Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
TUESDAY 6 NOVEMBER 2001
(Mr Sharples) It concerns me that the total cost of
the Departmental Reports has now risen to something like £500
if you wanted to buy a full set. If you did want to buy a full
set you can get a discount on that, but they are very expensive
and bulky documents with a lot of information which, I can assure
you, experienced experts within government will find it difficult
to understand. I doubt whether the inclusion of Estimates in the
report gives the average reader much additional understanding
of the work of the department.
Chairman: Mr Sharples, we are used to
getting big bundles. They are being mailed daily to those MPs
who wish to go through the big bundles in the very precise way
that is open to them, and I think that is what Mr Mudie is trying
to say. It just sounds a little bit patronising, that is the worry.
41. I have a sign now that this format or separation
is being devised because somebody might find it too expensive
to purchase. That seemed to be the logic of what you were saying.
(Mr Sharples) That is one factor. The starting point
for looking at the design of the Departmental Reports is that
if you are a member of the public, perhaps working in the field
of education, wanting to know more about the activities of the
Department for Education, what is it you want to know about the
department? That is the question that we have been exploring.
I would be very interested to hear your views on what the answer
to that is. The answer that we have proposed is that the key things
that we need to focus on are about the organisation of the department,
who we are, what we do, how we are organised, how we are structured,
key issues about the financial information. We get a large sum
of public money. How are we using this public money? Thirdly,
information about performance: what are we trying to achieve as
an organisation and how are we doing against our objectives? Those
are the things which we think readers will want to concentrate
on and what we have tried to do is to streamline the Departmental
Reports so that they are focused on answering those questions.
Kali Mountford: You have actually lost
me quite a lot now because if we take ourselves back to my question
about your weighting of people's opinions, you are now giving
quite a specific weight to public opinion on the reports and yet
you have not really told us very much about how many members of
the public actually purchase these reports. I certainly would
not want the public not to have access to them, but surely, if
that is the reason behind your argument, then we ought to understand
how many members of the public want to spend the £31 I think
this particular report costs; how much less it would cost if you
separated it out; and how much more it would cost if they had
to buy two copies.
Mr Mudie: How much was it the year before?
42. Exactly. How much was it the year before?
Have you done any cost breakdown of publication of two separate
reports and what impact it might have on distribution?
(Mr Sharples) what I can say is that adding in the
Estimates has added roughly a thousand pages, I think, to the
total length of the Reports, together with perhaps other factors,
and that will certainly have added to the cost of the reports.
43. How much? Do you know?
(Mr Sharples) I do not know.
44. Because the estimate book itself is not
(Mr Sharples) No, that is right.
45. So if you wanted to get the picture on education
you would have to get two books, in fact you have to get a third
book because you have got to get the supplementary book as well,
and here was the Departmental Report with it all in one. How much
more expensive is this compared to these separate Estimates book
and the separate Departmental Report?
(Mr Sharples) I cannot give you a precise figure.
46. You said it was cheaper.
(Mr Sharples) Can I answer the question? I cannot
give a precise figure on that. I would assert that one would expect
it to be cheaper if a large chunk of material was taken out of
the report because these things are priced on the basis of production
47. But surely not if you need to buy two?
(Mr Sharples) Part of your earlier question was how
many people buy these reports. That is a question that we have
explored with departments. The best information we can get is
that not many people do buy these reports, which is hardly surprising
given their bulk, their complexity and their cost. I think that
is unsatisfactory and that departments ought to be producing reports
which are more accessible. One thing that we are very keen to
explore is electronic publication which gives very much wider
access to the reports at nil cost, and all the reports are published
on the web at the moment but there may be improvements that can
be made to the form of electronic publication. Can I just come
back to my central point, that we have done our best to identify
users and to find out about what they want from these reports.
We would be absolutely delighted to have more input into that
process from Parliament because the purpose of this exercise is
to produce reports in a clear streamlined way to meet those needs.
48. The previous Departmental Reports were deplorable
in terms of the lack of financial information or the vagueness
of financial information they gave you. This one actually pulled
it all together in one document. Did the Treasury as a department
support the view that these documents should be separated? Did
you agree and recommend or fight a rearguard battle against not
having the Estimates in this Departmental Report which gave anybody
taking this Departmental Report very good solid financial information
for the first time?
(Mr Sharples) The Treasury proposed the inclusion
of the Estimates of the Report in that transitional year. The
Treasury also, as you know, put forward a memorandum proposing
some different arrangements under resource accounting and budgeting.
What we are now explaining is that, having reviewed the position
with users of these reports and with departments, the way forward
we have proposed will best meet the needs of the users as they
have been expressed to us. If there are more views we would really
like to hear them.
49. Mr Sharples, I am slightly worried that
the Treasury is labouring under the assumption here that these
documents are going to be picked up by people at Waterloo Station
as they go home and read alongside The Evening Standard.
These documents are by their very nature specialist documents,
are they not, that are likely to be looked at by professionals,
select committees and various other people with great specialisms
in these subjects? These are never going to be a best seller.
