Select Committee on Public Administration Second Report


Submitted by the Department for Education and Employment

Your letter to Michael Bichard of 9 June requested further information on certain Parliamentary Questions recorded as being 'blocked' by the Table Office because of Ministers' refusal to provide answers.

The information you have requested accompanies this letter.

19 July 2000

(63275): Mr Paul Keetch MP asked to list the areas where (a) the New Deal Gateway and (b) one or more New Deal options are delivered entirely by private sector providers; and if he will list monthly expenditure and client outcomes for each of these private sector providers up to the latest date for which the figures are available.

(94594): Mrs Claire Curtis-Thomas MP asked what money Sefton Metropolitan Borough Council had received from the New Deal programme and how money had been spent.

Information exchanged or agreed between the parties to any contract in relation to the costing of any contract or bid is considered confidential. To disclose such information would have potential to harm the relationship and trust maintained between the parties concerned and could potentially erode the suppliers' ability to compete in the market.

With the exception of the price of winning competitive tenders, which Employment Service usually voluntarily publishes in the Official Journal for the European Community, all subsequent financial information shared between the parties to the contract remains commercially confidential.

This practice has been endorsed by the Office of Government Commerce, an office of HM Treasury.

(67410): Mr Damian Green MP asked what estimate he has made of the number of 18 to 24 year olds who will enter the New Deal in (a) 1999-2000, (b) 2000-2001 and © 2001-2002.

The Department's earlier explanation of the answer given to this parliamentary question made the point that the answer had not in fact withheld information.
We imagine that the Committee's request for a fuller explanation may stem from the fact that the detailed answer given to this parliamentary question in January 1999 began with the sentence "By convention, the government does not publish forecasts of unemployment."

That sentence was not, however, indicating that the Department possessed information which it was unable or unwilling to reveal in answer to the question. The point of the sentence was to make it clear that the information provided in the remainder of the answer did not constitute or derive from an estimate or forecast of unemployment. Rather, the information provided was about the Government's planning assumptions for participation in the New Deal for Young People, and the point being made was that those assumptions were based not on forecasts or estimates of unemployment but on the actual levels of unemployment pertaining at the time the assumption was drawn up.

The key point is that the Department does not make forecasts of unemployment. This parliamentary question asked for the Government's estimate of the numbers who would participate in the New Deal for Young People. The answer set out to ensure that we did not mislead people into thinking that we had estimates or forecasts, when all we in fact had were assumptions about participation, needed for planning purposes, and based not on forecasts or estimates of unemployment - which we do not make - but on current levels of unemployment.

(68423): Mr Francis Maude MP asked what additional legislation, not currently before Parliament, was assumed in the production of his Department's spending allocation for 1999-2000 to 2001-2002 in the Comprehensive Spending Review.

There is a long-standing convention that legislative proposals for each year are not announced before the Queen's Speech at the start of the relevant Session.

The refusal to release details of legislative proposals is covered by Exemption 10 of the Code of Practice.

(68869): Mr David Chaytor MP asking for (a) a list of further education college with a category C financial rating; and (b) the current deficit for each college.

The Department considers that it acted appropriately in response to this question.

The question raised two points. The first, on Category C financial rating, referred to information where responsibility for collection lies not with the Department but the FEFC. The FEFC has always maintained the practice of treating the list as "commercial in confidence". It would have been a breach of trust for the Department to have published FEFC's information. The Parliamentary Answer did, however, give a summary appraisal of the category C position, reporting that 84 of the 435 FE colleges came into this category.

The second point, on deficits, was fully met through the explanation to the MP that audited end-year information on deficits was available in the Commons Library in a publication of the Further Education Funding Council (FEFC).

(69691): Mr Peter Ainsworth MP asked how many tenders his Department has received for the provision of digital broadcasting services.

The Department was not, at that stage, in a position to divulge details of the tenders received, for reasons of commercial confidentiality. The Department recognises the right of companies to withdraw from competitions without undue publicity, which could prove commercially damaging to them.

Part I of the Code of Practice on Access to Public Information talks of the need to balance release of information with "the need to maintain high standards of care in ensuring the privacy of….commercially confidential information". The Department's answer to PQ 69691 was in accordance with that and with Part II, section 13 of the Code of Practice, which exempts from disclosure "information including commercial confidences, trade secrets or intellectual property whose unwarranted disclosure would harm the competitive position of a third party".
Papers relating to the Education Digital Broadcast Services Competition (such as the invitation to tender) were subsequently placed in the House Library. Further details of the companies involved were made publicly available once contracts for a trial demonstration were in place.

(72237): Mrs Theresa May asked what advice the Department has issued to local education authorities on the use of genetically-modified foods in the school meals services.

The Department does not believe that the answer to this PQ withheld information.

The question in February 1999 asked what advice the DfEE had issued to local education authorities on the use of genetically-modified foods in school meals services. The answer given - that responsibility for determining the content of school meals rested with local education authorities and the governing bodies of grant maintained schools - was a factually correct statement.

The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was, of course, responsible for the arrangements for rigorous safety assessments of all genetically-modified foods sold in the UK, under the terms of the EC Novel Foods Regulation; and for advice to the public on these matters. It had not therefore been necessary for the DfEE to issue any additional advice to local education authorities, particularly given the authorities' own responsibility for the content of school meals.

The latter responsibility will be modified when the regulations, to be laid shortly under powers contained in section 114 of the School Standards and Framework Act to prescribe national nutritional standards for lunches at schools maintained by local education authorities, come into force. The DfEE proposes to issue advice and good practice guidance on the implementation of these regulations.

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