Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620
WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY 2002
MP AND SIR
620. I do find this extraordinary, Secretary
of State. We are in a position where you have a significant number
of projects on the shelf which could start tomorrow which are
all in the-ten-year plan, whether the Department's ten-year plan
or the SRA plan, which could start very quickly. We have had a
number of schemes which have been submitted by local authorities
around the country which are yet to receive funding and which
would ease transport congestion and yet you are sitting on underspend.
It is not a question of not being strategic, but there are projects
which are currently being delayed because of a lack of investment
because plainly you are not doing it.
(Mr Byers) I think the notion that you can start today
is an interesting one. If we took a decision today to fund some
of those projects, I would be surprised if you would see actual
spend appearing in the budgeting until the next financial year
and you must be aware of that, let's be honest about that. We
are in the middle of January, a commitment made today would almost
certainly have a financial implication in the next financial year
and that is the nature of the scale of the projects that we are
dealing with. We announced £1½ billion of local transport
schemes just before Christmas.
621. Why do you not allocate £1.7 billion
of your underspend?
(Mr Byers) Because what we are doing is making sure
that for that local transport plan, the biggest investment ever
in local transport plans, that all of them are priorities and
achieve value for money. It is easy to put in an extra £200
million, but are you achieving value for money for that? Our decision
was that £1½ billion for the projects which are put
forward would deliver real improvements and would meet our priorities.
It allows us to spend £200 million elsewhere for other priorities.
The important thing is to make sure that we get the underspend
down and we do it in a way which achieves value for money and
we will do that and I think the Committee will see because of
the steps that I have introduced as Secretary of State that the
underspend will be lower this year and it will be lower next year
because that is important because we have got an allocation, we
have a pressing need and it is something that we have got to meet
and we will.
(Sir Richard Mottram) Could I just illustrate one
of the issues which is that one of the significant underspends,
and I think this was in the material we sent to the Committee,
one of the significant transport underspends was we had forecast
that we would spend £42 million on the Channel Tunnel Rail
Link and the outturn was £23.4 million. This was partly about
forecasting and it was also partly about the basis on which it
was being funded and getting additional money from other sources.
The programme itself was basically running to time. If we took
that money out and spent it somewhere else, what we would then
find is that we did not have the money to complete the Channel
Tunnel Railway project which is why a number of these big transport
projects are organised on the basis that we have ring-fenced provision
with the Treasury which we account for a particular project and
if we do not spend the money in 2000-01, we put it into the budget
of 2001-02 if it is needed there and we ensure that we fund the
project, so it would not make sense to take that money and re-allocate
it to local transport plans unless and until we were confident
that we did not need it for that project. So that is what we are
trying to do; we are trying to plan on a three-year basis and
actually in the case of transport we are now planning on a ten-year
basis as well and we reconcile these numbers to make sure we try
and deliver what we are committed to delivering. That is the important
622. If you underspend £1 billion on ring-fenced
capital programmes, it is a bit of a blip, is it not really, would
you not think?
(Sir Richard Mottram) Yes, I would, but another example
would be that we made provision for trans-European networks, which
is a European programme, where the problem we have there is that
in order to be allowed to spend the money, we actually have to
get the agreement of Europe to co-fund some of our projects and
we have not been as successful as we would have liked to have
been on that.
623. Meaning you do not have a concordat for
(Sir Richard Mottram) No. We have more than a concordat.
624. Can you tell me, Secretary of State, if
you are happy with your current departmental objectives and also
whether you feel that you have the freedom to set them yourselves
or whether you feel that they are over-imposed upon you by the
(Mr Byers) I think the objectives are right. They
are balanced and they look broadly at what the Department is seeking
to achieve. Within government there are agreements that are struck
and I think they reflect the Government's priorities. I think
we have a very good, positive relationship with the Treasury and
it is one which will continue and I think our objectives are correct
and they have not in any way been imposed upon us.
625. What has been the advantage to you of the
appointment of Lord Birt? Was that actually your own appointment
or was it a Prime Ministerial appointment? What benefits does
it bring to appoint somebody to look at transport issues who does
not have direct transport experience?
(Mr Byers) Well, Lord Birt is a member of the Forward
Strategy Unit which is Number 10 and he is not involved with anything
to do with the ten-year plan.
626. That is good!
(Mr Byers) He is involved in looking at things that
might arise in 15 or 20 years' time.
627. I hope he is not getting expenses!
(Mr Byers) That means to me as Secretary of State
I hope I am going to be in the job for a long time, but not when
I am drawing my old age pension, but I am pretty relaxed about
the work that Lord Birt is involved in.
