Examination of Witness (Questions 1 -
WEDNESDAY 4 APRIL 2001
1. Lord Falconer, could I welcome you to the
Committee. I did say when we saw you last time, which was not
very long ago, we had such an enjoyable time we might want to
invite you back.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I was deeply flattered
I was invited back so quickly.
2. I think we have developed a relationship
now, it can only grow and grow. Thank you for coming and talking
to us and answering questions about the Government's Annual Report.
The Committee has wanted to have an annual hearing on the Annual
Report and I am sorry because of other business we have not got
round to it promptly this time. I know we are talking about a
Report that came out last summer. It is something that we think
it is important to do, and so we would like to have a chance to
do it. I do not know if you would like to say anything to kick
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I thought not, it seems
more sensible to answer questions. I have no statement I would
like to make. Could I take my jacket off?
3. Please. What would be quite helpful to start
with is just to remind us about some of the Government's thinking
behind the production of an annual report? What was the gap that
it was intended to fill? Is it filling it?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes. The purpose of an
annual report is for the government to give an account of what
it has done over the previous year. It is the government itself
describing what it has done, doing it by reference to what its
priorities are and also seeking to openly describe where it believes
it is making progress, but also to describe areas where there
have been problems. In doing this the government will inevitably
seek to describe in its own terms what has happened, but this
is not a report of an independent body, this is a report of the
government itself describing what it has done. We believe it to
be a sensible and important thing for a government to do. It is
right that each year, and at roughly the same time each year,
the government should in one document seek to set out what it
sees its achievements to have been and what it sees the areas
of problems are. Even though inevitably a government will seek
to defend itself in such a document, the discipline of having
to give such a report is a good and important discipline and it
is something which we intend to continue. The consideration of
the report by Parliament and the wider public is a means whereby
the government's record over the previous year can be debated
and considered in a reasoned way, but in a way that focuses on
one document which seeks in one place to set out what is thought
to have been the achievements, or otherwise, of that particular
year. Before we produced the Annual Report there were departmental
annual reports, which have been published for quite some time,
which are important documents. They are not widely read documents,
they are a source of information for the people who deal with
that particular department but they have very little wider currency.
The consequence each time of publishing the report has been that
there has been a debate in the Commons and there has been widespread
press consideration of the report. All too often the focus of
the press consideration has been not on how the government has
done over the last year but, "There are three errors, four
unfortunate photographs and insufficient this or that in the report".
The focus has always been, was the report itself a good idea rather
than the substance of the issues. I hope that as time goes by
and the report becomes an established part of what every government
has to do then people would use it as a means of focusing on what
the government has achieved over the last year; is its account
of itself a fair account and what more needs to be done. We think
it is an important way of engaging Parliament and the wider public
in what the government does.
4. That is very helpful. Could you just tell
us something about how it is produced? Is it a Civil Service production?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is a Civil Service
production. The last three years that it has been done somebody
in the centre has basically circulated all government departments
with requests for information. Those are then editorialised down
to what went into the three reports. It is written by civil servants
and the information for it comes by a trawl round the relevant
Whitehall departments. On each occasion it has had an introduction
from the Prime Minister, which is obviously more of a political
introduction, but it is obviously an introduction that comes from
somebody who is the head of the government.
5. It is a Civil Service document and it is
Prime Ministerial document.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Exactly. It is a government
document. Documents that come from the government will very, very
frequently come from a combination of politicians and civil servants.
The distinction seems to me to be not between the Civil Service
and ministers, it is between a government document on the one
hand and a party political document on the other. It is a government
document, not a party political document.
6. If it was a party document how different
would it be?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) If it was a party document
it would be saying, in effect, if it is a Labour government, which
it is at the moment, Labour is better on these policies because
it has done this, the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats would
do badly because . . . It would be a partisan, engaged document
in party political terms. I do not deny that this is a document
which is the government describing its own achievements, which
is, therefore, a document where there is inevitably a bias because
it is the government. It is not a party political document. If
it were a party political document it would not be a document
in which the Civil Service could engage.
7. When you read someone like Peter Riddell,
who on any test is one of the saner, more balanced commentators
who does not get easily carried away; when he described it as
"vacuous drivel" he said, "I read and re-read the
64 pages and can find no other way of describing one of the most
disgraceful documents ever published by the Stationery Office".
Why should a man like Peter Riddell say something like that?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I entirely agree, Peter
is an entirely sensible man. I do not think if he had an opportunity
to compare 1998/1999 and this one, which is the one that he was
commenting on, they are similar in style, they are similar in
content but with the previous report Peter Riddell did not have
the difficulty that he had with the 1999/2000 Report. Indeed,
he was perfectly balanced and not unsupportive in his response
to 1998/1999 Government Annual Report.
