Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1140 - 1159)



  1140. Is it also true that people from the regions will come to you and say "Can you help us with a problem?"
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) People in the regions will not come with individual problems but the regional offices will, from time to time, say there is a problem with this initiative or that particular activity in Government but it will not be in reaction to a particular region with a particular problem. It is more about the process by which Government delivers.

  1141. Do the heads of the regional offices meet together?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) They meet monthly. They meet every month.

  1142. In London?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In London, yes. They meet from time to time elsewhere. They have had awaydays.

  1143. Do you meet them?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I meet them monthly.

  1144. That is your meeting?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) No, I go to the meeting. Other things happen as well. For example, other ministers will talk to them about particular proposals they have about delivery of a particular activity in the regions. They will also meet with other departmental officials who will talk to them about delivery. They will have a proper and profound contact with Central Government. They are an arm of Central Government. They are Central Government's voice, eyes and ears and co-ordinator in the regions.

  1145. You report to the Deputy Prime Minister?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do.

  1146. Your accountability in terms of Parliament through DETR—I do not know how it is done Select Committee wise—would you expect to regularly appear before any Select Committee? Who are you accountable to?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I have appeared before the Select Committee for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. That is the one I think that Rob Smith, the Director-General, would regard himself as being responsible to.

  1147. That is very helpful. I was baffled when we went to Newcastle at the number of different initiatives and the number of different organisations on the ground.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  1148. Many of these are new initiatives, I understand that, and regional offices are still in their infancy and have a history we all understand. Fundamentally I could not see why you had a Government Office and a development agency. Do you have any personal views about that?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do. The RDAs are there to promote the economic well being of the region. They are there to set a plan and a direction economically for the North West, the North East, whichever region it might be. They are not an arm of Government whereas the Government Offices are, as it were, the emanation of Central Government in the region. So, take an example, the Government Office will play a part in co-ordinating Sure Start which is for nought to fours, Connexions which is for 14 to 19 year olds, the Children's Fund which is for five to 14, those are three separate initiatives that Government has. They involve different age groups of children but huge numbers of problems that children face are family driven problems rather than individual children type problems. The role of the Government Office in part is to assist those three initiatives coming together. They ensure that the Government's delivery is done in a co-ordinated way. That is a totally different exercise, it seems to me, from the Regional Development Agencies which are there to say what the economic strategy for the particular region should be.

  1149. When we were in Newcastle we had a number of examples, but particularly on the police side, of initiatives that the correct person did not know were coming in or did not know were being pruned.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Sure. The correct person in the Government Office you mean?

  1150. Yes, working in the team of the Government Office, working for the Government Office, that is absolutely right. It did seem to me that there would be an interesting clash of some sort if a Government Office and a RDA should ever disagree about something. Does one have power over the other? Does one supersede the other in certain things?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The Regional Development Agencies are, as I say, trying to set an economic framework for the particular region and the economic goals. In doing that, they would plainly have regard to what Central Government's policy is on training and skills, on social exclusion, on economic activity generally.

  1151. Whose job in the regions is it to make sure that works?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) "That" being what?

  1152. That these are co-ordinated or they understand each other, these two wings of Government?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is for the Government Office to make sure that the Regional Development Agency has a proper understanding of what Central Government's policy is. It is for the Regional Development Agency to set what it thinks the economic framework for the region is and then to get it approved by the regional chamber which has happened in every case, I think. It is not a question of clash because any sensible RDA is obviously going to have in mind, whatever the complexion of the Government may be, they have to have regard to what Central Government's policies are in trying to set an economic framework for the region.

  1153. People will always in their minds refer back to London and wonder who is behind a particular organisation, how high up the political pecking order the principal of the organisation is.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In the example given, how high up the chairman of the RDA is, you mean?

  1154. No. If you turned up in a region—
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Which I do quite regularly.

  1155.—when you want to poke around and do this, that and the other, they will say "Here is someone with the ear of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister, we must take life dead seriously". That may be true of some Government Offices, it may be true of some RDAs. It does not alter the basic politics of it which is where the power resides.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In terms of the Government Offices' role, if we deliver over the years in relation to this, what you would want would be the Government Offices being perceived to understand what goes on in Central Government, to be the eyes and ears of Central Government and to be somebody who can speak for Central Government authoritatively in the regions and be able to co-ordinate what Central Government is seeking to do.

  1156. One last question. The Government Offices do seem to be a very successful amalgamation of people from different departmental backgrounds.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

  1157. Is that a model which could be looked at in Whitehall?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes. The problem you have in Whitehall is a problem of departmental-itis but can you conceive of any model for Central Government where there were not health departments, education departments, home departments? You have to divide it up in some way because Government cannot just be a great amorphous one department. The Government Office is Central Government in the Regions where, in a sense, you are dealing primarily only with delivery of particular things and co-ordinating delivery. At the centre of Government while you would like to replicate that I think in practice it would be very difficult to do, therefore you need countervailing pressures within Central Government to countervail against the departmental-itis of each individual department. I cannot see how you can have a model where there is only one great entity with no departmental-itis or no departments.

  1158. There are those cynics who would say that many of these initiatives or units were designed to increase the power at the absolute centre, the Downing Street centre of Government, necessarily in power terms at the expense of departments and responsible ministers.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not think that. Take one product of what the Social Exclusion Unit has done which is the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit which is placed in DETR. The purpose of that Unit is to provide a pressure within Government to address the problems of social exclusion. Social exclusion is a problem that health, education, a whole range of departments will come up with, if you have some pressure in Government for saying "When you think about health, when you think about education, be informed about social exclusion, bear it in mind" that looks a sensible way of organising a Government. It is nothing to do with trying to strengthen the centre, it is actually in DETR but it has got a free standing quality to it that puts pressure on departments to bear in mind social exclusion.

  1159. I can understand why Government ministers are reluctant to say it is to strengthen the centre. Some Members of this Committee think it is a very good idea, some do and some do not. For a long time some of the departments have just worked their own way in a rather ill defined perhaps ill directed way.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.

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