly surprised to see, on page 19 of the copy of the patients charter that was put through my door, that complaints should be made to Duncan Nichol, the chief executive of the health service. That is all right as far as it goes, but the public need to be able to complain to a non-health service person who can adjudicate fairly—otherwise, I fear that they will not feel that they are receiving an impartial hearing.

Mr. Tony Banks

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could help me. I thought that Duncan Nichol was leaving his post as chief executive of the health service in June.

Mr. Mitchell

I cannot help the hon. Gentleman on the departure of Duncan Nichol or on its date, but I can help him on the point that I sought to make. It is all right complaining under the charter to the person who runs the service about which one is complaining as long as there is a further port of call—a further person to whom one can complain.

There are wide discrepancies in the service that patients in different areas receive. The conclusion of a deep and extensive report on day-care surgery published a year ago by the Audit Commission was that waiting lists for day-care surgery could be cut by a third through the more efficient use of such surgery. In other words, if every health authority performed as well as the best in this important respect, there would be an immense increase in the amount of day-care surgery that could be undertaken. The Audit Commission focused on the 20 most common operations, which account for about 30 per cent. of all surgery conducted, and came up with a most impressive figure. If all the health authorities performed at the same rate as the top 25 per cent., an additional 186,000 patients could be treated at no extra cost. That will be a great prize if we can achieve it.

The parents charter will enhance parental choice and strengthen parents' rights and it will make far more information available to help parents to exercise those rights. They will receive written reports annually and their children's schools will be inspected every four years. Many of us may wonder why it has taken so long to achieve the last two objectives, but I am delighted that the proposal is now to go ahead. A number of my hon. Friends and I introduced a Bill earlier this year to oblige all schools to publish their public examination results in common form. Unfortunately, the Bill was vetoed by a Labour Whip although, since then, I note that, in The Guardian, the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who speaks for the Labour party on education, said: Let a thousand league-tables bloom. In the light of that, I am not clear where the Labour party will stand on this aspect of the Bill when we debate its Second Reading next Tuesday.

This is an important change and I am glad that we have got away from the odious and patronising attitude of so many local education authorities—particularly Labour local education authorities—that say that one cannot trust parents with objective information about how their children's schools are doing. The charter is a great step forward and the publication of objective results will be immensely valuable in increasing choice and improving standards. When the Prime Minister said in Blackpool recently that the trendy liberals in education have had their say and … had their day hundreds of thousands of parents all over the country let out a huge sigh of relief. That aspect of the parents charter will do a great deal to help. Parents do not want trendy socio-economic arguments about why their school is not as good as another. They want the best for their children and an assurance that the school will improve its perforance and give their children better opportunities.

We have made good progress on education. The pay review body with its commitment to performance-related pay is immensely important. There have been large funding increases for education, not least most recently in the autumn statement. Perhaps we could all agree that it is not only a question of money. I was interested to read that in Japan half of all 16-year-olds reach a standard in maths which is reached by only 2 per cent. of children of an equivalent age in Britain. Yet the Japanese spend less per head on education that we do. I hope that the education measures that are enshrined in the citizens charter will do a great deal to improve standards for our children.

It is a pity that there are not more hon. Members here to take part in the debate. The charter is immensely important and will be greatly welcomed by our constituents. In the 1980s much was achieved in the economy and many essential and fundamental changes had to be made after the IMF was called in in the late 1970s when Labour was in power. I am sure that the citizens charter is the big idea for the 1990s. It will improve public services to the point of excellence, restore the morale of the people who deliver them and make them more efficient and capable of delivering good service to our constituents.

12.26 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

I welcome the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Mitchell) to the Friday crowd. He will have noticed, as have those of us who are Friday habitues, that the Benches are sparsely populated. Perhaps performance-related pay for hon. Members could be debated by those of us who are here on Fridays for important debates such as this. Perhaps the 10 hon. Members who are in the Chamber could receive the pay of the other 640. That would be a nice little earner for us.

The hon. Gentleman does not have to worry about the normal courtesy of staying to listen to the next speaker. No doubt, in his constituency office and at his surgery at this very moment, impatient constituents are waving their charters and working out the waiting time that they have to put in while the hon. Gentleman is in London delivering a good speech. If the hon. Gentleman wants to be on his way, I would not wish to delay him for a moment.

I have always found it a great advantage to loathe my political opponents. It is not usually difficult, but the Prime Minister is certainly not one of those that I loathe. How could I? We both grew up in Brixton, we both support Chelsea and, oblivious of each other's existence, we travelled on the No. 45 bus from Brixton to Stamford bridge on Saturdays. We both support Surrey and watched the team through that glorious period when Surrey won the county championship six years in succession. We both served as Lambeth councillors. We both like beans on toast, although I like mine with liberal lashings of Worcester sauce, which I expect is far too exotic for the Prime Minister.

Where on this conjoined road of shared experiences did the Prime Minister go so badly wrong and become a Tory? I think that it was when he got turned down for the job of a bus conductor. He had set his heart on punching tickets and helping little old ladies on and off the bus, but he was spurned. At that point, he vowed hideous revenge on us all, but to be able to get it, he first had to push a little old lady from Finchley off the bus. Having achieved that, he has now turned his attention to the rest of us.

Our fate is to be even more horrible than to be frogmarched out of Downing street. We are to be buried alive under charters. I thought that the charter was just one document, and that after the press conference and the photographs it would go away. That does not appear to be the case, because there are more charters in store.

Mr. Dicks

Are not there fewer pages in our charter than there were in "Meet the Challenge: Make the Change", the document produced by the Labour party?

Mr. Banks

I have never actually read that document, but it was far too long. Its very length was designed to put off the rank and file member from reading it. It achieved its objective in my case.

I tried to ask the Prime Minister, in a parliamentary question, to give details of the additional charters in the various service areas which arise directly from his own citizens charter and to say when each of the new charters would be published. I should have thought that, in the new found spirit of glasnost in the Tory Government, with public officials being required to give direct answers, the Prime Minister would hasten to give me a reply. It was: I am asking the Table Office to make the necessary transfer arrangements to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The first offer that the Prime Minister gets to say something about his charter he shuffles the buck off to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Did I expect anything better of the Chancellor? I did not. I was right, as the answer was that I should get a reply "as soon as possible". I cannot even find out how many charters will flow from the original one.

Mr. Arbuthnot

Only two Fridays ago, the hon. Gentleman was berating Conservative Members for not having read "Meet the Challenge. Make the Change". When I said that I had read it, the hon. Gentleman said that he had also read it. May I now tear up my copy?

Mr. Banks

The hon. Gentleman must know that I am a liar. In those circumstances, if he believes that, he will believe anything. It is more important that Conservative Members read Labour party policy documents, because they might learn something. I do not have a great deal to learn from such policy documents.

If one reads the citizens charter, one realises that it will spawn more charters than the hydra could grow heads. I understand that we shall have charters for patients, tenants, parents and the taxpayer, charters to cover British Rail and London Underground, the post office, social security benefits agency, the police, local authorities—the list goes on. We shall have government by charter. I can imagine the Prime Minister responding to every new idea in Cabinet with the comment, "That's a most agreeable suggestion. Let's have a charter on it." He will inundate us with charters—and all because London Transport turned him down for a job.

We shall have charters to cover all manner of groups, but none to cover the Government—a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) from the Opposition Front Bench. There is no charter to give voters the right to claim compensation from the Government when they have pursued policies that have created unemployment, homelessness, high interest rates, social injustice and economic incompetence. There is no charter provision for a general election so that the people can have their say at the ballot box at a set time, rather than having to hang on until the Government can find the most appropriate time to make a rush to the polls.

The citizens charter is nothing more than a glossy confection. It is an epitaph to the accumulated failures of 12 years of Tory government. Having systematically run down and denigrated public services since 1979, they now expect the country to be grateful for being offered lower standards of service than we used to enjoy, and ones that are derisory in the light of what is enjoyed in many other European countries.

I shall take two examples of that and apply them to London. The first is housing. There were 37,240 households accepted as homeless by London councils last year—a rise of 12 per cent. on the previous year. There were 33,432 households in bed-and-breakfast accornmodation, hostels and other temporary homes—an increase of 31 per cent. over the previous year. The comparable figure in 1979 was 2,750. Over 60,000 Londoners are more than three months in arrears with their mortgage repayments. For council tenants, London rents have more than trebled between 1979 and 1989. For example, in Conservative Ealing, tenants have had to face a 100 per cent. increase in their council rents since January this year.

We have people living rough in cardboard boxes in doorways in the streets of London. There is no local authority provision for young people who are homeless—that should be written into a charter. I hear young people ask why they cannot find homes. One of the reasons for their homelessness is that the Prime Minister, when he had ministerial responsibility for social security, changed the rules and regulations. The young people who sleep rough in the streets of London have the Prime Minister to thank for having only £31 a week income support. We all know that £31 buys next to nothing in London now.