(Mr Sharples) I entirely agree these are never going
to be a best seller but I would argue strongly that organisations
of the size of government departments are huge organisations employing
in some cases up to a hundred thousand staff with budgets of £50
billion or £60 billion a year. Huge organisations of this
kind, responsible for management of public money, ought to be
producing documents about their activities which are accessible
50. Can you tell me what has happened to the
length and cost of the financial statement and Budget Report over
the last five or ten years?
(Mr Sharples) Off the top of my head, no. My general
impression would be that it is probably a little bit longer than
it used to be.
51. It is quite a bit longer, is it not?
(Mr Sharples) I would have to go and check the precise
52. Could you give us a precise note on what
has happened to its length and cost? My impression is that both
have risen fairly exponentially over the last ten years.
(Mr Sharples) The documents are published and are
available in the House of Commons Library.
53. Before we get our report out, we shall have
to have a look into that. What do you expect to happen to the
length of these Departmental Reports after these changes?
(Mr Sharples) I would expect they would be shorter
and better focussed.
54. How much shorter?
(Mr Sharples) It is difficult to say precisely, because
part of the message of this report is that departments should
be given more flexibility to design reports which meet their needs
and which allow them to explain their activities clearly. The
view from departments has been that they have been operating to
some degree within a straitjacket, which has forced them to set
out things which they do not think are the clearest way of explaining
55. Is not that a very good thing? If you ask
a department to report on its activities, you do not necessarily
want to give it great discretion to choose what it will highlight,
do you; you want to try to get firstly some consistency over time,
and secondly you want to make sure that the department is highlighting
occasionally the bad news rather than just using these documents
as a sort of glossy public relations exercise, do you not?
(Mr Sharples) I entirely agree that we need consistency.
That is exactly why we set out for departments a set of core requirements
for these reports, which define the basic requirements. A key
part of those core requirements is that departments should report
objectively on their performance, and that means both successes
and failures. Objective reporting through the Departmental Reports
is a fundamental part, it has always been a fundamental part of
Department Reports and it will continue to be a fundamental part.
56. How will the core requirements change in
(Mr Sharples) The core requirements have been set
out in guidance for departments. We would be very happy to share
that guidance with the Committee. It sets out the basic requirements
for tables in the reports and for basic content. Obviously we
want departments to report on their activities, objectives, performance
objectives, such as how they use their money, so these are basic
requirements there. What we have tried to do is not to make that
an absolutely rigid straitjacket; we give departments a bit more
flexibility, whilst meeting those requirements, whilst providing
the objective reporting, to set out their activities in a way
which fits with their business needs as an organisation.
57. What are you going to do to ensure that
when departments report their performance against the Public Service
Agreements they do so with some transparency and integrity?
(Mr Sharples) The transparency is the report itself.
We require all departments to publish reports on their performance
against targets, precisely to give that transparency so that Parliament,
select committees, the public, can judge how the departments are
performing. We provide additional assurance of the transparency
and validity of those reports by ensuring that the targets and
measures that are going to be used to report progress are clearly
defined in what we call the technical notes which are available,
which explain the detailed measures of each target. As you may
know, we are in discussion with the National Audit Office and
others about how we can improve the quality of the data systems
and the validation of the data systems that goes into measurement.
58. Do you not think it would be better if that
were independently reported upon, rather than leaving the department
to do the reporting itself? Is not that likely to lead to results
which are more honest? You will probably recall the Government's
Annual Report and the scepticism with which that was greeted.
It has now obviously been axed. The then Leader of the Opposition
had some quite good fun with the various ways in which the progress
against targets was being reported, and how they varied from year
to year. Surely, as one of the monitoring bodies of the departments
in terms of how they are performing against the PSAs, you would
want there to be an independent look at how those departments
are performing? Is not that a role that the Treasury itself could
get involved in, to make sure that there is integrity, consistency
and transparency about the way in which departments are reporting
on their activities?
(Mr Sharples) We are very keen to ensure that departments
give full reports on progress. We are keen that the measures of
progress should be clear. That is why we define them carefully
in the technical notes. We are keen that the data departments
are using to report should be robust and reliable. That is why
we are exploring external validation. We are very keen that there
should be a very open and transparent process, and that is why
we require all departments to include details in their annual
Departmental Report and why indeed we are proposing supplementary
performance information be published in the autumn. So we feel
that we are going a long way to ensure effective accountability.
59. Can I ask you two very quick final questions?
The first of them is, coming back to the FSBR, what are you going
to do to reduce the size of that document, given that it is one
of the prime Treasury documents and you have said you want to
make all this information about Government more accessible? Those
reports have increased sizeably over the years. Are you going
to be proposing to cut those back as well?
(Mr Sharples) This is not my responsibility and is
somewhat outside the scope of this questioning about Departmental
Reports. I am sure the Treasury will want to ensure that the FSBR
continues to provide full information about the public finances
and the state of the economy.