Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 118 - 119)




  118. Good afternoon, Chief Secretary, and welcome to the Committee. Mr Sharples, you have been here before, you are a regular, welcome again. We are being broadcast today and I think we are being webcast, we are one of the first committees to be webcast. Can I start off and ask about the Review, there have been a number of comments since it was implemented, that perhaps insufficient consultation has taken place, we are mindful than an election was on the horizon, but there is a need for more consultation. Can I ask you what was the stimulus for the Review in the first place?

  (Mr Smith) As I set out in my letter to the then Chairman of the Committee in October 2000[1], with this being quite a major change we thought it sensible, notwithstanding the previous memorandum, to conduct a review to take stock to see if this really was the best way of proceeding and, of course, to consult as part of that. We did endeavour, as you know, to seek the views of this Committee, and that letter was copied to the Public Accounts and Procedure Committees. As you said, there was a delay, a general election has intervened. I do not think anyone would have foreseen in the autumn of 2000 that half of last year the select committee would not be meeting. Nonetheless, as Adam Sharples reported at your last hearing, the Review Group was constituted to reflect relevant interests, and surveys to users were issued. As I wrote to you this last October, I am very concerned that whilst this year's, inevitably in the circumstances, would be something of a sort of interim format for the reporting, that there would now be, albeit a somewhat iterative, an opportunity for this Committee and for Parliament to influence the way in which the departmental reports are presented this year and to take full stock of the situation in the light of those reports. Might I also add, Chairman, whilst I acknowledge that as things have turned out, neither the timing of the handling of these changes nor the involvement of Parliament has been quite as I would have wished and, therefore, I am sorry that we must regard, as I just explained, this in some sense as an interim position. Can I also say that faced with the situation as it was last Autumn I believe the decisions I have taken are the right ones and that the proposed shape of this year's report will actually serve Parliament and parliamentary accountability better than had I sought to implement the original RAB proposals or indeed repeat last year's format. Can I just mention the three key reasons why I take that view, first, having commissioned a review I think it would have been foolish of me not take notice of it. Secondly, under the original RAB proposals I think Parliament would have been deprived of performance information or could have been deprived of performance information for an unacceptably long period, which especially the public and Parliamentary focus on performance we would have been understandably criticised for. People would have said, we are accustomed to seeing performance information in the Spring Report, now we are not getting it, why not, are we going to have to wait months in order to get it? The third reason is that having had drawn to my attention the inadequacies and errors which resulted from physically accommodating the estimates in the departmental reports last year, not a single estimate free of error, and not meeting, for the most part, the 21 day reporting requirement to Parliament, and those are serious matters of Parliamentary accountability, having had that drawn to my attention and having had the recommendations of the Review Group on that that it was right for me to act accordingly.

  119. Thank you. Can I turn to the sales figures for the departmental reports, one thing that strikes us straightaway is that Parliament itself is very much a minority user of these reports. If you look at the table, we have been surprised, it was an average from 167 to 189 on that.[2] Nonetheless, these documents remains important to Parliament and are you satisfied that the outcome of the Review takes adequate account of the Parliamentary function?

  (Mr Smith) As I have already acknowledged, the consultation with Parliament is incomplete and will be so until this Committee has had the opportunity of reporting and others in Parliament have had an opportunity to comment about it, notwithstanding the efforts which I have said that we made. I think it certainly was acknowledged in the Review, obviously, that Parliament and MPs and select committees, perhaps, in particular are a prime audience for these reports, but we should also not forget the wider function of public accountability they fulfil. They are documents of wider record, they are used by researchers, academics, journalists and by some members of the general public.

1   Ev 2. Back

2   Ev 19. Back

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