Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)

THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER 2001

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

100. I am referring particularly to the establishment of regional government.

  (Mr Prescott) How would we know it is delivered? I think what motivates most on regional government is democratising many of the decisions that are taken by various quangos. I know you had a report on quangos. We have seen in the north-east, for example, various bodies and partnerships put together. Just in the north-east alone there are about 134 without any accountability whatsoever. The question about regional government is also about democratisation as well as decentralisation and that is an important question for us. You may argue whether that is the more efficient way to do it and if it is more democratic, and we can have arguments about that, but the political principle is very clear. What we have to do in the White Paper is look to a framework of what is the regional dimension—for example the many strategic functions which the Greater London Authority has here—and allow that to be accountable in the regions. Yes, it is motivated by efficiency and effectiveness but it is also motivated by the democratic concern of having many of these decisions that affect the regions decided sometimes by regional officers but within a democratic framework.

101. Would the Delivery Unit want to see some progress on regional government by the end of this?

  (Mr Prescott) I do not think it is the same as local government. This is a very important question as to what its function is. Is it to have executive powers or is it giving advice on strategic functions, whether it is housing, transport, planning, all very important issues. On balance, therefore, you will be judged upon what executive function you will have and that is right at the heart of what kind of local government structure you want fitting within that regional government.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) If I could clarify. The Delivery Unit is, as I say, only 13[9] people working on these four particular challenging areas. The delivery in health, education, crime, transport, of course has that very important local dimension. That is why it is very important that the Delivery Unit has to liaise very closely with the Deputy Prime Minister and the people for whom he is responsible because he has got the overarching responsibility, therefore, of delivery. The Delivery Unit is separate from that, Mr Lyons, I am just making that clear distinction now. We would want to work with the Deputy Prime Minister's unit to know what was coming through from local government level. For instance, they have now got Public Service Agreements like central government but the Regional Co-ordination Unit works closely with our people to keep us well informed of what is going on at local level.

  (Mr Prescott) That is the Government Offices acting to implement those programmes really.

102. It is a subjective science to some extent, delivery, depending on where you are. Who will objectively stand by and make an assessment of whether something is being delivered or not?

  (Mr Prescott) Let us say if you are going to send so many doctors or there is going to be an improvement of health, those kinds of things, that can be measured quite easily. On the regional one, which I think is the response, it has to be on some function that can be measured unless you want to measure democracy and is it better that it is more accountable than less accountable? Are there less quangos than there were before because they are now accountable to a democratic structure? I think it is much more difficult to identify in the delivery sense. There is no point in having delivery if you have not got very clear what you are asking to deliver from it.

Mr Liddell-Grainger

103. I was looking at a report about the Forward Strategy Unit which would do "blue sky policy thinking".

  (Mr Prescott) It has got a ring about it.

104. It has unfortunately. The report then goes on "It has been considered very valuable to have a body which is slightly out with the Whitehall process". Who is responsible for this if it is slightly out with the Whitehall process?

  (Mr Prescott) It is chaired by Lord Birt and one or two others who would then give some ideas and thinking to the Prime Minister himself.[10]

105. It is by Geoff Mulgan.

  (Mr Prescott) Geoff Mulgan is the one who does PIU and he probably sits on that but I think it is Lord Birt who has been set up to do it. The Policy Unit, which I think originally was set up by John Major in these areas, and we have adopted the same principle, they are the ones that actually looked at various cross-cutting policies. I think their reports have been commented on by this Committee as being a useful way of looking at policy. I hold a strong view as well that party policy should also be intervening in this. I hear all these blue skies policies but just to balance out with the parties as well, that is the red sky one perhaps.

106. Maybe. I cannot argue with that. There was a reply to the hon. Member from Nottingham North about annual reports from government in which you announced they would not be putting out government reports.

  (Mr Prescott) Annual reports.

