§ [Relevant document: The evidence taken by the Select Committee on Public Administration from the Minister for the Cabinet Office on 23 November (HC 40-i).]
§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Dowd.]2.30 pm
§ The Minister of State, Cabinet Office (Mr. Ian McCartney)
This is the first occasion on which the Government have opened a debate in this Chamber. Ministers have come here to answer questions on other aspects of business, but it is the first time that the Cabinet Office has initiated a debate here.
I hope that we shall have an interesting debate on the modernisation of government, especially here in this new, modern setting. We shall have to wait and see whether this setting will work, after receiving feedback from our colleagues. It seems rather strange, and somewhat European. I said that to see what Conservative Members would do when I mentioned the word "European". It might wake them up.
I hope that we shall have a lively debate on the Government's proposals for modernisation. I shall go through the programme, putting flesh on the bones of the concepts and principles, and explaining specifically how we intend to roll out that programme and achieve our objectives. We are pledged to simplify government, and to bring it closer to the people whom we serve. This debate will give Members on all sides of the Chamber the opportunity to express their views on the modernisation of government. I hope that they will also give us ideas from their perspective as Members of Parliament in their own communities, about how modernisation is working on the ground to bring together local government, national Government, and the public, private and voluntary sectors in the delivery of services in our communities.
When we published the White Paper in the spring, it was a serious attempt at radical reform. The vision that it set out contained four key elements. The first is better policy making: the importance of working across Government with each other and with stakeholders to provide opportunities to develop medium and long-term policies and to deal with policy issues in the short term.
The second element is improved quality and responsiveness of public services—an important factor in a society in which people increasingly want services provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The third element is the harnessing of information technology for the public good, to provide access to a range of new services through the development of IT. The fourth is the valuing of public services, by investing in the skills and aspirations of public servants and in how those services are designed to be delivered.
282WH This Government have a different perspective from the previous Government, who did not value public servants or the principle of lively, modern public services. There has been a sea change in the approach to the modernisation of government. We are excited at the prospect of introducing these changes with colleagues across central and local government. The programme will make a real difference to people's lives. It is a long-term programme, but we have made a good start. I shall give some examples of what we are already doing.
We have set out a number of key commitments in the White Paper and in the action plan that we subsequently produced. We are delivering on all of those. I shall risk repeating myself: this is an ambitious, long-term programme. We need, therefore, a strategic approach to ensure that the programme is rolled out across the board and have identified six catalysts for action over the next 12 months or so. They are the roll-out of a complete framework for good policy making and an independent review of its implementation; the establishment of effective business planning throughout the public sector, building on the 2000 public spending round and the ensuing public service agreements; a review of the way in which all public services are delivered to bring about continuous improvement in quality and service standards and ensure that services are responsive to the needs of the citizen; the development of a corporate IT strategy, which aims to achieve robust targets for the availability of, use of and satisfaction with electronic services; and a programme to modernise the civil service. There is also a major programme for modernising management across other parts of the public sector.
Some may say that policy making is sometimes a bit dull, but I rather enjoy it—especially when I get my own way. The Conservatives are certainly not having a dull time working out their ever more extreme policies. No doubt we shall hear more about those later. We are turning our pledges into reality. We are helping people into work and tackling poverty. We are attacking the poverty that the Conservatives created. We are improving the education of our children and the health of our nation. We are reducing crime. We are creating a stable economic environment for people to invest in and so create employment opportunities. We are making a difference to people's lives through the provision of new services in the national health service and other parts of the public sector. We have harnessed the Government machine to deliver those pledges and have promised to improve effectiveness in delivering the results that make a practical and quantifiable difference to people's lives.
In June this year, we established a centre of excellence in policy making—the Centre for Management and Policy Studies—which is leading a drive to identify and spread good policy-making practice. That involves developing the civil service into an organisation that learns new ways of doing things and introducing reviews of how individual Departments make policy so that we can see how we are doing. Such major changes take time. However, the centre has already run innovative programmes—for example, a unique interchange programme for senior European public and private sector figures to share ways of doing things, an induction programme for new Ministers, the first ever departmental peer reviews in respect of the Cabinet Office and the Inland Revenue, and a Treasury review of 283WH public service agreements. Such programmes will provide an innovative means for the civil service to learn about better ways of doing things. We are also open to learning new ways of doing things as we drive forward policies to improve people's lives.
Our key policy priorties have concerned education. We are taking steps to improve educational policy through the literacy and numeracy strategies, tackling failing schools, promoting success in delivering lifelong learning—for example, the introduction of the university for industry and individual learning accounts.
Our economic policies have brought about lower interest rates, lower business taxes and an end to boom and bust economics.
We are supporting families by making work pay through the introduction of the national minimum wage and the working families tax credit. Hon. Members opposite are opposed to those two measures. They have made a commitment to abolish the national minimum wage, which would lead to a wage cut for more than 2 million workers, and to abolish the working families tax credit, which would mean a tax rise for more than 2 million families. The party opposite is in the business of trying to undermine our strategic approaches—
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but in the spirit of the new arrangements in Westminster Hall, hon. Members whom he might assume to be opposite him may not in fact be opposite—they may even be behind him.
§ Mr. McCartney
In new Labour we are sometimes surrounded by all kinds of party. I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall get used to this new environment eventually, and perhaps even get friendly with the hon. Member opposite.
§ Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)
You owe me a drink, McCartney.
§ Mr. McCartney
The hon. Gentleman is trying to put me off my stride.
§ Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)
In the spirit of Westminster Hall debate, the Minister will recall that he and I were members of the Standing Committee that considered the National Minimum Wage Bill. I do not recall the point during the passage of that Bill at which I stated that the Conservative party was pledged to abolish the minimum wage, yet the Minister stated that as a matter of fact. Would he care to give me the relevant reference?
§ Mr. McCartney
I was referring to the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood), who has repeatedly made it clear that the Conservative party is opposed and would abolish the minimum wage. That is on the record in Hansard. Can you confirm that you have reversed that policy, and thereby lay to rest the fear among workers who claim the minimum wage, that if the Conservative party were ever to return to power it would give them a wage cut by abolishing the minimum wage?
Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Although we are in a new, informal setting, the rule about referring to hon. 284WH Members in the third person still applies. If the Minister says "you", he is referring to me and I have had nothing to do with the White Paper.
§ Mr. McCartney
If you do not mind my saying so, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that is a typical politician's answer—nothing to do with me, guv.
§ Mr. Lansley
I am grateful to the Minister and I would not dream of trying to delay him when he is talking about important matters in the White Paper. My right hon. Friend and I were opposed to the introduction of the minimum wage, but we have not taken forward the question of what we propose to do after the next election, which is a different matter. Although the Minister referred to the creation of policy, he will note that the common-sense revolution has not yet addressed the issue.
§ Mr. McCartney
To assist the hon. Gentleman, I shall quote from Hansard when the right hon. Member for Wokingham said:I have endlessly stated a very clear position. We oppose the national minimum wage."—[Official Report, 29 April 1999; Vol. 330, c. 541.]
§ Angela Smith (Basildon)
The Minister may recall that he, I and the hon. Gentleman spent many hours together, including a couple of nights, discussing the matter in the House. We can be forgiven for thinking that the Conservatives oppose the national minimum wage because they fought tooth and nail against it, opposed it every step of the way and even argued that disabled people and pensioners should not receive a minimum wage.
§ Mr. McCartney
I remember well those nocturnal events in the Chamber. We were proud to set a record for keeping the House up for a continuous period in Committee to ensure that the minimum wage was delivered on time. My hon. Friend is right to say that the Conservatives fought tooth and nail to prevent it from being introduced. They said that it would cost a million jobs, but 700,000 new jobs have been created since the National Minimum Wage Bill was introduced in the House. More than 90 per cent. of employers believe in the principle of a national minimum wage. Conservative policy has again been shown to be at the extreme end of British politics with no one supporting it.
§ Mr. Lansley
The spirit of modernisation in this context surely means not fighting the battles of a previous Standing Committee, but understanding the implications of what has occurred since the introduction of the national minimum wage. I wonder whether the Minister is aware of the statement by the chairman of the National Care Homes Association, who spoke recently on the impact of the national minimum wage and the working time regulations. He said:Government must be aware of the precarious state of the sector"—the care home sector—and the threat that is posed to the elderly people we care for by home closures".285WH Does the Minister at least recognise that we should debate the impact of the national minimum wage rather than ideology, which he is still debating?
§ Mr. McCartney
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman referred to the care home sector. Since the Government came to power, huge and significant new resources have been pumped into community care, including care for the elderly in both public and private sector care homes. The Government have acted to improve the quality of care for those in care homes and the standard of care from employers to their employees. It is unacceptable to pay people £1.20 an hour in a care home and expect them to pay for their own training, and then to expect a first-class service for the most vulnerable in the community. I am pleased that the majority of care home owners have responded positively to the introduction of the minimum wage and paid holidays for staff. Those are basic minimum standards.
I remember that when I was a member of the Opposition Front-Bench team on health I was invited to conference after conference to discuss the parlous state of the care home sector because of the way in which the previous Conservative Government had hiked up interest rates. When people borrowed money to open new homes, they were left financially ruined because the Conservative Government, for ideological reasons, withdrew resources from local authorities for care home support. The previous Government's record on the private care sector was nothing short of shambolic. The present Government have improved standards, invested in education and training, and invested in skills to ensure that those who need care because they are vulnerable are protected by good standards. The Government are working with local authorities and the private sector to drive up standards by providing decent pay and conditions.
§ Mr. Lansley
It is a pity to stop the Minister when he is in the middle of speech No. 17B, which I have heard before. With regard to care homes, will he acknowledge that, in the context of this debate, the much-vaunted phrase "joined-up government" ought to apply? If the Government want a given wage level or a restriction on working time, that will have an impact on costs. Why has the Department of Social Security increased rates for residential care for 2000–01 by 1.4 per cent., and rates for elderly residential care by just 1.5 per cent? That increase does not recognise the costs incurred in meeting the Government's policy. If the Government will the end, they must also, through the DSS, will the means.
§ Mr. McCartney
I thank the hon. Gentleman for speech No. 22C, which I have heard before, but which does not get any better. I would have expected him to tweak it by showing some concern for the needs of those in the care sector. The Conservative party is prepared to put at risk the standards that we have set with regard to employers' duty towards employees and the independent assessment of care provision. Clearly, Conservatives oppose all modern methods of management in this sector.
We promised that services would be organised around the needs of the people who use them. We promised high-quality services that would be available 24 hours a 286WH day, seven days a week, where there was the demand. We promised that, by the end of 2000, everyone in the country would be able to telephone NHS Direct, 24 hours a day, for health care advice from experienced, qualified nurses. By 2001, jobseekers should be able to look for and apply for jobs through the Employment Service anywhere in England, Scotland and Wales, by telephone or internet, even during evenings and at weekends. In at least half of local authorities, older people should benefit from joined-up services and integrated planning by the end of 2000.
We are also transforming old methods to give Government a modern, helpful and friendly face. We have launched pilot schemes to provide a single point of contact with the benefits system, which combine in a single place the services of the Benefits Agency, the Employment Service and local authorities' benefit departments. We have created NHS Direct, which provides health advice and information over the telephone and, from 7 December, direct into people's living rooms. During its first 24 hours, the new internet service received 1.5 million hits from people looking for help and advice from NHS Direct.
We are listening to the needs of people in respect of public services. For example, we launched a nationwide programme of "listening to older people" events, and a series of "listening to women" events, on which a report was published in October. We have introduced new service standards for waiting times and the time taken to answer telephone calls, and for the introduction of e-mail inquiry points.
Unnecessary bureaucracy deters innovation and stops staff delivering a better service to the public. We are piloting learning labs in the Benefits Agency, Customs and Excise and the Prison Service, where certain non-statutory rules will be waived so that staff can try new working methods. In September, we joined forces with TNT to launch an award for high standards of service through use of the excellence model in a partnership environment.
We have created service action teams. In October, I launched the service teams action plan, which set out how we provide co-ordinated public services quickly on matters such as changes of address, long-term care in the home, retirement, bereavement and access to information on services. The action plan is not the end of the matter, but the beginning. We are developing responses to the problems that our "mystery shoppers" identified as the most pressing. For example, in October, access pages were launched on the internet, containing contact details on a range of central Government helplines, including telephone numbers, service hours and direct links to websites.
