Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. Is that a publishing term?
  (Mr Smith) In referring to the annex to the guidance what I am pointing out is that the main departmental report, yes, it is more focussed, yes it is slimmed down. What I am saying is the information which was otherwise in the departmental report last year will appear either in the Estimates, which will be a separate document, but we can produce and present it alongside for Parliament, if that is what the Committee wants, and there will be also be supplementary budgetary information which is not going to those lay readers but, nonetheless, is important to specialists and is a document of record.

  141. You must have misheard me, the departmental report itself will be a thinner volume than last year?
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  142. It will be thinner. What you have taken out of it are some of the core financial tables, that is right, is it not?
  (Mr Smith) Things like the estimates, yes.

  143. You say the report will contain a reduced set of financial tables?
  (Mr Smith) Reduced from 12 tables to six tables.

  144. Right. It will be more difficult for the reader to make comparisons between previous years, previous governments, et cetera?
  (Mr Smith) I do not think it will be. First of all, if you are talking about previous years and previous governments it was the practice in the past, of course, for the Estimates to be published separately in any event. As I said earlier on in my answers, I think it is very important, indeed, to have the ability to read across from one table in one publication say to the Estimates or to the supplementary budgetary information so that is a clear avenue for the people who want to undertake those comparisons. I do actually see some advantages in the Estimates in written form being physically separate. We have all had the experience of thumbing through a very thick volume and trying to compare one table in one part of the report with a table in another part and you can actually physically put the tables along side each other to check the reconciliation. I do take seriously the comments that were made when Adam Sharples was in front of the Committee last time and members were making the point that it is very useful to have these documents alongside one another.[5] Depending on the Committee's views I am very willing to do what we can in actually publishing the information to Parliament physically by ring-binder, or whatever, to have the Estimates alongside the departmental reports if that is what the Committee feels would be most helpful for MPs.

  145. What I am trying to get absolutely clear is there will be no overall loss of comparative information?
  (Mr Smith) No.

  146. That is the position, is it?
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  147. In the Review Report, paragraph 21, it says, "These financial tables are too complicated to be meaningful to the non-expert reader, while the expert reader would also benefit from improved presentation". Which are you?
  (Mr Smith) Which am I?

  148. Yes?
  (Mr Smith) I published the thing so I am the expert reader.

  149. Do you read them all?
  (Mr Smith) I do read through them all, yes.

  150. Do you not think in trying to improve the take-up of departmental reports there is some danger of people being referred to other documents and being expected to get hold of estimates or the autumn figures, or whatever, losing the sort of central integrity of a single departmental report that says what the department is about, what it has achieved and what it is going to achieve?
  (Mr Smith) I think there is a danger and that is why it is important that where there is a read across to other documents, that is clearly spelt out. Let us not lose sight either of the gain that there will be with a clear focus on the information which most readers are most interested in, which is basically where their money is going, what they are getting for it and how departments are performing. I sincerely believe that that will emerge more clearly from the reports representing this year. Of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating. You and other committees and other Members will look at them. Indeed, were it helpful to the Committee for the Treasury, or us jointly with the select committee, to survey MPs of what they thought of the departmental reports, what format they wanted them and what they thought of the revised presentation I would be very happy to do that.

  151. Finally, you refer in a letter or, else where, to the enormous amount of resources this whole exercise consumes in Whitehall, that being one of the reasons for the Review, to make sure that resources in Whitehall are used efficiently. Have you made any estimate of the savings in resources that will result from the new approach?
  (Mr Smith) I think it is very difficult to make such estimates, either on the cost of the production of the reports as they were last year or, indeed, exactly what it would be under the new proposals. The reason for that, of course, is you have some people who are working largely or solely on the departmental report and, yes, you could allocate their salary to the cost. Obviously as is reflected in the cover price, you can have the costs of printing and layout and graphics. In practice when a report is produced it is drawing on the resources very extensively of the department, of the accounting officers and also policy officers. I suppose one could go through and try and estimate what the cost would be, and that in itself would not be an uncostly exercise.

Mr Plaskitt

  152. The Spring documents will include a report assessing performance against public service agreements, is that right?
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  153. That will be the case in all of them?
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  154. How exactly is that going to be presented?
  (Mr Smith) As clearly as possible, in other words target by target what the progress is. We will have the dual aspect this year, of course, of the Comprehensive Spending Review PSA targets, of which we are at the third year, plus year one of the Spending Review 2000 and targets. Again, the guidance to departments says departments must make clear in the case of the 1998 CSR targets what the progress has been against them, if ones have been consolidated into a Spending Review 2000 target how that has been done and if any have been dropped which they are and why.

  155. Will your guidance ensure that as we read from document to document to document we are really comparing like with like in terms of assessing how departments are doing in terms of their meeting PSAs or are we going to have to search through and find it in different parts of the documents presented in a different way in different sorts of language? Will it be completely harmonised so we can tease out the performance of these PSAs with ease?
  (Mr Smith) I would not go so far as to say completely harmonised, I am not quite sure what that would mean. That each report must enable the reader very clearly to see what progress is against targets to make comparisons is one of the objectives. Indeed the guidance specifically says that if a department in its report wants to report targets in different sections, you can imagine if you are organising a report by functions of a department it might not be a bad idea to do that but there should be, separately, a consolidated table that brings the targets together to ease precisely the sort of comparison we are seeking.

  156. It seems to me that this may be one of the most attractive—attractive is the wrong word, this may be one of the biggest draws to come in and read this report because assessing how departments are doing on PSAs is a pretty central task for Parliament to do, certainly for the press and for large sections of the public as well.
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

  157. In that sense I am pleased to hear you say that there will be a consolidated table contained in each of the reports. Do you think there is a case for extracting those from each of the departmental reports and publishing one document which shows how across Government performance is against Public Service Agreements?
  (Mr Smith) Certainly I will give consideration to that. I can see the case.
  (Mr Sharples) Perhaps I could add on PSA reporting that departmental reports published over the last two years have included such a table at the beginning of the report reporting against each target. What we want to do is try and build on that by improving the reporting and, as the Chief Secretary says, if departments are to decide to publish details of performance against targets in each chapter of the report, for example, certainly they should include a summary table at the end. You will have seen from the guidance that we have issued to departments that we have given a very strong steer that reporting must be objective reporting on progress and that departments should think about how they can use graphics, for example, using graphs to demonstrate the trends against the target. We do feel that the new approach as well as giving twice yearly reports on performance, whereas in the past we only had once a year reports on performance, will also give better presented reports on performance as well.

  158. You have invited departments to think about ways of presenting this information clearly but that opens the possibility of different departments coming to different conclusions about what amounts to clear presentation because then cross-referencing it is not going to be very easy. Have you given any thought to that?
  (Mr Smith) First of all, key core financial information is brought together in standardised tables, that is an area where the department does not have discretion. Equally, as we have said, they have got to report comprehensively and objectively on their performance against the PSAs and we have suggested that it is consolidated in a table if they have decided to separate it out. So those key bits of information will be available on a standard basis to the reader of cross reports.

  159. I am just anticipating that one issue readers will want to settle is how departments are doing against each other in terms of delivering on their PSAs, not just within a department, and for that purpose it is going to have to be very easy to dig into each of the documents and make sure you are looking at something pretty standardised to arrive at a fair conclusion and an accurate conclusion.
  (Mr Smith) Yes.

5   Ev 16 QQ86-95. Back

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