Select Committee on Welsh Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 59)

TUESDAY 23 OCTOBER 2001

THE RT HON PAUL MURPHY, MRS ALISON JACKSON AND MR JOHN KILNER

  40. May I move on to the next chapter of your report and probe you a bit on the devolution framework. Under paragraph 3.6 you say, ". . . the new arrangements have not operated as smoothly as they might". Indeed in your Foreword you use similar words. Then over the page you say, ". . . all parties are committed to addressing weaknesses". Could you enlarge upon that a little? In what ways were things not moving smoothly and in particular what weaknesses have you identified which everybody is determined to address?
  (Mr Murphy) It is just a question of getting used to new systems as much as anything else. That was something on both sides of the equation really. Here is a new Assembly in Cardiff, just set up, brand new, new members of the Assembly elected, in a sense a different type of civil service which is dealing with a totally new body. So a body establishing itself and at the same time up here Government departments which have been going for many, many years having to get used to this new set-up. Clearly in the first year or two there were lots of teething problems, of course there would be. My job is to ensure that I apply the medicine which takes away the pain. A lot of that is behind the scenes, it is done by telephone, it is done by meetings, it is done by sitting around the table working things out together. I really would not think it appropriate to go into the details of all those issues, but simply to say to you that we have overcome those difficulties. To give one example, the way in which we draft legislation is much smoother than it was in the earlier period of my term of office because we have got used to the way of doing things now; also getting my Cabinet colleagues and other Ministers and officials used to the concept. It is no longer a Welsh Office, but it is a National Assembly and I believe that is working.

Mrs Williams

  41. May I take you to page 30, paragraph 5.10.2 People with Disabilities? There is an interesting sentence there which states, "The Wales Office does not currently employ any staff with disabilities". "People with disabilities" is not a new category. You end the paragraph by saying, "The office has worked closely with English Heritage in planning this work, and hopes to be able to make progress in the near future". "People with disabilities" is not a new category. When can you hope to make any progress? Is it a fact that you do not currently employ staff with disabilities because Gwydyr House is not friendly, certainly not friendly towards people with disabilities?
  (Mr Murphy) One of the problems is that Gwdyr House is very old and is a listed building. There are difficulties in making major alterations there, which is not the case in more up-to-date buildings. The other general point is that obviously it is a tiny department and it is very different from the large departments which have the opportunity and scope to be able to employ people in a variety of different ways.
  (Mrs Jackson) I do not believe that anyone with a disability has replied to our advertisements for jobs.[2] We do now have disabled toilets inside Gwydyr House; access for wheelchairs is still a problem, but there is no bar to people who have different kinds of disabilities being employed in Gwydyr House. We also have some offices in the Assembly and there wheelchair access would be perfectly okay.[3] I cannot remember, though I would need to check, whether we have ever turned down anyone with a disability. Our appointment procedures are on full equal opportunity terms. We use the Assembly's procedures for equal opportunities, on each appointment we have to fill in the monitoring form on equal opportunities, so our appointment procedures are full equal opportunities. We are a small department and people have not applied.


Mr Caton

  42. On the same page you refer to major refurbishment of Gwydyr House, but you did not include in that refurbishment ensuring that there was wheelchair access and possibilities for wheelchairs to move within the building. Does that not send out the wrong message to disabled people within our community?
  (Mr Kilner) Within the building there is not that problem. Refurbishment included changes to the toilets and the layout of the building; inside the building there is no problem.

