HC Deb 13 January 1995 vol 252 cc355-425

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

[Relevant document: The First Report from the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration of Session 1994–95 on Maladministration and Redress (House of Commons Paper No. 112).]

9.35 am
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. David Hunt)

I am pleased to have the opportunity to open the debate. It is only right for the House regularly to debate the performance of our public services and, of course, the reforms that the Government have introduced and the scope for further improvements.

The aim of the charter is clearly to raise the standard of public services and make them more responsive to users. The principles of the charter, which have transformed the quality of service throughout the country, are: the publication of standards, openness and information, the critical elements of choice and consultation, and the vital ingredients of courtesy and helpfulness and redress when things go wrong. Essentially—

Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

Value for money?

Mr. Hunt

Value for money for the taxpayer, and better quality of services for everyone.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

The right hon. Gentleman talks about openness and information. Will he tell me why he has not replied to a question of mine which he was due to answer yesterday—it was down for answer yesterday—on perquisites and other expenditure by next steps agencies? The Prime Minister did not want to answer the question, and transferred it to the right hon. Gentleman. As the question was down for answer yesterday, and as I should have received an answer by 3.30 pm yesterday, will he explain why, in the interests of openness and information, I heard nothing from him?

Mr. Hunt

I greatly regret that the question has not been answered. I shall immediately look into what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

I strongly agree with the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service that the creation of next steps agencies has been a vital step forward. I equally agree that it is important to have openness and information across the Government machine.

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has done more than any previous Prime Minister to extend openness and information. The verification and publication of the details of Cabinet Committees and the membership of them were never done when the right hon. Gentleman was a Minister, when I first became a Member. There is a series of other areas where my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has opened up the processes of government much more than ever before.

The citizens charter is clearly the cutting edge of the Government's reforms. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister launched the charter in July 1991, he had a clear and practical vision—a 10-year programme to ensure that public services do four things: first, as I have already said, to set and maintain demanding standards; secondly, to provide public information about performance to allow assessment and comparison; thirdly, to ensure that public services are responsive to the needs of users and offer prompt and effective redress when something goes wrong; and, fourthly, to achieve all that at a cost that the taxpayer can afford.

That is a clear vision, and one that I believe has struck a strong chord throughout the nation—so much so, that it is now clear that the charter is here to stay; so much so, that Opposition parties have rushed to claim credit for what was clearly the idea of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It is a vision that delivers practical benefits to ordinary people—so much so that Britain has become a world leader in public sector reform.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I am sure that we are all very much thinking of him at this sad time in his life.

There is a problem with a Labour council in my constituency. It frequently either does not respond to letters from my constituents, or it takes a very long time to do so. My constituents have asked me what redress they have against the council when it does not answer their letters, which is its worst and most serious offence. I estimate that about 80 per cent. of constituents' letters are never answered. What can be done when it does not answer them, or is slow to do so?

Mr. Hunt

I very much appreciate my hon. Friend's words of sympathy to me.

The most effective remedy against the sort of local council to which my hon. Friend referred is to have a Member of Parliament as assiduous as he is, who is prepared to raise the issue on the Floor of the House. It is outrageous that that local authority does not reply to letters. Often, some of the issues raised in them are extremely important, not just for the individual concerned but for a wider application. I very much hope that, when the leaders of that local authority hear of my hon. Friend's important and substantive criticism, they will immediately take steps to respond.

As I have said on previous occasions, one would think that it was not my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister but the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party that had thought up the idea of the citizens charter. Of course, that is not true. However, it is good that it is now clear that all the political parties support the principles behind the charter—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Not me.

Mr. Hunt

There is still a small minority of hon. Members who do not agree. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is joined by his hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), who has said that the various charters are full of silly ideas, and the whole thing is nonsense. Of course, those on the Opposition Front Bench do not agree with either of the hon. Gentlemen.

That happens a great deal these days; indeed, it has become a characteristic. The Labour party has tried to paper over the cracks, but it has not been successful. No one can sell party policies or political parties like soap powders—it will not wash with the electorate. The new biologically improved Labour party is just the same as the Labour party we have always known. We were told in its new year message that it was to be a new, revitalised Labour party, but it is no different. However, the differences within the party are becoming more and more evident as each day passes.

The previous Labour spokesperson on the citizens charter, the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), said on BBC Newcastle: I think the idea is a good one … Consumers and citizens rights are crucial and I am pleased that everyone agrees. The present spokesperson, the hon. Member for Dewsbury (Mrs. Taylor), recently pledged to keep the citizens charter, and I very much welcome that.

However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) pointed out, it is not much use using words to praise the citizens charter if they are not accompanied by a clear commitment to its principles. As he said, one of the most important things is the principle of response—and to respond quickly and with a quality service.

Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the public very much appreciate the citizens charter? Indeed, a survey has shown that 70 per cent. of the public now understand the strength of the charter and know how to make best use of it.

Mr. Hunt

I could not agree more. I hope that other hon. Members will follow the clear objectives set out by my two hon. Friends in their interventions. I warmly welcome the fact that this is to be a full day's debate. I and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will listen carefully to all the points raised, as we are determined to strengthen the citizens charter even further.

I can now tell the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) that I have just been advised that his question was not a named day question, and therefore did not need to be answered yesterday. I shall answer it early next week.

Mr. Kaufman

When my question is answered, will the right hon. Gentleman provide the information requested in it and not use one of the two get-outs—either that the cost to public funds would be too great, or that the information is not centrally available? As he has said that openness, information and quick response are the hallmarks of his Government, will he undertake to provide me with the information—which is Government information—that I have requested?

Mr. Hunt

I always thought that it was usual, especially with a right hon. Gentleman, that when an accusation is made that is then revealed not to be true, an apology is forthcoming.

Mr. Kaufman

I did not make an accusation: I made a request. However, in so far as what I said was not in accordance with the state of affairs, of course I withdraw it. I hope that, equally, now that I have done so, the right hon. Gentleman will respond to my intervention and tell me that he will provide me with the information that I seek.

Mr. Hunt

Now that the right hon. Gentleman has followed normal parliamentary conventions, I shall do the same in answering his question. Obviously, I cannot trail what my answer will be. He will receive it in the early part of next week.

As I said, Britain has become a world leader in public sector reform, with countries across the world accepting, adopting and adapting the charter principles. Last month, I opened the Service for the Citizen conference in London. It attracted more than 260 delegates from more than 30 countries—from Malta and Malawi, Norway and New Zealand and many others. As well as giving us the opportunity to share our experience with them, they were accepting this country's leadership role in public sector reform.

We are less than four years into the charter programme, but we now have a framework for reconciling the ever-growing demand for high-quality public services with the taxpayers' clear and justified reluctance to present a blank cheque to pay more and more for them. Previous Governments have always aspired to the ability to deliver better quality services with better value for money. We should take pride in the fact that we have made great progress in setting standards, providing information about performance, increasing responsiveness to users and improving value for money.

Standards of service are clearly set out for virtually every major public service. There are 40 published charters. The standards are demanding. There is no point in having simple targets that are easily achievable. When existing charters are revised, we constantly look for ways to set higher standards. Wherever possible, we do that after consulting users of the service. We shall have fresh proof of that continual drive for improvement over the coming weeks, when we shall publish a new and expanded patients charter and a new and expanded contributors charter for national insurance payers.

We are at the beginning of a new year. As Minister with responsibility for the citizens charter, the first of my new year resolutions is to see a real improvement in public services by the end of this year. The charter is not some monument carved in stone. It is an evolving programme, which is constantly setting new and challenging targets. Of course services will not meet each and every target on all occasions, but we are signalling clearly what the user has a right to expect and what each service should deliver. The result is clear, too—the user benefits, and standards improve.

There have been improvements in our hospitals. Waiting time guarantees have been met in all but a handful of cases. Waits of longer than 18 months are now virtually unheard of. It is not surprising, therefore, that, just a few days ago, even The Guardian noted that our national health service reforms have enabled a number of long-standing weaknesses to be tackled, and there is increasing evidence of improvements in services to patients".

Mr. Henderson

The right hon. Gentleman has made the point that waiting times have decreased for patients who might previously have waited one or two years, but does he accept that, at the other end of the scale, there have been compensatory factors, and that many patients who are in a semi-chronic state and who previously might have waited three or four weeks for an operation now have to wait seven or eight weeks for that operation?

That largely explains the change in the statistics to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. Is not further evidence of that the fact that, overall, more patients are on the waiting list nationally in 1994 than there were in 1993? That is the case in my own health authority of Newcastle and North Tyneside.

Mr. Hunt

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The patients charter has seen a profound change in almost every aspect of the national health service, but the matter involves much more than that. He has failed to acknowledge that 1 million more patients are being treated, which is a significant achievement, and one to which he should pay tribute. He should also pay tribute to all the people who work in the NHS. They have revolutionised and transformed the quality of service for people who seek treatment.

Mr. John Sykes (Scarborough)

To help my right hon. Friend, did not the waiting list previously comprise people who wanted warts and tattoos removed? Is it not right that they should be pushed further back in the queue when priorities exist that might need more urgent attention?

Mr. Hunt

I agree with my hon. Friend. Every new treatment has a new waiting list. That includes minor treatments. Every time there is a new way of approaching an illness or a problem, there is a new waiting list. It is important for priorities to be set.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) should sometimes join me in listening to the "Today" programme, which he may have heard of. A few days ago, I heard the BBC correspondent pay tribute to the changes for the better in the NHS which have occurred as a result of the patients charter.

The Labour party, however, seems to have a propensity for always trying to find the bad news. Instead of praising the fact that there are 1 million more patients, it always looks for the one operation or one treatment that has a question mark over it, and for something that has gone wrong. I warn the hon. Gentleman that he will find it increasingly difficult. When I first came to the House in the 1970s, my postbag was full of complaints about the NHS, but that is no longer the case. My postbag is often filled with praise by patients and their families for the sympathetic and effective treatment they receive from the NHS.

Mr. Harry Greenway

I am sorry to intervene again, and I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Does he agree that, as a result of the patients charter, where a doctor marks a patient's need for treatment as urgent, that treatment is delivered speedily? That was not the case formerly.

Mr. Hunt

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and agree with him. It is just another example of the way in which improvements are continually being secured for NHS patients.

Improvements have not been made just in money terms. It used to be all about just money. When we came to power in 1979, we were told that there would be an increasing shortage of money for the NHS and that it would not be safe in our hands. That has clearly been proved to be wrong. We have substantially increased the amount of money that goes into the NHS—it has gone up by more than 50 per cent. in real terms.

It is not just about money. The patients charter has introduced a new set of standards, and everyone in the service has done everything possible to meet them. My hon. Friends are therefore able to refer time and again to continual improvements.

Mr. Henderson


Mr. Hunt

Before the hon. Gentleman intervenes, I shall say that we also listen and so do the NHS, the NHS trusts and everyone working in this great service. We listen to the ways in which further improvements can be achieved. I pay tribute to campaigns such as that run in the Daily Mail on single-sex wards. We listen all the time and try to find ways to improve and to introduce new standards that everyone can work towards. That is why the patients charter is such a considerable success.

Mr. Henderson

I do not wish to labour the point, but it would be remiss of me not to press the right hon. Gentleman further on the issue raised by his hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway).

Of course there is support across the House for the concept of the health service being more sensitive to the needs of people. There is no argument about that. The argument that does exist across the House, however, is that much of the patients charter has been hype, and that there has been a statistical movement to achieve the results in the reduction in the number of people waiting up to two years, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

People on the ground in the constituency of the hon. Member for Ealing, North know that the charter does not improve the national health service. Unless new resources are put into the NHS, and unless it is administered more efficiently, people will not obtain the service they demand.

Patients who are identified as needing urgent treatment and who receive it a bit more quickly than before are not, with respect, the main problem in the NHS. By and large, people who are in a serious condition and who need urgent treatment are treated, but people who suffer chronic conditions, have arthritic problems and need hip replacements are not. Those people are suffering because of the inefficiencies in our health service, regardless of what the Government claim.

Mr. Hunt

The hon. Gentleman is treading a dangerous path. I do not accept what he has said, and nor would any independent observer who compares the NHS today with the NHS in 1979.

The hon. Gentleman is pursuing an even more dangerous path in that he has just promised additional and extra resources for the NHS. I warn him that the leadership of his party has laid down clearly that no such pledge can be made. He is opening himself up to a Brown thunderbolt and he will be struck down, according to the latest way in which the Labour party is run. He said that we need to increase the real resources for that—

Mr. Henderson


Mr. Hunt

The hon. Gentleman is worried. I do not blame him, because the Chamber is beginning to be littered with bodies of Labour Front-Bench spokesmen who have been as dangerously irresponsible as he has just been.

Mr. Henderson

In the absence of my Labour colleagues this morning, apart from my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), I feel bound to clarify the position. I said that there needs to be greater efficiency in the national health service so that more resources can be spent on priorities.

Mr. Hunt

Let the record stand; I just hope that it will not be read by his Front-Bench colleagues.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is dangerous to confuse the debate about resources with that about standards? Should we not stick to debating standards? The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) referred to patients with chronic conditions, but would he not do better to welcome the evidence of a fall in average waiting times and the fact that the new patients charter contains an explicit commitment on the length of time between a patient seeing a general practitioner and receiving an out-patient appointment to see a consultant? The Opposition have complained about that, but a standard is now being set in the patients charter.

Mr. Hunt

I could not agree more. My hon. Friend has highlighted our argument, which is that the debate is not only about money—money is, of course, crucial, but we have more than lived up to our commitments on the funding of the national health service—but about standards, about making the nation comfortable in the knowledge that it has the best health service in the world and that the service will be readily available whenever the nation needs it. We constantly upgrade standards when we examine the patients charter and seek ways to improve targets.

Lady Olga Maitland

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) was scaremongering about the difficulty of getting treatment for chronic conditions such as those involving hip replacements? The hon. Gentleman should be aware that, in Sutton, the St. Helier's hospital trust can perform a hip replacement within nine weeks of a patient being referred by his general practitioner.

Mr. Hunt

My hon. Friend has highlighted an achievement in her area, but there are centres of excellence providing treatments across the United Kingdom. We should be proud of them, but our target must be to bring all areas up to the level of the best. All hospitals and health service trusts should take as their benchmark the highest standards in the service. That is what the patients charter is all about.

Mr. Sykes

Does not my right hon. Friend find it galling to be given lectures by the Opposition on standards of health care as it was only in 1979 that the National Union of Public Employees and Confederation of Health Service Employees were picketing Scarborough hospital to decide which patients received treatment? What does that say about the Opposition's standards?

Mr. Hunt

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North is beginning to regret intervening on me in respect of the national health service. I recall vividly that my local hospital on Merseyside was also picketed when the Opposition were last in power. Pickets on the gate stopped ambulances entering the hospital. Ambulance doors were opened to allow the shop steward, who had no medical qualifications, to decide whether, in his opinion, the treatment required was urgent or non-urgent. The public were appalled, not only in Merseyside but elsewhere. That is the legacy with which the Labour party has to live. That was its record when it was last in power.

There have also been improvements in jobcentres. The good news is not only the rising number of vacancies but the falling number of unemployed. About 98 per cent. of those who become unemployed and become clients of the jobcentres are now seen within 10 minutes, even without an appointment.

That is very different from the Britain of the 1960s and 1970s and the old-fashioned employment exchanges which had bars on the windows. Jobcentres are now open-plan, and people are seen quickly. Two thirds of those who become unemployed come off the unemployment register and find a job within six months. That is a tremendous record for the Employment Service, and I pay tribute to it for that.

In all these ways, the citizens charter is now an established part of the fabric of British life. We expect tables detailing the performance of our schools and hospitals; we expect compensation if the trains let us down; we expect to be answered promptly and courteously; and we expect timed appointments in hospitals. We also expect effective complaint systems, and there is a fundamental change in people's awareness of how they should complain.

As I said clearly in my opening remarks, it is a charter principle that, when things go wrong, they should quickly be put right. There must be a well publicised and easy-to-use complaints procedure, with an independent element wherever possible. I think immediately of the revenue adjudicator, whose services from April will be available to those who have complaints about Customs and Excise.

The Government have taken seriously the question of complaints. We set up the independent complaints task force in 1993. It has now carried out more than 50 reviews of public service organisations and published a series of discussion papers, the last of which—on redress—was published on 6 January. I welcome the task force's contribution and look forward to receiving its final report later this year.

I also welcome the contribution made by the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, whose first report into maladministration and redress was published on Wednesday. The Committee's report is an important input, and I and my colleagues will consider it carefully.

The charter also means proper information. My ministerial colleagues and I want the public to have more information on how public services are run, how much they cost, and how well they perform. That is my second new year resolution—more information to help users to understand and compare, to assert their rights and to exercise choice.

Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

Will my right hon. Friend consider whether it would be appropriate to have a separate charter, which could perhaps be called the information provision charter? It could contain recommendations to Departments, local authorities and others on how to set up world wide web pages on the Government's Internet WWW server, thereby providing even more information to people about the standards of service they can expect, on how local authorities and Departments should act and, in response to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), on standards of reply to correspondence. Each Department and council could issue a statement on the WWW detailing the time in which they expect to reply to letters. Once that statement had been made, the public would know what standards to expect.

Mr. Hunt

I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend's work in this respect. We have made a start, but this year there will be a rapid explosion in the amount of information available as all Government Departments are planning to put information on the Internet. I hope that we shall reach the position described by my hon. Friend, and look forward to consulting him on the best way to do so.

Performance in one area after another is being opened up for public inspection. Services from the railways to the courts to the Benefits Agency now publicise performance information locally, but achievements nationally are even more striking. We started three years ago with schools. Parents can now read about secondary school examination results, truancy rates and taught time. The publication of the third annual performance tables last November showed that almost 60 per cent. of secondary schools had increased the percentage of pupils getting at least five GCSEs at grades A to C.

The tables also stimulated public debate about value-added indicators to measure the performance of schools over time. National health service performance indicators were published for the first time last summer, enabling people to compare the achievements of hospitals against patients charter commitments for waiting times, cancelled operations and ambulance emergency responses.

The information revolution, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) has paid tribute, is being extended. I agree with him that we need to extend it to a wide range of local authority services. Already, every council has published statistics on the provision of home helps, residential care, leisure facilities, refuse collection, consumer protection and other services, including the police. This spring, the Audit Commission will publish the data in comparative form. Council tax payers will then know what they are getting for their money, and a new, powerful line of accountability will be established.

Another of our aims is to open up the internal processes of Government to the people we serve. Our code of practice on access to Government information, introduced last April, commits Departments to a number of specific obligations, including the publication of explanatory material on their dealings with members of the public. The Inland Revenue, for example, is now publishing the internal guidance used in local tax offices; it is available for public inspection. Such developments empower the user of public services. We have brought about real changes in the Departments and agencies that are in daily contact with the public.

In response to customer demand, we have put Government services on the streets. If a person wants a face-to-face meeting with a tax officer, a network of mobile tax inquiry centres set up in shopping precincts, town halls and libraries can bring advice directly. Some local benefit offices now run benefit road shows as well.

If customers choose still to go to the benefits office, the progressive introduction of one-stop shops means that they will be able to have their concerns over a wide range of benefits and social security allowances dealt with by one person, in one place, at one time. That is a tremendous advance, and a great improvement. I pay tribute to the Benefits Agency and to my ministerial colleagues in the Department of Social Security for their work in bringing that about.

Those improvements would not have been possible without reorganising the service providers themselves. The creation of executive agencies under the next steps initiative has enabled Government organisations to focus on the quality of the service they provide. The latest annual report of the next steps agencies gives many examples of high-quality service and commitments to further improvements. It is not surprising that the recent report by the Select Committee on the Treasury and Civil Service on the future of the civil service welcomed both the citizens charter and the next steps programme, which it called the most successful reform of recent decades.