The public wants services to be available for longer—on occasion, up to 24 hours a day and for seven days a week. In March, we shall announce the results of the research of the people's panel, which will cover five services for which there is the greatest demand from the public for extended opening hours. We shall try to meet that demand by the end of 2001.
Today, my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office launched a Cabinet Office website, which contains a new directory of information about the main Government help lines. It contains details about 287WH opening hours, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. It is easy to understand—for example, it refers to tax rather than to Inland Revenue.
Now that I appear in public life, I put much effort into using plain language. There are many ways to use language, but most of them make it more complicated. We are working with the Plain English Campaign and with ethnic minority communities to improve the worst examples, such as the application form for a driving licence for a minicab driver that includes a photograph. We are also training people to draft documents in plain language. In February, we shall publish best practice guides about using plain language, and we shall work with ethnic minority language services to help those seeking advice about Government services to have access to minority language services.
Our proposals about changing address will make a significant difference to the lives of many people—for example, a gentleman who is disabled by multiple sclerosis and who changes his address in a move that is arranged by his local authority so that he can be nearer his family. Which bodies does he need to notify of the new address in order to keep his benefits? First, he has to notify his previous Benefits Agency office of his new address either in writing by using the appropriate form or by writing a letter. In most cases, that information will be made available to all Department of Social Security agencies. If the Benefits Agency knows that he is claiming housing benefit, it will pass on that information to the relevant body. His disability benefits are likely to remain in payment and his income support may remain in payment, but his housing benefit will cease. That is the first notification.
That person must also notify his old local authority of the fact that he has moved and he must tell the new authority of his new address. He may also have to send a separate notification to the housing and council tax benefit section, which deals with liability for council tax, and the local social services department. Those steps involve a further five notifications.
The person will have to make a fresh application to claim income support at his new local office, although his circumstances may not have changed materially. He will be able to reclaim housing benefit from his new local authority at the same time, but if he does not do so he will have to put in a separate claim that contains details about his income to the Benefits Agency, although it already holds those details.
If the person is able to drive, he must notify the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency of his new address, which involves returning his driving licence. He must also notify the UK Passport Agency, the Inland Revenue and TV Licensing, which he might be lucky enough to be able to access through the internet.
The person might have to make a further four notifications. He might have to apply to the local authority's social services department for adaptations to be made to his new home, and he must provide evidence from his doctor that those changes are medically necessary. Social services officials will assess those needs and take down details of his income—the same details that the Benefits Agency already holds—and that help will be means-tested.
288WH Merely in order to move house, that person might have to make 10 separate notifications of his change of address to public sector organisations. In addition, he will have many forms to fill in throughout the process.
That situation is unacceptable; there is no defence for it. The introduction of a one-stop facility to notify a change of address would be a significant step forward. We should also work with various bodies to increase the number of places at which one could make such a notification.
Our plans involve giving people a better service and better access to public services. We promised that information and communications technology will be used to provide better services to the public and that we shall not trail behind technological developments. We have set ourselves firm and measurable targets. We want 25 per cent. of Government services to be available electronically by 2002, 50 per cent. to be available by 2005 and 100 per cent. to be available by 2008.
We are already improving services to the public by using modern technology. From April this year, the Employment Service placed job vacancies on the internet. Government websites will be more informative and user-friendly under new guidelines issued by my Department's central IT unit. Our invest to save budget, which is providing £230 million over the next three years, is pump-priming modernising government projects.
The first round of the invest to save budget funded several innovative projects, including an electronic one-stop shop for land and property information, which will help to reduce house-buying delays, a pilot scheme to enable people to make applications for vehicle tax discs over the internet, and an electronic catalogue to enable public bodies to order goods more cheaply and efficiently.
In round two, 500 expressions of interest were sifted down to 175 full bids, which are now being considered. The winners are likely to include: projects that increase electronic access to services for individuals and businesses; new websites that give the public increased access to information; and projects that facilitate electronic data exchange between public bodies. Those are all important new advances.
There is no simple formula for ensuring that IT projects are a success, but we are examining experiences in the public and private sector, both here and abroad, to find out what are the key factors behind the successful delivery of projects. Early work shows that those factors include full assessment of the risks involved in a project and clear plans for managing those risks; strong contingency plans; keeping a project to a manageable scale; ensuring that both the supplier and purchaser clearly understand the aims of the project and their respective responsibilities; and building in the capacity for learning lessons from previous projects, both good and bad.
Our aim is that, within the next three years, people will be able electronically to look for work and be matched to jobs, to obtain information and advice about benefits, to apply for training loans and student support, to submit tax and VAT returns, to book driving and theory tests, to apply for regional business support grants, to be paid by Government for goods and services and to notify different parts of Government of 289WH details, such as change of address, through a single transaction. The challenge for this Government—we believe in the value of public service and in investing in that service—is to ensure that the benefits of new technology are shared by the many, not just by the few.
I shall conclude by dealing with the issues relating to public servants. We said that we would value public services, and that includes public servants. The public service needs to be an agent of change. To do that, it needs to be innovative. Public servants must be advocates for the citizen, as well as ambassadors for the enterprise in which they work. We want more open public services—services that value people and develop their full potential. We want a civil service that values the differences that people bring to it and it must be strengthened by diversity in recruitment policies. We shall set targets for Departments to increase their numbers of disabled staff, initially in the senior civil service and, subsequently, at all levels.
We want managers to work in partnership with staff, to recogise and value the central role of their staff, and to develop a common understanding of the goals of their organisation. They should develop an agreed work culture and a shared commitment to training every individual. They should encourage and support staff to identify and enhance their skills, and promote an inclusive relationship between staff and their elected representatives. We have promised a better deal for staff and we will deliver it. We are working in partnership with the civil service unions to achieve those shared goals.
Much has been done, but much more remains to be done. I hope that today's debate will give hon. Members an opportunity to express their views about the Government's strategic approach to these matters, and I hope that I have given the Chamber sufficient detail to show that the Government do not just have a set of values that they will let lie on the shelf, but that we are actually trying effectively to implement those values.
§ Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)
I share with the Minister a novel sensation in speaking in this Chamber, but it is a pleasure to be here and we shall see how it goes. We shall see if the modernisation—if modernisation it is—is an improvement, because not all progress is improvement.
I enjoyed listening to the Minister. It is always a pleasure to hear him. I hope that he will not think it too churlish of me when I say that I hoped that the Minister for the Cabinet Office would introduce the debate on the White Paper herself. It is a little more than eight months since its publication and the right hon. Lady's predecessor did not have, or perhaps did not seek, an opportunity to debate the matter. I am glad that we are debating it, but I am sorry that the Minister herself did not see the value of attending the debate.
§ Angela Smith
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
§ Mr. Lansley
It is a bit soon to give way; I shall do so in a moment. It is significant that the right hon. Lady chooses not to attend this debate. She was happy to give evidence on the subject to the Public Administration 290WH Committee. The Chairman of that Committee, the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), is present. He said to the right hon. Ladyas you have had to think and read your way into all this"—the "Modernising government" White Paper—over the last few weeks, what … is the really key idea that you want to have a go at in all this?The right hon. Lady replied:I do not think that I can answer that fairly because I am still ploughing my way through a lot of the detail."—That is fair enough. She continued:If what you are saying to me is, what is the key bit, what am I prioritising, I do not think I can give you a straight answer. But I think I can say … that the overall thing that drives me is simplification and commonsense.I seem to have heard that somewhere before. Like other members of the Government, the right hon. Lady finds it advantageous to pick up on Conservative rhetoric, but not necessarily on Conservative reality. I give way to the hon. Lady.
§ Angela Smith
I am glad to see that the hon. Gentleman has read the minutes of the meeting of the Public Administration Committee on 23 November. Can he explain why there were no Conservative Members present to hear the Minister's evidence?
§ Mr. Lansley
You can hardly expect me to know the comings and goings of my hon. Friends Mr. Deputy Speaker. Unfortunately, the hon. Lady knows that such is the preponderance of the Government's majority—it is a deeply unhealthy thing—that Conservative membership of any Select Committee is rather sparse: we are spread much thinner than that of the governing party. I know that my hon. Friends on the Public Administration Committee have given full measure of service to that Committee. I often hear from them about the issues that are raised there.
I am interested in the concept of joined-up government. I wonder whether the Minister of State connected the matter with yesterday's debate in the Chamber and whether he can justify the joined-up character of Government thinking. The right hon. Gentleman set out the Government's policy to reduce the Post Office monopoly, but in the space of a few months, after he had moved on to better and brighter things, his successor had to announce that the Post Office monopoly was not going to be reduced. The talk about joined-up government is all very well and the talk about delivery is all very well, but the reality of joined-up government is a different matter.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke predominantly about technology. Modernisation in government, the process in which the Government are purportedly engaged, is cloaked in technology. None of us wants to be slow to adopt technologies that deliver better results. There are two important themes relating to the introduction of technology that the Parliamentary Secretary may wish to consider when he replies to the debate. First, there are issues relating to access to technology and to the delivery of services through technology. When services are delivered, those accessing them may have to commit themselves to related expenditure or to buy in services. That is not always the case in respect of public services, but it can be. The cost 291WH of access, the availability of technology, of hardware and software, telephone access charges, call charges and, in respect of the internet, access to credit, must all be considered.
As was evident in the recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, those on relatively low incomes do not necessarily have access to bank accounts or to credit. If they work largely on a cash basis, it can be incredibly difficult for them to gain access to services if credit is required.
The second issue relates to the effectiveness of technology. It does not automatically follow that the application of new technology delivers a more effective service. From personal experience in constitutency postbags and surgeries, all hon. Members know of the difficulties that surround the Child Support Agency and are aware of its unhappy history. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam)
Order. The Minister must not seek to attract my attention from a sedentary position.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney
I was actually standing.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I was Chairman of the first Standing Committee on which the right hon. Gentleman served, so he knows that I sometimes have such trouble.
§ Mr. Lansley
As the Minister knows, I was not a Member of Parliament at the time in question. The Child Support Agency has an unhappy history which stretches back under previous Governments. We await evidence of what will be achieved after the introduction of new legislation, but the Government have not yet solved the continuing problems. They have not been solved on previous occasions by what were perceived to be important measures involving new technology, call centres, computerisation and so on. All hon. Members have met constituents at surgeries who have received computer-produced letters that bear no relation to their circumstances. A constituent of mine received in the space of two days eight letters dispatched by a computer system, each of which stated exactly the same thing. Such communications are the product of technology, but they are not necessarily benefits, and we must be careful about the success or otherwise of the introduction of technological systems.
§ Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
On the point about the CSA, where a letter is produced every time there is change, it is not the technology that causes the problem, but the regulations on which it was based. Such problems are caused by the interaction between regulation and technology, rather than just by technology.
§ Mr. Lansley
The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Indeed, it is not necessarily the regulations that cause such problems, but the system that operates the technology. There is a danger of technology, rather than people, driving the service. The people providing the service should have been aware that, if changes in circumstances were not dealt with quickly enough, the technology would cause eight letters to arrive on the same day, each one saying pretty much the same thing. Technology must be understood and introduced in the right way to deliver an effective service.
292WH I am afraid that the record on the introduction of information technology is not a happy one. The Minister will be aware of the breakdown of the national insurance computer system, and that 285,000 pensioners are not receiving correct pension payments. Indeed, one third of those pensioners still have cases outstanding. He will be aware of the problems resulting from computerisation at the Passport Agency, although I shall not dwell on the matter, as the debate does not concern it. He will know that the Home Office is presently speaking about 17 major projects that it has undertaken, 11 of which have not been completed on the date that was originally estimated.
During the previous Session, I served on the Standing Committee considering the Bill that became the Protection of Children Act 1999. The Act set out to achieve a one-stop criminal records check, which was intended to be in place by December 2000. Reportedly, however, the Home Office now has so little confidence in its ability to deliver information technology systems such as those involved that the police criminal records check will perhaps not be available for another two years. The student loan fiasco that occurred during the summer is another example of such problems. It was perfectly clear in the initial stages of the new project that the software being sent out was inadequate. I remember speaking to local education authorities that were receiving weekly updates on the software.
