Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1 - 19)




  1. Lord Falconer, could I welcome you to the Committee. I did say when we saw you last time, which was not very long ago, we had such an enjoyable time we might want to invite you back.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I was deeply flattered I was invited back so quickly.

  2. I think we have developed a relationship now, it can only grow and grow. Thank you for coming and talking to us and answering questions about the Government's Annual Report. The Committee has wanted to have an annual hearing on the Annual Report and I am sorry because of other business we have not got round to it promptly this time. I know we are talking about a Report that came out last summer. It is something that we think it is important to do, and so we would like to have a chance to do it. I do not know if you would like to say anything to kick off?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I thought not, it seems more sensible to answer questions. I have no statement I would like to make. Could I take my jacket off?

  3. Please. What would be quite helpful to start with is just to remind us about some of the Government's thinking behind the production of an annual report? What was the gap that it was intended to fill? Is it filling it?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes. The purpose of an annual report is for the government to give an account of what it has done over the previous year. It is the government itself describing what it has done, doing it by reference to what its priorities are and also seeking to openly describe where it believes it is making progress, but also to describe areas where there have been problems. In doing this the government will inevitably seek to describe in its own terms what has happened, but this is not a report of an independent body, this is a report of the government itself describing what it has done. We believe it to be a sensible and important thing for a government to do. It is right that each year, and at roughly the same time each year, the government should in one document seek to set out what it sees its achievements to have been and what it sees the areas of problems are. Even though inevitably a government will seek to defend itself in such a document, the discipline of having to give such a report is a good and important discipline and it is something which we intend to continue. The consideration of the report by Parliament and the wider public is a means whereby the government's record over the previous year can be debated and considered in a reasoned way, but in a way that focuses on one document which seeks in one place to set out what is thought to have been the achievements, or otherwise, of that particular year. Before we produced the Annual Report there were departmental annual reports, which have been published for quite some time, which are important documents. They are not widely read documents, they are a source of information for the people who deal with that particular department but they have very little wider currency. The consequence each time of publishing the report has been that there has been a debate in the Commons and there has been widespread press consideration of the report. All too often the focus of the press consideration has been not on how the government has done over the last year but, "There are three errors, four unfortunate photographs and insufficient this or that in the report". The focus has always been, was the report itself a good idea rather than the substance of the issues. I hope that as time goes by and the report becomes an established part of what every government has to do then people would use it as a means of focusing on what the government has achieved over the last year; is its account of itself a fair account and what more needs to be done. We think it is an important way of engaging Parliament and the wider public in what the government does.

  4. That is very helpful. Could you just tell us something about how it is produced? Is it a Civil Service production?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is a Civil Service production. The last three years that it has been done somebody in the centre has basically circulated all government departments with requests for information. Those are then editorialised down to what went into the three reports. It is written by civil servants and the information for it comes by a trawl round the relevant Whitehall departments. On each occasion it has had an introduction from the Prime Minister, which is obviously more of a political introduction, but it is obviously an introduction that comes from somebody who is the head of the government.

  5. It is a Civil Service document and it is Prime Ministerial document.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Exactly. It is a government document. Documents that come from the government will very, very frequently come from a combination of politicians and civil servants. The distinction seems to me to be not between the Civil Service and ministers, it is between a government document on the one hand and a party political document on the other. It is a government document, not a party political document.

  6. If it was a party document how different would it be?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) If it was a party document it would be saying, in effect, if it is a Labour government, which it is at the moment, Labour is better on these policies because it has done this, the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats would do badly because . . . It would be a partisan, engaged document in party political terms. I do not deny that this is a document which is the government describing its own achievements, which is, therefore, a document where there is inevitably a bias because it is the government. It is not a party political document. If it were a party political document it would not be a document in which the Civil Service could engage.

  7. When you read someone like Peter Riddell, who on any test is one of the saner, more balanced commentators who does not get easily carried away; when he described it as "vacuous drivel" he said, "I read and re-read the 64 pages and can find no other way of describing one of the most disgraceful documents ever published by the Stationery Office". Why should a man like Peter Riddell say something like that?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I entirely agree, Peter is an entirely sensible man. I do not think if he had an opportunity to compare 1998/1999 and this one, which is the one that he was commenting on, they are similar in style, they are similar in content but with the previous report Peter Riddell did not have the difficulty that he had with the 1999/2000 Report. Indeed, he was perfectly balanced and not unsupportive in his response to 1998/1999 Government Annual Report.