Homelessness has more than doubled in London in the past decade. In 1979, London local authorities started more than 9,000 new homes in the capital. This year there were 363 starts, the fewest since the second world war. That has come about because of Government policies.

Capital spending by London councils fell by 85 per cent. between 1979–80 and 1989–90. The allocation for London in the current financial year 1991–92 has been cut by a further 8 per cent. This Conservative Government are spending £6 billion less on provision for housing than was provided in 1979. It is not necessary to have a doctorate in housing management to understand why there is a homelessness crisis in London and throughout the country: the answer lies with Government policies. The homeless and the badly housed of the capital do not want glossy charters waved under their noses. They want homes, but they will not get them until a Labour Government are elected.

The citizens charter brims with transport issues. I remind the House that traffic speeds in central London have fallen to 10 mph, which is no more than the speed of a horse and cart at the turn of the century. The Confederation of British Industry estimates that congestion costs its members in commerce and industry in London and the south-east £10 billion a year.

London passengers pay the highest charges in fares per mile for bus, tube and rail travel in the whole of the European Community. Indeed, they pay double the average fare in other European cities. Since London Transport was taken away from the Greater London council, fares have increased by 25 per cent. on average in real terms. Some fares have increased by much more. The fare for a short-hop bus journey in central London has increased by 61 per cent. since 1984.

Worse is to come: the Government are now demanding that Network SouthEast should break even and that London Underground should become operationally profitable by 1992–93. That is something which no other network in Europe has been made to do. The result is that jobs are being cut and the quality of service is being reduced.

The Government plan to deregulate London's bus routes. We say that that will leave the service in chaos and threaten the future of the travelcard. It must be obvious to anyone who has any understanding of how a city works that an inefficient transport system means an inefficient city. That is bad for residents, business and visitors.

It is no consolation to those who sit in traffic jams or on stations, or who are stuck in carriages in tunnels, to be told that they can use the time to read the various charters that are being printed by central Government. It is an absurdity.

I shall examine a couple of the transport issues within the charter in terms of the undertakings that are on offer. For all those who have their charters easily to hand, I refer to page 17 and punctuality on British Rail. We are told: 92 per cent of trains are to arrive within five minutes of the published time all day (88 per cent. in the morning and evening peak)". An individual passenger does not, of course, travel on 92 per cent. of all trains. He or she travels 100 per cent. on one train. It is no consolation to that one passenger to find that the train on which he or she is travelling 100 per cent. is late. It is no consolation to anyone to be told, "Don't worry, because 92 per cent. of all other trains are running on time today."

The next heading is "Reliability". We are told: 99 per cent of trains should be run". I say amen to that, but why 99 per cent? It seems rather a strange figure to choose. When we think about it, it is not far off 100 per cent. Surely 99 per cent. sounds like the election turnout in the old-style Nicolae Ceausescu elections in Romania. We know that that did not make a great deal of sense either. What does it mean? I hope that the Minister will deal with that because I, for one, am rather confused.

The charter says: 100 per cent. of trains should be cleaned inside and out every day. They certainly should be. I hope that extra staff will be taken on to pick up all the charters that were flung on the floor in anger and frustration by the travellers sitting on the train that was not one of the 92 per cent. that arrived on time that day.

On waiting time at booking offices, the charter says: passengers should not wait for more than three minutes (five minutes in the peak). That sounds fairly straightforward, but on the next page—page 18 for those who are following this—it says of London Underground: no more than 2 per cent. of passengers will wait more than three minutes for their tickets. Hon. Members should try to imagine that. If someone is standing in a queue, how on earth is he to work out whether he is part of the 2 per cent. of passengers who have waited more than three minutes for their tickets? It is a recipe for chaos. If I were standing in a queue at Stratford station, waiting for a ticket, once I had worked that I was actually within that 2 per cent. of people, I would push myself to the front, wave my copy of John Major's charter and insist on having my ticket, now. I would get my face filled in, and I would no doubt deserve it. My teeth would be knocked out.

What would happen to me then? As it happens, the charter is quite useful. Page 12 provides a dentists charter. It says: Dentists' patients are entitled to clear information … All patients are now entitled to a treatment plan setting out what is proposed. Does that mean that if I can get into the dentist's waiting room, minus my front teeth that I have lost trying to enforce another part of the charter, I will have preferential treatment from the dentist? That should be included in the charter, because it is clear that there is an awful lot of trouble ahead for people who try to implement the various statements in the charter.

I refer once again to page 18, and the question of reliability on the London Underground. It says: no more than 7 per cent. of passengers will wait more than one and a half times the scheduled interval. That is a useful piece of information to have when one is sitting on the station in the rush hour wondering why the train has not turned up. How on earth do we work it out? Someone would have to be another Einstein to work out whether he had had a rum deal on the charter. It is certainly well beyond the capability of someone with three GCSEs at O-level.

I welcome notices in post offices about waiting time. On pension day, the post office in Forest Gate resembles a Moscow bread queue. I warn the Government that the charters on waiting times—in so far as anyone can understand them—are a prescription for public disorder. On railway stations, in DSS offices and in post offices, enraged individuals clutching their copy of Major's charter will quote abstract calculations about waiting times. It will be sheer chaos. What consolation will they have? It will be the consolation provided in the charter that those who are injured will have to wait for only two years for treatment in hospital.

The charters will not build homes, they will not provide jobs, they will not cut waiting lists at hospitals, and they will not get the trains running on time. Without adequate resources invested in public services, there is no real choice for the citizens of London or, indeed, throughout the country.

A Labour Government will make a genuine commitment to public services. The sooner a Labour Government are elected, the sooner we will get public services operating in the way they should. The sooner a Labour Government are elected, the sooner the Prime Minister can fulfil his lifetime ambition of becoming a bus conductor. One of the promises that the Labour Front Bench has made is that, when we are back in government, we will restore bus conductors to our London buses. That should encourage even the Prime Minister to vote for us.

12.44 pm
Mr. Terry Dicks (Hayes and Harlington)

It is almost impossible to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks). Perhaps he should consider applying for the job as manager of the England football team, who at the moment is cornered between two stools. He does not know whether to opt for style or to wellie the ball up field. We know that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West has style and does not wellie. It is a great pleasure to follow him in this debate.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Newham, North-West in some respects about the citizens charter. It is essential to lay down exactly what we would like to happen in public services. He said that things would not happen, but I believe that they will although it will take some time. The parameters and approaches in the charter will be effective.

I am a great believer in considering rights and responsibilities side by side. They are two sides of the same coin. Too often we hear, especially from Opposition Members, about rights for these people and rights for those people, but they rarely speak about the responsibility that accompanies those rights. The public have a right and it is the responsibility of public services to respond to that right. The charter begins to follow that course in a definite manner.

The charter refers to standards of service and the choice within and between services. It aims to open up to public scrutiny what is happening in local authorities and other public areas. It refers also to value-for-money tests.

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury because I missed the beginning of his speech. I was talking about the citizens charter on television in relation to British Rail. I am appalled at the service that BR provides. It is one of the most inefficient services and its nearest rival is London Regional Transport.

I want to clarify a point that I made in an intervention on my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris). Over the past 12 years, £12 billion of Government funding has been allocated to British Rail. It has received an additional £1.5 billion this year and £2 billion is laid aside for next year. It seems to be small-minded for Bob Reid to carp about investment when his organisation has had that kind of money to play with. His predecessor with the same name appeared before the Select Committee on Transport a couple of years ago and claimed that money was not a major issue in relation to improving the rail service.

Reference has been made to time-keeping and the hon. Member for Newham, North-West mentioned the 92 per cent. objective. It is nonsense to say that a train arrives on time if it is less than 10 minutes late. Either a train arrives on time or it is late. If I do not arrive at the Door of the Chamber before 2.25 pm on a day when there is Government business, I am too late to attend Prayers. I cannot turn to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, or to Mr. Speaker, and say, "Please, I was three minutes late, but technically that's on time." You would laugh at me, Madam Deputy Speaker, and rightly so. I cannot see how we can speak in those terms and make a meaningful contribution to what the commuter and traveller expects.

I hope that I can begin to rival the hon. Member for Newham, North-West when I refer to rolling stock. Perhaps the Opposition Whip will excuse me if I refer to the 158 train and an issue that is close to his heart and his area. I have redubbed the 158 train the 175. It was ordered by British Rail through British Rail Engineering Ltd. when it was still nationalised. That 18-month contract was delivered last October 18 months late with 175 faults. For example, the brakes did not work when it snowed. The two carriages that were linked together came unstuck when the train moved. The main shaft beneath the train came apart. A pump fell off and was found at 4.30 am on the Forth bridge. The toilets did not work and the seats wore out almost as soon as one sat on them. The tables in the carriages worked loose and allowed coffee to sink in because they were made of the wrong material.