Responsive service is not limited to central Government; there are many examples elsewhere. One example is the Waltham Forest housing action trust, which gives residents a voice in choosing the type of housing in which they want to live. As a result, the trust is now replacing high-rise blocks with two-storey housing and garden flats. The introduction of two-storey housing follows a precedent set by many other authorities, and is extremely popular. Another example is Wandsworth's environmental services department, which introduced a noise control help line and a 24-hour investigation service after carrying out a MORI survey of residents' priorities.

Those organisations, together with many others right across the public sector, were among the 98 winners of the latest charter mark awards. In 1994, this scheme, the quality award of the citizens charter, attracted more than 500 applications and 20,000 expressions of interest. Among the winners were services from local authorities under the control of each of the main political parties.

I now want to move forward another stage. I believe that we must make the charter mark award much more the property of the public and that we must involve many more members of the public in the system. With the introduction of public nominations for honours, the Prime Minister has set up a system which has been a remarkable success. I want to extend that principle. I am pleased to announce that in 1995, for the first time, we will ask the public—the users of public services—to nominate organisations for a charter mark award.

My third resolution for 1995 is that I want more suggestions from the public, not only in terms of nominating what they believe to be examples in their area of excellence in delivery of the principles of the citizens charter, but in terms of how they believe services can be improved. The charter is not Government property; it is a charter that belongs to the people. Our plans for the charter mark will make that clear.

The ownership of the citizens charter belongs to our people, and we are handing it over to them. We will also make new charter mark awards for the best customer suggestion and the best staff suggestion to be implemented. We will do everything we can to ensure that our best organisations get the recognition they deserve, and that their successful innovations are networked widely.

For that reason, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science, and I will visit a range of charter mark winners during the next few months. We will talk to managers, staff and customers and find out how their tremendous enthusiasm can be used to make the charter mark an even more successful catalyst for improvements. I very much welcome the ready participation of my right hon. and hon. Friends in highlighting organisations in their constituencies which they are not only proud of, but believe deserve recognition. I hope that, helped by their constituents, they will be able to nominate many more organisations for consideration.

Value for money is another key principle of the citizens charter. We have taken a number of initiatives on contracting out and on competitive tendering. Those initiatives have been vital in enabling us to maintain and improve quality while containing costs. In local government, about £6 billion-worth of services a year are now subject to compulsory competitive tendering, which is being extended to cover services such as information technology, finance, engineering and property.

In central Government, the 1991 White Paper "Competing for Quality" introduced a full programme of privatisation, market testing and contracting out. I feel strongly that competition stimulates increased efficiency and improves quality. It is good for the users of services, good for taxpayers, who get better value for money, good for managers and staff, who can concentrate on core tasks, and good for business, with billions of pounds' worth of new opportunities.

I announced on Monday that, from April 1992 to September 1994, the competing for quality programme covered more than £2 billion-worth of Government activities, as well as 54,000 posts—one tenth of the entire civil service. Annual savings of more than £400 million—that is 20 per cent.—have been achieved, and that is a remarkable programme. That £400 million is now available for other services, other programmes and other improvements in services. Another ambitious programme worth £860 million is already under way.

Financial results have been impressive. But, as many of my hon. Friends have already pointed out in this debate, improvements in quality are the critical ingredient. Departments have been able to negotiate better quality in about a third of market tests, while fully maintaining the existing level of service in other cases.

In the past three and a half years, we have established a framework for delivering high-quality services at a cost that the taxpayer can afford. The great target now is to build on what we have already achieved. That is a challenge which the Government and service providers throughout the public sector will relish. The citizens charter has transformed the culture of our public service.

There may be some people who still feel that they do not have a voice. My final new year's resolution is to change that. I want everyone, including the most vulnerable in our society, to know that they really have a say in improving public services. That is, of course, what the citizens charter is all about.

10.20 am
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne, North)

May I first extend my sympathies and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and his family for the loss which they have suffered this week?

I am pleased that we are debating this subject today, although I must confess that I feel a little like the batsman who, together with my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), has the dilemma of deciding, in the absence of colleagues, whether to go for the runs or to protect one's wicket. I think that I will go for the runs, or at least make an attempt to do so.

Public services and their delivery are an important issue to the British people. There can be no doubt about that. It is right that Parliament should debate whether we have good public services, whether they are delivered efficiently, whether the citizens charter has played a part in any change in either of those factors and whether other matters have affected the level or the delivery of our public services. It would be wrong in a debate of this nature to avoid comments on the general role of public services and the way in which public expenditure has been prioritised on public services. It must be said that too much public expenditure in recent years has been directed towards dealing with the effects of unemployment and the related issues of community decay and rising crime, and that too little has been directed at investment in community needs, such as improved transport, education and training, and the environment.

We have heard the right hon. Gentleman's new year resolutions. I remind the House of some of the commitments that his predecessors made in dealing with the citizens charter. In a statement to the House in November 1992, the former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave), claimed that the 1991 White Paper launched a radical and far-reaching programme of reform and improvement of public services. He went on to say: The citizens charter programme of public service reform and improvement is at the heart of the Government's agenda for the 1990s."—[Official Report, 25 November 1992; Vol. 214, c. 869–70.] The problem that the right hon. Gentleman had then, and his successor has this morning, is that, although the Government may agree with that approach, it is not necessarily helpful for them to say that something is at the heart of their agenda, because that does not convey any clarity to the public.

One thing about which the House can be in no doubt is that the public do not now know what the Government's agenda is. The public have been told many things, yet many other realities have resulted. The public were told that tax cuts were at the heart of the Government's agenda, and they now know how hollow that was. The public were also told that bringing down crime was at the heart of the Government's agenda.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Henderson

In a second. The public must now be completely aware of the Government's failure to bring down crime levels. The public were told that post office privatisation was at the heart of the Government's agenda, and they now know how transitory that commitment was. The public were also told that the Tory Government would be at the heart of Europe, and they now know how quickly that has vanished from the agenda.

Mr. Deva

I shall ask my question in the kindest way possible on a Friday morning. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to point out honestly that the Labour Benches were empty of hon. Members, other than the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). I wonder if that is because the Labour party is not interested in the citizens charter and the services that it provides?

Mr. Henderson

I had anticipated that a Conservative Member would raise that point. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Labour party is very committed to improving public services, and if the citizens charter plays a part in that, the Labour party is committed to making the citizens charter effective and sensitive to the needs of the people. The reason why my colleagues are not with me this morning is that they are so excited by Labour's lead in the opinion polls that they are out campaigning to improve that lead even further. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Mudie) never likes to go over the top in such matters and has decided to give priority to discussing public services for the rest of the morning—I hope.

Mr. Sykes

While we are on the subject of absent Members, does not the hon. Gentleman regard it as very unfortunate that, on the day that the Liberal Democrats unveiled their Members of Parliament charter, there is not one Liberal Democrat in the House to be questioned?

Mr. Henderson

I am not going to defend the Liberal Democrats if they are not here to defend themselves. I shall leave the leader of the Liberal Democrats to respond to the hon. Gentleman when he returns from whatever he is doing this morning.

The issue is, are the public convinced of the citizens charter and do they understand this so-called far-reaching programme? I was tempted to intervene in the speech of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he was referring to the derivation of the citizens charter, but I thought better of it and thought that I would wait until I had the opportunity, if I caught your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to mention it myself.

The citizens charter is a useful concept, which dates back, my history books tell me, to Herbert Morrison of the London county council in 1921. He promised the citizens of London a charter on local government services. Increasingly, the Government are stealing ideas from the Labour party's manifesto—[interruption.] Yes, yes. Many of the ideas which the Government now propose, where there is revisionism from the days of Thatcher, are often taken from common-sense ideas in Labour party manifestos, and the citizens charter is one of them. Indeed, the citizens charter concept was adopted by at least two Labour-controlled councils in the 1980s—Lewisham and York, which provide excellent services, according to the Government's own audited figures, to the people of those communities—long before the Prime Minister came forward with his proposals a year or two ago.

Mr. Harry Greenway

When the hon. Gentleman mentions Herbert Morrison, he is obviously, in going for the runs, in severe danger of being run out—if he has not been run out already. Herbert Morrison's promise to London was that he would build the Conservatives out. That was his only promise of any effect. He did that for a period, during which people could not buy their council homes, and so on. That was how he did it. In the end., it was a disaster for London, as recent history has shown.

Mr. Henderson

If that were true, it was because the Conservatives were not building any houses at all. Any houses built in London at that time were for ordinary people who saw the merit in having a Labour-controlled London county council. But that is a matter of history.

Mr. Sykes

I am sorry that we are all ganging up on the hon. Gentleman; it really is not fair. However, it is pretty rich of him to say that we are adopting Labour's clothes when the Labour party refuses to say that it will renationalise the railways, repeal the Jobseekers Bill or end any of our trade union reforms which were so successful in the 1980s or our education reforms. Labour has worn nearly all our clothes over the past 20 years.

Mr. Henderson

If I can get going, I shall refer later to the real differences between Labour's approach and the Government's approach to improving public services. The citizens charter is, by and large, a test of whether public services have improved. I hope that Conservative Members will recognise that the improvement must come from real changes in the way in which the services are delivered.

Are the public convinced of the effectiveness of the citizens charter? There has been a proliferation of charter-related activities: charter marks, charter networks, charter newsletters and a charter task force. The notorious cones hotline was apparently a commitment made on the hoof by the then Secretary of State for Transport, the right hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. MacGregor), during an interview on the BBC's "Today" programme.

What has been the effect of the cones hotline which we see advertised on motorways as we drive around the country? In the last 12 months of its operation, 11,500 calls resulted in just five sets of cones being removed to some other location. Is not that a symbol of so much that is wrong with the Government's approach? It is back-of-the-envelope policy launched amid high hopes and wild claims which proves to be nothing more than an embarrassing damp squib and a waste of taxpayers' money.

What of charterline? Like the cones hotline, it was launched in a blaze of publicity. At the launch of the pilot scheme in February 1993, the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) said: Research has shown that there is a great public demand for a national charterline information service. The Government forecast 30,000 calls a month to charterline. In the first weeks, there were a number of callers. Some rang about the Department of Social Security and the health service. However, other calls could only be classified as miscellaneous. One caller to charterline asked how he could get rid of foxes in his garden. Others wanted to know how to get rid of starlings from their roofs. Another man asked how to become a monk.

I would not want to veto calls to charterline. However, was that what was intended? One caller demonstrated what many taxpayers think. He rang to complain that the charterline was a waste of taxpayers' money. How correct he was. After 10 months of the project and £500,000 worth of expenditure, it was found that the charterline was receiving just 25 calls a day and that each call was costing £68. After all the trumpeting, as I understand it, the line had to be scrapped. I believe that the Government are currently considering whether it should be reintroduced.

High claims were made by the Child Support Agency when it introduced its charter in August 1993. The then chief executive, Ros Hepplewhite, wrote at the beginning of the charter: I am wholly committed to providing for our clients a service which is fast, efficient, confidential and accurate. She went on to explain the agency's other ambitions. Under that charter, the agency stated that it expected that at least 65 per cent. of its customers would be satisfied and that maintenance would be calculated accurately. All hon. Members must be aware that the reality of the CSA's operation is very different. Not one of us can say that we have not received many calls and letters from constituents complaining about the appalling service that they have received from the CSA.

Those calls and letters do not come in one week or one month; if my constituents are typical, those complaints have been made from the inception of the CSA to the present day. I have been inundated by complaints from people who have been affected in one way or the other. Is that not evidence that a charter, in itself, does not necessarily improve public services? With regard to the CSA, the terms of the charter have not been met.

The CSA has acknowledged that 350,000 cases, out of a total of 1.1 million cases, have been outstanding for more than six months. The chief child support officer found that at least four in 10 maintenance payments ordered by the agency were wrong and that only one in six of the regional centres had been achieving its work targets.

Hon. Members are aware that those statistics have not been cobbled up by a bureaucrat sitting in an office. They are not statistics which bear no relationship to what is actually happening. Hon. Members know what is happening to their constituents. They are aware of their problems with the agency. The position has not improved since the resignation of the chief executive. The House will recall that, just before Christmas, the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Bury, North (Mr. Burt), had to sneak out an announcement to the effect that the CSA was deferring indefinitely 350,000 cases involving benefit payments. We all look forward to the publication next week of a report on the CSA by the parliamentary ombudsman.

Is that not clear evidence that hype, advertising and the false promises of Planet Portillo do not improve public services and that real changes are needed? If that does not happen, charters like the CSA charter are not worth the paper they are printed on.

The same position applies in British Rail. Rail users have been issued with a long document which identifies their rights. Notwithstanding commitments that might be contained in the charter, because of other factors in the rail industry, one of the charter's main points—that people can obtain a ticket at a railway station anywhere in Britain to any other point in Britain—has not been met.

Although the Government say that they generally support the principle that tickets should be available at any station, because of BR's structure and the problems in that public service, the terms of that charter cannot be met. Is that not ridiculous? What a way to run a railway. Twentieth century dogma with 19th century structures is trying to run a service for the 21st century. Is it not little wonder that there is public scepticism about the effectiveness of the charter?

If the evidence that I have before me is accurate—I have no reason to believe that it is not—contrary to the point raised by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland), two thirds of people interviewed in surveys do not believe that charters have been successful. In a National Opinion Polls survey, people were asked: Have you ever seen a copy of the Citizen's Charter or other Charters for public bodies, such as the British Rail Passenger's Charter or Parents' Charter? Only 34 per cent. said that they had seen a copy.

The NOP's second question is more telling: The Government claims that the Citizen's Charter will lead to real improvements in the quality of service people get from public bodies like the NHS, while opponents claim it is just a public relations exercise and will make no real difference. Which of these views is closer to your own? Sixty-six per cent. of those polled believed that charters were just a public relations exercise.

Similar evidence was revealed by a poll conducted by the Scottish Consumer Council which has been referred to widely in the literature and of which I am sure the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster is aware. People were asked what they thought about the citizens charter. While 23 per cent. of people felt that there may have been some improvement in public services as a result of the charter, 37 per cent. felt that the citizens charter was not improving public services.

Lady Olga Maitland

It strikes me that the hon. Gentleman is being somewhat selective in respect of the polls and surveys to which he refers. Would he kindly tell us who published the surveys and exactly what questions were posed?

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Lady has not been listening. I said that one poll was carried out by NOP, one client of which is the Trades Union Congress—[Interruption.] Well, it is fair to say that the TUC represents a large spectrum of opinion. We are told that many Conservative voters are members of trade unions. However, that is not the point. National Opinion Polls is a reputable organisation. Its reputation is staked on the objectivity of its polling. I am certainly happy to take its evidence. If Conservative Members' cynicism is such that they cannot even now accept what opinion polls tell them of people's attitudes, we really have sunk deep. I will take no lectures from the hon. Lady on that matter.

Mr. Kaufman

Is my hon. Friend aware that National Opinion Polls has been used in the past by the Conservative party for its private polling?

Mr. Henderson

I was aware of that, but it momentarily escaped my mind. I am extremely grateful for my right hon. Friend's assistance on that matter.

The public can see charters coming out of the ears of local and national government. There is scepticism. The only place where we do not have a charter is in Parliament. Perhaps we should have a parliamentary charter or, perhaps, a Conservative rebels charter, stating, "A Government Whip will reply to your question within two hours, letters will be replied to on the same day, and compensation will be paid, subject to Treasury approval." Perhaps we should have league tables for Conservative rebels. Perhaps that would convince the public of the Government's genuine commitment to the citizens charter.

Where does the scepticism come from? It comes from the public's own experience. It comes from what the public know about public services as they affect them and their families. For example, I refer to education, transport and health services, on which we have already had an exchange of views this morning.

One factor which must be brought into hospital waiting list statistics—it is not a constant factor that can be ignored—is when a potential patient enters the waiting list. I understand that it is when the first consultation takes place. The evidence in my constituency is that people have to wait longer for their first consultation; therefore, they do not appear on the waiting list statistics. However, I accept that, once they are in the statistics, there have been some improvements, although at the expense of people who would previously have been seen in three or four weeks but who now must wait seven or eight weeks.

Mr. Clappison

I raised that point with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. If the hon. Gentleman is concerned about it, surely he will join me in welcoming the fact that the new patients charter will include a standard for the length of time between seeing a general practitioner and having an out-patient appointment with a consultant. Surely that is an example of the charter working. It highlights an important issue.

Mr. Henderson

I accept the hon. Gentleman's point. If the charter clarifies for the public what is happening in the health service, of course that is welcome, but the problem is that the charter makes problems and commitments which cannot be honoured unless other things take place to improve the service. For example, there is a combination of human and capital resources in the health service.

Several things have been flushed out by the citizens charter: the Government's attitude to public services generally, the extent to which the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 apply when there are changes in the delivery of services and whether there should be protection for working people. We know that the Government have had to be dragged along at the end of the European queue on that matter.

No matter what the Government might claim about their commitment to public service, when it affects poorer people specifically, resources are not put in place. I am shocked that citizens advice bureaux budgets—the CAB must be central to the concept of assistance for the ordinary citizen—have been frozen for the next three years, according to the relevant schedules. That is regrettable, and it should be changed if the Government are genuinely committed to such matters.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster referred to access of information. The Government, in response to many pressures from the public and from the House, said, "We believe in open government." People asked, "If you believe in open government, why cannot an ordinary citizen ask questions on information which would be publicly available if a Member of Parliament asked a parliamentary question?" That seemed to be a reasonable point. The Government responded by introducing what they called the code of practice. If the right hon. Gentleman is sincere in his desire to extend freedom of information, there must be greater advertising so that the public know how they can find out information and what the procedures are.

The Government's record is appalling. Departments have spent only £43,000 on advertising the new code of practice. The Department for Education has spent only £581, and the Department of the Environment has spent £170. I obtained those figures from a parliamentary answer. They compare with the £5.7 million which was spent on advertising the virtues of the poll tax, and the £17.1 million which was spent on advertising the second British Telecom share offer. That puts into context the way in which the Government have allocated resources in this important matter. If they genuinely favour freedom of information and if they think that it is an important concomitant of the concept of a citizens charter, there must be greater commitment on their part.

I do not doubt that there are improvements in citizens' procedural rights. Some additional information is available. However, the main test of whether the citizens charter has been effective is surely whether public services are better. Are people receiving better, quicker and more effective treatment in the national health service? Is our education system improving, with higher standards of education for all our children, young people and adults? Is our transport system providing a better service? Is it tackling congestion problems in our cities? Is it tackling the problems of obtaining the necessary investment to provide transport in future? Are the public receiving the public services that they want?

The public's verdict, of course, is already clear for hon. Members to see, regardless of the opinion polls to which I have referred and which are disputed by the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam. There have been two major sets of local government elections since the main claims were made about the citizens charter at the previous general election. On both occasions, the public completely rejected Conservative local government. They have not seen Conservative local government as being committed to public services or delivering public services efficiently, and they have seen no major improvement arising from the citizens charter, or they would have given the Government the result that they looked for during those elections. Patently, that did not happen. In addition, the public are concerned about their loss of control over public services because of the rapid growth in quangos.

In his speech to the Conservative conference in October, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said: I joined the Conservative Party because it is the party which gives powers and responsibility to people, because we know that the state does not know best. He continued: Through the Citizen's charter we are transferring power from bureaucrats and politicians in Whitehall and the Town Hall to ordinary people in the school hall and village hall. That might be very laudable, but it is the ultimate in "I regret what I said at the party conference." The right hon. Gentleman knows that, regardless of the terms that he set out in that speech, that is not the Government's record.