Mr Oaten

  8. So, it has got worse!
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) If you look at the content of the two they look exactly the same. I do not know why it was that that which was acceptable in 1998/1999 became "vacuous drivel" in 1999/2000.


  9. There are two arguments, one is that it started off being a much longer document, that tried to measure activity against some serious targets, manifesto commitments, and it has now become a much shorter document, full of pictures, and there is no measurement against manifesto commitments there at all.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Remember this document for the first time, this is 1999/2000, was published accompanied by a huge amount of detail broken down into various parts of the country that was available on the website. So at the same time that this was published, if you put in your post code you could see what the position was in relation to manifesto commitments about how many schools in E16 had class sizes below 30, what the position was in relation to how quickly you would deal with youth offenders in a particular place and what the expenditure had been, a very significant amount of detail. So the report in 1999/2000, and indeed the report in 1998/99, although it was not accompanied by that amount of detail on the website, had to be set against that provision of information as well, which is now permanently available, albeit being updated.

  10. Do you know what percentage of the population have access to the internet?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not know what the percentage is but the percentage is probably more, I have to say, than the percentage that ever bought this.

  11. I think it is about 30 per cent. 32 per cent, I am told.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I have to tell you that 32 per cent of the population did not buy the Annual Report. So a very large number more have access to that information than in practice got access to— I am sure the percentage that got access to the report was more than the people who bought it.

  12. I think you are right in saying that the most interesting part of this is the ability to find out through pressing your postcode about your own area.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  13. I think that is genuinely useful, innovative information, but you are not told in the Annual Report that you can do that.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think that is a perfectly reasonable shortcoming of the report. It should do, I accept that. The report, at the time that it was published, was accompanied by very substantial press publicity that did make that point. I accept that it should obviously say that.

  14. Can I just ask one other thing before handing over. It refers you to the internet but it does not refer you to the fact that you can find out your own area information, which is the point.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I accept that.

  15. There has been a proposal, as you will be aware, both from this Committee and now from all the Select Committees, in the form of the Liaison Committee, that the Prime Minister should properly come and talk to the Liaison Committee about the Annual Report because in every sense it is the Prime Minister's document. He introduces it and you are told you have to write to No.10 to find out more about it and so on, so it is a very much anchored in No.10 production. The Prime Minister has resisted this suggestion. Would it not be just a very sensible development in the spirit of innovation that the report itself is, if the Prime Minister just once a year was to come along and speak to the Chairmen of Select Committees, not about the detail of policy content but about the nature of the enterprise?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) He opened a debate in the House of Commons on the Annual Report at the end of July when it was published and was, therefore, available to debate both the programme content of the report and the style and effectiveness and appropriateness of the report before the whole of the House of Commons.

  16. But being a man of the world you will know that the kinds of exchanges that take place on those occasions are not the kind of reflective probing that would take place in a meeting of the Chairmen of Select Committees.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is the major way in which the Prime Minister is held to account in our system. I am one of the Ministers responsible for the Annual Report, so in relation to the detail I am hopefully able to respond to the Committee's detailed questions in a deliberative and reflective way.

  17. So it is not a suggestion that we could ask you to pass along the system?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I cannot stop you asking me.

Mr Oaten

  18. I am a fan of annual reports, I think they are a good idea, and I take the point that it is easy to criticise them on picky things, and I will come on to the picky things in a moment. Just on the wider issue, would it not be better if in some way there was some kind of independent assessment of Government? I entirely understand that there is a spin on this. It is good that it does not mention the words "New Labour" in it once as far as I can see but there is a positive spin which any business puts on annual reports. In a sense are we not missing a trick here, that some kind of independent assessment within it would stack it up a great deal more?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We have thought very hard about the extent to which you want independent validation of what is in the report. The conclusion we have come to is what you are always producing in these reports are basically statistics and conclusions which come from Government Departments and the extent to which they are accurate or not hopefully will not be in doubt. The extent to which the conclusions that one draws from those figures are correct is something that think-tanks, Parliament, the bodies that consider this report will inevitably have to reach their own conclusions in relation to. Although it is something that we have thought greatly about, we do not really see how in practice the Annual Report is the right place to incorporate this. I think the right course in relation to this is one ensures that one always explains how one measures things, how one has set targets, and then it is for Parliament, the press, the think-tanks and the experts to say whether we are doing as well or as badly as the report may say.

  19. On the accessibility of it, and I could run through all the questions in terms of how many people do get hold of it and how many people have purchased it, and I am sure you have got the answers to that, but just remind me what do we currently send folk who pay income tax? When they get their income tax demand is—
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We do not send them the Annual Report.

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