I expect that a little deal will be done between ScotRail and BREL to smooth things over and fudge the issue of compensation. As a member of the Transport Select Committee, I promise the House that I will not allow that to happen. That is the kind of nonsense that is going on. As a result of those stupid arrangements and that chaos, commuters in Scotland are suffering. Had it not been for the efficiency of ScotRail's maintenance team in Scotland, passengers would have had no trains to ride on. The commuter is suffering from the incompetence of those ordering the equipment and the people building it and we must do something about it. Perhaps, in a small way, the citizens charter has a role in achieving that end. When one speaks to the railway people they play it down and say, "Those are just teething problems". But it was a hands, arms and lungs job. It was a transplant job.

I remind the hon. Member for Newham, North-West of the point that I made earlier. For the three years from 1987 to 1989, London Transport underspent its capital allocation by £120 million. When I raised that with Mr. Newton recently in the Select Committee, he said, "Don't let's talk about the past." But in his beautiful multicoloured brochure, which cost a fortune to produce, he complained about lack of investment and said that it was the Government's fault that the underground service was not running properly. He deliberately ommitted the fact that he had underspent.

I do not have to tell the House about docklands light rail. It is one of the most inefficient operations that it has been my misfortune, or the misfortune of any London Member, to know about. If ever there was an area which needed an efficient transport system, it was docklands, especially with the City airport nearby. Yet the service has been abysmal from start to finish. Mr. Newton and his team have the audacity to complain about the Government's rightly deciding that London Transport is no longer competent to operate the service and taking the service away from it. In doing that, the Government have jumped ahead of the citizens charter. On behalf of the citizens, they have recognised a mistake and rectified it.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

My hon. Friend is covering the problems of transport in London. Most of my constituents commute into London and they, too, face problems on a daily basis. It is not simply leaves on the line, the wrong trains or all the rest of it. British Rail simply does not do the obvious things well. Does my hon. Friend agree that the citizens charter will assist commuters and show them how they can put pressure on British Rail, which for decades has ignored passengers in the interests of those who work for it? Let us have performance-related pay and get the staff working for the passengers. Then we might see a difference in attitude in favour of our constituents.

Mr. Dicks

My hon. Friend's point about the problems facing commuters from outside London is well made.

Last week, the chairman of British Rail went to meet the passengers of British Rail, whom he is supposed to serve. He had to take a minder with him because he was fearful of their reaction. That is ludicrous. If ever there were a case for saying, "I have failed. It is a waste of time because I have a great big chap beside me to thump you if you even speak aggressively to me," that is it. If that is not a resignation matter, I do not know what is.

The Southend to Fenchurch Street line is chaos. If Bob Reid was paid according to results he would be paying the commuter and taxpayer rather than taking money from them to meet his salary. My hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) is right. The level of service in London is bad enough, not least because there is no cohesion between British Rail and London Transport. Nevertheless, it is just as bad, if not worse, in some places outside London.

The management of London Transport is ineffective and poor. Most of the time, it simply does not know whether it is Christmas, Easter or Shrove Tuesday. I have gone on record before saying that it could be no worse if we took the cleaners from Oxford Circus station, put them into management jobs on London Transport and put the managers to cleaning the station. We would probably find that the station was cleaned less well than before.

London Transport told the Select Committee that one reason why it increased fares was to keep people off the underground. In the next breath, it said that it did not have enough income. It does not persuade people to use the service, thereby improving the quality of the environment by reducing the chaos on the roads, to which the hon. Member for Newham, North-West referred. That is what it is there to do, yet it simply increases the prices to keep people off the underground.

I wish to refer to one aspect of the involvement of public sector trade unions. At a recent meeting of the Select Committee, I asked why travelcards could not be bought by members of the public in newsagents adjacent to stations. People go in to buy their newspapers, cigarettes and other odds and sods, so one would have thought that it was a logical plan for them to pick up their travelcards. I was told that London Transport does not allow that to happen and people have to buy their ticket at the booking office because the trade unions are worried about jobs. The unions view the sale of travelcards in nearby shops as a threat to jobs on the underground and in British Rail.

If that is the sort of narrow-minded approach that trade unions are taking and that London Underground and British Rail are accepting, what are we to think? Why should not a passenger have the right to buy a travelcard in the most convenient place? Again to use the example of the hon. Member for Newham, North-West—I am sorry to keep referring to him—the passenger would not have to join that queue and be in danger of having his teeth knocked out if he was allowed to buy his travelcard in the local newsagent. That might reduce the queue at the booking office.

Mr. Tony Banks

Surely the hon. Gentleman understands that we cannot expect people to vote to have their jobs liquidated. We have noticed that when the pressure is on, British Rail and London Underground reduce the level of station staffing, ticket staffing or ticket collecting, all of which result in fewer people being around to give the personal service that the travelling passenger wants. The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about airlines. They do not run on the principle of one-person-operated jets. It is not suggested that the pilot should greet passengers as they climb the stairs, sit them down, give them a drink and then say, "Hang on. I've got to go and take the plane off now". The airlines operate with more staff, but the underground always operates with fewer. It does not make any sense.

Mr. Dicks

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right. I should like to see conductors back on buses. People do not realise that the one-man-operated buses cause traffic chaos. I have often made that case elsewhere.

I also agree with the hon. Gentleman that there should be an integrated traffic system for London. We cannot talk about the underground separately from BR, the buses and the cabs. Anybody who tries to is making a mistake. However, we must understand that we are where we are because of what has happened in the past. We cannot change all that now. I hope that the pressure created by the citizens charter will lead people to believe that we should proceed in a more organised and less chaotic way.

Recently there was a crazy report about a British Rail porter standing outside a gents toilet on a station to allow ladies to go in first and then gents because only one loo was working. That is amazing. We need good, better-paid staff on the underground, British Rail and everywhere else, but they must be effective. They must represent value for money. We cannot get away from that concept. We cannot have the place flooded with people sitting round drinking tea. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need more people to care for customers' needs.

Among all my criticisms of British Rail I make one plea: please make sure that the person who speaks into the tannoy can be understood. Nothing is worse than hearing, "Wah, wah, wah, wah." Everybody asks which station is meant and the next announcement is, "Wah, wah, wah, wah." I do not understand why somebody does not stand there, as the commuter has to, find out what is wrong and put it right.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I wonder whether my hon. Friend might care to translate what he has just said for the benefit of the Hansard reporters?

Mr. Dicks

That is difficult, but I think that there should be exclamation marks and four little dots. Perhaps the Australian expression of XXXX might be appropriate.

The citizens charter has a part to play in Europe. I do not agree with the Opposition that Europe is better at meeting consumer needs than we are. Perhaps when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister goes to Maastricht he could suggest that the many benefits of the citizens charter are considered by his European colleagues for development in Europe. From Germany to Greece and France to Portugal there are weaknesses in all aspects of consumer choice and in the utilisation of services. My right hon. Friend should say that we need a citizens charter to put right what has gone wrong—of course, the changes will have to be made over time—and that Europeans can learn from us.

I noticed that when the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) started to speak there was a good attendance in the Press Gallery, but within a second of his standing up, the press had all gone. Perhaps because I followed him, they have stayed away.

The hon. Member for Gordon spoke about rights to elections and democracy, but his party did not complain at the turn of the century, when the Liberal party was the party of power. We never heard anything about proportional representation then. Many Labour Members do not want proportional representation because they see that the way in which we organise things is conducive to good, strong, sound government. We need only look across Europe to see the mixture of ways of electing representatives—a mishmash of different political views and parties.

Perhaps the Labour party has changed its mind and is now in favour of Europe because Labour Members see Europe as a socialist area in which to get closely involved. They see that the European Parliament and other organisations are basically alliances of the centre left— there are very few alliances of the centre right and those which exist are small. Perhaps that is one reason for the Labour party's conversion.

As for the Labour party's plans, criticism would be expected, would it not? I do not believe that the interpretation of history suggested by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) is correct. The Labour party says that it will try to do something, but that it cannot promise. We say that we promise to do something and we shall do it.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned perception. I shall illustrate one aspect of perception. The shadow health spokesman said in April that the underfunding of the national health service could be put right with £3 billion spread over five years, if economic growth made that money available. Yet the Government have put in £2 billion every year for three years—that is £6 billion in all. I cannot understand why people do not realise that the certainty of £6 billion over three years is better than the possibility of £3 billion over five years. That is an aspect of perception. We may be at fault for not having made the position clear, but it is a matter of simple arithmetic. If the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) is not capable of working out that a possible £3 billion over five years is far worse than the certainty of £6 billion over three years, he needs a lesson in mathematics. We can guarantee that under the citizens charter he will be tested and his place in the table will be shown to everyone.

The citizens charter is a good move. It is the right start, but it will take some time. The people of this country have been looking for it for some time. Commuters are saying, "Thank God that people care about the situation" and they see that, despite the odd anomalies mentioned by the hon. Member for Newham, North-West, there is now a chance to get things done. The Government are moving away from the bureaucratic, "It's nothing to do with me, Jack" attitude and we are going to do something about the problems. I commend the citizens charter to the House and to the people of this country.

