Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  120. Given that comment, then, can I ask you why the 2001 Treasury Report was priced so high? Again, if you look at the table you will find it is £55, and the question is, does that relate to the cost of production? Why were the costs so high? Surely that is a real disincentive to public sales, particularly when we find that the Treasury document costs £55 for 249 pages, yet the Cabinet document was £21 for 248 pages and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport was £30, almost half, for 232 pages. The message that the Treasury is putting out is a pretty expensive message, is it not?
  (Mr Smith) A good value message, Chairman. I accept that that is lot of money and some of the other charges are a lot as well. Obviously I have looked into this and I understand that the pricing is simply in order to cover, if you like, the marginal cost of production, it is influenced obviously by print runs, graphics, especially last minute printer's changes. In that sense the costs do not reflect the full cost of producing these reports. I would add, of course, that electronic publication also makes them very much more widely accessible at a much lower cost.

  121. If you look at the Chancellor's Department, your department, and the Cabinet Office we find the print runs are almost the same, yet the cost for the Cabinet Office is less than half what the cost for the Treasury is. Surely there is a way to look at this?
  (Mr Smith) I asked about that as well, Chairman, and I was told the reason was the difference in the number of late changes that had to be made, which is something that we will try and minimise in the future.

  122. The answer to yourselves was the same as myself, a pretty inadequate answer?
  (Mr Smith) It is the answer. How far we want to adopt a different basis for pricing these reports, how far the Committee believes they should be further subsidised, I can see the case for that in terms of accessibility, which is something that we take very seriously.

Mr Laws

  123. Chief Secretary, when we saw Mr Sharples in November we were talking about the justification for making the changes to the nature of the departmental reports. In an answer to us Mr Sharples acknowledged they were never going to be best sellers as documents but he said, "Huge organisations of this kind", in other words government departments, "ought to be producing documents about their activities which are accessible and clear".[3] Do you think that in any respect the current reports are inaccessible and unclear?

  (Mr Smith) They are not as accessible or as clear as they might be nor as accessible or as clear as, in my view, they should be nor as accessible and clear, in my view, they will be if we adopt the revised format. They are very long, especially with the integration of main estimates with them. There are a very large number of tables. As I think Adam Sharples pointed out at your last hearing, there is pretty straightforward information which MPs and certainly members of the public would expect to get out of these reports which is not there or is not very accessible. In the Home Office Report, how much is spent on the police, there are pages and pages of tables and information but that is not one figure that is readily accessible. I believe that with the format that we are proposing will set out straightforward things. If you look at the DFES report you will be able to see how much is spent on primary schools, how much on secondary schools and how much on higher education, again information which is not as readily accessible in the present report as it might be. At the same time those who have an interest in the wider financial information, the detail of the estimates and how they reconcile to the RAB accounts, they will be able to find that as well. It is important in the new format that the read across from one table to another, one report to another sub report, that that is clear and, obviously, I endeavour to make sure that is the case.

  124. Are you expecting to change the readership or increase the readership of the departmental reports as a consequence of these changes?
  (Mr Smith) I would hope that more people would find them accessible and the word would go round that they were worth reading.

  125. You do not look very confident?
  (Mr Smith) We will have to be judged by experience about that.

  126. You do not look very confident about that, if I may say so. Chopping 100 pages off the Chancellor's departmental annual report is not necessarily going to lead people to rush into WH Smith to buy it. The type of people that look at departmental reports specifically are, perhaps, a narrow field, do you not think, therefore, and that there is less of a problem with the complexity of the existing reports than perhaps you seem to be indicating?
  (Mr Smith) I agree that the prime audience is a relatively narrow one. I would have thought, frankly, it is important for that audience that this information is in as clear and accessible form as possible so that they do not spend an awful lot of time trying to find out how much is spent on the police or how you add together the different components and bring together primary education, it will make Members of Parliament, select committees' and journalists' jobs easier as well. Obviously the public's interpretation of this, far and away, is most likely not to go to the primary source but to rely on press reports.

  127. Would you be disappointed if the sales of departmental reports did not bulge in some way?
  (Mr Smith) I am resisting any temptation to say that the much needed and, I am sure, the attractive and informative and clear representation of these reports is going to result in an instant increase in sales.

  128. Can I ask you or Mr Sharples whether you have had complaints, either from the users of the reports or from departments, about the existing format to which you are responding by these changes?
  (Mr Smith) It was evident from the survey of users that we conducted that a significant proportion did not find them clear or accessible and many found them inordinately long.
  (Mr Sharples) If I can quote one figure on that, as you know we asked all the select committee clerks for their views on the reports. Only one of the nine committee clerks who replied regarded the current reports as clear and easy to use. Obviously that was something which weighed with us.

  129. Can I ask you whether you also received representations from the departments that they wanted to be able to package their departmental information in a different way?
  (Mr Smith) We did take views from departments and equally they did not find the format that was used last year as clear or accessible as they would like it to be.

