Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



Examination of witnesses (Questions 500 - 516)

WEDNESDAY 12 APRIL 2000

MR IAN MCCARTNEY, MR JONATHAN REES and MR ALAN WHYSALL

  500. I agree with you. I think partnerships work better when they are proper partnerships and people want to be part of them. The problem I have is things like tertiary colleges, which were taken out of local authority control and set up almost as businesses, and their willingness to work with the DfEE, local authorities, the techs etc., has been questioned at times because of their drive for commercialism. Yet there are still vast amounts of public money that they are spending and they still have a great impact on a lot of government initiatives and local authority initiatives. Some of those are not too far away from us. They are a little bit sticky at coming together.
  (Mr McCartney) You are trying to tease me in the same way Mr Trend has and you will have the same success. The problems that you and I know exist in a particular college pre-date consultation. It is about culture and that culture is changing and will change and continue to change. Increasingly, the government, whether it is in education, whether it is universities or industry, whether it is about adult learning, whether it is about post-16 education, the whole process is about cooperation in terms of education, but it is more than that, is it not? In terms of regeneration, it is bringing together education, health, local government, bringing all the key factors together to provide a cooperative approach to delivery of public services and the regeneration of public services in the community. Any organisation that feels they can swim against the tide in this will have a rude awakening. Such is the pressure for change, organisations that feel it necessary not to engage will lose out.

  501. You talk about particular single regeneration budgets and the consultation that is necessary to make those work, but it does take an awful lot of time that was not there previously, officer time, members' time, parliamentarians' time, etc. Is the government actually building that into the process, the bidding process, that it should be recognised that that does take an awful lot more time and costs more? The results are much better but the administrative processing takes additional time and effort in doing that.
  (Mr McCartney) Consultation is not an easy option. The easy option is not to consult but to impose. We have seen where that has got us over the years. That is why in the code here we are setting down basic minimum standards in terms of the capacity for those we want to consult with to be able to be effective in the consultation: time for them to prepare their case, time to advocate their case, time to submit their case, time to be able to be interviewed about their case or whatever. Therefore, the minimum standards that we are creating, that I am responsible for, are trying to ensure that when consultation takes place it is a meaningful consultation with a certainty about the outcome in the sense of a fulfilling involvement of those who have been consulted and potential at the end of it of seeing in clarity what has happened to their submissions now the government intends to proceed. You invite me to make comments about the DETR in terms of SRB.

  502. Only as an example.
  (Mr McCartney) As an example, the DETR are one of the departments of state who are actually taking consultation and giving it a bear hug and they are very committed to expansion of consultation and the utilisation of consultation and the programmes that they want and need to deliver. That is important.

Chairman

  503. We had discussions with the Audit Commission about the difficulties of evaluating consultation and much consultation can be inappropriate, badly focused and so on. I wonder if from the centre the Cabinet Office is going to provide some assistance there. Is it going to provide some assistance on evaluating evaluation?
  (Mr McCartney) We are inviting the departments as minimum standards to monitor their processes. That is, one, to make sure that at least minimum standards are applied. Two, that the processes themselves and how they are managed in a practical way are effective as far as the consultees are concerned. Thirdly, that in monitoring and evaluating you seek the views of those you are consulting. As often as not we have had a flea in our ear on occasions about what we thought was good practice but those we were consulting did not think so and, therefore, we had to respond to that. In short, the answer is at all stages I am building into this process the capacity to upgrade and improve our consultation processes based on the evidence both from our own experience and the experience of those who have been consulted.

Mr Trend

  504. Is there any guidance on value for money in this? Will there be specific amounts or percentages to indicate how much money is appropriate for different sorts of bodies to spend on consultation?
  (Mr McCartney) I can give you some figures on how much some of the consultations have cost so far if you are interested, Jonathan has some of those. Each department has responsibility for their own budget and one must ensure that consultations are indeed value for money and that the minimum standards will ensure the quality of them. Some consultations will cost a lot and some will not, it depends on the nature of the consultation and the purpose of it. Would it help if I give you some of the examples?

  505. It might but can I ask you another question. You have got a code and to a certain degree it will be policed. If a department wants to spend a large amount of money consulting on some area which others might think is inappropriate, how will the code be used to say that is something that should or should not have been done?
  (Mr McCartney) The appropriateness of the nature of the consultation is a matter for the department, it is their consultation, it is in their ownership. What we are doing in terms of the code is providing the minimum standards that should be applied in terms of the code. What they do in terms of the cost of that is internal to their budget. I can say this openly and honestly, that I know of no Government minister who is not constantly reminded in this Government about prudence with a purpose, ensuring value for money. I wake up to this rallying call every morning in my one-bedroomed flat in Kensington—Kennington, sorry.

Chairman

  506. What a revealing slip.
  (Mr McCartney) That was just a dream.

Mr Trend

  507. Can I try one more on enforcement of this. I am sure value for money is very important but, leaving that to one side, what will happen if departments flagrantly do not allow enough time for consultation or do not consult the right people and somebody jumps up in the House of Commons and says to you "you have got a code and Minister X is breaking it", what are you going to do about it?
  (Mr McCartney) Maybe a Minister should not say this but I would hope that your Committee as well as the Cabinet Office is there if there is a department or a minister in particular who constantly wants to breach the minimum standards and is plainly doing so and there is no good reason for doing so. The whole point is to call them to account. There are occasions where there will be a necessity to have less of a consultation. I can give you an example. Say if you are negotiating issues around Europe and a decision has to be made by colleagues and you have 14 other countries in the room with you, that is fine but an effective way of dealing with that surely must be to go back to where I started an hour ago, in the pre-consultation and the consultation process. You are informed by that process, so if you have to make a decision which is outside that framework you have at least got a defence and a knowledge of what you are doing and I think it is important that is the case. We are very serious about asking ministers to comply and operate this in an effective way.