The Government have centralised power in a sustained way over many years as a deliberate policy; indeed, they have made a virtue of having done so. Training and enterprise councils have taken over training and regeneration policies. Funding councils have been established for further and higher education. Urban development corporations are taking over urban regeneration in designated areas. I have in mind also housing action trusts, the Housing Corporation, health service trusts and the new police arrangements. They all take power from local people so that local representatives cannot have a say. All those arrangements are changing the way in which services are controlled by taking power away from ordinary people and elected representatives and by giving authority to people who are appointed by Secretaries of State.

Independent research has shown that, by 1996, unelected bodies will spend £54 billion of public money. A survey by the Financial Times in April 1993 found that quangos were responsible for a fifth of all public spending—a 20 per cent. increase on 1979. A report by the institute of local government studies in November 1993 found that there are now 17,000 members of unelected public bodies, compared to 25,000 councillors.

The Government have tried to dismiss the figures by arguing that there is now increased accountability through the citizens charter, but that has not been accepted even by many of the Government's own intellectuals—if that is not a contradiction in terms. I do not know whether Graham Mather, the Conservative Member of the European Parliament for Hampshire, North and Oxford, would like to be classified as a Conservative intellectual, but I have shared a platform with him on one or two occasions and he seems to bat above the average on these matters.

Mr. Mather says that there has been some centralisation of public services and adds: Where school boards and hospitals trusts are failing is when they're trapped in a system controlled by Whitehall and Whitehall civil servants setting standards, controlling cash and really taking decisions back on the Minister's desk instead of the local level. That is what a Conservative representative says, so it is not only Opposition Members who feel that power has been taken away from local people and elected bodies. Prominent members of the Conservative party acknowledge that that has taken place. Some are reluctant and wary of the consequences of that, as Mr. Mather is, while others make a virtue out of the fact that power has been taken away from local representatives because they think that the Government know best.

An accompanying point must be acknowledged by the House. I do not think that a case could be made for the extension of quangos even if they had as members people who were, broadly speaking, representative of different currents of thought and who reflected different political attitudes. But that is not the case. The reality is that Conservative place-people—including relatives of some Conservative Members—have been given jobs in hospital trusts and other public bodies. That is not acceptable in a modern democracy, and it is not consistent with the principle of the citizens charter.

Lady Olga Maitland

The hon. Gentleman talks about increased centralisation. He might like to speak to parents in my constituency whose children are in grant-maintained schools. They are delighted that they are now able to take part in schools that are independent of the tyranny of local town halls, and they vote for that.

Mr. Henderson

With all due respect to the hon. Lady, I must tell her that if the Conservative Government say that they can no longer afford to fund those schools as they are cutting budgets, there will be no point in the parents bleating to the local authority that the services provided by that school are important for the local community, because the decision will be taken in Whitehall.

Mr. Sykes

I do not want to upset the hon. Gentleman, but perhaps he ought to phone Tony Blair to find out the answer to the question which I am about to ask him. If all that he has said is true, why is the Labour party committed to increasing the number of quangos by 2,536?

Mr. Henderson


Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. May I remind hon. Members that it is not our custom to refer to another hon. Member by name? That is the prerogative of the Speaker and her deputies only.

Mr. Sykes

I apologise to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for that oversight.

Mr. Henderson

There was another oversight on the hon. Gentleman's part. He has not understood his central office brief, because even Conservative central office could not cook up statistics which show that figure. If the hon. Gentleman wants to send me details, I shall be happy to peruse them and give my response later to any point that he raises.

Mr. David Hunt

It might be helpful if a few facts were introduced into the hon. Gentleman's speech. There was a quango state in this country which existed at the time I came into the House in the 1970s. When the Conservative Government took over, the number of quangos was 2,167. We have reduced that number to 1,389. The figures which the hon. Gentleman is using include 2,668 housing associations which everyone knows are non-profit-making bodies run by unpaid committees of volunteers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) pointed out, the hon. Gentleman is also including grant-maintained schools in the figures. The quango state is a Labour state, and my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) is quite right in saying that the Labour party has already made many commitments which show that the number of quangos would go back up again if we ever had a Labour Government.

Mr. Henderson

The undemocratic state is a Conservative state, and people can see that with their own eyes and through their own experiences. They know that, regardless of what the right hon. Gentleman said, the amount of money which is now allocated directly by central Government to quangos is far greater than it has ever been—even under a Conservative Government. I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's point in any way.

People know that many of the services upon which they rely are now controlled by Whitehall. The money is dished out there and the people who administer the services are appointed there. If a person wants to complain, he has to go to Whitehall because going to his local office will have no impact whatsoever. That lack of democracy adds to the scepticism which the public clearly have about the benefits of the citizens charter.

In many instances, the public services are run on principles which have been rejected by companies that have adopted best practices in the private sector. The Government are always keen to tell the House that they want the public sector to act more like the private sector. Such is the reasoning behind the introduction of a number of changes such as compulsory competitive tendering, to which I shall come in a moment. Where there has been an introduction of private sector practices into the public sector, it has often been the worst practices and not the best.

Many claims have been made about the impact of compulsory competitive tendering. The Government have claimed that savings of about 6 per cent. have been made in the provision of services through compulsory tendering. Where those statistics have been shown to be—in a mathematical sense—accurate, it has often been because the quality of service has suffered. But other studies, which have examined the impact of CCT over a longer term, do not even accept that point.

A study by Professor Szymanski of the London Business School—an organisation not exactly sympathetic to some of the views of the Labour party—looked at CCT in the long term. He took examples of councils which put out contracts to tender in the early 1980s before there was a compulsory element. In the long term, the study shows that prices will begin to rise. In effect, a lot of private sector contractors introduce loss-leading in the early stages of a contract. Once a contractor has a contract, and the local authority has few real alternatives, up shoot the prices. That is interesting evidence which has been raised in relation to this matter.

Mr. Sykes

Can the hon. Gentleman name one single council where that has occurred in the past 10 years—in relation to cleansing services, for example?

Mr. Henderson

Wandsworth council had to change its tender because the contractor was not meeting standards and prices were rising. The council was not getting value for money and changed the contract. The evidence from Professor Szymanski was that, in the long term, Wandsworth—like other councils—will have to pay a higher price for getting private sector contracts because a monopoly will have developed and there will not be alternatives in particular areas. [Interruption.] I do believe that.

In any case, that is not my main quarrel with the changes which the Government have introduced. My main quarrel with CCT is that it has not really changed what is happening at a local level in the provision of public services. Low-paid workers have had their conditions reduced, and quality has suffered. Management still try to control workers with the stick, rather than any concept of the carrot. Budgets are spent whether or not there are any needs to be met at a particular time. There is little innovation by management or workers in an environment with little security, and often poor motivation.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes)

The hon. Gentleman has told the House that he believes that competitive tendering for local government services makes them more expensive. Can he produce one single example in which putting out to contract rubbish collection services has increased the price? Is it not a fact that substantial amounts of money have been saved by authority after authority following the example originally set by Wandsworth? They have done a tremendous favour to the nation. The service quality has improved and the price has fallen.

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful to the Minister for intervening, because I can give him the evidence from the study to which I referred by Professor Szymanski. Referring to refuse services, he says: On average there were initial 20 per cent. savings in the tendered out services in the first two years but at the end of the five-year period costs were up 11 per cent. even though average staff numbers were down by 20 per cent. I do not believe that compulsory competitive tendering has achieved the ends which the Government claim. They have not resulted in the adoption of the best practices of the private sector. Conservative Members who know anything about industry will recognise that. They will not recognise worker motivation and involvement, quality targets, workplace flexibility and teamwork or security of employment in the many privatised services now in place in different parts of the country.

Mr. Sykes

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that no one is entitled to security of employment in the 1990s? It is a nice thought. When the hon. Gentleman talks about security of employment, he is really talking about the closed shop.

Mr. Henderson

The hon. Gentleman has completely misunderstood the position. His thinking is old-fashioned. I am not talking about employers' fear of being forced to concede security of employment to their workers. I am talking about employers saying that those workers are so valuable to them, their business and operation that they want to build loyalty by giving workers the security that they would want for themselves and their families. That is the concept of security which I have watched advanced-thinking companies such as Nissan up in Sunderland develop over 10 years. That is what is important. I am not talking about contractual security imposed from outside. I am talking about internal organisations building their own loyalty. That concept has not been achieved through compulsory competitive tendering.

The same goes for market testing. Again, there is no real change. There are no initiatives and no new services. There is no extra motivation and no change in workplace attitudes. There is more stick and more insecurity. We need a genuinely new approach. Do we not first need a commitment to the concept of an efficient, good public service? Is it not crucial that the Government recognise that there is a need for democratic choice, that that choice should be devolved to the most local level possible and that citizens should exercise that democratic choice either directly or through their elected representatives?

Do we not need an approach which is dogma free and recognises the need for a mix of public and private in finding the funds for investment and bringing about the most effective form of delivery? In ridding ourselves of dogma, should we not move away from the presumption that privatisation is best and establish on merit whether a service is best delivered in private or public ownership?

Do we not need a regular review of services to examine whether new services can be provided? Should public sector departments not be encouraged to take community initiatives to achieve that aim and be given new appropriate statutory powers to do so? Should we not review the way in which we insist on rigid, annual budgets in most parts of public service? Private organisations carry funds forward from one year to another. Should not public sector organisations also be given that form of accounting without any detriment to the budget that they would have received? If we did that, we would stop the nonsense of parsimony in budgets from April to February and then profligacy in March before the end of the financial year. I notice from the faces of Conservative Members that they have experienced that in their areas, as I have in mine.

It is often said in the world of work that management get the workers they deserve. If management are stuffy, rule-book based, old-fashioned, inflexible and uncommunicative, it is little surprise that the work force mirror those attitudes? Is it not most important of all that a new sense of public service is instilled—a public service motivated at management, worker and democratic level; a public service based on secure, well-paid employment with high standards of training; a public service that uses the most modern technology and operational systems; a public service that has clear targets and is subject to rigorous audit; a public service which is initiative orientated; a public service of which we are proud, which we value and on which all of us can depend? If that is our purpose, we must support the changes necessary to achieve that.

If the citizens charter contributes to those changes, the Opposition will give it procedural support. However, I do not believe that the public scepticism about the way in which our public services are run and about the claims made for the citizens charter can be overcome unless real change takes place. We need new commitments on the need for public services and a new attitude to their delivery.

11.5 am

Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

The citizens charter is the often-derided tip of a very large iceberg. Those who mock it are guilty of failing to realise the scale and significance of what lies under the surface. We are debating one of the most important developments in British politics in the 1990s. The fact that we are conducting the debate in such a thinly attended House, particularly on the Opposition Benches, speaks volumes about the way in which we as Members of Parliament understand our functions and responsibilities.

As it is clear that the importance of the citizens charter and what it stands for has not been widely understood, I shall say a few words about why it is so important, after which I shall draw attention to some of the problems that need to be acknowledged.

One of the biggest problems facing Governments in the late 20th century democracies is how to operate successful, good-quality public services when we have more or less reached the limits of taxpayers' willingness to pay for such services. The creation of the welfare state during the 70 years from Lloyd George in the Edwardian period to Keith Joseph mark I in the early 1970s was a heroic achievement, but it did not involve any fundamental innovations in how Britain was governed. It was accomplished simply by increasing taxation and enlarging the political and bureaucratic machinery that had been established in the middle of the 19th century.

The inexorable growth in the proportion of the national income taken in tax and redistributed by the state, which began in the first decade of this century, was bound to reach a limit some time. It did so in the 1970s—a decade marked throughout the advanced industrial world by taxpayers' revolts. In Britain, they took the form of waves of industrial unrest at the concept of a social wage and a social contract—the idea that the lower personal incomes brought about by higher taxes and wage restraint would be compensated for by higher spending on public services. The Heath and Callaghan Governments failed in that regard, and their failure marked the end of that sort of thinking.

In the past two decades in Britain, as elsewhere in the advanced democracies, all parties have backed off from policies that would involve large tax increases. That was beautifully illustrated in exchanges today between my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who was twitted so successfully on Labour's spending commitments. The Labour party's manifesto for the 1992 election was probably, although we will undoubtedly try to present it differently, the last gasp of the tax-and-spend philosophy. It remains to be seen whether my party will escape the damage that the Government inflicted on it by deciding to increase taxes rather than cut public services in the teeth of the recent recession.

Governments throughout the advanced industrial world face fundamental problems in relation to the welfare state. There are two contradictory pressures. As per capita incomes rise, there is a continuing rise in the expectations of users of public services. At the same time, the growth in the resources available for funding public services is limited, essentially, to the rate of growth in the economy. The fundamental significance of the citizens charter is that it is a serious and sustained effort to tackle that critical problem.

I said that the welfare state was built by expanding 19th century political and bureaucratic machinery. A Member of a late-Victorian Parliament, returning to this House in 1980, would certainly have no difficulty in recognising the arrangements by which the welfare state was run, however enlarged and distended he might have thought them.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

Would not the great difference that that gentleman would notice on returning to the House probably be waste? Is not the key question in the debate how we inject private enterprise efficiency into publicly owned services?

Mr. Jackson

I shall come to the argument about the use of private sector methods to improve efficiency. The Victorian Member would certainly have observed a large increase in waste and would have been very attentive to it because one of the central tenets of Victorian public finance was to reduce waste—I can cite the phenomenon of candle ends, Mr. Gladstone and all that.

At this stage in my argument, I am trying to show that the arrangements by which we expanded the welfare state were essentially 19th century arrangements that: would have been familiar to a Victorian Member returning in the 1980s. He would have seen a monolithic civil service, employed on uniform terms and conditions—basically, the service created by the Northcote-Trevelyan reforms of the 1860s—which was simply expanded within the traditional structure of accountability to Parliament through Ministers. He would have observed that in operation here at Question Time and so on.

The citizens charter addresses the fundamental problems that I described by breaking through to a new concept of government. It recognises that there is no need for the delivery of public services to be organised through a monolithic civil service, which was part of the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord). Indeed, the traditional civil service uniformity of conditions may be an obstacle to efficiency and performance. Through the next steps agencies, the Government are recognising the way in which so many public service activities are discrete businesses that need to be run on lines that are specifically adapted to the immediate task in hand.

At the same time, we have begun to understand that 19th century ideas about political control and accountability were neither efficient nor effective, and I shall return to that subject. The tasks and objectives of agencies are now much more clearly spelt out by being embodied in contracts between them and central government.

The fundamental new principle that has been introduced in the past 10 years is that of a division of functions between purchasers and providers and the embodiment of their relations in contracts with specified standards of performance and clearly defined arrangements for monitoring performance against those standards. I have no doubt that all that is leading to a steady sharpening up of the performance of public service deliverers, while making much more transparent the relationship between those—including hon. Members—who are politically responsible for ensuring that a service is provided and those who are operationally responsible for ensuring that it is delivered efficiently and to a high standard.

Governments throughout the world are facing up to those problems—some more and some less successfully. It is a noteworthy fact, in which we can take some pride, that our thinking on such matters is more advanced than that almost anywhere else in the world. We are pioneering the new approach to public service provision in the 1990s, just as we pioneered the concept of privatisation in the 1980s.

Changes of the type under discussion cannot be accomplished in complex and continually evolving modern societies simply by devising a comprehensive blueprint and implementing it. We are bound to proceed by a process of trial and error and we have to admit error from time to time. We pursue a general strategy, with sensitivity to problems as they arise. We have to have the will to provide innovative solutions to those problems when we see them. We must also be prepared from time to time to recognise when the problems are such that they require some adjustment to the overall strategy. The Government have been working sensibly in that fashion, as they have put in hand the massive programme of changes that they have undertaken. There are a number of problems, however, for which we have not yet found adequate solutions. We must recognise that some may require modifications to the general strategy.

First, and probably most important, is the problem of ensuring that the Government operate as an intelligent purchaser on their side of the purchaser-provider divide. We have put an enormous amount of energy into the organisation of providers, so that in many sectors we have an extensive array of lean, mean and competitive providers of public services. I am not convinced, however, that the Government's capacity, both centrally and locally, to make sensible long-term purchasing decisions has also been commensurately developed. In particular, the problem of short-termism seems to be institutionalised in our public finance system and the way in which the Treasury operates. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North put some sound arguments on that.

Some stability is required for any large-scale organisation to flourish, especially if it is operating in the intangible area of services whose quality depends largely on the morale and motivation of huge numbers of professional and semi-professional employees. We will do ourselves a disservice and will risk discrediting the new approach to public service provision if the new relationship between the Government as purchaser and the agencies as providers simply maximises the impact of stop-go policies.

The second problem has a more philosophical character. We must recognise that there is a difference between co-operative and contractual models of organisation and that both have their value and their part to play. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central pointed that out in his intervention. The citizens charter is based on the extension of essentially private sector contractualist ideas into a public service world that has traditionally been based on an ethos of co-operation. That is not a bad thing—there is always a danger that the co-operative ethos among producers can become introverted and self-serving, rather than oriented towards service users. That was recognised as long ago as Adam Smith, but we must recognise that there is a great diversity in human psychology and in organisations and that what may be appropriate structures of incentive and disincentive in one type of organisation may not always be appropriate in others. There are also problems of hybridisation. It may not be possible successfully to combine those two different philosophies in a single organisation.

Mr. Lord

I am following my hon. Friend's argument carefully. Is not one of the changes that has taken place in the past 30 years a change in the relationship between elected councillors, responsible for spending a large amount of public money, and their officers? The same is probably true of the relationship in Whitehall between civil servants and Ministers. There has been a notable shift in power away from the elected member, just as the amounts of money involved have hugely increased. Would my hon. Friend like to comment on that?

Mr. Jackson

I want to say something about the problems of accountability, especially as they relate to the House. My hon. Friend is right. There is a sense in which the reforms are designed to restore a greater measure of political control over the operation of those great programmes, by enabling the political leadership to define much more clearly what it expects to get out of them, by setting the objectives and standards and by devising performance standards, so that there is a way of getting some sort of political handle on the operation of those great sums of money.

I was trying to argue that we have to be careful about the way in which we combine a contractualist approach to organisations with a co-operative approach. One striking aspect of how contractualism may be at odds with co-operative organisational models relates to pay—an absolutely critical question. The private sector gurus who advise on the organisation of public service agencies tend to attach great importance to financial incentives for individuals. I am sceptical about the universal applicability of that. High pay for top executives and individualised performance contracts are an American and Anglo-Saxon fashion. They are much less common, even in the private sector, in mainland Europe and Japan—arguably more successful economies. We are all becoming increasingly familiar with the problems posed by those individualised pay arrangements in terms of both public credibility of the leadership of organisations, and of employees' morale. We need to think again on that issue.

The problem of political accountability, which has arisen time and again in this debate, is posed by all those new developments. The telling points about centralisation made by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North simply cannot be dismissed. I propose not to follow him but to draw attention to the problem of accountability as it relates to this House.

Parliament still operates within the parameters of the 19th century system of government. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who will speak in the debate, is an eloquent exponent of that topic, but he fails to recognise that the old system that he defends was never adequate to cope with the vast expansion of responsibilities assumed by the state in the first part of this century. If the machinery for accountability embodied in this House was inadequate for the era in which, as Nye Bevan put it, Ministers were held responsible for every dropped bedpan in the national health service, how much more inadequate are its arrangements in the face of the new dispensation emerging under the banner of the citizens charter?

As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central, that new dispensation provides enormous opportunities for hon. Members to assert greater control and direction over public services. The making of public service contracts allows much greater sharpness in priority setting than was possible in the past. The contractual arrangements between central Departments and agencies generate a huge new flow of information about performance standards. If the House had the right structures, there is no reason why we should not play an effective part in guiding Ministers in setting strategies, determining priorities and monitoring performance. But do we have the will to do so? The attendance at today's debate shows that we have not yet even begun to understand the scale of those possibilities.