628. Yes, but it is not funny, is it, really?
We joke about it, but in fact it is a bit embarrassing. How many
civil servants do you have, Sir?
(Sir Richard Mottram) How many civil servants do I
(Sir Richard Mottram) Well, in the centre of the Department
630. And are they to do with transport, some
(Sir Richard Mottram) Many of them are, yes.
631. Now, Secretary of State, even at the risk
of being mildly critical, I might suggest that the reason that
you have those civil servants is that they do a job on transport,
one of which I would hope was forward planning and frankly since
Lord Birt has demonstrated very clearly that he could not run
an arrangement in a brewery, it seems extraordinary that we are
asking him to do something about which he knows nothing or is
this the criterion for the future?
(Mr Byers) I think we will see with interest the recommendations
that Lord Birt brings forward. My priorities are delivering improvements
between now and probably when the next Election is held and delivering
a ten-year plan.
632. Fine, but why do we have this fellow wandering
about talking about what might happen in ten years' time?
(Mr Byers) It keeps him occupied.
633. All I want to know is that I assume it
is at no cost to the taxpayer. I assume this gentleman did not
walk away from his previous post without the odd bob or two, so
are you assuring me that your Department and Number 10 are not
giving him any help with his expenses?
(Mr Byers) Well, certainly my Department is not funding
634. Good. So when you are talking to the Treasury,
you point out that expenditure on Lord Birt might be otiose, as
(Mr Byers) Well, it is a matter for the Prime Minister's
Department at Number 10.
635. So can we take it that you were not involved
in his appointment?
(Mr Byers) It was a Prime Ministerial appointment
and we made that clear. I do not appoint members of the Prime
Minister's Forward Strategy Unit. I do think, and it is something
successive Prime Ministers have done and we are quite clear about
this, that they do bring in people from outside to look at long-term
planning. Actually if you think about some of the difficult issues
we are dealing with today, it might have been helpful had Margaret
Thatcher, when she was Prime Minister, begun to think about the
problems that would be facing the transport system
636. Yes, but, with respect, Margaret Thatcher
did not have problems with the transport system.
(Mr Byers) She created it.
637. And that is a very simple set of criteria,
that if you definitely do not know about the railway system and
you are going to have lots of roads where we did not bother too
much about putting any money into the infrastructure, you do not
really need advisers. Even I could do that. What we are asking
you is why has this man been brought in to do a job for which
we already have not only a number of Ministers, who are not exactly
underpaid, and a number of civil servants who are supposed to
know something about it?
(Mr Byers) Well, I think we should see it in the way
in which Lord Birt will be making recommendations in addition
to the work that is going on in the Department. We have a good
working relationship with Lord Birt and the work he has done so
far. I am quite relaxed about what he is doing.
638. As the Secretary of State for the Regions,
how are you addressing questions of inequities in regional spending,
for example, the fact that the North West receives 25 per cent
less than Scotland on education, although it is poorer? What are
you able to do about it in your position?
(Mr Byers) You are inviting me to begin a very interesting
debate about spending. The important thing, I think, is that we
do see spending being allocated or finance being allocated on
the basis of need. Certainly within England, what I have commissioned
for the first time, I think, is a major piece of research to identify
where each region is getting its funding from in terms of public
expenditure. That work has not been done before, but for the first
time we have now commissioned that to take place, so we will be
able to see within each region of England where the money is going
and who is funding it and then we can look between regions to
see if there is an unfair allocation. I think that work then has
to be done and that will then feed into the wider considerations
within the United Kingdom about how we fund within the United
Kingdom and not just for the regions.
639. But the public expenditure statistical
analysis, which has already been published, does show widespread
disparities between regions and those disparities are not based
on need. What influence do you have, as Secretary of State, on
(Mr Byers) Well, I have influence in terms of we are
just beginning the Spending Review for 2002 and we will be, as
part of our submission to the Treasury, making the case very strongly
of the need to have an active regional policy and that will entail
funding to assist the regions of England and that funding will
take a variety of forms. It can be support for the RDAs in terms
of economic regeneration, and although we no longer sponsor the
RDAs, we can still be advocates on their behalf and what is very
clear to me is that if we are to see long-term sustained development
in the regions, we do that where the economic performance of productivity
within those regions improves. I do believe firmly that with an
active regional policy we can achieve that. We also need to look
at how infrastructure is developed so that we can support particular
regions there and we can see how skills and training are allocated