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Mr. Bacon: The Government closed down individual learning accounts on 23 November. The National Audit Office is investigating the matter and hopes to publish a report later this summer, perhaps by May, so that it can be discussed by the Committee before the summer recess. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is a model of how we should do things in the future?
Another matter that we might want to discuss in changing the structure of the Committee is a way of asking a further set of questions. We each have a quarter of an hour in which to ask our questions and although the Chairman is very good about sometimes allowing us back in at the end of the session, it would be useful to have a second go. We may think of something that has come up as a result of other members' questions to the witnesses.
Occasionally we may need a second hearing. There was one occasion recently, which I shall refer to later, when we had a second hearing on the same subject. Recently we were discussing whether we might need another second hearing when it seemed that a witness had been a bit misleading and needed to be called back. There may be a case for having occasional second hearings as well.
We might need to think more about whether members should have a chance to discuss the recommendations that come out of the hearing. At present, we have our hearing and the NAO drafts a report with the Chairman as to what recommendations they think should come out of the hearing. The recommendations come before us as a draft and are often passed more or less on the nod. When it comes to making recommendations, the influence of individual members is not that great.
I should like to talk about the powers of the NAO. This comes out of one of the reports that we were discussing on the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 and the Government report on the investigation into audit arrangements by Lord Sharman. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will allow me, in discussing this, to talk a little about the BBC, as the sixth report of the 2000-2001 session gives its response to the Sharman report which covered the BBC. There is a good case for increasing the powers of the NAO, as the Sharman report proposed. I hope that the Government will take due account of the Sharman reportafter all, they set it up. Sometimes, sadly, Governments set up reports and then pigeonhole them and forget about them for a long time. I hope that that will not happen with the Sharman report, because there are strong arguments for increasing the powers of the NAO to investigate all areas of Government spending of taxpayers' money, not least the areas mentioned by the Chairmanthe civil list, the Financial Services Authority and the BBC. I find it extraordinary that the BBC's accounts are not audited by the NAO. There is every reason for that to happen.
Some people have argued, in response to Sharman, that many private sector auditors are at least as good and effective as the NAO and that we can trust them. I have no doubt that many private sector auditors are extremely good at their job. However, it is worth remembering what happened at Enron. At least one very well known private sector auditor seems to have gone way off the rails not only in failing to audit Enron properly in the first instance but then, when things turned out to have gone badly wrong and the audits were found to have been a failure, in apparently starting to shred some of the papers to hide the evidence. If that can be done by an audit company of the quality and prestige of Andersens, I hate to think about what goes on in the private sector audit world. There are better arguments than ever for saying that when taxpayers' money is at risk, we ought to have our parliamentary auditors, the NAO, in charge of the audit.
Mr. George Osborne: Is it not also a case of democratic accountability? We are talking about public money, and Parliament, which is the representative of the people, should be able to hold the BBC to account for the way it spends its money so that we can see whether BBC News 24, for example, which costs tens of millions of pounds, is money well spent.
I should like to go through a few of the reports and highlight some of our most important findings. Unless I was not listening hard enough, I do not think that either of the two previous speakers mentioned the sheep annual premium report. A very interesting point came out of that report. We heard that some of our farmers tried to flout the rules on the sheep annual premium. In some cases, for example, they reported to the Government that sheep had been stolen and tried to claim for them. It later turned out that they did not report the theft of these sheep to the police. They had simply disappeared, for some reason. That raised queries as to the real status of the sheep.
In other cases, farmers had their sheep counted on one side of the hillside, knowing very well that those doing the counting would have to drive the long way round to get to the other side. Meanwhile, the sheep went over the top of the hill and were duly counted on the other side as well. I am not suggesting that that sort of thing was widespread, but it was going on.
The witnesses made the interesting point that we are inclined to believe that we are the only ones who obey the rules coming out of Brussels and the European Union. We believe that those rules are purely for our benefit, because we obey them and everybody else ignores them. In fact, it was clear from what we heard that every country in the EU believes that it alone obeys the rules and that every other country ignores them. Some of those who inveigh against the rules coming out of Brussels and like to pretend that ours is the only country that always obeys them might like to consider that every other country in the EU holds that belief.
The important report on hospital-acquired infection has already been mentioned. The potential saving of £150 million has also been mentioned. That shows how much we need to do something about the problem. I do not think that the two previous speakers mentioned that recently there have been reports of whole wards, if not hospitals, being closed down by viruses that have taken hold. That indicates that the problem that we highlighted some time ago is still with us, and that savings can still be made.
The interesting point to come out of the report on hip replacements was, as the Chairman said, the lack of co-ordination between the various trusts. The PAC has been saying that we do not have joined-up government, nor do we have joined-up hospitals and trusts. We found that some hospitals discovered that a particular type of hip replacement material worked better than others, yet that information had not been sufficiently spread around the whole health service. As a result, some hospitals continued to use old implants and materials which had been proved less successful. That shows the need for a joined-up health service.
The Government response to the Chinook report came out this year. We now know that this is a topical issue because on 5 February we expect the report from the House of Lords Committee which was set up partly in response to our PAC work on the issue. We do not yet know what it will say, but from the types of witnesses it has called and recalled at least some indications are that it will take a rather different view from the Government's. I hope very much that it does.
The Government have always argued that they cannot possibly change the decision of the initial inquiry because there is no new evidence. That inquiry itself changed its conclusion between the initial decision taken at the bottom level by the people who did the work, who decided the pilots could not be blamed, and the air commodore at the top who decided that the pilots were to blame. Yet there was no new evidence between the initial decision at the bottom level and the top level decision. Already, the Ministry of Defence has changed its decision without new evidence. For the Government to pretend that they cannot override that decision and reach a different conclusion without new evidence is thus contradictory.