  43. You do say in your report that wheelchair access to and within the building still needs to be done and you were talking to English Heritage about it
  (Mr Kilner) There we are taking about immediate entry. The point about disabled access into the building is very much a case of trying to square the competing demands of being a listed building with the Disability Discrimination Act. We did think a few months ago that the answer was to provide separate access at the rear of the building for wheelchairs. Thinking has moved on slightly on the Disability Discrimination Act and the view now is that the access provided for wheelchairs should be, so far as possible, on the same side of the building, same entrance that we and everybody else uses and so on. That has left us again with the problem of reconciling the competing demands. Our architects have come up with the idea which involves having a lift. The problem, as you know, is that there are five or six stone steps to get into the door of Gwydyr House. The idea that we have come up with now is that we should have a lift to deal with those steps but that instead of rising from pavement level up to the front door, it will descend from pavement level and there will be a separate entrance below the existing front door. We hope that comes much closer to meeting the spirit of the Disability Discrimination Act than having a completely separate access at the rear of the building. We are currently talking to English Heritage and Westminster City Council to establish that it meets their requirements from the listed building point of view. If it does, then we shall go ahead as soon as possible and implement that.

  44. Did you consider delaying the refurbishment until you could tackle the access question?
  (Mr Kilner) My understanding is that we thought we were under way on tackling the access question while the refurbishment was going on, so that it was not a question of rushing ahead with one thing without the whole.

Chris Ruane

  45. You mentioned that your uptake of people with disabilities through job advertisements was zero. Do you think you are advertising in the right place? Are you advertising in specific magazines or newspapers like Disability News or RNIB or RNID publications to attract people with disabilities?
  (Mrs Jackson) Because we are such a small department, we provide very few career opportunities for staff. You could not spend a satisfying career starting at the bottom of the Wales Office and working up through it. Therefore all our staff are on secondment either from the Assembly or from other Government departments. The Wales Office does not directly employ any staff. Although we pay salaries they are on secondment in the same way that much of Cabinet Office is staffed by secondees. That means that our only real option is to trawl for staff from the Assembly and our concordat with the Assembly, which was discussed with the Assembly trade unions, is that we will always trawl the Assembly first for secondees and if that does not yield us any then we go to other Whitehall department. That means that we are going inevitably into an internal civil service pool. We talk about this very often, about advertising for an external staff member, but the structure, the time it would take to move on up, the possibilities for career development in an office of fewer than 50 people within the civil services are just so small that it does not make sense for us to be staffed in any other way.

  46. So it looks as though your report is going to be the same next year then.
  (Mrs Jackson) Not necessarily. There are plenty of disabled people in the Assembly, it is just a question of whether they want to come to work for us.
  (Mr Murphy) There is a problem in terms of staffing generally, particularly staffing with disabled people and others, that it is a positive decision on the part of people to move from Cardiff to London, to stay for a number of days or perhaps stay here for a number of months, whatever it might in the way they have their accommodation, but that is very different from an ordinary Government department here or the Assembly in Cardiff. That is one of the reasons. However, I shall have a look at the whole question of disabilities and go through both access and employment because I am sure that is something which exercises the Committee.

Mrs Williams

  47. We are in danger of following one avenue on this. We are not just talking about members of staff. Other people wish to visit Gwydyr House. It is after all the Wales Office. Members of Parliament who have disabilities for instance have in the past failed to enter the Wales Office. It is all very well for Mr Kilner to say that there are facilities within the building, but you cannot get into the building. The Committee have not just raised this matter in the year 2001. We raised it two or three years ago as a committee and still nothing has been done about it. Mr Caton's question is very pertinent: why on earth was this not taken into consideration when a major refurbishment was being planned? Are you all suitably embarrassed? It is not up to the people who wish to apply for jobs at the Wales Office to consider themselves as somebody special. They would probably think "Gwydyr House? No, I won't be able to get there if I am wheelchairbound" and then would not apply for jobs within Gwydyr House. That is patently obvious to me as a member of this Committee.
  (Mr Murphy) We shall have a look at that situation. I take your point about the access but it is important to hear what John said, that it was considered during the course of the recent refurbishment, but because of the complications we have, being a listed building, it was not easy to deal with. I shall continue to look at it and see what can be done. It is probably one of the most difficult buildings within the Whitehall complex to be able to adapt in the way we should like to. It was examined, it is still under discussion and we shall continue looking at it and make sure the Committee are made aware of developments.

