Select Committee on Education and Employment Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60 - 74)



Mr Derek Foster

  60. May I turn to employment policy for a moment? The Treasury takes very close interest in employment initiatives, very often making the announcements themselves although some would say that the Chancellor really prefers to announce all the good news in this Government, I would not say that. Have there been any tensions between the department and those other departments involved in employment initiative intervention or would you say that the machinery has been working very well?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I would certainly say the machinery has been working well and the results almost speak for themselves. That seems to me to be the test. That is not trying to duck the issue. There is always some creative tension when you are discussing with other departments, certainly with the Treasury, the direction of future policy. That must be so. That is good.


  61. Dr Thompson is a poacher turned gamekeeper or the other way round. Would you like to comment on that?
  (Ms Thompson) I would endorse what Sir Michael has just said. There are different perspectives in developing new policies around the welfare to work area. I have been in the Treasury and the DSS working on these areas and yes there are different perspectives and creative tensions. Fundamental disagreements, splits, nothing like that; no, I have genuinely no experience of that.

Mr Derek Foster

  62. On a rather more detailed issue, the Government came to power criticising the claimants' cut and saying the ILO count was the one which should be sharply focused upon. The Employment Sub-Committee looked at this fairly closely and we agreed with that. The Chancellor and perhaps the Secretary of State began to fall into choosing the claimants' cut when the number of vacancies by chance almost equalled the number of people on the claimant count. We issued the report very strongly saying that it should be placed within a different context. The Government now persist in using the claimant count. Is there anything which can be done about that?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I am not sure the Government insist on using the claimants' count. The Government uses the wide range of statistics which are available every month, the claimant count, the ILO count, the number of people in employment, wage and salary movements. What the Government is trying to do is to provide a broad picture of the situation. To go to one to the exclusion of the other or to the exclusion of the other three or four does not give you that same picture.

  63. I agree with that except that most of the press releases hone in upon the headline "claimants' count" that I am aware of.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I do not have that in front of me. One has to say that the British public and the British media over many, many years became wedded to the claimant count as the measure and I suspect that is still how the media will cover it. Maybe as that has happened Ministers have almost become resigned to it, but let us be clear, we are presenting every month a broad range of statistics which I think gives a balanced picture of what is happening in the labour market and a much more balanced picture than probably we ever had in the past. I would be as concerned about the movement in the number of people in employment as I would about any other statistics.

  64. We are politicians around this side of the table and some of you are politicians on that side of the table though you may not admit to it. I fully understand why the Government prefer the claimant count because it looks as though the problem of unemployment is being solved and it is also quite easy to shift the blame on the unemployed. The next unwritten answer is that there are enough jobs to go round therefore the unemployed should get up and take the vacancies which are there. The Government came into power being very much against the whole of that kind of attitude. All of their policy initiatives have been within the frame of saying this is not the fault of the unemployed, there are complex barriers as to why people do not take the jobs which are there, they are not in the right place, they are not at the right level, blah, blah, blah. There is a public atmosphere. We talk now as though we have achieved full employment. When I was at school, full employment was two per cent, 300,000 throughout the whole of the country. The Government have committed themselves to full employment in every region, but there is this ambivalence and the headline is always the claimant count vis-a"-vis the vacancies.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) The Government do not claim that they have achieved full employment, indeed the Green Paper we produced recently holds out the hope for full employment at some time in the future if you define that in terms of employment opportunities for everyone; actually not in the immediate future, some time ahead. I do not think the Government are claiming that they have achieved it. Certainly the Government have emphasised better than I do the balance between rights and responsibilities and an expectation that people who can will look for work, but that has also been set in the context of employability. That is that we are not forcing people to take any job, we are seeking to increase levels of employability in the labour market. That is the whole basis of New Deal and as we extend New Deal beyond 25-year olds it is more the basis of the whole of the employment policy. I am not sure I can agree with you completely.

  65. I did not expect you to. The Working Age Agency, which is now to be called JobCentre Plus. Can you just briefly tell us what the major administrative challenges of merging the Employment Service and the Benefits Agency will be?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I think if Mr Lewis were here he would say and he would want me to say that there has probably not been a bigger challenge since the Second World War in terms of changes to Government's delivery system. We are bringing together here two very large organisations, or the whole of one and a major part of the other, probably 80,000 staff involved. They have different cultures, one very much focused on the labour market with a work focus, the other more focused on benefit payments and support. As we found when we merged employment and education, which was actually a much smaller system, one of the most difficult things was when you have two such different cultures. You couple to that in this case some of the most complex IT systems that we have in the public sector which have in the past caused their own problems, particularly, because I used to be the person running it, in the DSS and in the Benefits Agency. If you pull all of that together and you add in a few flavoursome additionals like Social Fund, you have a huge task on your hands. No-one should underestimate that.

