Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)



  40. How?
  (Mr Sharples) It concerns me that the total cost of the Departmental Reports has now risen to something like £500 if you wanted to buy a full set. If you did want to buy a full set you can get a discount on that, but they are very expensive and bulky documents with a lot of information which, I can assure you, experienced experts within government will find it difficult to understand. I doubt whether the inclusion of Estimates in the report gives the average reader much additional understanding of the work of the department.

  Chairman: Mr Sharples, we are used to getting big bundles. They are being mailed daily to those MPs who wish to go through the big bundles in the very precise way that is open to them, and I think that is what Mr Mudie is trying to say. It just sounds a little bit patronising, that is the worry.

Kali Mountford

  41. I have a sign now that this format or separation is being devised because somebody might find it too expensive to purchase. That seemed to be the logic of what you were saying.
  (Mr Sharples) That is one factor. The starting point for looking at the design of the Departmental Reports is that if you are a member of the public, perhaps working in the field of education, wanting to know more about the activities of the Department for Education, what is it you want to know about the department? That is the question that we have been exploring. I would be very interested to hear your views on what the answer to that is. The answer that we have proposed is that the key things that we need to focus on are about the organisation of the department, who we are, what we do, how we are organised, how we are structured, key issues about the financial information. We get a large sum of public money. How are we using this public money? Thirdly, information about performance: what are we trying to achieve as an organisation and how are we doing against our objectives? Those are the things which we think readers will want to concentrate on and what we have tried to do is to streamline the Departmental Reports so that they are focused on answering those questions.

  Kali Mountford: You have actually lost me quite a lot now because if we take ourselves back to my question about your weighting of people's opinions, you are now giving quite a specific weight to public opinion on the reports and yet you have not really told us very much about how many members of the public actually purchase these reports. I certainly would not want the public not to have access to them, but surely, if that is the reason behind your argument, then we ought to understand how many members of the public want to spend the £31 I think this particular report costs; how much less it would cost if you separated it out; and how much more it would cost if they had to buy two copies.

  Mr Mudie: How much was it the year before?

Kali Mountford

  42. Exactly. How much was it the year before? Have you done any cost breakdown of publication of two separate reports and what impact it might have on distribution?
  (Mr Sharples) what I can say is that adding in the Estimates has added roughly a thousand pages, I think, to the total length of the Reports, together with perhaps other factors, and that will certainly have added to the cost of the reports.

Mr Mudie

  43. How much? Do you know?
  (Mr Sharples) I do not know.

  44. Because the estimate book itself is not free.
  (Mr Sharples) No, that is right.

  45. So if you wanted to get the picture on education you would have to get two books, in fact you have to get a third book because you have got to get the supplementary book as well, and here was the Departmental Report with it all in one. How much more expensive is this compared to these separate Estimates book and the separate Departmental Report?
  (Mr Sharples) I cannot give you a precise figure.

  46. You said it was cheaper.
  (Mr Sharples) Can I answer the question? I cannot give a precise figure on that. I would assert that one would expect it to be cheaper if a large chunk of material was taken out of the report because these things are priced on the basis of production costs.

Kali Mountford

  47. But surely not if you need to buy two?
  (Mr Sharples) Part of your earlier question was how many people buy these reports. That is a question that we have explored with departments. The best information we can get is that not many people do buy these reports, which is hardly surprising given their bulk, their complexity and their cost. I think that is unsatisfactory and that departments ought to be producing reports which are more accessible. One thing that we are very keen to explore is electronic publication which gives very much wider access to the reports at nil cost, and all the reports are published on the web at the moment but there may be improvements that can be made to the form of electronic publication. Can I just come back to my central point, that we have done our best to identify users and to find out about what they want from these reports. We would be absolutely delighted to have more input into that process from Parliament because the purpose of this exercise is to produce reports in a clear streamlined way to meet those needs.

Mr Mudie

  48. The previous Departmental Reports were deplorable in terms of the lack of financial information or the vagueness of financial information they gave you. This one actually pulled it all together in one document. Did the Treasury as a department support the view that these documents should be separated? Did you agree and recommend or fight a rearguard battle against not having the Estimates in this Departmental Report which gave anybody taking this Departmental Report very good solid financial information for the first time?
  (Mr Sharples) The Treasury proposed the inclusion of the Estimates of the Report in that transitional year. The Treasury also, as you know, put forward a memorandum proposing some different arrangements under resource accounting and budgeting. What we are now explaining is that, having reviewed the position with users of these reports and with departments, the way forward we have proposed will best meet the needs of the users as they have been expressed to us. If there are more views we would really like to hear them.

