Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
TUESDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2001
20. I just want to say that I do not actually
agree that you can be blamed for any delays of our predecessors
but I do think that the work so far appears to be driven by information
generation rather than by recipients saying what they would like
to find out. I would like to support Kali Mountford's suggestion
of a wider survey of Members of Parliament as one of the key inputs
for Departmental Reports: "What kind of information do you
seek here?". I was very struck by your police example. That
is the kind of thing people would like to know about.
(Mr Sharples) What kind of information are we seeking?
We circulated a questionnaire, as I was explaining earlier, to
as many people as we could identify that had an interest in the
reports and asked a number of questions. Details of their responses
are set out in the report and they included questions about, "What
do you regard as the most important elements of the Reports?"
and, "What additional information would you like to see in
them?". We want to see reportsI stress againwhich
are clear and useful to their readers and the more we know about
potential readers and their interests, what information they would
like to see, the better we can design the Reports.
21. Yes. What I meant was that you could, for
instance, ask each departmental select committee what items of
information about the department would they like to know rather
than a general question about reports specifically.
(Mr Sharples) Indeed, and we did our best to get views
on that issue through this consultation and a number of the committee
clerks reported on issues which their committees had asked the
department to include.
22. In July 1999 the House of Commons Procedure
Committee said quite presciently: "Committees must be vigilant
to ensure that the Government, in reforming financial documents,
presents what the House requires, rather than a department's view
of what the House should have." Would it not be fair to summarise
the previous discussions by saying that that is exactly what has
happened, that we have the departments' view of what the House
should have rather than the House's view?
(Mr Sharples) With respect, I do not accept that at
all. First of all, nothing in these proposals will mean less information
for Parliament. There is no suggestion at all of holding back
information in which Parliament has an interest which you have
had access to in the past. These proposals are simply about the
form in which that information is published. They are designed
to try and produce reports which are better designed, easier to
use, more appropriate to their audiences. The views of Parliament
as to what information you would like to see included in these
Reports are a fundamental driver of this process and we want to
make sure that these Reports meet your needs. I come back again
to the basic proposals here. We think they are basic common sense.
They will produce reports which answer the obvious questions about
what departments are doing rather than clutter up the Reports
with a lot of rather obscure technical information which is difficult,
even for financial specialists, to understand. We think the substance
of these proposals will be to produce better reports which are
more useful for Parliament.
23. Can I just take you into the review process
more widely because departments, under the supervision of the
Treasury, have got Public Service Agreements which must be produced
and then at some point there is a review as to how targets are
being achieved. How do these two reports fit with that process?
(Mr Sharples) The Public Service Agreements provide
the framework for the work of the department. They set out the
aim, the objectives and the targets for the department that are
agreed as part of the Spending Review. Those Public Service Agreements
then provide the framework for reporting on performance and that
will continue to be the case. Each of the spring reports will
include a report on performance against each of the PSA targets
and the supplementary information published in the autumn will
provide an update on that information. The PSAs remain central
to reporting and accountability.
24. So will the spring report be the Departmental
Report that is reviewed by the Treasury or the Cabinet whatever,
in checking whether this Public Service Agreement has been achieved
or not? Is that the report that will do that?
(Mr Sharples) Exactly. The process of checking internally
to government goes on all the time. As you know, the PSX Committee
chaired by the Chancellor keeps a close eye on the performance
of departments on their PSA targets and receives regular reports
on progress, but the spring Report will continue to be the main
way in which a public statement is given on progress against targets.
25. But will that report, as it comes to this
Committee, say, be the same report that goes to the PSX Committee
to decide whether the department is living up to expectations?
(Mr Sharples) It will include exactly the same information.
26. It will not be the same report?
(Mr Sharples) The format of the reports that go to
PSX will obviously be different. We cannot put 3,700 pages of
Departmental Reports to the PSX Committee.
27. Is that the only difference, that the PSX
Committee will be receiving a digest of this Report?
(Mr Sharples) As I say, the PSX Committee receives
regular reports on the progress of departments against their targets.
28. The Autumn Statement, as I understand the
paper, will be, as the Chairman has said, a backward-looking accountthe
accounts essentiallywith some statement of what has been
achieved. The dates that that will refer to will be for the previous
year, will they not?
(Mr Sharples) For the previous financial year, yes.
29. So it will end in April?
(Mr Sharples) The accounts will certainly cover the
financial year ending on 31 March. For performance information,
it would make sense to give the latest performance information
on, whatever is the latest reporting date. In some cases that
will be the financial year ending on 31 March. In other cases
there might have been, for example, new exam results coming through
which are important for reporting on educational performance.
The autumn update would give the latest performance information.
30. But that review will tell you what a department
has achieved and has not achieved and what it has done with the
money. That is the essential purpose of it.
(Mr Sharples) It will give an update on the performance
of the department and set out the detail of the accounts which
deal with one specific financial year. The intention is that the
spring Report will give a comprehensive view of both the performance
of the department and its allocation, its use, of public money
over the full period covered by the plans.
31. But if the autumn Report is going to give
you an account of what has been going on in the preceding year,
is that not information that is very relevant to adjudicating
what is proposed for the next year and seeing where the spring
Report is proposing that deficiencies may be made good, and yet
that information will not be there for a further six months? Is
the cart not before the horse?
(Mr Sharples) I do not think so, no. The purpose of
this additional autumn performance information is to provide an
update. At the moment we report annually on performance against
PSA targets. We are proposing to provide some additional information.
We think that will help Parliament and help the public to understand
what departments are doing.
32. I am confused because I thought a moment
ago you said that the information that was covered by the autumn
Report would be relevant to the financial year that has ended
the preceding April.