Finally, I want to say a word about the limits of the citizens charter philosophy and programmes based on it. Earlier, I said that I regard the charter as an attempt to meet rising expectations of quality in the public services when people's willingness to pay for those services through taxes is strictly limited. I have no doubt that quality improvements in our public services can be achieved through the charter by making them more businesslike, but we must recognise that, ultimately, the quality of public service—as of any service—is, more than anything else, a function of the financial resources available to support it. Ultimately, we get what we pay for. In that sense, the citizens charter approach faces the prospect of diminishing returns.

One of the great paradoxes of today's society is the contrast between the public sector's increasing affluence, in which real incomes have risen by 40 per cent. since 1979, and the financial constraints under which our public services labour. I have a picture in my mind of parents in constituencies like mine driving back to comfortable, centrally heated homes in their Volvos and BMWs from meetings in draughty, old-fashioned school buildings to write angry letters—nowadays increasingly to send them by fax—to their Member of Parliament complaining about cuts affecting local schools. Many of them could easily afford to make up the amount of those cuts from their substantially increased disposable incomes if they were able to do so.

The logic of my argument is that, over the years, the element in the charter approach that asks, "Must the Government be responsible for it?" will become increasingly important. That should not be thought of, as it may have been until now, as a question that leads to the complete withdrawal of publicly funded provision. We need more halfway houses between public and private responsibility. So far, Britain has not been especially innovative in developing co-operative modes of finance by which individuals who benefit from a public service make an individual financial contribution to support it, alongside the contribution which we all make through the tax system. Our approach still tends to be that services must be either wholly in the private marketplace or provided entirely free on the back of a tax system. In the future, it will be increasingly necessary for us to seek ways in which we can bridge that gap.

The citizens charter of the future will ensure that the growing personal incomes which rising productivity is delivering to our people can be directed to not only private consumption—more holidays and consumer goods—but the consumption of mixed public and private goods and the support of public services.

11.25 am
Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) provided the House with an extremely thoughtful speech and I shall refer to some of his arguments. First, however, I contrast the picture that he drew of his constituency with one of the constituency that I represent. He has made it clear that he represents an affluent south of England constituency, where his constituents drive from centrally heated homes in their Volvos and can often communicate with their Members of Parliament by fax machine. I compliment the hon. Member and his constituents on their affluence.

My constituents are very different people. I represent an inner-city constituency where many thousands of my constituents live in great poverty. We have one of the highest unemployment rates in the country. Youth unemployment is 40 per cent. in parts of my constituency. We have a dreadful housing problem, which is not assisted by the complete end to council house building and the fact that housing associations cannot respond out of their resources to my constituents' needs, however hard they try with the aid of the Housing Act 1974, which, as junior Housing Minister, I put through 20 years ago.

Some people, because of poverty, deprivation and domestic circumstances, require assistance from public services in a proportion almost incomparable with the requirements on such a public service in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. It is therefore my duty to speak for my constituents who need public services. Many of them literally cannot survive without public services, and currently receive nothing like the level or standard of public services they require.

The concept of public service is not unique to, or possessed by, a single party in the House of Commons. I echo the comments by the hon. Member for Scarborough (Mr. Sykes) about the absence of the Liberal Democrats today. They flood my constituency with their cheap and boastful little leaflets about the need for public service, but when it comes to the House having a full debate on public service, they are nowhere to be seen. Their hypocrisy is demonstrated by their failure to show any interest whatever in today's debate. But that party, in the days when it was a serious and reputable political party, advanced the concept of public service. The Conservative party has a long and honourable history of participating in and innovating public services. The Chamberlains in Birmingham were the parents of modern public service as we see it. My party, the Labour party, has been associated throughout its history with the need for public services.

The problem is not confined to the deterioration in the quality and availability of public services, for it extends to the erosion of the very concept of public service. I was sorry that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster contributed to the erosion by his use of a word that I find one of the most offensive in this context. It is used by those who should be providing a service.

I refer to "customer". When we buy something in a shop, we are customers, but British Rail and London Underground now refer to passengers as customers. That strikes me as something more than merely the change of a word. It is the change of an entire concept, whereby public transport, which used to be provided as a service, is regarded as a commodity to be sold rather than a service to be provided. In the case of British Rail and London Underground, it is not, unfortunately, being provided to the highest standard.

It is even worse when "customer" is used in the service and caring sectors. I find it offensive when the chief executive of the Benefits Agency refers to my constituents as customers. Those of my constituents who go to the Benefits Agency in need of income support or a crisis loan are not customers. They are not buying anything. They only wish that they had the wherewithal to buy things. Those of my constituents who find themselves in that position may be clients, but I fear that they are applicants. The ethos of the commercialisation of public service is one that we should examine extremely seriously.

The deterioration of public service is happening through privatisation and through the creation of the next steps agencies. In so far as the citizens charter can ameliorate that, I welcome it. The charter should be available to assist those who require good public services. The problem is that the nature of service is being removed.

Let us consider some of the privatised industries, and especially British Telecom. With the relative failure of Mercury, BT is much more, even that it was before, a monopoly service—I accept that the cable companies provide some telephone services. British Telecom is an enormously cash-rich organisation. Unfortunately, it is no longer motivated by service and seems not to understand the nature of it.

I have a press release that was issued on 3 January from Mike Hepher, the group managing director of BT, in which he states: BT keeps its pledge to reduce prices and improve value for money for its customers. He bases that on a cut in the cost of transatlantic telephone calls.

The passage that I have quoted appears on page 1. At the bottom of page 2, we learn that the rental of a BT telephone line will rise by 4.6 per cent. on 1 February. That is way beyond the current rate of inflation. The increase is being imposed by an organisation that has more liquid cash at its disposal than any other in the United Kingdom. Its profits are greater than those of any other organisation, and that is partly through its almost monopolistic position.

Business people who need to make transatlantic calls will get them cheaper. My constituents, and specifically pensioners, who depend on their telephone not only for an emergency, as BT seems to imagine, but as a lifeline to their families and friends, will have to pay more. That is not a concept of public service. The increase in current revenues is being paid for by my constituents and others—not by rich organisations—who are living in poverty.

It is not only at national level that BT is failing in its duty. For more than eight months, I have been in correspondence with BT about two telephone boxes in my constituency which are a focus of vandalism and hooliganism. Local residents and shopkeepers have complained. The police have asked for the telephone boxes to be moved. As I have said, I have been in correspondence repeatedly with BT for eight months, asking it to remove what are recognised by the police and my constituents as a cause of crime. Nothing has been done and there is no sign that anything will be done.

I think that all hon. Members are appalled by the notion that the number of offices where through railway tickets can be bought is to be reduced. Only recently, the Prime Minister said that he did not want that to happen. Unfortunately, the Government's legislation gives the Secretary of State for Transport only an advisory role in dealing with through ticketing.

Lady Olga Maitland

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will agree that he is talking about outrageous scaremongering. His example of through ticketing involves an exercise that was put forward as an idea, not as a policy. It is important that that is made abundantly clear to rail travellers.

Mr. Kaufman

It should be made clear also to the regulator. It is the regulator who has put it forward, not some anonymous person in the street. We need a commitment from the regulator about through ticketing. If that is not forthcoming, the viability of the railways as a transport system will be lost. If that happens, the hon. Lady will be the first to complain.

The hon. Lady rises, rightly, to complain about the role of the director general of the prison service, about whom I shall something to say before I resume my place. But the hon. Lady should be careful about leaping to her feet before she knows what will happen about ticketing. She represents a commuter area. It is my guess that, within a year from now, the hon. Lady will be joining me and many of her hon. Friends in trying to ensure that the through ticketing system is put right.

Let us consider what is happening through privatisation at a local level. When I had any problems relating to British Rail in the past, I was able to write to the chairman, who would respond. I am not saying that the response was always satisfactory, but there was always a clear line of accountability. In the end, if I did not get done what I wanted, I would have a clear explanation from the man at the top. During that period I knew where to go.

For many months, there have been three issues in my constituency on which I would have written to the chairman of British Rail. One issue may be regarded by hon. Members as trivial, but it is not trivial to my constituents. It involves the state of Glencastle road, which is owned by British Rail, not by the local authority. There are huge accumulations of rubbish, which are a health hazard.

The second issue is the Vine street sub-station of British Rail, which was a danger to children. Another related to a piece of railway line next to the Abbey Hey football club in my constituency, where children were able to stray on to the line. In two of the three cases, there was a danger to children's lives; in the third, there was and is a danger to the health of my constituents.

Before the privatisation legislation went through the House, I would have written to the chairman of British Rail. I have tried to find out who now has responsibility. I wrote to Railtrack, but received no response on any of the three issues. I wrote to Railtrack again, and again received no response. I wrote again, and again received no response. I then wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport, and I received no response. I wrote to him again, and again received no response. I then wrote to the Prime Minister, and I did receive a response. He has an efficient office that deals fairly promptly with correspondence.

As a result of my correspondence with the Prime Minister's office, I received a letter from the Secretary of State for Transport saying that certain things would happen. They did not. I wrote to him again, and I received a response this week advising me to write to Railtrack. Railtrack repeatedly does not reply, the Secretary of State for Transport does not reply, the Prime Minister does reply—as a result of which, I receive a response from the Secretary of State for Transport—but in the end I am asked to get on board the merry-go-round again. Meanwhile, and after many months, the problems for my constituents continue. There is no longer any clear line of accountability.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) made a sensible intervention in the speech of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, saying that it was outrageous that letters from his constituents to their local authority received no response. The right hon. Gentleman agreed with his hon. Friend, and stressed the importance of people receiving a quick response. He said that he expected letters to be answered promptly and courteously, and that when things went wrong they should be quickly put right. However, although he said that, the fact is that what is happening in my constituency is also happening throughout the country.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman properly raises in this House important constituency matters that he says are not being addressed by Railtrack. I have to say that I do not think that that is a national phenomenon, and I do not know why it is happening in his constituency.

I raised a matter, of equal importance to my constituents, about a railway bridge and pigeon droppings. The then responsible authority, British Rail, failed to respond over a number of months. In the very week that Railtrack came into existence, it answered the letter, and then arranged a site meeting within a week.

I am satisfied, on behalf of my constituents, with the response that I have received from Railtrack. I do not know what has gone wrong for the right hon. Gentleman, but I agree that Railtrack should respond.

Mr. Kaufman

I congratulate the Minister on his success. Perhaps in his reply, in correspondence or in conversation he could tell me his secret—how does he get a reply from Railtrack when neither I nor even the Secretary of State for Transport can get one? Responsiveness is absolutely crucial. When lives are at stake—and children's lives have been at stake—action must he taken. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that things must be improved.

I want to raise a matter relating to the water industry. North West Water, which runs the water industry in my constituency, is involved in export activity—good luck to it—but it is also involved in asset-stripping—not good luck to it. It is trying to destroy the one amenity of wild country available to my constituents. It is not providing a decent service in water and sewerage provision to many of my constituents. In a recent episode, the water supply to people living in part of Gorton was so poor that they were afraid to use their toilets because of the lack of water, and they had to operate a street shift system for taking baths.

North West Water failed to respond—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) may giggle, but the matter is important to my constituents. They do not receive a decent water supply, yet the chief executive of the water authority has received a 571 per cent. pay increase. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not regard the most basic service of all—the supply of water—as something to giggle about.

Mr. Lord

The right hon. Gentleman may know that I stood for, and failed to win, the seat of Manchester, Gorton in 1979, when it had rather different boundaries. In fact, I was born in that part of the world, and I care very much for it. I am horrified to hear of what is happening in his constituency, and of how long it is taking to sort things out. Certainly, if lives are at risk and nothing has been done for eight months, I suggest that he disregards the Wantage faxes and the postal service, and gets on his much-maligned telephone and sorts people out before lives are lost.

Mr. Kaufman

The problem is that I do not know who to telephone—[Interruption.] I do not. I have dealt with three different Railtrack offices, none of which appears ready to acknowledge responsibility. I can show the hon. Gentleman my large file of papers. Getting on the telephone would do no good. If the Prime Minister cannot get action, a telephone call to some untraceable person is not likely to help. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having been a candidate in Gorton. It was in the days when Conservative candidates had appreciable votes in Gorton. No doubt he had quite a good vote.

I want to raise the question of the line of accountability in the national health service. The Gorton medical centre in my constituency has a patient list of 9,000 people. I visited the centre a couple of months ago at the request both of my constituents and of the centre's doctors. I found a waiting room so tiny that mothers with babies and elderly people had to stand while waiting to see the doctor. The filing and nursing rooms were inadequate for their needs. There were unacceptable toilet facilities.

The doctors want to add a new storey to the medical centre and rearrange the facilities, which would cost £150,000. That could be financed by the chief executive of North West Water handing over part of his salary increase. The Health and Safety Executive has declared the premises unsatisfactory, so the centre will have to rent a shop across the road, where the annual charge for rates and local utilities will be £8,500. People trying to get from the shop to the centre will have to cross an extremely busy road, and could be involved in traffic accidents. Additional staff will have to be engaged and paid.

I wrote to the Secretary of State for help. She passed me on to the North-West regional health authority. It passed me on to the family health services authority. So I have been passed from the Secretary of State to the RHA to the FHSA. The latter authority has replied to me, but on different notepaper with different headings—one being the Manchester health services authority and the other the Manchester health commission. Again, after several letters, they are not committing themselves to providing what is a tiny amount of money in the national conspectus. That money is required to provide 9,000 people with a decent health centre. That is the sort of experience we have in my constituency.

Some people are not answerable at all. Two of my constituents, both severe schizophrenics, have walked out of a local health facility and committed suicide. One was found in a canal and the other on a railway line. In both cases, the hospital was told by relatives that those two constituents needed watching because they were suicidal—one of them had already attempted suicide. Over many months, we have had no response to how that was allowed to take place.

On the basis of public-spiritedness, a constituent of mine agreed to go along to Manchester royal infirmary hospital at the invitation of doctors who were giving a course to students. His medical experience was such that they found him a useful person to be present. But he did not return home overnight, and his family were extremely distressed and concerned. It was found that he had died in the hospital, and that his corpse had been left there. We are still trying to sort out how that happened.

We have no proper lines of accountability in a national health service that is simply a series of organisations that delegate to each other. Not one of them seems to be ready to accept responsibility.

That is what troubles me. The hon. Member for Wantage talked about accountability. Accountability is not some empty concept. Of course parliamentary accountability must change over generations and over decades—I accept that entirely. The nature of a service may require different sorts of parliamentary accountability. But what is accountability about in the end? It is not about whether Members of Parliament have our egos inflated by a Minister replying to us in answer to a question or in a letter. It is about the fact that we come here to represent individuals and to obtain redress for them.

The whole of the British parliamentary system is based on the constituent's right of redress of grievance. One of the reasons why I champion the single-member constituency, with a Member elected by a single majority vote, and disagree with systems of proportional representation, is that every individual should know who his or her Member of Parliament is. They should be able to go to that Member of Parliament and to receive a response.

I do not necessarily mean to get the thing put right—many things cannot be put right—but the constituent should be able to receive a response, an explanation and, if possible, redress. The creation of the next steps agencies is taking that right away from my constituents and from those of Conservative Members.

The Home Secretary has enunciated an extremely dangerous doctrine, which I hope he will think about carefully. It states that a Minister is responsible for policy and the agency is responsible for administration. When I questioned him about that in the House on Monday, the right hon. and learned Gentleman said that he was responsible for the whole of the Prison Service, but he made it clear in his answers on Whitemoor and Parkhurst that that responsibility does not extend to responsibility when things go wrong. It apparently goes to Mr. Derek Lewis, but Mr. Lewis does not seem to be ready to accept that anything has gone wrong. Repeated escapes of high-security prisoners and the extraordinary lack of security in some of our major gaols are his responsibility, if they are anybody's.

I thought it sad that the Home Secretary appeared on Monday to penalise the governor of Parkhurst on the basis that, allegedly, he had not carried out what the Director General of the Prison Service had told him to do. Why did not the director general take steps to ascertain that his instructions had been carried out?

Chief executives of agencies receive salaries that are far above those of Ministers of the Crown, who answer to the House. Mr. Lewis has a salary this year, including his bonus, of £160,000. Mr. Bichard of the Benefits Agency has a salary of £83,000. Those salaries are way beyond what the Prime Minister receives, yet those people are accountable to no one for what they do. When they suffer injury or have a complaint, my constituents have no one who is accountable to the House of Commons.

I am not the only person in the House who has a grievance about the Child Support Agency—my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) has mentioned episodes, as will other hon. Members.

I have been in correspondence with the Secretary of State for Social Security for months about a case involving one of constituents, whom I shall, of course, not name but who lives in Levenshulme. In his most recent letter to me, the Secretary of State said that the agency's centre in Dudley had advised my constituent that he had not returned a form. My constituent told me that he did return the form and, what is more, he telephoned the agency to say that he had returned it.

My constituent is still having to pay support not only for his child, whom he is perfectly willing to support, but for his ex-wife, who has married someone else. After six months, we cannot get any redress for my constituent. Thousands and thousands of other people are in that position.

Services are deteriorating through privatisation and through the creation of the next steps agencies. Enormous salaries, however, are being paid to people who are failing to deliver those services. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that the awards that people are giving to themselves in some privatised industries are odious and obscene. Executives in the water industry are paying themselves enormous sums of money, as are those in the gas and electricity industries. Those people have been provided with monopolies by the state, and they are dipping their snouts into the trough of those monopolies to give themselves huge salary payments and other perquisites.

A large number of executives in the next steps agencies receive salaries that are way beyond the salaries of the civil servants who did their jobs before. After months of trying to get information on this matter, I have obtained some of it. I shall give just one example, but I could give the House dozens. The chief executive of the Defence Research Agency is being paid £147,238. The civil servant who was doing his job before the creation of that agency received £59,020 two years ago. The chief executives of those agencies are paid large sums of money, but that is not the only problem. When the services were within Government Departments, they were part of the Government machine and covered by Government overhead. That is no longer the case.

I received a letter from someone who worked at an agency. He said: the 104 Agencies are busily reinventing the wheel. They feel compelled to create their own HQ organisations, often in new buildings at new locations, with their own central support services—statisticians, Press and PR, Personnel, the Chief Executive's own Private Office, Boards of Directors imported from the private sector at private sector salaries, the new House magazine, the expense of trivialities like reprinting all the stationery, paying consultants to design a new logo and so on. The Chief Executive undoubtedly has his own official car, whereas the previous civil service incumbent had to make do with a pool car—if the occasion demanded it. It is the taxpayer who is paying for those things.

Lady Olga Maitland

I am sure that hon. Members will agree that the right hon. Gentleman's remarks reveal the politics of envy. Does he agree that the sums are more than justified to employ the most capable and able people to run the agencies, bearing in mind the fact that it is largely due to their managerial experience that they are able to cut costs, thus providing money for other services? Am I to understand that the right hon. Gentleman would commit his party to sacking those people and returning to the bad old days?

Mr. Kaufman

I am a humble Back Bencher; I cannot commit my party to anything, but, when my party is returned to office, I shall be pressing my right hon. and hon. Friends to get things done. It is not a question of envy.

The hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) who intervened on the hon. Member for Wantage, mentioned waste. My point is that such salaries are wasteful. We are talking about public money, but public services are not being improved. The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) herself has called for the resignation of the Director General of the Prison Service. That agency is not an improvement on what it replaced. The chief executive of the Child Support Agency resigned in despair at her failure, and the agency admitted that 350,000 cases were no longer being pursued.