107. Annual reports, I do apologise. If we have then got blue sky committees slightly outside Whitehall, how are they then going to be accountable to Parliament if there are not going to be annual reports coming from yourself?

  (Mr Prescott) They are only advising the Prime Minister of the long-term thinking on policy, that is all they are doing and it has happened time and time again. I think you have got a dozen outfits giving advice about that. They are not civil servants, they are not accountable to Whitehall, it is the Prime Minister looking ahead at what he needs to do. The PIU looks across these policies and publishes reports to give an indication of the government's thinking on these areas. I do not think that is complicated or a problem.

108. Who are they paid by?

  (Mr Prescott) They are civil servants.
  (Mavis McDonald) Lord Birt and the groups of advisers who are advising the Prime Minister are working part-time on an unpaid basis.
  (Mr Prescott) The PIU ones are paid though.

109. The annual report and the reporting back to Parliament is no longer going to exist. You do say that "it will come back in a variety of means, such as reports, statistic bulletins", I love those, "and ministerial statements and parliamentary questions".

  (Mr Prescott) Do not forget the website!

110. Are we not going to have one coherent way of finding information from both Lord Macdonald and your Department?

  (Mr Prescott) Can I ask Gus because he has direct responsibility for that.

111. It was his letter to the Prime Minister.

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) On the annual report, I think we can all agree that it was not a universally lauded document. I know that the Committee felt there was some value in it but I think the judgment, if you are weighing costs against benefit, was there was a great deal of work going into that chasing perhaps a chimera of objective assessment and it turned out that it was politically contentious inevitably and subject to scrutiny which was often very subjective and perhaps unfair. It was felt that four years on there were many other ways in which we communicated information across Government. I would commend you from my experience of DETR, of course, to annual reports which are a huge source of information. It was simply felt that we should not proceed with that because there are so many other ways of getting the information over nowadays.

112. Can we take a specific case as you said annual reports. The RDA in the south-west has put an annual report in and when you look at what it says it bears no relation to what is reality. I am talking specifically about the Objective 1 position in Cornwall. The report from the RDA says they are making it work but the reality I think you will find in Cornwall, which I am not a Member for, I am Somerset, is that is not actually the position. Surely we should be told more information about how you are actually achieving what you would like to do, which certainly in the Cornish position is Objective 1 which is vitally important to Cornwall which I do not think anybody would disagree with in this House or anywhere else.

  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) We believe that we have expanded the supply of information and it now comes through many different mediums and you will be able to access that information more readily than in the past. Certainly I think that will have more value than the sadly overly contentious document that has been produced in past years.

Chairman

113. I think the Committee's view on that, just to be fair, was that it was a very, very good idea to produce an annual report which joined up accountability within government and we would have liked to have seen it improved and meet some of those criticisms rather than abandoned.

  (Mr Prescott) We have not totally abandoned the concept. For example, Departments all produced their reports and Select Committees would look at them but what the annual report was trying to do was bring them all together, which was quite an exercise and, as you know, made one or two little mistakes in what was reported, whether it was Sheffield or something like that, and it was used to that kind of ridicule in a way. The annual reports are there but our view is on cross-cutting things, like social exclusion, there should be some kind of thing that you will not get from an individual Department, how it pulls together. If you take the one that you are talking about in Objective 1 and what happens in the economic development, that is very much dependent on the number of Departments producing in different areas. We are looking at how we can make an effective report on issues that normally would not be in the Departments' reports or seen on the web but can still make a report of how successful are we in the cross-cutting exercise and improving the targets that we have set out for ourselves. We have not ruled out doing that, it is just that the annual report served its purpose in the sense of we have tried it, we think we can do it in a different way and we will welcome your views on it when we give a response on it.

Kevin Brennan

114. You mentioned previously your responsibility in relation to regional government in England. Could you explain to us what your responsibilities are in relation to devolution in the devolved nations in the UK?