1.2 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

The speech of the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) was mainly a blast against British Rail. As a former railway clerk, I feel rather defensive about British Rail. Members of Parliament tend to look back at the time before they entered the House—the time when they actually did some work—and they like to tell everybody about the significance of the areas in which they worked.

I spent many happy hours in the parcels office at Sunderland station breathing in the fumes coming up from the line below, so I look back to those days. One thing that I can say for British Rail is that it is infinitely superior to the Iraqi state railway. When I did my national service I was in rail transport and worked with the Iraqi state railway. Its trains were never on time—nowhere near the time record achieved by British Rail.

Mr. Tony Banks

They are much worse now.

Mr. Barnes

Yes, unfortunately they are in a terrible state, as are the Iraqi people, because of the Gulf war.

One aspect concerning British Rail that I would hope to see in a charter involves a gripe of my own. On the east Midlands line if a second class coach has to be taken off the train the coach for smokers is invariably chosen, so smokers with second class tickets have nowhere to go. I am not a smoker, but such citizens have a right to smoke if they wish. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) spoke about various charters being published for all kinds of things, so, who knows, we may require a charter for smokers.

It is not just the Government who produce charters. Charter 88 is a serious one which calls for a Bill of rights, proportional representation and other constitutional reforms. That charter apes perhaps the most important charter to be published, the people's charter of the 1830s and 1840s, which argued for the extension of the franchise. Although that charter was of crucial constitutional importance, the preamble referred to economic and social conditions and that helped to gain it support. In the 19th century, people believed that once they had the vote they would be able to use it for social and economic purposes. That can be done.

Another charter of great significance is the European social charter. Some of that charter may appear general and bland, but it contains a set of social affairs principles that are infinitely superior to anything in our citizens charter. The citizens charter has been produced by the same Government who block the development of the social charter. That charter calls for decent wages and equal treatment for people who take up jobs under contract in other countries, a decent general wage, vocational training and rights for disabled people. It would be far more significant and important if such measures were contained in the citizens charter.

The Labour party has also issued a charter, the citizen's charter, which was produced prior to the Government's charter. The Minister referred to our charter, which provides for consumer and citizen rights. Such rights do not figure much in the Government document.

Mr. Dicks

May I ask the hon. Gentleman to excuse me, but I must leave for a constituency engagement? I should not like the hon. Gentleman to think that I was being rude by leaving before the end of his speech.

Mr. Barnes

Thank you.

The Government's charter is a peculiar measure. It is like a collection of dead dogs' limbs put together in a bag and recycled to try to make them appealing to the public. The packaging of this document has also been peculiar. It first appeared as a White Paper—it now seems that, from now on, any White Paper will be called a charter. That White Paper has a red cover, which was thought to be a jolly good joke, because it is supposed to pinch something from the socialist tradition. It seems that the Conservatives want to take that colour. The very title of the Government document is similar to, and is pinched from, the people's charter of the 19th century and the word "citizens" brings to mind the French revolution and the common people.

At the bottom of the Government document is the slogan "Raising The Standard". That is a jolly good joke because it is not designed simply with the idea of raising standards generally. It is presented in the socialist tradition, as it were, of raising "the scarlet standard high", giving the impression that the citizens charter is being raised high, even though there is nothing in it of any significance.

The Minister said that the charter was built on 12 years of achievement—that it was to be like the fairy on top of the Christmas tree—and that it was revolutionary. I accept that the Conservatives have been revolutionary in the last 12 years. Indeed, when the poll tax was being debated in Standing Committee I said that we had had in power the most revolutionary Government since the days of Cromwell.

The Government are claiming to be building on the achievements of the past. In other words, they are building on the achievement of the poll tax, even though they are now opposed to it and are replacing it with the council tax. My hon. Friends and I have put forward many reasons why the poll tax should be scrubbed. The Government have offered no reasons why it should be abolished. They have simply said that it would have worked well but for the activities of nasty Labour-controlled councils. That is about the level of intellectual endeavour we have witnessed from the Government over a measure that has had massive revolutionary consequences that will take decades to remedy.

When Labour is elected, we shall replace the poll tax with a fair and sensible system of finance for local government, but the consequences in terms of the attack that poll tax has made on civil liberties and citizens rights will live on for a long time. We shall have our time cut out putting that right. Nowhere is that more serious than in the matter with which the people's chartists were concerned, which was the extension of the franchise.

The poll tax has undermined the electoral register by removing a million people from it. Putting that right will take a long time, and there is nothing in the Government's latest citizens charter to suggest how the damage done by the poll tax will be remedied. We shall probably need a charter for enfranchisement rights. If charters are to mean anything, they must be turned into legislation. Our representation of the people legislation has been undermined by the poll tax, which is still in existence. That has removed superior rights, for constitutional lawyers accept that those parts of our constitution that are in writing, in terms of legislation, include enfranchisement rights. That legislation determines who shall have those rights, and we have determined, on the basis of birthright, who shall be enfranchised. That right has been removed from a million people in Britain, so many are not included as citizens in the Government's new citizens charter.

We gather that bits of the charter will develop into legislation. Those items are summarised on page 5 of the charter, which lists nine major points. In other words, the great six points of the 19th century charter have become nine. The first, and presumably the most important, point in the new charter is covered by the words "more privatisation." Presumably the Government believe that that will be attractive to the British public. Given that more privatisation is at the forefront of the document, how are we to believe the Government when they say that the national health service will not be privatised? It seems that the Government have hit on the idea that, in the end, everything can be privatised so that public funding can pay for private bodies to run services. One could ultimately privatise the prisons, Army, and even Parliament—with agencies paying people to perform specific tasks determined by legislation.

The charter makes mention of wider competition, irrespective of the circumstances. It fails to recognise, as Alfred Marshall and other 19th century economists did, that some services are natural monopolies. Marshall made particular reference to the railways and identified the fact that monopolies needed development, regional provisions and most of all regulations and controls. The truth of that can be seen when such functions are kept within the public sector. That has been seen in the case of the National Rivers Authority in performing its regulatory role, though it needs more funding. It would make more sense if the body with which the N RA has to deal was publicly owned. That would also allow regular parliamentary investigations and questions.

The charter also has other bits and pieces about redress for the citizen when services go badly wrong, but much of its content was aimed at attracting favourable publicity for the Government, who spent a vast amount of money to that end. The Minister denied that £8 million was spent on publicising the citizens charter, so perhaps he will tell the House the correct amount.

Mr. Maude

The figure of £8 million suggested by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) was born of complete fantasy. The actual cost was less than £1 million.

Mr. Barnes

If my hon. Friend's figure was exaggerated tenfold, the true figure would be £800,000, which still compares badly with the £680,000 being spent on Government publicity encouraging the public to take up their electoral rights. If one compares that with the money spent per voter on the ridiculous Bill to encourage voting by expatriates, on which the Government worked very hard but for a poor response, one begins to see the truth of the matter.

A few years ago, Abbey National ran a publicity campaign to encourage its members to vote on plc status. The society could not tell them how to vole, but commissioned an extensive publicity campaign that cost £7 million. Instead of spending money on glossy documents such as the citizens charter, the Government should fund the promotion of a fundamental right on which all other rights are built. I refer to the electoral right to vote and to appear on the electoral register.

The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys says that 1 million names have disappeared from the electoral registers in recent years—first in Scotland, and then in England and Wales, but not in Northern Ireland. That all ties in with the poll tax. Worst affected are attainers—those young people nearing the age of 18 who have never previously appeared on a register. There should be legislation requiring the poll tax register, while it continues to exist, any successor to it, and the electoral register, to be kept entirely separate, and prohibiting any interface between them, of the kind that exists in district council offices at present. People understand that.

The Government introduced a measure on confidentiality in relation to the census to try to convince people that census forms would not be used for poll tax purposes. People did not accept the message and 1 million people disappeared from the electoral register. The number of people in this country and their ages are known because of the registration of deaths and births. Even in the past there have been problems with the electoral register for which there has been oversubscription due to people moving out of the district or dying and under-representation as it takes time for the register to catch up with people. Those discrepancies usually cancel themselves out, but an extra 1 million people have been missing from the register in recent years.

If we are worried about citizens' basic rights and matters concerning the chartists of the 19th century, we should have more charters. I suggested an enfranchisement charter, on which much advertising revenue would be spent and which would involve the superiority of the Representation of the People Acts.

I have also suggested that we should have a Members' charter, not for the benefits of Members, but for their constituents. It would allow us to ask questions about more, not fewer subjects. An hon. Member, for example my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), would not have to publish a document of bits and pieces he had collected from the Library and answers obtained from various agencies. The information would be readily available in Hansard. Every bit of privatisation and agency work detracts form Members' rights to ask questions. It would be useful to have a little charter stating that any letter written by an hon. Member must be answered within a week or so. That would be a fantastic advantage, not least with Government Departments and agencies.

