Select Committee on Public Administration Minutes of Evidence



Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440-459)

LORD MACDONALD OF TRADESTON AND MR DOUGLAS ALEXANDER MP

THURSDAY 18 JULY 2002

  440. I am sorry but the Secretary of the Cabinet said it raised a principle which the government could not accept and it should not give out information which is potentially misleading. I have some sympathy with that, but that is not covered by the code and you examine this system. If you give us an assurance that you will look into this closely as part of your on-going review into the system that might suffice for the moment.
  (Mr Alexander) I am certainly happy to give you an assurance that I will look into the matters which you raised.

  441. It is a miracle it has worked so well for so long. There is now evidence that it has hit a particular buffer and it would be quite tidy to think about what went wrong. If I can turn to something else, we hear an enormous amount about the Civil Service Act and we detect a shift in the government's intention. When Sir Richard Wilson spoke on this—because the Prime Minister could not explain it to us himself—Sir Richard seemed to be quite keen on moving ahead with the Civil Service Act and Andrew Turnbull seemed to be less keen. Are we right to detect that?
  (Mr Alexander) There is no shift in the government's position. The government's position is that there will be a Civil Service Act, the terms of which have already entered the public domain. I have to repeat, I cannot anticipate, you would not expect me to, when the time will become available.

  442. I thought you would say that. That is the standard answer we have. About six months ago we had the distinct impression based upon the way it was phrased and the body language in the way in which it was delivered that a White Paper was coming very soon. This was months ago and now we are back into that dark mist where the mysteries of Parliamentary time occur.

  Chairman: Let me just add to what Michael has said, it was not body language it was a firm statement by the Cabinet Secretary last Autumn, he came here and he said, "I have now secured the approval of the Prime Minister and I am authorised to say that". He went on to say there would be a paper by Easter.

Mr Trend

  443. Chairman, the trouble with that is that Parliamentary time could still crop up.
  (Mr Alexander) In terms of the dark mysteries you suggest I would hope that the work of this committee would be able to shine a torch into that darkness, which I understand is your work in terms of the Civil Service Act, and the government looks forward to seeing the findings of that particular report. It is also obvious in the case of the Wicks Committee, they are looking at these issues and similarly we are keen to learn and develop thinking in light of both of those reports. The commitment that was given to you by Sir Richard is reflected in the commitment I have given today, that the government remains committed to the Civil Service Act.

  444. I knew you were going to say that. Sir Richard was telling us it was going to happen and you are telling us that it is not, I know you are, I can tell you are.
  (Mr Alexander) Listen to the words I speak, there will be a Civil Service Act but we cannot anticipate when a slot will become available. You can sometimes seek to ver interpret what is a very plain commitment.

  445. You are batting very well. Can I ask you about Parliamentary questions to the Cabinet Office, why have they been halved?
  (Mr Alexander) Parliamentary questions are a matter for the House authorities and as I understand it the position is that previously there was time available on the floor of the Commons for Cabinet Office questions, which included the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and also a slot for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions. It is my understanding of the position that there is time now available to the Department of Transport and there is time available to the office of the deputy Prime Minister and there is time available to the Cabinet Office, there is more time available for Parliamentary scrutiny of the ministerial portfolio.

  446. Then there must be less time for scrutiny of the Cabinet Office?
  (Mr Alexander) To the extent that the Cabinet Office functions reflect a more narrow canvas than the work that is being taken forward by the Department of Transport—

  447. Everything you have said in the first hour or so of this session was that power was increasingly being scrutinised, the centre is more important and it seems to me to be strange that the Cabinet Office should have less scrutiny
  (Mr Alexander) As I said, a scrutiny of the executive by Parliament in terms of the areas that were previously held by that function is now discharged by the Department of Transport. The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and the Cabinet Office has actually increased, not diminished and that lies within the authority of the House.

  448. Can I just ask one last question about the director of the COI, is that post open?
  (Mr Alexander) There is an acting deputy taking the place of Carol Fisher and on the conclusion of her contract, which is at the end of July, from memory, then we will proceed with the standard process in terms of finding a very senior figure of that standard for the vacant position.

  449. You will understand why some of the political opponents might think this is another opportunity to have another appointee. Can you give us an assurance it will not be filled by any part of the Civil Service?
  (Mr Alexander) I was given assurances in terms of the selection panel exercising the judgment on the filling of that position that it reflects the team who recruited Carol Fisher. If it would be helpful to furnish you with the positions of the people serving on the appointment panel I would be happy to do so.

  450. Previously they have not gone for the civil servants they have recruited from outside.
  (Mr Alexander) Carol herself was recruited from outside. If one studies the terms of the Quinquennial Review, the reason Carol explained to me she was keen to stay on in the position under the contract she was serving, then I have to say, it is a tribute to the selection panel that sat there in the sense of what she has done, and that is widely recognised.

  451. You would expect them to fill the post in roughly the same way as you filled the position when she got it?
  (Mr Alexander) I have asked for advice on this. We will make sure we will furnish you with the information in terms of the competition.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) It will be an open competition supervised by the Civil Service Commission, so it will meet all of the rules for senior civil service appointment selection because it is a very senior post.
  (Mr Alexander) This is collaborative working.

  452. Can I ask one last question, you mentioned the Civil Service Commission, we saw the Civil Service First Commissioner recently and she seemed to have a number of ways in which she would like to develop her work and she had strong feelings on the Civil Service Act and other matters. How is the Civil Service Commission and its work reviewed? Are you planning to consider her feelings and requests?
  (Mr Alexander) I similarly had the opportunity to meet the first Commissioner as you describe her and I certainly endorse the comments you made in terms of her personal qualities. I know there are a number of matters she herself envisages in terms of building and I obviously would be interested to see how we can take those discussions forward.

