Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 420-439)



  420. One of the interesting structural changes is that the OGC now reports to Sir Andrew and sits in the Treasury. When there was licence adjustments last September the OGC automatically went to the Treasury to try and renegotiate the licences for central government, it did so until Mr Smith intervened for the wider public services and local government. Is it purely central government you are concerned about or are you concerned about the wider public services?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) We are concerned with the wider public services and Wendy Thomson and her OPSR—I know you talked to her last week—is principally concerned there. I should just say that the Office of Government Commerce is still working very much with the Treasury and the overall improvement of procurement and project management is judged to have been very successful under the leadership of Peter Gershon. We are looking to borrow the expertise of the OGC so that it feeds into the Cabinet Office as well as to the Treasury. In that sense we will use the OGC to help the broader transformation.
  (Mr Alexander) I can give you a very specific example of that, when I was the e-commerce minister one of the areas I felt we could do more to support broadband Britain was in the area of aggregation of the public sector in the market, not just at a national level but at a local level as well. Much of the most interesting work was actually taking place at the level of local and regional authorities. One of the pieces of work we managed to secure was that the OGC would look at the public agreement of broadband. It is exactly the learning that emerged from the OGC last year that informed the announcement—it was after my departure—from my successor Stephen Timms in the DTI about the establishment of a regional broadband unit, which would actually service and support not just the regional development agencies but also local government in taking that work forward.

  421. One of the things that this Committee does is to look at the government's information and communication services, we have looked at Mike Granatt's work in the past, as a former journalist how do you rate the government's information communication services press releases?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) The sad news for most organisations, including government, is that if you are sitting in a news room receiving a stream of press releases most of them go straight into the bin. Therefore it is important to be discriminating and to try and decide what might be genuinely newsworthy. Then to try and write that up in a way which is very different from that quoted by the Chairman earlier, if you want to try and get it into a newspaper and get people to follow up on it. I have been impressed by the work that is done in departments that I have been in, in the Scottish Office, the DETR, now the Cabinet Office. A lot of it is defensive because of the constant pressure for comment that is required from ministers, and you simply do not have the time to give to obscure technical journals and others, and yet it is a very important function that we perform. When I was in transport a lot of the work was going out to technical journals who were clearly very understaffed and our office simply provided half of their copy every month. You might wonder if that is the proper deployment of your resources. Now we have the question of the new media to deal with. It is a very demanding task. Mike Granatt has performed very well as head of his profession. Like every other area of government it is under pressure to modernise and adopt new technologies, but that would be very helpful for the future.

  422. Do you not have the problem of boring press releases?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I do not think that is the case. Douglas is, in fact, responsible for this area but I think that it is difficult for ministers to keep contact with all of the areas of it. When I first came into government it was my firm intention to rewrite every press release into what I felt was plain English. I was worn down very quickly on that.


  423. Perhaps I can ask Douglas on the last point before we lose this area, today we are producing a report on the Byers affair—which you will be delighted to know—the whole issue was the difficulties of having more than one person doing information work, you had a special adviser doing it and you had a press officer doing it and of course it caused utter mayhem, and eventually it caused the collapse of the whole section of the department and eventually the resignation of the Minister. How on earth do we sort that out?
  (Mr Alexander) I look forward to your report. I do not think you can expect me to discuss individual personnel. I was not a serving minister in the department involved in the work I now am, at time of events that form the basis of your investigation. As I say, I look forward to your report.

  Chairman: Okay. I thought I would have a go anyway.

Mr Lyons

  424. On a previous visit John Prescott told us targets are very tight to achieve. He said if you do not achieve it in year one it is unlikely you will achieve them in the follow up. What do you say to that?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) We have a Spending Review process now which I think is an improvement on past practice and it does give departments time to vary their pace if they have been slowed down by events and they have a three year perspective in which they can catch up. It is an evolutionary process clearly but it seems to me it is both worthwhile and it is increasingly making progress.

  425. Do you feel it will stop making progress if we do not get what we want?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It will never stop, it is not in the nature of things that it should stop or that we should reach perfection. I do believe we are refining the system and no doubt we will have to modify the system in the course of whatever events inevitably overtake us in the future. We have systems in place now which are better than those that existed before in any government in my political memory.