The Minister has introduced a task force with precisely the objective of trying to tackle such issues across Government. I shall happily give way to him if he can provide some comfort about the mechanisms by which the Government will introduce further information technology systems such as those which I have mentioned.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney
In my speech, I set out the pillars of what the Government are now doing, not of what we are waiting to do. As well as assessing projects established under the previous Government, some of which are unworkable or have failed to work appropriately, and taking steps to get such projects on line, we have now adopted a rigorous approach involving the Cabinet Office and the Treasury. The aim is to determine the design of programmes and what they are set to achieve, and to deal with risk assessment. From now on, putting it under the carpet and hoping that it goes away—the previous Government's strategy—is not an approach that we would take. Within days of coming to power, we at the Department of Trade and Industry found and resolved the mess that they had made of the Post Office. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has exercised his mind on this matter. I am hopeful that we will soon see significant changes in the delivery of public services through communications systems that work.
§ Mr. Lansley
It is a pleasure to get another speech from the Minister. I look forward to the rigour of which he speaks being applied to those projects.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The Minister made an intervention. Had it gone on too long and become a speech, I would have stopped it.
§ Mr. Lansley
You have greater patience than I do Mr. Deputy Speaker. Clearly, I am impatient; I want to be back on my feet as quickly as possible.
293WH If the rigour of which the Minister speaks is not applied, I am sure that parties and mechanisms in this House, through the Public Administration Committee and the Public Accounts Committee, will ensure that the fiasco in the Home Office of the past few days, which seems to persist with all the costs that it implies, is not allowed to continue.
The White Paper is called "Modernising government". Well, modernising is an adjective with various meanings. I am struck by the fact—it is, no doubt, a manifestation of the third way—that the Government prefer not to think in what they regard as old-fashioned terms of big government and small government. Indeed, the Prime Minister's foreword to the White Paper puts that concept in the past. They do not want to talk about big versus small or interventionism versus laissez-faire, but I am afraid that we need to talk about it because that is where the manifestation of worse government is occurring under the Labour Administration.
Although we might all favour better government, that often means leaner government—a Government who do only what they need to and no more. The Labour Administration talk about better regulation rather than deregulation—the idea of abolishing regulation is a bridge too far—but, for them, better regulation means more regulation. Some 2,700 additional regulations have cost business an additional £5.25 billion. They do not need us to tell them that they have failed; they can talk to the business community. It is extraordinarily unhappy about the volume and cost of new regulation.
Ministers talk about regulation, but in the space of the past few weeks they have had to introduce a whole new package. When we look inside the package, we see not proposals to reduce regulation, but proposals to have Ministers who have a title that says that they are supposed to reduce regulation. It also proposes to establish committees and examine the costs and benefits of regulation. We do not see the reduction in the burden of regulation and the setting of regulatory budgets for Departments that is required. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will promise that, because Ministers must put themselves under that discipline if they are serious about deregulatory proposals.
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer)
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there has been no serious change in the number of regulations that have been produced by this Government compared with the previous Government? The average is 3,000 a year for both Governments. I assume that we can expect the support of the Conservative party for the next year's regulatory reform Bill.
§ Mr. Lansley
There are points there. The hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the past, but I want to talk about the future. He mentions past regulations. The fact is that businesses, irrespective of what level of regulation applies to them, are concerned not with politicians debating how many additional regulations we place on them, but with politicians reducing the number of regulations.
294WH If the Parliamentary Secretary studies the common-sense revolution, he will discover a pledge to reduce the burden of regulation over the lifetime of a Parliament. That will be achieved only by setting regulatory budgets with independent compliance cost assessment, and by understanding from independent assessment the impact of regulation, and by being prepared when necessary to consider the experience of regulation. We discussed the experience of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998. Such experience should be considered; it should be asked whether compliance cost assessments produced by Departments were proved correct. It will often be found that the cost was significantly underestimated and the benefits overestimated. In those circumstances, one must be prepared to get rid of regulations and to set an overall limit.
You would not expect me to dwell at length, Mr. Deputy Speaker, on the deregulation and contracting out legislation that the Minister proposes to introduce next year. We shall consider it, but given that Ministers are proposing to give themselves the power to introduce regulations that increase burdens on some areas to try to reduce burdens on other areas, we shall be critical. The overall effect of deregulation should be to cut regulations rather than impose them. We shall also consider seriously the question of moving from enforcement orders to codes of practice. Enforcement bodies should be subject to orders rather than codes—codes are easily altered and orders are, in theory, the right direction in which to go. I shall not give the Parliamentary Secretary the comfort that he seeks.
I have been encouraged by my desire to hear deregulatory proposals from the Government to pursue the issue at length. However, the situation is symptomatic of a general issue about Government. Complex issues associated with Governments often are not susceptible to centrally determined solutions. I do not regard our desire to pursue limited government—the least government and the best-working government—as an ideological pursuit. I regard it as being eminently practical. If any Adminstrations have demonstrated such an approach, Conservative Administrations have. We have tried to tackle the deep-seated social issues that have bedevilled us. For example, we have achieved considerable economic advancement and increased the overall wealth of the country, without necessarily seeing those achievements translated into the resolution of social problems.
The recent Joseph Rowntree Foundation report made interesting reading on that point. It illustrated the fact that the economic growth and increasing employment that resulted from the Conservative legacy, from which the Government have benefited, have not necessarily translated into a reduction in poverty or inequality. The report referred to the first year of the Government, in which poverty and inequality rose, even though the economy and employment were growing fast. We are dealing with complex social issues that, as the foundation notes, are not susceptible to Government solutions resting on Government expenditure, legislation and control. The common-sense revolution is based on a principle—I commend it to the Minister as being applicable to the modernisation of government—of giving leadership to local organisations, giving freedom to individuals, families and their communities, giving leadership to 295WH communities and neighbourhoods and letting local government and communities give leadership instead of central Government being prescriptive.
I shall give the Minister a practical example. Local government should not have to respond to a central Government's prescriptions through an extension of the public service agreement. Rather, local government should be given the ability to set its own agenda and to determine it own priorities—to set for itself the measures against which it must be tested by the local community. The proposals currently being worked on by the Treasury and, perhaps, by the Minister of State, would turn local government into agencies of central Government. It would have to pursue the central—Labour—Government's ideas of what it ought to be doing across the country rather than setting local government priorities from what is set at not only local government but, preferably, community and neighbourhood levels.
§ Mr. White
Under the previous Conservative Government, the Local Government Association and its predecessor organisations used to meet Ministers. It was always rare for more than one or two Ministers from the Department of the Environment to be present and for other Departments to be represented. The Government have met the LGA on several occasions, and the LGA has been involved in a number of working groups. How does that square with the hon. Gentleman saying that the LGA is actively involved under this Administration, but was not under the previous one?
§ Mr. Lansley
It is symptomatic that every time I talk about what we ought to do now and in future, Government Members think that they should talk about what happened in the past.—[Interruption.] This time the Minister is seated. Now he is on his feet—I knew that there was a difference.
§ Angela Smith
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
§ Mr. Lansley
No, I shall move on. I do not wish to take up too much time because other Members want to speak, and I have much to say.
Better government is not just about the delivery of services; independence and accountability are also at the heart of the process. The right hon. Gentleman said a lot about technology, but not much about accountability, and still less about independence. We have heard a great deal over the past few months about the politicisation of the civil service: Ministers unwilling to contemplate an independent statistical service; Ministers pursuing a 20 per cent. increase in Government advertising in the first year in order to pursue their political agenda; and all but two directors of communication in Government Departments leaving within the first two years.
Andy Wood, who was director of communications for the Northern Ireland Office, said that the Labour Government press machine would becomeSome pale imitation of the nepotism and patronage-ridden machinethat characterised America. The number of special advisers has trebled. The Prime Minister said that his chief press officer had done an effective job of attacking 296WH the Conservative party, as if that were the proper role of even a temporary civil servant, let alone of someone who occupies so significant a position in the Government information machine. I also note that the post of head of attack at Millbank tower was advertised, and that the Labour party made it clear in the advertisement that there would be high-level connections between the head of the attack unit at Millbank—a party appointment—and civil servants involved in the No. 10 policy operation.
The right hon. Gentleman knows that I have been around Whitehall and the party machines in the past, and I was always clear about where those distinctions lay. I fear that Ministers and civil servants are now neither clear nor comfortable about them. Will the Minister explain why the Labour party machine is advertising for someone who will clearly be working on a political basis with civil servants?
§ Mr. Ian McCartney
I give the hon. Gentleman a commitment that I have not read his personal file from his days in the civil service. I am sure that it would make interesting reading.
It is nonsense to suggest that the previous Conservative Government were not politicising. They put the full-time chairman of the Conservative party into the Cabinet. Their Deputy Prime Minister did nothing but Conservative party business. They introduced special advisers who tried to boss their way round the civil service, politicising and introducing the Conservative party line.
This Government have introduced an opening up of the process, a clarity of responsibility between politicians and the civil service, and a re-engagement with the need to value civil servants, their advice and their help. We value the support of the civil service. The hon. Gentleman's colleagues did none of that when they were in government, nor would they in future. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman wants to have a debate about Labour party special advisers. He obviously does not like the fact that a good Government are operating very well, and that the public think that we are doing well, too. However, we are not complacent.
§ Mr. Lansley
I could dwell on that matter for some time. The right hon. Gentleman knows that I was principal private secretary to a chairman of the Conservative party as well as to a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. I was a civil servant responsible for making sure a Minister was keeping separate his party and his Government responsibilities. He was paid not by the taxpayer, but by the party.
The Minister and his colleagues engage in many political activities—I sometimes wonder whether they spend more of their time on party political activities than on Government activities. The Labour party does not appear to be willing to pay ministerial salaries according to the extent to which Ministers engage in party activity. But, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should move on.
The Minister challenged me to say what was happening as a consequence. Time does not permit a full answer, but rather than delivering, the Government have talked about delivery. That involves not joined-up government but an excess of reviews. There have been 297WH 500 reviews so far, and, we now discover, 318 task forces have been established. The social exclusion unit is backed up by 18 policy action teams. A plethora of activity functions as a substitute for achievement.
The Minister knows that this is one of my bugbears. It is not good enough for the Government merely to talk about target setting. The Minister did so this afternoon—he said that 25 per cent. of Government services should have electronic delivery by 2002, 50 per cent. by 2005 and 100 per cent. by 2008. Targets do not necessarily involve delivery. Many such targets are offered as a substitute for delivery.
I know precisely what game the Minister and his colleagues are playing—it is called, "In a year or so's time". Instead of explaining what they have achieved during the past three or four years, they point to the targets that they have set for four or five years hence. That is why Ministers' rhetoric involves talk of 10, 15 or 20-year targets—they are a substitute for explaining what the Government have achieved during the past two and a half years. This year has been a year not of delivery, but of non-delivery.
I have examined the Government's annual report in detail. I shall not plagiarise what my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said yesterday during Prime Minister's Question Time, but the Minister may recall that I, too, have discussed the integrated transport policy. Littered through the Government's annual report are references to supposed delivery. Of 177 so-called pledges, only 45 have been met, 33 have failed, 45 have been fudged and 54 have not yet been delivered. That is a sad catalogue of failure to deliver.
The Government have not increased their delivery as time has gone by—the number of reviews has multiplied. Some of the worst cases are like chickens coming home to roost. Only one week ago, the Prime Minister made a big thing about dealing with long-term care. The traditional approach involves establishing a commission—in this case, a royal commission—to show how important the issue is. However, when the royal commission reports, the Government take nine months to say, "Well, we do not know what we are doing to do. We shall look at the matter further." When targets are substituted for action, the public lose out.
In the time that remains, I want to emphasise what needs to be done. We need to reform not only particular policy but the structure of government and how it should be delivered. That does not simply involve de-layering government or—to give the Minister a graphic example—squashing the pyramid. The civil service is quite a narrow pyramid with many layers. When I was a grade 7 civil servant, I worked on the public spending round in the Department of Trade and Industry. Every time I saw the Minister, I was accompanied by the assistant secretary, the under-secretary, the deputy secretary and the permanent secretary. During conversations between a grade 7 civil servant and the Minister, four other civil servants kept an eye on proceedings. I suspect that things may have changed since then.
