Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340-359)|
CBE, VANESSA HOWLISON,
9 FEBRUARY 2009
Q340 Mr Chaytor: With research
functions, for example, would all similar organisations include
those as corporate administrative functions, or would they appear
in a different section of the budget? Is there a standard reporting
procedure that all Government Departments and agencies and non-departmental
public bodies use?
Vanessa Howlison: In terms of
the administration budget, absolutely there is. Our accounts are
audited by the National Audit Office, and we are both clear that
we are charging the right costs to administration in terms of
reporting to Treasury. In terms of our research and international
division, it provides a lot of data to support front-line inspection
and, as it happens, that team is managed from within our corporate
services division, but I think it is very much more related to
supporting the front line. In fact, within the reorganised structure,
front-line divisions will manage that team's work. There is no
standard way of dealing with it, but I am clear that what we charge
against our administration costs budget is in line with Treasury
Q341 Mr Heppell: I got a little
confused with the stuff about inflation. Were the targets at the
very beginning set with, or without, inflation?
Vanessa Howlison: The target was
set without inflation. We were told to reduce our costs by 30%
compared with our costs in 2003-04. We went back to the Better
Regulation Executive and said, "Are you aware that unless
you account for inflation you are requiring a 42% reduction from
us, not a 30% reduction?" It is unfortunate that the headline
30% does not really capture the size of the savings that we have
been required to make.
Q342 Mr Heppell: The difficulty
for me is that I am not sure whether you have met your target
or not. If you account for inflation, you have met it with lots
to spare. If you do not account for inflation, you have failed
to meet it.
Vanessa Howlison: I am not saying
that we have met the target yetI am saying that there are
things that we still need to do, but it is not possible to make
some of those savings until certain points in time are reached.
Given that we were already embarking on an extended piece of procurement
from September 2009 to retender our existing contracts in any
case, I do not think that it would be wise to renegotiate those
contracts when they only had nine months left to run. Our old
inspection frameworks do not end until then, and we needed time
to develop our new frameworks and to consult on them. Having that
time is very important, but we ensured that we went back to the
Better Regulation Executive, made our trajectory very clear and
made sure that it was comfortable with that. We are not alone
in having a little more time to do this.
Q343 Mr Heppell: Was the Ofsted
report wrong when it said that Ofsted "will achieve the ...
target of 30% reduction in costs that we have been set"?
Vanessa Howlison: The important
thing to focus on is that we have worked hand in hand with the
Better Regulation Executive throughout, to ensure that we came
to a position that we have agreed on. Obviously the target was
for a 30% reduction, and we were committed to making that reduction.
The first thing that we did to get to that position was to find
ways to make the remaining savings. When the report was written,
that was our intention, but having had time to consider how we
would make those savings, it has become clear that we could not
make them in full by 2008-09, so we went back to the Better Regulation
Executive to ensure that it understood the position and was comfortable
Q344 Mr Heppell: Did it say that
that was okay and that you could count inflation?
Vanessa Howlison: To be honest,
it is more concerned that we remain committed to achieving our
savings in full. I think that we have done very well compared
both with some of the other organisations that had mergers planned
at the same time and with other inspectorates. I feel very positive
about the savings that we have made.
Q345 Mr Heppell: What you are
saying is that the savings have been made without hurting your
core aims or harming Ofsted at all.
Vanessa Howlison: Absolutely,
that has been our focus. It is not easy for any organisation to
make significant savings and the first savings are always the
easiest to find. We have done a lot of work on fundamental restructuring,
particularly of our back office, to make those changes, but you
cannot make those savings overnight. Our corporate costs have
come down more rapidly than some of the other savings willthose
savings depend on contract end dates. We have made those savings
as fast as we can without impacting unduly on the business.
Q346 Mr Heppell: I feel as if
I am delivering a Catch-22. This may be an unfair question, but
one priority identified by Ofsted in the strategic plan was better
value for money. To achieve that I would have thought that that
budget would not have been touchedit might have increasedbut,
there has been a 30% reduction in the budget for achieving better
value for money. You might say that that itself is achieving better
value for money, but it seems to me that, as achieving better
value for money was one of your priorities, that was a budget
that should not have been touched.
Vanessa Howlison: I am an accountant,
but achieving better value for money is not just about reducing
costs. It is about cost, but it is also about impact. We have
been clear in the work that we have done on our inspection frameworks
about the need to ensure that Ofsted is making these savings without
damaging impact. In fact, we want to make these savings while
enhancing our impact. That is our aim.
Q347 Mr Heppell: I have a follow-up
question about the remarks you made about the corporate budget
being reduced. Does that mean that your administrative budget
has been reduced? I ask that, because when I look at these figures,
it seems that the total resource budget seems to be going down.
It went up until 2005-06, but then it seems to have gone down.
I do not think that the administration budget has followed that.
