Select Committee on Treasury Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence

Letter from Rt Hon Donald Anderson MP, Foreign Affairs Committee

  Thank you for your letter of 12 December.

  The FCO did not produce any Winter Supplementary Estimates in 2001-02. However, I was disappointed that the Supplementary Estimates on British Trade International (laid by DTI) and on the Security and Intelligence Services (laid by the Prime Minister) were not made available in draft and have instructed the Clerk of the Committee to seek assurances that all Estimates relating to bodies or agencies which fall within the Committee's terms of reference are made available in draft in future.

  I welcome the fact that there has been a review of departmental reports. I agree with the brief given to the review group to recommend how the reports can most effectively meet the needs of users by presenting the right information in the most clear, coherent, efficient and timely manner. However, I have strong concerns about the review group's recommendations and the Treasury's proposals.

  The departmentally-related select committees are probably the key users of departmental reports. Certainly, the Foreign Affairs Committee has always taken very seriously its responsibility to scrutinise the FCO's reports, notwithstanding the fact that the FCO is not counted among the "spending departments". We have heard evidence each year from the Accounting Officer and other officials, as well as from relevant agencies such as the British Council and BBC World Service, and I believe that we have been able to exert some influence on the content and form of the FCO's reports, as well as dealing thoroughly with the issues they raise. In 2002, for the first time, the Committee will be using the services of the National Audit Office to assist Members in their scrutiny of the FCO's accounts and Estimates.

  The Committee is therefore particularly concerned to ensure that the extent and the quality of information available to it are improved, or at least maintained. It might be helpful if I set out the remainder of my observations—which have been endorsed by my colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committee—under headings which reflect the three basic principles we seek to preserve.


  There was a neatness and convenience about the way in which all the relevant information was brought together in last year's departmental report. If, as the Treasury proposes, this is to be lost, the task of scrutiny will become harder to perform. I understand the rationale for separating out the Estimates and resource accounts from the departmental report, and recognise that in two respects this could represent an improvement: the accounts will be available earlier; and Parliament will be given updated performance information.

  I and my colleagues fear, however, that the negative consequences of the proposal will outweigh the benefits. We are concerned that the separate two spring and one autumn publications may make it more difficult to track spending plans against objectives and outturns. We also regret that we will no longer be able to undertake a single annual exercise, for which we have always made time despite the many other urgent matters requiring our attention. The disruption to our ongoing programme of policy-based inquiries caused by a biannual scrutiny of expenditure will be unwelcome, while the demands made on the Committee's resources by the need for briefing and—possibly—reports in both the spring and autumn may be difficult to meet.

  We do not accept that the proposal to replace one document by three satisfies the requirement to meet the needs of users by presenting the right information in the most clear, coherent and efficient manner. We urge the Treasury to allow departments to continue to produce a single, Spring publication which presents all the relevant information in a form which can be understood and in a way which allows performance to be judged and different figures to be reconciled, even if this leads to some duplication of information.


  While I agree with the conclusion of the review team that the presentation of financial and budgetary information in the reports has been complicated, making the tables difficult to use, the Committee has greatly valued the breadth of the information presented to it. It would be particularly unfortunate if, because the departmental report contained insufficient information, the Committee felt obliged to request extensive supplementary evidence from the FCO: this would cause delay for the Committee; it would place burdens on the FCO; and it would risk producing a series of supplementary papers which would be difficult to use alongside the published information. I take some comfort from the Treasury's undertaking that "Parliament should have access to all the information it has now", but I observe that providing "access" is not the same as providing the information without being asked for it.

  Parliament and its committees require more information, not less. We welcome "simplified" or "streamlined" information only if it is at least as complete as that which Parliament has been accustomed to receive. We intend to pay very close attention to the breadth and depth of financial information presented in respect of the FCO and will be seeking to ensure that nothing is lost as a result of any changes which may be introduced.


  We have always appreciated that departmental reports are something of a shop window for departments. They have contained photographs of Ministers and material of a quite general nature which has not been necessary for the purposes of Parliamentary scrutiny, but their value as a summary of what the department does and spends has been justly praised. We note that the Treasury is suggesting that "departments will be given greater freedom to produce streamlined, clearly presented reports accessible to a wider audience." If "streamlining" means fewer photographs and a crisper style, Parliament need not be concerned. If, however, by "streamlining" is meant a reduction in factual information, and if making reports more "accessible" means more illustrations and fewer facts, Parliament should be very concerned indeed.

  It is not clear from the Chief Secretary's letter who forms the "wider audience." The summary of the report of the review states that "The aim is to get useful information in an accessible form to the people who need it", but does not suggest who those people are. In our view, Parliament must be the primary target of these reports, and we trust that the FCO will not lose sight of that in its search for a possibly mythical "wider audience". It would be wrong in principle for the form or, particularly, the content of departmental reports to be dictated by the perceived needs of an undefined "wider audience", rather than by the articulated and understood needs of Parliament.

  In summary, Parliament's minimum requirement is for full, factual information, clearly presented in ways which allow Members to track historical and planned changes in priorities. The Foreign Affairs Committee is not persuaded that the Treasury's proposals meet that requirement.

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