HC Deb 22 July 1991 vol 195 cc763-78

4 pm

The Prime Minister (Mr. John Major)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the citizens charter White Paper.

The Government have consistently extended competition to raise standards and to give the citizen wider choice. We have introduced privatisation and competitive tendering, reforms to give new choice in health and education, and measures to give new opportunities in housing. These have worked to the benefit of the consumer. The White Paper that I am introducing today will build on those measures.

Action will be expected from all public services on a number of fronts. First, I shall deal with standards. We will expect public bodies to publish explicit standards of performance and the results that they actually achieve. Targets will be set for improvement year by year. Secondly, on accountability, full, accurate information must be made readily available, in plain understandable language, about services provided. We will make it simpler to compare the performance of one body against another. That will put pressure on each to emulate the best and provide consumers with a basis for making choice. Except where their safety is threatened, public servants should no longer be anonymous. We will expect them to identify themselves to the public, by the giving of names on the telephone or in letters and, where appropriate, by the wearing of name badges.

Thirdly, in the area of redress, where problems occur people are entitled to an explanation, and to know what to do. Avenues for complaint should be well publicised and simple, and when that does not suffice, there should be clear routes to compensation or redress.

The citizens charter initiative will cover all our public services, as well as those large utilities which are now in the private sector. It is the widest ranging and most comprehensive ever undertaken by Government. It will involve more privatisation, wider competition, further contracting out, pay more related to performance, published performance targets—local and national, comprehensive information on standards achieved, more effective complaints procedures, tougher and more independent inspectorates and auditing, and better redress for the citizen when things go badly wrong. The citizen is also a taxpayer. Public services must give value for money within the tax bill that the nation can afford.

The White Paper is only the beginning of the charter process. Nevertheless, it contains well over 70 specific measures to raise standards in public service. I shall set out some of the main measures in the White Paper, the first of which is on education. I commend to the House two old-fashioned concepts which are the benchmarks of success—reports and results. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I say to the Opposition, particularly those who sit on the Front Bench, that they really should give a lead and set an example to their Back Benchers.

The Prime Minister

They do give a lead—that is the point.

I repeat, I commend to the House two old-fashioned concepts that are the benchmarks of success—reports and results. From the new school year, parents will be guaranteed a school report on their child's progress. Parents have a right to be able to discuss this progress with their children's teachers, and we shall ensure they know how to exercise that right. We shall also require schools to publish in standard format results achieved, and we shall ensure that tables comparing schools on a number of measures are published locally, and not just on exam results.

There will also be significant reform of schools inspection. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) will be publishing detailed proposals later this summer, but I can tell the House today that there will be regular inspection of all schools, carried out with the help of independent people from outside, as well as inside, the education profession. Results of inspections will be distributed to parents. Tougher, more rigorous inspection will be the result.

I move, secondly, to housing. This Government have given new rights to millions of householders, but we are determined that those who remain in public sector housing should secure a better deal. For housing associations, there will be a stronger tenants' guarantee. For council tenants, we shall update and improve the tenants charter that we first published 10 years ago. We shall examine ways to simplify and to strengthen the procedures giving tenants a right to have small but urgent repairs done speedily. We are ensuring that they receive proper information on the standards of service that they can expect. For the first time, we shall consider bids directly from tenants on the worst run estates who want to form housing action trusts. No longer will the improvement of their estates be frustrated by the opposition of the local council.

We are particularly concerned at the low standard of management of housing. We shall therefore bring forward proposals to extend compulsory competitive tendering into public sector housing management. The citizens charter will end, once and for all, the patronising of tenants by incompetent town halls.

Thirdly, on health, we have already introduced new contracts in the health service to raise the standards demanded of hospitals. Under the citizens charter, we shall expect publication of clear standards for patient care right across the health service, and we shall begin by taking two further specific steps for the benefit of national health service patients.

For out-patients, we shall require new procedures on the handling of appointments. This will mean that the practice of calling many patients to an appointment at the same time, which has been widely deplored, will be brought to an end.

For in-patients, there have been substantial improvements in the quality and quantity of care provided. Nevertheless, a minority of people still have to wait too long for treatment. We therefore propose that, from next April, guaranteed maximum waiting times for in-patient or day care treatment should be published. The initial focus will be on those treatments for which waiting lists are longest, and where the pain, discomfort and general reduction in quality of life are most significant. I have in mind hip replacement, hernia repairs, and cataract removals. Guaranteed maximum waiting times are being negotiated now, but could range from only a few months to over a year. If it appears that the treatment cannot be provided in the guaranteed time, the health authority or board will seek provision elsewhere, including, if appropriate, from the private sector.

