Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1100 - 1119)



  1100. Is that still the case?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes, that is on course. We have now got a Unit that exists with an official head, Rob Smith. We have got in place the proposals and guidance as to how area based initiatives should be dealt with. The Unit is there, its structure is there, it has got a ministerial head. I report to the DPM but there is a huge amount of work to do to actually make the culture change it is seeking to achieve percolate through both at Central Government level and through to the Government Offices.

  1101. Is there a responsible Minister in the Commons?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The responsible Minister in the Commons will be Hilary Armstrong. Although I am based in the Cabinet Office I report to the DPM and the person who speaks on behalf of the Unit in the Commons is Hilary Armstrong.

  1102. I am sure this is rather esoteric stuff but what was the thinking behind lodging your Unit in DETR, getting a Cabinet Office Minister doing it? Does this not make it all rather confusing? Why is it not simply the Cabinet Office bringing together Government joined-up enterprise?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Because, first of all, you need a group of officials who have got experience in dealing with the particular areas of activity that you want the Unit to deal with. Local government is one area where the Unit will have considerable dealings. It will also have dealings with the Government Offices, which is something the DETR has done in the past. We want to make it clear it is a cross-Government initiative. This is not the only example of where there are officials in one department but a Minister in another. Another example is the Children and Young Persons Unit which has Paul Boateng as the Minister who is in the Home Office but the officials are in the DfEE. You choose the Department which has some synergy with what is going on but you put the Minister in a different department because then you get cross governmental binding. It has not led to confusion. In relation to a department or a unit whose role is to try to get co-ordination across Government, it is quite useful that the Minister is in the Cabinet Office because you are not perceived to be biased in favour or against particular initiatives.

  1103. No. I was wondering really more why it was not just absolutely a Cabinet Office enterprise but, anyway, we do not need to explore that. Can I just go back to the problem to which you are the solution.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I am not the solution but I am one of many steps taken to try to contribute to the solution.

  1104. The Performance and Innovation Unit Report, Reaching Out, on all these areas, in a nutshell its conclusion was "It is an almighty mess", was it not?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) If you go on the ground you see a great collection of initiatives coming where people on the ground believe that sometimes the amounts of money they are bidding for are not worth the problem of applying, the monitoring arrangements are very heavy. Too many people within communities are spending their time bidding and monitoring and too little time is spent actually making the contribution to the community that is required. You want to try to streamline what Central Government does and the demands it places on communities in the money it offers.

  1105. The Report says "Clear evidence from those on the ground and from PIU's own analysis that there are too many Government initiatives causing confusion, not enough co-ordination and too much time spent on negotiating the system rather than delivering it".
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  1106. Why did nobody think of this? Here is a Government which believes in doing good things and is doing many, many, many good things—let me go on the record—but it is doing it in a way that produces this. Why did nobody at the outset think should we join all this up?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Every Government, and in particular this one, is very, very keen to join things up. At the heart of the problem is that many of the things you are doing are intended to be targeted on particular bits of activity in particular places in the country. They are area based rather than national. That inevitably means you need some sort of bidding process. Those initiatives, because of the nature of our Government, will come from the Education Department, the Health Department, the department responsible for law and order, and they will inevitably be targeted at particular places and particular fields of activity. You could not just with a magic wand suddenly say "Here is X million for deprived areas, sort it out amongst yourselves" because inevitably you need to choose the places you would send it to and choose the areas you would send it to. There is an inherent problem there already. I think we have discovered as time has gone on that the bureaucratic burden that is raised by many of these area based initiatives may not be worth the trouble for quite a number of the people who apply for them.

  1107. As somebody who has had to think their way through this, what have you learnt from this about the way in which we do Government that produces these consequences? Here you have a range of departments, it was like putting them all on the starting block, was it not, and off they went with their initiatives?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  1108. All with different funding streams. Despite the language of joined-upness, it was not happening like that. Is there not something about Government from the centre which produces that kind of consequence?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) There will always be a tension, will there not, if you have a deprived area which has failed to thrive over a long, long period of time, there will be a temptation in the centre to think because it has failed to thrive it needs something from the outside to make it thrive. From the local or sub-regional level there will be the sense only we understand what our problem is. It is the bringing together of those two pressures which will normally produce the best result, is it not? The difficulty that we had to start with seems to me to be that we formulated policy too much by reference to individual departments but we remedied that quite quickly by, for example, the formulation of the Social Exclusion Unit which is a way of looking at policy formulation across Government. That does not deal with delivery across Government and that I think is what the Government Offices and their reformed role is trying to achieve.

  1109. Is it not the case that if there are two forces that are driving this, one of which is centralism and is from the centre which will do good things and which will put all kinds of levers at the centre to produce good outcomes locally allied to a very strong departmentalism, those two things together will produce these kinds of consequences?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes, and they are dangerous and you need countervailing pressures in relation to them. The Regional Co-ordination Unit is a countervailing pressure, the Social Exclusion Unit is a countervailing pressure. A strong centre within Central Government is a countervailing pressure because there you are forcing Central Government departments to look at things in a holistic way rather than departmentally. Just as important as that is a voice within Government that is well informed about what is happening regionally and sub-regionally and hopefully an improved position of the Government Offices provides a better informed voice within Central Government about what works on the ground and what is happening regionally and sub-regionally.