There is a good argument for de-layering the civil service and for ensuring that those who do the work have direct contact with Ministers. The relevant responsibilities should be pushed down the system. We must ensure that we do not fight the management battles 298WH of the last decade; we must prepare for the management challenges of the next decade. The Minister knows that that involves not squashing or flattening the pyramid but having distributed systems of management. In view of the way in which centres of activity are connected to each other, perhaps we should consider not a pyramid, but a pizza. We will not solve the problems of government by setting up reviews and task forces outside the structure of Government Departments—the co-ordination of decisions has to take place inside the Government. It will not happen as a result of deconstructing Cabinet government, which is the basis through which interdepartmental co-ordination should be happening, and also the basis on which Government accountability should be delivered. It will not be achieved by having bilateral discussions in the Prime Minister's study, which is apparently everybody's fond hope.
I noted a reference in Kavanagh and Seldon's volume which is relevant in that respect. A member of the Prime Minister's staff described him as "a big picture man", and was further quoted as saying:'If it is not on his agenda or in his big picture, then he cuts it out.'The authors add that a Cabinet Office official, on reading an early version of the book, added:'Yes, and potentially fatally so'".The solution lies not in deconstructing Cabinet Committees and Cabinet government, but in working through Cabinet government while having better systems of management inside the Government.
The Minister spoke about the structure of the civil service. Conservative Members share some of his objectives in that regard. He was typically uncharitable about previous Conservative Administrations, but I assure him that my colleagues in the Conservative party value the role of the civil service. We are in the business not of wanting more or fewer civil servants, but of wanting only the minimum amount of government that is necessary, together with less regulation, less control and less tax. However, given that we have civil servants, they must deliver quality policy making, quality administration and quality management—indeed, they are often capable of doing so. Many values inside the civil service could easily be undermined by the way in which the Government are going about their activities. They are undermining the independence and impartiality of the concept of a disinterested public service that is not tied to the political priorities of a particular Administration.
Even the civil service should accept that an appreciation of risk is necessary. Civil servants should understand that there must be downsides as well as upsides—it is not just a matter of performance bonuses for delivering particular objectives. They should know, as those in the private sector know only too well, that if they do not deliver there will be a downside to balance the upside when they do deliver.
We should not blur the boundaries of what civil servants are responsible for. Ministers are responsible for policy. Policy failures that were not the civil service's responsibility are littered across the pages of the Government's annual report and their record in general. In the summer, the Prime Minister sought to divert attention away from his—and his ministerial 299WH colleagues'—failure to deliver and towards setting performance targets for permanent secretaries, as if they were responsible for the delivery of Government policy. That was not right.
Two things about the civil service should be clear cut—where accountability lies and the difference between Ministers' responsibilities and civil servants' responsibilities. It seems that civil servants who appear before Select Committees are increasingly responsible, in a personal sense, for the explanation of their administration. That should not happen if Ministers' statements about setting the policies to which their civil servants work have previously been clarified.
The Government's proposals on freedom of information cut directly against precisely that kind of open accountability. The class exemptions that the Government are proposing mean that we will not be able to see where the difference lies between what Ministers are responsible for—because they took the decisions—and the basis on which civil servants gave factual advice or advised about the practicability of a particular body. Those lines of accountability must be clear.
The civil service must be able to support its values of impartiality and independence as well as seeking to foster additional new values that set standards for employment as a whole. The Minister discussed diversity in terms of ethnic minorities and disabled people in the civil service. In my experience, the civil service strives in that respect to be as good an employer as one could fine anywhere. However, it still does not succeed in that respect, which illustrates the need for it to continue down that path, with our support. I read with great care the Schneider-Ross report, which was useful in illustrating the nature of the problem, and I have also seen the illustration from the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions about the subjectivity of assessments and performance assessments of staff.
However, neither that problem, nor the problem of promotion within the civil service, will be solved simply by improving the civil service's recruitment procedures among ethnic minorities and other groups. We must focus on the extent to which people in the civil service from diverse groups are progressing on merit. I should be grateful if the Minister would respond to that point. We want not recruitment fairs and objective measures of recruitment, but objective assessment throughout the civil service, so that quality recruits can make progress at an early stage. We should demonstrate as soon as possible that ethnic minority candidates are capable of reaching senior positions such as permanent secretary.
Delivery is the test of government, but time does not permit me to list in detail the ways in which the Government have failed to deliver. I am afraid that matters are deteriorating. Class sizes have risen, waiting lists have risen, and crime is starting to rise. Britain is being brought to a standstill by a transport policy that simply is not working. Taxes have risen and regulation has increased; the burdens have increased and the benefits have decreased.
It is no good the Prime Minister talking about scars on his back from the failings of the civil service—he cannot deflect attention elsewhere. The failures are 300WH policy failures. The Government are talking about change in the civil service, but that change must be independent and impartial. Technology should be service-orientated and cater for the public's needs. We must work for people's benefit, rather than technology's benefit. We must ensure that the civil service is not only accountable, but able to deliver the service that the public want.
§ Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)
I welcome the Minister to Westminster Hall. As a new Labour arch-moderniser, I am sure that he will soon get used to it. The opportunity to debate matters in a different style will prove valuable to us all.
Liberal Democrats welcome the White Paper's title: no one could possibly object to modernising government. I could find no reference in it to the national minimum wage, care homes or several other issues to which reference has been made, so I shall not discuss them. Modernising government and making it more accessible are good ideas, as are making it more efficient, accountable and focused on the public's needs. No one could object to such aims. In short, the White Paper is full of apple pie and motherhood. Since it was written, progress on the motherhood policy has perhaps been unexpectedly rapid.
Page 7 of the White Paper refers to "five key commitments", and I shall pick out some of the important issues arising from those five bullet points, or helpings of apple pie. Under the heading "Information age government", the document states:we will use new technology to meet the needs of citizens and business, and not trail behind technological developments.That is an excellent aim, but one doubts whether this or any Government can turn those words into reality.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) mentioned in passing the Child Support Agency. A constituent of mine received 17 letters from the CSA in one week. On taking up the matter, I was told that the cause of the problem was not the regulations, but the computer programme. Every time that a line of data was entered and the return button was pressed, a letter was automatically printed out. There were also the Benefits Agency and pensions payments fiascos. There were problems with the Passport Agency's computer, and the immigration and nationality directorate's computer. There was the fiasco surrounding the smart card technology introduction programme, which has been abandoned, and the medical department at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency. There is a long list of failed projects which have had a serious impact on precisely the citizens and businesses that should have benefited from the new technology and should benefit in future.
If information-age government is considered in another context—a broader, non-IT framework—the Government are not delivering and it is not clear from the White Paper that they intend to deliver. Freedom of information is surely a vital component of the information age, but the Government are obstructing full revelation of information. We are a million miles short of the freedom of information Act that we should have. As the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire said, policy advice will not be disclosed. There will not 301WH even be disclosure of historical records. One of my hobby horses is to have much more rapid publication of historical records and Cabinet papers. Some of the limitations currently in place are unnecessary and outrageous. The Government are a long way short of achieving their key commitment on information-age government.
Another key commitment refers to public service and states:we will value public service, not denigrate it.I suppose that, at face value, that means a commitment to pay nurses a sensible rate so that London will not suffer the current problems of recruitment. It presumably means not slagging off teachers as being the forces of conservatism. It presumably means providing appropriate rewards for civil servants and, perhaps, for Cabinet Ministers, who are currently subject to a pay freeze. On the other hand, bearing in mind the comments of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) during a recent debate in the Chamber when he referred to Cabinet meetings taking up six hours a week of Cabinet Ministers' time in his day and now taking 30 minutes, perhaps that pay freeze is correct.
We must consider not only the practical issue of what we mean by valuing public service, but the subliminal messages about it. What have the Government tried to do in valuing public service? We have fewer police, national health service waiting lists are stuck and secondary school class sizes are at an historic high. There are serious gaps in the Government's plan to make the valuing of public service a key commitment.
There is a reference in the five key commitments to settingnew targets for all public bodies, focusing on real improvements".I shall refer to the police service as an example. I asked a question in the House about police efficiency and the Greater Manchester police service and the answer stated:This Government's Comprehensive Spending Review has set the police a 2 per cent. year on year efficiency target from April 1999.—[Official Report, 7 December 1999; Vol. 340, c. 501W.]I also asked the Home Secretary what assessment he had made of the efficiency levels of individual police forces and the answer stated:There is no agreed formula for measuring police efficiency".—[Official Report, 7 December 1999; Vol. 340, c. 501W.]The Government are referring, as the Conservatives used to, to efficiency savings that have no benchmark, no measuring stick, no monitoring process, and which the Minister in a previous incarnation would have said were cuts.
When it comes to settingnew targets for all public bodies, focusing on real improvements",there is a long way to go.
The Government will have to do better than that. The House—and citizens and business—want quality public services, not the activation of cuts that were set in train by the previous Conservative Administration.
Then there is a reference to policy making being "forward looking". Both the Minister of State and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire referred to 302WH joined-up government; there is certainly plenty of scope for improving it. As my party's spokesman on energy, I am only too well aware of the gaps and contradictions in Government policy between the Department of Trade and Industry, the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Treasury.
I could talk at even greater length about the problems that are raised by the five key commitments, but concerned as I am about the contents of the White Paper and how those five commitments are to be fulfilled, I am even more concerned about the missing commitment: the commitment not simply to modernise government, but to make it more accountable. It was said of Mussolini that he made the trains run on time, so it is certainly possible to have modern, efficient and effective government that does not connect with the real world, the real needs of the public, or with the democratic system that is supposed to sustain it.
I heard the Minister say that one of the benefits of implementing the White Paper would be electronic data transfer between public bodies. That sounds fine in a speech in Westminster Hall, but what does it mean? Are we moving towards one great computer in the sky, which will interconnect every piece of information about every citizen and every business some time in the next century? We have talked about public bodies being connected, but what about semi-public bodies or bodies that may be privatised in the future? Will the Post Office be connected? What about private providers of the second pension or the banks into which pension payments will be made? Simply making government quicker, slicker and sharper does not necessarily make it more democratic or automatically more accountable.
Parliament is slow footed and hamstrung enough by its procedures and the power of the party machines. Much accountability is bypassed and many of the checks and balances that are supposed to be in place are disconnected and sidelined. A Minister is more likely to be held to account by Jimmy Young than by the Leader of the Opposition. I do not hear anyone contradicting me. The historic role of this place is at risk unless we see, in parallel with anything that may be done as a result of this document to modernise and speed up government, measures to ensure that Parliament can keep up with the Government and maintain—and strengthen—accountability checks.
I do not deny that some improvements have been made—this very meeting place is an example of an extra opportunity to hold the Government to account and the introduction of pre-legislative scrutiny is clearly an advantage. But the system is still poor. What steps will be taken as a result of the White Paper and the ensuing legislation to modernise accountability and make it easier for hon. Members to keep track of what the Government are doing—and easier for us to stop them when they are wrong?
The power of Back Benchers in this Parliament is extremely slender. At least I have the advantage of being an Opposition Member—
§ Mr. Stunell
To be a Labour Back Bencher is surely to be without power and influence. I intend to carry on in opposition until the next general election. After that, I hope to be able to put into practice some of the accountability that this place so desperately lacks.
303WH The White Paper sets out the Government's intentions on the roles of Government Departments and of agencies. It also describes how local government fits in, how the Government will connect to local communities, to the national business community and to the media, and how they will respond to every kind of intervention and pressure. It says nothing at all, however, about how the Government will relate to Parliament or about how they will be held to account by it.
Bearing in mind that glaring omission of the sixth key commitment, the Government cannot expect to receive a blank sheet of approval from this place or its hearty endorsement. It is the job of Parliament, and especially of Opposition Members, to ensure that the Government are held to account and that scrutiny occurs. I am keen to see the whole democratic system modernised, not just the Government. That system is designed to provide, and should provide, protection for the weak and vulnerable, and it should ensure that the powerful are held to account, and it should protect the liberty of the individual.
The White Paper could be said to be a step forward in ensuring one part of that. However, reading it and thinking about it, it seems, on the contrary, that it will be a step backwards. I look forward to hearing the Minister reply to the debate, and especially to hearing assurances from the Government that, in making themselves faster, leaner, more efficient and so on, they will also make themselves more accountable and more ready to give Parliament the role that it should have in monitoring and scrutinising their performance.
§ Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)
I came here today to talk about the White Paper, and to deal with some of its good and bad parts, commenting on where progress has been good and where much still has to be made. I am, however, rather depressed about the tone of the debate. In particular, I was amazed by the tirade of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who compared his party's record in government with that of the present Government, and said that everything was wonderful when a Conservative Administration were in power. When he was challenged on the subject, however, he said that we should not talk about it and that we needed to look forward. I find that rather strange. My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) referred to the Select Committee on Public Administration, which is conducting an inquiry into innovations in government, and pointed out that no Tories had bothered to turn up at its sittings. Perhaps I should not be surprised at that.
I should like to comment on the White Paper's three aspects: pilots, culture and information technology, which has already been mentioned. I shall then speak briefly about the service action team objectives, which have recently been published on the internet.
Some good pilots are in operation. The Minister referred to jobcentre web pages, which have transformed the way in which people access jobcentres. People seeking a job are less likely to look at a web page once a week; they will look at it several times a day to 304WH see whether there are any changes, and so will find work much more quickly. People who do not want work will not look at the pages at all. The scheme has some good parts and some bad parts, as it addresses only some issues.
NHS Direct has been an especially good pilot. One of the reasons for that is that it has an end date, and that it has a clear path for translation into a permanent feature throughout the NHS. In considering pilots, that is one of the issues that the Government need to address. Sure Start is an example of a bad pilot because people in large areas of the country cannot gain access to it, despite the fact that they desperately want to, because the programme does not have as clear a target as the Department of Health identified for NHS Direct. Therefore, the Government should have a clear target in mind when they implement pilots. That links in to budgets. In the case of several successful pilots, their budgets have been built into the Department's standard budget. However—this applies particularly in local government where there is a stand-alone budget—it often proves difficult to translate an excellent pilot into full-scale services if, when the pilot is incorporated into mainstream services, the budget is not there to support it. That is the key issue for the Government.
There is also an issue with regard to how people access pilots. A classic example is a project that involved the Department of Social Security, jobcentres and local authorities. People chose to go to the jobcentre because they did not trust the Department of Social Security as a result of their previous experience of its culture, which was one of rejection and exclusion, whereas their experience of the culture at the jobcentre was one of inclusion, especially since the new deal. So people make choices about how they access services, and that has implications for the knock-on effects that pilots have on Departments.
One common criticism of pilots is the element of devolved responsibility and how that is measured. Some people take up devolved responsibility enthusiastically, ahead of their colleagues, who then have a problem relating to the pilot when it is implemented. The Government need to address those key issues, which are referred to in the White Paper, but we should also consider the experience of previous pilots. The Government should also accept that people want to introduce other pilots and should encourage rather than restrict them. I recognise the budgetary implications of that, but we need to consider from where pilots come.
That leads me on to consider the culture of the civil service and Government. During the previous Government, the Department for Education and Employment had a centralising and restrictive policy, so that every broken window and missing tile, every lack of toilet and every poor building in any school in the country was the fault of the Secretary of State. The previous Government suffered badly because of the way in which that was perceived by the general public.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney
It was their fault.
§ Mr. White
The Minister is right, but my point about how people perceive Administrations is critical. Consider the Department of Health, which used to have a similar problem with perception in relation to trolleys 305WH in hospital wards. The reorganisation of the health service, which involved getting rid of the internal market, giving trusts and health authorities much more power and devolving power and decision making, encouraged people to take responsibility for themselves. People now accept that those reforms are working. That is the contrast between a Government who cloak themselves in regulation, and who proceed to take all the blame and none of the credit, and a Government who devolve power, take the credit and improve services.
§ Mr. Lansley
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I am not sure what world he is living in. The Government have abolished grant-maintained status, so schools in my constituency that used to be able to manage things like broken windows and damaged tiles on the roof now have to go through the local education authority. They do not have the same powers or devolved responsibilities. The Government have gone in the opposite direction.
§ Mr. White
I do not know what planet the hon. Gentleman is on. I can only refer to the grant-maintained school that my children attend. The head of that school, Stantonbury, one of the largest in the country, now thinks that the Government's reforms are best for the education of kids. They relate what the school is doing to what is happening in the community and address the overall objective of raising standards. The experience in my constituency—I cannot speak for that of the hon. Gentleman—is that the reforms are working. They are for the best and help to raise standards. The literacy hour and similar projects work and are welcomed by teachers, parents and anyone with a sensible view of education.
A major problem with innovation is how to get people to accept it. Administrations have had that problem with many projects for a long time. The White Paper does not place sufficient emphasis on how to achieve that. Implementing new projects requires clear political leadership. No doubt I am teaching my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary how to suck eggs when I refer him to the experience of local government. Those authorities with clear political leadership brought people in to make changes while those that went through the motions were not able to implement them. That critical distinction, which the Government are learning to make, must be understood if government modernisation is to work.
When we talk about modernising government, we forget the crucial role of the regulators. It was refreshing to hear the Rail Regulator at a west coast main line meeting yesterday; he understood his powers and was prepared to use them. I contrast that with Oftel which does not understand how it can influence the agenda on e-commerce.
We have talked about the need for accountability, but the fragmentation of the ombudsman system and the different complaint mechanisms needs to be addressed as part of modernising government. It would not be right to have an all-embracing ombudsman, but the interaction, for example, of the local government ombudsman and the health ombudsman, which must happen if we are to get rid of the Berlin wall between the social services and the health service, needs to be addressed. At the moment, people with complaints that involve both services have to go to both ombudsmen.
306WH I am also concerned about language, in particular how it is used by Parliament. I doubt whether many citizens who are not lawyers can understand our laws because of the way in which they are written. If we are to modernise government, we need to modernise the language that is used in our Bills. Many Departments recognise that that is necessary for forms, but they do not apply the same strictures to their language of process.
It is important that comprehensive spending review 2 takes on board and accelerates the process of change. That is a key consideration if CSR2 is to deliver on change.
I have a couple of points to make on information and communication technology. I am worried that only public sector ICT projects appear to fail. From my work in the private sector, I know that many private sector companies have had IT failures, but they do not get the same publicity. This country is particularly bad at project management. Investing in the skills of project management would benefit the Government and the private sector. I will not dwell on the blockages that various ICT reforms are experiencing, except to say that the role of the voluntary sector in delivering access to new technology has been overlooked. The Government should give that greater priority.
A great deal of progress has been made on the service action team's action plan, which was published in October. A lot of progress has been made, but there should be an on-going process, not a one-off exercise. The current standard of web page design throughout Government lacks coherence and that should be improved.
§ Mr. Ian McCartney
We issued a document on the upgrading of all Government websites, which will be reviewed in March next year. If hon. Members want a copy of that, I shall circulate it to those who are in the Chamber.
§ Mr. White
Many of the service action teams had a wide range of people, but one area that was not well represented was that of rural issues. That is important because access in urban, suburban and rural areas is different and that needs to be addressed.
A good start has been made on modernising government. Some key issues will challenge the government in coming months, particularly how CSR2 can take the process forward and the crucial nature of political leadership in Departments. We have made a good start and the White Paper is a good blueprint, but everyone must buy into it if it is to be successful.
§ 4.6 pm
§ Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)
I was encouraged when I heard the Minister say that we would be more European and consensual, but we had a long exchange about the minimum wage, which went on for ever. We then had a dispiriting and churlish performance from the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) who was particularly ungenerous in trying to score points against the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who was not in the Chamber, about her appearance before the Public Administration Committee.
307WH We were delighted that, after only a few weeks in office, the Minister was prepared to come and exchange thoughts with us. It was an interesting occasion and I shall give an example of how responsive she was. When we discussed civil servants and how their experience would be enriched by secondment to the private and voluntary sectors, it was suggested that Select Committees would benefit if civil servants were seconded to them. She readily responded to that idea and wrote to me today to say that, having given further thought to the matter, it was a splendid idea and she would consider how it could be carried forward. That was an unusual response from a Minister, showing a desire to strengthen Parliament and a willingness to consider how to modernise government in general. We shall cast a veil over the attendance record of Conservative members of the Committee.
If our discussion was more European and consensual, it would have to be said that we are discussing one further instalment in a very long process of modernising government. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire would have made a better speech if he had told us about some of the building blocks in the process during the past 20 years or so. There has been a lot of reform in the civil service, and the public sector has changed out of all recognition. People find it impossible to understand who runs anything any more. I do not intend to be as negative as that sounds, but that is the effect of what we have done. Regulators have been mentioned and it is virtually impossible for people to understand who runs any public or quasi-public service. It could be argued that that does not matter so long as those services work well and something can be done when they work badly. They must have a seamless operation, but against a background of complete fragmentation. The agency process and the contracting-out process—all of the processes that we know about—have transformed the character of the public sector over the past 20 years. Our task now is to co-ordinate it again—to make it seamless—and to incorporate proper accountability. That was the unfinished business that was left over from the reform exercises.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire—this time, I refer to him more generously—quoted my question to the Minister for the Cabinet Office about the big idea. It is difficult to summarise what the big idea is in the process. The process has been going on for many years, and it will continue to do so, the result of which will be—if we get it right—that the public services will work better. That big idea is surrounded by all of the management-speak and buzz-words that make us, if we are not careful, rather cynical.
The process has acquired a momentum that it did not previously have. It would be wrong to say that there are no benchmarks or targets, or actions to set against those targets. It is unusual to have a White Paper and an action plan that includes great lists of what it calls milestones. We know what the targets are, and we are aware of the concrete measures against which the targets will be delivered. The system cannot be accused of being ethereal—it is concrete, and it is linked to a series of action programmes that require the people who work in the areas that are covered by the White Paper to deliver.
308WH We have discussed modernising government, which suggests that we have unmodernised government. In some ways we do have that—the White Paper is good at identifying the key points of unmodernisation that need to be corrected. All government services used to be delivered by either the Government or local government, but we have come a long way since then. At that time, all that one needed to know was whether a particular function was the responsibility of the Government or of local government. I am afraid that we did not ask many questions about how good those services—whether central or local—were. When we asked, "What are you doing about education?" or, "What are you doing about health?" the answer, at best, would be, "Oh, we are spending £X million of your money in that area." That was as far as the argument about the effectiveness of public services used to go. The argument was entirely about what went in, not about what came out.
That argument also largely ignored the role of users of the services, which were provided in a top-down way. That system lacked user input and responsiveness, for which a political price had to be paid by those of us who were great believers in public services. We assumed that, if we simply told people that we believed in public services and that we were putting resources into them, we did not need to discuss how the system worked. An enormous change has taken place in that regard. We now focus on outcomes and we have to use dreadful words such as "joined-up" and "holistic" because they help us to think about government in the round. We know that problems do not come in neat departmental segments; that is not how people live their lives or experience problems. There is a mismatch between the way in which Governments organise themselves and the way in which problems arise, and part of the programme involves making a better connection between the two.
I conclude by making two or three brief points. First, I want to prove how unmodern I am. It sounds uncontroversial to say that we want all Government services to be delivered electronically by 2000. An innovation of the "Modernising government" White Paper is the people's panel, which asked:If you were able to use these services to deal with government, which, if any, do you think you would use?The overwhelming majority, 72 per cent., said that they would use telephone services. Only 25 per cent. of people over 65 think that new technology will improve Government services. We should pause for a moment and consider the gap between the ideology of modernising government and life as people live it. In many respects, this country is like a gigantic call centre in which one cannot have a conversation on the telephone with a public sector or private sector organisation, even though telephone systems are heavily staffed. Ordinary people are saying that being able to talk to someone on the telephone is rather important.
Similarly, the people's panel listed places, such as banks, where households might access government, and asked people how attractive they found each option. Sixty-four per cent. regarded the post office as the most attractive option. That should remind us that, for many people, the local post office fulfils a crucial social function. A certain mind set says, "Wouldn't it be a gee whiz idea to conduct electronic transfers through banks?" However, for many people and for a wide 309WH variety of reasons, access to the local post office is crucial, and is an important way of interacting with the state. I offer that point as a prehistoric, unreconstructed caution, in the context of my great enthusiasm for the entire programme.
Secondly, various references have been made to freedom of information. I shall not say much about it—I could easily bore hon. Members on that subject—but, so far, the point in relation to the "Modernising government" White Paper has been largely missed. There is a complete contrast between the way in which the policy process is dealt with in that document and in the Freedom of Information Bill. The White Paper states:Government should regard policy making as a continuous learning process, not as a series of one-off initiatives. We will improve our use of evidence and research so that we understand better the problems we are trying to address.That is how one should view the policy process, but one cannot make it a continuous learning process if barriers to learning are imposed and people's ability to participate is closed off. Unfortunately, the Freedom of Information Bill—which was transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Home Office, and has become a different animal—has created three different protective layers. If one gets past one layer, a second and then a third is encountered, and access to the policy process is denied.