If the hon. Lady cares to do so, she can see my files, which are full of cases involving poor service by the Benefits Agency and other social security agencies for which the Secretary of State has apologised.

If we were paying more and getting better service, there might be an argument for the increase in expenditure. If we were creating this massive, self-serving, ego-boosting bureaucracy to provide better service, I would not necessarily complain. However, tomorrow morning my constituents will be crowding into my surgery because the services are falling down. More money for better services may be cost-effective; more money for deteriorating services is not—it is an abuse of the taxpayer. I should have thought that the hon. Lady would wish to do something about that.

I am strongly in favour of anything that the citizens charter could do to improve services, but I am today reporting to the House what has been happening in my constituency, which has sent me here to speak for it. My constituents depend to a disproportionately large extent, compared to the national average, on public services, but they are not getting the services they require, which they have a right to expect. I hope that the citizens charter will improve that. If not, I hope that a new Government will.

12.4 pm

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I was heartened by the opening speech of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. His commitment and determination to see an improvement in public services were well demonstrated. I am sure that we are all grateful that such a man is responsible for these matters.

A key figure in the battle to improve services to the public is Mr. Reid, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, otherwise known as the ombudsman. I am privileged to sit on the Select Committee that monitors his work, and I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate him and his staff, and also Mrs. Mclvor and her staff, who are his counterparts in Northern Ireland, on their excellent work.

The Select Committee's recent report on maladministration and redress was referred to by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. I shall deal with it later, but I was delighted to hear my right hon. Friend acknowledge its arrival and its importance.

Since the ombudsman's post was first established, the ombudsman has been seen as the ultimate arbiter on public services. To a great extent, his value lies in his uniqueness. I am concerned about the proliferation of ombudsmen—like the dragon's teeth or the story of the sorcerer's apprentice, they seem to be spawning everywhere. There is a grave danger that the ombudsman's role will be devalued. There could be confusion about who the ombudsmen are, how many there are and what their purpose is.

It is not only the function but the name of the ombudsman that is important. We should guard the name jealously and be careful about how we use it and how we allow others to use it. If there is to be more than one ombudsman—that is already the case—it is important that they are seen to be wholly independent. It is no use having an ombudsman for a particular industry or service who is linked in any way to that industry or service. That would without doubt contaminate his work and devalue it.

In the context of the Parliamentary Commissioner, I deal now with the question of the "MP filter". We cannot debate it at great length now, because our debate is mainly about the citizens charter and charter standards. Some people believe that the public should have open access to the Parliamentary Commissioner—or ombudsman—but I cannot agree with that.

One of the briefs relating to today's debate was issued by the Consumers Association. It states that a Member of Parliament can be an "unnecessary obstacle" to complaints being dealt with. I agree with the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) about the essential role of the Member of Parliament. I believe in the direct relationship between a constituent and his Member of Parliament in getting complaints resolved. The Consumers Association's comment reveals a misunderstanding of the present system. I am not suggesting that the system is perfect but, by and large, it works very well.

I do not have time to go into detail now, but I believe that to give direct access to the ombudsman would not only change for the worse the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituents, but could possibly swamp the ombudsman's office and greatly affect the way in which he does his work.

It is important that, when a complaint is upheld, redress should be immediate. It has been said that justice delayed is justice denied; that is entirely true. Investigations, by their very nature, undertaken by the ombudsman or by any other body, must be detailed and lengthy. When the conclusions have finally been drawn and maladministration has been proved, there is no excuse for any delay in reparation.

Too often, public servants haggle and drag their feet, and are reluctant to admit fault, even after the ombudsman has found them at fault. Sometimes all that is necessary is a simple apology; sometimes something more complicated and expensive is required. Sometimes the redress can be quite simple, and it is wrong that there should be any delay.

In its introduction to the report, the Select Committee says: The Citizen's Charter in 1991 promised 'better redress for the citizen when things go wrong.' But in recent years reports of the Ombudsman and evidence taken by this Committee have revealed the inadequacy of much of the redress offered by departments and agencies. We have come across unwillingness to admit fault, refusal to apologise, failure to identify and compensate all those affected by maladministration. In the conclusion to the report, we say: In previous reports we have stressed the need for effective complaints systems in the public service. But complaint is not an end in itself. The test of all recent government insistence on the importance of the citizen is the quality of the redress offered when things go wrong. Our Report proposes both the underlying principles of redress which must inform future actions and specific reforms to practice. It is time to end the grudging and defensive culture so evident in current Guidance to departments. A system of redress which is both prudent and fair, which acknowledges mistakes, makes amends, and improves services, is one to be welcomed not only by the citizen but also by Whitehall. We must learn from complaints. Having dealt with our complaints, we must use them to improve our services. If we fail to do that, all that we shall create is a burgeoning complaints industry and little improvement. That is why it is important that the suggestions and recommendations in the report should be acted on.

I strongly believe that the citizens charter is a good idea. I believe that it has led to significant improvements, so I hope that any criticisms I make will be seen as constructive.

Any guarantee or assurance is only as good as the integrity of the authority giving it, and its ability and willingness to stand by its word. The House will remember a politician who came back from Europe waving a piece of paper and declaring, "Peace in our time." We all know how worth while that assurance proved. In a more trivial way, if one buys a Rolex Oyster for a few pence in an eastern bazaar, one would not put a great deal of credence on any guarantee that came with it.

In trying to improve standards in public services, charters, structures and codes of practice are all, obviously, extremely important and have their place, but by far the most important factors in providing that service are the qualities of leadership and responsibility shown by those in charge of them, and the way in which those qualities have their effect throughout the service. Individual responsibility—both at the top and throughout the whole organisation—and team work are vital.

I now pick up on two points made by the right hon. Member for Gorton and by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who talked about next steps agencies, which may or may not in the fulness of time prove to be the answers to all these complex problems. I am not too sure about that. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage made the point that a Minister cannot be responsible for every dropped bedpan. The right hon. Member for Gorton referred to the rather more topical question of escaped prisoners. Clearly it is not possible for any Minister to be entirely responsible for every little detail of the running of any service.

My point does not necessarily apply to the current incidents; it applies to a matter of principle—and not just to the present Government, but to all Governments. Perhaps all Ministers should spend a little more time out in the country seeing precisely for themselves what is going on. I know that they do that at present, and I know that they are very busy men. I believe, however, that they should spend more time having a look for themselves at exactly what is going on, and that they should then go back to their offices to deal with it. They should rely rather less on managers between themselves and their constituents.

Although I do not go quite as far as the right hon. Member for Gorton in his condemnation of the recent salary rises for people running public services, I agree very much with the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage. Many of the recent increases have been unwarranted, and have done a great deal of damage to the services that these people purport to serve.

A Minister said not long ago about the health service that complaints should be "jewels to be treasured". That phrase has been quoted to my Select Committee on a number of occasions. I understand and sympathise with what was meant when the phrase was coined. It means that patients in our hospitals should not be afraid to complain if they are not getting the treatment they think they deserve.

I have two points on that subject. First, how realistic is it for us to expect that any patient, while receiving treatment, will complain to those who are supplying the treatment? My experience as a Member of Parliament and with my family leads me to believe that it will be a rare occasion when a patient undergoing treatment complains.

There are all sorts of obvious reasons for that. Patients may feel that complaints may affect the way in which they get the treatment. They often feel that the health service must know best, so they are reluctant to complain in the first place. We are probably mistaken if we believe that a patient will complain while receiving treatment. It is true to say that confidence is a large part of any treatment in the health service. If a patient has got to the stage where he feels he must complain, some damage has already been done.

Secondly, the other danger with treating complaints as jewels to be treasured is that, if we are not careful, we shall almost be at the stage where complaints are considered to be not a bad thing. There is a fine line between people being afraid to complain and those to whom they are complaining not worrying about the complaint being made. We do not want a situation in which, the more complaints we get, the better. That would be rather silly; in fact, it sounds silly when I say it. It is an "Alice in Wonderland" scenario. We should say that people should not be afraid to complain, but that we should aim at giving them far less reason to make a complaint in the first place.

I now turn to two of my pet topics. One is a pet aversion and one is my favourite hobby horse. My pet aversion, which has been borne in on me more and more as I have served on the Select Committee, is jargon. Almost all the problems we see, especially those relating to the health service, come from jargon or from communications in one way or another. There has been a spawning of pseudo-commercial job titles and acronyms so that, unless one is part of the small, tightly knit group of professionals, one does not really understand what on earth people are talking about. Those intimately involved understand, but the general public, of course, do not.

One of my famous stories—I suspect that I may have already mentioned it in the House—is that of the role of a line manager. On one occasion in Committee, I was quizzing someone about that. As I went down in the lift after the Committee, the policeman who normally sits in the Committee went down with me. He told me how pleased he was that I had made a point about jargon and the job title of line manager. As we went down in the lift, the constable said to me, "You know, Sir, I have a line manager now. I used to call him my sergeant."

In some ways, that sums up the whole situation. Imagine any member of the public going to the police station and saying "Excuse me constable, I do not want you. I would like to see your line manager." It is nonsense. We want to talk about nurses, sisters and doctors.

In a moment, I shall come to my favourite topic: matrons. My final example of jargon is from a recent Committee sitting. One of the witnesses said that he had "two providers" in his constituency. When questioned in more detail, he said that he was talking about hospitals. What member of the general public would understand somebody talking about two providers in their constituency? I explained that to him, and I thought that he saw its wisdom. I hope that, from that day, he has called them hospitals and not providers.

Now I shall link everything together. I hope that I have conveyed to the House that leadership, individual responsibility and communication are more important in the long term than the charters and the structures. I am not saying that the charters, structures and codes are not important, but, at the end of the day, to deliver proper public service, we need leadership and, individual responsibility. Care, teamwork and all such attributes are important too, but it comes down to the individual.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will deal with the question of the individual in great detail. The individual that I would like to see reinstated is the matron.

I honestly believe that it was the worst day's work ever done when the role of matron was removed from the health service. In 1988, I put down an early-day motion and 129 people signed it. That early-day motion said: That this House believes that the only person in the history of the hospital service who was able to deal with consultants and doctors, understand nurses and patients and at the same time keep a careful eye on morale and efficiency was the Matron; and urges the re-introduction of this indispensable post as a matter of urgency. Since then, some hospitals have reinstated the post. Guy's hospital in 1991 was one of them.

Nothing in my experience encapsulates more the gulf between so-called experts and ordinary people, doctors, nurses and patients than the reaction one gets when one says that we should reintroduce matrons. From the experts one gets a slightly cynical smile. They have seen it all before. They do not mind paying a little lip service, but they do not really want it to happen.

All the other people who deliver the service say "Yes, please. Why not do it as soon as possible?" I very much hope that my hon. Friend will give me the assurance that he will not only pay lip service to the idea, but that the Government see the value of matrons and that they will recommend to every hospital in the land that they reintroduce that post.

12.23 pm
Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

It is interesting to reflect that the two brief speeches in the debate so far have come, commendably, from two members of the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration, represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord). I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) is also a member of that Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "He is a member of another Committee."] Then my hon. Friend was referring to another Select Committee. At least it showed distinguished Committee members of two different Select Committees giving us a good example.

Perhaps there should be a citizens charter for Members of Parliament on the length of speeches, especially on Fridays. I know that there were many interventions and one must make full allowance for that, but I think that I am right in saying that the two Front-Bench speeches took one hour and 35 minutes. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who has just left—I shall tell him that I have referred to him, because he may miss my remarks, although that may not be a particular loss on his part—also took an exceedingly long time to tell us something that rather shocked and surprised me. He does not seem to be doing his job very well as a Member of Parliament in dealing with local problems. I was absolutely amazed that he seemed to be having such trouble in getting responses promptly from various different bodies, institutions and agencies.

Mr. David Shaw

He did not have a telephone directory.

Mr. Dykes

That news was so shocking that I did not know quite how to respond to it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his sedentary intervention, with the pennission of the Chair.

Certainly, I have not had the experience of having trouble getting responses. It is one of the great attractions of the structural changes in policy. More flexible, more tangible, more approachable bodies for dealing with the problems facing citizens at local and national levels mean that the accountability is more easily identifiable, or should be, if those institutions and bodies are properly run. I hope that, although we are in the early days of this change in policy, which is welcome, we will insist collectively, as parliamentarians of all parties, on that accountability.

I could be wrong; perhaps the right hon. Member for Gorton is justified in his complaints about the particular distressing examples that he mentioned. I have my doubts, because in my area there are bodies similar to some that he mentioned. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is my local colleague in the borough of Harrow, he will be able to confirm—in fact in an intervention he did, at least tangentially—that we would not accept the tardiness of those responses or the attempt to deny logical accountability. However, I have certainly not experienced that myself.

I make allowance for the fact that, for one reason or another historically, there may be greater difficulties in the inner-city areas in the north in providing high-quality services than there are generally in the outer London suburbs. That is not so true nowadays. The pressure on public finances affects every local authority area, almost irrespective of whether they are in the north or the south and regardless of topography, geography and characteristics. The citizens charter therefore acquires an even greater importance. I am very glad that we are having a full day's debate on it.

I intend to be brief because time is passing and I have already referred to the excessively long speeches of others. I shall make a few important and telling points. It is still early days. It is not an excuse for the Government and their supporters to say that more time is needed to change the culture and attitude of public officials towards members of the public.

I agreed with the right hon. Member for Gorton when he objected to the use of the word "customer". I particularly object to the use of that word by British Rail. It is part of the trendy jargon of the modern age. My hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Central seemed to be making a light point about the problems of jargon. I believe that he actually made an extremely profound point. He concentrated, quite rightly, on the medical world where it is crucial that patients or their families and friends should understand what is said by medical practitioners, advisers and staff in hospitals who, in the old days, often regarded patients as a nuisance.

If my memory serves me correctly, I believe that a new version of the patients charter is to be published shortly. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will refer to that when he replies to the debate. It is very important that we implant this new culture deeply in society. The Labour party is embarrassed and grudging about the citizens charter because Labour knows that the charter, which was launched under the personal auspices of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister three and a half years ago, is becoming increasingly popular.

Thanks to the citizens charter, a change in attitudes will permeate our society. The public will wake up to the charter. I did not think that it was depressing that only 35 per cent. of people in the opinion poll said that they could remember having seen documentation about the citizens charter. That is a very high figure for the early days of what could be a massive change in our culture, if we achieve the right results.

We must bear in mind the acute pressure at the margins on public finances. That is a worrying problem for all Members of Parliament. I am aware of that problem at my surgery. Because of the economic and financial pressure in recent years, I have become aware, for the first time, that even Members of Parliament do not have the financial and other wherewithal to achieve results promptly for our constituents when they come to our surgeries—and between surgeries and through telephone calls and correspondence—with their problems.

It is crucial to implant the culture correctly despite the financial weakness as the demands for services rise and resources are inevitably limited. Many taxpayers want them to be limited because they want to make their own choices in the private sector, instead of simply relying on the faceless bureaucrats who provided services in the old days at the margin. We must ensure that the citizens charter general programme in respect of the key zones of activity is not just a public relations exercise. It is not a public relations exercise now and it has not been such an exercise in the three years since its conception. The danger is that cynicism among the public might return in future.

I have a specific and practical example of something that can be intensely irritating. I accept that we are still only in the early stages, so I have reached only a preliminary judgment on the matter. If resources are under severe pressure in a body or agency, it will resort increasingly—as is already happening—to the dreadful syndrome of the answerphone instead of having someone answer telephone inquiries.

At least the answerphone provides a response. Answerphone messages are often extremely detailed and helpful. However, we can imagine what might happen if that practice is carried too far. We will live in a world of answerphone messages about how to write in to apply for information or a service. A citizen who may or may not be aggrieved may call for the first time, and then be frustrated.

With regard to British Rail's obsession with making announcements, it is possible to go too far the other way in terms of live announcements on trains and elsewhere. It is possible to over-announce, particularly when there are problems and train delays. I note that recently drivers have been told that it is very good customer service to keep people in touch with what is happening. However, when I travelled on the District line from the City to Westminster recently, the driver triumphantly announced, "This train is subjected to what is probably a severe delay." His announcement inevitably caused dismay because his use of words was so unskilled. I criticise motor men and motor women—if there are any—on London Underground reluctantly, because they are doing a marvellous job. The train driver's words caused a collapse in the morale of the passengers, although he was probably not aware of that. It would have been more encouraging if he had said, "I shall let you know what is happening as soon as we get moving in a few minutes time."

That may seem to be trivial, but it is very important in view of the natural and justified insistence of the public for better services in general. I am glad that the Government have launched the programme and that they are building on it and developing it for the future. I am pleased that they are going to give us regular reports.

We all pay our respects, and offer sympathy to, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I am glad that, as a senior and talented member of the Cabinet, he is in charge of the policy. I am pleased that he is ably aided and abetted by my local colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science.

Cynicism is an important part of the politician's general panoply of aids or disadvantages. We were probably quite cynical when the programme was first launched more than three years ago. As it has filtered through society, it is being taken very seriously—[Interruption.] I am not suggesting that all aspects of physical technology should be taken to the point of my hon. Friend the Minister wearing his pager on the Front Bench. We are bound to be very impressed by that and I noticed that it went off several times today. I shall be fascinated to learn later where the message came from. [HON. MEMBERS: "Railtrack."] I thank my hon. Friends for the prompting.

I hope that it does not sound too frivolous—I shall not say who it was—but one of my ultra-far right colleagues, a very congenial colleague, was very crestfallen some months ago when we were discussing the British Rail privatisation. I had to say to him that we had done very careful research and questioned people at the Centre for Policy Studies but that we had not been able to work out a way to enable one train to overtake another on the same track. He knew that it was subversive of me to say that, but it was definitely true and there was nothing that we could do about it.

I suppose that the message is that there must always be a balance in policy, and that is very important from the point of view of the modern Conservative party—which is rightly beginning to resist the old temptation of a few years ago to say that everything in the public service was wrong and badly run and that everything in the private sector was sacred and wonderful.

In the context of the private sector, I share people's misgivings about excessive executive salary packages compared with what is happening on the shop floor and the unfairness thereof, which produces acid reactions in the pubs and clubs of this country and which is ignored at the peril of Conservative Members. We really cannot say, "This matter has nothing to do with the Government; it is to do only with the free market." I cannot understand why so many chief executives get away with the absurd nonsense that they have to pay themselves more and more greedy quantities of money in order to compete in the international marketplace and that the electricians on the shop floor of their factories should depress their own wages to be more competitive. That seems to be a straight contradiction.

I know that that is not a direct part of the citizens charter service, but if we impose too excessive a system of control of complaint on the public sector and let the private sector, particularly where strong monopolies are involved, get away with poor services, it is totally inadequate to say, "That is just a free market phenomenon; it is up to shareholders to make sure that a company is properly run."

Apart from echoing the fervent, almost hysterical plea that the Government have proper discipline in respect of motorway cones—I do not accept that the position is other than a marginal improvement on what we were promised a long time ago; far too often we now see motorway signs saying, "These cones are here for safety reasons" on a much too long stretch of road—my final comment is in respect of education and schools. I too welcome the publication of examination results and performance figures for schools and the annual report system. It is in its shaky, early stages and lots of mistakes are being made—we might as well acknowledge that; it is no shame for the Government to acknowledge that that is so—but it goes hand in hand with my plea, forensically and politically as well as socially and in human terms, for the Government to agree to a long period of peace, stability and cohesion in our grant-maintained schools. They need it—they have had many upheavals in recent years—the teachers need it and, above all, the pupils need it; but the parents do as well, even if they have access to greater information, which I warmly welcome.

12.37 pm
Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I welcome the opportunity to make what I hope, in view of the strictures of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), will be a brief contribution.