Fourthly, I move on to transport. For road users, we will tackle the nuisance caused by road repairs. We will use new powers to make utilities digging up local roads co-ordinate their activity and complete work more swiftly. For large-scale road repairs, we will extend the use of "lane rental" incentives and penalties in order to reduce time taken for repairs. We will end the unnecessary coning off of miles of motorway when no work is being done. [Laughter.] I only wish that the country outside could see the Opposition Front Bench.

There are still too many long stretches of motorway without proper service areas. In order to speed up the provision of those facilities, we will end the present system under which the Department of Transport is solely responsible for identifying sites. In future, we will allow developers to take the initiative in selecting sites to provide the facilities that motorists need. We will reduce the delay in getting a driving test, and make it easier to book appointments.

The deregulation of coach services in the early 1980s has enabled a huge explosion to take place in cheap long-distance travel. Outside London, the deregulation of buses has brought in new operators and better value for money. In the light of that better service, we have decided that the time has come to deregulate bus services in London.

Travellers on railway and underground services have in too many cases been expected to endure sub-standard performance. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Prime Minister, but I repeat that those outside are very interested in hearing about these matters. Hon. Members should not interrupt the Prime Minister in this way when he is making a statement.

The Prime Minister

It is not surprising, Mr. Speaker—they do not care about customers.

Travellers on railway and underground services have in too many cases been expected to endure sub-standard performance. The Government believe that here, too, further competition is desirable. We therefore expect to set out later this year detailed plans to privatise British Rail. British Rail's monopoly of the network will be ended. We will also set up a new independent regulator to ensure fair access to the network and protect the customer.

The Government will expect both British Rail and London Underground to be more open about standards of performance and methods of redress. British Rail will improve its compensation arrangements. It has been asked, as a start, to develop a new scheme, starting with annual season ticket holders. For the first time, where service over the previous year has been poor, passengers will be entitled to discounts when their tickets are renewed.

The Government want to relate pay to performance in all aspects of public service. For example, on the underground and the railways, we shall expect records of punctuality and absenteeism to be taken into account, where relevant, in packages of pay for drivers, guards, signalling staff and others whose service impacts most directly on the public. Dedicated workers should receive a better reward than those who fail the public.

Fifthly, I turn to local authorities. Many of the measures that I have already outlined will help to improve their performance. However, there are two further steps that I wish to announce today. We shall strengthen the powers of the Audit Commission. It will be empowered to publish comparisons which name local councils and education authorities. In future, they will also be required to publish a formal response to auditors' reports. We will also extend the scope of compulsory competitive tendering in local government.

Sixthly, in central Government we will promote more market testing, and extend contracting-out into new areas in the national health service, such as distribution, warehousing and non-emergency transport. We will publish a White Paper on this in the autumn. Government activities should not enjoy immunity from inspection and enforcement on such matters as health and safety. Except where national security is involved, all future legislation will ensure that Crown bodies are subject to the same inspection and enforcement procedures as others.

Seventhly, we have new proposals on the Post Office. We will ensure that clear standards for service to the public are widely publicised. A new regulator will be appointed who will arbitrate on complaints, monitor performance and advise the Secretary of State on setting standards and protecting customer interests. Here, too, we believe that further competition would benefit the public. We will therefore narrow significantly the level under which the Post Office has a monopoly for letter delivery. We will reduce it from the present £1 to a level much nearer the first-class stamp.

All these measures will bring direct benefits to our citizens, but we want to ensure that they have all the support that is needed in exercising the new opportunities the citizens charter will give. We will therefore act to strengthen the powers of the regulators of the public utilities on standards of service. We will ensure that the powers available to each will be brought up to the levels of the strongest. They will thus be able to set guaranteed standards and require compensation to be paid when those standards are not met. We will also enable them to required fixed appointment times for customers, for whom that is self-evidently important. We intend to end the annoyance caused to people waiting in all day for someone to call.

