Examination of Witnesses (Questions 1
WEDNESDAY 30 JANUARY 2002
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
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
Miss McIntosh: Interests in the RAC, Railtrack,
BA, BAA, Eurotunnel and First Group.
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,
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
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
7. What impact will Lord Birt have on the Department's
(Mr Rickett) The Department's Estimates, of what,
Andrew Bennett: Spending, yes?
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
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.
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
(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
(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.
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
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.