Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (1-19)




  1. This afternoon we are taking evidence on the Comptroller and Auditor General's Report on Access to properties grant-aided by English Heritage. Our witnesses are Robin Young, Permanent Secretary to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and Pam Alexander, Chief Executive of English Heritage. Welcome to you both. Robin, you are familiar with the rules. Ms Alexander, we try to give you at least an indication of which component of the Report we are referring to when we start. I am afraid you have got the first four or five questions. The first one relates to paragraphs 2.3, 2.13 and 2.14. What they tell us is that in the past you have not physically tested access and thus have not been in a position to pursue owners who might not be complying with access requirements. Why is this, and in the light of these findings, in particular that it was difficult to arrange visits to some properties, which I will come back to later, do you now propose to have physical tests?

  (Ms Alexander) We have been trying to set up over the last few years a system which would enable us to monitor effectively the grants that we have been giving to owners of the various buildings and monuments that we are grant-aiding. As you may be aware, we set up a new system in 1996 which set a ten year enforcement limit on our grants which enabled us to define the body of people whom we would then be monitoring. As part of that new system we set up also a system of annual reports, both on the maintenance conditions and on the access conditions which apply to grant. The first grants that were likely to have been completed under that system would have come through in about 1998 and at that point we decided it was not good enough, that actually we wanted to be much more proactive about publicising access. Therefore, in the new system that we introduced in 1998 we decided to take over the responsibility for publishing an annual list of grant-aided properties to which access was available and ensuring we got reports from owners every year in order to make sure that list was accurate. The first year that list was completed was 1999. We knew that it would not be accurate the first time around and, indeed, the basis of the NAO's study was that first list. We found it very useful to have their Report on it.

  2. That is accuracy, I am not so much concerned about accuracy as those where the owners or recipients of the heritage grants have not actually met the conditions which you can only test with a physical test, having a visit, a call or whatever. Do you propose to introduce such a scheme now?
  (Ms Alexander) We were reassured by the conclusions of the Report which said that the great majority of those to whom the NAO put questions did appear to be complying, and complying in many cases extremely well, with the conditions. What we would like to do in future is to target our resources on those where there appear to be problems. We have identified a number ourselves from the grants which were not ready when the NAO did their study and it has been very useful to have the NAO's study to identify some more. We will be pursuing the few which we believe still have problems. We have been working over the last fortnight on the details of the problems that the NAO had and we do believe that in a number of cases there were valid reasons why there were difficulties. That means we must get our website right, up to date and accurate.

  3. I will come back to that. You still have not told me yet whether you are going to organise physical visits, no doubt somebody else will pursue it. If we move on to paragraph 2.7 which relates to this accuracy point, it shows that there were 89 cases where, according to your records, access applied but you subsequently agreed that it did not. Can you tell us how did the records come to contain so many errors and what are you doing in future to ensure that you maintain accurate records?
  (Ms Alexander) As I said, it was the first time we had ever tried to compile a record of all 551 grants we have given over the last ten years. The inaccuracies were a result of the first sample survey we did last March. We believe we have already put right quite a number of those inaccuracies over the last year and indeed have now completed the review of all those grant recipients we were not able to contact for the new list which will be coming out at the end of this year and which we will be printing in Hudsons next year. What we want to be doing in order to ensure that it remains accurate is an annual survey which will require self-certification by all our grant owners that they have given us accurate details. We will be asking customers to give us feedback. We took the point in the NAO Report that it was not good enough simply to have an invitation to give complaints over the web, it is also very important that the Hudsons publication invites clients and customers to give feedback on what sort of response they get.

  4. Given the state of the records, are you sure that you have listed all those that should be listed in the access guide?
  (Ms Alexander) No, we know we did not. That was why we were only able to give the NAO 339 names out of the 551 we knew we needed to have details of. We now have the details of the remaining 120.