In the public services, effective inspection is the key to maintaining standards. I have already outlined our proposals for inspection of schools. The Government will also introduce an independent element into other inspectorates. As a first step, more lay members will be appointed to the inspectorate of constabulary later this year, and there will be a full review of the independence and effectiveness of the social services inspectorate. Detailed proposals will be published later this year. We will also be consulting on the introduction of a new concept, the introduction of a network of lay adjudicators. These will be people who can help the citizen to get a swift resolution of those small but irritating complaints which cause so much frustration.

Finally, the public are entitled to expect that essential services will not be damaged or interrupted by industrial action, which has not been put to the test of a ballot or which is unlawful in some way. At present, if the employer does nothing, the citizen is powerless. We therefore propose to amend the law. We will give a new right to individual members of the public to seek an injunction to halt unlawful industrial action affecting services covered by the citizens charter.

This White Paper is only the beginning of the charter process. Over the next few months, separate charters for specific services will be published, and we will be introducing a new charter standard for quality in public services. Only those who can meet the high standards that the public expect will earn the right to display a new charter mark.

We will introduce legislation, wherever necessary, to bring about the changes proposed. In addition, to drive the reform process through, I will be setting up a special unit in the Cabinet Office, and I will be appointing a panel of independent advisers to identify new areas for action to help carry the programme forward. I am pleased to be able to tell the House that its first chairman will be Sir James Blyth, director and chief executive of Boots.

The citizens charter initiative will be fundamental to the Government's policies for the 1990s. It is a programme that will carry on through a decade. There is much that is good in our public services. They contain a fund of talent, energy and commitment. Our new measures will release more of those qualities so that we can raise standards up to and beyond the best that is currently available. The charter programme will find better ways of converting the money that can be afforded into even better services. I want the people of this country to have services in which they as citizens can be confident and in which public servants themselves can take pride. I commend the proposals to the House. [Interruption]

Mr. Speaker

Order. We have a heavy day ahead of us. I ask the House to settle down.

Mr. Neil Kinnock (Islwyn)

For 12 years, the Government have presided over, and often prompted, reductions in the standards and provision of public services. They are still doing so. Having heard the Prime Minister's proposals this afternoon, it is possible to conclude only that they are a mixture of the belated, the ineffectual, the banal, the vague and the damaging.

Where are the practical policies in this White Paper for the action that is needed to tackle our crumbling schools? Where are the practical policies to reduce hospital waiting lists, which are now 40 per cent. higher than when the Government took office? And where are the practical policies, to be implemented now, to make up for the years of under-investment in a transport system that is increasingly congested and increasingly costly? Where are the practical policies for dealing with the growing housing crisis—after 12 years of record high mortgage repayments, a cut of 80 per cent. in the number of houses built for rent, and a trebling in the number of homeless families?

Where are the practical policies in the citizens charter for reducing the number of people living in poverty, which has increased threefold in the lifetime of this Government? Why does the citizens charter not contain a commitment to a freedom of information Act? Why does it not improve access to legal aid? Why does it not provide necessary rights for the millions of disabled people in this country? What is there in this document, or indeed any other Government policy, to improve Government accountability to the people of this country? Where, for instance, is the costing of these proposals? The Prime Minister is sometimes interested in that aspect of things. Is this not yet another Conservative pig in the poke which will be unconvincing?

Will the Prime Minister accept from me that, although any action to improve standards of safety, performance and accountability is welcome, giving people some compensation for poor service is no substitute for developing good services? Where is the commitment to improved training for those working in and managing services in the public and private sectors? Indeed, where is there anything to improve standards of provision and service for the 14 million people who every year have cause for serious complaint about the standards of goods and services produced by the private sector? Where is the mechanism in the charter for improving quality in local services?

The statement, quite correctly, says: The citizen is also a taxpayer. Public services must give value for money within the tax bill that the nation can afford. What value for money did the Government give when they wasted £14 billion of taxpayers' money on maintaining a poll tax that nobody wanted? What compensation will the Government offer for that monumental act of waste and injustice?

Two months ago, the Prime Minister promised that his citizens charter would be a "revolution". What we have is not a revolution but a massive evasion. What is being offered is very little, very late, very limited, very slow and, after 12 years of a Government who have run down so many public services, very unconvincing.

The Prime Minister

What was unconvincing was the fact that the right hon. Gentleman talked about everything except what was in my statement. We know that customers do not matter to Labour Members. The right hon. Member for Islwyn (Mr. Kinnock) is the rambling rose of politics, but he certainly cannot stick to the subject matter.

