Select Committee on Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (Questions 321 - 339)




  321.  Mr Ballard, can I welcome you with your colleagues this afternoon. We know that you are so experienced in the ways of Select Committees and so good at dealing with us that it will not worry you if we give you five minutes extra interrogation by starting a little earlier than usual. Could I ask you, firstly, to identify your colleagues, for the record?
  (Mr Ballard)  Thank you, Madam Chairman. John Ballard, Principal Finance Officer. On my left, Christopher Brearley, Director-General, Planning, Roads and Local Transport. On my right, David Rowlands, Director General, Railways, Aviation and Shipping.

  322.  We are very grateful to you. We have been looking at your Annual Report, and the Deputy Prime Minister does say, very clearly, in that, that he is seeking to ensure greater coherence and a more integrated approach to policy. What are the most significant examples of the successful integration of your policies?
  (Mr Ballard)  If I may. I think the last year has been a period in which we have sort to make the two Departments work successfully as one; the underlying objective, as Andrew Turnbull outlined to the Environment Sub-Committee last week, was to deliver, across the range of programmes that the two former Departments were concerned with, to ensure we got better synergy between them. The clearest example of where we are hoping to demonstrate this is through the Integrated Transport White Paper, which, as you know, is to be published shortly, after the CSR.

  323.  You are going to give us a definition of "shortly", are you?
  (Mr Ballard)  I do not think I can improve upon what Andrew Turnbull said to you last week, Madam Chairman, so I am afraid I cannot give you anything more exact. The Integrated Transport White Paper will be, I think, the first example. We are also hoping to publish shortly thereafter a document on Sustainable Development in connection with implementing Kyoto. So those, I think, will be the two leading examples of how we are seeking to demonstrate in a real way the benefits of bringing these two Departments together.

  324.  Before we follow that up, can you tell us how close you are to your desire to have a 25 per cent of staff moves being across the divide?
  (Mr Ballard)  Obviously it depends a bit what period you take, but in terms of the——

  325.  Let us take one that gives a reflection we can recognise?
  (Mr Ballard)  Right. In terms of the posts being advertised and being filled, at the moment, month on month, we are very close, in terms of meeting that 25 per cent, it is a question of 23, 25.

  326.  So, in terms of being filled, we are talking about new posts since the Department was merged?
  (Mr Ballard)  No. We are saying the Department has a policy whereby all the posts that come up for vacancy are advertised, so that, if somebody moves, their post becomes vacant, their post in turn is advertised, so there is a regular turnover of staff across the Department. Posts at any level are open to anybody at the level of the posts concerned, they may apply for it. The record, I think, generally, is that, in terms of posts being filled that way, about a quarter are being filled by people across the former divide. So we are confident that we are demonstrating that commitment and meeting it.

  327.  The Permanent Secretary did tell, of course, our other half that it was the view of the Department of Transport staff that they had been taken over; would you agree with that view?
  (Mr Ballard)  I am flanked, if I might say so, by representatives of the two former Departments, so I——

  328.  You are suggesting we ask them?
  (Mr Ballard)  They might like to add to what I say. But, certainly, I do not think, again, I can improve on what Andrew Turnbull said to you, which was there is no doubt there was that feeling about, the Board and senior management are doing their best to tackle it, but we acknowledge that it is not an instant process and needs to be continually worked at.

Mr Pickles

  329.  The two computers systems within the various separate Departments could not speak to one another, that is right, and you are using two different word processing systems; how successful have you been now in enabling the old Department of Transport to speak to the old Department of the Environment?
  (Mr Ballard)  It is true that when the two Departments were put together there were difficulties in communication, but we had been working together, although not formally merged, for a period of a month or so, and we had already identified this, obviously, as an urgent area to put right. In effect, we have achieved that, enabling the two existing systems to talk to each other in a reasonable way; it does not give complete compatibility, which is why we are rolling out an adaptation of what was the Environment Department's system across the whole Department, in effect, picking up the best attributes of the two former systems. That is well on the way, and I think by, the target is by December this year we should have a uniform system across the whole Department.

  330.  And that system's principal ingredient is what, in terms of information technology?
  (Mr Ballard)  It is based on a 16 Bit technology.

  331.  That is not precisely what I am asking, but do continue?
  (Mr Ballard)  We call it ETHOS, which is the system which is actually in place.


  332.  Very suitable for a Government Department, I am sure.
  (Mr Ballard)  I can give you a note on the technicalities of it, but basically what it enables us to do is communicate, in terms of text and messages, and do all the standard things you would expect on an office computer, in terms of timetabling, and so on.

Mr Pickles

  333.  So things like diary, etc., etc.?
  (Mr Ballard)  That is right, yes.

  334.  I was not clear, have you now opted for WordPerfect or for Microsoft Word?
  (Mr Ballard)  We have gone for Word.

  335.  Presumably, this has been quite expensive, and there have been a number of stories circulating, actually, how expensive; would you care to put a figure on how much it has cost to put it together?
  (Mr Ballard)  I think it is in the region of about £3 million, overall. I think that is right.[1]

  336.  So the stories of £5 million are widely inaccurate?
  (Mr Ballard)  I think so, but if I am proved to be wrong, on examination, I will send you a note.

Mr Pickles:  That is fine.

Mr Bennett

  337.  Now you have got these computers sorted out, is there any reason why the Department cannot send to the Select Committees its evidence on a computer disk as well as in a paper copy, which would cut down our administration substantially?
  (Mr Ballard)  We could certainly look at that, in terms, I think we need to ensure that our systems are compatible, but it seems to me a reasonable request, which we will obviously investigate.

Chairman:  Think what fun you could have, snarling up our system. Mr Stevenson.

Mr Stevenson:  Can I change the subject, Mrs Dunwoody?

Chairman:  Please.

Mr Stevenson

  338.  To road maintenance, Mr Ballard. I understand the 1997 National Road Maintenance Condition Survey indicated that all roads, including motorways, were the worst recorded, the condition of them, and for, according to my little scribble here, principal roads, non-motorways, of course, had deteriorated sharply and were the worst recorded, a pretty grim picture. I seem to recall that a written answer recently by the Roads Minister on this issue indicated that extra resources had been made available for motorways and trunk roads, but no centrally-held figures were available to indicate the backlog of maintenance on non-motorway, non-trunk roads, principal, local authority roads. Is that the case, do you not hold such figures?
  (Mr Ballard)  Perhaps I could ask Mr Brearley to answer that.
  (Mr Brearley)  The position is, Madam Chairman, that the Local Government Association have made an assessment, their assessment, of what it might cost to deal with the backlog, and that is a figure, I believe, of something over £5 billion over 20 years; they are arguing for a level of expenditure of about £250 million a year, ongoing, to deal with the situation. That is their figure rather than the Government's. I think it is true to say that our experts do not altogether agree with the methodology that they are using to assess what the value is.

  339.  I am sure that is the case, but do I take it then, through Mrs Dunwoody, that the answer to my question is, as far as the DETR is concerned, there are no centrally-held figures, you have no figures to indicate what the backlog of road maintenance requirements for non-trunk roads, non-motorways is?
  (Mr Brearley)  Yes.

1   Note by Witness: The total cost of the Department's unified office automation system, ETHOS, was £3.596 million. This includes in-house costs. Back

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