Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Letter to the Chairman of the Committee from the Rt Hon Andrew Smith MP, Chief Secretary to HM Treasury

  I wrote to Giles Radice on 17 October 2000 to let him know of our intention to review the departmental reports with users and producers to see how they can be improved. This letter sets out the conclusions of that review, and our proposed arrangements for reporting in spring 2002.

2.  I invited Parliament's participation in this review, and I am very grateful to Simon Patrick, Clerk of the Committee, for taking part. (He, and the other Committee Clerks who have been consulted have been careful to explain that they could only give a personal view in the absence of formally constituted committees over the Election period.)

  3.  An outline of the proposals is attached. The review has confirmed that there is a pressing need for change. The reports are a vital part of the process of departmental accountability to Parliament and the public. They are resource intensive to produce, and now total over 3,500 pages in length. Yet they often do not present performance and financial information in a clear and accessible way. Both producers and consumers are dissatisfied.

  4.  I would accordingly like to change the framework under which the spring 2002 reports are produced. The review has recommended retention of a report in spring which gives a full picture of each department's organisation, aims and objectives, performance, and use of resources. Within a framework of core requirements, departments will be given greater freedom to produce streamlined, clearly presented reports accessible to a wider audience. Reports will contain a reduced set of financial tables setting out clearly what the money is spent on. Estimates would be published separately by the Treasury, and would include reconciliations to the departmental report tables.

  5.  In the autumn departments would publish resource accounts including further contextual information. In addition departments would be asked to publish supplementary performance information updating that in the spring report.

  6.  I recognise that this is a shift in emphasis from the approach to reporting set out in recent memoranda on RAB which envisaged a forward looking report including the Estimates in the spring and a backward looking report based on the accounts in the autumn. The approach outlined here retains the basic feature of a spring and autumn phase in the reporting cycle, but it groups the information somewhat differently.

  7.  The lead time for preparing the spring 2002 reports requires departments to start work now, but I recognise that Parliament may not be able to give a view until towards the end of the year. So I am proposing that Departments are advised to work on the basis of this model as an interim measure for the 2002 reports, that we take account of comments from Committees in doing so, and then take stock with Parliament in the light of experience with these reports on the best way forward for the longer term.

  8.  I do want to stress that the proposals should not reduce the information available to Parliament. Supplementary tables in or alongside the Estimates will provide the detail necessary for full read across from Estimates for budgeting controls, and vice versa.

  9.  I believe the prize will be a set of reports which give Parliament and the citizen a much clearer and more accessible account of the business of government.

  10.  I would welcome your views and those of copy recipients.

  11.  If you and members of the Committee would like a briefing on the proposals I would be very happy to arrange this. I am copying this letter to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and the Chairman of the Procedure Committee.

16 October 2001

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