Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 39)



Albert Owen

  20. Moving on to aims and achievements, in the report at page 12 it talks about performance against the target for correspondence replied to within 15 working days being low: only 50 per cent. Why is this?
  (Mrs Jackson) As far as the correspondence is concerned, we are not in the least satisfied with the performance we give. When the Wales Office was first set up, we were not staffed up to complement and we were still receiving a great number of letters which should actually have been for the Assembly or other Government departments. The staff were overwhelmed by that number of letters. Now the situation has settled down we have more staff and people have learned about the devolution settlement. Although we still have to transfer a fair number of the letters we get to other departments or to the Assembly, more of the letters are ones which we need to answer. The proportion is easier for us and we are now improving our performance. We are not satisfied with it, but both the Secretary of State and Mr Touhig have taken considerable interest in our performance, as indeed have I. We have set up new systems. We have set up a monitoring system. We have employed somebody specifically to oversee the progress of correspondence who will be starting work in a couple of weeks. At the moment we are meeting the 15-day target for correspondence in over 90 per cent of cases. By the time we get to the next Departmental Report poor performance earlier in the year will mean that our figure will still look bad. We cannot be absolutely confident that we have turned the corner, but we are determined to do so. Over the last month our performance has been considerably better.
  (Mr Murphy) I was very worried about the correspondence situation during the course of the last year. There is a very real difference between ourselves and other Government Departments which needs to be explained; Alison has done that but I should like to emphasise it. A lot of the correspondence which my office deals with has to go back to Cardiff again because of correspondents writing to us about matters which are for the National Assembly, on health, education, whatever it might be, which is not for this Government to answer but for the Assembly. Therefore either we transfer the letter or we get information back from the Assembly to incorporate in the letter which I or Don Touhig then send out. Obviously that is going to take longer than when a Department is actually responsible for a matter. That is very different. Clearly too we have to be very sensitive in how we answer letters when another body is involved, in this case the National Assembly. I still was not satisfied, so we are now appointing someone specifically. You will be aware that I am reluctant to appoint staff willy nilly, but I believe that there is a very, very strong case for us to improve that correspondence, because of the difficulties we have. So someone will be starting at the beginning of November whose job it will be specifically to monitor and to deal with the correspondence. Every week now Don Touhig takes a report on how correspondence has been handled. He has actually followed the life of a letter—not completely as that would have meant going back to Cardiff, but so far as this side of it was concerned—to see what happens within the system, which is rather different from other Government departments. I do hope that there will be a considerable improvement, as we all do, in terms of handling correspondence in the weeks and months ahead.

Mr Wiggin

  21. Did the number of letters you receive go up by 50 per cent due to devolution? Obviously the Department is not new.
  (Mrs Jackson) No, but before devolution the Department consisted of about 2,200 people; after devolution it went down initially to under 30 and is now under 50. Of them only 18 do all the policy advice for the Secretary of State, including providing drafts, draft letters, briefing him for Cabinet committees, briefing him for this Committee. There are now 18 people as opposed to about 2,000.
  (Mr Murphy) The other point worth making is on percentages, When you receive a smaller number of letters you only have to get a couple go wrong and all the percentage figures change. If only a couple go wrong when you have thousands of letters, then it hardly dents the final figure.

Mrs Williams

  22. I am very much aware that members of the public are rather confused sometimes as to who does what, whether it is a matter for the Wales Office, Westminster Government or whether it is a matter for the National Assembly for Wales. Have you carried out an analysis to find out whether some of those letters which are wrongly sent to yourselves come from public bodies or whether they come from individuals?
  (Mr Kilner) No, we have not. We still get quite a large number of letters which have to be forwarded, usually to the Assembly, sometimes to other Government departments. We have not done a precise analysis by the kind of correspondent.
  (Mr Murphy) You can bet your bottom dollar that a number of bodies in the United Kingdom or in Wales are still unclear about the details of the devolution settlement. All of you and I who went around knocking on doors and talking to people at the general election were all encountering the same lack of information or ignorance indeed on the part of people about the nature of the settlement. It is not surprising because it is a complicated one, but nevertheless it is going to take some time before people are completely au fait with who does what. It is getting there, but our experience at election time will tell us that there is still quite a long way to go in terms of knowing who does what in the settlement.