One advantage Members enjoy while Parliament is sitting is that they can table questions about when they will receive from a Department an anwer to a previous question. We are often told that the answer is in the post, but that does not apply when the House is in recess for 12 weeks in the summer when we do not enjoy those rights. I do not like the 12-week recess, but if it is to continue it would be nice to have a charter and legislation to ensure that we receive some response from Ministers. I was told that one Minister would be away during the recess, and for a while, until I started to make a fuss, it looked as though I would have to wait 13 weeks before receiving an answer. I am not talking about individual Members' rights, but of the rights of Members acting on behalf of their constituents and in response to complaints picked up in their advice surgeries.

We should also have a petitioners charter. Ancient and historical petitioners' rights operate in the House. Originally petitions were directed to the Crown, and parliamentary development was largely based on petitioning—legislation evolved through petitions from Members. Later, petitioning rights were extended to petitions to this House which, if organised in a certain way and presented by Members in respectable language, could be aired without duress being used against the petition's signatories. The names of those on the petitions are known only to Parliament, not to Government Departments, except those mentioned publicly when the petition is announced.

However, let us consider what the Government did in relation to poll tax. During the debate in the House on Scottish poll tax matters someone suggested that it would be a good idea if, when a petition against the poll tax was presented to poll tax registrars, it was checked against the poll tax register to see whether it contained the names of people who were not contained on the register, so that their names could be added to it. That is offensive and places under duress people who have the right to sign petitions. Any petition presented in due form to the Executive—the Prime Minister's office or whatever—should have the same protection as petitions presented to the House. That begins to have significance in an era during which civil liberties are under attack by the Government.

Now perhaps a relatively minor part of the British constitution, petitions are nevertheless the expression of citizens' traditional rights. At one time, the right to petition was the only right that citizens had. To some extent, the need to exercise the right had been superseded by the development of what was once the full franchise but I suggest that the Minister has a look at my Petitioners Rights Bill, which would overcome the present difficulties.

If we are concerned about citizens' rights, we need to consider matters far more serious than the ragbag of material thrown together in the citizens charter. The contents of the citizens charter are discussed as if they matter, but, in reality, there is nothing there, and certainly nothing as grand as is to be found in the peoples charter, Charter 88, or the social charter. The citizens charter is nothing but a cosmetic exercise and it should be seen for what it is. We should develop the limited parts of it of which some use can be made and see the rest as the continuation of the Government's ideological policy—dead dogmas as well as dead dogs' limbs.

1.26 pm
Mr. Hugo Summerson (Walthamstow)

I do not agree with much of what the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) said, but I do agree with him that, if we are to have a Members charter, it should contain something about constituents who visit us in this place and ensure the provision of reasonable facilities for them. It is really bad that queues of people have to stand outside in cold and wet weather. I have sometimes wondered whether we might consider building a long shelter at the very least for those who have to stand outside on the pavement. Alternatively, greater use could be made of Westminster Hall, which is a magnificent and historic building but which is also an enormous area of empty and cold open space that is put to very little use. Perhaps use might be made of it by members of the public who come here to visit us.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East referred to the electoral register. I agree with him that, if we are to call ourselves a true democracy, it is very important that as many adult members of the public as possible have their names on the electoral register. The hon. Gentleman said that, as a result of the poll tax, fewer people were registering. I can only say to him that, after years of decline—to about 48,500 in 1987—the size of my electorate has increased to about 50,000, so I suspect that the poll tax has not had that effect on my constituents, even though, in its first year, the Labour council imposed a heavy poll tax of £438.

Over the past 12 years, the Government have consistently improved services to the public and raised standards—by privatising industries, introducing and extending competition and freeing the civil service at large from central bureaucratic control by setting up "next steps" agencies. Under the citizens charter, those policies will be developed further throughout the public sector.

Let me refer first to the tenants charter, which was first introduced by the Government in 1980 and which has been extremely effective. It is now to be reissued after consultation with local authorities, tenants and consumer groups. In its new streamlined form it will give guidance on the practice that local authorities should follow to ensure that tenants know their rights and how to use them.

The right to repairs will allow council tenants to have carried out most repairs costing up to £200 when their landlord has failed to do them. That will be reviewed to see how procedures can be simplified and strengthened so that urgent minor repairs can be done more swiftly.

In common with many hon. Members, I am sure, I get queues of people at my surgery complaining bitterly that the council has not carried out minor repairs. It may be a dripping tap, or perhaps someone has put his foot through a floor board six months ago, or a chimney flue is blocked. Naturally, people are worried about such matters and ask me to write to the council. With a weary sigh of resignation I say that of course I shall write and I take down the name and address. I write to the council to try to have the repair carried out. It would be much better if people could have the work carried out themselves and send the bill to the council. Such a procedure would save time, money and effort and I am sure that it would be of enormous benefit to tenants.

Under the tenants charter, more information provided directly to council tenants would deal with the efficiency of the council's housing management and with vital matters such as repair times and rent arrears. I am sure that council tenants and everybody else in the London borough of Waltham Forest, which is in my constituency, would be interested to know that the council there has rent arrears of about £2 million. That Labour-controlled council is always complaining about the way in which the Government cut its funding, but the Government have not cut the funding. They have given that council more and more money, even though the council could raise more from its own resources by collecting the rent arrears. A large amount of interest could have accrued on that money.

Housing Corporation tenants will also benefit from a stronger tenants' guarantee which, in its present form, seeks to ensure reasonable rents for those on low incomes and lays down minimum standards of management. Local authorities will be encouraged to impose financial penalties on contractors and direct labour organisations which fail to complete on time the renovation and refurbishment of council property.

The Government will legislate to introduce competitive tendering to certain aspects of local authority housing management. Final decisions will be taken after the completion of a detailed study commissioned by the Department of the Environment, but repairs, management, rent collection and security may be subject to competitive tendering. The new arrangements in the citizens charter will not just allow but positively encourage tenants to take part in the management of their property.

I have spoken about rent arrears and the money available to local authorities. Councils complain bitterly that the Government will not allow them to spend the money raised from right-to-buy sales. However, councils are permitted to spend 25 per cent. of that money per year. Many local authorities are making no effort to raise money in that way. In my area it takes, on average, 21 months to complete a right-to-buy sale. Much money could be raised if local authorities pushed such sales and the 25 per cent. of the proceeds that they are allowed to spend would enable them to provide more houses.

However, the problem with that is the serious difficulty in providing new housing in a mature city such as London. My area is very built up and has been since the turn of the century. There are few places in which it would be possible to provide more new housing. The Government take great pride in the fact that the green belt round Greater London has been doubled in their period of office. That is fine as far as it goes, but we have to bear in mind the fact that new housing must go somewhere. The Government must think about that point.

The citizens charter also covers public transport. At this time of year, there are problems with leaves on tracks. To the best of my knowledge, this was not a problem 100 or even 150, years ago. I bet that I. K. Brunel was never bothered by leaves on the line. To start with, his locomotives were not particularly aerodynamic, so they made a great draught in passing, which must have had some effect in clearing leaves off the lines. In addition, the locomotives were very heavy and some had 8 ft driving wheels. They must have been the most magnificent sight. It would have been awesome to see one of Brunel's flyers going down the Great Western line from Paddington to Bristol at getting on for 100 mph. The great advantage of such heavy, fast and unaerodynamic locomotives was that they either swept the leaves aside or crushed them beneath their wheels. Furthermore, the braking system, which operated directly on the wheels, would have burnt off all the scrub and residue picked up by crushing the leaves.

Let me move from the time of Brunel to the citizens charter. About British Rail, the charter states unequivocally: For all the efforts of staff and management, British Rail's performance too often falls short of what the public has a right to expect. It is equally clear about the long-term solution. It says: Progress towards privatisation of the railway is integral to the Citizen's Charter. The Government expect to set out detailed plans for the privatisation of British Rail in a White Paper before the end of this year. Its key features will be a presumption against a monopolistic structure, the lifting of BR's service monopoly and the appointment of an independent regulator to ensure fair competition and to protect the customer's interest. I am glad that there will be that presumption against the monopoly state structure.

It is fascinating to conjecture what structure a privatised British Rail might have. To return to the days of the old regions would not be in the best interests of the customer. Perhaps the best thing would be to have a track authority and to give people the right to run trains over those tracks.

More immediate improvements are foreshadowed in the citizens charter. British Rail will publish a passengers charter in the autumn setting out targets of performance, means of complaint and details about what forms of compensation are available. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks) is no longer in the Chamber. He regaled the House with a story about having to stand in queues at Stratford station to buy his ticket, with the danger that, because some angry person had knocked out his teeth, he would have to visit his dentist. My advice to him is that he should pay a visit to the Fees Office, where he would be issued with a season ticket. He would then no longer have to stand in the queue at the risk of having his teeth knocked out.

An enlarged and more comprehensive compensation scheme has been agreed with British Rail. Under it, if trains are cancelled or unreasonably delayed, passengers can apply for refunds with claims assessed individually. What a good idea, but goodness knows how long it will take to assess the claim. If passengers decide not to travel because a train has been cancelled, they will receive a full refund. Perhaps we could go slightly further and state that those passengers will receive compensation for missing a meeting, for example. If we went that one step further, I could be compensated for missing a surgery. InterCity passengers with reserved seats will receive automatic compensation. Season ticket holders will receive compensation, mainly by extensions to their ticket for days when there is no effective service. Perhaps that will relate especially to this time of year. British Rail will take the initiative wherever practicable to offer compensation to passengers on badly delayed or cancelled services rather than waiting for them to claim.