It is not possible to engage in a continuous learning process—which, as expressed in the White Paper, is exactly the right way in which to view policy—if policy is dealt with in the manner outlined in the Freedom of Information Bill.
§ Mr. Stunell
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that joined-up government works only if the various parts of Government can talk to one another and take advantage of the advice and experience of the outside world? That is a problem with the current dichotomy between the Government's two proposals: they are not examples of joined-up thinking.
§ Dr. Wright
I may not have expressed myself as well as I intended to. The policy process will be strengthened if more people can contribute to it and evaluate the raw material on which policy decisions are based. That will improve and strengthen government, rather than weaken it.
If there is a gap in the White Paper, it centres on the word "accountability". It is surprising not to see accountability identified as a key objective of this process. The White Paper almost deals with accountability as a kind of problem, a kind of brake on what one can do. It refers to the fact thatthe cultures of Parliament, Ministers and the civil service create a situation in which the rewards for success are limited and penalties for failure can be severe.It goes on to discuss the virtues of risk taking. I know what is being said here: it is a matter of how we can introduce more risk. In our exchanges with the Minister for the Cabinet Office the other day, she was frank enough to admit that more risk might mean more policy failure. We have to be intelligent and grown-up about that.
However, there are areas of life—whether the protection of children or making sure that ambulances run as they should—in which risk has no part to play. 310WH The reason why many of those responsibilities are in the public sector is that they are areas in which we are not prepared to play around with risk. In grasping that the role of risk has to be enlarged in the public sector, we must also be clear where the boundary lines are.
We must be clear that modernising government is not to be achieved at the expense of accountable government. That would be a profound mistake. People often have separate conversations about this: some talk in a technocratic way about modernising government and about delivery—it is important that they should, because we want efficient and effective public services—while others talk about the big accountability issues, which are also important.
It is rare to find people who talk about effectiveness and accountability in the same conversation, yet that is what we want. We need people who are committed to ensuring that we get effective and efficient services, but who know that those services must be accountable. There has been a loss of the traditional kinds of accountability as the public sector has become fragmented in the way that I have described.
If we were engaged in a less European and more partisan exercise here, I would have to remind the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire that one of the most devastating reports issued by the Public Accounts Committee during the previous Parliament was an indictment of the way in which the newly freed public bodies—quangos and the rest—had been guilty of the most extraordinary incompetence, malpractice and worse. It was a devastating account of what happens if one does not make government accountable and modernise it at the same time. Those are not separate agendas, but very much parts of the same agenda. A gap has become evident as we have moved on to talking about users of services. Although that is an advance, there is a difference between users and citizens. Citizens are people who also engage in the shaping of services. The whole agenda should properly have been dealt with by the White Paper, and I hope that it will be dealt with in due course.
I should like to return to an issue, that was briefly touched on by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire. Many of the matters that we discuss may seem to be managerial or limited by managerial considerations, but they are not. In fact, they have the most profound implications for how we organise the control of our public services. We cannot do the things that we are talking about doing in respect of the senior civil service—closely fixing and identifying performances, linking them to payments, measuring what people do—and still pretend that the civil service can continue to live under the veil of anonymity while ministerial responsibility continues to exist in its traditional form. It is inconsistent to claim that Ministers alone are responsible when, in practice, we are visibly putting mechanisms in place to ensure that civil servants are responsible. A real conflict arises in respect of the way in which the reforms are, rightly, progressing and will continue to progress after the publication of the Sunningdale conference report. It is not possible to reconcile that process, which is about making a can-do civil service in which people are responsible for their actions, with the traditional doctrine of ministerial responsibility, which provides anonymity. Those different approaches are irreconcilable. We must 311WH confront that fact, because it is one of the major constitutional implications of the modernisation process.
The White Paper will come to be seen as an extremely important document and an extremely important moment in a longer process. I shall conclude on a wretchedly ungenerous note, for which I apologise. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire extolled the virtues of a leaner state. However, we have heard years of sterile argument between people on the left who say that we need a bigger state and people on the right who say that we need a smaller state, while all the time the real argument should have been about how we get a better state that does the things that it should be doing and does them well. That is the breakthrough that is expressed in the White Paper. It represents a kind of revolution, which is, typically, a quiet revolution.
§ Angela Smith (Basildon)
This is the first time that I have had the opportunity to speak in this Chamber, other than a brief intervention earlier in the week. I admit that I had reservations when it was first established, but those have now been put to rest. I have realised to my surprise that it has two great benefits. The first is to discover, when speaking, that Ministers have faces. Labour Members are used to looking at the backs of Ministers' necks. There is great benefit to be gained from seeing how the Minister's face changes as I talk. I hope that the smile on his face does not change to a frown too often.
The second benefit applies particularly to Conservative Members. When we speak in the main Chamber, with Labour Members on one side and Conservative Members on the other, shadow Ministers can look very lonely. Under these new arrangements, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) does not look nearly so lonely, having been deserted by his colleagues, because he is surrounded by Labour Members. Given the lack of Conservative Members attending the Public Administration Committee, however, he may be getting used to that.
I am surprised that some hon. Members do not fully embrace the White Paper and wish to move forward from it. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said, modernisation is about the quality of government and making better government. It is about the quality of service that we as Members of Parliament can provide for our constituents and the quality of delivery at every level of government. It is also about the public's ability to hold the Government and those in power to account.
Unless we believe that government does not matter, we must support the modernisation programme. Hon. Members may disagree with specific proposals, but we must look behind them to make sure that what really matters is what happens on the ground, how the public perceive them and how their lives are affected by them. What counts is not our debates here, and whether we wear top hats when we make points of order during a Division, or whether, with due deference to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White), laws should be printed on vellum or paper, 312WH but actions. What really matters is the quality of service that our constituents receive and whether they feel that the Government are listening to them. In recent debates on the Representation of the People Bill, we discussed how to increase voter turnout, but democracy is a far wider issue than that. That is why the White Paper is so welcome.
Hon. Members of my generation will recall Snoopy cartoons. I am a fond fan of Snoopy and I used to have a car sticker that said, "If you don't vote, don't crab"—that is, if you do not take part in the process, do not complain. We want people to take part in the process, but not just by voting or complaining about something; they should feel that they are relevant to the process and that someone is listening to them. They should engage in the political system.
I have been criticised by some of my colleagues because I am always saying to constituents, "Write to your MP. Let your MP know how you feel", and I have said it publicly. By performing even that basic action, people are engaging in the political process. I want my constituents to feel that the Government listen, that they are responsive to what they hear and act on it.
I was disappointed to see that, when my right hon. Friend the Minister was speaking, the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire, who was sitting with a colleague, laughed and derided the notion of the Government listening to women.
§ Mr. Lansley
It may help to explain that we were discussing the fact that the Government had once again stolen Conservative party policy, as found in our listening to Britain programme. We were not deriding the process, merely the Government's derivative character.
§ Angela Smith
The hon. Gentleman's history is at fault. I remember taking part in Labour's listening to women programme when I was selected as a candidate for my constituency of Basildon. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman's actions explain why his political hero is Norman Tebbit.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire complained earlier about regulations and the burdens on small businesses. He said that he wanted to look forward, not backwards, and that a future Conservative Government—I find hard to imagine such a thing—would get rid of regulations on business. I can understand why he did not want to look back and defend the previous Government's record. His colleague, the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo), said that his Government had passed volumes of new rules and laws interfering in almost every aspect of business and social life, so that might explain why the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire did not want to look back.
We must consider the response of public services and make it clear how much we value them. We rely on those in the front line to deliver the services that we debate and for which we legislate. We are dependent on public servants and we must ensure that they are responsive to the public. As Senator Robert Kennedy said, "Some people look at things and say, 'Why is that?' I look for things that could be and say, 'Why not?'" I may be paraphrasing, but that is the gist of it. We have to ask why not in the context of the White Paper.
313WH When my right hon. Friend the Minister was speaking about the different hurdles that we put in the way of people before they can get the services they need, he brought to mind a constituent of mine. She has a child with health problems that necessitated special educational support. The family also needed the help of a carer, respite care for their child and adaptations to their home. Every time the parents wanted support or help from a different agency they had to explain everything all over again. They dealt with health, social services and education departments separately, even though they are part of the same authority, with the district council and with the Benefits Agency. They had different forms to fill in and had to give the same information to many different people. It is unfair on families under such pressure to make them go through the hoops again and again. Why cannot one person visit them at home to make things easier for them? There was no lack of willingness to help in any of the agencies and there is no criticism of individuals, but the system made it dispiriting and difficult for them. There was no one place from which to obtain the information that they needed and they had to hunt it down.
I pay tribute to some of the voluntary organisations in my constituency. The community resource centre run by Maggie Viney and Linda Figg is a one-stop voluntary agency to which people can go for information, which is very helpful. I am impressed by the home start group, which was set up in the back room of the Barge pub in Basildon by Geraldine Evans, and taken over by Paula Burns. It is a one-stop shop to give people the information that they need. It, too, was undertaken voluntarily. We can learn a lot from what those people are doing and incorporate their ideas into a partnership.
Even in my constituency, people are not treated the same. The previous Government made a complete botch of local government reorganisation. That means that on opposite sides of the street people have to deal with different councils. In one case, there is a unitary authority, in another part of the constituency there is two-tier local government. Constituents find it hard to understand why someone just down the road has different delivery of services and different people to whom to talk. That must change. I welcome the Government's commitment to consultation, but the public will become increasingly wary of being consulted if there is no action at the end of the day. We must ensure that consultation is genuine and that action results from it.
I welcome the commitment in the White Paper to the people's panel. I hope that some of my constituents are involved in that project; if not, I can give the Minister a list of names and addresses of people he might like to include. The chief executive of my local authority told me about a man who complained constantly about the council. Some people thought that he was a bit of a nuisance, but the chief executive did not. He looked on the man as a resource, who told him what is happening, what people were moaning about and what they wanted to be done. We should use such resources: that man would be welcome on the people's panel.
I have been slow to grasp the benefits of new technology. I admit that it has taken me a long time to get to grips with e-mail and the internet. However, I was convinced that it was the right thing to do when I found the Widdy web on the internet, which contains a mile of 314WH information about the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe). It led me to set up my own website, although I shall not call it anything like the Widdy web.
We are not making the best use of the new technology. We should use it far more than we do, although not everyone has access to internet websites. I should point out that the Conservative party website keeps blocking my access to all sorts of things, such as press releases. It is a shame that the Conservative party does not practise what it preaches about freedom of information.
I welcome the report and the work that the Government are doing, but I want my constituents to know that we are a responsive Government; we do not just listen, we are committed to action. The White Paper takes us one step along that road.
§ Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate because the process of government is one that we would all do well to reflect upon. It is wholly appropriate that we are having a debate about modernisation in a modernised Chamber.
I make one suggestion about the arrangements: it was a rather surreal experience listening to the speech of the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) and seeing on the annunciator the name of my right hon. Friend and father, the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), speaking simultaneously in another place, if I may refer to it as that. If it were possible to have an annunciator that related to the proceedings of Westminster Hall, that would be an act of modernisation in itself.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire referred to failure in delivery. That does not appear to be the electorate's perception of the Government's success in the past two and a half years, to judge by the Labour party's lead in the polls. If that represents failure, please can we have a lot more of it from Ministers.
Let me be clear and frank: not all regulation is perfect, but some is necessary. It was unwise of the hon. Gentlemen to pick on the minimum wage, because one could not ask for a better example of regulation that is necessary in the interests of protecting the weak and vulnerable, of whom the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) rightly spoke. If my right hon. Friend the Minister achieves nothing else in the rest of his parliamentary career—I know that that will not be the case—he will go down in history as the person who did more than anyone else to give the people of this country the minimum wage. We are all grateful for that.
On targets and delivery, I think that the literacy and numeracy strategies are a perfect example of the case for a clear target. All hon. Members would agree on the need to improve literacy and numeracy, especially among those who are most disadvantaged by a lack of those skills when they leave school, and to provide a mechanism to deliver that improvement. I take this opportunity to place on record my congratulations to the teachers and head teachers in my constituency on their work in trying to achieve improvement.
