Consumer poll cheers ministers

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The Independent Online
THE PUBLIC sees the National Health Service as the state service most in need of improvement, regards privatisation of the utilities as a success, and is highly enthusiastic about what it sees as steadily rising quality in the public sector-run Post Office.

These findings emerge from the most comprehensive consumer survey ever carried out by the Government. It is part of the continuing drive to make John Major's Citizen's Charter transform the quality of Britain's public services.

The survey, to be published later this month by David Davis, the junior minister responsible for the Charter, shows more than 90 per cent of the population would like to see public services subject to regular independent inspection.

Inspection is top of a list of methods favoured for improving public service quality. But 75 per cent believe that private sector competition and the introduction of performance pay also improve quality. And 70 per cent would like to see performance 'league tables' extended from education to other public services.

The survey shows that while 75 per cent of the public are 'aware' of the Citizen's Charter, it is much more familiar to the middle classes than to lower income groups.

Those for the NHS and British Rail are much better known than others.

The survey gives a unique comparative insight into how the public regards a wide range of public - and some private - services and industries. Users of specific services were asked which they regarded as being in need of improvement. In descending order they were NHS (37 per cent), council housing (34), British Rail (26), secondary schooling (26), primary schooling (25), the police (24), buses (24) and roads (22).

At the same time, users were asked about services which they believed had either improved or not deteriorated over the past year. The privatised utilities came near the top, with British Gas and British Telecom scoring 89 per cent. Supermarkets, included for the purposes of comparison, came top, with 91 per cent. While this will strongly reinforce ministers' views that where market and competitive forces operate, consumer satisfaction increases, they will be surprised to find that postal services also scored 91 per cent. The NHS scored 67 per cent, though when respondents were asked to rate their family doctors in this category, the score went up to 88 per cent. Ministers will argue this is a vindication of the fund-holding reforms.

Asked to tick a series of boxes listing preferred methods of improving quality, the respondents chose regular independent inspection (93 per cent), finding out what people want (85), giving people information about services (80), private sector competition and performance pay (75), and league tables (70).

Ministers are claiming steady improvements in service in social security and employment offices, where claimants showed low initial awareness that the Citizen's Charter applied to them. A new computerised system for registering complaints by social security claimants is being used to improve services. In one example cited in Whitehall, officials found an abnormally high number of complaints by young mothers who claim child benefits and income support - a particularly vulnerable group. It was discovered that the forms of different claimants with similar names were continually being mixed up. According to the officials this was avoided - at no extra cost - by ensuring each claimant's national insurance number was included on the forms submitted for both benefits.

Mr Davis also drew on the experience of his own sister - a clerical officer in an East Midlands employment office - to cut the time people looking for work had to wait to be interviewed. The eventual aim is to guarantee that all job- seekers keeping their appointments will be seen immediately. Officials discovered people were being kept waiting unnecessarily after comparing when they arrived with the time they were seen.