Committee of Public Accounts 5 February 2008

Session 2007-08 5 February 2008

Committee of Public Accounts recommendations on public services accepted by Government

Recent reports by the Committee of Public Accounts (PAC) have led the Government to make a number of significant improvements to public service delivery. The Government has not, however, accepted the Committee's view that the costs of achieving efficiency gains should be taken into account when measuring those gains.

Edward Leigh, Chairman of the Committee, today said:
"The work of our Committee leads to improvements by government departments in very diverse areas.

"The Identity and Passport Service has accepted that, when introducing ePassports, it should have worked more effectively with the Border and Immigration Agency. The two Agencies are now working together to reduce the time taken to read ePassports at Border Control, thereby cutting waiting times for ePassport holders.

"The Assets Recovery Agency's management information systems did not include a comprehensive database of cases. The Agency has now deployed a new case planning system which should aid the recovery of the proceeds of crime.

"Following changes it has already made to solicitors' contracts for legal aid to promote greater take up of mediation in family breakdown cases, the Legal Services Commission has launched a new telephone advice service.

"The Government has accepted recommendations on the Academies Programme that should contribute to better cost control and sharing of good practice. Academies and rebuilt voluntary aided schools are now able, without incurring large VAT liabilities, to extend community use of their facilities.

"HMRC is streamlining the tax registration process for newly registered businesses and working with Business Link to promote online registration. These changes will make it easier and less burdensome for businesses to comply with their tax obligations.

"With its income reducing through Lottery funding of the 2012 Olympics, the Heritage Lottery Fund is introducing a number of measures to make its money go further. It is also improving the support it provides for applicants, particularly those who are inexperienced or from areas and communities that have received less funding in the past.

"The Department for Work and Pensions has implemented the Committee's recommendations for increasing the productivity of Jobcentre Plus personal advisers. It plans to improve customer attendance at interviews and reduce time wasted, by scheduling more appointments at times suited to customer needs.

"The Government has responded poorly, however, to the Committee's report on the 'Gershon' Efficiency Programme. On the issue of how much these efficiency initiatives are costing, the Government continues to think the costs are not an essential part of working out the value of efficiency gains that have been achieved."

The Government was responding to the following reports by the Committee of Public Accounts:

Introduction of ePassports
The Government welcomed the Committee's recognition of the success of the project to introduce e-passports, and was largely positive in its response to recommendations. The Government did not however respond fully to the Committee's recommendation to take advantage of the overlap between ePassports and identity cards, making no comment on potential reductions in the combined fee for these documents.

Assets Recovery Agency
The Asset Recovery Agency's powers and work are to be merged into the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the National Policing Improvement Agency, but despite this the Agency has nevertheless made good progress in implementing the recommendations of the Committee. It has put in place a case planning system; completely reviewed its database of Financial Investigators and removed 1,000 entries; revised its policies on testing completion of Continuing Professional Development activities; and introduced charges for attendance at Financial Investigation training courses.

Legal Services Commission: Legal Aid and mediation for people involved in family breakdown
People undergoing divorce or separation will often need professional legal advice, and the Legal Services Commission can provide legal aid to help people on low incomes pay for this. The government accepts that mediation can be a cheaper, faster, and less acrimonious way of resolving family disputes than legal aid for representation in court. The Legal Services Commission has already changed the fee structure for legal aided work by solicitors to promote early resolution of cases through mediation, and is pursuing further changes to improve the quality of mediation services that are available, make guidance and information more readily available, including a new telephone helpline service, and expand mediation services so they are readily available to people in all parts of the country. Changes to mediators' contracts are due to be made in October 2009.

The Academies Programme
The Committee reported that first academies have made some progress but it is not yet clear whether the improvement is sustainable and it noted weaknesses in literacy and numeracy performance. The Department has improved the way it measures academies' performance. School Improvement Partners and the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust are supporting academies to improve literacy and numeracy. The Department has accepted the need for better cost control of new academies, and is taking steps to prevent or reduce cost overruns including appointing construction project managers and reviewing all completed projects to identify and disseminate the lessons learnt. Academies can now extend access to their facilities to the local community without incurring large VAT liabilities, and the Department will pay the VAT on rebuilt voluntary aided schools so they too can extend access.

Helping newly registered businesses with their tax obligation
The Department has accepted that it needs to improve the help provided to newly registered businesses. In dealing with new tax obligations for the first time, new businesses may be unfamiliar with what is expected and they may need particular help in getting their tax affairs right. The Department intends to streamline the registration process for new businesses and increase the level of online registrations. It also plans to reduce the number of separate helplines and telephone numbers that businesses have to use to obtain advice from the Department. The Department currently operates 10 helplines businesses can contact for information. It is also making guidance easier to understand, is working to increase participation at the workshops and seminars it runs and is making significant improvements to its website. The Department has undertaken to analyse the compliance record of different taxpayer groups and the track record of individual businesses so it can target its work and assess its effects.

Heritage Lottery Trust
The Heritage Lottery Fund has outlined a number of measures to help make its money go further when its income falls because of Lottery funding of the 2012 Olympics. It will look more closely at what proportion of total project costs it is being asked to contribute and the amount of funding applicants raise from other sources. The Fund will also continue to reduce the amount of undistributed money it holds in the National Lottery Distribution Fund and will smooth out peaks and troughs in its income to maintain a constant annual award budget of £180 million from 2009 to 2019. The Fund will improve its assistance to applicants by introducing a simplified and faster application and assessment process from April 2008, continuing to invest in development teams to advise and assist applicants, and offering more support to applicants to improve the overall quality of projects, including extra help for inexperienced ones. When the Fund identifies that a project is going adrift, its staff will approach the grant recipient to discuss what remedial action they are going to take. The Fund will also develop an explicit rationale for selecting the priority areas it targets for special attention.

Jobcentre Plus: Ensuring the effectiveness of Personal Advisers
The Department accepted the Committee's conclusion that it is was unacceptable that customers failed to attend 1.8 million interviews a year at a cost of £16 million. The Department has implemented the NAO and PAC recommendations on improving attendance, including greater efforts to schedule appointments at times appropriate to the needs of the customers. The effect has been felt immediately and using different ways of giving reminders. To date, the Department reports that this has contributed to a 1% decrease - 18,000 interviews - in the number of customers failing to attend.

Progress update on the Efficiency Programme
HM Treasury is working with departments on measurement issues and requires efficiencies to be signed off by Ministers or Permanent Secretaries to confirm that they comply with the published guidance. Departments are also making greater use of internal audit teams to provide assurance on claimed efficiencies.