I did not agree entirely with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks). I believe that the management of London Transport is, on the whole, doing a good job in difficult circumstances. There is enormous pressure on public transport, particularly on the London underground system. I frequently pay visits to the Victoria line, which serves my constituency. I have complained, as have many of my constituents in the recent past, about escalators being out of service. The escalators have had to be repaired and they have been out of service for several months.

When I approached the management of London Underground to talk about the problems with escalators, I was asked whether I had any idea how many people passed through Walthamstow Central underground station every year. I hazarded a guess and said, "Perhaps 1 million." The answer was 10 million. If 10 million people are passing through one underground station every year, enormous pressure and strain is bound to be placed on the station's facilities. That applies throughout London.

As I have said, I believe that the management of London Transport is doing its best. It had the legacy of the Greater London council, which underfunded and mismanaged London Transport. The management is having to do a great deal of catching up and it is having to spend huge sums. The benefits of the expenditure are already starting to show through, but they will not become clearly apparent for a year or two yet.

Mr. Arbuthnot

I wish to clarify the interesting figure that my hon. Friend has presented to the House. I suspect that 5,000 or 6,000 people pass through Walthamstow Central underground station on quite a number of occasions, not that 10 million individuals pass through it.

Mr. Summerson

My hon. Friend is good at arithmetic. He would doubtless count the same people time and lime again. I suspect that the management wishes to draw attention to the number of feet and bodies that pass through the station. Perhaps if I talked about passenger movements that would satisfy my hon. Friend.

There is a successful lane rental scheme, which has speeded motorway repairs by rewarding contracting firms that finish work early and penalising those that finish late. The scheme will be extended to all roadworks where there is a risk of significant delay to motorists. New regulations will specify the maximum length of carriageway that can be coned off at one time. Contractors will be fined if they cone off more of the motorway than is needed to carry out the repairs. It is an excellent idea. I am sure that on occasions all of us have driven along motorways, passing those wretched cones for mile after mile and observed that no repair works were being undertaken. In many such instances one lane is closed completely. This causes motorists great frustration. They might find that on a busy Friday evening, for example, three lanes of the motorway are merged into two. All the traffic has to squeeze into the two lanes that remain open and everything comes to a virtual standstill.

The taxpayers charter was launched on 13 August. It revised the previous charter, which was published in 1986. The new charter sets out the standard of service that people can expect to receive from Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue. The latter undertakes to settle tax affairs impartially, to expect people to pay only what is due under the law and to treat everybody with equal fairness. Again, I am sure that we all have constituents who have complained to us about Customs and Excise and the Inland Revenue. I have a current case in my constituency of a company complaining about the treatment that it has received at the hands of Customs and Excise. I have to say that, so far, Customs and Excise is responding well to my inquiries and I hope that the case will soon come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Under the charter, people will be helped to sort out their tax affairs correctly and to understand their rights and obligations by the provision of clear leaflets and forms giving information and assistance at inquiry offices and by the showing of courtesy at all times. A little courtesy goes a long way, especially if people know to whom they are speaking. I hope that the requirement that those in official positions wear name tags will not be abused. People will not be amused if, on asking an official for his name, they are told, "Donald Duck".

There is more to come. In due course, Customs and Excise will spell out its duties and responsibilities even more fully in separate charters for VAT and excise duty traders and those involved in inland clearance of goods. In addition, there will be a special charter for travellers.

Both the Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise are redesigning some of their main forms and other literature to make them easier for people to understand. There is no excuse for such official bodies not to set out matters clearly and simply in words that people can understand. The new series of leaflets will tell particular groups of people—for example, small business people, pensioners and school leavers—what sort of help and level of service each can expect from the Inland Revenue. Selected tax inquiry centres will experiment with more flexible opening hours to test public demand.

As I said earlier, a great deal of the citizens charter depends on further privatisation. It commits the Government to pave the way for further privatisations and contracting out by introducing legislation to clarify the right to redundancy compensation for all civil servants transferred to the private sector. Currently, separate legislation is required for each privatisation. More services will be contracted out and the Government will publish a White Paper later this year setting out detailed proposals to encourage more contracting out in local and central government and in the NHS. Competition within the NHS will be gradually extended to new distribution warehousing, non-emergency transport and management services.

What all that means is a new role for the citizen. I am delighted to know that local lay adjudicators will be introduced into many parts of the public sector. They will be well-known local people, well respected in their local communities. They will be appointed to help the citizen resolve minor, but irritating, complaints against public sector bodies. That lay adjudication system will not involve the legal system at any stage. Both sides will agree in advance to abide by the decision and participation in the adjudication scheme will be voluntary. The Government assume that most public services, including local authorities, will want to join the scheme to show commitment to the citizens charter.

My final point refers to the challenging of unlawful strikes. The citizens charter proposes the introduction of an entirely new legal right for the individual citizen. At the moment, unlawful industrial action in the public services such as an unballoted or political strike, can be challenged in the courts only by the employer or by a member of the union who has been called upon to take part in that unlawful action. In future, the citizen will have the right to bring legal proceedings to halt any unlawful industrial action affecting services covered by the citizens charter.

I was going to refer to the speech made earlier by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), the Liberal Democrat spokesman. It is a great pity that he has left the Chamber and that his party's Bench is empty. I should have thought that on such an important occasion, the Liberal Democrats could at least have taken the trouble to stay for the entire debate and listen to contributions from other right hon. and hon. Members. If they had done that, they might have learnt a great deal.

1.50 pm
Mr. James Arbuthnot (Wanstead and Woodford)

I am one of those who welcome without any reservation the citizens charter that has been brought forward by the Government. I was a little disappointed, although perhaps not surprised, at the grudging welcome for some of the suggestions from the Labour party. Many of the suggestions made by the Government in the citizens charter give us an opportunity to contribute our own ideas to what should go into the citizens charter and for those ideas to expand and to grow as a result of the kernel in the programme that the Government have produced.

The citizens charter is not only a programme of new suggestions; it is a framework under which we can produce further suggestions ourselves. I am sure that that is a process in which the Opposition would wish to take part. I suggest that it is a process in which the Opposition have tried to take part in their own citizens charter. I wish that I had found the Opposition's citizens charter a little more convincing, but half the ideas that they put forward in their citizens charter, as a spoiling exercise to the Government's, were already in operation and the other half were vague promises and side-stepping some of the problems that have been created by Labour-controlled local authorities up and down the country.

One important part of the citizens charter is not so much that it contains many individual ideas and proposals for change, but that it is intended to change the entire attitude of public servants and the way in which citizens approach them. In other words, we now have a certain expectation of the sort of courtesy and level of service which we can receive from our public servants and that is something we have not had in the past. It is as a result of the citizens charter that we are able to have that expectation.

This is an opportunity not only for us, the politicians, to put in ideas for what could be included in further episodes of the citizens charter, but for the citizens themselves to put in ideas. It will prompt people to ask for improvements in their public services. So when it is called the citizens charter, it is not just a charter for the benefit of the citizens of this country, it is a charter which is owned by the citizens and to which they can contribute. I very much hope that they will feel free to contribute to the charter and to put forward their own ideas.

Therefore, I heard with great approval the comment from my hon. Friend the Minister that he is issuing a survey to ask what people want out of the citizens charter and what improvements they want in their public services. I think that that is a very important component of the citizens charter. We must not believe that the charter ends with the glossy document that we have seen and with the action set out in it. We must carry the citizens charter forward as an ongoing programme throughout the decade and build on it.

The private sector in Britain knows that the customer must come first. If the private sector or any components of it—any individual firm—begins to ignore the message that the customer must come first, it finds out pretty soon the hard way that if the customer does not come first, the firm may well go out of business. The public sector has not had that discipline. In one sense, the citizens charter is a method of bringing to the public sector the discipline of the private sector.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister on not being daunted by the sheer scale of the task that he has undertaken. He deserves great credit for not finding the task so difficult that he does not know where to begin. He has undertaken a review of virtually the entire gamut of government services and he has approached it in a way that has been both orderly and comprehensive, yet still leaves room for further ideas to come forward. He has a tiny team of support staff. He must be congratulated on his restraint in expanding public expenditure as a result of the charter. The point about that is that the key to this programme is not that more money needs to be spent. The key to this programme, as he said, is not what one spends but what one buys. That is something which I hope that we can emphasise throughout the country.

There were various suggestions from the Labour and Liberal Benches that if these ideas were so good we should have introduced them 12 years ago. The answer is that, in many areas, we did. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) suggested that there would be a reduction in the Post Office's monopoly and that things might therefore get worse. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman what happened over the privatisation of British Telecom.