I hope that the Lords report will give the Government a face-saving way of withdrawing from the obdurate way in which they have faced the issue until now. I strongly believe that whether the pilots were to blame or not, there is no proof that they were to blame, and that is the issue. The tenor of these reports is that in such cases the pilots should never be blamed unless there is absolute proof that they were undoubtedly to blame.
There are a number of different possible causes of the Chinook accident, including the malfunction of the full authority digital electronic control, or FADEC, system. Another possible cause, raised by one of my constituents, could be the late change of weather conditions in the area around the Mull of Kintyre. My constituent, who used to be involved in these things himself, pointed out that in the old days pilots taking off on this sort of mission would have a face-to-face meeting with the meteorologists so that they could be told not just what the overall weather pattern was, but in more detail what likely changes they might meet during their flight. That no longer happens. There may be a case for saying that it should have happened and that if it had happened, the accident would never have taken place. If that is so, this is another case of a Government cut leading to a disastrous consequence. That point, too, weighs against any suggestion that there is absolute proof that the pilots were to blame.
Sadly, I was not at the hearing for the in-patient administration, bed management and discharge report, so I hesitate to say too much about it, but I attended the meeting at which the report was discussed. Clearly, major costs are involved. The major lesson from this is that if
One of the difficulties with this whole issue is that funding for social services comes from local authorities while funding for the health service comes from the Government, although local authorities get a lot of their funding from Government too, so the position is not quite so clear cut as one might think. The difficulty of two sources of funding going in two different ways demonstrates once again a lack of joined-up government. It is good news that this Government have put such emphasis on the need for joined-up government, but in this case at least they have not yet properly resolved that problem.
It might be odd for me, as an instigator of the NAO report on SERPS, to allow the debate to pass without commenting on that report. I doubt whether a PAC report has ever led to such a large-scale change of Government policy in financial terms. We are talking about a policy change worth some £12 billiona huge sum. The PAC can be proud of its efforts, first, to highlight the scandal of SERPS for widows, and secondly to refuse to accept the Government's first attempt to redress the balance. The fact that we hammered away at it and insisted on a better solution to the problem is to our credit. Many people throughout the country will benefit from the way in which we forced the Government to change their plan.
It would also be unusual for me to allow this debate to pass without mentioning the English Heritage report. We had a double hearing on it. Although the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) might think this is a minor matter, the hearing was fascinating, perhaps because it was the sleaziest subject of all that we came up against. We discovered that Sir Jocelyn Stevens, who had been chairman of English Heritage, had persuaded his board to allow Kenwood House, a public
What was worse was that when the chief executive of English Heritage was asked whether the donation had been made and said that it had, on the first occasion she failed to reveal, first, that it had only just been made, and then only in response to a letter from her to theby thenex-chairman, pointing out that the donation had not yet been made and asking whether it was not about time that it was made, since the PAC hearing was about to take place. Secondly, she failed to reveal that although the donation had been made, it had been made not by the ex-King but by the ex-chairman of English Heritagean extraordinary story. Rightly, the PAC decided to bring the chief executive back for a second hearing when the story became clear. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, the former chief executive of English Heritage is no longer its chief executive.
We also had a hearing on the blood service. It became clear that volunteers who gave blood were not being properly treated by the blood service, and that some were inevitably being put off as a result. We cannot afford to put off volunteers who give their time and their blood to the national health service. There has been a failure to care for them, in that they often queue for a long time. They sometimes have to wait around for so long that their cars exceed car parking times, but they receive no help to pay any parking fine, although I understand that such help is given in some other parts of the health service. So if volunteers are kept waiting too long they have to pay fines in addition to giving their blood voluntarily.
Although the recommendation that something be done was fully accepted, people are still being kept waiting for long periods. I know of a young man who recently went to give blood for the first time. On arrival he told the assistant, in answer to a question, that he had recently been on holiday in Mexico, among other places. The assistants failed to tell him straight away, "I am sorry, but because of the malarial problem you cannot give blood now; we would love to have you back in six months." He waited two hours to reach the front of the queue, at which point he was sent home because his blood could not be taken. That is not the way to treat volunteers if you want to encourage people to give of their own blood freely for the sake of the wider community. The fact that that was still happening a week or so ago shows that, despite our recommendation, we have not yet been able to cure the original problem.
Repeatedly, very large computer projects have gone wrong. We should draw from that experience two lessons, which we have discussed in the PAC. The first lesson is that in a massive computer project, the chance that somewhere in the project something will go wrong that
The second lesson is that the bigger a computer project is, the harder it is to transfer the risk to the private sector if it is being run as a PFI project. If, two years down the track, with a year to go before the policy must be implemented according to the law that is introducing the new scheme of social services, tax or whatever, one suddenly discovers that the major computer project simply does not work, what can one dopass it over to a new computer firm? Of course not. A new firm would not have nearly enough time to write a new computer programme to implement the policy. The only thing that can be done is to pour more and more money and resources into the firm that has already shown that it is not running a good project, to help it get that project up and running in time. So, far from the risk's being passed to the private sector, the risk often remains with the Government. The bigger the computer project, the greater the likelihood that that will happen.
I appeal to the GovernmentI hope that they will listento try to modularise their computer projects into smaller, bite-sized chunks, although "bite-sized" is probably the wrong word to use when talking about computers. I hope that that approach will enable the Government to overcome some of the problems that arise when one failure in a massive project causes the entire project to go wrong, as has happened in one case that the Committee Chairman mentioned, or when, as has happened in other cases, a lot more money has to be poured in to ensure that the problem is overcome entirely.