Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-79)

THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER 2001

THE RT HON JOHN PRESCOTT MP, THE RT HON THE LORD MACDONALD OF TRADESTON CBE AND MAVIS MCDONALD CB

60. The role played by the new Cabinet Officer Delivery Unit. The answer to the question is being deferred to the Prime Minister. If it was just a straightforward answer that it is not your responsibility that would have been the answer but the whole question is being referred on to the Prime Minister. I can put this in the general but what I cannot conceive is exactly where you are accountable and where you are answering a question like this on the Cabinet Office Delivery Unit and not being answered by you?

  (Mr Prescott) That is because Mr Oaten has asked the question of the Cabinet Office because that is his responsibility in opposition. I do not know whether the Prime Minister might say, "it is not my responsibility go somewhere else", we must wait and see the paper trail. The question is, do we have responsibility for the administration system in Railtrack? No, why would we? That is the Secretary of State's job and as I used to do that job I can clearly understand the resentment if it was being done by somebody else other than myself as the Secretary of State for transport who has the direct responsibility.

61. It still does not answer my question.

  (Mr Prescott) The problem is Mr Oaten rather than me.

62. I feel that the question gets thrown on. What I am really trying to get at are the bits that you definitively and my Lord Macdonald definitively answer up on within this structure, that is really where my question is heading.

  (Mr Prescott) I tried to understand what you meant by the question. It may well come from my own experience in that department, knowing that money has to be made available and promised to a particular body at a point in time and then at a different time, as happened in this case, there was some question as to whether it had to be put into administration. We had to give money and did give money to Railtrack as the Secretary of State. I really cannot see how the Cabinet Office would be directly involved in this matter of delivery. Once the money has been decided, the investments given and the 10 year plan decided the delivery department, and Gus Macdonald would be involved in seeing that we have the mechanism to make sure the outcomes we want from it have been achieved. We did have a little bit of a discussion about this, we are at a difficulty to see how we have any responsibility for this. If it is that we are delivering so it is that we should be in charge, that would take us right across government.

63. That is the difficulty, in a sense you are so far ranging and then we come to the specifics and it is not your responsibility.

  (Mr Prescott) I will check it out again for you and see if there is anything that I missed out in that response to correct. I will send the Committee a letter.

Chairman

64. If I have this right, I think it is not the answer but it is the question which is the issue and what it says about responsibility. Why was it referred to the Prime Minister when it was a question about a Cabinet Office unit. The question that would flow out of that, we may get to it at some point, is the Cabinet Office now some big Prime Minister's department by another name?

  (Mr Prescott) Is the Cabinet Office the Prime Minister's department? The Cabinet Office is the department of the Prime Minister at the end of day. Am I confused about this?

65. This is interesting.

  (Mr Prescott) What we have is the Prime Minister's department in the Cabinet Office and I am directly responsible to the Prime Minister and the Secretary of the Cabinet has a responsibility to the Cabinet.

66. There have been a lot of new units set up located in the Cabinet Office.

  (Mr Prescott) At the end of day there is no doubt the mountain top is the Prime Minister.

67. When a question is asked about these new units—

  (Mr Prescott) I will try and find a proper answer to the point you are making, why was it accepted as a question to be given and then passed on to the Prime Minister. I do not know the answer now but I will certainly do what I can to find an answer to it.

Mr Trend

68. I too am very confused, former members of this Committee will remember the organogram, it was very interesting, although there was some gaps in it, and nobody understood the one we had the last time round. I am pretty sure the one next time will be considerably more complex. Certainly nowadays there are few people who follow matters in the Whitehall, David Walker, wrote a piece in The Guardian, which you will have read.

  (Mr Prescott) I do not think so.