8. So, it has got worse!
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) If you look at the content
of the two they look exactly the same. I do not know why it was
that that which was acceptable in 1998/1999 became "vacuous
drivel" in 1999/2000.
9. There are two arguments, one is that it started
off being a much longer document, that tried to measure activity
against some serious targets, manifesto commitments, and it has
now become a much shorter document, full of pictures, and there
is no measurement against manifesto commitments there at all.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Remember this document
for the first time, this is 1999/2000, was published accompanied
by a huge amount of detail broken down into various parts of the
country that was available on the website. So at the same time
that this was published, if you put in your post code you could
see what the position was in relation to manifesto commitments
about how many schools in E16 had class sizes below 30, what the
position was in relation to how quickly you would deal with youth
offenders in a particular place and what the expenditure had been,
a very significant amount of detail. So the report in 1999/2000,
and indeed the report in 1998/99, although it was not accompanied
by that amount of detail on the website, had to be set against
that provision of information as well, which is now permanently
available, albeit being updated.
10. Do you know what percentage of the population
have access to the internet?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I do not know what the
percentage is but the percentage is probably more, I have to say,
than the percentage that ever bought this.
11. I think it is about 30 per cent. 32 per
cent, I am told.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I have to tell you that
32 per cent of the population did not buy the Annual Report. So
a very large number more have access to that information than
in practice got access to I am sure the percentage that
got access to the report was more than the people who bought it.
12. I think you are right in saying that the
most interesting part of this is the ability to find out through
pressing your postcode about your own area.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) Yes.
13. I think that is genuinely useful, innovative
information, but you are not told in the Annual Report that you
can do that.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I think that is a perfectly
reasonable shortcoming of the report. It should do, I accept that.
The report, at the time that it was published, was accompanied
by very substantial press publicity that did make that point.
I accept that it should obviously say that.
14. Can I just ask one other thing before handing
over. It refers you to the internet but it does not refer you
to the fact that you can find out your own area information, which
is the point.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I accept that.
15. There has been a proposal, as you will be
aware, both from this Committee and now from all the Select Committees,
in the form of the Liaison Committee, that the Prime Minister
should properly come and talk to the Liaison Committee about the
Annual Report because in every sense it is the Prime Minister's
document. He introduces it and you are told you have to write
to No.10 to find out more about it and so on, so it is a very
much anchored in No.10 production. The Prime Minister has resisted
this suggestion. Would it not be just a very sensible development
in the spirit of innovation that the report itself is, if the
Prime Minister just once a year was to come along and speak to
the Chairmen of Select Committees, not about the detail of policy
content but about the nature of the enterprise?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) He opened a debate in
the House of Commons on the Annual Report at the end of July when
it was published and was, therefore, available to debate both
the programme content of the report and the style and effectiveness
and appropriateness of the report before the whole of the House
16. But being a man of the world you will know
that the kinds of exchanges that take place on those occasions
are not the kind of reflective probing that would take place in
a meeting of the Chairmen of Select Committees.
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) It is the major way in
which the Prime Minister is held to account in our system. I am
one of the Ministers responsible for the Annual Report, so in
relation to the detail I am hopefully able to respond to the Committee's
detailed questions in a deliberative and reflective way.
17. So it is not a suggestion that we could
ask you to pass along the system?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) I cannot stop you asking
18. I am a fan of annual reports, I think they
are a good idea, and I take the point that it is easy to criticise
them on picky things, and I will come on to the picky things in
a moment. Just on the wider issue, would it not be better if in
some way there was some kind of independent assessment of Government?
I entirely understand that there is a spin on this. It is good
that it does not mention the words "New Labour" in it
once as far as I can see but there is a positive spin which any
business puts on annual reports. In a sense are we not missing
a trick here, that some kind of independent assessment within
it would stack it up a great deal more?
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We have thought very hard
about the extent to which you want independent validation of what
is in the report. The conclusion we have come to is what you are
always producing in these reports are basically statistics and
conclusions which come from Government Departments and the extent
to which they are accurate or not hopefully will not be in doubt.
The extent to which the conclusions that one draws from those
figures are correct is something that think-tanks, Parliament,
the bodies that consider this report will inevitably have to reach
their own conclusions in relation to. Although it is something
that we have thought greatly about, we do not really see how in
practice the Annual Report is the right place to incorporate this.
I think the right course in relation to this is one ensures that
one always explains how one measures things, how one has set targets,
and then it is for Parliament, the press, the think-tanks and
the experts to say whether we are doing as well or as badly as
the report may say.
19. On the accessibility of it, and I could
run through all the questions in terms of how many people do get
hold of it and how many people have purchased it, and I am sure
you have got the answers to that, but just remind me what do we
currently send folk who pay income tax? When they get their income
tax demand is
(Lord Falconer of Thoroton) We do not send them the