Mr Prentice

  453. We have had people before us who have described giant cock ups which have occurred with the introduction of new IT in the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND), the CSA and in the Legal Services Commission. We heard from the Home Secretary earlier this week as part of the Spending Review a lot of money is going into to wire up the CPS, the police and Magistrates Courts. How much confidence do you have that the systems are robust enough to actually carry that through without there being another cock up?
  (Mr Alexander) I would make a couple of observations, one is we are alert to the challenges we face, and that partly explains the change in terms of the role for the e-envoy's office. If you look at major project managements on this scale already just in a very short period we have benefited and learned a great deal from the work of the OGC. We review the process that the OGC takes forward on major projects and it is a model of the programme management skills we need to bring to bear. The auspices of the OGC lies in areas of contract organisation and procurement on behalf of the government and I think there is an additional piece that the centre can offer in support of individual departments, and that is really the role that I envisage being played by the e-transformation team working with Sir Andrew Turnbull in the Cabinet Office. You are right, this is not a challenge you need in the public sector because there are plenty of examples in the private sector of money being spent, but there is also a lot being achieved in terms of IT projects and assets. In that sense it would be improved, were we not to be taking steps at the centre of government to support the work of departments. That is certainly the ambition or one of the responsibilities which has been developed in terms of the new centre.

  454. Do I take it from that reply that you are confident the thing is going to proceed as planned. I recently visited the magistrates court in my constituency and they are still using Amstrads or ICL, really antique stuff, you tell us there are going to be major systemic cock ups which will really hold back service delivery, has it all been sorted out?
  (Mr Alexander) We are putting measures in place to support the level of investment consistent with not just IT but our general approach to public expenditure, which is to secure value for money. It is a reality, of course, but in both the public and private sector in the past there have been instances where projects have not been delivered and costs are being accrued as a result of that. I would certainly endorse the point you make in terms of the antique nature of some of the infrastructure that is still being used in the criminal justice system, I think that strengthens the case not for saying the government should take no action but rather the government should have an approach in seeking to make sure that the money is spent wisely on other investments and is not a substitute for reform. You need to put measures in place.

  455. On this value-for-money matter we heard Gordon Brown tell us on Monday we are going to have five new watchdogs, a policing watchdog, criminal justice, health, social care and a housing watchdog. Why do we need this? What was wrong with the others?
  (Mr Alexander) My view is if you look the scale of investment, as Gus mentioned earlier there is a responsibility consistent with what has been said both at a political and governmental level in the latter years of opposition and the earlier years of government and the last four years of this Parliament to ensure that value for money is achieved. That does not seem to be in contradiction to the need to secure outcomes, it actually means in service of that we have for too long been bedevilled with the view that a degree of monitoring the implementation of these projects is in some way a barrier to the achievement of those goals.

  456. What is wrong with the Audit Commission? The Audit Commission has a remit extending over all of these areas and is very highly regarded.
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) We still hope there will be complementary roles there.

  457. What is the costs of reorganising, creating these new watchdogs, do we know?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) I do not know the cost, but I speculate that it would be relatively small in the context of the good savings that might be made.
  (Mr Alexander) The best example of that would be the OGC, I do not have the figures but in terms of the expertise they brought to bear in terms of procurement it can be very considerable.

  458. There are cynics out there who say all of this organisation of change gives the impression of activity but it does not actually guarantee delivery. There was a body there, the Audit Commission, highly respected and it is going to lose very many of its functions to new watchdogs. I read in the FT today, Tony Travers, a respected academic with no axe to grind, a former member of the Audit Commission, he said that the Audit Commission is going to be dismembered bit by bit because it would seem to be too independent. Why should somebody like Tony Travers say that?
  (Mr Alexander) To be honest I am not familiar either with the codes or the article itself which that is drawn from. I merely mention some of the general points I made previously, I regard it as being a genuinely historic mission in politics to seek to rehabilitate the public service in contradiction to an ideology and a set of values which I find deeply anti-political to the notion of public service delivery in the past. I think it is responsible policy making to secure not just inputs but actually outputs and it is therefore entirely appropriate for a government which is determined to drive forward a process of the delivery of public services to make sure that there is the machinery available to ensure not just value-for-money in a purely financial sense but actually to ensure there are outcomes which the voters desire. Consistent with the point we were making earlier, I would not expect constituents of mine to be interested in individual monitoring bodies, but they are genuinely interested in the resources committed to public service delivery. No doubt they will hold me to account for that whenever I next stand for them at election. It is fundamental to our political mission to be able to achieve the kind of reform and resources that are needed. I would argue that the fundamental challenge we faced coming into government was not one solely of government resources for public services but actually the fact that there had not been a campaign before necessary to provide the standards of service and people were seeking that. That is why we do have an agenda in terms of resource allocation.

  459. I am none the wiser as to why the Audit Commission could not do that job. Tony Travers, he is an inspectorate to the five new watchdogs which I mentioned earlier, said, "they may be independent of the services they are inspecting but it will be much less independent of departments and ministers". Would that be fair?
  (Lord Macdonald of Tradeston) That is very much a surmise on the part of Mr Travers. I think what we can say based on the experience of the Office of Government Commerce, as Douglas mentioned earlier, is that it is well on its way to saving us over 1 billion in its improvement of procurement practices and it is involved in monitoring projects worth some 25 million. When you think of the huge expenditure going on over government this is an area which I think will reap any investment we put into it many times.

 


 
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