Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1 - 19)

WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002

WILLY RICKETT AND LUCY ROBINSON

Chairman

  1. Good afternoon to you both. Thank you for coming. Can I ask you to identify yourselves, for the record?
  (Mr Rickett) Thank you, Chairman. I am William Rickett. I am the Director General in the Department responsible for Transport Strategy, Roads, Local and Maritime Transport.

  (Ms Robinson) I am Lucy Robinson. I work with Willy Rickett. I head a division called Transport Strategy and Finance.

  Chairman: Thank you very much. Now the ground rules in this Committee are, when you agree with one another, please do not bother to say the same thing again; when you disagree, we would be not only very interested but probably have other things to ask you. And I do also have to say, this is a difficult room and it absorbs sound. I also have to ask for your indulgence, because I have one piece of Committee housekeeping. The Sub-Committee invited Lord Birt to give evidence to this inquiry next Wednesday. The Lord Birt is an adviser to No.10's Forward Strategy Unit, and is involved in formulating long-term transport policy. We have today been informed that Ministers will not allow Lord Birt to give evidence to this Committee, and they presume to tell us that the Department will be able to provide us with sufficient evidence on their behalf. However, we note that the Secretary of State told us Lord Birt would be making recommendations, in addition to the work that is going on in the Department. If Lord Birt and the Forward Strategy Unit are involved in policy-making then they must be accountable to Parliament and democratically-elected Members, through the Select Committee system. If they are not involved in policy-making, we question their purpose and their value. I have one question, to begin, on that subject. But may I now ask Members, who has a declaration of interest, before we begin the Committee: Mr Stevenson?

  Mr Stevenson: A member of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

  Helen Jackson: A member of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

  Chairman: Gwyneth Dunwoody, Rail, Maritime and Transport Trade Union.

  Mrs Ellman: A member of the Transport and General Workers' Union.

  Miss McIntosh: Interests in the RAC, Railtrack, BA, BAA, Eurotunnel and First Group.

Chairman

  2. Thank you. Mr Rickett, may I ask you, in view of the communication that we have had, you have got at least two projects looking at possible future scenarios for transport in the United Kingdom, what value does the work of the Forward Strategy Unit add to that?
  (Mr Rickett) Perhaps, first, I could pick up the statement that you made at the beginning, because I think the position is that if and when any decisions are made, in the light of the Forward Strategy Unit's work, then Ministers will be accountable to the House for those decisions and you will have a chance to question them, no doubt. It is traditional that internal advice to Ministers is confidential, so I do not think there is an issue of accountability here. But, to answer your first question, what are they adding, well, we have worked for years with policy units and other advisers in the centre, they add an independent and fresh view of things and they can bring additional resources to bear on what we are doing. The sort of work that Lord Birt is doing, I have to say, he has not produced a report to the Prime Minister yet, he has given some advice about the emerging analysis but he has not produced a report, so there is not even a report on which he could be accountable. But the sorts of issues are going to be issues about longer-term projections of travel demand, looking out to 2020, looking at what is happening to traffic, looking at what is happening to congestion, looking at potential policy packages that can deal with those, higher levels of investment than we looked at in the 10 Year Plan, for instance, those sorts of things, using our model to look at what outcomes those achieve, looking at what new technological developments might come, over that period, and how some of the longer-term instruments, like changes in land use planning policy, might affect things. So it is very much a long-term look, looking 2010 to 2020, some overlap with the sort of work we did with the 10 Year Plan. I have got no problem with that, we always thought we were going to have to look beyond 2010 to 2020, in due course, anyway.

  3. Who would supply the information for this?
  (Mr Rickett) It is a joint project; you always get more out of these things if you work together. And, clearly, we have the modelling capability in the Department and we have most of the expertise; and there is a small team that has been set up to support Lord Birt, we work very closely with them, indeed some members of—

  4. Are they people from your Department?
  (Mr Rickett) Some of them are, yes.

  5. So they are not just second-guessing your work, they are actually Department of Transport officials who have been seconded to the policy unit?
  (Mr Rickett) I would not say it was second-guessing, because, as I say, it is looking further out than we had looked in the 10 Year Plan, and it is the sort of—

  6. Yes, in the 10 Year Plan; but, Mr Rickett, you are not telling us the Department never thinks longer than in terms of ten years, are you?
  (Mr Rickett) No, no, of course not, no. Some of this we would have done anyway, but it is useful to have, as I said, fresh minds who can challenge accepted thinking. I do not think the Department has a monopoly on advice to Ministers; indeed, you know, we always take your advice readily, and we welcome it.

  Chairman: This comes as a great revelation to us; we are delighted to hear that, Mr Rickett. We are firmly of the conviction that you always do take our advice, but only after having rubbished all our reports for at least three months beforehand. However, that is probably prejudiced.

