Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses(Questions 600-614)



  600. That was a year ago. Asylum is the issue of the moment that everyone is getting exercised about and the Prime Minister is on a high intensity drive. We really ought to know.
  (Mr Macpherson) This will be set out in the technical note.

  601. I would like it set out now.
  (Mr Macpherson) The technical note will be set out very shortly. The vast majority of departments have published their technical note. The Home Office has not. You may want to ask the Home Office why they have not, but I am confident that technical notes will be published by the end of this financial year.

  602. This is very disappointing, I have to say.
  (Professor Barber) If we are significantly reducing the number of applications and therefore hopefully the number of failed asylum seekers, it is much better to focus on a proportion than an absolute number. It is a better target.

  603. What about the Iraqis who are told they have to leave the country because their asylum application has failed, but they cannot be sent back? Is that something which, on the policy side, the Prime Minister and the Delivery Unit is thinking about?
  (Professor Barber) I am not sure that this is relevant to the inquiry. This is a detail of policy; it is not part of the Delivery Unit's job.

  604. All right, that was unfair. It is just something which interests a lot of members of Parliament because we are dealing with this on a day to day basis. Finally, can I just ask you this. There was the abandoned asylum removal target, but I recall last December the Home Office abandoned its drugs target as well. Is there a particular problem with the Home Office?
  (Professor Barber) The Home Office has drugs targets set out in the spending review white paper of 2002 which are changed from the ones of the spending review of 2000. What was talked about in December was the shift from those spending review 2000 targets to the spending review 2002 targets. There are very clear targets on drugs in the white paper and the Home Office is actually doing a very good job of developing a strategy across government to achieve those targets. It is one of the areas that we are particularly interested in because it is a cross-cutting theme; it is not just the Home Office. The Delivery Unit is in a position to assist the Home Office significantly in achieving those targets.


  605. What was interesting in your replies in describing the asylum case was where you moved from a numerical target to a general aspirational target. Someone might say, "Well, if you've done that on that front why not just say in relation to prisons that your job is to reduce re-offending". You could say to schools, "Your job is to improve standards" and so on, across the public sector. Would that not be a much more manageable way of doing it and a more sensible way of doing it?
  (Professor Barber) I think you are going to design your targets to be as specific and measurable as you can, given the context of the service, so it will vary from one to the other. If you are reducing the number of applications, having an absolute number is obviously much harder to achieve. That is a good example of a target that, for its time, looked right and was certainly aspirational, but if we reduce the number of applications very significantly then removing 30,000 failed asylum seekers a year would become impossible because the number coming in would be much smaller. It just depends on the context of the service.

  606. There is a problem of credibility about this whole regime as well which you must be very conscious of in your job. When the Prime Minister announces a target on a television programme in a context of intense political pressure and then afterwards we are told that it was not actually a target it was an aspiration, which is a different thing altogether.
  (Professor Barber) It was not a PSA target is what I said. It came out of context from a conversation where Nick had been describing the responsibility for individual PSA targets.

  607. But the great British public do not understand all this, do they? They do not know what is a PSA target and what is not a PSA target. They just know that a target is a target.
  (Professor Barber) Yes, but we are informing a Committee who are experts on the subject.

  608. Yes, but we are talking about the credibility of the system so surely the one thing you do not do is to pluck a target out of the air, which sounds like any other kind of target, which is one which has your kind of robust underpinning to it, but then turns out the following morning not to have been a target at all.
  (Mr Macpherson) I think we also have to provide opportunities for priorities to change, for new ambitions to come onto the political agenda. Often they will reflected in the next set of PSA targets. What comes to mind is the Prime Minister's ambition to abolish child poverty within a generation - I think he said this quite early on in 1998 or maybe 1999—and it was translated into a clear PSA target which is now owned by the Treasury and DWP to reduce poverty by a quarter by 2004 or 2005. There is a relationship here. What is fixed is the fact that there is only a formal PSA white paper every two years so those targets are fixed. The system can evolve; it can take on new priorities; it can also take out priorities which are no longer priorities.
  (Professor Barber) We have a system of government by measurement which we have been discussing this morning. The NAO has said in previous reports that it compares very well internationally as a system of government but it does not replace the political process, the changing world, the ways of dealing with that, and I think an element of common sense needs to be brought to bear. If we said that we have this system that is designed and nothing can change over a three year period, we would rightly be accused of being bureaucratic and rigid. The real world changes and politicians have to respond to that; they have to provide leadership in those circumstances. The system, while a much more effective system of monitoring public expenditure and achieving the outcomes that the public wants, has to be flexible and has to be seen with a substantial degree of common sense otherwise we would get into just technical debates.

