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Public Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:01 pm on 24th October 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Morgan of Huyton Baroness Morgan of Huyton Minister of State, Cabinet Office 7:01 pm, 24th October 2001

My Lords, perhaps I may say first of all that I found the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford on the concept of public service most thought-provoking. I shall try to cover the issues that he raised. We have had an excellent debate, as has been recognised around the House, and once again I am struck by the depth of knowledge we are fortunate to be able to draw on in this House. Many noble Lords have contributed personal experience of their own involvement in public service. Given the constraints on time, I shall endeavour to reply to as many noble Lords as time permits, and beyond that I shall write. I would also commend the paper of my noble friend Lord Plant of Highfield on the public service ethic, to which other noble Lords have already referred. I congratulate the noble Lords, Lord Moser, Lord Chan, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market and Lord Condon, on their respective maiden speeches and welcome the immense experience they bring to the House.

There are two interconnected strands to this debate: the underlying ethos of public service; and, if we believe in that ethos and its particular though not unique application to public services, why those services must change, evolve and improve. There is no easy or glib definition of a public service ethos. Clearly, it is based on a shared sense of common purpose and a belief that we can together make a difference for the greater good. That indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, and my noble friend Lord Barnet recognised, is why many enter public life in the first place. Our definition must recognise that we are not just individuals fighting for ourselves and our families, but part of society, part of communities, held together by common beliefs, values, aspirations and mutual responsibility. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that the Government are committed to reviving the ethos of public service and restating the importance of those values, which at times in the past have been easily disregarded.

The ethos of public service goes beyond the public services. The wide-ranging voluntary sector, with which many Members of this House are closely involved, exemplifies this quality. For example, the Giving Campaign aims to create a new culture of giving in Britain, not just of money but of time too. Volunteering in this country has a long and proud tradition on which we want to build. At this difficult time I am particularly struck by the idealism and commitment of many young and older people taking part in Voluntary Service Overseas, who are an example to us all. As my noble friend Lord Haskel pointed out, an increasing number of businesses are recognising their social responsibility role too.

Our public servants symbolise that ethos. If one speaks to many good teachers, doctors, nurses and police officers, it is clear that they take professional pride in seeing the child learning to read, the patient returning to good health and the victim of crime knowing that the criminal who attacked them is behind bars. And the awful events of 11th September and the weeks since have, of course, highlighted the selfless dedication of public servants.

I understand the sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Peston, when he speaks of the need to recognise public servants fully. I think we all recognise the three Rs of the noble Lord, Lord Condon--recognition, respect and reward. The noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, also spoke eloquently about the ethos of service in policing.

Our public services symbolise our vision of community. Public services available to all have a place in our lives today just as they did more than 50 years ago, when the NHS was created and the Education Act was passed. Collective provision continues to be the best way of ensuring that the majority get the opportunity and security that those at the top take for granted. We believe that everyone--every man, every woman, every child--deserves the chance to make the most of themselves within a strong and cohesive society.

As the noble Lord, Lord Moser, recognised, without high quality education for all, children will never achieve their potential, and the prosperity of the nation, which is dependent on skill, will suffer. Without good healthcare that is accessible and free at the point of use, people are forced to pay or to live in pain. Without a properly-functioning criminal justice system, the society we live in is less stable, less secure and less fair. Without decent public transport, there is no alternative to ever greater congestion on the roads and ever greater environmental damage. As the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, emphasised, we are all committed to the integrity of the Civil Service.

But if we believe in public service, we must also seek to provide the best public services for our people. That is why our public services cannot stand still. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that this does not mean that the ethos of those services has to change. None of us should underestimate the enormity of the task ahead.

The Government are committed to reform because the demands on the systems and people's expectations have risen. More people live longer; more diseases are treatable; more children go to nursery; more young people go on to university; and more people use public transport. The consumers of our public services expect quality, high standards, choice and speed in all areas of the country. And of course the public services need to recognise and meet the changing roles and demands of men and women today.

We are committed to reform because there has been chronic under-investment over decades in all our public services. That has led to the run down of the country's essential infrastructure. That is why we are embarked on the largest ever investment in our public services. Your Lordships will know the macro figures, but these mean, for example, 600 new or completely refurbished schools over the next three years, the largest ever hospital building programme, 44,000 extra classroom assistants, the recruitment of 1,300 police officers in the past year alone and £239 million over the next three years for improved rural transport.

