Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120
TUESDAY 15 JANUARY 2002
MP AND MR
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.
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
Do you think that in any respect the current reports are inaccessible
(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
125. You do not look very confident?
(Mr Smith) We will have to be judged by experience
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
(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.
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
(Mr Sharples) It was 1,000 hits a month.
134. Which compares with total sale of 976 hard
(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
(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.
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
(Mr Smith) Let me be clear.
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