Before the privatisation of British Telecom there were approximately 77,000 public telephone boxes. Many of them were out of order. Following the privatisation there are 97,000 public telephone boxes, of which 96 per cent. work on a day-to-day basis. Yet when we were privatising the telephone system, we were told by the Opposition that those public telephone boxes would go out of order completely because they would not be found to be economic. They told us that a private telephone service would drop public telephone boxes. That is only one example of the improvement that we have already seen under the Government's programme.

Several hon. Members mentioned London Underground. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) mentioned the Central line. The line serves my constituency and he and I have spoken about it in the Chamber many a time on a Friday morning. It causes many of my constituents to arrive at work, if at all, late and absolutely furious because of the unreliability of the service and the delays that they have suffered on the way to work. On one occasion, some of them even had to walk along the track when the electricity had not been switched off.

The value of the citizens charter is that it will change the expectations of my constituents and my hon. Friend's constituents so that they will know the standard of service that they can expect, know to demand it and be able to point to a document and say, "This is what we are told we can expect. This is what we are not achieving. Please produce this service now." That will provide a real spur to London Underground to improve the standard.

However, one of the greatest causes of the unreliability of the underground service, particularly on the Central line, is the incidence of fires. One problem is that the money which is being spent by London Underground in terms of safety is being spent on the wrong things. It is being spent on relatively marginal improvements to safety in stations rather than on some of the new equipment that is needed for the tracks and tunnels to improve fire detection services.

I have said that one advantage of the citizens charter is that we can produce our ideas about what should be included in it. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow referred to the taxpayers charter. I welcome what is in it so far, but I have two extra suggestions. First, sometimes there are disputes between the taxpayer and the Inland Revenue. It must be accepted that, in terms of litigation, the Inland Revenue has huge financial muscle over the taxpayer. It can say to the taxpayer, "This is our position. If you don't like it, take us to court. We don't mind. We are backed by public money. You, unfortunately, are not. You will have to rely on your own purse." The effect of that is usually to make the taxpayer cave in, often where the law and right are on his side. He knows that he does not have the money to stand up against the Inland Revenue. There should be some method by which the Inland Revenue is forced to consider whether, in deciding disputes between itself and taxpayers, it should contribute to the taxpayers' costs—not necessarily wiping out those costs, because there must be some disincentive to litigation, but contributing to them. It is helpful to the Inland Revenue to clear up the effects of the tax law.

My second suggestion relates to a tax clearance procedure, about which I have written to my hon. Friend. It would be helpful mainly to companies. Before entering into a transaction companies wish to know what the tax consequences of that transaction are likely to be. All too often the Inland Revenue says either, "I am sorry, but you will have to find out when you've entered into that transaction what the tax consequences are"—that is no good—or, "We think that the tax consequences are such, but do not hold us to it because we may well change our minds later." There should be a tax clearance procedure for which the companies could pay. There is nothing to stop them paying for one. Nor is there anything to stop the Inland Revenue perhaps contracting out the advice that it would give to private firms of accountants. That would save any futher demand on its time.

I know that other right hon. and hon. Members want to speak, so I will simply say that I have raised that matter previously with my hon. Friend and I warn him that I shall return to it. He has the enormous task of looking after the Inland Revenue and the citizens charter. The charter gives us the opportunity to put forward this idea and to build on the ideas of my hon. Friend and it is welcome on that account.

2.3 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

The phrase "citizens charter" attracts my interest, but those who advocate it do not have the slightest idea what they have started. We in this country are not citizens; we are subjects of the Crown.

An hon. Member cannot take his seat in the House of Commons without the famous declaration: I swear by Almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true Allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, Her Heirs and Successors, according to Law. An atheist may affirm. I affirm in honour of Charles Bradlaugh who won the case. Every Church of England minister, every officer and every judge has an oath of allegiance. Privy Councillors are subjected to an especially embarrassing procedure: a medieval oath is read out. When at the end of it I said that I had not agreed, I was told, "Don't worry, we've administered the oath". An oath is an injection. I never knew what the phrase "administration of oaths" meant until I became a Privy Councillor. We are not citizens at all.

I was reminded of that only this morning when I got an answer from the Prime Minister about Maastricht. He said: Ratification of any Treaty is a prerogative act, exercised by the Government on behalf of the Crown. One can complain if one's tap is not repaired by the local authority, but if the Crown decides to ratify the Maastricht treaty one has no rights at all.

Let us be clear—if we are talking about citizens we shall have to change the constitution. Whatever we may say about the mother of Parliaments—we have all that stuff that we tell schoolchildren when they come here—the British are subjects. We do not choose our head of state. Unlike the Americans, who elect a president, we shall have Prince Charles whether we like it or not. We do not elect the House of Lords, which exists through patronage. The past 10 Prime Ministers have appointed 837 Peers who are Members of Parliament. If we are talking about citizens the Government will have to consider constitutional reform. I presented a Commonwealth of Britain Bill in May, which would bring about a new charter of rights. We could consider that when I bring it back in the new Parliament.

Why should the citizen have rights only in relation to public services? What about the private sector? Indeed, I would go further. If a tap is leaking, the citzens charter will allow us to force the council to mend it, but if one is homeless there is nothing in the charter to say that one can force the local authority to give us a home. There is nothing to say that the unemployed can force people to give them a job. If someone cannot live on his benefit he cannot force the Benefits Agency to give him enough money to live on.

The citizens charter is nothing to do with people's real rights. It is an attempt to mobilise public opinion against the public services, which have deliberately been kept tight on cash and rate capped—the councillors who built houses in Liverpool have been disqualified and surcharged for "wilful misconduct" or some such phrase. If the Government are going to start the hare running, we shall follow it up.

I believe that there are human rights; they are very simple. Everybody is entitled to do useful work at a living wage. Everybody is entitled to free health care based on medical need, not on their wealth. Everybody is entitled to life-long education. I know that I am going an inch or two beyond Labour party policy, so I hope that nobody reports me to the leader of the party, but I favour raising the school leaving age to 95. Everybody should be able to go in and out of education, as and when they want, throughout their lives, just as people go into libraries to learn what they want to learn and come out when they have finished. That is a proper education policy. That is a citizen's right, but there is nothing about that in the citizens charter.

All pensioners are entitled to dignity when they get old. Why should people who bust a gut all their lives working to create wealth have to live on the poverty line when they retire? It is because the Government are not interested in giving people rights if that involves taxing the people whom they represent.

Those are some of the basic questions raised by the debate today. I apologise for not having been here for the whole debate, but I had another engagement to fulfil before coming to the House. Ministers have started something that they will live to regret—from their point of view, not from ours. People will ask a lot of questions, such as "Why cannot we be as democratic as the Russians? They can elect Yeltsin but we cannot elect our head of state.", and, "Why cannot we, like the Americans, have the right to examine judges before they are appointed?" People may laugh about Clarence Thomas, but not long ago a former member of the British Union of Fascists was appointed a judge in this country.

We should have more rights over those who govern us and over private industry. What use is the idea of "the customer is always right" to someone who is sacked by a multinational company? There is no protection of the citizen's right there.

I welcome the citizens charter, because the Government have opened a Pandora's box that will raise a lot of questions that they cannot answer with their market forces philosophy. I shall take it up.

I published a charter of rights, including the right to democracy in industry, in the Bill that I presented on 20 May. Why should people hang up their civil rights when they go to work? Why not have a ballot to deal with management, like the one that the Government introduced to deal with the trade unions? Why should a trade union not be allowed to spend money politically without a ballot when a company can do so? Why should a company be able to close a factory—far worse than any industrial action, because everyone in the factory is put out of work, without a ballot when a trade union cannot stop a factory for one day without a ballot?

The hierarchy of a feudal society is challenged by the use of the word "citizen". The discipline of market forces is challenged by the use of the word "citizen". By trying to move into the central area of politics in order, as they imagine, to win the election, the Government have started a discussion about human rights. Those rights have nothing to do with medieval hierarchy or market forces, they are inherent in people when they are born. To go back to the book of Genesis: Am I my brother's keeper? That is the question raised by having a serious debate about citizens' rights.

Dare I say it, but some of the speeches that I have heard today have been insignificant in the issues that they raised. However, this charter will open a debate that will excite the British people, but not in support of this Government.

2.10 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

It will be difficult to follow such an ingenious speech, but I shall try. It will probably come as no great surprise to the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) that I do not entirely share his views on the monarchy. However, democracy means that we are each entitled to our views. I apologise to the House for the fact that I have not been present throughout the debate, but I am glad to have the opportunity to speak in support of the citizens charter.

The citizens charter was the Prime Minister's idea and he has captured the mood of the nation. It would be churlish of the Opposition to delay its passage through the House. I have not been a Member of the House for the past two or three decades, but those who have been say that the role of the Member of Parliament has changed greatly. Some older Members believe that we have become glorified social workers. To be honest, much of our work concerns dealing with people's disappointments at the precise delivery of public services.

