Committee wheels keep on turning

Westminster may be in Marie Celeste mode as the party conference season entices politicians out of their normal habitat, but there will be a steady stream of reports from the select committees to remind us that the wheels of parliament continue to grind. There were several published today, and there will be more to watch out for.

The Public Accounts Committee reported today on the scope for huge savings to the taxpayer if police procurement becomes more efficient. Its Chair, Margaret Hodge, noted that the price paid by different forces for basic items like standard-issue boots varied from £25 to £114, or £14 to £43 for handcuffs. The committee pointed out that forces could make big savings by bulk-buying basic kit, but had been unable to agree on simple things, like how many pockets they should have on their uniforms. And attempts to get more cooperation via a central online purchasing "hub" had failed.

The Science and Technology Committee today complained about an "unacceptable", lack of transparency in many clinical trials, with many unregistered and unpublished, and the information that they generate left unavailable the scientific community and the public. The committee urged that all trials conducted on NHS treatments—and all other trials receiving public funding—should be registered and their results published in a scientific journal.

The Transport Committee's report on access to transport for disabled people says standards are still unacceptably poor, and that the government must work harder to improve accessibility. With 11.5m people in the UK living with a recognised disability and more than a fifth of those experiencing some difficulty when using transport networks, the committee argues that it is essential that the Department for Transport delivers its Accessibility Action Plan. Chair Louise Ellman said "Changes made ahead of the 2012 Paralympic Games delivered access for disabled people to significantly more parts of the public transport network for the first time and highlighted the immense value of such improvements for all. Yet a year later, there is a risk that some of the momentum from London 2012 is being lost because further key accessibility improvements planned by the Department for Transport are been watered-down or abandoned."

Tomorrow (Wednesday 18th) the Health Committee give its view on how the NHS should respond to the Francis Report on the scandal in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Trust. The report made 290 recommendations and the Health Committee's view on how the NHS has to change, in response, will certainly be influential.

The Public Accounts Committee (also Wednesday 18th) is due to issue its latest report on the ill-fated NHS National Programme for IT on Wednesday. The saga of the multi-billion pound programme, now dismantled, is a classic of the genre. It was intended to reform the way that the NHS in England shares information, allowing, for example, a patient's detailed care records to be accessed if the patient needed urgent treatment elsewhere in the country. But the scheme has not delivered benefits on anything like the promised scale, and remains mired in technical and contractual problems.

Next Thursday (26th) the same committee will report on the Rural Broadband programme. In July the National Audit Office reported that the rural broadband project, which aims to give 90 per cent of homes in the UK access to superfast broadband, is moving forward late and without the benefit of strong competition to protect public value. The committee was concerned that the target would only be met nearly 2 years late, and that the hoped-for the private sector finance would not materialise. Private money had been expected to meet 36% of the£1.2 billion cost, but it is now expected to contribute just 23%, leaving the taxpayer to cover the rest.

Next week (I'm not sure of the exact date) the Culture, Media and Sport Committee issues its report on the Creative Industries. I can exclusively reveal that they're in favour of them.