Next Steps Agencies

Oral Answers to Questions — Duchy of Lancaster – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 29 March 1993.

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Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet 12:00, 29 March 1993

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what proportion of key performance targets were met by next steps agencies in the last year for which figures are available.

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

On average, next steps agencies met three out of four of their key targets in 1991–92.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale , North Thanet

Given the undoubted success of that considerable reform, will my hon. Friend tell the House what plans he has for the creation of new agencies in the immediate future? Will he reassure the House that the creation of any new agencies will not weaken the accountability of Ministers to Members of Parliament?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

As it happens, a number of new agencies will be coming on stream in the next couple of weeks. Already, 50 per cent. of the civil service is working in agencies and that will rise to 60 per cent. by the beginning of next month, which is the beginning of the new financial year. As to accountability, hon. Members have only to look at the huge range of information provided about next steps agencies in the Library to see how much accountability has been improved by the introduction of the agency idea.

Photo of Gerald Kaufman Gerald Kaufman Chair, National Heritage Committee

Is not it ludicrous for the Minister to talk about the fulfilment of performance targets when the Benefits Agency remains such a shambles? For example, last week, a constituent of mine had her benefit application delayed because of one mistake discovered after three months and another mistake discovered after 11 months. Is not it time that Mr. Michael Bichard was sacked from a job for which he collects £79,000 a year for preventing those in poverty from getting the pittance for which they apply and that that service was made properly answerable to the House of Commons?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

The whole House is familiar with the background to the problems relating to the disability living allowance and the Benefits Agency. It has been the subject of many exchanges at Question Time and in other debates, but a strong effort to put matters right in the agency has resulted in real progress.

Photo of Mr Harry Greenway Mr Harry Greenway , Ealing North

May I have my hon. Friend's assurance that the creation of the new agencies will not suck work out of London, where it is well done and valuably done, even though I know that, where work has been agencified—forgive that terrible word—away from London, arrangements have been made for telephone connections between Londoners and the agency concerned?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

The Government are aware that the geographic and economic circumstances that underlay the relocation policy need to be reappraised in the light of the way in which the recession has affected London, including jobs in London. That is something about which we are thinking.

Photo of Dr Mo Mowlam Dr Mo Mowlam , Redcar

Will the Minister try to answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale)—the matter concerns hon. Members on both sides of the House—about accountability in agencies? There is declining accountability, with the Government creating health hoards, education boards, development corporations and training and enterprise councils and we are to see the introduction of police boards. As one of the Sunday newspapers reported, appointees tend to be place-people from the Conservative party. Will the Minister explain how genuine democratic accountability is meant to function?

Photo of Robert Jackson Robert Jackson , Wantage

The creation of agencies has made no difference to accountability to Ministers and, through Ministers, to the House. If the hon. Lady is so concerned about accountability, why did she propose during a recent interview to be more radical than the Government, to step over them on next steps and say, 'If we are being serious, let us give an agency manager the power to make decisions within his budget"'? If the hon. Lady is so concerned about accountability, why is she proposing to go further down the road that the Government are following?