I should like to refer to the role of special advisers, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for South 315WH Cambridgeshire. I should perhaps declare an interest as a former special adviser. Special advisers are a much maligned group. Every time there is a change of Government, the papers are full of tales of warning about this new group of politically motivated people who will subvert democracy, undermine the civil service and so on. One would not think for a minute that special advisers as a species have been around Whitehall for more than a quarter of a century, which makes them sound very ancient. We know that the special adviser is a peculiar form of civil servant—a point that was made forcefully to me when I opened my letter of appointment as a special adviser. It said that I was obliged to abide by the civil service code of conduct, but with two exceptions. First, I was exempt from the requirement that civil servants should not engage in party political activity, which is a recognition of the peculiar and particular role of special advisers. Secondly, the letter said rather pointedly that I was also exempt from the requirement that normally all civil servants should be appointed on merit. I did not take that personally.
The letter was a good way for the civil service machine to tell special advisers that they are rather different, as indeed they are. It is a typically British compromise. When there is a change of Government in other countries, the whole top tier of the civil service disappears and is replaced by a new set of people. In our British way, we have found a mechanism that gives Ministers in all Governments the support that they need to achieve their objectives, while recognising that Ministers, special advisers and civil servants have different roles. Arguments about politicisation of the civil service do not, therefore, stand up to scrutiny, and provided that each of the players understands his or her different roles, advisers help Governments of all parties to achieve their objectives.
I want to make two brief points. First, I should like to reflect on the fact that government is about the relationship between Government and the governed. We stand on the edge of the new millennium, never mind of the period in office of the previous Conservative Government. Some big changes have occurred during the past millennium, such as the end of the absolute right of kings. Poor old Canute discovered that his writ did not run to the sea. The whole of the thousand years has been about people who thought that they had power—and in some cases did—coming to terms with the desire of people who live in the same country to have some say over that country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) mentioned the people's panel, which is a great innovation. One could probably have described the barons at Runnymede as the first manifestation of the people's panel to which King John found himself having to justify his power. My serious point is that government today faces the challenge of a much better educated and informed society. That is a healthy challenge to face, and it manifests itself in all sorts of forms.
I was speaking recently to a general practitioner. Patients may now see their doctor, having obtained on the internet printed information about their condition and about new forms of treatment, and, although not medical equals, engage in an informed discussion. All hon. Members will be familiar with the use of such 316WH information in the worlds in which we operate. It is healthy, and it creates a challenge for the way in which government works. People will argue with us as equals, and information is at the heart of the new relationship.
The first challenge that the White Paper addresses, taking account of that fundamental fact, is the form that government will take in the next century. Information is the key—the Government must have information to be able to target resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) commented on the comprehensive spending review process. I saw part of that process from the inside because of my former role. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase noted, the arguments are largely about what money is to be spent on and what will be received in return. That is wholly positive. In addition, the electorate want information to challenge us and our decisions. That is an essential part of the accountability of which other hon. Members spoke and a part of the openness in government to which we all aspire.
Occasionally—the food safety scare is a good example—the trick for the Government might be to say, "Here is the information and the advice from the chief scientific officer. We are no more scientifically qualified than you are; there might be a small risk. As adult members of our society, you can make a judgment using the information." The debate is interesting. People might come to the Government and ask whether 100 per cent. safety can be absolutely guaranteed, but we could not truthfully offer such a guarantee. Sharing information with people and allowing them to make decisions would be a step forward.
The second challenge—I say this with some feeling, having been elected for the constituency of Leeds, Central on an extremely low by-election turnout—is that there is another group in society. Some members of that group, whether through circumstances or by choice, are disengaged from the process of government. We knock on their doors, but they are not interested—they do not see the relevance to their lives of what we do and they are not convinced that the Government can make a difference. That is also an accountability issue.
We must recognise that modern government is an increasingly complex business. One reason why Governments have established organisations such as agencies, arm's-length bodies and task forces is that that is a way of managing the complex process. The weakness of our party political system is that it tends to encourage a five-yearly auction with the electorate. If we were being perfectly honest, we would accept that we tended to say, "Whatever your problems are, we will solve them if you vote for us." We know that that is not the reality and we probably do the process of efficient government a disservice.
The good example of risk has been mentioned. If one wishes civil servants to take more risks, one must be prepared to live with the consequences of failure. We know what the political process does under those circumstances—the Opposition see it as their job to say that the Government have failed and are not competent, and that a Minister should resign. That is not necessarily the best way to act. The question of policy advice is also relevant to the issue of freedom of information and we must reflect on that.
317WH The process is not necessarily comfortable for us as politicians. Sharing power, information and accountability can be hard. I am not sufficiently naive to think that party politics will ever be written out of the script. At its best, it sharpens the nature of debate and the choices that we must make as elected politicians. However, it is worth recognising the limitations that it can create.
The most important feature of the White Paper is that it is open to the challenges that modernising government will create for us all in the next century; we may not yet have all the answers.
§ Mr Neil Turner (Wigan)
I was anxious to speak, even if only for some catharsis, because I seem to have spent the past two or three years doing nothing but talking about modernising government. That was about local government, however. While a councillor, I was the chairman of the best value panel introducing best value to Wigan. As a result of holding that post, I was a leading member of the team modernising the way in which the council acted, in advance of the Local Government Bill currently being considered in the other place. I was also a member of the Local Government Association's quality panel and so was involved in establishing the project to improve local government. I shall mention that later.
I was interested to get the White Paper off the internet. I should confess, in light of the Freedom of Information Bill, that that was done for me. I read it avidly, which may raise one or two eyebrows, but I do have a large number of anoraks at home. In contrast to previous Governments, I was struck by the commitment to public service and public servants. That is not an aside, but central to the whole process. Chapter 4, entitled "Quality public services", begins:This Government believes in the public service and public servants.Chapter 6 states:Public service has for too long been neglected, undervalued and denigrated. It has suffered from a perception that the private sector was always best and the public sector was always inefficient. The Government rejects these prejudices.That is right. I was a little surprised to hear the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) reject that. He is infected with the same collective amnesia as the rest of his party. I am not alone in thinking that their local government legislation was a wholesale attack on public service and public servants.
I was really sold on best value in Wigan. The chief executive told me that there were 75 cross-departmental organisations in Wigan council. Some were administrative groups led by public servants, but many should have had member involvement. That sold me on the need for best value and the involvement of members in scrutinising issues. I was keen on releasing the talent of public servants in local and central Government by turning from a blame culture to a "learn from our mistakes" culture. That meant admitting mistakes but not saying, "It's your fault." That would allow us to learn from mistakes and to ensure a better future.
I laid down and agreed the approach for Wigan. However, the last thing that I said was, "We've got it wrong. We have to recognise that there is no way that we 318WH can sit down here and get all this right at the first attempt." We did not know where we had gone wrong; that would only come out when the new process was put into practice. I quickly found out that a major reason why it was not working was that we overloaded people. We put the scrutiny role of best value above normal council activities.
One issue that is relevant to best value is that of inspectorates. There are a lot of inspectorates. They suck talent out of local government by employing people at high salaries. We need to remember the adage, "You do not fatten the pig by constantly measuring its size." It is important that the people who do the work are recognised as being important. That is where the best value lies.
I mentioned the improvement project. The Local Government Association established that project and the improvement and development agency to improve local authorities. The approach is to assist, criticise, examine weaknesses and strengths and to suggest ways forward. That approach is rightly replicated in the White Paper. However, we should be careful because some parts of government use the name and shame approach as the first option. Naming and shaming is demotivating and should be used as the last resort.
I was involved in two week-long projects, one in Mansfield in November and the other in Hull in March, which shows dedication bordering on, if not insanity, at least martyrdom. Those projects were very interesting and valuable. Once the improvement project has suggested improvements, it will review the situation six or nine months later to see how local authorities have followed up the points that it made. That is an important part of the process.
Last Friday, I was in my constituency helping colleagues at the council to consider how to deal with the modernising programme and the structures that need to be put in place following enactment of the Local Government Bill. One of the issues raised by hon. Members during consideration of that Bill was the question of secrecy, referred to in questions 35 and 36 of the Public Administration Committee's report. The issue centres on policy development. Some see that as a major issue and an innate part of the whole process, but I do not see it in that way. It is important that we recognise that it is a problem, but a problem that can be resolved. The important thing is to ensure that the whole council is involved in policy development, and that it is not left to the executive to decide policy in secret and hand it down as if it were written on tablets of stone. Policy must be decided by the whole council, and the cabinet or executive must execute that agreed policy. Then we can follow the scrutiny role, learning lessons on the way, in order to develop policy that accurately reflects the needs of the people in any particular local authority.
Another important aspect of our actions—this is relevant to the modernising government agenda at not only local but national level—was to recognise that it is important not only to think about internal structures but to develop links. That is recognised in chapter 3, which refers to responsive public services asgenuine partnerships between those providing services and those using them.It is essential that we develop those wider partnerships, as we are doing in Wigan. We are ensuring that voluntary organisations, such as Age Concern, for 319WH example, are involved in services for the infirm. In developing sporting facilities and our sports field strategy, we are involving local football and rugby clubs. We involve representatives from business, such as the chambers of commerce and training and enterprise councils when considering how to retain businesses in the authority and how to bring in new businesses. Local agencies, such as the police, the health trust and health authority, and neighbouring authorities and central agencies, such as the Benefits Agency, need to be brought together to provide services. Those partnerships must not operate in isolation, so that there is one partnership with social services and another with young people, because they are interconnected. We need to create a matrix of relationships that can feed into the community plan, which is an integral part of the best value process, and into policy development for the community.
I welcome the moves to exchange public servants because it is important to build up personal relationships so that people can learn from others' experiences of working in health authorities and local and central Government in order to give them a better understanding of how all those government organisations that serve the people can relate to each other and feed back their experiences so that there is a wider understanding throughout. It can be difficult to break down barriers, but it is essential that we do so.
I hope that the modernisation process described in the White Paper is not party political. It will happen as e-commerce, e-mail and electronic communication come about. This modernising White Paper tackles those subjects by ensuring that the services that we provide are more relevant to the people who use them than they were in the past. It is important that we welcome the White Paper and make it work.
§ 5 pm
§ Mr. Lansley
With the leave of the Chamber, I should like to capture a few of the issues before the Parliamentary Secretary responds to the debate. The White Paper and the debate raised some important issues. I shall reflect on two or three of them and provide some focus for our views on the subject before the Minister replies.
I am not sure who the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) will see on the annunciator now, but at least he explained the paucity of support behind me. I am honest enough to admit that my right hon. and hon. Friends would rather listen to his right hon. Friend and father, the Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), than to me. That clearly explains why they were not in Westminster Hall.
The hon. Gentleman rightly mentioned the relationship between Government and government. He is right to say that things have changed dramatically in the last millennium. We are only 90 ft from the place where the country has been governed, in some form at least, for 900 years. Much has changed but, in some respects, much is the same.
Not long ago, the right hon. Member for Upper Bann (Mr. Trimble) talked about the devolved character of the constitution. Anyone who has taken part in local 320WH government, like the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), will know that devolved administration has a longer and, in some respects, more honourable, history in this country than central Government.
I take issue with the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright): it is not a matter of better government as distinct from big or small government. I do not regard small government as an ideological pursuit. I confess that there were occasions in the past when we fell prey to it—I think especially of the Conservative Administration's relationship with local government. We wanted the kind of control in which central Government said, "We know what should be happening, we know what ought to be done, we don't want people to interfere with our prescription. We want them to do what we tell them to do or we won't let them do it at all." Down that path lies big government. My view, and that of my party, is that whatever the history, we still see small government as not an abandonment of the public by Government but as a place where the Government base their solutions not on central prescription but on local leadership, ownership and control. That means, not that local communities, especially if they are outside the public sector in the charity, voluntary or private sector, have less accountability, but that the performance measures, which determine what is being done, what should be done and what should be the priorities of local government or local community activity, are not set from the centre.
That brings me to the White Paper. It should not be about having such a powerful mechanism of central management control that it takes over the setting of priorities.
§ Dr. Tony Wright
The hon. Gentleman is genuinely confused. The issue of the size of government is different from the issue of the manner in which government should operate. In his speech the hon. Gentleman argued about the size of government. He is now describing issues that relate to how government operates.