  23. Would it be a worthwhile exercise to find out? I really should be interested to know whether there are public bodies within Wales which are addressing letters wrongly to your office rather than Cardiff?
  (Mr Murphy) It is a worthwhile suggestion and we shall certainly take it up. If there are public bodies, particularly important public bodies, doing that we shall make sure they know the difference.

Albert Owen

  24. In Figure 5 you talk about ad hoc requests for information by post at this time and you say they are replied to within 15 working days. Are all such requests replied to within 15 working days, e-mails, etcetera?
  (Mrs Jackson) E-mails certainly are.
  (Mr Kilner) It would count as a letter in whatever form it came in. There is a slightly different target for responding to requests for published information or unpublished information under freedom of information. Whether it is e-mailed or sent by traditional post a letter is a letter for that purpose.

  25. Can you explain what would be classified as "correspondence" and "requests for information by post"?
  (Mr Kilner) A request for information would be a simple request for one piece of information, usually something which has been published. I agree that there is a certain amount of flexibility as to when a piece of correspondence becomes a simple request for information. Normally that is how we would look at it. A request for one piece of information such as the budget, such as the number of staff and so on, would not be counted as a piece of correspondence but would have its own target.
  (Mrs Jackson) To elaborate on that, if we can respond to the letter simply by putting something which is published in an envelope and returning it with a compliment slip, it is a request for information. If we have to do some research and write a letter, then it is correspondence. There are grey areas.

Mr Williams

  26. If you are not satisfied with your performance in dealing with correspondence, then you certainly will not be satisfied with your performance in paying invoices which is below the British Standard. Is that because of your reliance upon the Assembly for certifying for payment? If it is, what are you going to do about it?
  (Mrs Jackson) Yes, it is because we are reliant on the Assembly. We have spoken to the Assembly about that and in the totality of the bills which the Assembly pay the Wales Office bills are of course a tiny proportion. So for all bills which the Assembly pay, including ours, they are well on the targets but ours were getting a lower priority. The Assembly have now agreed to bring ours to the top of their priority list and for the past three or four months now we have been achieving rates of 98 and 99 per cent. I should also like to say to the Committee that payment of the bills is dealt with according to the number of bills rather than to the amounts. In fact if you look at the amounts that the Wales Office owed each month we were paying well over 90 per cent on time. It is not good enough but in the amounts we were paying most of it on time.
  (Mr Murphy) May I emphasise that? It is a bit like the letters but more so in terms of the size of the department. A late payment of one pound counts the same as the late payment of one million pounds. By value the Wales Office paid 99.9 per cent or more of what it owed in each month of 2000-01. One problematic bill can have more effect on the figures than a large department. For example, in September we had two more late bills than in August and performance fell by three per cent just because of two bills which might be for very, very small amounts. That is the problem of having a small department and also because of the linkage which we inevitably have to have with the Assembly.

Mr Prisk

  27. I appreciate what you say in terms of the invoices and the amounts being small, but as a former small businessman myself, it may be a small amount to you as a department, but to a supplier it can be the difference between life and death. It is very important that all Government departments understand that £50, £100, £500, whatever it is, is really inconsequential to a large finance department, but it is not to small businesses, whether they are in Wales or elsewhere. May I have your assurance, may we as a committee have your assurance, that this will be a top priority for you in the next year, particularly as the economy turns down?
  (Mr Murphy) Yes, is the answer to that. If you were to look at the figures since the details of the payment of invoices came out, there has been a definite improvement in those payments and I shall continue to ensure that we monitor it very, very closely. I take the point you make about the effect on small businesses, which is so important to us, particularly in Wales. It is largely as a consequence of the size of the Office and the fact that even small bills can distort the percentage which would have no effect on a large office. I do take the general point you make.