For 2006-07, it actually increased, while you were cutting back
on the total budget. What is the reason for that?
Vanessa Howlison: We expect our
administration cost budget to reduce. However, the difficulty
is that, in the intervening years, the Treasury requires us to
charge some of the costs of achieving that corporate change against
administration costs. So, for example, with the costs that we
will incur in moving to smaller premises in London, which will
be incurred this year and next year, we are required to charge
them against our administration cost target. In the long run,
it is absolutely the case that our administration cost budget
will come down, but in the intervening years, when we have to
charge the cost of these corporate changes to the administration
cost budget, it is difficult to bring that budget down as fast
as you would expect.
Q348 Mr Heppell: On that last
point, what are you doing to the corporate budget? Does it cover
human resources? If you have fewer staff, are there redundancies?
Vanessa Howlison: Yes, is likely
there will be some redundancies. One of the things that we have
done is look carefully at how we deliver our corporate services.
In the past, if you take finance as an example, there were independent
finance teams in each of our regional offices, linked to the centre
but operating independently. We looked carefully at that model
and we did not believe that it was the most effective or cost-efficient
model of delivering finance, so we have made some structural changes,
as a result of that review. That has also been the pattern in
human resources and some of our other corporate functions. It
is difficult to make those changes without redundancies. Making
those changes obviously reduces staffing and generates some redundancies
as a result, so we have also reduced the number of staff in corporate
services over the past two years.
Q349 Mr Heppell: Do you think
that the target was set too high in the first place?
Vanessa Howlison: I do not think
that the target was set too high, because we have a savings target
and a savings plan that shows that we can achieve that savings
target. I think that the target was set with quite a short time
scale for implementation, because the target was set for us in
2006. Two and a half years might sound like quite a long time,
but when you have long-running contracts and when you need to
restructure functions and departments on that scale, those things
take time. You need to go through a period of consultation and
ensure that you are doing the right thing, then enact those savings.
That all takes time. The time scale was certainly challenging,
but we have savings proposals that show that we can meet the target,
but just not by 2008-09.
Q350 Mr Heppell: Should not the
target have been easier to hit? I say that because if it was 2003-04
to 2010, in the middle of that you had 2006, where the budget
rose considerably. I am trying to say things by arguing the wrong
way round here. Perhaps it was harder, because you had the higher
number to come down to, rather than the 2003 number.
Vanessa Howlison: Yes.
Mr Heppell: Okay, I get it.
Vanessa Howlison: We had a budget
in 2003-04 of £266 million, which rose in 2004-05 and in
2005-06, but from 2005-06 the chart starts to fall. So we were
starting to make savings for a range of reasons, before the BRE's
target was even set, but from a higher point.
Q351 Chairman: Chief Inspector,
that was a very interesting set of questions and answers between
John and Vanessa, but I could not help a wry smile when Vanessa
mentioned two and a half years, and of course you would not give
that to a school in special measures to sort itself out, would
Christine Gilbert: I listened
to that interchange. The power of setting the target is strong
because it gave us a very strong discipline to do particular thingsnot
in all the existing inspectorates, but certainly in the new organisation.
However, there was also the simplicity that nothing would change
in that time, and things have changed in that time. We could have
made the target without doing a number of things that we are now
doing, but we decided, for instance, that the sort of IT we need
for supporting the organisation was a significant cost, so that
is the sort of thing we negotiated. Having said that, I was struck
by the question about whether we had enough resources. We are
now very clear with both the Department for Children, Schools
and Families and the Department for Innovation, Universities and
Skills that we cannot keep taking on additional work without something
else being dropped or additional money being allocated to the
budget in future years. One of the things that we were asked to
do, for example, was inspect children's centres, and we waited
until agreement had been given for that before saying that we
would do it. To do that, DCSF had to get the BRE Committee's permission,
and Melanie could give you several examples. That is smaller in
the area of DIUS, and it is not easy for us. I think that we have
been through the easy years in that regard.
Q352 Mr Carswell: My first question
is for Christine and then I have a couple of questions for Vanessa.
Parliament theoretically approves your budget, as it votes on
estimates. Some people might say that that simply rubber-stamps
budgets for a whole range of quangos in different areas and that
there is no real scope for examination, and Vanessa has talked
about having to go back and negotiate with the Better Regulation
Executive. Do you, as Chief Inspector, think that it would enhance
Ofsted's accountability if your annual budget was subject to the
formal approval of the House of Commons, perhaps by a vote of
Christine Gilbert: We do not make
representations to the BRE, as the DCSF does that on our behalf.
Vanessa, as she will explain in a moment, has had a number of
discussions with the DCSF, which, even after the split came, is
the lead Department with responsibility for that. I think that
the budget is certainly scrutinised: I have a board meeting tomorrow
at which the board will scrutinise the budget. Our negotiations
with the DCSF are, I think, fairly public and subject to scrutiny.