  5. I will come back to self-certification later. Also from paragraph 2.7 there were 101 cases where you did not receive an effective response to your questionnaire to grant recipients. As this could indicate that the grant recipient had disposed of the property, which would trigger the recovery of the grant under the claw-back clause, or non-compliance with grant conditions, what progress has been made in following up those cases?
  (Ms Alexander) We followed up all of those. In fact, we followed up 120 because there were also 12 that were unresolved at that time and seven where we had work in progress and we wanted to make sure that all 120 were accurate for the future records. Of those we have discovered that 67 are fulfilling their grant conditions and 55 of those will be added to the website very shortly. The other 12 were open either by virtue of use or to the exterior only or have work in progress, so in due course they will come on to the website. 46 of them are no longer open for valid reasons. 35 of them are outside the ten year grant period, for example, and others have declined either because the grant has been paid back because people did not wish to meet conditions or, in four cases, they lapsed on death. That leaves only seven where there are further issues to pursue and in five of those seven cases we think there may be a case for grant recovery and we will be pursuing grant recovery. Those are for cases such as railway workshops, a courthouse, an old vicarage which has been turned into a nursing home, where in all cases we feel they are not going to be able to comply with the conditions in the future.

  6. Are those seven all part of what I think of as the 12 defaulters, the list you were given?
  (Ms Alexander) No, they are additional. The 12 defaulters are the ones that the NAO had on their list who they could not contact. We have looked at those as a result.

  7. And what was the result of that?
  (Ms Alexander) The result on the 12 who refused access to the NAO consultants is that five of them have confirmed that they do give access at times on the website and we will, therefore, be doing our own checks since that obviously does not tie up with the NAO's experience. Seven of them were inaccurate on the website. We have corrected the accuracy for two of them, one of which had only access to the exterior and one of which had work in progress and was not open at the time of this study but is open now. There are five where we will be removing them from the website, three of them being over ten years old and two of them where we will be pursuing them for claw-back because we were already aware that the properties were up for sale.

  8. Okay. Paragraph 2.9 and figure four on page 14 is my next point which tells us that you have made your access guide available on your website, but it is not listed in the obvious place to look called "Places to Visit". What action have you taken to make that easier to find?
  (Ms Alexander) We have already improved it and we are grateful to the NAO for their observations. We had already planned to bring up a new website which will be coming on to the web within the next few weeks and we hope it will be very much better then, but in the meantime we have actually placed a direct line into "Places to Visit" and a number of hot links across so that it is much easier to access and also I hope in some cases the information is rather more helpful. The introduction comes up automatically instead of having to be called down.

  9. Good. Thank you. My last question for you for the moment is on paragraph 3.6 which tells us that there were five cases involving around half a million pounds of grants where financial appraisals of the applicant's means were required but these were not undertaken. How can you be sure in these cases that best value for money was achieved?
  (Ms Alexander) In all cases, as the NAO Report says, financial assessments were made and the Needs Assessment Panel met on each of those cases. In three cases where a formal financial appraisal appeared to be needed management accounts had looked at the grant cases and had decided they did not have the material to give a formal appraisal but they could give advice to the Needs Assessment Panel when it met on how to take it forward. In those cases, two of which were redundant churches and one of which was roof repairs, they gave their advice to the Needs Assessment Panel and that was formally minuted. We have now made it much clearer in desk instructions that even where that is the case they must make it clear what the nature of the financial appraisal was that they had done before the Needs Assessment Panel meets.