Chris Ruane

  28. When I was first put on this Committee I asked for an inquiry into the Denbighshire Council's funding legacy—the Rhuddlan Borough debt, as it was known. The Committee did that, they met in my constituency and had an inquiry. The Welsh Office response took six months; I think there is a two-month deadline. The Committee accepted that in the first few months after devolution we could expect to see some delay, but we expected improvements some two years after devolution. The response to our Wales in the World inquiry has taken five months and in fact we have only received it today. Other departments, including those which contributed such as the Foreign Office and the DTI, even though there was an election, managed to get their responses in on time. Can you explain why there is continuing delay in the Government's response to this Committee's reports?
  (Mr Murphy) In the general sense I would again refer you to the size of the department. Very often it is the case that we have to go to the Assembly or other Government departments in order to get information as we have no executive functions. If we come to staffing later we can perhaps touch more on this. It is why I am looking at ways in which we can improve our output without putting the number of staff up inordinately. That is the general point.

  29. You mentioned that staff numbers had gone up from fewer than 30 to fewer than 50. Should we as a committee be urging extra resources for you or do you have enough there for this matter of management?
  (Mr Murphy) Is it appropriate for me to deal with the matter of staffing now?


  30. It is probably appropriate to deal with it now.
  (Mr Murphy) In that case I shall deal with the two issues. On Wales in the World I have actually written to the Chairman apologising for the lateness of the response. It was caught up when the general election was called and our mistaken belief, as it turned out, that the response would not be required before the summer. That was a mistake, but it was one which was not deliberately made, it was something we genuinely thought. I have since apologised to the Chairman of the Committee for the lateness of that response and it will not happen again. As to the question of staffing, the Committee has discussed this on a number of occasions. I am anxious not to put the number of staff in what is a tiny department up inordinately unless there is a requirement so to do. I told the House of Commons on the floor of the House that I would look at every case individually. Bearing in mind that the number of people who work in the Wales Office is actually smaller than would occupy the chief executive's department of a relatively small local authority, compared with other Government departments it is extremely tiny. Nevertheless we have to be conscious of public value for money. I have decided in fact, before I take the decision to add more staff, to ask for an external review of the staffing in the Wales Office so that they can advise us on whether or not we require extra staff. So it is not a decision I will be taking without having advice from outside. I shall let the Committee know as soon as we have the result of that report.

Chris Ruane

  31. When will that report?
  (Mr Murphy) I think it will come in the next couple of weeks.
  (Mr Kilner) It will be a few months. We have reached the stage of almost having agreed a remit. We are hoping to appoint people long before Christmas and it should be a fairly short review, we think. I would hope we would be in a position around the turn of the year to put forward some firm proposals.

  32. Will they be taking evidence from this Committee?
  (Mr Murphy) I am not sure whether that is what is normally done, but I am more than happy to listen to any points the Committee have to make on this. If the Committee wishes, for example, when you make your report as a consequence of today's proceedings, then that would weigh very heavily with me. We together, collectively, know the importance of the workings not just of my Office but as representatives of the Welsh people here in Westminster and Whitehall and my aim is to ensure that we have an efficient smooth-running department. If I feel that we are insufficiently staffed in different areas then we shall have to have extra staff. I should also like to have a second opinion on that and that is why I have asked people to have a look at this. It will start in the next couple of weeks and be completed not long after Christmas.

  33. You said that you had apologised to the Chairman and we thank you for that. You said that the delay of five months would not happen again. Can you give us an undertaking now that in future the Wales Office will respond to our reports on time, that is within two months?
  (Mr Murphy) Yes. I am delighted to give that assurance to the Committee. You can home into that next time I am in front of you.