  426. You will hopefully agree that no matter what strategy you have there will always be problems of delivery in any organisation. One problem of delivery is there is often a failure to accrue or obtain the number of people to make delivery of the product at the end of the day. Do you listen to that feedback? There are problems in the Health Service of recruitment and retention, how do you listen to the pressures coming the other way, rather than delivery yourself in the centre?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) Ministers are constantly out and about. The Prime Minister is increasingly going to meetings, many of them never publicised, with workers in the public sector. I myself try to get out. For instance in the Health Service I went along, almost uninvited, to a meeting of what was called the Coronary Heart Disease Collaborative, which was people from all over the country who worked in heart disease coming together to talk about how they got people from the time of their attack to the treatment in hospital much more quickly. It was extraordinary listening to them, because you had ambulance drivers there, consultants there, GPs there and they were comparing their experience in the north of the country with the south of the country; in some areas they can do it in 40 minutes, in other areas it took four hours. You realise that this was the collaborative approach that thankfully is being encouraged by the Department of Health all over. What we have to do in communication with the millions of workers in the public sector is to try and find a way where they can contribute better to these processes. We believe in what we are doing, as you can hear from the way Douglas has presented it, and we would like other people to understand what we are trying to do, but we realise that they will not always agree, so we have to find ways in which the departments increasingly listen to what people on the ground are saying. We want to devolve authority to the frontline, but all of the frontlines are different, they are all differently positioned. In our four principles of public service reform, yes, we want high national standards and more accountability, but the second principle is to devolve to the frontline and the third principle is to get more flexibility in there. You cannot achieve that without talking to the people who are doing the business.

  427. Do you accept there is no flexibility in the payroll for, for example, nurses, consultants and all sorts?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I think there is a great deal more flexibility than there has been in the past. There is flexibility clearly in the pay for police, they are paid more in London than else where and other areas of the southeast. There is flexibility in the Prison Service in pay and head teachers have more flexibility in the way that they reward their staff. That flexibility is coming through the system more quickly than in the past.

  428. What about risk management? We discussed that last week with some of your colleagues, how do you build that into some of your strategy, and delivery strategy? I will give you one example, you may have a strategy in health in terms of better delivery and along come the American health groups looking to recruit from this country—they are starting to do it now—how do you deal with that?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) We have yet to see the reality of that as a threat to our recruitment. What we can see is that a lot of effort has gone in in the past few years and the target which was set in the 10 Year Health Plan for the recruitment of extra nurses was achieved two years early, it should have been 2004 and as you will know it was achieved this year. We obviously have strategies in place in the Department of Health to drive recruitment and they have been relatively successful. I hope in recruitment, we can do it from the pool of nurses who can be brought back into the service, as well as enhanced training and, indeed, our recruitment overseas—because the conditions for nurses are attractive in this country in comparison with that pertaining in some European countries. As you probably know British nurses are paid more than French nurses or Spanish nurses and there is unemployment in their medical professions. Our doctors are paid twice as much as French doctors, there are unemployed doctors in Spain, Germany and Italy. That kind of recruitment is in process but it is a slow business at times because of professional qualifications and clearance, and that is the kind of bureaucracy we are trying to remove.
  (Mr Alexander) If I can just add a local perspective to that, as a constituency Member of Parliament not far from your own constituency you witness exactly that conversation every time you are back in your constituency and the politician in me was itching to say, our commitment is to recruit 10,000 doctors and 20,000 nurses. What I found in my own constituency's experience is the fact that people are seeing advertisements in the newspapers to recruit nurses has actually been far more powerful than politicians, speeches about the fact that there is an ambition there to recruit nurses. Of course there are capacity challenges, in my own constituency we had 27 graduating nurses from a local university and my local hospital offered every single one of them jobs, but they were in competition with others. In that sense I think one of the strengths of our position as a government is not just to set targets but actually to be willing to put in the means to secure that. In that sense the government has been very clear that there are capacity challenges. The National Health Service simply was not big enough when we inherited it in 1997. I would also just add to the point that Gus made in terms of the recruitment of foreign doctors and foreign nurses, I also experienced the NHS services not as a patient, but as a father, when my son was born in an NHS hospital just before Christmas and the majority of the people looking after my son in intensive care in a central London hospital came not from the United Kingdom, so in that sense the announcement the Chancellor made last week as part of the Spending Review in terms of the increase in the number of work permits potentially available is a reflection of the fact there is a recognition that we face a real challenge which we are taking real action to address, which is how do we manage to secure the service and get new recruits into the service and at the same time retaining the services, particularly of nurses, who for a range of different reasons have in the past chosen to leave the profession.