  Mr Stevenson: Very quickly, on what Mr Rickett has said. I was a member of the Committee. I have little problem with the confidentiality of advice to Ministers, and I surely take the point that Ministers would be accountable to this Committee, as and when decisions are imminent or being made; that, I think, I could readily recognise. But, I say, with the greatest respect, to explore the issues that advisers would be engaged in, without compromising advice, or without compromising decision, is something, I think, legitimately, this Committee should be about. And, just in passing, myself excepted, of course, there are some very fertile minds around this table that might have some new ideas and new thinking.

  Chairman: I do not know that that was quite a question, Mr Rickett.

  Mr Stevenson: What do you think about that?

  Chairman: I think, "discuss", was the question.

Andrew Bennett

  7. What impact will Lord Birt have on the Department's Estimates?
  (Mr Rickett) The Department's Estimates, of what, spending, or...

  Andrew Bennett: Spending, yes?

Chairman

  8. We thought he was looking at transport; is that a misperception?
  (Mr Rickett) As I said at the beginning, he has not actually yet reported to Ministers. Ministers have not taken any decisions yet, so it is rather hard to say what impact—

Andrew Bennett

  9. No, I did not ask you about that. I can understand that you may have a defence that advice to Ministers is confidential, but the question of how the Department spends its money is something that we have a full entitlement to ask you about. So is he costing the Department's Estimates any money?
  (Mr Rickett) Sorry. I understand what you are saying. Well, only in the sense that a couple of members of his team are being paid for by us, because they are our employees.

  10. So it is costing the Department some money, so it is an area in which we are entitled to ask questions. Now how do we judge whether the Department is getting value for money, in spending that, if the noble Lord does not come before the Committee, at least to establish his credibility, that he knows anything at all about transport?
  (Mr Rickett) As I say, since it is a joint project, I hope that we—

  11. It does not matter, I am not pursuing the joint bit, I am pursuing your bit of it?
  (Mr Rickett) I think, if you really wanted to judge the value for money of a study, we would have to wait to see what decisions were taken as a result of it, and, indeed, we would have to know what the report said; in a sense, it is a hypothetical question, which I cannot answer. But these are members of staff who would be otherwise employed by the Department. I do not think that employing them on this sort of long-term work, which is, as you said, the sort of work the Department has a close interest in, is likely to involve any waste of money.

  12. But we cannot judge that, and we should be entitled to judge that, should we not?
  (Mr Rickett) But you will have a chance to.

Chairman

  13. Mr Rickett, when we have an annual report, we ask your chief financing officer to come before us, with his Ministers, and, indeed, we had both of them here quite recently, as you will remember, to discuss with us the work of the Department. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to ask what your civil servants are doing?
  (Mr Rickett) Well, as I said, someone from the Highways Agency is on secondment to this team, and the Department is paying for one part-time member of the team. I cannot imagine that adds up to more than about £50,000 to £100,000 a year.

  14. That is not an acceptance of the fact that they are working in long-term transport planning, and this Committee interests itself in what your Department is doing in long-term planning?
  (Mr Rickett) Yes. I have told you what the Department is spending on this. If you want the other side of the value for money equation, you have to know what the output is; well, there is not, as yet, a report from the group, there are not, as yet, any ministerial decisions on that report, and I do not think I can make a judgement on the value for money until that has happened.

  Chairman: Thank you for that.

Mrs Ellman

  15. Would you feel more impelled to follow Lord Birt's advice than you would the advice of this Committee?
  (Mr Rickett) Lord Birt is advising the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State, jointly. I advise the Secretary of State. I am not sure that Lord Birt is advising me. And I think whether we follow people's advice rather depends on its quality.

  16. Would you feel that the Prime Minister, being behind Lord Birt's appointment, is likely to wield more influence on your Department than this Select Committee, as Members of the House of Commons?
  (Mr Rickett) The Secretary of State remains the Secretary of State. He is going to be accountable for decisions to the House. I imagine he will want to be satisfied with any decisions that are taken.

Chairman

  17. When you talk about your model, is that the one where you bounce the robustness of your plan, your 10 Year Plan, on future trends and travel up to 2030, in a project with Mott McDonald and the University of Southampton?
  (Mr Rickett) It is the National Transport Model that we have been developing out of the variety of models that we had to forecast road traffic and rail demand, and things like that, and the early version of which we used to help us construct the 10 Year Plan.

  18. So are we assuming that Lord Birt is not interested in what happens until 2030?
  (Mr Rickett) You can run projections on the model to any timescale; the longer you go out the less reliable they are likely to be. The sort of period really he is concentrating on is 2010 to 2020.

  19. I see. I think we shall come back to this, Mr Rickett, but probably with others from your Department. Can I ask you, the congestion reduction savings double over the period of the Plan if motoring costs are held constant; if holding motoring costs constant over the decade represents good value for money, why is not this your policy?
  (Mr Rickett) I think it is rather hard to say that holding motoring costs constant over the decade would offer good value for money.


 
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