HL Deb 13 March 2003 vol 645 cc1479-81

3.16 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What was the original intention in producing the Government's annual reports; why these ceased after three years; and whether there is any likelihood of their being resumed.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the information in the annual report was a collation of existing publicly available material, and we have decided not to continue with it. The Government will, of course, continue to report to Parliament and the public on their performance through a variety of means, such as reports, statistical bulletins, Ministerial Statements and Parliamentary Questions.

Lord Smith of Clifton

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for that reply. It is not as characteristically robust as his replies to me usually are, but that is because his officials who had notice of my Question found it difficult to give him more material.

Does the noble and learned Lord agree with me that the annual reports were launched with a great fanfare of publicity and were an interesting new part of the repertoire of public accountability on the part of governments? I regret that we do not have them, because it is convenient to have between two covers all the statistics and the targets missed or otherwise. What would be the Government's attitude if, for example, a company finding itself in troubled waters, such as Monsanto or Cable & Wireless, suddenly decided that it did not wish to produce any more annual reports?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there are a number of differences, to which I shall come in a moment. The noble Lord asked me two questions originally: first, whether the reports were produced with a great fanfare, to which the answer is yes, and, secondly, whether they were desperately interesting—ahem.

I now turn to the failing companies. Certainly I would be quite happy to be employed by any of those failing companies, because I would probably receive a pay-off of about £6 million for demonstrated failure.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, were not the annual reports intended originally to provide publicity for the Government's activities, but they ran out of material and steam, despite the efforts of spin doctors? Are they now presumably to be discontinued for the same reason?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, they were tried on three occasions. The response was not perhaps universal. The total cost was quite significant. No one could sensibly believe that there is not abundant material available—some would say too much. If the noble Lord believes that it was a waste of time and spin, he ought to rejoice, because the sinner has repented.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord have some amazing crystal ball that said it would be better to stop producing annual reports because Higgs was going to report on corporate governance and therefore the annual report would require a performance evaluation of every board member and everything that the board did?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do have a crystal ball: we are going to win the next election.

Lord McNally

My Lords, could not officials also have provided the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House with a more direct Answer—I was going to say "honest"—along the lines that it was a merry wheeze dreamt up in the early stages of the Labour Government's life to get free political advertising provided from the public purse? As the noble and learned Lord has conceded that it was an error, should not the costs be refunded to the public purse by the Labour Party?

Moreover, as that publication and others were sanctioned by somebody in government, can the Minister tell us where authority lies for judgments on whether public money should be spent on publications? Is it political or public spending? At one stage, it was considered that the buck stopped with a political appointee, Mr Alastair Campbell. Does the director of the Central Office of Information report to Mr Alastair Campbell or to a responsible Minister? Who takes responsibility for that important area of public spending, in which, as the noble and learned Lord conceded, the Government have erred in the past?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I did not say that it was an error; I said that it had been tried. It was tried on three occasions: 1997–98, 1998–99 and 1999–2000. It was then discontinued, but a comprehensive report was put to the electorate in, I think, 2001, and they seemed to be pleased with what we had done. The reports were signed off—sanctioned, in other words—by the then Cabinet Secretary.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord say what the cost was over each of those three years?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as it happens, I have that material to hand. The total cost in the first year was £250,000; for the second year, it was £180,000; and, in the third year—showing what an excellent, prudent Government we have—it went down to £125,000.

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