Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100-119)|
THURSDAY 18 OCTOBER 2001
PRESCOTT MP, THE
TRADESTON CBE AND
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 dimensionfor example the many strategic functions
which the Greater London Authority has hereand 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
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
(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.
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
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.
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
(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.
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
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.
(Mavis McDonald) Yes, a memorandum of
(Mr Prescott) A memorandum of agreement,
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
(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.
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.
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
Note by witness: Please refer to subsequent letter to the
Committee (NC 1A) p. 24. Back
Note by witness: Please refer to subsequent letter to the
Committee (NC 1A) p. 24. Back
Witness correction: Memorandum of understanding. Back
Witness correction: Memorandum of understanding. Back