Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. Yes.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not profess to be an expert of the detail of it in any sense.

  81. In a very small way I used to have a hand in trying to write these things. Every year we used to try and make them clearer than the last. I think the general consensus was they did slowly become clearer. Over the last four years they have become completely incomprehensible. The Red Book does with numbers what you are doing with illustrations. It is now incomprehensible, even to people extremely well versed in the subject. What I want to raise with you, since you have responsibility for the production of an overall Government report and since you mentioned that other departments are independently producing their own reports in their own way, what we desperately need is somebody with a clear mind coming to these reports and trying to produce statistics and facts in a way that is more easily digestible and understandable. Do you think that is the sort of role which with your more roving brief, not being trapped by a department, you would be interested to undertake?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not want to comment on the detail of the Red Book, the idea of trying to make government publications clearer, more digestible and more consistent with each other and more attractive for the public to read seems to me to be an incredibly important matter. That is why we published the Annual Report. That is why in what we did in the most recent one, 1999/2000, we took trouble to try and make it more digestible. I am not sure who is the most appropriate person to do it but in principle I think that is a very important goal to aim at.

  82. When you say you are not sure—
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Sorry to interrupt. Can I come back to the—

  83. To the hidden meaning of the illustration?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes, to the picture. A revelation has come to me and I am able to explain to you what it means. The pink is the number of years to train a nurse, the blue is the number of years to build a hospital and the yellow is the number of years to train a GP. It is utterly clear I would have thought.

  Chairman: Would it not have been clearer if someone had explained that in the report?

  Mr White: It does say it.


  84. Where does it say number of years to build anything?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Those words are not used but if you look at the first one it says "nurse" under the pink pills, 1997, 1998, 1999, hospital under the blue pills, five of them, and similarly GP and the numbers of years it would take to—

Mr Tyrie

  85. What about training? Where does it mention training on this page, for example?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It does not use the word "training".

  Mr White: It takes three years to train a nurse and seven years to qualify as a GP.

  Mr Lammy: I think it was aimed at Generation X because I got it. I understood it. It was very obvious to me.

  86. It was obvious to you and I am very impressed. I am also very impressed by the speed and clarity of thought of your staff, Lord Falconer.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I was passed a note actually.

  87. It comes back to my comments at the beginning really. I just want to pursue this point a little bit more about trying to get numbers clearer. I strongly agree with some of the points made by Mark about clearly understood numbers that people can use that are in a series that does not change too often. We need somebody now in Government who is prepared to take on the responsibility of trying to provide that. Would you be prepared to do so? Would you be prepared to discuss with the Prime Minister the idea that there should be somebody even if, as you said a moment ago, you were not sure—
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I would certainly be prepared to discuss and think about how one can progress the idea of having greater consistency in what is said. I include in that making sure that there are series that you can compare year-on-year and also greater clarity in what is said in documents published by the Government. Both of those things we would regard as things to aspire to in relation to all publications that come out of Government and things that we would say that we had aspired to in relation to the Annual Report, although obviously in a number of respects have not entirely succeeded.

Mr Turner

  88. Just to put on record and to correct what Michael Trend said, the Labour Party did not say it would not increase taxes. What Labour said was that it would not increase the basic and higher rates of income tax, nor the basic rate of National Insurance. It was never said that there would be an ethical foreign policy, but that there would be a foreign policy with an ethical dimension, which is a little bit different but it shows you can quite easily take things out of context and make something out of it which is not there. That is part of the problem with this document. The problem here is that it tends to fall between the two stools that Mark Oaten and Brian White have put forward, in that we have a report of where money comes from and how it is spent, and then trying to put the much broader issues of what Government is trying to achieve and what it wants to do. The report does not really do either of those things very well. Perhaps the Government needs to look at separating out those aspects and making two reports to people on an annual basis: "this is what we are raising and this is where it is going" and then something else that looks at those broader aspects.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I would see force in that. It is not just "this is what we are raising, this is what we are doing with it", there needs to be some descriptive element of what your priorities are and how you think you are doing with it, which goes beyond simply, as it were, pounds, shillings and pence. I think the report attempts to do that. One of the messages that comes out loud and clear from this Committee, which was present at the time, is you do need in the printed document some more facts in terms of: identify your targets, identify how you are doing against them—targets that you yourself have set—compare how you are doing this year with how you were doing last year. The balance has got to be struck between having enough of those but also making it a document that is compendious enough to be an account of what the Government as a whole has done for the year and also making it readable and attractive to the general public.