The right hon. Gentleman talks of crumbling schools. In which education authorities is the worst education? Labour education authorities. In which housing authorities is the worst housing? Labour housing authorities. The right hon. Gentleman knows that. He talks of costing. He should have read the document and turned to page 38. He would have seen there the difference in value for money between the best and the worst local authorities, and the improvements that can be made within the increasing resources that we have made available. He should look also at all the detailed matters that I have announced in the document which will directly affect the individual lives of people at present facing frustration. They will find those frustrations removed and their quality of life improved.

It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to talk about what he would do. He would do nothing. Labour opposed privatisation, opposed contracting out, opposed competitive tendering and opposed every increase in individual rights that we have introduced in the past 10 or 11 years. We want competition in postal services; Labour does not. We will extend performance-related pay; Labour will not, because Jimmy Knapp will not allow it. We will require education authorities to provide the information and education to parents which they want for their children; Labour will not do that and will oppose it. We will strengthen the powers of the Audit Commission; Labour seeks to abolish the Audit Commission. Labour can say nothing to us about public services. Wherever Labour is in charge, public services are a shambles. We are determined to ensure that that will not be tolerated any more.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I suspect that we shall have plenty of other opportunities to debate this matter. Today is a private Members' day, and no doubt these issues can be raised on the motion for the summer Adjournment. I will allow questions to continue until 5 pm, when we will move on to the next two statements. I will give precedence first to those who were not called on Friday.

Sir William Clark (Croydon, South)

May I suggest to my right hon. Friend that he should treat the carping criticism from the Leader of the Opposition with the contempt that it deserves? Does he agree that the charter will be widely welcomed by passengers, parents, patients and post office users because it will give the citizen more rights, more freedom, and more value for money? Does my right hon. Friend agree that the speeches made over the weekend by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) about utilities not being included merely show how ill informed the Opposition are?

The Prime Minister

It certainly does. Some of the widely trailed leaks that we have had from the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) in recent weeks are ill informed. I suggest that our colleagues and friends in the press get a better class of leak in the future. There is no doubt that the proposals will be widely welcomed. What has so piqued the Opposition is that they cannot match our proposals.

Mr. Stanley Orme (Salford, East)

The Prime Minister was reticent about the privatised industries, notably gas, electricity and water. Will the same criteria apply to those industries as will apply to the public sector? What we have heard this afternoon is not so much a citizens charter as an election address from the Conservative party.

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman reads page 44 of the document, he will find that the same criteria are applied to the privatised industries. On the success of privatisation, prices of electricity, gas and telecommunications have all fallen against the retail prices index, to the benefit of the consumer. The taxpayer also benefited from privatisation receipts to the extent of nearly 3p off the standard rate of income tax.

The Opposition seem deeply split on the question of privatisation. Even the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen apparently recognise that it is a good thing. I remind the House that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) said recently: "I am against privatisation." He was then asked why it was necessary in Liverpool. He said: because the Liverpool people deserve a proper service. If it is right for Liverpool—and it is—it is right for the rest of the country, whether the right hon. Member for Salford, East believes it or not.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

May I first of all congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his outstanding achievement last week in international affairs? May I also congratulate him on his outstanding statement this afternoon on domestic affairs?

Will the protection for railway passengers be extended to airline passengers? Can my right hon. Friend say something about the consumer in terms of those who travel on British Airways and those affected by the British Airports Authority and the Civil Aviation Authority? Will those people get the same rights as railway passengers?

The Prime Minister

At the moment, different circumstances apply because of the range of competition that exists in attracting airline passengers. To that extent, there is not the same monopoly position—something which I believe has been the subject of some publicity in recent days.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Prime Minister accept that, when the country has time to read this puce paper it will recognise that matters of some importance are contained in it, including proposals to extend competition? If they are to be of benefit to the travelling public, they are to be welcomed. The document also contains many trivial matters, such as lapel badges, and focuses on motorway services when there are parts of the country, such as my constituency, that are living in the mediaeval period in terms of road transport. Other matters are unformed, including the proposals for lay adjudicators. Does the Prime Minister not recognise that the real obstacle to giving citizens redress for grievances is the outdated, overcentralised political system over which the right hon. Gentleman presides, which offers no constitutional reforms to protect the true interests of the people of this country?