  609. I wonder, Michael, if you have read the evidence of Michael Bichard who, of course was your permanent secretary when you were at the Department of Education. He gave us some very powerful evidence which, if I summarise it, was to say that we need far fewer targets, we must at all costs avoid processed targets and he made the only exception of literacy and numeracy because of the direness of the problem, and that organisations should simply have good business plans that have targets contained within them, basically set by themselves and properly audited against. When you read the evidence is that a model that you could sign up to?
  (Professor Barber) What he said, as I recall it, was that having ten or twelve targets for the then Department for Education and Employment seemed reasonable to him and I think he also said that he had not been following the debate in detail since he left his job at the DFE in May or June of 2001. I think what is in the recent PSA white paper from 2002 is very much along the lines that Michael described in his evidence to you.
  (Mr Macpherson) I read his evidence too and it is out of date on a number of things, not least the capacity of the Treasury to have a dialogue on this, but more significantly he mentioned the example of the Benefits Agency where he claimed they had a hundred-plus targets. Job Centre Plus which is both the Employment Service and much of the Benefits Agency now has something like six or seven targets, so there has been a huge change.

  610. I just wondered if his general approach—irrespective of the fact that it is slightly outdated—commended itself to you.
  (Professor Barber) I think a great deal of what Michael Bichard said not only commends itself to me but is already part of the approach that we are taking.

  611. You mentioned these new data systems, is the National Audit Office going to check that these are robust so the integrity of the systems you could validate. But, of course, we still have not hit the problem of some sort of external validation of the targets themselves and some external reporting on them. We have the endless argument about how many targets there are, how many have been met, have some been partly met, what do we count, are we counting these and are we not counting those? That keeps the political world going quite happily, but it does not do much for the credibility of the system. The Scottish Executive has just published a document entitled "Recording Our Achievements" and it lists all its 327 targets in one place, along with a little progress report on each. It has also published totals of the targets achieved, not achieved, and so on. This Committee three or four years ago was on the verge of recommending that the Government's annual report should be transformed into that kind of document, properly and externally validated and so on. The Government then abolished the annual report. Would it not be better for the whole credibility of the target system to simply have an easily accessible document, properly externally validated so we can see what is going on?
  (Mr Macpherson) We are moving to web-based reporting which will make it a lot easier to access how the Government is doing. I think ultimately if you are going to externally validate it, I think Parliament is uniquely placed to do this. The Select Committee system is uniquely placed to hold every department to account. The Treasury Committee or this Committee could, if it so wished, audit the achievements across the board.

  612. In principle external validation is a good thing, it is just a question of finding the mechanism.
  (Mr Macpherson) It is up to you. We publish our assessment of how departments are doing against their PSA's and, as I say, we are very keen that that should be based on proper data. If anybody else wishes to audit those results I think that that could easily add to the transparency of the system.

  613. We are producing our own little audit when we produce our report which I am sure will interest you. We need to stop now, but I think you offered to give us a memorandum picking up some of the things you wanted to say to us on a joint basis. If so, we would welcome it and be very grateful for it.
  (Professor Barber) Yes, we will do it.

  614. Thank you for coming along. I think we have had a stimulating session. Thank you very much indeed.
  (Professor Barber) Thank you.

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