  (Mr Prescott) I cannot think of the title but there is one committee that deals with devolution in the British and Irish Council and I have one direct responsibility to chair there between the implementation of the devolution of settlements both in Scotland and Wales. We meet about once a year annually. The last meeting was in Scotland where we reviewed the settlement and the difficulties that might have been associated with it, things like job subsidies, do they have to be the same in every area and we get difficulties between different areas to work out. The next meeting I think is to be in Cardiff and that is the one I do chair but at the annual meeting the Prime Minister comes and we have that annual meeting and assessment of the programme. There is also a statement as well that we are working out the terms and reference of agreements between us.[11]

  (Mavis McDonald) Yes, a memorandum of agreement.[12]


  (Mr Prescott) A memorandum of agreement,[13] which is always a controversial issue when you are discussing with the constituent parts of the United Kingdom.


115. I just wondered whether as part of your responsibility you had encountered any reluctance in Departments within Government to allow devolved nations to exercise their powers in the fullest possible sense or whether you have seen differences between one Department and another in the way they deal with devolved bodies?

  (Mr Prescott) I do not see a problem between the Departments that may, say, have the responsibility for the English regions in properly recognising the devolved power that Parliament has agreed should be given as in the settlement for Wales and Scotland. I do see problems that sometimes come from people thinking "in Wales it is not the same as Scotland and should we not have that?" and perhaps they want to demand more resources or more powers. That reflects itself in discussions but the Committee I am on is basically to make sure the agreements we have at the moment are properly implemented and co-ordinated across the constituent parts.

116. In terms of the Civil Service, are any difficulties encountered at the centre with having a Civil Service that is apparently serving one master, a unified Civil Service but it is apparently serving one master in one part of the UK, and possibly serving another master where there are policy differences in devolved parts? What I am getting on to, I suppose, is what lessons have been learned from the preparation of policies for devolved regions?

  (Mr Prescott) These are always evolving, the pressures in each part, whether in Scotland or Wales for what should be the powers and resources in these areas, those debates go on and sometimes they are pushed to expression inside the committee. For example, they may decide to do something more than they have got money for and the argument is should we provide more money or not. These are arguments that come out of operating the present agreement and this committee is a chance of settling them. Let me give you one which is a difficulty, if you like. Do you agree that in regional policy the job subsidy should be the same for all parts or should it be argued it should be more for one area than another? I think in those kinds of issues, in which I have a role to play, I certainly hold the view that it should be the same for all.

117. Is there any attempt to co-ordinate policy announcements that, perhaps, although they do not appear to be so in the media, only affect England, for example, with the policy in the devolved nations?

  (Mr Prescott) I think the devolved areas tend to reserve the right to say "I want to do it this way" and we acknowledge that. I think the latest example was the Education White Paper where the Welsh said they did not want to follow certain parts of our Education White Paper and then drew up their own and published it. Providing it is within the devolved powers and agreed then they have a right to do that.

Mr Prentice

118. This is to the Deputy Prime Minister. In your memorandum that you sent to us, in paragraph 13 you told us that the changes had given greater strength to Cabinet government and the committee system. My question is really about Cabinet government. There are people who say maliciously that we have a presidential system masquerading as a Cabinet government.

  (Mr Prescott) We are talking about the press again, are we! I am joking.

  Mr Trend: Talking about me.

Mr Prentice

119. I just wondered what your response to that would be and if the changes have led to greater discussion within Cabinet because, again, I read in the press that the Cabinet does not meet very often and when it does meet the meetings do not last for very long.

  (Mr Prescott) How do they know?


9   Witness correction: 30. Back

10   Note by witness: Please refer to subsequent letter to the Committee (NC 1A) p. 24. Back

11   Note by witness: Please refer to subsequent letter to the Committee (NC 1A) p. 24. Back

12   Witness correction: Memorandum of understanding. Back

13   Witness correction: Memorandum of understanding. Back


 
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