Dr Francis

  48. I am sure the Committee would welcome your very positive response to that. May I also suggest that in that review you consult with the Commissioner for Disability Rights in Wales, Dr Fitzpatrick, who I am sure would come forward with some very useful proposals?
  (Mr Murphy) I know Dr Fitzpatrick and I shall certainly do so.

Julie Morgan

  49. I want to express a bit of concern about the proposal to go down on a lift to a door which is at a lower entry to Gwydyr House, if that is correct. Really the thinking behind all the disability discrimination legislation is to have something as normal as possible and where everybody else goes in. Is there no possible way of gaining access through the same door as everybody else?
  (Mr Kilner) Ideally that is what we should like. We have given it to our architects who have thought about it long and hard and are much closer than I am to knowing precisely what can and cannot be accepted under the listed building arrangements. Their view is that that is the nearest to a shared access which would meet the conflicting requirements of disabled people and of the listed building.

  50. It seems a bit worrying that disabled people have to go down to the basement to get in.
  (Mr Kilner) The detailed plans are on their way to Westminster City Council and we have to see what they say.

Mrs Williams

  51. May I go on to the next page, page 31, where you give us figures for the percentage of women at each grade in the Wales Office? May I make a suggestion for future reports? It would be a good idea to have at a glance the situation in your previous years' reports so that we can check these things. Also, to make it more user-friendly, could you tell us what SCS and so on means? I do not know how many members of the public in Wales or indeed in London will read this report but it would be more user-friendly if you gave a bit more information rather than use civil service jargon.
  (Mr Murphy) It is a normal description of grades of civil service.
  (Mrs Jackson) There is no reason why we could not put a key.
  (Mr Murphy) It is fair to say that the Wales Office are doing extremely well so far as the employment of women is concerned, starting at the top, right through all the different grades. Lots of my senior advisers who come from Cardiff are women and that is something in which we, together with the Assembly, are leading other departments in the country.

Mr Wiggin

  52. I am grateful for the opportunity to question the Secretary of State. From what I have heard today in his opening comments he does not actually run anything, he is not evaluated and sometimes he does not even have the intention of telling people what he gets up to. We have a department with only 18 people who can answer letters and a department which does not pay its bills. So I do think you are perhaps as brave as a dragon going into the years 2002-03 with a flat budget of £2.3 million. I am also quite curious as to how efficiency savings are going to absorb any effects of inflation. Perhaps you could comment.
  (Mr Murphy) If I might say so, the evaluation of a political department which is wholly new cannot be done in quite the same way as other Government departments. I have made that point throughout the afternoon session. The effectiveness of what we do cannot be measured in the same way because lots of the problems we have to overcome are overcome before they ever reach the public domain, and they never do. Indeed were it to be the case that lots did reach the public domain, I should be failing in my job completely. One of the reasons for my existence is to ensure that we have smooth relations between the Assembly and Westminister and Whitehall in these areas of devolution. It is that protection of the constitutional settlement which is so vital to us in Wales which is the main raison d'être for the existence of the Wales Office and for my position at the Cabinet table. We are very much part of the United Kingdom, but we are also devolved. The existence of my job is about ensuring that we have a successful devolution project, but also that Wales is seen as very much part of the United Kingdom. That is what I am about. As to the points you make regarding those figures ahead of us, the great bulk of our expenditure inevitably is upon people and supporting people. You cannot have a legislative process which does not have people advising me on how primary legislation is to be drawn up or how our details of policies ought to be dealt with. That is done by people who are experts in their fields and have to advise me and my deputy on these issues, but also other departments in the Assembly. There are two areas of expenditure which are in this report which are on their own, freestanding. One of them is the question of the payment of lords lieutenants which still resides with my office. The other was the big question of the North Wales child abuse inquiry which had to be dealt with by the Wales Office and was a matter for considerable expenditure. I propose to have a very close look at staffing levels with the aid of outside experts and it will be within that area that we shall see whether there is a variation in the expenditure of this office over the coming years. My aim is to keep it as low as possible, consistent with an effective operation in the office and ensuring that we do the job as well as we think we can. It is up to you and others to decide whether we do that job effectively. It is also up to people in Wales and in the Assembly to have their view too upon the effectiveness of the Wales Office. I know that it is a matter of common policy amongst political parties in Wales, certainly as there are primary legislative powers here in Westminister for Wales, that the office continues. The way in which we evaluate the success or otherwise of the office can very often be a matter of subjective thinking, but most particularly I cannot go into every detail of what I say or do or talk to the First Minister about, no more than anybody else in Government can. It comes down at the end of the day to whether in fact that devolution settlement was smoothly worked out between ourselves and the Assembly. I believe that it has been successful: it is for others to judge.