Q353 Mr Carswell: With respect,
that is not the legislature scrutinising it, but yourself and
the Executive. Would it enhance your accountability if you were
directly accountable to Parliament for your annual budget?
Christine Gilbert: I am perfectly
happy with the way it is organised at the moment.
Q354 Mr Carswell: In 2007-08 there
was a £12 million, 6% increase in your budget. Was any of
that on head count or on topping-up pension contributions, for
example, and were is it going?
Vanessa Howlison: We had an additional
cost in 2007-08 relating to the staff who used to work for the
Commission for Social Care Inspection and who joined Ofsted. They
had not previously been part of the principal civil service pension
scheme, so when they were transferred, we were required to pick
up the cost of the top-up payment on their pensions to transfer
them into the civil service pension scheme. We were required to
Q355 Mr Carswell: Was that exclusively
for new people coming in, rather than existing employees?
Vanessa Howlison: Yes, it related
to people who had previously worked for the CSCI and who were
transferred to Ofsted on TUPE-like arrangements. It did not include
those from the adult learning inspectorate or elsewhere, because
they are already civil servants and already had access to the
principal civil service pension scheme.
Q356 Mr Carswell: So, you have
not had to increase the budget to top-up the pension pot for existing
Vanessa Howlison: That is correct.
Q357 Mr Carswell: It is, as you
say, very impressive how the total budget from 2002-03 to 2010
has gone down. Forgive my scepticism, but has there been some
budgetary sleight of hand? Are you re-jigging the accounts, or
reclassifying one form of expenditure as another? You say that
you have reduced your budget by that impressive amount, but was
the Ofsted of 2002-03 the same organisation as it will be in 2010,
other than being a super-efficient one, by all accounts? Are you
merging two different quangos, or is Whitehall reclassifying one
bit of expenditure as something else? Forgive my scepticism, but
I find it extraordinary that you can reduce your expenditure by
that amount without some Treasury sleight of hand.
Vanessa Howlison: I can assure
you that there has certainly been no Treasury sleight of hand,
and there has been no sleight of hand from this accountant either.
One difficulty was that the baseline year of 2003-04 was before
Ofsted existed in its current form, so we had to go back and look
at Ofsted's predecessor organisations, identify how much they
cost in 2003-04 and add those figures together to get a comparative
figure. The 2003-04 budget is what Ofsted would have had if it
had existed in its current format. Those figures were submitted
to the Better Regulation Executive, which signed them off before
using them as the baseline from which Ofsted needed to reduce
its costs. There has been no sleight of hand in there; those are
real reductions and are all cashable. It has been quite a long
journey, and not an easy one at times, but I am more than happy
to provide further evidence to you to show that the reductions
are real. That is one reason why things have taken a little longer.
Q358 Mr Carswell: I have one final
question. To achieve that reductionyou said 42% in real
termsyou must either have scaled back your functions massively,
or have let a lot of people go, or you must have been mega-inefficient
beforehand. Which is it?
Vanessa Howlison: Obviously, the
number of staff we employ has gone down. We have tried to make
our reductions through natural wastage where possible, and we
have been very careful about filling vacancies in the past year
or two. If you take Ofsted's predecessor organisations, the old
Ofsted had been set a Gershon target to reduce head count by 400,
I think it was, and to reduce its budget significantlyI
think by £25 million. So, the old Ofsted was already on that
journey, from 2005-06. When the merger happened, there was an
immediate saving of £15 million because we had a lot of savings
on back-office functions. For example, the adult learning inspectorate
had its own finance and HR functions, but in the larger, merged
organisation, there was an immediate saving there because we did
not need to have those separate functions. There was also a significant
saving on property. The adult learning inspectorate had an office
in Coventry which was not needed after 2007-08, so there has been
a £500,000 a year saving as a result of that alone. Also,
the comparative £266 million includes a proportion of the
Commission for Social Care Inspection's total costs18.2%.
That includes 18.2% of its office accommodation. As Ofsted's delivery
model is to home base its inspection staff, we did not need to
provide office accommodation for the people who transferred in,
so there was a natural saving there as well.
Q359 Chairman: I would not accuse
you, Vanessa, or you Chief Inspector, of creative accounting,
but could the figures hide a diminution of quality? Is the inspection
system that has replaced the adult learning inspectorate as good
in quality as it was? Could some of the problems that we have
seen in the inspection system for children's services be because
we have been trying to do things on the cheap?
Vanessa Howlison: In terms of
children's services, that is an area where we have not reduced
our costs at all. When you look at our costs for reducing the
cost of inspection per learner and user, year on year, you will
see some reductions in children's social care, for example, but
that is because they are full-costed. It is just showing you the
reduction in our corporate services cost behind it. That is not
an area that we have targeted for reductions.