  130. Are you concerned at all that some people might suspect that as part of repackaging these departmental reports departments would be given the flexibility to present their performance in a particularly favourable light? Mr Sharples' evidence in November said that 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 is that they have been operating, to some degree, within a strait-jacket and if we loosen that strait-jacket too much you may well find departments presenting their performances in a very favourable light each year. Is that not a risk?
  (Mr Smith) I understand the reason for the suspicion and possibly even some cynicism about it. I would seek to dispel it, first of all, by stressing we do take seriously, and I do take seriously, the importance of these documents and records and accountability to Parliament. We have made it clear that the alteration in the format and the presentation is not to deny Parliament information, indeed all of the information that was available in last year's report will be available in the new style reports. What is more with the supplemental autumn information on the performance there will actually be extra updated information that was not available previously. Moreover, Adam Sharples, as he said in his testimony to the Committee, was emphatic that it is the explanation of what is in the reports about which departments want greater flexibility and not the content.

  131. My last question is, as Chief Secretary will you be policing the consistency of the information produced in the report to make sure that departments do not decide to put a favourable gloss on their performance when you expect them to present their performance in a comparable way each year and a very straightforward way?
  (Mr Smith) Yes. The guidance that was circulated made clear, for example, that performance against PSA targets must be full and should be objectively presented, and I will be keeping an eye on that.

Dr Palmer

  132. Since I was elected in 1997 I do not recall ever having had a letter from a constituent or a lobby group or an interest group or a journalists, or any other figure at any level, referring to a departmental report. I do accept that it is important that this data is available in some form, given that the people who were requesting it, as you say, are almost entirely professionals in the field in one way or another, journalists or economists. Is there actually any case for maintaining them in printed form rather than electronic form, it imposes unnecessary delay and it imposes extra cost. Is there any demand out there for the printed version?
  (Mr Smith) I take your point about the ready availability of the electronic form, the web based reports, especially to specialist readership. I think to deny the opportunity for somebody to have a departmental report physically in their hand, be they an MP, be they a researcher or be they a member of the public, there will be some of them who do not have ready access to the web or do not like accessing information in that way. I think it would be a serious step to say you have to have the core information in an electronic form. This is something that we can review with the passage of time, with the take-up and with the ways in which people access this information. I do not think now is the right time to move towards the abandoning of physical records of departments for activities, performance and financial information.

  133. Can I ask if it would be possible for you during the coming year to review or to monitor the frequencies of access to the website compared to the actual sale of these reports so we can see how people are, in fact, accessing it and then, perhaps, we can come back to it in future years.
  (Mr Smith) I would be very happy to do that. DTI has monitored this.
  (Mr Sharples) It was 1,000 hits a month.

  134. Which compares with total sale of 976 hard copies.
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  135. It is probably fair to say that not every person who received a hard copy has read it with equal zeal. Returning to my original question, are you sure, Chief Secretary, that we are not actually producing a product for which no real demand exists?
  (Mr Smith) I am sure, because MPs, select committees, commentators in the area expect and, indeed, have a right to the sort of information that is in departmental reports. The fact that they do not have a huge readership is not a reason in principle for not producing it nor, indeed, is it a reason for not trying to make the information clearer and more accessible, indeed it is a reason for trying make it clearer and more accessible. Certain sorts of straightforward questions about expenditure and performance, of which I gave examples earlier, can be accessed.

  136. My final question, I entirely accept what you just said, do you think that it might be possible to encourage the trends to seek the electronic version by attempting to provide updates to the information more frequently on-line than in the printed version, where available? You mentioned yourself that the Treasury version had been subject to many last minute updates. All of us who have ever published anything are familiar with the correction that arrives the day after it goes to press, would it be helpful to try to have a six monthly update on the web?
  (Mr Smith) Of course, as far as performance is concerned, the framework we are suggesting will provide a six monthly update both on the web and in written form. It would be possible and I would be quite happy to explore how far one can go further than that. I think there is just one qualification I would make, I think that there has to be an authoritative record so that researchers and others can compare like with like and not get the impression that the information is changing so fast that you are never quite sure what you are comparing today's performance with. The only other thing is I would say that more can be done to make this information usable and helpful to be used by links, perhaps, to comparative information in future years, and so on. Certainly we are encouraging departments to illustrate their reports in a way which makes them helpful electronically as well as wanting to improve the formula.

Mr Fallon

  137. Chief Secretary, you have taken your decision on the Spring 2002 reports, have you not, and you said earlier in evidence today that these have been altered rather than reduced. It is a fact, is it not, that these reports will contain less information, not the same amount of information?
  (Mr Smith) No. If you look at the annex to the guidance to Parliament, which I believe has been circulated to the Committee, there is a diagram there where you can see, this is the diagram that I am referring to, and the core report is smaller, but it is clearer and contains the information that readers, as a whole, are going to want to have. As I said, expenditure on things like education, how much on primary schools, how much on secondary, how much on higher education, both in the resource and in the capital, they are basic reports on performance. You then have the estimate produced separately and then supplementary budgetary information. The diagram attempts to set out how the different components of what are in the reports and estimates at the moment are reflected in the new format. As I explained earlier, with the suggestion of the autumn performance information there will be some extra information coming forward meeting Mr Palmer's desire for a six monthly update.

  138. The information available in 2002 in departmental reports will be no less than last year?
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  139. Your own letter in October to the Chairman says, "Departments will be given freedom to produce streamlined reports"[4].

  (Mr Smith) Let me be clear.

3   Ev 11 Q 49. Back

4   Ev 1. Back

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