Committee of Public Accounts Press Notice: Treasury Minutes

PAC PRESS NOTICE September 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.

Edward Leigh, Chairman of the Committee, today said:

"I welcome the fact that the Department for Transport has recognised and regrets the problems caused to the Committee by the timing of the release of 2007 estimates of evasion of Vehicle Excise Duty.

"I am also pleased to see that the Government has accepted all of the Committee's recommendations about government websites, including the need to keep a tighter grip on the number and to get a better control over their costs. I welcome the commitment to tackling digital exclusion and to improving levels of accessibility.

"Following our report on risks in the UK's 14 Overseas Territories, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is bringing more UK expertise and resources to bear on risks in the Territories.

"The Committee concluded that public bodies cannot get value for money out of their corporate services if they do not have robust, comparable performance data on them. The Cabinet Office has responded by defining and agreeing benchmarks for these services with all departments.

"HM Revenue & Customs intends to improve the help it provides for taxpayers completing forms. It plans to raise performance in handling taxpayers' telephone enquiries to match industry standards, make website information easier to find and design clearer written guidance.

"As a result of our work, the Carbon Trust is making a number of changes to help increase the implementation of its recommendations relating to the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

"And, in response to our report on the efficiency of central government's use of office property, the Government has set departments building workspace standards and required them to use a benchmarking service to monitor performance."

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

Evasion of Vehicle Excise Duty (2nd special report)

The Department recognises and regrets the problems caused to the Committee by the timing of the release of 2007 estimates of evasion of Vehicle Excise Duty. It also regrets the offence that can be caused to law abiding sections of the community and the possibility for adverse affects on the standing of Parliament in the eyes of the public. The Department fully recognises the obligation to provide Committees with accurate evidence and states that at all times it sought to ensure that the information it provided was as accurate as possible. The Department says that it did not seek to mislead the Committee in publishing the VED evasion estimates in February 2008, and that the previous years' VED evasion estimates were the best available.

Government on the internet: progress in delivering information and services online (16th report)

In 2002, the PAC concluded that there had been a lack of progress in implementing the recommendations from an earlier report. Overall, the quality of government websites has improved only slightly since 2002, and a third of sites do not meet the Cabinet Office's own user accessibility standards.

The Government has undertaken to carry out the following actions in response to the PAC report. First, the establishment of any new government website will, from now on, be subject to agreement by the Government's Chief Information Officer and the (Ministerial) Cabinet Committee on Public Engagement and Delivery of Services. Secondly, a methodology will be developed to account accurately for the costs of websites. Thirdly, all Government websites will have to meet a new set of quality standards. And, fourthly, all departments will have to have channel strategies by 2010 taking account of the needs of those without internet access.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office: managing risk in the Overseas Territories (17th report)

The United Kingdom retains responsibility for 14 Overseas Territories, 11 of which are permanently populated and which choose to remain under British sovereignty. A diverse group, they include Bermuda, a major financial centre, and St. Helena, one of the most isolated populated islands in the world and reliant on UK aid.

The FCO is bringing more UK expertise and resources to bear on risks in the UK's Overseas Territories. For example, it is working with the UK National School of Government (NSG), on improving public accountability in the populated Territories as part of a wider public sector reform programme there. As a first step, NSG is to study the effectiveness of existing public accountability functions in each Territory. This support is expected to include making available expertise from the UK, or creating opportunities for sharing existing good practice among Territories.

Improving corporate functions using shared services (18th report)

In response to the Committee's concerns about whether £1.4 billion potential annual savings will be achieved from shared services, the Government is acting to tackle the obstacles identified by the Committee.

The Cabinet Office has launched an initiative to agree benchmarks across government on the cost and performance of human resources and finance services, with the first data to be published in 2009. The aim is to help departments assess the performance of their own corporate services and determine whether there are most cost-effective ways to obtain those services. The Department of Health has set a date of 1 October 2008 to move its own corporate functions to NHS Shared Business Services. It is also instructing NHS Boards to review the value for money of any decisions to retain corporate services in house. The Prison Service will conduct an audit to check that staff reductions planned as a result of moving to shared services have been achieved. The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has joined the Cabinet Office and the Departments for Children, Schools and Families in committing to use shared services provided by the Department for Work and Pensions.

HM Revenue and Customs: helping individuals understand and complete their tax forms (20th report)

The Department has accepted that it should improve the help provided to taxpayers completing tax forms. Helping people to provide accurate information about their tax affairs is essential if they are to pay the right amount of tax. The Department intends to raise performance in handling taxpayers' telephone enquiries to industry standards, design clearer written guidance and make website information easier to find. The Department accepts the need to advertise better its services to help people with disabilities communicate with the Department and it plans to improve website accessibility for those users. It is also looking at ways it can communicate with more people electronically. By the end of 2008, the Department plans to identify how to improve the design of forms to reduce taxpayer error and will begin measuring the amount of tax overpaid due to error.

The Carbon Trust: accelerating the move to a low carbon economy (21st report)

Less than 40% of carbon dioxide savings identified by the Carbon Trust over the period 2003-06 had been implemented by its customers by 31 March 2007. The Committee felt there was a need to raise the profile and impact of the Energy Efficiency Accreditation Scheme and in June 2008, a new Carbon Trust Standard was launched, with accreditation under this scheme requiring an organisation to measure, manage and reduce its carbon footprint and make real reductions year on year. Certification against the Standard is also one of the two designated early action metrics under the Carbon Reduction Commitment, a new carbon trading scheme developed by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs due to be operational in 2010.

The need for public funding of energy efficiency advice should decrease owing to increasing awareness of climate change and energy prices and, as recommended by the Committee, the Carbon Trust is currently reviewing the market for energy efficiency advice over the next five to ten years. The Department is also undertaking a review of its own provision of support to business, public sector and consumers.

Improving the efficiency of central government's use of office property (22nd report)

The Government accepts that there is more that can be done to improve the efficiency of office property and that much relies on departments implementing OGC's High Performing Property (HPP) programme. OGC issued new workspace space standards on 1 April 2008 which all government organisations will be expected to achieve. It has also mandated the use of a property benchmarking service and has launched a reporting tool which will enable senior managers to track and compare department performance. By Autumn 2008 OGC aims to develop a methodology for identifying savings achieved through individual asset management plans and to assess if the savings will deliver the expected level of HPP savings.

Notes to Editors

1. This information is contained in Treasury Minutes presented to Parliament in July by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on the following nine reports: 1st special The BBC's management of risk; 2nd special Evasion of Vehicle Excise Duty; 16th report Government on the internet: progress in delivering information and services online; 17th report Foreign and Commonwealth Office: managing risk in the overseas territories; 18th report Improving corporate functions using shared services; 19th report BBC procurement; 20th report HM Revenue and Customs: helping individuals understand and complete their tax forms; 21st report The Carbon Trust: accelerating the move to a low carbon economy; 22nd report Improving the efficiency of central government's use of office property.

2. For a list of all the recommendations and responses, go to http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/document/cm73/7366/7366.asp

3. All media enquiries to:

Alex Paterson
Select Committee Media Officer
Tel: 020 7219 1589