Select Committee on Treasury Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  80. Yes, I get the impression up to now that the process has primarily been driven by the printed document, in the sense that what is happening is that you get the printed document, then they stick it on the PDVN and put it on the Internet, and for resource reasons among others they have not tried to build the kinds of links for people who use the Internet for more sophisticated searches and so on. Hopefully that will be possible. I now propose to move on to resource accounts questions. A key element in the proposed new arrangements is the publication of the audited resource accounts. Do you think that in the autumn of 2002 it is going to be feasible? How many departments are in a position, in your view, to publish audited resource accounts for 2001 this autumn?
  (Mr Sharples) This is a very good point. As I was saying earlier, we are a bit concerned about the length of delay from the end of the financial year to the publication of audited accounts, and we would like to work with departments to see what we can do to speed up that process. I should say that that is one factor which influenced our thinking on the idea of having the two-part—spring and autumn—reports, because if it were the case that the audited accounts were not available perhaps until January or February, it would be extremely unfortunate if the reporting on performance became delayed because of the delay in the accounts. That is one reason why we think that it makes sense to get the performance reporting on a regular timetable in the spring.

  81. There will, however, be supplementary performance information with the resource accounts, will there not?
  (Mr Sharples) Yes.

  82. From your last reply, I feel I detect a bit of what I might call the restaurant problem—that you are having a cheese sandwich and your partner is having boeuf stroganoff, and you have to wait half an hour for your cheese sandwich. Is there not a danger of that? Should not supplementary performance information be published as soon as we have got it, rather than hanging around waiting for resource accounts?
  (Mr Sharples) I think that with performance information it is important to have a date and then publish the latest available information on that date. However, I agree that we need to watch progress on timing. If it continues to be the case that accounts are not published until the beginning of the following year after the calendar year in which the accounting year has been concluded, if there is a long delay of nine months or so, then it will be extremely unfortunate if the performance information is delayed so long, and it may be that one wanted to get performance information out in the autumn in any event.

  83. You are in fact saying that it may be the resource accounts reports will tend only to be available perhaps in January?
  (Mr Sharples) That is the position at the moment, and we are working hard to try to bring that forward. We hope we will be successful, but there must be a risk that, as you were saying earlier, it simply takes time for the data to be properly compiled after the end of the financial year.

  Dr Palmer: Thank you for your openness.


  84. Perhaps I can follow up the question from Dr Palmer in terms of the audited resource accounts. Can you give us an idea of how many departments were ready to publish these, say, by a date of 1 November, and how many departments were not ready? That would be helpful to us. If you cannot do it now, perhaps you would give it to us in a written note.
  (Mr Sharples) Perhaps we can give you a note on that.[3]

Mr Mudie

  85. Chairman, as we have time, can I go back on some of the things we have said. I have read in the paper we have been given the recommendation of the Procedure Committee, which said, "We welcome the fact that the departmental plan will include detailed resource estimates for the forthcoming year." That seems to be the one committee with Members on it who actually gave you their views. As I see it, you are now moving from that, in that having implemented it for one year, a group of civil servants have got together and have decided to go the opposite way.
  (Mr Sharples) I come back to what I was saying earlier. The first thing we did in this process was to ask the Procedure Committee for their views. We wanted to do a review which got input. Two things intervened which made it difficult to get committees' views. One was the Election and the second was the Summer Recess. Given that, we had broadly three choices. We could have said, "Well, since we can't get Parliament's official view on this timescale, we should just go ahead with the previous plans and completely reform the structure of departmental reporting regardless." We thought that would be unsatisfactory, because it is quite a big change. Given the issues that were being raised, we thought it was important to take stock before doing that. The second option was to just go on with what had been published in the past. Given the level of dissatisfaction with the reports that were published this year we felt that would also be an unsatisfactory way forward and that was why we came to the conclusion that the best way forward was to propose an interim solution—which is what we have proposed—and then to take Parliament's view as soon as Parliament could give a view on, firstly, the shape of that interim solution and then, secondly, in the light of the implementation of that interim solution what should be the best way forward for the longer term.

  86. Maybe I am being unfair on you but as I understand it then, let us just be clear on this, the Procedure Committee, the one with the Members rather than the Clerk, welcomed the idea of bringing estimates into departmental reports.
  (Mr Sharples) Yes.

  87. So that is the one authentic voice, Members of Parliament, that you have got and you implemented it as I see it.
  (Mr Sharples) That was the change that was introduced this year, yes.

  88. You are now proposing to reverse that?
  (Mr Sharples) What we have done—

  89. Is that not true? We welcome the fact that the departmental plan will include the detailed resource estimate. Mr Sharples, are you or are you not not intending to include the resource estimates in the departmental report in future?
  (Mr Sharples) What we are proposing for the future is a different structure from the structure that was outlined before.

  90. I have just asked you a straightforward question. Is not the answer you are not intending to include the detailed estimates as welcomed by the Procedure Committee? Why can you not just say it?
  (Mr Sharples) In this new structure the detailed estimates will be published alongside the departmental reports with reconciliations between the two for the reasons that I have explained earlier and which I think are convincing.

  91. So that means, despite the fact it has been welcomed, you are not going to do it in future?
  (Mr Sharples) We have acknowledged that this is a change of emphasis from what was proposed earlier but I would come back to what I have said before that rather than go on with something simply because you have said you would do it, irrespective of issues and concerns that are being raised, it is sometimes better to take stock and ask what is the best way forward here.

  92. No, no. I am still just getting you to utter the magic words that you are not including the estimates in the departmental reports?
  (Mr Sharples) That is the proposal, that we publish those separately alongside—

  93. Is it a proposal?
  (Mr Sharples) It is a proposal.

  Chairman: It is open to consultation?

  Mr Mudie: Good question. Yes.


  94. Is it open for consultation? You must have a simple answer surely.
  (Mr Sharples) It is not open for consultation in the sense that we are not publishing a consultation document on this.

  95. You have already said you are going to consult Parliament, and Parliament is the primary audience so if Parliament comes back with information you will listen to us?
  (Mr Sharples) Absolutely. I have made very clear that we would very much welcome Parliament's views both on the interim solution and on the longer term solution.

Mr Cousins

  96. Could I just ask you, in the original 1999 Parliamentary memorandum on Resource Accounting there was a reference to the fact that there should be more information about the regional distribution of spending and staffing. That was one of the points in the 1999 memorandum.
  (Mr Sharples) Yes.

  97. Now that appears to be lost in the present proposals, is that right?
  (Mr Sharples) We do publish regional information in the April Report, the public expenditure statistical analysis document, which gives a detailed breakdown of the regional spend by function.

  98. So you are saying that report will carry the weight of reporting on regional distribution of spending and staffing, because that is the phrase that is used in it, spending and staffing. The report to which you have just referred does not have anything about staffing in it.
  (Mr Sharples) Well, we are proposing that as part of the core tables for the departmental report there should be a detailed staffing table which provides more breakdown, more information than is published at the moment, to help understand how the resources of the department are used. That is essentially a functional breakdown rather than a regional breakdown.

  99. Let us be clear about this. This 1999 report said there should be more information about regional spending and staffing and you are saying "Well, do not worry about regional spending, that is in the report to which you have just referred" and staffing disappears, is that right?
  (Mr Sharples) I think this is one of the issues on which views of Parliament are welcome. If there is a desire for more regional breakdown that is something that we would be very happy to pursue with departments.

3   See Ev 20 Q 2. Back

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