Call for stronger management of social services

Headlines: August 1st, 1997

Sir Herbert Laming, Chief Inspector of Social Services, calls for stronger management in his annual report. Social Services departments provide for children and old people and for those of all ages who are disabled in some way. The cost of services has risen from £4b in 1991/92 to almost £8b in 1996/97.The issues for social services managers is how to improve quality of service when legislation has brought additional responsibilities and the population is ageing and making greater demands.

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Quango shake-up

Headlines: July 28th, 1997

Quangos are, reputedly, the weakest area of government, but among the big spenders. One of the reason behind this view is their low visibility, which breeds suspicion. The Government’s approach to re-inventing government in quangoland has now become clear with the publication of the Scottish and Welsh Devolution White Papers and the statement by Dr David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on unelected public bodies.Reform of the quango structure is top of the reform agenda. In Wales, for example, it has been decided to abolish nine quangos and merge three more. It is proposed that the Welsh Assembly will have the right to review and restructure most of the remaining bodies. It will also have the power to transfer functions to local authorities. A key aspect of the role of the proposed Scottish Parliament will be to maintain an effective oversight of the Scottish public bodies with similar powers to the Welsh Assembly.

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Public appointments cleared of political influence charge

Headlines: July 21st, 1997

The concern expressed in many quarters about appointments to Quango Boards and NHS bodies has been allayed by the Second Report of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The widespread belief that these appointments are not made on merit, but on political favour, have been conclusively disproved. The Report for the year ending in March 1997 shows that only 10.3% of appointees to the 1753 posts, declared political activity in the last 5 years. Of this number 5.9% had an affiliation with the Conservative Party and 3.3% with the Labour Party.The appointments extend across 230 executive non-departmental bodies and 654 NHS bodies. In total they have over 8000 Board members who have responsibility for spending some £40b in a year.

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Electronic government – VAT change

Headlines: July 17th, 1997

Approval by Customs and Excise of payment card VAT accounting arrangements is a major step towards electronic government services. AMEX and VISA can now offer suppliers a system that produces an electronic file containing as much detail as a paper invoice. This eliminates a whole chain of paperwork. Development work started two years ago and trials in the last three months have convinced Customs that the system is reliable.Customs were concerned that there is a clearly identifiable audit trail. The trial has demonstrated that the data provided in the electronic file will provide a trail through which it will be possible to verify that the correct amount of VAT has been calculated and accounted for. Initially there were also doubts about transactions where more than one bank is involved.

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Search for integrated transport policy

Headlines: July 16th, 1997

Gavin Strang, Minister for Transport, announced the Government’s commitment to seek an integrated transport policy. He said: “In the coming months we will be looking to develop a proper integrated transport policy for the UK”. Dr Strang warned that to continue as we are is no longer an option: “Many of our towns and cities are creaking at the seams, and something must be done. There are no quick fixes, but no one should think they can sit back and leave it all up to the Government.”The aim is to produce a White paper in the Spring of 1998 setting out the long term proposals. This timescale is extremely tight. Apart from central government departments and local authorities there are many other groups with a stake in the transport system who will have to be consulted.

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Restoring confidence in Government

Headlines: July 15th, 1997

The power of governments to influence and deliver policies is under threat from many directions. In recent years public support for government has declined world wide. Levels of trust have fallen, doubts have been expressed about standards of accountability and a feeling has grown that governments are becoming more remote from people. Public Service Minister David Clark on a visit Washington is finding out how the US administration is addressing this issue.Dr Clark speaking about his visit said: “A key problem facing many democracies is the growing estrangement between governments and their peoples – a feeling that governments are out of touch and unaware of the needs of the ordinary person. My job is to find responses to these problems – ways to bring government and the people together, through listening, learning, and being more open and responsive. The US administration share my concern, and my visit is aimed at putting our heads together to share practical knowledge and experience about how we can make government better.”

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Green light for first school PFI project

Headlines: July 11th, 1997

The final contract for building the Sir John Colfox School, Bridport in Dorset is likely to be signed within a matter of days. Dorset County Council have reached agreement with their private sector partner, Jarvis plc, in just over one year. Building is due to start next month.This is the first new school to be built through a public and private sector partnership under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI). It also has the distinction of being the first local authority PFI project. On a visit to the site, Education and Employment Minister, Dr Kim Howells said: “This is good news for all local education authorities and schools around the country. It shows that public private partnership projects can and will be delivered in an acceptable timescale.

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Freedom of information slowdown – no conspiracy

Headlines: July 11th, 1997

Advocates of freedom of information who were disappointed that a Bill did not find a place in the current programme were further depressed by slippage in the White Paper timetable. The announcement that publication of the White Paper had slipped from before to after the Summer recess of Parliament caused concern and allegations of conspiracy. It was alleged that senior civil servants were seeking to water down the draft White Paper by widening and extending the escape clauses. These clauses are currently thought to provide exemption from disclosure on grounds of national security or economic factors.The First Division Association, the trade union for Britain’s top civil servants, today dismissed the allegation that their members are trying to block the White Paper.General Secretary, Jonathan Baume, said: “There is absolutely no evidence that senior civil servants are opposed to the freedom of information legislation, in fact quite the contrary. The FDA has been campaigning for a freedom of information act since 1983, with strong support from our members. This is a complex piece of legislation and both Ministers and civil servants may have concerns about some of the details. It may be that the Government’s timetable is simply too tight. But it is Ministers who must take the final decision. Once they have done so, I have every confidence that civil servants will implement it with the professionalism and efficiency that Ministers themselves were praising just a few weeks ago.

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Nolan boosts confidence in local government

Headlines: July 9th, 1997

The Nolan investigation into standards in local government found that there is no fundamental malaise. What they did find was a lack of clarity about standards, which Lord Nolan said could lead to wrongdoing. The 39 recommendations of the Committee mainly address this problem and it is this tough approach which will raise the confidence of local communities in their councils.The recommendations include a new code of conduct to spell out individual responsibilities and the creation of a standards committee for each authority which would have the effect of keeping standards on the agenda. There would also be a local government tribunal which would put much stronger external constraints on all councils. The Report calls for the controversial surcharge system to be abolished and replaced with a new offence of misuse of public office. The penalties would range from imprisonment, fine to disqualification. For minor wrongdoing, such as bullying officers, the penalty would be suspension for up to three months. Lord Nolan said the current surcharge arrangements mean that auditors act as investigator, prosecutor, judge and jury. The new offence would extend beyond local authorities and apply to all public office holders.

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Search for better government extends north east

Headlines: July 8th, 1997

David Clark, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, extended his search to the north east for feedback on what people want from Government. This follows a visit to Europe where he launched his campaign for less burdensome European regulation for citizens and businesses.He selected Newcastle for the first of a series of fact-finding ‘listen and learn’ tours to look at Government through the eyes of businessmen, public servants and the general public. ‘Only in this way’, said Dr Clark, ‘can we give the people of this country the Government they want’. “I shall be consulting widely with people who use public services every day to find out what they think about them. I will also be talking to service providers, business representatives, consumer organisations and others,” he said. “I want to actively involve the public in developing better services for their use.”

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