  10. Thank you. I will give you a rest for a few minutes while Mr Young gives us his views. Paragraph 2.2 is the hook really, Mr Young. Government policy is to "broaden access for this and future generations to our distinctive built environment". Given that English Heritage's records have been out of date and they have not tested how well access arrangements are working, what have you done to ensure that English Heritage implement this policy in full?
  (Mr Young) We have pursued this through discussion of this thing called the Funding Agreement which is a three year Funding Agreement which my Department makes each year with English Heritage on access more widely obviously and the main focus has been on properties which English Heritage themselves own. From memory, we have set them challenging targets in our three year Funding Agreement for increasing the number of visitors who visit their own properties. For total number of visitors it goes up from 11.6 million to 12 million. We have also set them targets to increase their own membership. We have also set them targets to increase their free educational visits whilst simultaneously maintaining or enhancing visitor satisfaction. That is the broad generality. This then, which remember is not properties they own, this Report is about properties which they have grant-aided, is an addition to that overall access status which we have pursued through the Funding Agreement route. What we are going to do with this is make it available and English Heritage have agreed, in addition to accepting the targets for increasing their total number of visitors to properties they own, that in future as part of the annual self-certification, which you raised, the owners of these properties are going to have to confirm the visitor arrangements, tell English Heritage how many visitors have come and at what price, if any. As part of pursuing the access agenda on top of what they are doing with the properties they own, we are now going to get regular figures from English Heritage about the numbers of people visiting these grant-aided properties.

  Chairman: Thank you. Let us widen it out and start with Mr David Rendel.

Mr Rendel

  11. Mr Young, do you as part of your obligation to English Heritage, give them any guidance on what income you expect them to get, for example, from charging for entry to their properties?
  (Mr Young) Not as specifically as that. We discussed with them, under the Funding Agreement channel which I was just describing, about the real outputs and outcomes that we want them to get, and we agreed the targets and output indicators against a total figure of expenditure, part of which is grant in aid from my department and that is then enhanced by revenues that they get. So we have a figure of expenditure equals total revenue. Of total revenue a great chunk is grant in aid and another bit is non-grant in aid revenues.

  12. You are agreeing with them each year how much they bring in in income as well as what you give them by grant aid?
  (Mr Young) Yes. I think that is right, unless I have missed something. The targets for real work outcomes relate to a figure of income which is assessed as the aggregate of grant in aid and other incomes they get.

  13. Ms Alexander, you presumably are therefore the people who set the charges to your own properties. How do you set those? Are all properties charged?
  (Ms Alexander) No, indeed. We have 259 of 409 properties which are free sites and they are open at any reasonable hour. We have 139 sites which have an admission charge and 125 are under £4.

  14. Under £4? Sorry, 120?
  (Ms Alexander) 125 of the 139 for which we charge.

  15. What is the maximum price?
  (Ms Alexander) I knew you were going to ask me that and I am afraid I do not have it in my head. I am sure I should and I am sure it will be for one of our top three or four properties, but rather than give you the wrong figure, maybe I could let you have that.

  16. Would it be anything like £50?
  (Ms Alexander) It would not be anything like that, no. It might be £10, but I think it is more likely to be £9.50. I will check that if I may[1]. You asked how we set it. We set it in relation to our knowledge of the market that we are in and the facilities that we are able to offer people at our sites, because we have a very wide range of sites from ruins to houses with full contents and, indeed, in some cases, major art galleries, and obviously the facilities relate to that, although in the case of Kenwood it is free. We also look at what investment we put into the properties and what new facilities we are offering in the year in question.

  17. Kenwood is free. That is one of your bigger properties?
  (Ms Alexander) As a result of the Iveagh Bequest. It is one of the terms of the Iveagh Bequest that it should be available to the public free, except for special exhibitions.

  18. You say most are less than £10, were you surprised to see that two properties were reportedly charging £50 or £100 for access?
  (Ms Alexander) Not when I understood that that was for group visits of around 20 people. Nevertheless, what I would be surprised by would be if they make no possible availability for individuals. We will certainly be following that up with the two properties concerned, both of whom have said they do provide access for individuals if they cannot come on a group tour, but clearly we will need to test that for ourselves since that was not made possible for the NAO's consultants.

  19. Do you get any other income apart from fees charged?
  (Ms Alexander) We have retail and catering operations at a number of our properties. We have membership now of 446,000 people from whom we gain membership income. We also do have some sponsorship and fund raising and a number of our major projects attract other funding from sources as diverse as the Lottery, the European Union and other sources of funding.

1   Note by Witness: The figure for 2000-2001 is £6.90 for admission to Dover Castle, Kent, or Osborne House, Isle of Wright. Back

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