  34. We did last time.
  (Mr Murphy) I am sure that Alison and John and others who are listening to the proceedings will have taken that point.

Mr Prisk

  35. It is clear that the numbers of staff have risen since 1 July 1999 something in the region of 35 per cent or thereabouts. I am uncertain and wonder whether you could assist me. Yesterday you kindly answered my question to you with regard to the staffing figures and set out that the figure is 39 including casual employees. It is in Hansard dated 22 October. I was then somewhat confused when I turned to your Departmental Report which in fact says that the total figure is 44. Which is correct, the Written Answer or the report?
  (Mr Murphy) The report indicates the structure of the entitlement of numbers of staff. Although we do not employ 44, we employ the 39 figure I gave you, there is an entitlement to 44 in terms of the budget. That is our departmental structure. To give you the detail of that, from Table 2, we provisionally show the equivalent of 44 staff years as being our complement throughout the period and then the structure is 48. Two of those posts have never been filled, four are currently vacant but we hope to fill them shortly and four posts are occupied by people who work part time.
  (Mr Kilner) Because of vacancies and because we quite often have something of an interregnum between one person leaving and another arriving the actual number of staff years in any period tends to lag behind the number of posts and would lag behind the 44 we have indicated. There is always a slight gap between the actual complement we are talking about and the number of people which in any period we have actually had in post and working. That is why there is a slight gap.

  36. I am not quite clear on that. The number here is 39 and it specifically says in the notes provided by your Office that figures include casual employees. Yet in Table 2 on page 30 of your report it says 39 permanent staff, four casuals, 44 in total. I am unclear about this. It would seem to me that there is a clear discrepancy.
  (Mr Murphy) The fluctuation of what I am sure you would agree are exceedingly tiny numbers will depend on whether people are part time, whether people are leaving. You can imagine in a small department that a handful of people, one or two people, three or four people, leaving will have a big effect on those figures because they are so small in terms of the overall number. I do want to correct the impression I gave earlier on: 48 is the structure but they are not filled. At the moment it is 44 staff years but I am assuming that the 39 is the number of people employed at that moment. I shall write to the Committee on the details of that.

Mr Wiggin

  37. How many of the employees are political advisers or spin doctors to use the trendy expression?
  (Mr Murphy) No spin doctors; two advisers.

Mr Caton

  38. Timing of the report. The report actually came out in March and that was before the general election and you had a different Under Secretary of State at that time. Since the general election there have been quite huge changes in other departments of Government. Has anything changed in the Wales Office since the general election and since we received this report?
  (Mr Murphy) In what sense?

  39. Have there been any organisational changes or, for instance, changes in the allocation of ministerial responsibilities as between yourself and, at that time, David Hanson. With the new Under Secretary of State have you handed over Europe or finance or the environment and taken something from him?
  (Mr Murphy) In a sense the responsibilities, although they have to be written down in the report, are extremely fluid because there are only two of us. When I am away doing something he has to do the lot and vice-versa. Because the number of Ministers is so small, generally speaking it would perhaps be simpler to put that he deputises for me and leave it at that. When it comes to things like answering question to members, either on the floor of the House or written questions or attending certain Cabinet committees, we have to identify various areas of activity which both Don Touhig and I have to share. Essentially, because of the nature of the office there is a fluidity and flexibility there which is very important to maintain. It is very different from a big Government department with lots of Ministers, with lots of different things to run; you are a Minister for this or that. It does not work like that because of the nature of the office. For example, Don Touhig would have to spend quite a lot of his time, as I do, talking to Assembly Ministers, members of the Assembly, in exactly the same way and very often on the same issues, trying to resolve different areas we are looking at. There is one possible difference in that he would mostly now chair the coal health monitoring group in Cardiff when that is held. I do occasionally attend myself and chair it but because of his own background, like mine, coming from a South Wales valley, we felt it appropriate that he chair that body, although occasionally I do so myself.

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