§ Mr. Lansley
I may be confused; it happens often. The Minister of State will no doubt quote that back to me in future. I do not think that there is a direct relationship between the manner of government and the amount of government, but if central Government are not disarmed, if excessive control of regulation, tax, activities and legislation is not wrested from them, there will never be local ownership and control.
There are specific issues—as well as the broad, conceptual ones—which I am sure the Minister will also want to discuss. We have not referred to it today, but in the context of the White Paper there was a Government pledge to put the civil service code of conduct on a statutory footing. Does the Minister propose to take any action on that?
There is also the issue of technology. I was worried that the White Paper's big idea is not the character of government, which we have been discussing, but technology. That should not be its big idea. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) mentioned, for example, electronic data interchange. One can get hooked on particular technological solutions, but many 321WH businesses in my constituency, which are at the cutting edge of some of these technologies, went into electronic data interchange, found it extraordinarily difficult to arrive at common standards with their customers and suppliers, so moved on to an internet-based system. Will the Minister confirm that the technological solutions that we are talking about will be flexible rather than rigid? We must not use a technology simply because it is available.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase asked a question about the Post Office. Without debating the origins and conclusions of the Horizon project, it is important to recognise that, in its absence, there is a question about access to services, particularly in rural areas such as the one that I represent. The Post Office has been an important source of that access, as the hon. Gentleman rightly said. I hope that Ministers will consider not only technological access but physical access. By providing the latter, post offices also give social support.
The hon. Member for Cannock Chase also talked about freedom of information. He will probably accuse me of further confusion, but I was a civil servant for eight years under a Conservative Administration and I never felt myself to be especially undervalued.
§ Mr. White
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that many people, myself included, left the civil service in the 1980s—around the time that he was a member of it—because we felt that it was being politicised?
§ Mr. Lansley
I did not leave the civil service because I felt undervalued; I left because I wished to pursue a political career—not inside the civil service, which is a danger if it becomes too politicised. I recognised that I had to leave it to pursue a political career.
Much is said about civil service secondment. Rather than promoting too high a level of interchange between the civil service and the private sector, the civil service is extraordinarily good at recruiting, training and giving people responsibility at an early stage. People in the civil service should be encouraged to have a genuine interchange into the private sector—not secondment, with all the protections that go with it, but a genuine interchange with the possibility of coming back, perhaps five or 10 years later, with private sector experience. The combination of civil service and private sector experience can create just those people who might be most appropriate for the highest levels of administration.
Finally, I turn to the issue of accountability and modernisation. We must recognise that, if we choose to have activities in the public sector—leaving aside the debate about what should be in the public sector—they are there for a reason. In our view, they are in the public sector because of the accountability that needs to flow with that decision. I can give an example from my constituency. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food chose to transfer an asset out to the private sector, saying that the same legal rights attached to that asset in the private sector as in the public sector. But, of course, the choice of legal rights is not the end of the story; there is the question of accountability for what is done with that asset in future. That accountability has now been lost. That issue is at the heart, not just of the 322WH structure of the civil service, but of the accountability of government as a whole. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point, too.
§ 5.9 pm
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Graham Stringer)
I am pleased to be speaking for the first time in this Room and to reply in a Government-sponsored debate. I hope that you will know when I am standing and sitting, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall do my best to ensure that you do.
I spent much of my adult life in a horseshoe-shaped chamber and it does not necessarily lead to consensus. In Manchester city council I participated in debates that were at least as vicious as the most vicious debates in the House—
§ Mr. Ian McCartney
And that was just in the Labour group.
§ Mr. Stringer
Yes. I hope that we have a different experience in this Room, but horseshoes and consensus do not necessarily go together.
I shall start by responding to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), who made a thoughtful speech and showed himself to be a thoroughly modern hon. Member. He encapsulated the White Paper when he referred to putting the public service back together and making it accountable, which was an accurate interpretation.
My experience as a member of the public and a councillor 30 years ago was that local government and central Government services were not accountable. An elected councillor could not easily change housing policy. The examples that were given time and again during the late 1970s concerned simple things. It was not possible to introduce a policy allowing people to paint their own front door in a colour that they wanted.
The same was true of the national health service. In theory, the Secretary of State for Health was responsible for everything from the butcher to, in Aneurin Bevan's words, emptying the chamber pots. If people had difficulties with their local hospital or major hospitals, it was very difficult for them to get a response.
I examined the White Paper through the eyes of my constituents. Approximately £150 million of local government money is spent in my constituency and a similar amount is spent there by central Government. I listen to my constituents' problems concerning information, vandalism and a range of other matters, but approximately £300 million of public expenditure is locked up. A new phrase, which has not been mentioned during our debate but is common among officials and officers of the Local Government Association, is that it is locked up in silence. It may not be with local government or central Government, but it is locked up in voluntary sector bodies, local government bodies, central Government bodies and so on.
If there is a problem with vandalism, the cause and effect may involve environmental health officials, housing officials, police, truancy officers, educational welfare officers and a whole range of people. Dealing with a simple, regular problem may be difficult because of the way in which services are organised now. The 323WH same is true of people in the benefits system, who often require information about benefits and how they relate to other factors in their lives. They may go from one building to another trying to find that information. That is one of the five key messages in the White Paper. The others are that we need long-term policy rather than short-term responses to policy; that we want responsive, high-quality services; that we want information technology to be used to get such information; and, most importantly, that we must publicise the fact that we want a debate about the best way in which to deliver services and the fact that we value the services that the people who work in the public sector provide.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner) said that, for most of the previous 18 years, people who worked in public services felt that they were second-rate citizens. They were regularly denigrated and told that they were inefficient. Compulsory competitive tendering did much to destabilise the situation, and although it often lowered costs, it did not necessarily produce greater efficiency. The Government should not mirror the policies of the Conservative Government, who said, "Private good, public bad." We should reverse that approach, specify what is appropriate and value those who are in the public sector.
The least serious point that was made by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell)—it detracted from his otherwise serious speech—was about the policy of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister towards teachers. To say that one values the public sector and those who work in it does not mean that one believes that there should be no change or that one will not, from time to time, enter into dialogue with those in the public sector. If the hon. Gentleman reads my right hon. Friend's speech, he will realise that the Prime Minister said that 90-odd per cent. of teachers—my right hon. Friend did not give an exact figure—were doing an extraordinarily good job.
The hon. Gentleman's next point involved arguing that everyone should be paid much more. That is standard Liberal Democrat policy and I do not blame him for that approach. I presume that all the extra money that will go to nurses and teachers—and to many others—will come from his party's proposed 1p on income tax. He also said that he wanted the basic structure of pay in those services to remain the same. However, it is obvious to everyone who thinks seriously about the matter that if people are doing a good job they should have incentives—financial or otherwise—and receive rewards.
§ Mr. Stunell
Does not the Minister recognise that there is a serious problem with morale and recruitment in the medical and the teaching professions? A significant part of the problem involves their feeling that the Government do not value their contribution to the public sector.
§ Mr. Stringer
The hon. Gentleman is discussing what is left over from 18 years of Conservative Government. He makes precisely my point—that there has been poor morale in the public sector. However, the initiatives that have been taken by my right hon. Friend the Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) have 324WH resulted in record numbers of nurses returning to the health service. We could discuss other parts of the public sector, where there have been similar experiences. People recognise that this Government are different from the previous Government.
I shall probably disappoint my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase by referring him to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for a detailed discussion of the Freedom of Information Bill. The discussion that he wants to have is beyond the scope of this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Mr. White) made several interesting, relevant and thoughtful points. His comments on how long pilot schemes should run and how they should be integrated into local government have been made regularly by the Local Government Association, which has discussed pilot schemes and action zones. The Government's position is that some solutions are better determined locally, and others nationally. Action zones and pilot schemes are partly intended to function as experiments and to establish what will work. There have been so many interesting and relevant points raised that it will be impossible to respond to them all. However, I will ensure that my hon. Friend receives a letter about any that I do not pick up.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn) spoke eloquently about matters in his constituency and how they related to democracy and the delivery of service. He pinpointed the alienation and social exclusion experienced by those known to many of us who represent inner-city areas. The social exclusion unit has been set up precisely to help us understand those problems.
We cannot afford, as a society, to allow people to be socially excluded. It is not simply a matter of the cost to society. It is a disgrace in a modern society when so many people decide that they have no interest in voting or in participating at any level—be it at the jobs level or any other. That often leads to drug taking, through cause and effect. We are studying all those issues, so that we can obtain a joined-up policy response to them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Angela Smith) was basically supportive of the Government's policy and of the White Paper, but raised an issue that had not been mentioned by other hon. Members. It is another core issue in the White Paper—that of consultation. There cannot be a more over-used word than "consultation". Everyone is in favour of it, but they find it difficult to define. Some people, when asked about consultation, mean the transfer of power to the consultees. Others see it as a process of handing over information to people.
It is important that consultation should take place, and that the consulters and the consultees should understand what the exchange is about before they go any further. That is the case whether the exchange is about the transfer of power—which is rare—or about setting the limits of a policy within which to work, eliciting another's views on the matter, and stating how those views will be taken into account. That is the core of good consultation, and I agree with my hon. Friend on that point.
325WH The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) raised many points, and one would need about an hour and half in which to respond to them. I shall try to go through them as quickly as I can.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. The hon. Gentleman has eight minutes.
§ Mr. Stringer
I understand that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is why I shall reply in writing to the hon. Gentleman on any points that I miss.
It was a bit rich of the hon. Gentleman to talk about not having joined-up government, when the Conservative party must be the most non-joined-up party of this century. It is so non-joined-up that it has decided to exclude the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) from the London mayoral contest although she supports her party's policy on section 28, yet support an ex-Member of Parliament in the contest who does not agree with its policy. It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman can talk about joined-up government, given that that is his party's record.
The hon. Gentleman asked in his winding-up speech about the civil service code. The legislation to put that code into law is not necessary to implement the White Paper. It is still Government policy to put the code into law, but that will have to wait for its space in the legislative timetable.
The hon. Gentleman, like the hon. Member for Hazel Grove, made a serious point about people being excluded by new technology, and the fact that some of the big projects simply have not worked. I probably know more about national air traffic control systems than I do about the projects that were mentioned. There are so many projects that we probably missed one or two. Because we do not want people to be excluded from technology, £500 million has been invested in learning centres. Libraries will stock 100,000 computers that can be taken out on loan, just as one borrows a book. That is part of modernising government and of not excluding people from services and a modern society.
On the issue of big projects and people's exclusion from new technology, it is true that some people will always be excluded. For example, about 98 per cent.—not 100 per cent.—of people in this country own a telephone. The important point is to include as many people as one can. The alternative is to do nothing and 326WH stay as we are, but a society that uses the internet cannot afford to do that. We must ensure that people have access to computers and new technology.
Major IT projects such as the National Air Traffic Services system—if it works—will greatly increase air capacity. A passport system that works would provide quicker access to passports. One could list many such benefits. The Cabinet Office is looking at why those projects have failed in the past, so that they do not fail in future. We cannot turn our faces to history and say, "Well, the old system worked, but the most recent one did not, so we shall go back to the old one." That would not deliver the service that we want.
The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire talked about regulation, but he did not say why the number of regulatory orders that were passed after the right hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) had cut and burned as much red tape as he could was virtually the same as before he started, and virtually the same as was passed by this Government. Regulation is important. Most people want to be protected by it, but they do not want unnecessary regulation. The important concept is proportionate regulation. The Government are determined not to introduce regulation that is disproportionate. Where existing regulation is not proportionate, we shall get rid of it. It is not good policy to say "Forget what we did". During the previous Conservative Administration, no one could accuse the right hon. Member for Henley of being less than ideologically determined to get rid of as much red tape as he could.
I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. It was extraordinary to hear a Conservative spokesman say that conservatives now want as much decentralisation as possible. We are now to believe that they are the champions of local democracy. Many people in this Chamber served on local councils at a time when it was the previous Government's policy increasingly to privatise and to centralise control. By 1997, this country had become the most centralised in western Europe. It is part of this Government's policy to modernise the country that the previous Government left in such a mess.
The "Modernising government" White Paper is central to improving the quality of people's lives. I thank hon. Members for participating in this debate.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Five o'clock.