I warmly welcome this timely debate. It is right that the House should debate such an important, wide-ranging subject. I should like to shift the focus of attention on to a matter that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster raised—standards, which are the key to the citizens charter.

It is a privilege to take part in the debate, having heard the very distinguished overview of the citizens charter by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson). I can understand the avenues along which he took the debate. Standards lie at the heart of the citizens charter.

The citizens charter is part of the drive to improve standards of the past 15 years. It is certainly in keeping with the drive to improve standards through greater competition, privatisation, the introduction of compulsory competitive tendering, market testing central Government functions and all the other reforms that have taken place. The citizens charter, when it was proposed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister three and a half years ago, was a valuable addition to the reforms that had already emphasised standards. The scheme was introduced in the right way as a wide-ranging measure with 30 charters proposed. There are now about 40 charters.

It was right to introduce the scheme in such a comprehensive way because it enabled a general standard to be set across a wide range of Government endeavour, and it gave users of services a general idea of the standards that they could expect across a range of services. Those included the right to more information, the right to make a complaint, the right to receive service with a good attitude from staff and so on. Those ideas are not always quantifiable across such a wide range of services. Users of services have come increasingly to expect that they should receive service in various fields according to those standards.

The scheme is also valuable for the providers of services. I use the word "providers" subject to the strictures that have just been given about it. I do not use the word as jargon, but in a more general sense to refer to all those who are responsible for the delivery of services to the public. The scheme is valuable for them too as they have the benefit of a standard to aim for.

We have heard a great deal in the debate about morale and the ethos of public service. The citizens charter contributes to the ethos of public service because it gives public servants a standard to aim for. They can have satisfaction in their public service in knowing that they have achieved a high standard.

The charter mark is an excellent complementary idea to the citizens charter. It has been a growing success, and more and more organisations have applied for it every year. There are 98 recipients of the charter mark this year, and many more applied for it. The receivers of services should have the right to nominate organisations for the charter mark.

The citizens charter has the effect of giving the providers of services an even higher standard to work towards. It is a way not just of measuring standards but of driving them up. The patients charter, about which we have heard a good deal this morning, is a good example of that, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) drew attention to it. The way in which the patients charter has evolved—with higher standards to the benefit of patients being built into it—gives a good example.

The patients charter began by consolidating a number of existing rights for health service patients and created some important new rights. One of those was the right to have guaranteed admission from a waiting list within a period of two years. That was the situation when the charter was first issued in 1991. The health service has worked to improve on that and, in the charter to be issued this month, the standard will be revised to 18 months. I understand that my local health authority of Hertfordshire has set itself an even lower target, and is now working towards a guaranteed admission time of 12 months. That is generally being achieved throughout Hertfordshire.

The debate about waiting time was interesting, because it gave an example of how the citizens charter can help to drive up standards. The focus of the debate from the Opposition—it is up to the Opposition to criticise—shifted from the guaranteed maximum waiting time to the average waiting time. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North said that, although maximum times had come down, more people were waiting longer for other operations. That is not borne out by evidence from across the country, which suggests that the average waiting time has been going down in the same period as the guaranteed maximum waiting time has also been reduced.

The average waiting time in the past four years has gone down from just over eight months to just over four months. In Hertfordshire, the picture is even better. It has achieved a reduction to just over three months for the average waiting time. That considerable success is a tribute to the health authority and the hospitals in Hertfordshire.

The Opposition argument moves on from there. They say that it is all very well that people are receiving more prompt treatment once they are on a waiting list, but what about the time that it takes people to get on a waiting list? Their new focus is the time it takes from a patient seeing his GP to receiving an out-patient appointment with a consultant. It is right that the question should be asked. I welcome the fact that one of the new targets being set in the patients charter this month is to make that specific target part of the charter and to measure the length of time that it takes to go from a general practitioner to an appointment with a consultant in out-patients.

It is right for the Opposition to ask such questions, but they would do better if they said not only that something should be a target but gave us some idea of how they would achieve it. That is the difficult part. Such ideas from the Opposition have been rather thin throughout the debate. Although the Opposition have given a commitment to the citizens charter, which we welcome, we have heard little from them about their ideas for improving the charter or delivery of the standards which are expected under it

The parents charter is important for citizens. It has been a great success and it has certainly gone with the grain of the reforms that have taken place in education in the past 15 years, and especially since 1988. Parents have been given more responsibility, more opportunity to exercise choice and more decision-making powers in schools. Since the Education Reform Act 1988 was passed, we have seen a devolution of power from local authorities to schools through local management of schools and grant-maintained status, where schools have opted for it.

The citizens charter sets out some admirable targets for schools to achieve. It sets out the standards to be achieved by pupils. It requires schools to allow parents to see whether they have been achieved by providing more information, establishing school performance tables and providing more information about truancy levels, length of taught time and so on. It is important that parents should have that information and should be able to assess the school and where it is not doing a sufficiently good job. Parents should have the opportunities that they have been given by our reforms to put things right.

I said that the trick for the Opposition was to say how they would improve the pattern of reform. We heard little about that today. One proposal that the Opposition have suggested as a way forward is the creation of more government. They emphasise not better government but more government. We heard yesterday the proposal for regional authorities in England and Wales to go together with Labour's policy of devolution for Scotland. There may be some demand for such authorities in other parts of England—1 doubt it—but there is certainly not much demand for them in Hertfordshire.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North is no longer here. One of his colleagues yesterday called for a north of England assembly. Hon. Members may call for it in the House, but I doubt that it is the talk of the pubs and clubs of Newcastle. I doubt that people have stopped talking about football and transfers and have suddenly spontaneously demanded a regional assembly. If, in the present circumstances, Newcastle were put in the same regional assembly as Manchester there would probably be a revolution.

Newcastle has a distinctive local identity and proud tradition; Hertfordshire has no less a proud identity. There is certainly no demand whatever in Hertfordshire for a regional assembly to deliver higher standards in government. This week we have seen the publication of the Local Government Commission report on the future of local government in Hertfordshire. It has proposed the retention of the two-tier system of county and district councils. If the commission had asked when it carried out its research whether people wanted a regional government on top of that system, the answer would have been a resounding no.

In Hertfordshire a regional authority would be a third or fourth level of government. We would have parish councils in some parts of the county, district councils, a county council and a regional council.

For Hertfordshire, not the least of the problems of having a regional council would be knowing in which part of the region to put it. Would it be put in an eastern region, possibly centred on Norwich, an east midlands region centred on Nottingham, or a south-east region along with Sussex and Kent? Hertfordshire's local identity would not be supported by its inclusion in any of those regions or the creation of any other conceivable region.

The people of Hertfordshire feel that they are part of the home counties. Hertfordshire is close to London, which apparently will have its own extra layer of government. There is certainly no demand or belief in Hertfordshire that higher standards would be delivered through regional government.

Perhaps the most ironic part of Labour's proposal is the inclusion of education as one of the responsibilities of the new regional councils. That must seem strange to parents in my constituency, so many of whom opted for grant-maintained schools for their children. A clear majority of secondary schools and an increasing number of primary and middle schools have opted to go grant maintained. Apparently the parents involved are members of the quangos denounced by the Labour party. Grant-maintained schools contribute to the Labour party's quango count, but the parents and governors involved do not think that they are part of a quango. It must seem strange to them that, in the name of devolution, power and decision making are to be taken away from their schools when the overwhelming majority of parents in Hertfordshire opted for grant-maintained status. Power will be taken away from those schools and handed upwards to a remote regional assembly, even beyond the county council, which has sometimes been said to be a little remote. That is not the way forward, or the way to achieve higher standards.

The emphasis that the Government have placed, through the citizens charter, on achieving higher standards within existing levels of government and the increasing number of functions that it undertakes within one society, is the right way forward. There is no excuse, in this day and age, for citizens to receive a second-rate service from the Government and any of the functions that they provide. The citizens charter is an extremely important step forward and it is right that we should be having this debate. We should keep the focus of the debate on higher standards.

Public service is important, but I do not remember the 1960s and 1970s as being the golden years for public services that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) claimed. His example was British Telecom, but the telephone service was an especially bad example of public service during that period. I speak as one who can remember finding telephone box after telephone box out of order and all the rest—the failure to install telephones, high prices and the provision of few additional services. It was not a good example and there are precious few other examples of public services operating better in the 1960s and 1970s than they do now.

We needed the 1979 revolution to bring about higher standards and we are continuing that revolution through the citizens charter. I look forward to the charter evolving in the years to come and being the focus for ever-improving public services.

12.53 pm
Mr. Piers Merchant (Beckenham)

I have listened to the entire debate with great interest. There have been some heavyweight and very interesting contributions on a subject that is important for the efficiency of Government and the public sector and for the consumer—the average citizen—in terms of provision.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster for the work and the expertise that he has put into the development of the citizens charter, and for the comprehensive analysis he gave us today of its progress and development.

I also compliment the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). Although I did not agree with his entire contribution, he was not grudging in accepting the benefits of the citizens charter, and rightly said that he would accept and praise it if it worked. We all agree on that. Ample evidence shows that it is working, but it is a long-term project over at least 10 years. It is therefore right that we judge it by its results as they develop.

I was also interested in the remarks of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). The emphasis that he placed on the responsibilities of hon. Members and the peculiar but detailed knowledge we gain of the operation of public services is a valid element in this debate.

Most significant, however, is the lack of contribution from the Liberal Democratic party, due to the complete absence of Liberal Members at any stage in the debate. It was not even represented by one Member for five minutes at the beginning of the debate. That is typical of that party, which claims to place great emphasis on helping individual citizens, case work and what is often called the drains and pavements, yet when there is a major debate on an element of that, no Liberal Democrat Member is present for even a minute.

Mr. David Shaw

Does my hon. Friend agree that the absence of the Liberal Democratic party today shows clearly that, far from introducing a general charter on how hon. Members should carry out their business, it is incumbent on the Liberal Democrats to introduce a charter on how all citizens can monitor Liberal Democrat Members on how they carry out their work. Their absence today shows their clear lack of understanding of what the country is about and how democracy works in this country.

Mr. Merchant

My hon. Friend is right: if we were awarding charter marks, none would go to Liberal Democrat Members. Their interest in the problems of the citizen is bogus, and always has been. They make claims in their newsletters about what they have done, but in reality they do nothing. To the extent that citizens believe those claims, they are being conned, although they are beginning to see through them now.

The citizens charter has represented a step change in the modern relationship between individual and state. It is, therefore, not just about the practical advantages, which have been ably highlighted by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy and others this morning. It is not just a convenient administrative mechanism to deal more effectively with complaints from individuals; it is certainly not a minor attempt to put a friendly face on the Goliath of bureaucracy and big organisation; nor is it a publicity gimmick simply to give the impression that action is being taken to deal with service failings. All the facts available show that it is much more than any of those. It is a bold, significant and long-term effort to empower the individual, and thus redress the balance between citizen and state.

Naturally, the citizens charter alone will not achieve that aim. It must be done alongside many other developments in the modern relationship between state, Government and individual, but it is an important part of that process. As such, it is more than just a political initiative or a temporary phenomenon of Government. It represents a philosophical statement and is based firmly on Conservative principles.

Thus, the citizens charter stresses the primacy of the individual; the limited powers and accountability of the state; the Government's role as servant, not master; and, above all, the direct accountability of institutions to those who use them, and of bureaucracies to those for whom they are designed to provide.

The citizens charter is also about the market, in the sense of contracts freely entered into between consumers and providers of services. It relates to the right of consumers to assert their own powers as equal partners in a mutually agreed arrangement. In some instances, the nature of the parties to a contract—the individual and perhaps a large state-run organisation—leads to an imbalance. In that event, the citizens charter becomes an important part of the relationship by helping to achieve a much better balance.

The charter is not a substitute or a prop for competition or for enterprise, and it should not be so interpreted. It is certainly not a watering down of those two ideals. Nor is it an attempt to regulate because the market cannot or because it has failed. On the contrary, I see it as an extension of the two ideals. It is an extension of the values which drive the market. It has been initiated to bridge the gap that arises when the market is, in certain areas, as yet imperfect. It could be argued that, in some sectors, the market is unable to operate perfectly. We are talking of areas in which consumers cannot expect to be able to exercise their powers.

The ultimate power of the consumer, of course, is to withdraw sponsorship of the organisation providing the service. That can be done in a perfect or near-perfect market in which there are many alternative providers to which to turn. In those circumstances, consumers can vote with their feet by going to or away from a provider. That is a tremendous power, especially when it is exercised by many consumers. It cannot be exercised, however, when there is a monopoly or near-monopoly, or when a specific service is provided by the state. That is where the balance has had to be addressed.

The citizens charter runs easily alongside two other mainstream initiatives that have similar aims and need to be seen as part of a partnership with the charter in achieving the same objectives. I refer to privatisation and competitive tendering. The empowerment of the citizens charter provides a third force to supplement the two earlier initiatives, which were so successful in the 1980s. Indeed, they continue to be successful in extending the rights of the citizen.

I have talked so far about the ethical side of the citizens charter and the driving ideas behind it. All three of the parts I have mentioned are of course based on a practical responsibility and practical benefits. There is a flow of practical benefits, because motivation matches human nature. Privatisation and competitive tendering have delivered tremendous benefits because they, too, appeal to basic instincts in human nature. The 40 or so charters that have been established so far are doing the same.

It is not to be said that charters are needed everywhere. It could well be argued that the economy and society operate best where they are not needed, in areas where the market is operating well. We can make comparisons between the quality of service provided by the private sector when it is operating at its best in the market and the dead hand of centralisation and the state.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) talked about the appallingly poor-quality telephone service in the 1960s and 1970s. I remember that only too well.

There are other examples. The gas industry used to have a terrible reputation for bad consumer relationships, poor service and high prices. Many years ago, when I was on a regional newspaper, we set up a small department called Action Desk, designed to help members of the public who phoned in with complaints about services. Within a few weeks, Action Desk was overflowing with complaints about Northern Gas from consumers in the north-east of England. They complained about its appalling service; how it was always promising to call, but never turned up; how, when its workmen did turn up, they did not know what they were supposed to do, or what they did went wrong; or how they had ordered a gas cooker but it had not been delivered.

We do not hear complaints about the gas industry today. I can honestly say that, since I was elected in 1992, I have not received a single complaint from a constituent about the gas industry. I am not suggesting that mistakes are never made, but there is no doubt that there is a fundamental contrast between the gas industry under state monopoly according to the ethos of the time and the gas industry as it operates today.

I am not a great traveller, but I have been to the USA, where sometimes the enterprise culture operates in its most unrestrained from. That is not a criticism, because that often means the highest standards of service imaginable. It is quite astounding. One could go into what appears to be a tuppeny-ha'penny, down-market hamburger joint and be almost embarrassed by the attentions of the girl on the other side of the counter. Staff say, "Have a good day," every 10 seconds.

Of course, that would not go down so well in this country, and I certainly would not expect it when I call at the ticket office at my local station. However, it demonstrates a system whose culture drives consumer awareness, high quality, politeness and a desire to excel. That results in a high-quality service for the consumer.

That process goes even further in the far east. Not only are we wished a nice day—although not in such an impeccable accent—we get a bow as well. I certainly do not expect to be bowed at when I go to my local ticket office, but I am glad to say that, when I ask its personnel when the next train is due, I no longer get the reply, "Don't know, mate," or when I ask, "Will the service be put right by tomorrow?", the reply, "Don't know that, either."

I now receive a polite and, as far as possible, well-informed reply. That has not always been provided by British Rail; it has happened because of the greater awareness of the need to look after the consumer and to treat him as the number one person in a contract, rather than providing a service only from the point of view of the supplier. The balance has been redressed.

The citizens charter can be simply tested in the long term as it develops. We can ask a number of questions. Does it improve the various services on offer? To a large extent, that is measurable. Does it give the public the necessary weapon with which to fight? Does it provide information on what the public should be entitled to receive? Does it provide the openness that gives them the means by which to register their complaints? Does it enforce accountability and, at the end of the day, provide redress? Great steps forward have been taken in all those matters.

The question about the improvement of standards is the more difficult to answer. Comparative statistics can be compiled and monitored year after year, but one can be assured that standards have firmly improved in the long term, rather than that they are just experiencing a beneficial blip, only as the months and years go past.

Mr. Clappison

My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point. Does he agree that an improvement is more likely where a standard has been set? Is it not just as important, however, that the standard has been defined so that everyone will know whether it is being achieved? Surely that is an important and brave step for a Government or organisation to take, as it leaves them open to criticism if they do not achieve the standard. Defining a standard is a brave step to take.

Mr. Merchant

I agree with my hon. Friend. Setting out the essential, basic standard to begin with might perhaps strike us as obvious, but it did not happen before. In many of the services, one had no idea what one was entitled to receive because the culture was very much a suppliers' culture. They used to say, "We are here to provide a service. We decide what that service is, and we are not even going to tell you what it is." My hon. Friend is correct.

I shall return to that issue, but I was answering my first question about improving standards of service and whether such improvements are measurable. The answer is a qualified yes. There have been improvements, and they are measurable, which is excellent, but it is too early—it is no one's fault; it is in the nature of things—to say how significant the improvement has been. That is where I agree with the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North that in that respect the citizens charter is to be welcomed but that we must to an extent suspend judgment and consider it again in the years to come to ensure that it is improving services in a significant way.

The second question involved having the necessary weapons—information and openness—with which to fight problems. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere was correct in his intervention. There has been a significant change. We have clear, published targets and levels of service which the public increasingly know about—the information is readily available. We therefore know the service level that we are entitled to receive and the public can measure their experience of what is happening against the targets that are set.

There is a dual approach. Members of the public can consider the targets and say, "They are not good enough. We want them to be improved." They can argue on that basis. They can also consider the targets, compare them with reality, ask why the organisation is not meeting them and put pressure on it to improve. Openness in Government, local government and the big services is an important part of that. Openness is part of an essential process. The individual must have access to it to obtain the information necessary to test and to judge.

My last question was: does the citizens charter enforce accountability and redress? That is perhaps the easiest of the questions to measure. All one has to do is consider the detail of the charters, or the equivalent if an organisation does not have a charter, and ask whether a ready and well-known system exists to ensure accountability and to obtain redress. Is it obvious who one complains to and how one complains? Is there a complaint system? If so, what happens when one complains? Does it work? Does the system operate efficiently and quickly? Is there some form of redress?

Redress need not necessarily be financial, although in some matters that is important and useful. Redress can be offered through apologies and explanations, which will often satisfy the citizen. If a citizen knows that he is being listened to and that there is a means of complaining, he will be satisfied even if, at the end of the day, he receives only an apology. It is only when he comes up against the brick wall of old-fashioned bureaucracy that he becomes frustrated.

Mr. Deva

Does my hon. Friend agree that the citizens charter was timely, in that it coincided with the ethos of the liberalised and deregulated market that we have created? It is timely because, as my hon. Friend said, we wanted to offer redress and put in place a means of ensuring accountability. At the same time, should we not be careful that we do not create a culture of complaint, or institutionalise a whingeing society?

The reason for the citizens charter was the need to correct what was wrong but, once the target has been achieved, should it not fade away? Once the standard of services has reached the required level, should not complaints decline and disappear? As has happened in other spheres, should we not be wary of creating an entirely new industry of complaint?

Mr. Merchant

That is a very interesting point. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the citizens charter is timely. In the 1980s, the focus was on correcting problems that had arisen over the years with the big nationalised industries which were not working properly. No one was able to make them work properly because, ultimately, the culture was wrong, something that was accepted throughout the world.