  53. That does not really answer the question as to how you are going to achieve efficiency savings on your flat budget of £2.3 million.
  (Mr Murphy) It does. I said that the bulk of the spending relates to people and their salaries. I cannot give an absolute answer to that until I have decided how we are going to spend money on people as a consequence of that review which I have initiated. Obviously we shall look at other savings as well which are incidental to the employment of people, but they are always incidental because the bulk of the budget is salaries. Clearly we need to look at that and I do not know what the review will come up with. We shall have to wait and see.

  54. That is what concerns me. We are obviously worried about compromising the department's performance against its targets. If you are going to leave it in the hands of a review body, that is not exactly a comforting statement for us.
  (Mr Murphy) I did not say that. I said I would listen to what the review body advises me on, I will talk to my colleagues, I will take cognizance of the views of this Committee which have been expressed over the last few years and I shall see what is consistent with an efficient running of an office to serve the people of Wales and to serve Members of Parliament and to serve the settlement. Then I shall have a look at the figures as well and come to a conclusion on that, always in the knowledge, I repeat, that the cost of running my office equates to the cost of running a department of a medium-sized local authority in England of Wales.

Mr Prisk

  55. In the report by your Department for the year 2000 the voted Wales Office expenditure, including the line related to specific running costs, was set at £3 million per annum both for the last financial year and the current financial year. However, in this year's Departmental Report the figures changed quite significantly; you may argue possibly numerically small, but nevertheless as a proportion large. They have risen to £3,362 million and in this financial year £3,612 million. What is the reason for those increases? What was not budgeted for last year which has suddenly arisen since?
  (Mr Kilner) The clearest figure is probably at Annex 3 and that shows that our running costs have been fairly flat, but that over the three years up to 2001-02, additional money was required for the North Wales child abuse tribunal which ends this year. That then creates a drop in the total figure for the last two years of the period. If you look at Annex 3, you will see the first line, pay bill and general administrative expenditure, starting this year and running ahead is £2,279 million each year. So that element is rather flatter than the total would suggest.

  56. Indeed your report distinguishes between the voted Wales Office expenditure and what are described as running costs. Could you distinguish the difference between those two figures? Why has the total figure risen by 89 per cent over the planned period here and 79 per cent since the first year we are starting from, which is July 1999, which is the comparable base line from which we begin?
  (Mr Kilner) The first year, 1999-2000 was a partial year because the office only came into being on 1 July. It may be that if you are taking that year as your base, you get a rather inflated comparison.

  57. I accept that but you can see that there is a significant difference between last year's anticipation when you were well under way and this year. There is quite a leap in those two financial years.
  (Mr Kilner) There was a spending review between the two reports, so that would have changed the figures. I go back to the point that some years do have in the North Wales child abuse tribunal funding which tends to inflate them.

  58. What additional functions did the review show the department that you had not budgeted for?
  (Mr Kilner) My understanding is that it did not add any major functions.

  59. With the same functions the figures rose by £362,000 and then £612,000 in those two financial years.
  (Mr Murphy) Yes. We shall write to the Committee on the detail, but there are elements, particularly with the child abuse tribunal and the lords lieutenants and others too, which change and numbers of staff and staff getting normal pay increases all have an effect as well.[4]


2   In fact one person with a disability applied for a job since publication of the Departmental report and was appointed. However, access to the building is not an issue. Back

3   We have not had any other applications from people with a disability. Back

4   See Annex page 16. Back


 
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