The Prime Minister

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman on his third point, but I am grateful to him for drawing the attention of the official Opposition to the many matters of real importance contained within the document. As the hon. Gentleman has said, I believe that those matters will be very welcome to the travelling public and also to the public who are treated in hospitals and to parents whose children use our national schools. They and many others will welcome what is in the document.

As the hon. Gentleman said, there are smaller matters in the document, but I do not agree that they are trivial, because frustrations and difficulties for customers are not trival. They cause immense difficulty and we in the public service, and those of us who are responsible for it, should be in the business of removing those complaints. If they are trivial, let us get down to dealing with them, and that is what we propose to do. The hon. Gentleman mentioned particularly motorway services under the heading of trivial matters. I think that many drivers who travel many miles along motorways and find no services whatever would not regard the provision of more motorway service stations as a trivial matter.

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

The House knows that the Labour party hates good news, and the leader of the rubbishmongers on the Opposition Benches has confirmed that this afternoon. The charter is excellent news for a great many different groups of our constitutents, and they will welcome it. The House should welcome the charter most particularly because it redresses the balance of advantage in favour of the people who pay for and use public services and against the traditional socialist forces of incompetence, arrogance and indifference which are so well represented on the Opposition Benches.

The Prime Minister

I am not sure whether I need to add anything to what my right hon. Friend has said. The Labour party is officially concerned about the producers of services, whereas we are concerned about the users of services.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Has the Prime Minister noticed the state of disorder and anarchy in social security offices throughout the country? There are more delays than ever before because the computerised system does not work and the overworked staff are using the two systems—manual and computer—together. Should he not get his own house in order before he advances on the Walter Mitty dreams in his statement?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman is singularly ill informed. Otherwise, he would know of the Benefits Agency and its work to improve the service to social security claimants.

Mr. Steve Norris (Epping Forest)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a charter which gives powers to the regulators of public utilities? Did my right hon. Friend see the article in The Mail on Sunday by the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown), which said: the real test will be how he handles the public utilities"? On the basis of that test, does my right hon. Friend agree that his charter has passed with flying colours?

The Prime Minister

I certainly agree that it passes on the basis of that test and many others. The Opposition have been saying for some time that the test would be whether to increase powers for regulators. They are being increased but, for some curious reason, the Leader of the Opposition neglected to welcome it.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Lagan Valley)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be a general welcome for plans to make public authorities accountable, as they are usually the greatest offenders? Is he further aware that there will be satisfactiion that he has included housing authorities in the list? Housing authority staff will welcome the fact that something is to be done to redress the top-heavy bureaucracy, which exists in housing authorities despite the efforts of many dedicated members of staff.

The Prime Minister

Yes, I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. I believe that they will be widely welcomed throughout the country.

Sir Hugh Rossi (Hornsey and Wood Green)

Of all the positive and practical proposals that my right hon. Friend has announced, the stripping away of the anonymity of the officials with whom one has to deal on the telephone will probably be the one most welcomed by the ordinary citizen. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that that proposal is not watered down by the public service unions and those whom they sponsor? Personal responsibility, or a measure of it, is the greatest guarantee of efficiency and courtesy to the public.

The Prime Minister

I will, Sir—with the solitary exception of cases where it is judged that there may be some personal danger to the person concerned. Only in those circumstances will we sanction the anonymity that previously existed. In the light of the question asked by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn) a moment ago, I should say that the members of the new Benefits Agency have already started to identify themselves by wearing name badges and ensuring that people are aware of whom they are dealing with.

Mr. John Fraser (Norwood)

Does the Prime Minister agree that the giving of citizens' rights is empty unless those rights can be enforced and unless they are properly understood? Will he therefore reverse the process whereby millions of people have been denied access to legal aid?

Will he tell the Lord Chancellor straight away to stop his withdrawal of legal advice and assistance to some of the most vulnerable people, will he end the wholesale closure of law centres and advice centres, and will he place a duty on local authorities to have a comprehensive network of advice centres to assist ordinary citizens?

The Prime Minister

This is a continuing programme, and there are many sectors that we still wish to look at. Those rights will be enforced, and will certainly be understood.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many teachers and local government officers will welcome the charter programme? Does he also accept that, because the targets are public, people will be able to see progress, what problems remain and identify the points for action so that everyone may gain? The Labour party makes a mistake in opposing the charter, because many people who vote Labour want to see such improvements.