  1110. I think what I am putting to you is maybe there is a problem about the underlying strategy as opposed to simply how the outturn is. If I can just quote to you for a moment. There was an interesting article by Matthew Taylor in the Financial Times on 27 February. His argument really is that the Government has given little attention to what he calls capacity building at a local level.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  1111. It has all been done through dirigisme.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  1112. Indeed, he says, just to quote him, "For every civil servant working to build the relationships on which successful change rests, there is a small army of legislation drafters, target setters and performance measurers". Is that not just the case?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not think it is. I can give you chapter and verse of money that has been set aside in the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund in order to build capacity. One of the things that the Social Exclusion Unit's Study of the problems of Neighbourhood Renewal identified as a problem was building capacity sub-regionally to improve the plight of deprived communities. If you are saying there are too many targets, there are too many performance measures, there is too much bureaucracy; obviously that is right and one wishes to streamline it, but that does not get to the heart of the problem you are identifying, does it? The heart of the problem one is identifying is one wants Central Government to look at the problem holistically, what the problem may be, and you want within Central Government there to be a proper connection with what is going on regionally and sub-regionally. So there is a dialogue where central Government acts—this is a paradigm—as one, and is properly informed about what is going on locally.

  1113. Yes. We shall have to see whether you and your Unit are able to produce this change from the one model to the other, will we not?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We will. I look slightly quizzical because I am not clear what is implicit in your question as to what the current model is?

  1114. The current model I was suggesting to you was one that was dominated by nations of centralism and departmentalism and at the centre pulling levers and then things happening locally without much attempt to build local capacity then with the problems of co-ordination. I take it your Unit is engaged in trying to sort that out?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I agree.

  1115. Finally on this, on the Unit, so we all get a sense of how this is to operate, is it simply the case that from now on no initiative will happen unless it gets past you?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The Unit has set out guidance as to each area based initiative. An area based initiative equals an initiative where there will be different amounts of money for different parts of the country. It is, as it were, money you have to bid for in a particular part of the country if you prove you have got particular characteristics that justify getting the money, so New Deal for Communities, Sure Start, that sort of area based initiative. The process of getting governmental agreement to such an initiative has got to go through the Regional Co-ordination Unit which will examine the question: how does this initiative fit in overall? Is it done in such a way that is most effective to deliver whatever aim it wishes to deliver? Does it impose too much of a bureaucratic burden? Can you ally it with other initiatives so you do not have too many initiatives?

  1116. So the answer to the question is, yes, it has to go through you?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The reason I am being slightly withdrawn about that is there may be reasons why, after having discussed all those, the benefits of the particular initiative are perceived to be such that it should go ahead come what may but basically in principle, yes.

  1117. If people on the ground feel irked by some of these problems we have identified—co-ordination problems, over-regulation, over-reporting, all these things—are you a court of appeal? Can they come to you?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The stage at which we would be involved would be before the initiative is announced.

  1118. This is a new system. I am talking about the world as it is now, with programmes in place. Can people who are feeling the strain of some of this, experiencing some of these problems, come to you and say "Look, this needs sorting, we are just being asked to report too often, to bid too frequently"? Can you sort all those people?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Prospectively in relation to new initiatives we can make a real difference. Hopefully in relation to what is already there progress can be made in trying to reduce the sorts of burden you have referred to. Of course, it will be worthwhile raising these matters with the Regional Co-ordination Unit. It is really for the future, i.e. for new initiatives from the date that the Unit is set up that the Unit is intended to bite.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Mr Turner

  1119. I am really pleased the initiative you have taken starts to answer some of the major criticisms I have been getting from people in deprived areas I represent, about the bidding process and all its complexity. One of the things that is clear to me is that when you are at the bottom of one pile you tend to be on the bottom of every pile, you do not have good education, you do not have good health, you do not have good housing and all the other social problems. Would it not be better just to say to those communities "Right you are there at the bottom of all these piles, here is a bag of money, go away and use it to deal with your problems. Tell us what you want to do, give us a programme of what you want to achieve and how you want to get there step by step and we will just monitor that". Then you get rid of all this bureaucracy that you have been complaining about.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) First of all, there is a question about capacity, if there are a large number of communities, as to whether or not if you just gave a great wedge of money what would happen. Secondly, what accountability would there be in relation to it? Thirdly, and this I think is important, in addition to trying to streamline the bureaucracy that comes from area based initiatives, we also, as a Government, say it is obvious that in deprived communities the standard of health and the standard of education tends to be lower than elsewhere. Instead of trying to deal with these problems by area based initiatives we should insist that success in health or education is not measured by the average provisions for health and education but that in areas where there is deprivation, ie where the standards are lower, then health and education, for example, have got to bring their standards up in that particular area to something much closer to the norm. So you are in effect saying mainstream programmes have got to be driven to a level where they produce better results in deprived areas.

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