Letter from Rt Hon Donald Anderson MP,
Foreign Affairs Committee
Thank you for your letter of 12 December.
The FCO did not produce any Winter Supplementary
Estimates in 2001-02. However, I was disappointed that the Supplementary
Estimates on British Trade International (laid by DTI) and on
the Security and Intelligence Services (laid by the Prime Minister)
were not made available in draft and have instructed the Clerk
of the Committee to seek assurances that all Estimates relating
to bodies or agencies which fall within the Committee's terms
of reference are made available in draft in future.
I welcome the fact that there has been a review
of departmental reports. I agree with the brief given to the review
group to recommend how the reports can most effectively meet the
needs of users by presenting the right information in the most
clear, coherent, efficient and timely manner. However, I have
strong concerns about the review group's recommendations and the
The departmentally-related select committees
are probably the key users of departmental reports. Certainly,
the Foreign Affairs Committee has always taken very seriously
its responsibility to scrutinise the FCO's reports, notwithstanding
the fact that the FCO is not counted among the "spending
departments". We have heard evidence each year from the Accounting
Officer and other officials, as well as from relevant agencies
such as the British Council and BBC World Service, and I believe
that we have been able to exert some influence on the content
and form of the FCO's reports, as well as dealing thoroughly with
the issues they raise. In 2002, for the first time, the Committee
will be using the services of the National Audit Office to assist
Members in their scrutiny of the FCO's accounts and Estimates.
The Committee is therefore particularly concerned
to ensure that the extent and the quality of information available
to it are improved, or at least maintained. It might be helpful
if I set out the remainder of my observationswhich have
been endorsed by my colleagues on the Foreign Affairs Committeeunder
headings which reflect the three basic principles we seek to preserve.
There was a neatness and convenience about the
way in which all the relevant information was brought together
in last year's departmental report. If, as the Treasury proposes,
this is to be lost, the task of scrutiny will become harder to
perform. I understand the rationale for separating out the Estimates
and resource accounts from the departmental report, and recognise
that in two respects this could represent an improvement: the
accounts will be available earlier; and Parliament will be given
updated performance information.
I and my colleagues fear, however, that the
negative consequences of the proposal will outweigh the benefits.
We are concerned that the separate two spring and one autumn publications
may make it more difficult to track spending plans against objectives
and outturns. We also regret that we will no longer be able to
undertake a single annual exercise, for which we have always made
time despite the many other urgent matters requiring our attention.
The disruption to our ongoing programme of policy-based inquiries
caused by a biannual scrutiny of expenditure will be unwelcome,
while the demands made on the Committee's resources by the need
for briefing andpossiblyreports in both the spring
and autumn may be difficult to meet.
We do not accept that the proposal to replace
one document by three satisfies the requirement to meet the needs
of users by presenting the right information in the most clear,
coherent and efficient manner. We urge the Treasury to allow departments
to continue to produce a single, Spring publication which presents
all the relevant information in a form which can be understood
and in a way which allows performance to be judged and different
figures to be reconciled, even if this leads to some duplication
While I agree with the conclusion of the review
team that the presentation of financial and budgetary information
in the reports has been complicated, making the tables difficult
to use, the Committee has greatly valued the breadth of the information
presented to it. It would be particularly unfortunate if, because
the departmental report contained insufficient information, the
Committee felt obliged to request extensive supplementary evidence
from the FCO: this would cause delay for the Committee; it would
place burdens on the FCO; and it would risk producing a series
of supplementary papers which would be difficult to use alongside
the published information. I take some comfort from the Treasury's
undertaking that "Parliament should have access to all the
information it has now", but I observe that providing "access"
is not the same as providing the information without being asked
Parliament and its committees require more information,
not less. We welcome "simplified" or "streamlined"
information only if it is at least as complete as that which Parliament
has been accustomed to receive. We intend to pay very close attention
to the breadth and depth of financial information presented in
respect of the FCO and will be seeking to ensure that nothing
is lost as a result of any changes which may be introduced.
We have always appreciated that departmental
reports are something of a shop window for departments. They have
contained photographs of Ministers and material of a quite general
nature which has not been necessary for the purposes of Parliamentary
scrutiny, but their value as a summary of what the department
does and spends has been justly praised. We note that the Treasury
is suggesting that "departments will be given greater freedom
to produce streamlined, clearly presented reports accessible to
a wider audience." If "streamlining" means fewer
photographs and a crisper style, Parliament need not be concerned.
If, however, by "streamlining" is meant a reduction
in factual information, and if making reports more "accessible"
means more illustrations and fewer facts, Parliament should be
very concerned indeed.
It is not clear from the Chief Secretary's letter
who forms the "wider audience." The summary of the report
of the review states that "The aim is to get useful information
in an accessible form to the people who need it", but does
not suggest who those people are. In our view, Parliament must
be the primary target of these reports, and we trust that the
FCO will not lose sight of that in its search for a possibly mythical
"wider audience". It would be wrong in principle for
the form or, particularly, the content of departmental reports
to be dictated by the perceived needs of an undefined "wider
audience", rather than by the articulated and understood
needs of Parliament.
In summary, Parliament's minimum requirement
is for full, factual information, clearly presented in ways which
allow Members to track historical and planned changes in priorities.
The Foreign Affairs Committee is not persuaded that the Treasury's
proposals meet that requirement.