(Mr Sharples) It would be relevant but it may in some
cases include some information which has come forward after the
end of that financial year.
33. But the bulk of it will be for the year
preceding 1 April.
(Mr Sharples) It depends on the information which
is relevant to measuring performance on a particular PSA target.
In some cases that information will be financial year based. In
that case publishing information in the autumn will refer to the
financial year that has been completed. In other cases, and this
is true of many PSA targets, the information that is needed to
report on progress is information which may come out quarterly
or annually or perhaps even every two years and is not related
to a specific financial year because it is a measure at a particular
point, for example, exam results or crime surveys, events of this
kind. I would not say that it was true that the performance information
published in the autumn will only relate to the financial year
that has been completed. It will be the most up to date available
34. Let me give you an example of possible concern.
The department has been allocated quite a large amount of money
and it has not been spending it, and we will not know that until
the accounts are prepared, so at the time when we are looking
at the spring Report, which tells you what the department is going
to do to remedy any defects, we will not be in a position to know
whether they are overspent or underspent or hit the target until
the autumn when the full accounts come out. Is that not a peculiar
position to get into?
(Mr Sharples) I do not think that is quite right because
we do publish Estimates of the outturn for each department. First
of all, in the Budget we publish our best Estimate of the outturn
on departmental expenditure limits and we publish an update on
that information normally in July in the Public Expenditure Outturn
White Paper, so there is information on outturn for spending that
is put in the public domain well before the accounts.
35. The whole idea of these two papers is to
simplify things. We are going to end up with four documents at
that rate. We have got the spring account, we have got the July
Estimates and another lot of Estimates that have been corrected,
and the autumn account.
(Mr Sharples) The process of reporting to the public
and Parliament is one which has a number of stages and each of
those stages involves a number of documents. I can assure you
that if there is any way of simplifying this process we would
be absolutely delighted to pursue it and discuss it with you,
but it seems to involve a number of documents which we cannot
avoid and would not want to avoid publishing: main Estimates,
supplementary Estimates; we publish information in the Pre-Budget
Report and in the Budget Statement; Public Expenditure Outturn
White Paper, in accounts and in Departmental Reports. Each of
these documents has a specific purpose.
36. Mr Sharples, you do not seem to accept that
there is a sort of logical non sequitur in having the foundation
information that is relevant to the forward projection of what
a department is going to do not available until six months after
the department has actually published its forward projection.
You do not seem to see that there is anything strange in this.
(Mr Sharples) Can I say on the publication of accounts
that we are very keen to see accounts published more quickly after
the end of the financial year. It is unsatisfactory in my view
that there is such a long delay before accounts are published
and we would like to bring them forward. I think we are at one
on that point.
37. But when we get the accounts, just turning
to autumn, if we see some loopholes and things that have gone
wrong, there is nothing that can be done about it until the next
spring, so it is going to be actually 12 months after the accounts
close before you can do anything about anything you pick up in
(Mr Sharples) There are a number of other points at
which information is available and in which there is a possibility
for discussion. For example, after the accounts are published,
or perhaps even before the accounts are published, there is the
Pre-Budget Report which sets out some information. There is a
Budget Statement in March, there are Estimates and Supplementary
Estimates. The winter round of Supplementary Estimates is coming
very shortly. Each of these documents provides the best information
available at the time and provides an opportunity for Parliament
to review progress on spending.
38. I think you are trying to reconcile two
things. You are trying to reconcile financial information. As
you say, the financial year ends on 31 March. You cannot bring
everything together. It is like local government. You get the
estimate published then but you have the actual result six months
later in September and you are the same. You cannot say you finish
accounts on 31 March and publish within a week the actual. You
have got to get the paperwork to catch up and in the autumn you
know where you are on that preceding financial year. That does
two things. Mr Beard is right, that you are running two things
and it is hard, if not impossible, to reconcile them. The question
I would put is, what use is a Departmental Report? I know the
Treasury's is published in April. I have got Education published
in March. What good is a Departmental Report published at that
point? It is no use, as Nigel Beard has said, for the year it
is supposed to be speaking about; it is no use for the future
and it cannot provide any actual firm figures because the Treasury
will not have them for another six months. Apart from a piece
of attractive printing and propaganda what good is it to Members?
(Mr Sharples) I think spring is a very good time to
publish a comprehensive report. First of all, it sets out firm
plans for the years ahead that have been agreed in the Spending
Review, so at the start of the financial year it is setting out
what is the budget available to the department to spend for that
year and for the years beyond that, and sets that in the context
of spending in previous years. The second reason is that it ties
in with the parliamentary approval timetable. Estimates are published
in the spring, consolidated over the summer and publication of
the Departmental Reports in the spring provide the contextual
information to help you understand and discuss the Estimates.
We would be happy, if there is a strong view that there is a different
time of year that would be better to publish a report on department's
activities, to discuss that with you. The views we have had in
our consultations on this have been very strongly that the spring
is the best time.
39. I will live with that. Those two things
you think come together which are in the future plans and the
Estimates. Education Estimates are 50 pages in this document,
separate. What is wrong with including them in this Departmental
Report then? If I do not want to be confused with figures I do
not read pages 150-200, I read the first 150 pages, but if I do
want to get financial information I have the main Estimates where
you say the two times tables are correct, so why separate them?
(Mr Sharples) The reason for proposing separating
themand I should emphasise that they have always been separated
in the past, up until this yearis that having a number
of pages (I do not think it is as much as 50) setting out the
technical Estimate which is part of a parliamentary process embedded
in a report which is for wider public interest and use makes that
document more bulky, more expensive and less easy to understand
for the average reader.