Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20
TUESDAY 23 OCTOBER 2001
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 letternot
completely as that would have meant going back to Cardiff, but
so far as this side of it was concernedto 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.
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
(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.
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
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
(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.
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.
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
(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.
28. When I was first put on this Committee I
asked for an inquiry into the Denbighshire Council's funding legacythe
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
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
(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.
31. When will that report?
(Mr Murphy) I think it will come in the next couple
(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
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.
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
37. How many of the employees are political
advisers or spin doctors to use the trendy expression?
(Mr Murphy) No spin doctors; two advisers.
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.