Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Letter from The Rt Hon John Prescott MP (NC 1A)

  At the session of your Committee which I attended on 18 October, along with Lord Macdonald and Mavis McDonald, I undertook to write to follow-up some of the questions. It may also be helpful if I further clarify some of our answers.

  Brian White asked (Questions 45-48) about the work of the Office of the e-Envoy on e-Government, in particular about the way in which pilot projects become mainstreamed and how the roll-out of projects would be addressed in the forthcoming Spending Review. The Office of the e-Envoy (OeE) is working closely with HM Treasury to ensure that the 2005 target (to have all government services available electronically and in a customer-focused form), and the roll-out of electronic service delivery projects to meet it, is fully integrated into consideration in the 2002 Spending Review. Officials from OeE will be working with the Treasury spending teams looking at Departments' bids and assessing the impact of the e-government projects therein.

  Annette Brooke asked (Questions 54-67) about the transfer from me to the Prime Minister of a Parliamentary Question from Mark Oaten MP (8224) on the role played by the Delivery Unit in placing Railtrack into administration, and generally about the role of the Delivery Unit in such matters. The Parliamentary Question was transferred because the Delivery Unit reports direct to the Prime Minister, although Lord Macdonald has the day-to-day supervision of the Unit, as set out in the Prime Minister's Answer to Graham Allen MP (7162) on 19 October (Official Report, Column 1362W).

  It may also help if I seek to clarify further the role of the Prime Minister's Delivery Unit in relation to policy decisions of this kind. As set out in the memorandum which we provided to the Committee before the hearing, the role of the Delivery Unit is to ensure that the Government achieves its delivery priorities during this Parliament across key areas of public service, namely health, education, crime and asylum and transport. Working with the Treasury, the Delivery Unit helps in holding the relevant departments to account through the established PSX monitoring process to make sure that they meet their agreed PSA targets. So do Lord Macdonald and I as members of PSX Committee; Michael Barber is also invited to attend the Committee. The coming Spending Review—also considered in PSX Committee—will determine the funding allocations to the Departments needed to deliver their PSA targets. The Delivery Unit works with the stakeholder departments on the end-to-end process of delivery, specifically: planning for delivery; helping to resolve problems as they emerge; monitoring progress; and disseminating best practice.

  However, responsibility for policy development and delivery ultimately rests with the departments concerned. We would not expect staff in the Delivery Unit to be involved in every departmental decision. It is for that reason that there was no involvement of the Delivery Unit in the recent decision to place Railtrack into administration.

  Ian Liddell-Grainger (Question 103-108) asked about the role of the new Forward Strategy Unit (FSU). It may help if I clarify our answers on these points, in particular about the staffing and structure of the Unit. The FSU is headed by Geoff Mulgan, who also remains Director of the Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU). Its role is to undertake private studies of long-term challenges facing government for the Prime Minister and other ministers. A number of outside advisers have been appointed to work part-time and unpaid on reviews within the FSU, including Lord Birt (who is strategy adviser to the Prime Minister), Adair Turner, Arnab Banerjee, Nick Lovegrove and Penny Hughes. The work of the FSU is primarily supported by staff from the PIU, although the FSU also employs a number of additional staff seconded from departments and from outside government.

  Kevin Brennan asked (Question 114) about my responsibility in relation to the devolved nations in the UK. It may help if I clarify the role of the various Committees which operate in this area. As chairman of the Cabinet Committee on Nations and Regions (CNR) (which takes forward UK Government policy on the English regions and devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), I am responsible for overseeing devolution policy and managing the UK Government's relationships with the devolved administrations. The Devolution and English Regions Division of my Central Policy Group supports me in this role.

  My membership of the plenary Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) predates my arrival in the Cabinet Office and my assumption through CNR of oversight of devolution policy (reflecting the wider membership which includes the heads and deputy heads of all the administrations, together with the territorial Secretaries of State). My membership of the Committee also gives a direct voice on English issues. The Joint Ministerial Committee's formal terms of reference are:

    (i)  to consider non-devolved matters which impinge on devolved responsibilities, and devolved matters which impinge on non-devolved responsibilities;

    (ii)  where the UK Government and the devolved administrations so agree, to consider devolved matters if it is beneficial to discuss their respective treatment in the different parts of the United Kingdom;

    (iii)  to keep the arrangements for liaison between the UK Government and the devolved administrations under review; and

    (iv)  to consider disputes between the administrations.

  In plenary form, the JMC is tasked with maintaining a general overview of devolution and relations between the administrations. In practice it has never acted in its dispute resolution role.

  I also have departmental responsibility for the British Irish Council (BIC) (referred to by some as the Council of the Isles). Although there are links between the JMC and the BIC, and there is an overlap in the membership, in formal terms the two institutions are entirely distinct. My role is to support the Prime Minister in his BIC work. This may include chairing meetings of the BIC, but chairing responsibilities lie with the host administration and it is likely to be some time before the UK next chairs a Council summit.

  We also discussed the provision of an organisation chart of the Cabinet Office, which you should now have received from my department.

  I hope that this further information will be of assistance to the Committee. I would, as I indicated during the hearing, be pleased at the Committee's convenience to answer any further questions which may arise.

The Rt Hon John Prescott MP

October 2001

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