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Queen's Speech — Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:53 pm on 27th May 2010.

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Photo of Lord Bichard Lord Bichard Crossbench 12:53 pm, 27th May 2010

My Lords, it is, I know, the custom of this House for maiden speeches to be short and uncontroversial. I should like to take this opportunity to reassure noble Lords that I hope that all my contributions will be succinct. I have not always, however, managed to avoid controversy quite as easily even when I have been trying to do so, but today I will make a particular effort.

Perhaps I may say at the outset what a privilege it is to be a Member of this House and how grateful I have been for the warmth of the welcome that I have received from other Members and from the quite excellent staff supporting us. In this respect, my thanks go beyond the routine. I have been genuinely overwhelmed and delighted to meet so many old friends-or should I be more delicate and say long-standing friends? I like to think that the warmth and civility that I have encountered derives at least in part from the fact that all Members of this House share a common purpose; that is, to add value and to make a positive difference to the society in which we live. We may do that in different ways and from different perspectives, but we all entered public life because we felt that we had some small contribution to make and I think that we recognise that commitment in all our colleagues.

In my case I have for more than 40 years served as a public official, but unusually perhaps in very many different roles; namely, the chief executive of two local authorities, Brent, and Gloucestershire where I now live; the chief executive of a government agency, the Benefits Agency; a Permanent Secretary at the former Department for Education and Employment; a vice-chancellor; the chairman of two non-departmental public bodies, including at the moment, the Design Council, from which I take such pleasure; and, most recently, director of the relatively new Institute for Government.

In all those roles, I have always enjoyed, not endured, the company of politicians of all parties-well, almost always enjoyed. But I have remained determinedly apolitical, so I feel that I could not have ended in a more appropriate place than these Cross-Benches and I very much look forward to playing an active part in the life of this House. But-and this is where I hope I can avoid the controversy-I sit here as someone who believes passionately that our public services need significant reform. In spite of the collective best efforts and dedication demonstrated every day of the week by countless public servants and, let us not forget, elected representatives, too many vulnerable people, too many households and too many communities still receive services which fail to meet their needs. That is not always because of a lack of resource: I believe that very often those services are more expensive than they need to be. This is not the result of some malign intent or conspiracy, nor has it been desired by any political party in this House. But it is too often the current reality.

As we enter a new Parliament, facing unprecedented fiscal and social challenges, we can do one of two things. We can set our sights primarily, solely perhaps, on saving money by reducing the cost of existing services. But if that is the sum of our ambition, many of the current flaws will remain and perhaps be accentuated. Alternatively, we can take this opportunity to look more fundamentally at the way our public services operate, their purpose, their shape and the way in which they work, or do not work, together. What might that kind of fundamental review seek to address? It might address perhaps some issues which have sometimes been overlooked. It might, for example, seek to address seriously the way in which Whitehall departments too often continue to work and develop policy in silos at a time when our most pressing problems do not fit neatly into bureaucratic boxes. Meeting the needs of an ageing society, reducing levels of chronic health conditions and reducing the unacceptable levels of reoffending are not the responsibility of a single department and will not be resolved unless we ensure that departments, Ministers and officials work much more effectively together.

This is also perhaps the time to ask ourselves why vulnerable individuals and families still too often receive unco-ordinated services from what seems to them to be countless public local bodies-statutory and non-statutory. Those clients are often confused. The services are often ineffective and those who want to do more to help themselves find it very difficult to find a way of doing so. It sometimes seemed to me that the best we could do for some families was to provide them with a diary secretary to arrange the huge numbers of meetings that they need with public agencies. We can surely simplify these arrangements and reduce the number of narrowly defined targets, performance indicators, inspection arrangements and ring-fenced budget allocations, all of which take away the incentive and the space for enterprising public servants to use their initiatives-and sometimes just to use their commonsense-to the benefit of citizens and taxpayers.

Might we not also expect greater co-operation between all of our public agencies and the way in which they purchase and use basic resources? When we spend, as we do, £220 billion a year on purchasing goods and materials, why is it that we still have no convincing public sector purchasing strategy? Why do we need now so many separate public sector offices around the country when more and more business can be done online? If we are honest-and I have played a part in this-the answer often has more to do with territory and sovereignty than it does with logic or service to our clients.

In the past, of course, our response to many of these questions has too often been to restructure our public organisations-and, again if we are honest, more often than not that has failed. At the Institute for Government we calculated recently that every time a government department is reorganised it costs £15 million to start with, and very rarely do those reorganisations deliver results. Surely the time has come to jettison our obsession with redesigning the structures of government and to concentrate instead on redesigning the services themselves so that they are shaped around clients, not around providers; so that they are seamless, not fragmented; so that they are functional, not unreliable; and so that they are accessible, not impenetrable. We spend billions of pounds on services but the public sector still rarely uses the skills of our world-class service design industry to ensure quality and cost effectiveness. Now is the time for people in the public sector to realise the potential power of service design to create better services at less cost.

Finally, our work at the institute has shown that we now have probably the most centralised governance system in the world, with power concentrated in Whitehall and Westminster. It has shown, too, that this has accentuated many of the problems I have touched upon. There are few here or in the other place who do not now agree the need for this change and for power with accountability to rest closer to local communities, and for our civil society to take its place as a genuine partner in our activities.

Improving our public services is a priority but success will not be achieved by yet more targets, reorganisations and pilots. Success is more difficult: it is about changing the way people behave and the way they work together. The very good news-and the reason why what I have said is not controversial-is that there are ever larger numbers of staff, elected representatives, trustees and governing bodies out there who want to bring about this kind of change because they want to focus more and more on their clients and outcomes. This is a moment of opportunity as well as a moment of crisis. Equally, it is a moment for leadership rather than control. I thank your Lordships for your attention.