Mr Laws

  49. Mr Sharples, I am slightly worried that the Treasury is labouring under the assumption here that these documents are going to be picked up by people at Waterloo Station as they go home and read alongside The Evening Standard. These documents are by their very nature specialist documents, are they not, that are likely to be looked at by professionals, select committees and various other people with great specialisms in these subjects? These are never going to be a best seller.
  (Mr Sharples) I entirely agree these are never going to be a best seller but I would argue strongly that organisations of the size of government departments are huge organisations employing in some cases up to a hundred thousand staff with budgets of £50 billion or £60 billion a year. Huge organisations of this kind, responsible for management of public money, ought to be producing documents about their activities which are accessible and clear.

  50. Can you tell me what has happened to the length and cost of the financial statement and Budget Report over the last five or ten years?
  (Mr Sharples) Off the top of my head, no. My general impression would be that it is probably a little bit longer than it used to be.

  51. It is quite a bit longer, is it not?
  (Mr Sharples) I would have to go and check the precise length.

  52. Could you give us a precise note on what has happened to its length and cost? My impression is that both have risen fairly exponentially over the last ten years.
  (Mr Sharples) The documents are published and are available in the House of Commons Library.

  53. Before we get our report out, we shall have to have a look into that. What do you expect to happen to the length of these Departmental Reports after these changes?
  (Mr Sharples) I would expect they would be shorter and better focussed.

  54. How much shorter?
  (Mr Sharples) It is difficult to say precisely, because part of the message of this report is that departments should be given more flexibility to design reports which meet their needs and which allow them to explain their activities clearly. The view from departments has been that they have been operating to some degree within a straitjacket, which has forced them to set out things which they do not think are the clearest way of explaining their activities.

  55. Is not that a very good thing? If you ask a department to report on its activities, you do not necessarily want to give it great discretion to choose what it will highlight, do you; you want to try to get firstly some consistency over time, and secondly you want to make sure that the department is highlighting occasionally the bad news rather than just using these documents as a sort of glossy public relations exercise, do you not?
  (Mr Sharples) I entirely agree that we need consistency. That is exactly why we set out for departments a set of core requirements for these reports, which define the basic requirements. A key part of those core requirements is that departments should report objectively on their performance, and that means both successes and failures. Objective reporting through the Departmental Reports is a fundamental part, it has always been a fundamental part of Department Reports and it will continue to be a fundamental part.

  56. How will the core requirements change in 2002?
  (Mr Sharples) The core requirements have been set out in guidance for departments. We would be very happy to share that guidance with the Committee. It sets out the basic requirements for tables in the reports and for basic content. Obviously we want departments to report on their activities, objectives, performance objectives, such as how they use their money, so these are basic requirements there. What we have tried to do is not to make that an absolutely rigid straitjacket; we give departments a bit more flexibility, whilst meeting those requirements, whilst providing the objective reporting, to set out their activities in a way which fits with their business needs as an organisation.

  57. What are you going to do to ensure that when departments report their performance against the Public Service Agreements they do so with some transparency and integrity?
  (Mr Sharples) The transparency is the report itself. We require all departments to publish reports on their performance against targets, precisely to give that transparency so that Parliament, select committees, the public, can judge how the departments are performing. We provide additional assurance of the transparency and validity of those reports by ensuring that the targets and measures that are going to be used to report progress are clearly defined in what we call the technical notes which are available, which explain the detailed measures of each target. As you may know, we are in discussion with the National Audit Office and others about how we can improve the quality of the data systems and the validation of the data systems that goes into measurement.

  58. Do you not think it would be better if that were independently reported upon, rather than leaving the department to do the reporting itself? Is not that likely to lead to results which are more honest? You will probably recall the Government's Annual Report and the scepticism with which that was greeted. It has now obviously been axed. The then Leader of the Opposition had some quite good fun with the various ways in which the progress against targets was being reported, and how they varied from year to year. Surely, as one of the monitoring bodies of the departments in terms of how they are performing against the PSAs, you would want there to be an independent look at how those departments are performing? Is not that a role that the Treasury itself could get involved in, to make sure that there is integrity, consistency and transparency about the way in which departments are reporting on their activities?
  (Mr Sharples) We are very keen to ensure that departments give full reports on progress. We are keen that the measures of progress should be clear. That is why we define them carefully in the technical notes. We are keen that the data departments are using to report should be robust and reliable. That is why we are exploring external validation. We are very keen that there should be a very open and transparent process, and that is why we require all departments to include details in their annual Departmental Report and why indeed we are proposing supplementary performance information be published in the autumn. So we feel that we are going a long way to ensure effective accountability.

  59. Can I ask you two very quick final questions? The first of them is, coming back to the FSBR, what are you going to do to reduce the size of that document, given that it is one of the prime Treasury documents and you have said you want to make all this information about Government more accessible? Those reports have increased sizeably over the years. Are you going to be proposing to cut those back as well?
  (Mr Sharples) This is not my responsibility and is somewhat outside the scope of this questioning about Departmental Reports. I am sure the Treasury will want to ensure that the FSBR continues to provide full information about the public finances and the state of the economy.

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