We are committed to reform and improvement for our public servants as well, because their recruitment and retention is the key to sustainable long-term improvements in services. The noble Lord, Lord Chan, talked from experience about the NHS. We are making a start by improvements in that area for our staff. We have massively improved recruitment and salary packages for nurses and we are giving every newly-qualified doctor going into GP practice an extra payment. We are striving constantly to increase recruitment and to keep up retention rates across the NHS. That is also why the NHS is striving to keep its skilled, largely female, staff by offering more childcare, flexible working and other practical improvements to working life.

We are developing our public services via four pillars of reform. I hope that demonstrates to the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, that we are not satisfied with the status quo and are not standing still. The first is the setting of a framework of national standards, inspection and accountability across the country. In practice this means rebuilding and developing services so that they meet the diverse needs of individuals, offering greater choice but with universal high standards. So we have national tests for literacy and numeracy and the National Institute for Clinical Excellence to set standards for health treatment across the NHS.

The second principle is the devolution of freedom to frontline professionals and local leaders to innovate and develop services. Staff should be freed up to work in new ways to meet the needs of their customers. In health, with the establishment of local primary care trusts, 75 per cent of all NHS resources will be spent by frontline workers. That is a massive increase in the devolution of responsibility to where it should be. It is a large challenge to staff but it is one which, from my experience of meeting staff in recent weeks in Ipswich, York and Swindon, they relish. Similarly, 85 per cent of all local education funding now goes directly to schools.

The next pillar of reform is more recognition of the work of frontline staff. Without the support and professionalism of public servants, the Government's plans for reform will not be delivered, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield and my noble friend Lady Gibson of Market Rasen so rightly said. So we are improving conditions, increasing pay and introducing rewards for high performance. Indeed this year, for the first time in many years, it is significant that public sector salaries are growing at a faster rate than private sector salaries.

The final approach is more choice for service users, whether that be a greater variety of schools and the expansion of successful ones, or the expansion of successful and efficient GP practices. That means the promotion of alternative providers where minimum standards are not reached. It also means partnership with other sectors to improve a service. It means freeing up our public servants to innovate and to take responsibility for making change happen. The private and voluntary sectors can both play a role. This does not mean replacing or changing the ethos of public services, as my noble friend Lord Judd made clear. But where the use of other providers can improve public services, we should be open to that.

For instance, there is a place for public private partnerships and for private finance initiatives where they deliver quality. In Glasgow, for example, 29 secondary schools are nearing completion after a large amount of investment. They are providing state-of-the-art computer networks, scientific laboratories, well-maintained and attractive premises in which to work and in which the pupils can prosper.

Of course, we must safeguard the position of public servants in those initiatives and we have taken sound steps to do that so that the workforce can feel secure. We will reduce fears over job security and remove uncertainty, for example, over pensions.

The private sector is not the only source of skills and expertise and it is not a panacea. As my noble friend Lord Graham of Edmonton and other noble Lords know well, there are over 400,000 voluntary organisations and millions of volunteers in every part of Britain. These organisations make a significant contribution to the health and dynamism of the economy and society, empowering local communities, strengthening citizenship and helping to build neighbourhoods and communities.

The voluntary sector is often well placed to work in partnership with the Government in delivering public services, because it already works so effectively with many parts of our communities nation-wide. Indeed, Government have much to learn from the flexible and innovative approach of many in the voluntary sector and their capacity to meet the needs of local people sensitively and responsively. Programmes such as Sure Start, Neighbourhood Renewal and the New Deal for Young People, involve working in close partnership with the public, private and voluntary sectors, particularly in areas of social deprivation--a point well made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth. The Government want to encourage the voluntary sector to flourish. I am pleased to be sponsor Minister for a review of the legal and regulatory framework to further the contribution of this strong, independent and diverse sector. We want to see increased growth in this sector in the future.

As has been clear from the debate, at the moment we are particularly aware of our interdependence and our mutual responsibility as citizens. It is an appropriate time, therefore, for us to underline the importance of public service in maintaining and indeed strengthening society, both within Britain and internationally, and to pay tribute to those involved in their day-to-day lives with public service. I believe that our debate today has played a valuable part in furthering that discussion, and I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part.