The emphasis was on privatisation, competitive tendering and market testing. They were excellent and were seen to work. People generally accepted them, but they then asked what could be done about those sectors which, for one reason or another, could not respond fully to the market or be privatised. Was there a deficiency?

The public rightly thought that it was all very well that British Telecom and British Gas had been put right, but what was to happen to those services or industries that had not, and for which privatisation was not the answer? There was a demand for higher standards of public service provision. In that sense, the citizens charter was timely, because it was an initiative that answered the valid questions that were being asked.

As for my hon. Friend's second point, the culture of complaint is a difficult problem. Having thought about it, I cannot share my hon. Friend's optimism, although I would like to do so. However, I agree that there has been a withering away of complaints in some services—that has clearly been the case in the gas industry. One can overcome and bring about a decline in the number of complaints by putting right the problems about which people were complaining. I hope that he is right to think that we can look back in a decade or so on the withering away of the citizens charter because it has been so effective.

However, we cannot overlook the fact that people will always complain, sometimes without good cause but sometimes with very good cause. I fear that we shall never be able to provide a universally perfect system of provision, whether directly from the state or through various organisations. There will always be deficiencies, so there will always be an element of complaint, and there must be a mechanism to deal with it.

I shall not detain the House for too long, but I have several important points to make. First, I mention some of the direct achievements of charters. Reference has already been made to improvements in health care provision. It is very worth while studying waiting times in the national health system. My hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere rightly mentioned average waiting time and maximum waiting time. The achievements on maximum waiting time are significant.

In March 1991, 50,000 people had waited more than two years for in-patient treatment. That was quite unacceptable, and should never have happened. In the English regions, there is now no patient who has waited for more than two years. That figure has been brought down considerably, although not entirely, by the citizens charter ideas. The focusing of resources and the reorganisation of the health service have helped to achieve that figure, but an important role has been played by the process that motivates the citizens charter—in other words, an emphasis on the statistics of performance and the need to reach targets.

In education, where the parents charter now applies, the same sort of thing has happened. There are annual written reports on a child's progress, and league tables on performance in schools.

Mr. David Shaw

Introduced by this Government.

Mr. Merchant

Indeed, introduced by this Government. There are also the independent reports by Ofsted. All that has helped to improve the quality of provision, from the point of view both of parents and of pupils.

In transport, especially in rail transport, the targets set for Network SouthEast, Regional Railways and InterCity have been well publicised at all stations. The passenger—the consumer—can easily check not just whether standards are being reached, but that the standards are being increased all the time.

The charter mark has been an important part of the citizens charter initiative. I am glad to hear that it is being extended by giving consumers—the public—the right to nominate. I am pleased to see that, in my London borough of Bromley, two departments, libraries and environmental services, have won charter marks. I also compliment the Labour authority of Lewisham, which is next door to Bromley. Its direct refuse disposal team and its social services planned hospital discharge arrangements have won charter marks.

That shows that it is not just a question of who runs the local authority, but how the departments within it operate. We can all point to local authorities under all political administrations that have some good departments and some very poor departments. We must have a system that jacks up the quality of the poor departments and rewards, in one way or another, the successes of the good departments.

The right hon. Member for Gorton spoke in specific terms about how Members of Parliament are part of the process because, through our casework, we can judge where standards are falling, where standards are improving and how effectively problems are being dealt with. We can see whether there are proper complaints procedures. We can judge the attitudes being shown to the public, and we can get a good feel of the underlying service quality.

The quality is sometimes the result of policy decisions; it can be the result of funding. I am not suggesting that quality of service is purely a matter of attitude and efficiency within the department. There are external factors as well. It is, however, certainly true that we all know from our constituency work where there are problems and where there are attitude problems. I do not know why the right hon. Member for Gorton should have so many problems with Railtrack. I have not had those problems; perhaps he has a regional problem—

Mr. David Shaw

The wrong address.

Mr. Merchant

Perhaps he has the wrong address; I do not know. I compliment him, however, on the effort he puts into the detail of his constituency casework. I try to do the same. Through constituency casework, we can find out exactly where the problems arise.

The right hon. Member spoke about the importance of one-Member constituencies because of the relationship between a Member of Parliament and a constituent. I absolutely agree with him. It is extremely important. It is only right that any constituent should feel that they could go to their Member of Parliament if there is a problem, and that the Member of Parliament could get action to be taken.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is not a question of us massaging our egos and saying "Look, we have got a letter from the Minister concerned." It is question of accountability working. It is to my eternal pleasure that I know that I can write to a Minister on any topic within his responsibility and receive a personal letter of reply from that Minister. That is extremely important. However, it concerns me that there are other areas of public activity in which that does not happen.

Mr. Joseph Deva

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again; I know that he has little time. I wanted to draw his attention to another very powerful avenue through which Members of Parliament are able to bring complainants, redress and balance back into the system—the parliamentary ombudsman. I have the privilege of being a member of the Select Committee concerned with such matters. We see cases week after week of very powerful and sometimes quite appalling circumstances, with which we are not only able to deal, as the ombudsman does, but to set a pattern, a methodology, a procedure, to avoid the same thing happening elsewhere.

Mr. Merchant

I agree with my hon. Friend. It is not only a question of redress, but of putting right what may be fundamentally wrong. He is quite right to draw attention to that.

I shall draw my remarks to a close by referring briefly to a few local experiences—not in detail, as the right hon. Member for Gorton did, but in mere headings, to illustrate how the citizens charter is working and to show the areas in which there are still deficiencies. I almost considered awarding my own charter marks to the various organisations with which I deal, so different is the response I get. Some deserve praise and some deserve condemnation. The organisations go across the whole range of activities.

For example, in local government, I have mentioned that the libraries and the environmental services in Bromley have charter marks. My experience of them merits exactly the same award. I have had very few complaints about those departments. Those I have had have been dealt with entirely efficiently and very quickly.

The planning department does not have a charter mark, but it should. In that department, no end of constituency cases are raised because planning is such a sensitive issue in my constituency. Nevertheless, the response of the department is superb. Public concerns are taken on board immediately. Response is extremely fast, thorough and efficient. The engineer's department is similar. There are not so many complaints to the treasury department, but when there are, about wrong billing and so on, again, they are dealt with very efficiently.

However, the education department in the same authority, under the same overall control, does not show the same degree of efficiency. I do not get the same speed of response, the same effectiveness shown, the same concern. It is very much an old-fashioned view of implying "How dare you complain? We are getting on with our job, you get on with yours and don't let our paths cross."

Outside the local authority, I shall mention the service in hospitals and housing. There are real problems in the hospitals in my borough, because of the historic difficulties of hospital structure. I believe that there are some funding problems as well. Therefore, there are many complaints; but every effort is made by the hospital authorities to deal with those complaints.

There are very thorough, efficient investigations every time that there is a complaint. Fast responses are given and efforts are made to improve whatever went wrong. I pay great tribute to the chief executive of Bromley hospital, Mark Rees, for the efficiency with which he deals with the complaints. He personally looks into all the problems and replies himself.

In comparison, Bromley housing is appalling when it comes to complaints. It is slow; the chief executive never replies. He directs it to the deputy chief executive, who never replies. The complaint is directed down the line to somebody much lower in the structure, who writes back a standard letter. There is no response, and the public say the same. One constituent telephoned me the other day. He said that he had made a complaint in reasoned terms, and that the response of the housing association had been "sod off'.

My last example relates to the rail service, which leaves much to be desired in many areas of London including the service to Beckenham. However, there has been a clear improvement in attitudes and in the quality of service. I suspect that that has come about because of the rail charter. For the first time, people know what they are entitled to expect, and, for the first time, the rail operators have a standard against which they must match performance. That is very significant.

The second report on the citizens charter, which was published in 1994, contains a splendid chart on rail services. However, I am worried about the setting of the standards. According to the standards set for Kent coast, 82 per cent. of trains should arrive within five minutes of the scheduled time.

Within five minutes of the scheduled time might not be particularly late if one is travelling a long distance. However, for a 20-minute or 25-minute journey, the kind of journeys made by many commuters, five minutes late may be a quarter of the expected journey time. If only 82 per cent. of trains are expected to meet that target, and if trains are late at commuter times in the morning and afternoon, the service will be much worse than the standard makes it appear to be.

Although I understand that there must be a gradual process, step by step, the sooner the target is 100 per cent. and perfect timekeeping, the better. We would then really be able to assess the performance. Passengers will accept that the 100 per cent. target will never be achieved, but the target should be the highest as we could then measure the real achievement against that target.

My remarks have been longer than I intended. There is much evidence to show that the citizens charter was an excellent idea and a superb concept, and that it is achieving what it set out to achieve. Let us hope that that continues and that, in another four or five years, we can look back and say that the achievements have been miraculous and that they have been made in areas where no such achievements were reached by other means. Let us particularly hope that the public will recognise what is, after all, rightfully theirs—the highest possible standards from every area of local and central Government services.

1.32 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)

I welcome this debate and it is significant that it is the first debate on the subject for nearly three years. Everyone in the Chamber today has agreed that the citizens charter has changed the face of public service to our citizens. No other country pays so much attention to the rights of the individual.

Anyone who has sat on the wrong side of a desk, facing heavy red tape, buck-passing, officialdom and, frankly, plain off-hand rudeness will know what a blessing it is to be regarded now as a consumer with rights and dignity. In short, a revolution has taken place. The fury and frustration over the delivery of public services have been brought under control.

We now take for granted the improvements in our lives. As has already been said, the achievements have been considerable. Since 1991, 40 specific charters have been introduced, covering everything from social services to education and transport.

Mr. Deva

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as there is only one Labour Member on the Opposition Benches. it is clear that Labour Members have taken for granted the fact that the citizens charter is such a success that they can contribute nothing to this debate?

Lady Olga Maitland

I have always tended to agree with my hon. Friend, but in this regard I could not agree with him more. It is very telling to see a lonely figure on the Opposition Benches.

I echo previous comments about the utter hypocrisy of the Liberal Democrats. I have seen examples of it in my constituency. The Liberal Democrats control Sutton council, and they have the nerve to publish their own charter for council services. It is the same old story: they make declarations and they say that they will consult, but do they ever pay attention to people's representations? The answer is no. The emptiness of the Opposition Benches is significant.

Let us consider the way in which matters have changed so significantly. It is no accident that we now have more flexible opening hours for benefit and employment offices. It is no accident that, nowadays, public servants must identify themselves in person and on the telephone. It is no accident that council tenants are entitled to have most repairs done right away when their lethargic local authority fails to deal with them promptly. That is a particular problem in Labour and Liberal Democratic authorities. It is no accident that we can claim a refund from British Rail if trains are cancelled or are delayed unreasonably.

I have received a refund and had an expensive taxi fare paid for me by British Rail after a disastrous train journey from Falmouth to Norwich. Everything that could go wrong went wrong. There are compensations and achievements in the citizens charter. However, I should not like British Rail to think that all is totally satisfactory. I refer to the problems of one of my constituents. His latest letter is one of total fury. He says: I thought you might be interested that one calendar month later"— having written to British Rail— they have yet to even send me a letter of acknowledgement. Naturally I am livid". The cause of his problem was a train journey that he tried to make some time ago. He arrived at the station and was, informed that the train that he wanted to catch had been delayed. He was then told that it was expected at a certain time, but much later he was told that the train was cancelled. As a result, that poor gentleman was vastly late for his appointment. He had to take a very roundabout route. He felt very aggrieved indeed. Matters are worse when British Rail fails to respond. I hope that that gentleman will get the justice that he deserves. The citizens charter is now in place to help travellers such as that gentleman. I hope that he receives the positive response that I received.

I now refer to the rather disappointing response of the Labour party. I listened with great care and attention to the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman). He seemed to be rather peeved when my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) referred to people who have centrally heated homes, together with Volvos and fax machines. He seemed to think that that was unfair. It should have been pointed out to him—I was tempted to do so at that time—that the prosperity of people who drive Volvos and, therefore, pay much higher taxes as a result of their success, provides the social services that the right hon. Gentleman demanded for his constituents, who clearly have great need. Therefore, it is rather unworthy to jeer at other people's success.

I come now to the Labour party's reaction to the citizens charter. We should look back to the days when the charter was launched, when Neil Kinnock—the then leader of the Labour party—described the concept as "banal and ineffective". He then brought out his own version, which offered layers of extra and unnecessary bureaucracy. Where he was short of ideas, he echoed measures which had already been put forward by the Conservative party. It seems to be the same old tale of copycat politics and of the Labour party trusting to luck that the public will be duped into accepting its propaganda, as against the real version offered by the Government.

Although I am tempted to spend time tearing apart the Labour party's position on its failed charter ideas, time is precious and I shall press on. The best way for me to illustrate the citizens charter is to describe the progress of the patients charter on behalf of my constituents. Our local hospital, St. Helier's, holds trust status. It is a flagship with an enviable record, and its waiting lists have come down dramatically.

The first commitment of the patients charter is respect for privacy and dignity. I welcome the fact that, in April, there will be a patients charter commitment to warn patients when their operations are confirmed if there is a likelihood of their having to be placed in a mixed-sex ward. I accept that patients can object and opt to wait for a later date in the hope that they can be put in a small, four-bedded ward. This subject causes acute embarrassment—especially to women—and we must work harder to return to the traditional segregated-sex wards.

I have been rather disturbed to find that, when talking to hospital authorities, there is a feeling that they will retain mixed-sex wards unless the issue rises higher on the agenda. I very much hope that, in the end, the message will get through that there are intense feelings about the matter. I shall never forget the day my mother found herself in a mixed-sex ward, and it was not an experience which she ever wanted to repeat. We should place a high value on personal dignity and modesty. I welcome St. Helier's commitment to experimenting with flexible solid screens which can be put into a ward as room dividers; that may go some way towards relieving the problem.

The patients charter revolutionised the management of the accident and emergency department. Today, 93 per cent. of patients are given a full medical assessment—not just a cursory glance—within five minutes of their arrival at St. Helier's. That can be compared with one year ago, when 62 per cent. of patients were assessed in five minutes. One can see that progress has been remarkable.

There has also been a remarkable change in the out-patients department. I can well remember attending an antenatal clinic as a national health patient at Westminster hospital 23 years ago. I was called in with 30 other mothers for a 2.30 appointment, and it was quite normal to have to sit around for up to two hours half-undressed. Even then, I had no idea who was attending me, let alone the name of the nurse in charge. The very idea of continuity, or of being cared for by the same person, was quite unknown. There was also the obvious risk that symptoms could perhaps be overlooked. I just wish that I had been able to take advantage of the patients charter, as it would have made the arrival of my first child a much more pleasant experience.

My experience may be compared with the fact that, today, 83 per cent. of out-patients at St. Helier's are now seen within 30 minutes of arriving at hospital. Good management has meant insisting that consultants and other clinicians are on time and that they start their surgeries promptly. The pressure goes all around.

I shall mention briefly the report that came out this week on maladministration. In case I could be accused of looking at the citizens charter through rose-tinted spectacles, I shall make this remark. It is entirely appropriate that, if we want the citizens charter to flourish, public service should be subject to close analysis and even criticism. There is no shame in faults being brought to light if there is then a concerted effort to put them right. It would also be great folly to be complacent and believe that all is well in the public sector simply because the charter exists.

The report focuses on the right to full, speedy and courteous compensation when things go wrong. It made the telling remark: We have come across unwillingness to admit fault, refusal to apologise, failure to identify and compensate all those affected by maladministration. I entirely support the notion that those who suffer injustice as a result of maladministration should be compensated. I welcome the report's view that matters of redress should in future be examined less in the light of protecting the public purse and more in the light of a complainant's rights. Indeed, only as a result of pressure in that regard are ex gratia payments now considered.

Although we should always be ready to hear and act on complaints, we should also be ready to deal sensitively and appropriately with grievances. Complaints may have increased as a result of the public's greater awareness of their rights, but many people, I regret to say, maintain a stoical silence. Research still shows that there is a range of potential barriers in the way of making a complaint. The position is not helped by negative, defensive or discouraging attitudes in the organisation that is held responsible.

Sometimes, having the simple humility to say, "Sorry. I do apologise," can do more than anyone could imagine to repair a damage or injury, although it may not be completely resolved. Government Departments can grow in stature only if they keep in mind the slogan, "The consumer is always right." We should take careful heed of the report and profit from its lessons. Only in that way can we continue successfully to build on the citizens charter, which has undoubtedly changed the face of Britain.

1.46 pm
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

The citizens charter is a major innovation of the Prime Minister. He deserves considerable credit for its introduction. It has afforded the ordinary citizen a unique opportunity to monitor government and demand improvements where standards are not high enough.

My interest in the matter goes back to a career in accountancy, which is also very much involved in the provision and use of information. In the accounting firm for which I worked, I showed an interest in the performance of government. The firm did work for the Government, and still does to this day. One of the partners handed me a paper on performance measurement and the use of performance indicators. The paper had been presented by one of the senior partners to some civil servants and Government officials in the 1960s. Sadly, their response was not what we would expect today. Understanding was not high of how the Government should relate to performance indicators.

Indeed, in the 1960s and part of the 1970s, the Government and bureaucracy tended to take the view that performance indicators and measurement existed in the private sector but not the public sector. I am delighted that the Government have proved that there is every justification for using performance indicators and measurement.

As a result of the citizens charter, we have also increased accountability. Now that we have measures of performance, we can go to the people who are responsible and point out where performance does not achieve the required level. That was not possible before. As a result, public services are improving everywhere. We need only look at education and the new policy on grant-maintained schools that the Conservative Government have introduced. It is so good that the Leader of the Opposition wants some of it. Indeed, he wants it so badly that he will drive his son eight miles, past nearly 100 Labour-controlled schools, to get some of it.

The way in which the citizens charter operates benefits my constituents to a great extent. In Dover, the district council's housing department obtained a charter mark award. The council is measuring performance indicators more closely than ever before, and there has been a realistic understanding among all public sector organisations in my constituency of what is expected of them.

We have better telephone, gas, electricity and water services. The quality of those services is being monitored all the time. I wrote to each of the privatised utilities that delivers services to my constituents and asked for details of their performances, the quality of services and the way in which they monitor them. I received some impressive and detailed information on how those services are improving.

Mr. Deva

Is my hon. Friend aware that, at a time when we are trying to set the people free and get bureaucracy off their backs, the Opposition have come up with recommendations that, should they ever be in government again, they would create eight new Ministries, 15 new bodies for regional government, 15 more local government organisations and, would you believe it Mr. Deputy Speaker, 112 utilities and regulators for business and the economy?

Mr. Shaw

I am incredibly aware not only of that fact, but of a question that my hon. Friend has forgotten to ask: how would the Opposition staff those organisations and quangos? In 1977 and 1978, 150 official posts were held by members of the Trades Union Congress and a large number of posts on quangos were held by Transport and General Workers Union officials. They were all Labour placemen.

The Opposition talk about placemen on present-day organisations, but forget the many totally unqualified people they put on those bodies, who were looking after the interests not of the consumer, but of those people working in the industries, who refused more efficient working practices to serve consumers better. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) not only mentioned one relevant point, but led me to another.

Before that intervention, I was stating how services are changing because of privatisation. In many of the utility and service sectors, we have regulators, and they are studying the efficiency of the industries in a way that never happened when the Labour party was in office.

I well remember trying to get a telephone at the end of the 1970s, when Labour had been running the telephone service. I could not get one, and I had to write to my Member of Parliament and create reasons why I needed one. Fortunately, I had a good reason, as my employer wanted to contact me at weekends and out of normal office hours. If I had not worked for that employer, I would not have had the benefit of a telephone. It is ludicrous that, under Labour, we had to go to our Members of Parliament to get telephones. Today we can telephone British Telecom and get one within a matter of hours.