Mr White

  508. You have painted what I think is a very good picture of what the Government should be doing but we were listening to Rachel Lomax this morning talking about the inherited SERPS problem and she simply said that her department does not have e-mail, to the majority of staff e-mail is a foreign concept. There will be problems like that where the best is not available yet. What is the Cabinet Office doing about ensuring that departments are addressing those issues seriously?
  (Mr McCartney) We have got an e-strategy which we published last week. I will send you a copy of it, as well as the Committee.

  509. I have got one.
  (Mr McCartney) We are setting out a very strict timetable for implementation, setting out the process of it, the way in which the pattern will operate, the management responsibility with ministers taking personal responsibility for driving through this very large and challenging programme.

Chairman

  510. Could I just ask one further question. In the code, or the introduction to it, there is a proposal for a central register of current consultations. I am intrigued by this. Does this mean if you are a consultation junkie and you just want to get involved that there will be a place you can tap into?
  (Mr McCartney) Yes. We want to do two things. The first is to provide a website, through the No.10 website, a register of consultation documents so that people know of the consultations that are taking place. There are hundreds taking place at any one time, a myriad of consultations taking place. In addition to doing that, if we can provide a facility where through e-mail, where they have got a distinct interest, by using the technology we can involve them in the consultation, or have the capacity to involve them in consultation. We have also got access to our best practice site where people can access that and see what are the practical things they can do, the decisions that have been taken out of consultation to improve service delivery. It is all about using new technology, ready access to the consultations, and if they wish to participate because they have got an interest in these areas they can do so.

  511. Is this going to cover every public body, every kind of consultation? Is everyone who engages in consultation through the public sector going to have to register their consultation with this database? Who is going to hold the database?
  (Mr McCartney) The proposal at the moment is for central Government and I think we should crawl before we start running. I am not saying that as an excuse. I firmly believe that in introducing new systems we do not go for the big bang solution, as governments have done in the past of all political persuasions. We should build in the system, get it up and running, show it is effective and then once that is in place, look to see what more we need to do, or can do, in terms of developing the capacity to utilise what I think is a very good idea.

  512. Where is the home for this going to be?
  (Mr McCartney) We are hoping to put it through the No.10 website. I will write you a note about it if you wish.

  513. It is an intriguing idea. I am sure we would be glad to hear about it.
  (Mr Rees) Increasingly departments already publish on their own websites so what we want to have is, in the modern jargon, a portal which will enable you to see all of the different consultation exercises that are taking place. As the Minister said, in time, when the technology is there, if you are really interested in, say, the chemical industry, and you say "can I have any consultation exercise that affects the chemical industry", it will fire it up. That will take time to deliver but clearly by the time that we have made the code final we hope to have that website up and running at least doing the basic pulling together of all the different key consultation documents.

  514. It might have the effect of attacking the problem of consultation overload because you would be able to see what was going on and not duplicating.
  (Mr Rees) Indeed. If you have any suggestions in your report I am more than happy to consider them.

  Chairman: You seem to be full of ideas yourself, if I may say so. I think we have one final question for you from Michael Trend.

Mr Trend

  515. We understand that the code is drawn up partly in response to the Neill Committee recommendation 29, reinforcing standards as one of a series of recommendations aimed at ensuring openness and preventing privileged access. I think that was the point that Neill was trying to make. These include better recording of facts about meetings between ministers, officials and outside interests, which I assume will include Members of Parliament. When are we likely to see a response to these recommendations and to the report as a whole?
  (Mr McCartney) I can only say this—and this sounds like I am a civil servant—it is soon. I am being serious. I cannot give you a date here. I am sorry I cannot, if I could I would tell you. I will undertake that as soon as I do have a date I will write to you as a Committee. If I know of a date, say, for example, in the recess I will communicate to you through the Chairman. I have tried to be very honest in answering everything but that is the one question on which I cannot give you an answer that you would find satisfactory at this moment.

Chairman

  516. Is your reply a reply to the question when are we going to see the Government's response to the Neill Committee recommendations or is it a response to this particular recommendation about the recording of certain meetings?
  (Mr McCartney) I was talking about the recording of certain meetings. I have got no responsibility for the overall recommendations of Neill. I can hear what you have said about it and I can report it back. Again, it is not an excuse, I do not have responsibility for it so there is no point me talking off the top of my head to you. I have heard what you have said, I will feed it back and I will give you a response. I am getting words from the wing here.
  (Mr Whysall) We have at least a partial response here in point three under criterion six where it says that it is desirable to keep as full an account as possible of responses, formal and informal, to consultations to ensure everyone's view is fairly considered and to help address any allegation of privileged access.

  Chairman: I think that restates the issue rather than supplies us with a solution but it is a helpful offer from the wings nevertheless. We are very grateful to the Minister for characteristically talking to us in such an open, refreshing and engaging way. I think all of this is in good hands. We are grateful for these various offers you have made to us, we will snap them all up. Thank you for coming along and talking to us.


 
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