69. I warmly recommend it to you. He put a question, it is quite simple, "how will responsibility for health care be shared between Alan Milburn and the Department of Health on the one hand and the thinkers and progress chasers in Number Ten in the Delivery Unit and the Office of Public Services Reform on the other. The delivery unit reports to the Prime Minister under the supervision of Lord Macdonald and the Office of Public Services Reform, which is located in the Cabinet Office, although it falls . . . " It seem to me to be reasonably complicated already.

  (Mr Prescott) I think he has made it unnecessarily complicated, he has actually picked out all of the different people who have some responsibility. The question is, how can the Cabinet Office or the Delivery Unit play any part with the Department in delivering a better policy and achieving its objectives, that is not difficult, we come together, we look at the programme designed by the Secretary of State, we then pass a view as to whether they can achieve that. All this is about keeping on with the department to make sure they do not slip in the programme, that they do not find in the third year what they should have done in the second year. You can write all of this clever stuff about who is connected to who but in reality it is very clear.

70. In reality either somebody take the credit or somebody will take the blame.

  (Mr Prescott) We will know who will take the blame basically because the Secretaries of State have responsibility to do that.

71. I hope they are all hearing this.

  (Mr Prescott) They have the responsibility for it. The Delivery Unit questions them about their programme of delivery, that is quite proper. The reality is we know departments do not deliver. In the Labour Governments and Tory Governments it has not always been 100 per cent delivery and all of us politicians at election time have to try to explain why it has not. We are talking about quality and we are going to try and say "have you got a programme to deliver on?" In reality the programmes and the targets are very tight to achieve. If you do not do it in the first year and take the appropriate measures you will not achieve the follow up. We have to do it. Therefore, we help departments but the Secretary of State is responsible. If the Secretary of State presumably disagreed with the Cabinet Committee and said "I do not like the plan", no doubt I would be first in having a discussion and then the Prime Minister is there if necessary. I think that is a proper way of keeping pressure on departments to deliver because the evidence is they do not always.

72. I understand you understand this and the people and the players in this will understand this.

  (Mr Prescott) Mr Walker should understand this.

73. They get up in the morning and they make sure that no-one has parked a taxi on their lawn and then get on with their day but in structural terms, in administrative terms, it is extremely difficult to understand. Where final accountability will lie and where responsibility will lie has traditionally been an important matter for the Government to explain. How big is your Department? How many Ministers have you got?

  (Mr Prescott) As it says in the detail I have Barbara Roche, who is my Minister of State. I have Chris Leslie, who is another Minister. It is the same size as it was before. Gus Macdonald is involved with us. We now have someone dealing with equal opportunities.[8] I think the size of the Department is no bigger than it was before except in the major transfer of Government civil servants in the Government Offices. On Ministers there is not a great deal of difference.

74. You say Gus Macdonald is connected to you, does he report to you?

  (Mr Prescott) Yes, he reports to me.

75. And to the Prime Minister?

  (Mr Prescott) Yes, of course he does.

76. In different areas for different things?

  (Mr Prescott) No, on the same things he is doing because I need to know and report to you in Parliament what he is doing. I cannot say "Ring up Gus Macdonald", can I?

77. So he would report to you on Delivery Unit matters?

  (Mr Prescott) Yes, of course he does.

78. Before he would go and see the Prime Minister?

  (Mr Prescott) He has Mr Barber. Gus will explain it. We have to report in different ways. One, the Prime Minister is hands-on, he wants to make sure it is delivered, he is very keen about that so he has got this unit to make sure it is delivered. I have to answer for that. We meet regularly to see how it is going and we discuss with Gus and the officials in his Delivery Unit whether we are achieving it, indeed I have a direct responsibility for that, and if it is not then perhaps have a word in one or two Secretaries of States' ears about it.

79. I am concentrating on your Department. How many people now do you employ? Do you know how much it costs? Who is the Accounting Officer?

  (Mr Prescott) The cost is not a great deal more. Why do we not ask the Permanent Secretary to deal with this?
  (Mavis McDonald) I am the Accounting Officer.


8   Note by witness: Baroness Morgan. Back


 
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