I am saddened that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) had to leave, but I am sure that he had good reason. He said that BT was not improving its services and was not price-effective, and he said a little about the competition that is moving in from cable television. He did not say as much as he should have about the fact that, in his constituency and in Manchester generally, cable television has taken off in a big way, and that telephony is one of the services it provides in that area. British Telecom is having to react to the price competition that now exists.

I understand that, in Manchester and other parts of the north of England where cable television is very advanced, the telephone services are provided at prices about 20 per cent. below BT's original prices. So we are now seeing considerable reductions in price as a result of the Government's deregulation and British Telecom's privatisation and the increased competition that it now faces.

One or two Opposition Members took a swipe at British Gas. It is easy to do so, as its public relations policy in recent weeks has been open to criticism. But before people rush in to criticise British Gas, they should remember that, before it gave them an opportunity for criticism in the past few weeks, an opinion poll carried out last year on people's perception of quality of service among major British companies listed British Gas as second only to Marks and Spencer. British Gas has moved on considerably, as have all the privatised utilities, in providing better services.

The Child Support Agency was criticised earlier in the debate. The criticisms were unjustified, because they could be levied at the agency's staff. It is unfair of Labour Members to criticise the agency's staff because they have had unprecedented problems, with a campaign of vilification and vitriol against them. Many absent parents and even some mothers with care have not completed their forms properly.

The Child Support Agency is working hard to improve the position but the problem has not been caused by the staff. It has been a problem of creating a difficult new system, which everyone believes will be worth while in making parents more responsible for their children, even in homes that have broken up.

My constituents want British Rail to be privatised as fast as possible. The citizens charter has shown that it has not worked well in the public sector. In Kent Coastal, poor timekeeping is among the worst in the country. I hope that the British Rail Board, which this week announced that it could not provide Networker coaches to my constituency—we have been after them for some time—will now be asked to step aside so that we have a proper franchise and privatised operation that will provide a decent service to my constituents. It is simply not good enough at present.

The Labour party has done a bit of scaremongering this week on through ticketing. An actress on the Opposition Benches with more theatre than substance has issued a press release in my constituency. She is so concerned about accuracy and standards that she has managed to spell three of the railway stations in my constituency wrong, so we cannot have much regard to the Labour party's ability to set high standards in education, spelling or any other area of public service.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will be interested in what I am about to mention. The Government should seriously consider an information provision charter, not only in terms of the response of public bodies, Government Departments and local councils to letter writing and setting standards, but also to ensure that those standards are widely known.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary developed the Internet in terms of putting the Government on it and giving citizens access to it. It now provides a service that was not available before last November. The World Wide Web server, which my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary introduced, has a lot of information available to it. Its electronic address is HTTP://WWW.OPEN.GOV. I give that information in the hope that people will take advantage of having access to it.

That World Wide Web server has had 300,000 accesses since November. Many people are already obtaining Government information from it. The server could be a fundamental basis on which a new information provision charter could operate. We should have more information about the quality and provision of services provided over the server. We should have more information about choices that can be taken by citizens involving different service providers in the public sector.

There are many opportunities for health statistics, for example, to be put on the Internet. That would give citizens the choice of different providers of services that they may require. There should be comparative information on councils' performances. It should be put on the Internet World Wide Web server. League tables should be posted. They would be much more useful than the propaganda sheets that some councils put out, which relate to individual councils. Their performances are not compared with other councils.

The Government are doing a tremendously good job in introducing the citizens charter in a way that many people did not envisage, and enabling ordinary citizens to have real power over national government and local government. We need now to find new ways of giving people information that they can use so as to empower them more than at present to monitor government and demand more of government. It is every citizen's right continuously to demand more of government. It is our job to try to provide more, but not necessarily by increasing the cost of government.

2.1 pm

Mr. Henderson

With the leave of the House, I am grateful for the opportunity to make a few more remarks. I spoke fairly lengthily earlier and I do not propose to repeat my first speech.

This has been an interesting debate. It has drawn out two basic philosophical approaches to public services. In a sense, philosophies have crossed the House. One group of Members believes that public services are all about satisfying consumers and that the consumer knows best. We do not need to go much further than that to say that we get the public services for which we can pay. That is the way in which consumers are dealt with in the private sector. I think that that is an erroneous philosophical position.

I am much more encouraged by the view taken by some Conservative Members, including the hon. Members for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes). They said that they liked to be considered as citizens in their use of public services. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), they objected to the term "customer" in respect of British Rail and preferred to be recognised as a passenger. If, with a bit of luck, I catch the 3 pm to Newcastle, I hope that I shall travel as a passenger and not merely as a customer.

All our constituents use public services. They have a right to use them as citizens. As citizens, they have the privilege to exercise that right. That involves more than pure consumerism.

Several interesting common-sense points have been made. The hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant) felt strongly about the need for public services to be sensitive to the consumer. He does not want things to go as far as they have in the United States, where "Have a good day" had to be said on all occasions. That reminds me of the time when I was in America telling Americans about the contrast between service in their country, whether in the private or public sectors, and in some parts of Britain. In America, someone in the hamburger stall to which the hon. Member for Beckenham referred, might say, "What would you like, sir?" A translation of that in Britain is, "Yes?" I think that we have all experienced that.

Good private sector companies in Britain do not treat their customers in an abrupt way. As I have said, the public service should adopt the best practices that are followed in the private sector. The "What would you like, sir?" approach is one that I would like to see adopted.

The hon. Member for Beckenham wanted to dish out his own charter marks. We had Paddy marks earlier in the week, and we may have Piers marks today.

The hon. Member for Harrow, East said that accountability in the control of public services is important and that he is worried about some of the directions of Government policy and over-centralisation. Those are important issues that have been recognised by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

The hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) addressed us on his favourite subject—the matron. I wondered whether, like me, he looked back to the great days of the "Carry On" films and was reminded of that concept, or perhaps he has a craving for the return of Baroness Thatcher; I am not sure which. He made some interesting points about the administration of public services. The whole question of identity of management at a local level is important, so I agree with his view on that.

A number of hon. Members raised the issue of standards and in many ways much of the debate on that concentrated on British Rail. The basic point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) was that simply having a charter would not result in an improvement in rail services. Other things must be done to achieve that. That is true for all public services—charters are welcome as a test of what is happening, but services will not automatically improve unless other things are done. That is very clear in the case of British Rail.

I was surprised that the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) complained about the rail service to the Kent coast and argued that privatisation would lead to a great improvement. I would have thought that the one thing that would lead to an improvement in that service would be investment in a decent rail line from London to the channel tunnel, with links to that line. Surely the issue is whether that can be provided with either private or public funds. That is what will determine whether there will be a better rail service. It does not matter whether the operator is private or public; no private operator could ever afford the infrastructure investment for such a project. There is not a country in the world where that happens. Of course, if there was a decent rail link to Dover the hon. Member for Beckenham could have a station on the line.

Unless we invest in good public services, no amount of charters, charter marks or any other hype will provide a better service for the public. It is no hype that through-ticketing services will no longer be available from many stations. Hon. Members can get on the train at one station and, when they get to the end of that track, find another ticket office to buy the next ticket, or they might use their credit cards to pay the guard on the train. However, ordinary citizens, especially the elderly, just want one hassle at one ticket office. They want their tickets to carry them the whole way through their journeys.

The hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) referred to her journey from Falmouth to Norwich. If she had aged relatives with her, they would not want to have to buy new tickets at each main station. It is important that the through-ticketing service is protected and charters alone cannot do that.

The hon. Lady referred to the need for housing repairs to be carried out promptly. I would not for one moment suggest that there should not be a charter that encourages or even demands that local councils do their best to ensure that when people have a problem with their windows, doors, pipes or whatever, they receive immediate service where that is possible. I am all in favour of that, but it would be wrong to jump from that to saying that that is how we can improve housing. My city of Newcastle needs to spend £200 million on housing to bring it up to the standards set by the Department of the Environment. No housing charter will achieve that—there must be investment in housing.

I am not making an ideological point about whether the money for that investment should come from public or private funds, but unless it comes from some funds no amount of charters will improve the lot of those in Newcastle who need improved housing. I am sure that that is true throughout the country.

The citizens charter is about more than statistics. If it is to have an important role in changing things and if it is to lead to better investment in, more commitment to and better delivery of public services, I am all in favour of having as many and as tough charters as possible. Charters alone, however, will not lead to an improvement in those public services, which all of our constituents want. The test, of course, is whether that improvement takes place.

As I said in my speech earlier, a new approach is needed in the delivery of public services. We must get away from the idea of using a tough stick to batter already low-paid workers into accepting worse conditions. The best private sector companies disregarded that approach long ago. They have recognised that they cannot compete internationally with that approach. To be efficient, private sector companies must adopt the best techniques and best operational systems. People must be properly trained and secure in their job because their employer values them and wants them to stay with the company. If we are to have good public services, the same ethos must exist in the public sector. That will be a central point in Labour's policy at the next general election.

2.10 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes)

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who expressed their condolences to him on his sad loss this week. I know that he will be grateful for their words.

This has been an extremely good debate. Seven of my hon. Friends have taken part, as well as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson). My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva) made a number of interventions. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) has been doing sterling work. He has not been able to take part in the debate, although I know that he would have wanted to. He has, however, been present throughout the debate. Hon. Members have mentioned that no Liberal Members have been present. I shall return to that matter in a minute.

I shall try to answer as many as possible of the points that have been made. In his closing remarks, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North, speaking on behalf of the Labour party, made a point that was echoed by the right hon. Member for Gorton. They talked about their distaste for people being called customers. They said that it was erroneous for public servants to think of people using the public service as customers. That reveals a great deal about their real position.

It is a matter of who exercises power. Under the last Labour Government, or before we had the citizens charter, there was no question that power was exercised by the people who provided the services. They decided the quality of service and opening hours, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) referred. Increasingly, however, people who use the service decide such matters. They know what the service should be and how it should be delivered. They have information published regularly about it which was never published before. When something goes wrong, they know how to complain.

Mr. Henderson

The Minister has misunderstood the point that was made by not only me and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) but one or two Conservative Members. It is a question not only of customers but of people being more than customers. Customers are people who might accept that there should be no through ticketing services on the London-Brighton railway line, provided that 10p is taken off their fare. Citizens are people who want to travel, like the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam and perhaps some of her aged relatives, from Falmouth to Norwich because they have important things to do in relation to their family. They want a guarantee that they can buy a through ticket and that their rights are greater than those of the strict, pure consumer.

Mr. Hughes

I understand the point. I do not want to get into an argument about semantics, but I do not understand how one can be more than a customer. When I use my local hospital or when my children go to the local school, I do not have much choice about that. Those are the services that are provided and I want to be a customer. As a customer of Marks and Spencer, Tesco or Sainsbury's, I have a choice and I can take my custom elsewhere. The point is that people using public services do not have that choice, so to give them the rights of customers is to give them more rights than they had before. If we can agree on that point, I shall be delighted that the hon. Gentleman is coming around to our way of thinking.

A revolution is taking place and the citizens charter is a big part of it. When one goes to an out-patient department, one now receives a timed appointment, which was thought to be a ridiculous pipe-dream only a few years ago. Citizens can now find out how their child's school compares with others; before, it was a matter of hearsay and what other people thought of a school. Now, those of us who have to choose to which school to send our children have clear information about how schools are performing.

There is no doubt from my use of public services and in the experience of my constituents relayed to me that queues are shortening, letters are answered more quickly, telephones are picked up faster, faceless bureaucrats now have names, and even smiles and, if that does not happen, it is much easier to complain. That was not the case only a few years ago.

Telephoning a benefit, tax or council office about a minor matter, but one which was important to the individual, used to mean being passed from pillar to post. One did not know to whom one was speaking because no name was given. As for complaining, one did not bother because one assumed that one would not get anywhere. Much, if not all, of that has changed.

As has been recognised by many hon. Members, especially my colleagues, we are involved in a 10-year programme for the management of change. A great deal has changed but much has not yet changed. Improvements are made every year and standards are rising. When the new patients charter is published, I am sure that all the leaks in the newspapers, including that in the Daily Mail today, will prove to be true. Standards will be improved still further, waiting times will be reduced and there will be more guarantees. That is the direction in which we are heading.

At the heart of the charters are some fundamental rights for us all. They include the right to expect certain standards of service, certain information to be provided and the right to be dealt with openly.

I deal now with the matters raised today. I shall respond to as many as possible. The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North mentioned the cones hotline. It is true that it has not had a terribly good press. It is always easy to be wise after the event, but I think that, had I been the Minister involved, I would have pleaded for at least a different name for it. However, it has done a more valuable job than has been acknowledged.

There have been more than 10,000 calls to the cones hotline since June 1992 and callers do not merely wish to complain about the cones. I do not think that the name was satisfactory, because the line is part of a traffic information service. It provides a great deal of information to road users about what is happening on the roads. Its very existence has made the work of the Highways Agency easier in that the people doing essential repairs on motorways are aware that their progress is monitored. They know that they have to do the work in the shortest possible time and remove the cones quickly. I do not necessarily defend everything about the cones hotline, but it is important to recognise that it has been more valuable than generally presumed.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North mentioned a Trades Union Congress poll on the citizens charter. Personally, what he said did not surprise me. As I understand it, people were asked whether they had read the citizens charter, whereas they should have been asked whether they had read the citizens charters, because there is a patients charter, a passengers charter, a parents charter and others.

If one asks people, "What does this mean to you?" they will probably say, "Not very much." If one asks, "Does a timed appointment in hospital mean much to you? Does the information about the way in which your hospital is performing in the league tables mean much to you? Do the league tables for schools mean much to you? Does the fact that you are guaranteed to get an annual report on the progress of your child mean much to you?" the answers will, of course, be yes. The TUC poll was a very small poll. A larger, more recent poll, the British attitude survey, has shown increased public satisfaction with services, including health and education. That simply cannot be separated from the effect of the citizens charters.

I now turn to openness and the code of practice on open government. The code only came into effect on 4 April last year. Some 52,000 copies of a leaflet explaining the operation of the code of practice have been distributed to more than 1,300 outlets, such as citizens advice bureaux, libraries and other places. Information about the code of practice is available from the citizens charter publication line. My Department has sent out 5,600 copies of the code of practice, in addition to the copies sent out by the publication line. I do not think that it is appropriate to spend large sums on this. The code of practice is working. The question is, if people want to get government information, are they able to get it and is there a mechanism to ensure that the information is made available even if the Department concerned does not want to make it available? That mechanism is available.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster intervened during the speech by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North to point out that the total expenditure of non-departmental public bodies, or quangos, is £15.5 billion and that the £46 billion so often quoted by the Labour party comes from a report, suitably named "Ego Trip", which assumes that Government policy on schools will be so successful that there will be 5,000 grant-maintained schools in place by 1996. Labour's figures are confused and people should go rather more by our figures. Housing associations, training and enterprise councils and NHS trusts can hardly be called quangos.

Mr. Henderson

What does the Minister call them?

Mr. Hughes

I call them local people making local decisions on the running of local services. It is insulting to people who give their time to serve on housing associations, whether local people or people from churches, charities or businesses—all people who give their time to work in housing associations for no recompense—to suggest that they are members of quangos appointed by the Government and responsible to Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) made a thoughtful and interesting speech in which he put the citizens charter and the reforms into a historical and social context. I noted his support for next steps agencies and his warning that we need to adapt and to change budgeting arrangements. I also noted his concern about the possibility of centralisation. The Government are, of course, taking steps to modernise structures and accrual accounting has already been introduced in key areas, such as the national health service and executive arrangements. The structures are being developed to be used more widely in Government.

The right hon. Member for Gorton also objects to the use of the word "customers"; I have already covered that point. He made some remarks about British Telecom which were odd coming from a former Industry Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) pointed out, only a few years ago one simply could not get a telephone. I served on the postal and telecommunications advisory committee in London in the early 1980s. The main problem was how one got a telephone; people had to set up businesses without telephones. The idea that British Telecom has deteriorated is a fantasy. I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point about the two telephone boxes he mentioned; he should understand that 96 per cent. of public telephones are in working order compared with 75 per cent. in 1987. The number of pay phones operated by BT has increased by 50 per cent. from 80,000 to 122,000. Also, the allegation that, somehow, people making trans-Atlantic calls were being subsidised by the right hon. Gentleman's constituents is nonsense when one considers that the price of telephone calls has fallen by more than 30 per cent. since privatisation.

The right hon. Member for Gorton, with a few other hon. Members, raised the scare that through ticketing was to disappear. He took one of a range of suggestions made by the regulator as being the one that will come into effect and therefore sought to get the maximum amount of scaremongering from it. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam answered that well, making the point that it is just scaremongering. It was also answered very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover.

The right hon. Member for Gorton raised several constituency cases. He asked me whether I would give him advice on why I had been more successful with Railtrack than him. I shall answer in a slightly wider context. I get the impression, as I think do my hon. Friends, that when the right hon. Gentleman has I constituency problem, he starts at the top, which means that he genuinely believes what was said by Labour Ministers in the 1940s—if a bedpan is dropped in a hospital, the Minister is responsible for it. That is not the point. The point is that the people running the services, who are as close as possible to the delivery of the service, are the people responsible. Whereas, of course, I understand and sympathise with the point that he makes about the Gorton medical centre, my starting point would not have been with the Secretary of State. It would have been with the family health services authority. It is given the money and the responsibility to make those changes. It is responsible and, if it were not carrying out those changes, I would have worked up from there.

Mr. Kaufman

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, after my 25 years in the House of Commons, for giving me advice on how to look after my constituents. My constituents certainly seem satisfied, since they have increased my majority from 3,000 to 16,000 in that period. I did not start at the top on the Railtrack issue. I started with what I believed to be the local office which would deal with the matter. I communicated with that local office on several occasions. I went to the top because the people lower down were not responding and I was determined to get a response somehow.

Mr. Hughes

I said earlier that I hesitated to give advice to the right hon. Gentleman, especially as I knew that he was a very experienced Member of the House. Indeed, I have taken much comfort from reading much of his book "How to be a Minister", which is excellent. If I may, I shall quote one part, which I hoped that the right hon. Gentleman would not quote to me. Talking about private offices, he wrote: Preparing a speech for a Minister is all part of the presumption by the Department that, unless proved otherwise, their Minister is an imbecile". I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not take that view of the speech that I am delivering today. However, he raises a serious point about Railtrack and I hope very much that Railtrack has taken it on board. It is supposed to respond; if the right hon. Gentleman is not getting any more success, I should be very happy, as one of the Ministers responsible for public service, to add what I can to what has already been done by other Ministers to help him.

The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North talked about quangos and next steps agencies, all of which he apparently opposes. The hon. Gentleman is becoming increasingly isolated in his view about next steps agencies. The Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee report published towards the end of last year said: We believe that Next Steps Agencies represent a significant improvement in the organisation of Government, and that any future Government will want to maintain them in order to implement its objectives for the delivery of services to the public. It is clearly my view that next steps agencies represent an increase in quality of the delivery of service. It would be unthinkable that a Government would want to go back to a point where next steps agencies disappeared and people were not responsible, in running those agencies or, indeed, in local offices, for the services that they delivered.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam said that we want people to be responsible for what they are doing whether those people are at the top or at the bottom. The people at the top have a responsibility for policy and for setting guidelines. However, if someone fails to receive a girocheque or if someone receives bad service at a benefits office, the manager of that office must examine the service that is delivered. I believe that that is happening increasingly.

The reform programme spearheaded by the citizens charter is transforming our public services. The emphasis has already started to shift from a series of self-absorbed bureaucracies to individual services genuinely concerned to respond to the needs of their users and in respect of which the users increasingly have a voice. That is welcomed by our constituents and it should be welcomed by the House.

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

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