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Queen’s Speech - Debate (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:32 pm on 9th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Bichard Lord Bichard Crossbench 3:32 pm, 9th January 2020

My Lords, it is a new year with a new Government and there is new energy with new ideas and new policies, and even, we are told, some money. There is a sense of anticipation and, in the words of the Prime Minister, the dawning of a new golden age. What could possibly go wrong? Quite a lot could go wrong because, on past evidence, Governments in this country have found it very difficult to deliver projects, improved services, policies, targets or promises. We have become a nation that is good on ideas, ambitions and aspirations, but rather weak on achievement. As chair of the National Audit Office, I see countless examples of that week by week.

Take a look at some of our recent reports. Take a look at Crossrail, which is over budget and still not there. Take a look at HS2. Take a look at the starter home target of 200,000 houses, which delivered, well, none at all, actually. If you have time, take a look at the Great Western Railway modernisation or perhaps the decommissioning of our nuclear submarines. That has been a policy commitment since 1990, which so far has led to no vessels at all being decommissioned and untold riches being spent on stockpiling disused submarines. We now have more submarines in storage than in operation.

You can add to those recent failures universal credit, countless failed IT projects and, as many noble Lords have said in the debate, social care—or the lack of it. We are wasting billions of pounds when resources are tight and at the same time failing to deliver policies, many of which would help some of the most disadvantaged people in our society. So I often ask myself: why does this happen and what could we do to improve the current situation?

We at the National Audit Office are not actually interested in being mortuary attendants; we would actually quite like to improve public services. So I make a few suggestions to a new Government who may be in listening mode. For a start, we could make clear, from the very top of government, that delivering outcomes successfully matters just as much as endless policy commitments. We could be careful to ensure that policies and targets are stretching but achievable rather than designed primarily to grab the headlines and capture short-term political advantage. We could limit legislation so that the programme for any Session of Parliament is realistic and manageable. We could do more to ensure that civil servants are equipped with the skills to deliver services and projects effectively. We could, for example, insist on officials being required to spend a reasonable amount of time in operational or project management posts before entering the Civil Service, because it was clear to me all those years ago when I was a civil servant that policy development mattered and was recognised much more than delivery, and I fear that that is still the case.

We could hold people, civil servants as well as Ministers, more accountable for failures and stop the recycling of incompetence. We could ensure that competent Ministers stay in post for longer than the current average of around 15 months and that civil servants are not constantly churned to benefit their careers at the expense of results. We could devolve more power closer to communities, because large centralised bureaucracies rarely deliver successfully, and, frankly, in recent times local government and the voluntary sector have shown themselves to be more competent, agile and trustworthy than large central government departments and agencies. We could do a lot more to learn the lessons of failure and from our mistakes rather than seek to explain away the inexplicable or defend the indefensible. Finally, we could better understand and exploit the potential of digital technology to transform health, social care and many other essential services.

There are many reasons why the reputations of both Westminster and Whitehall are at such a low ebb, but in part it is because people have lost trust in their ability to deliver improvements, not least in public services. Addressing that has to be a priority for this new Government, and success will not be achieved by yet more promises to do better or to try harder, or indeed by just throwing money at the problem. That is why I for one have welcomed the signals from No. 10 that the Prime Minister is supporting radical changes in the way we govern, even if I may not have used exactly the same words, but that support and interest needs to be sustained in the face of many other pressures. However, all revolutions have to start somewhere and maybe this one should start with the Government saying very clearly, “We will promise only what we can deliver, but we will deliver what we promise.” Or to put it another way, “Let us promise a little less and deliver a lot more.”