Mr St Aubyn

  66. David Normington mentioned earlier that we have one of the most devolved systems in the world for school budgets. Does not the experience we have seen in my constituency of devolving the management of the school at King's College suggest that this process has further to go? Do you not agree therefore with moves to give more flexibility to schools over their structure and support arrangements as well as over their funding?
  (Mr Normington) As you probably know, the specific Surrey example is mentioned in the Government's Green Paper—

  67. And we welcome the belated acknowledgement by the department of our initiative.
  (Mr Normington)—as a potential model for improving weak and failing schools. I suppose the answer is yes, that is a possible route. The Green Paper, which is a consultative paper, sets out a number of options for improving the way in which schools are managed and increasing the types of management and the different sorts of arrangements. The example in Surrey is a very interesting one because it has grown out of a successful school. It is a school which wants to go on and improve other schools. That seems to me quite an interesting model.


  68. This has been a longer session than you expected because of the Division but I want to end on one or two short points. Given the monitoring job this Committee does on your department, we understand that there are going to be changes in the Public Service Agreement targets and we wondered what those were going to be and why you are changing them.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) Following the last spending review?

  69. Yes.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I find it a difficult question to answer. We discuss with the Treasury at each review what the Public Service targets should be and clearly as things develop so they change. For some of them we maintain the overall framework but increase the level of the target. Sometimes there are changing priorities which suggest that completely new issues should be brought in. Is there something particular you want to focus on?

  70. The word has come to us that there has been a profound change in the qualitative nature of the targets, a real change in the basis. Is that true?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I did not think it was. I thought other people, including the Treasury, were beginning to realise that it is best to have targets which are measurable. I thought ours were better than most in that respect and maybe they are a bit better now than they were the year before.

  71. Steady as you go in terms of performance.
  (Sir Michael Bichard) They are very challenging targets and there are some changes but I did not think we were adopting a different approach to them this year.
  (Ms Thompson) There are some additional targets. There is also a change in the structure of the arrangements which makes it look more complicated than it is to the extent that the Treasury, with departmental acceptance and agreement, thought that the original 1998 Public Service Agreement was much too big, it had much too many detailed targets as a top tier. What they decided to do and what has indeed happened was that there are now supporting subsidiary service delivery agreement targets within the departmental PSA, which pick up some of the things which may appear to have dropped out of the top tier PSA. So there is a change in presentation but there are also changes in the numerical values to make the targets more challenging, and some changes of emphasis.

  72. You do not know what is going to happen to the structure of the department, but what about the annual report? Have we seen the last annual report? What is the intention? Is it to continue with annual reports as before?
  (Ms Thompson) There will be changes in the annual report. You will have noticed this time we have the departmental estimate at the back of it taking up many, many pages of tables, which is a development associated with the reforms around resource accounting and budgeting. There will be further backward looking departmental reports as well as forward looking reports embracing and containing the estimates. You have not seen the last of it.

  73. Sir Michael, you have shown no indication today at all that you are demob happy, as they used to say. May I give you one last opportunity? I understand that at your performance at the Committee of Public Accounts on what you thought might be the final performance but which proved to be the penultimate performance, you made suggestions and when the election was not called on 3 May they had another session and brought five permanent secretaries back to look at the issues across the piece. Not many permanent secretaries get such a fast reaction from a Select Committee. In terms of the relationship you have had over the years with this Committee, is it for you a beneficial experience coming before this Committee or is the relationship a good one, a poor one? We have been trying in this Committee to change. Only last week we called witnesses back from our Early Years Inquiry to find out what they thought of our inquiry. We asked them to take it through and not just do the inquiry, put it on the shelf and leave it. We are trying in quite innovative ways to change the nature of the success in operation of Select Committees. I am not suggesting you are demob happy but are there any words of wisdom which you want to impart to the Committee?
  (Sir Michael Bichard) I hope that from what I said at my first valedictory at the PAC you will appreciate that I do not say things just to placate the Committee because I was fairly critical about the way in which the PAC operates. I do think this Committee manages to engender—as I suppose to some extent you would expect because it is not the PAC—a different atmosphere. It is more of an exchange. It is constructive. It does not have a feeling of being a bear pit and that is all to the good. I think you are, if I may say so, trying some innovative approaches. It is always difficult with a departmental report, being honest as an official, because there is a huge amount of briefing which one needs to consume to be in a position, however much control you think you have of a department, to answer the questions you might ask. That is just something we have to accept. You need to understand also the amount of time that goes into preparing for a meeting like this. At the end of the day you are dependent upon the quality of support you get. I know this Committee is quite fortunate—I do not just say it looking in the corner. Personally—this is an entirely personal view—I do believe that there is room to have a look at how well supported Select Committees across the piece are because it is not in our best interest as officials coming here or going to another Select Committee to find people who have not been well advised, well supported and well briefed, because actually you tend not to focus on the issues which really matter. There is nothing worse than doing a lot of work and then going away and wondering why on earth we focused on those issues which clearly are not at the core of what matters to the department. If I may say, without being unduly flattering, an entirely positive set of comments for this Committee and I am hugely grateful for the courtesy with which you have always treated me.

  74. That is a very good note on which to end our deliberations. Thank you and the best of wishes.

  (Sir Michael Bichard) I may of course be back in a different guise as head of an HE institution.

  Chairman: May we wish you well in that new work.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 21 June 2001