  89. I am glad you said that because you have hit on the point I was going to come to next, because that is not in there. There are not the hard statistical outcomes on the issues that Government needs to concentrate on, things like literacy and numeracy, things that should be in there because the effect of those issues on people's lives is tremendous but does not come out in a report presented in this way. What Government needs to be saying, is `these are our targets, these are the reasons for them, and this is the progress we have made to date'. I think one of the other reasons why you will always have a problem with a document like this is that things change, life changes, and what was planned as a priority five years ago may not be a reasonable thing to do now. That needs to be explained, why what might have been reasonable as a Government target four or five years ago has changed and why there is a need to now shift the emphasis to something else.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I accept all of that. We could do a lot of those things in next year's and the year after's report, I think. The Chairman made the point that one of the critical things about a report like this is credibility. If you are going to do it year on year you have got to take note of what the response was to it. I do not say this in a partisan way but of course the Opposition will attack the contents of the report and seek to rubbish the report, but that does not mean that one cannot learn the lessons that we got from the wider views that were expressed on the report the last time it was published.

  90. I think one of the difficulties that has been referred to is that manifesto commitments are not always so specific that you can actually say "yes, done that". Having a list of 177 with a tick box approach to it just will not work. Maybe that is something else that needs to be looked at as well.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think there is value in the discipline of constantly setting out what the manifesto commitments were and saying how we perceive progress on those and people can then respond to what we say the progress has been on that. That does seem to me to be quite an important exercise. If, as you say, Government has decided that one of its priorities has changed and does not wish to pursue one particular one then we should say so. I think it is a good discipline for a Government to, as it were, list them each year and say how we are doing on them.

  91. I do not disagree with that. The point I would make is that some of those commitments are not things you can put a tick against, they are ongoing.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Then that is for the Government which has made the commitment to explain how it is getting on in relation to that. To have a low inflation economy, that is not a one-off, you have got to describe how you are doing and people can judge your own explanation against what they perceive to be the position.

Mr Lammy

  92. I hope this has not been asked already. I just wanted to be clear at who you believed it was aimed?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is a report to Parliament and, therefore, in the first instance it is a report for the Government to tell Parliament what it has done in the year, but it is intended to be a document accessible to and digestible by the general public.

  93. So how many were printed?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) The number that was printed was—

  Mr Lammy: Fifty thousand?

Mr Turner

  94. It says 50,000 somewhere.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Fifty thousand, yes.

Mr Lammy

  95. And 10,000 were bought?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) In fact, 14,000 is the figure of the total sales but I think a number of those were actually sold internally to the Department for Education and Employment, as it were. The numbers that were sold to the general public were lower than that.


  96. There were no reports of queues in Tesco's, were there?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not think there were queues as such in Tesco's, Chairman. 6,300 were sold by Tesco's, so at least 6,300 were bought by members of the general public as opposed to Government Departments.

Mr Lammy

  97. Is it be hoped ultimately in the future that the report sells more to the general public than to arms of Government?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) That might be a hope, yes. Let us be frank, government reports, by and large—the Denning Report and the Profumo Affair are the only ones that sold massive numbers. I do not think we should have unrealistic aspirations in relation to this.

Mr Lammy

  98. In the context of voter apathy, politics being very media-driven, some people believe, one might take the view that the Government's attempt to at least consolidate what it believes it has done and its message is something that should reach the people.
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) That is very much what we hope to do. We think the Annual Report is an important discipline for any government, not just this Government, for any government, to place itself under to seek to get to a wider audience than otherwise how the government think it has done over the last year.

  99. How much money did the Government spend on advertising?
  (Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It spent in total £145,000 on the report, none of which was on advertising. I do not think there was any advertising because I think it got a lot of editorial coverage, which got into the minds of the public in a way which did not require it to be advertised on television or in the newspaper.

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