The Prime Minister

I am sure that my hon. Friend is right about that, and people will see improvements. I am surprised that the Opposition scoff at the sort of additional improvements and rights that will be available to, for example, parents in the education sphere, where there will be independent inspection reports, a detailed prospectus, comparative information on exam, national curriculum and truancy results, summary results in local papers, annual reports on their child's progress, annual reports on the work of the school and comprehensive admissions booklets. Those are the new powers and rights for parents that the Opposition oppose.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Does the Prime Minister accept that some of us would wish to give consideration to the document before offering detailed criticism, much of which I hope will be constructive, particularly during the legislative process? Does he accept from me that a preliminary glance through the document reveals that its terminology is England-based—reference is made to the Department of Education and Science, the Home Office and the Department of Transport, and the illustration given in relation to motorways refers to Watford as the most northerly point? Will he give an assurance that our legal and educational systems will be given further consideration and that a separate document will be produced on those matters?

The Prime Minister

I can give the hon. Lady that assurance. A separate charter will be published for Scotland in the autumn, covering a wide range of matters. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for saying that some consideration would be necessary before reaching a conclusion on what is in the document—a policy that is not widely welcomed. Indeed, it would be a novel principle for some right hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

Is not the reaction of Opposition Members due partly to the fact that they have realised that they wished that they had come up with a charter, and partly because they realise that their union bosses would not have let them do so? Is not the lesson of my right hon. Friend's statement the fact that, to have quality control, one must separate the quality controller from the provider of the service? Is that not exactly the lesson of privatisation in the past decade? But has not my right hon. Friend left out one major plank in consumer protection—ensuring that, after the next election, this Government continue in office?

The Prime Minister

I have some confidence about that, so it was not necessary to state it explicitly in the White Paper. My hon. Friend scores a bull's eye when he makes the point about regulators. It is also exactly true to say that the Opposition could not have come up with the proposals.

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that the parts of the citizens charter that will be most closely scrutinised are those aspects dealing with the national health service. Within the citizens charter that he has proposed today, will the low priority given to people over the age of 65 requiring hospital treatment cease?

The Prime Minister

There is no such low priority for people over the age of 65—the hon. Gentleman is wholly wrong. In my statement, I said that we were going to produce guaranteed maximum waiting times for many treatments where the quality of life is significantly reduced—for example, hip replacements, cataracts and hernia repairs, which often specifically impact on the lives of elderly people. To that extent, there will be a direct improvement specifically, but not exclusively, for them.

Mr. David Martin (Portsmouth, South)

I welcome the maximum waiting times for operations that my right hon. Friend mentioned, but how practical would such action be if there were no Government health reforms to build on—reforms that the Opposition opposed throughout?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Such actions would certainly be far more difficult, as the improving service offered by the national health service illustrates.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Does the Prime Minister accept that the carefully packaged statement that he has given to the House today has far more to do with the likelihood of an early general election than with the content of the announcement? Does he also accept that it is one thing to receive complaints, but another to act on them? What we need from the Government, as they are responsible for the public services being run down, is an influx of capital into the public services that will satisfy the complaints that the consumers are making. It is not enough simply to receive those complaints.

The Prime Minister

The purpose is to set up a mechanism to ensure that those complaints are acted on, rather than leave people with the frustrating feeling, which they have often felt in the past, that their concerns are not being dealt with. I detected an air of nervousness in the hon. Gentleman's remarks when he said that he thought that the charter might have something to do with the election—clearly, he thinks that it is an election winner.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

Is it not a fact that, for years, the debate on public services has been dominated by the providers of those services, and the significance of this Green Paper is that it redresses the balance and gives a voice to the user? Would not my right hon. Friend also agree that the fatal flaw in the case put by the Leader of the Opposition is that he is controlled by the worst vested interests in the public sector organisations?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend is entirely right to draw the distinction between providers and users of the service. We act very much in the interests of those people who use the services, which is why we are determined to see through the action that I have announced today. As for the Opposition, their position of being in baulk as a wholly-owned subsidiary of the trade unions is well known.