  429. Can I move on to the question of the position between the centre and the departments, if you feel there is a lack of delivery in some aspect of their work how do you communicate that to them? Do you have formal meetings to discuss that failure?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) The Delivery Unit and the officials in the department would have those discussions and those would be relayed back on the official side to the Secretary of State and were it relevant to the under achievement or non achievement of targets then no doubt it would be reported in the Cabinet Office through our processes which contribute to the bilateral meetings that the Prime Minister has with his Secretaries of State.

Mr Trend

  430. Can I change the subject slightly to other areas of interest, in the work of the Cabinet Office in particular we heard about broadband and the distressing experience last week with John Gieve sitting here and Sir Richard Wilson sitting there almost like two naughty boys who had a fight and could not bring themselves to say sorry over the question of the ombudsman. They were clearly agreeing to disagree, but this is the first time it has ever happened since the institution of ombudsman system in such a serious case. Sir Richard Wilson effectively told us this disagreement was a political matter. Can you help us understand what went wrong after a system which had been right for decades suddenly fails?
  (Mr Alexander) I am aware of the discussion you had with Sir Richard Wilson and I hesitate to suggest there is not much I can usefully add. He made clear both the fact that the government took the matter extremely seriously and gave it serious consideration, but on the other hand recognised and observed the fact that the government has to make a judgement on these issues exercise that judgement.

  431. The judgment was made within the terms of the code and the reason Richard gave us was that it was politically inconvenient, and political inconvenience is not an exemption under the code.
  (Mr Alexander) I do not recognise that description.

  432. He did say it was a political decision, there is no doubt about that.
  (Mr Alexander) I would suggest that is different from political expedience.

  433. Political decisions are not a reason for exemption from the code. Something is wrong, the code is wrong, the ombudsman is wrong, the Cabinet Office is wrong, because the system has not worked. Basically it has worked for decades and now it does not work.
  (Mr Alexander) On the basis of trust and respect honest men can disagree.

  434. Are they going to disagree in the future? How have they managed not to disagree in the past?
  (Mr Alexander) I cannot anticipate what matters will come before the ombudsman in the future, that would be a matter for the individual complainant to raise with the ombudsman. As I say, there is little I can usefully add to Sir Richard's comments, other than to say that very serious consideration had been given to the matter and it was not an indication of the general Cabinet's attitude but of a specific—

  435. I do not doubt it was treated with enormous seriousness and took a huge amount of time. One of the things that the previous minister told us was that a review of the ombudsman system is going ahead, now we have heard this for some years, can you tell us the position on the review?
  (Mr Alexander) The government remains committed consistent with precedent, but I am not able to anticipate when parliamentary time will become available to—

  436. That is the answer we normally hear. Is there any chance of them speeding it up a little?
  (Mr Alexander) Tempting though your invitation is there is little I can add to the established position, but as I say the commitment continues.

  437. The review of the ombudsman was to do with the administration of the system, but we have now had the first serious case of the system not working, will that become part of the review of the ombudsman, how one can avoid this or somehow find room for it in some theory of government? Honest men can disagree, which does happen from time to time.
  (Mr Alexander) I am aware there are a range of fundamental changes. There were actually very serious issues in terms of how to align the work of previous structures and institutions in a way that made sense to people.

  438. I am asking you specifically, you can well understand a system which has worked well in some mysterious British way does not work, you have established a mysterious British precedent and because it is inconvenient for the government to explain something that could be easily misunderstood, I accept that point, although there may be ways of doing an exercise across government so the same sort of information would be giving an unbalanced opinion to the outside world, that is what is Sir Richard Wilson told us. Is that precedent going to carry on or can we address that as part of it? The way Sir Richard Wilson explained it to us was—and he said this in a different answer as well—is you can misrepresent by handing out the figures as they are or you can give a misleading impression. The tabloid press only ever read the headline and hare off in one direction. Of course the government does not want that, but nevertheless a precedent has been established on that basis, and that is something that does not appear in the code. Either the code has been widened or we need to have a clearer definition of what the ombudsman can or cannot say about the system as a whole.
  (Mr Alexander) My training as a lawyer suggests that hard cases often make bad law. In that case at this stage I would not be clear as to whether the particular circumstances of the case—As I say, I have had the opportunity to read the evidence Sir Richard gave to this Committee, but I am not familiar with the detail of the exchange between Sir Michael Buckley and Sir Richard Wilson. I would hesitate before giving any governmental commitment on a specific case.

  439. It was clearly frosted, I can assure you that. Can you give the Committee the assurance this will not be the precedent for future policy?
  (Mr Alexander) As I say, there came a point where there was a genuine disagreement.


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