I have no doubt that if the charter is successful., and it will be, our role as Members of Parliament will return to that of the past and we shall debate the great affairs of the nation and decide overall policy. We will no longer be involved in the detail of why someone has not got satisfaction on housing from the council or why a hospital appointment was not kept on time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) mentioned the law and there is no doubt that the law is an expensive process. The small claims court has been extremely successful. However, I am sure that everyone would applaud the citizens charter if it meant that the ordinary citizen was able to gain redress from the public services for any disappointment.

I know that my hon. Friend the Minister and his team have worked hard on the proposals. I should be interested to learn what impact the citizens charter will have on our relationship with the European Community—I accept that my hon. Friend will not have time to consider that issue today. No doubt on Wednesday and Thursday of next week, hon. Members will discuss that relationship. It is relevant to ask how the citizens charter will be viewed by our European partners. I hope that they will not obstruct in any way its passage and successful implementation.

I greatly welcome the guarantee that parents will receive a report on their children's progress each year. Our postbags often include complaints about delays, for example, at the general practitioner's surgery or when waiting for an appointment with a consultant. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the Government and it seems to me that we get blamed for everything—the weather, delays in the shops—you name it. We accept responsibility for many things, but when it comes to queues of people waiting to see their general practitioners or to be examined by consultants, we must look elsewhere for the reasons. I accept that doctors must sometimes leave the surgery to attend an emergency and that people will be left waiting, but good practice should enable those arranging GPs' and consultants' bookings to make better arrangements.

For example, patients told to arrive at, say, 9 o'clock should be seen shortly after that time. It is unacceptable for many people to be told to turn up at the same time, with the result that there are enormous queues at the surgery. When patients grumble about such delays, t is easy to blame the Government, even though it is dishonest to do so.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Mr. Summerson) refer to British Rail. I hope that I shall have an opportunity in the Adjournment debate to comment on the Fenchurch street line.

I am delighted that the Consumers Association has welcomed various aspects of the citizens charter. I hope that timeshare practices that have been the subject of abuse will be caught by the charter.

Basildon district council, which is socialist only with the casting vote of the chairman, has not welcomed the citizens charter, no doubt because the Government's initiative will result in the shortcomings of local authorities being brought to the fore. I welcome the charter and I have no doubt that it will be welcomed by the public in general when they cast their votes in the general election next year.

2.16 pm
Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I can, with justification, describe myself as a modest man. Accordingly, I can say, following the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), that compared with his aspirations, I have a modest desire in wishing to remove a minor carbuncle from the face of the constitution and I shall be delighted if the Minister will assure me that the citizens charter will achieve that.

We in West Glamorgan, in Swansea, have a local form of pestilence. It is a quango, one of those bodies which the Conservatives so detested when in opposition in the 1970s. But the one of which I speak was appointed by the Government. It is called the West Glamorgan health authority.

To everyone's surprise, even shock, that health authority, although short of cash, devoted a large section of one of its recent health journals to the citizens charter. That was a source of great wonderment to the people of Swansea. It represented a conversion on the road to Gower that overshadowed anything that happened on the road to Damascus.

It had consulted on the question of changing a casualty unit in my hospital from a full to a minor casualty unit. After years of consulting about that, it decided not to change it from a major to a minor unit but to close it. That decision was taken without any consultation. The quango, arbitrarily and unilaterally, closed the casualty unit.

Even the Secretary of State for Wales was furious that a quango should act in that way, so he instructed it to reopen the unit. It was reopened, but as a minor casualty unit. In addition, the authority took the view that the people of Swansea would not have accidents at night, so the unit was not opened at night. "Local people shall not have accidents at night", was apparently the thought behind that. Again the Welsh Office intervened. The quango was instructed to open the casualty unit on a 24-hour basis.

Now, almost at the end of 1991, that quango, much despised throughout West Glamorgan, is about once more to close my local casualty unit at night. It is going through a farcical, nonsensical and meaningless form of consultation. I say that not because the quango disagrees with me—although that is bound to weigh in my assessment of its competence—but because, by acting in a unilateral and arbitrary manner, it is ignoring the fact that 30,000 people have signed a petition saying that they want the unit to be open at night.

Right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House know how difficult it is to get 30,000 constituents to sign a petition. When the local newspaper conducted an opinion poll, 82 per cent. of those questioned said that they wanted the unit kept open at night. The health authority emblazoned the citizens charter—at the request of the Prime Minister, it was said—in its journal, but ignored a petition of 30,000 signatures and 82 per cent. of public opinion and did exactly what it wanted.

West Glamorgan will accept a simple indication of whether or not the charter is meaningful. One modest action would lead us to believe that it is something other than a con. All that Ministers must do is sack West Glamorgan health authority.

2.20 pm
Mr. Chris Smith

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The debate has been marked by several distinguished contributions from my right hon. and hon. Friends. None was more distinguished than the sparkling speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, North-West (Mr. Banks), who made the important fundamental point that charters do not build homes, invest in railways, put roofs on schools, or provide better pensions to people who have given their all to this country throughout their lives. Those are the real improvements that the public want. Charters are all very well, but the Government must realise that they are fundamentally inadequate in dealing with basic problems of under-provision and poor service.

Right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House want improved courtesy, the identification of individuals, better signposting in Government offices, and what have you. Those specific proposals are welcome, although one does not need a charter to achieve them. One needs the rigorous application of efficiency and value for money throughout the public and private sectors. Much of that is already being achieved by Labour-controlled authorities throughout the country. The pioneering work of the city of York, for example, is an example that Ministers would do well to applaud and to follow.

So much more needs to be done than the Government have even dreamt of in the citizens charter. We require freedom of information legislation, real regulation of the privatised utilities, proper independent procedures for dealing with complaints about police behaviour and from prisoners and a quality commission coupled with annual elections, to bring real accountability to local government administration.

Above all, we need a real commitment from the Government to high performance, good quality and value for money in public services. Health, education, transport and housing will form the centrepiece of the next general election campaign. Glossy charters will not save the Government from their record, the inadequacies of their present proposals or the verdict of the electorate.

2.24 pm
Mr. Maude

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker. This has been a good debate and I hope that it will be the first of many debates in years to come on the important Government initiative to improve public services. I thank my right hon. and hon. Friends who have participated in the debate for the high quality of their contributions and the seriousness with which they have tackled an extremely important subject. I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Arbuthnot) for his kind remarks to me. It is a big challenge to be looking after not only the Inland Revenue but the citizens charter, but I do not believe that there is any tension between the two activities. The high quality of the debate reflects the importance that Conservative Members attach to the steady improvement of public services over a period of years in the interests of the citizen—the user of the services.

I am disappointed that so many Opposition speeches did not deal with the programme to improve public services for our citizens but, for some reason difficult to understand, shied away from the subject. That is despite the fact that the Opposition claim that the issue is their territory and their carefully cultivated myth that public services are the province of the Labour party alone. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) made what can most kindly be described as ill-judged remarks about the charter's content.

There is nothing paper about the promises that we make in the charter and nothing gimmicky about saying to patients called to out-patient appointments that they should not have to wait all day to see a doctor, but 30 minutes. That may seem a trifling matter for Opposition Members, but for the patients who have to suffer the wait, it is very serious. The House owes it to those people to support them and the Government in their determination to eradicate those habits, which arise not from constraints on resources, but from poor management and an inconsiderate approach to the users of the services.

There is nothing gimmicky about creating league tables for schools and local authorities to give local residents, parents, taxpayers and users of services the chance to compare the performances of different organisations. There is nothing gimmicky about privatising British Rail and our presumption against monopolistic structures. The Government have said that they consider that to be the best way to improve the working of the railway for citizens. There is nothing gimmicky about reducing the Post Office's monopoly on mail, which would introduce real choice and competition for our citizens.

The Government, in introducing those policies, confront difficult issues and have to take on the big, vested interests in the interests of citizens. That is why the Labour party has dodged the big issues and sought to divert the debate into matters that do not involve the citizens charter. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) made a splendid and thoroughly enjoyable speech which produced a grand diversion. If we succeed in arousing a splendid and magnificent debate on the lines that he suggested, nobody will be happier than I, because the citizens charter is an important issue that will engage people's minds.

Public services exist for the public, not politicians. They are not our playthings, or those of councillors. They do not exist for the managers or staff of the services, although they depend on the work of the staff. They are brought into existence to serve citizens. It is our citizens who own and use the services and we should consult those citizens and give them choice. We should extend competition deep into public services, as the Government will propose in the White Paper to be published next week which I hope will command widespread support in the House.

At the beginning of the debate, I asked the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith) a number of hard-edged questions about the Labour party's policies on some central issues concerning choice for the citizen. The hon. Gentleman refused to answer a single one of them. When it comes to the election, the British people will be asking him and his colleagues those questions and they had better have thought up some answers by then. The hon. Gentleman may be able to run, but he and his colleagues will not be able to hide. The British people will expect some answers and, if the Labour party cannot supply them, they will vote unequivocally to continue with the present Government in office.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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