Mr. Dennis Turner (Wolverhampton, South-East)

Would the Prime Minister recognise that there are millions of citizens in this country who have had to stand 11 years of Conservative government, when all the matters, services and values in which they have faith have been taken away? Has the Prime Minister spoken to the Secretary of State for Education and Science because, as we debate the citizens charter, the recent education White Paper intends to take away the rights of hundreds and thousands of men and women in adult and continuing education, who are writing letters every day telling us that they know that the Government have no concern for their needs? Why should people today believe that the Prime Minister is genuine in what he has to say?

The Prime Minister

On the first point—it is 12 years, not 11 years. Secondly, if people are so dissatisfied, it is curious, is it not, that they keep re-electing this Government to power?

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Bearing in mind that the excellent reforms in the public service can succeed probably only against the opposition of public sector unions, does my right hon. Friend think it remarkable that he should be subject to criticism from a shadow Cabinet—[Interruption]—in which 16 out of the 22 are supported by public sector unions—[Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

Over the hubbub from Opposition Members, I did not entirely catch the drift of my hon. Friend's question, but I suspect that it related to the large number of Labour Members who are sponsored by trade unions. Certainly, the Opposition policy owes a lot to that.

Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich)

Although there is much to commend the Prime Minister's proposals, is he aware of the scepticism felt by the thousands of my constituents who have to deal with a council which keeps them waiting months on end for essential repairs, fails to answer their letters, and keeps needy people waiting up to a year for rebates? As none of them benefits in any way from the work of the Audit Commission, contracting out, or the tenants charter—all of which were supposed to solve such problems—why should my constituents have any more faith in the Prime Minister's proposals?

The Prime Minister

The council to which the hon. Gentleman refers is, of course, Labour-controlled—I make that point in case any right hon. or hon. Member had overlooked it. The proposals that will directly affect council tenants in the hon. Gentleman's constituency and elsewhere are the right-to-repair proposals. I understand the frustration that many citizens feel, because for years they have been unfairly treated by their local councils. It is only when improvements begin to be seen that they will accept the value of the charter. Whatever it takes, and however long it takes, we will get it operating to the benefit of consumers.

Mr. Anthony Coombs (Wyre Forest)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the charter will be welcomed by all consumers of public services and that, as usual, Labour has made a fatal miscalculation in opposing it? The charter provides what every parent in the country wants—reports which show how well their children are doing in class, how well that class is progressing relative to others in the school, and how well the school itself is performing relative to others throughout the country.

The Prime Minister

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that the charter will be welcomed. It puzzles me that Labour Members affect to deride the proposals. while the hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw) kept shouting earlier, "That's our policy." Which is it?

Miss Joan Lestor (Eccles)

Bearing in mind the concern felt by the whole country at revelations of an increase in reported cases of child abuse within the family and at places of safety, the growing number of missing children, and the rising number of those sleeping rough on our streets, how do the Government justify the cut made by the Department of Health in its grant to the National Association of Young People in Care? If the Prime Minister is really concerned about citizens and a charter, why has he failed to take the action that we promise, and to appoint a commissioner for children as recommended by the Gulbenkian Foundation? Is it because children have no votes?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Lady's last remark is unworthy of her—at least, I hope that it is unworthy of her. The purpose of the charter proposals that I have announced, and of those to come—a great deal has yet to come in the years ahead— is to build up and improve services to ordinary people throughout the country. I know that social services, for example, are of concern to the hon. Lady. The review of the social services inspectorate and the intention to include lay people among its membership show that we are determined to ensure proper inspections and to prevent a recurrence of some of the problems that have arisen in the past. That is a significant move forward.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Does the provision for guaranteed maximum hospital waiting times mean that a hospital or health authority which fails to provide an operation in time will be required to purchase that operation from the private sector?

The Prime Minister

It certainly can mean that. The option will be there for an operation or treatment elsewhere in the national health service, or, if that is not possible, in the private sector. The guaranteed maximum waiting time will be honoured wherever the treatment is provided.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (Knowsley, South)

What redress will be offered under the citizens charter to an applicant to the social fund who is refused a loan not because his needs are not recognised but because the local fund has been spent up for the year? Will such an individual have any redress against the local fund for not managing it well enough? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that example shows that no citizens charter can compensate for the fundamental problem of underfunding?

The Prime Minister

Were any of the hon. Gentleman's constituents to find themselves in the situation that he describes, the right place for them to go would be to the hon. Gentleman, as their Member of Parliament.

