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Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. One or two members have mentioned once or twice the working families tax credit and I have had exactly the same complaints from small businesses in my constituency, a florist contacted me, about half a dozen small businesses contacted me and complained that they were having to do the work for the working families tax credit. Presumably that was never thought through very well. Or I suppose it might have been thought through and that might have been deliberate. That caused a lot of harassment, did it not? A lot of problems.
  (Mavis McDonald) Even in cases like that there is scope for discussion about just exactly the implementation —

  141. How important is early thinking?
  (Mavis McDonald) Early thinking about the way in which you take forward a policy proposal is very important.

  142. When is non regulation action just not sufficient? What is to stop self-regulation and a voluntary way of going about it. Why do we need RIAs in the first place?
  (Mavis McDonald) We are not coming to a clean slate. We have an historic development of the processes whereby regulation has been developed to achieve various ends including quite a lot of it protecting health and safety of people at work or lives.

  143. What are the consequences if it is not done properly?
  (Mavis McDonald) The consequences can vary from at the starkest unnecessary illness for example, but they could range right through to regulation having a significant impact on the competitiveness of individual firms without anybody having understood thoroughly that was going to be the impact of a policy change which involved regulation. Our guidance does say you do not have to regulate in all circumstances. There might be alternatives which are equally valid where the compliance with the alternative will have much greater impact in achieving the end result you want to make. I suppose the one which is always quoted is ABTA or the role of the General Medical Council but there are examples of that kind where self-regulation can equally be a valid form of achieving a policy objective.

  144. What would you say the benefits of it are if it is done properly?
  (Mavis McDonald) The benefits of it are getting a better balance between the desired end result and the cost of getting that desired end result which take into account the real result you want to achieve, whether that refers to a whole sector, a whole group, a whole industry and really understanding the nature of the kind of regulation you may need to achieve that end result and how tight or loose that regulation needs to be, or just thinking you will do this, it is a good way to do it. The report has examples of where people thought one way was a good way to do it and then finding it was completely over the top. Opening up and eliminating that process is showing to have real benefits coming through.

  145. Moving on to a different angle, in consulting with businesses there are big businesses, there are medium-sized businesses and there are small businesses but increasingly there are the self-employed and sole traders. How are they affected by this? Is anything being done as far as they are concerned?
  (Mavis McDonald) Part of David's remit is to help find ways in which those individuals are not excluded from the definition of small and medium-sized enterprises. We ensure that their views are caught in any consultation we have here.
  (Mr Andrews) We have three categories we cover. There are people who belong to things. If you belong to the Institute of Directors or whatever then you can feed your views into us through them. There are people who are particularly affected by proposals who may have an interest, whom we are aware of and who identify themselves to us. That very often happens. There are people who complain. A lot of our work is meeting people who have complained to us about regulation. If someone writes to us or e-mails us and says we have a problem, then we will talk to them and sometimes visit them and go through the problems and look at ways in which we might respond. It is very important to us that we capture as wide as possible a range of interests. We do not just round up the usual suspects, we actually look at a much wider group of business people.

  146. You have inferred that small businesses are constantly complaining about the time which is being taken up with bureaucracy. During the General Election I remember meeting small businesses and that was one of the biggest complaints they had. Consultation is very, very time consuming.
  (Mr Andrews) Yes.

  147. How important is it that as much time as possible is given for them to be consulted before any decisions are taken?
  (Mr Andrews) That is absolutely crucial. There is really no point consulting people after decisions have been taken. That is simply unfair. It wastes their time. It is disrespectful too.

  148. That was not really the question I was asking. That is obvious. I sometimes think that is what consultation is. I am getting very cynical as I get older; in fact I was very cynical when I was younger as well. That is not really what I am asking. How important is it that they go well in advance so that consultation is genuine consultation?
  (Mavis McDonald) Our code of guidance on consultation generally suggests that 12 weeks ought to be the minimum time which departments are allowing when they go out to consult. It is also encouraging people to think of different ways in which they do consult, including going out there, and not just relying on a paper process and the return, to get people's views.

  149. One or two quick questions and some quick answers to them please. Have government departments instituted training courses on the makeup and implementation of RIAs?
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes, is the answer to that. We do that. There is nothing to stop an individual department doing it but we through our seminars and workshops also provide that guidance.

  150. Do all government departments have access to relevant lists of appropriate business organisations?
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes.

  151. Are there inter-departmental discussions and seminars on the effectiveness of RIAs?
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes.

  152. Good. I also understand that the DTI is to be reviewed shortly. What role will the Small Business Service play in the future of RIAs?
  (Mr Andrews) I hope we will have a stronger role. I hope we shall continue to develop that role and to expand it and make it more effective.

  Mr Steinberg: It is not the most rivetting of subjects, is it? I cannot say I have sat here this afternoon and listened to every word that has been said. How do you make it more interesting?


  153. How do you make government more interesting?
  (Mavis McDonald) One way of making government more interesting is opening it up and talking very openly about what the processes are which are involved and then engaging people in discussion about options in a real sense very fully. There is growing evidence, not just in this arena, but if you take something like the way in which the Social Exclusion Unit, for example, has developed the techniques it has used to consult people who would not normally be drawn in, then people do get excited and engaged and happy to talk about their own experience at all kinds of levels and find it quite liberating.

  Chairman: Mr Williams is going to try to make government more interesting with one or two further questions.

Mr Williams

  154. Just a couple of thoughts. Have you costed your own operations?
  (Mavis McDonald) Yes, we do cost our own operations.

  155. What has been the range of costs? What has been the highest cost and for what, in carrying out one of your RIAs?
  (Mavis McDonald) I do not know what an individual department's highest costs would be. I would expect it to be one or two of those rather difficult areas where they have had to go out and pay consultants to do some of the more difficult backup work on the cost benefit analysis. We can give you some examples from any data we have.

  156. Do you have any top-of-your-head figures? We are not going hold you to them too tightly. You can put a note in subsequently.
  (Mavis McDonald) No, I do not have any top-of-the-head figures.

  157. Just to give us a guide. This is probably a random irrelevant thought. It is all very well and good doing these assessments as far as government legislation is concerned. What happens as far as private members' legislation is concerned? When Ministers come to the box to answer whether they feel Government is able to accept or not accept a proposal put forward by a backbencher, will there have been a RIA?
  (Mavis McDonald) May I take advice on that?

  158. Of course you can. We do not mind who answers, so long as we get an answer.
  (Mavis McDonald) Not unless it had previously been a Government proposal is the answer.

  159. If we take something which is and is not, like foxhunting, would one have been done? We know Lord Burns did some assessment some time ago, would that have been using the Treasury model or the Treasury guidelines or green book or whatever you referred to earlier?
  (Mavis McDonald) If the Government brought forward a specific legislative proposal, then it would have to have a RIA with it or give evidence as to why it did not need a RIA.

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