Mr. Derek Conway (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

When the whingeing from the Opposition has died down, will not my right hon. Friend's announcement be recognised as a milestone for this nation? Will his advisory team continue extending the powers and capabilities of the local government and parliamentary ombudsmen, so that their respective judgments against bureaucracy will be given some teeth?

The Prime Minister

It is a milestone for us, but I suspect that it will be a headstone for Labour.

Mr. Bernie Grant (Tottenham)

Will the Prime Minister help me with his definition of a citizen? Who will benefit from this great charter of his? Will Commonwealth citizens who are not settled in this country benefit from it? What about European Community nationals, or refugees and asylum seekers—from whom the Government removed the right to legal aid and assistance? Will they benefit from the charter? If not, what about a charter for them?

The Prime Minister

Everyone properly resident in this country will benefit from it.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

Although the charter may not be good news for Opposition Members, it is very good news for my constituents, many of whom have to struggle with miles of traffic cones when driving on the A45 or when travelling to work from Norwich to Liverpool Street every day. It is crucial that those who serve the public should not be allowed to remain anonymous, and I urge my right hon. Friend to try to cut through all the jargon and to remove unintelligible job titles. Finally, is it too much to hope that, one day soon, we may have a matron in every hospital?

The Prime Minister

I missed my hon. Friend's last point, but I will ask him about it later. I agree with his other points, and that the bogus opposition displayed this afternoon represents a grave misjudgment by Labour Members.

Mr. Ian McCartney (Makerfield)

Which page of the charter gives rights to private sector tenants not to be abused by Rachman-style landlords? Which page gives rights to people receiving social security benefits, such as those students who this year will enjoy a zero income between now and returning to college? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman forgot, in his rush to appear on television this afternoon, to provide any information on those two groups. Is it not the case that the Prime Minister's proposals are not a citizens charter but a privatisation charter? We all know what privatisation brought—higher prices, poorer services, and big pay rises for those who run the new companies.

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Member for Gorton is in favour of privatisation, so why is the hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) so upset? The hon. Member for Blackburn keeps saying, "That's our policy." Clearly, Labour is much more deeply split than I had previously thought. If the hon. Member for Makerfield had listened and understood my previous comments, he would know that this is a charter for the public sector and for public utilities. The hon. Gentleman, like the Leader of the Opposition, talks about everything except the subject under discussion.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Does my right hon. Friend recognise the important role to be played in his admirable proposals by the Comptroller and Auditor General? Will my right hon. Friend hold discussions with him, to ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General's reports reflect not only value for money and the efficiency of accounting but those aspects covered by the citizens charter, and that he reports to the Public Accounts Committee accordingly?

The Prime Minister

We plan to discuss those matters with the Comptroller and Auditor General, and I will act as my hon. Friend suggests.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

Is the Prime Minister aware that many consumers of gas, electricity and water services feel that the regulators' present powers are far too weak? Why has the right hon. Gentleman vetoed an increase in the powers of even the strongest regulator—I refer to page 44—and the provision of a consumer ombudsman or of some other form of proper consumer representation?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman was one of those who was leaking inaccurate information before the statement was made. Now that the proposals are public, he cannot continue to produce the same rubbish. If he reads the White Paper, and if he reads what I said earlier, he will find that we are increasing all the powers of the regulators to the level of the most compelling powers they have. That will give them extra powers which go beyond those currently available to them. That is precisely what the hon. Gentleman said that we would not do, and precisely what the hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown) said was the test of the charter.

Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that almost everything that he has said this afternoon will be welcomed by most normal people throughout the country? I will give an illustration. An elderly and frail constituent of mine saw me at my surgery on Friday. She has had recently to change her doctor. She has been told by those responsible for the bureaucracy of the health service that she will have to wait three months for her medical notes to be transferred. Is that the sort of case in which action can be taken?

May I add one note of caution on railways? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government do not rush into any decision on railway privatisation until he is certain that at least as good a service will be offered to the public as a result of any changes that might be contemplated?

The Prime Minister

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As I announced, we propose to introduce a regulator to ensure that the service is adequate and in the interests of those who use the rail lines.

The first point that my hon. Friend raised is not in the charter at this stage, but it is among the matters that we shall wish to consider.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Some of those hon. Members who have been rising in their places are seeking to participate in the summer Adjournment motion debate, and I shall endeavour to call them. I shall be able to call a great many more hon. Members if their contributions are brief.