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24 September 2014
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Government departments rated by team of experts - one poor, none excellent

The Department for Transport has been labelled "poor" and five others "good", including the Treasury and those handling international issues, by a panel of 12 experts asked by BBC Radio 4's The Westminster Hour what they think of the ministries and departments that make up Tony Blair’s government.

None was rated "excellent".

The Home Office, Education ministry and the department headed by the deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, were all judged "weak" by the panel of 12 judges who were given the task of assessing the work of the main departments of central government.

The unprecedented assessment comes three days after the publication of the results of an investigation into the workings of England's biggest councils by the Audit Commission, which graded each one as excellent, good, fair, weak or poor.

The Westminster Hour's survey turns the tables on central government by judging them in four key fields: delivery, legislation, management and handling of crises.

Its panel of experts included two former cabinet ministers, the Labour chairman of a top House of Commons committee, the head of John Major's Downing Street policy unit, Labour's one-time director of policy, a former senior civil servant and experts from the academic world, the think tanks, local government and the media.

Like the Audit Commission, the assessment produced "marks" for each department, which were then totalled to produce a final ranking.

The Scotland, Wales and Privy Council offices were excluded because of their limited roles and the Cabinet Office judged together with the Prime Minister's office.

The results, revealed in a special edition of The Westminster Hour tonight on BBC Radio 4 at 10.00pm, showed the Treasury as the top-marked department.

The results, in alphabetical order within grades:

Excellent: None

Good (5): Ministry of Defence, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Department for International Development, Northern Ireland Office, HM Treasury.

Fair (5): Cabinet Office/Prime Minister's office, Department of Health, Lord Chancellor's Department, Department of Trade and Industry, Department for Work and Pensions.

Weak (5): Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, Department for Education and Skills, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Home Office.

Poor (1): Department for Transport.

The panel of judges was also invited to provide frank, but anonymous, pen pictures of departments. Some were also interviewed for the programme.

Among the judges' comments:

The Treasury is described as "tough and well-run" by one, "the undisputed heavyweight" by another, and of possessing "much wisdom and success" by a third, but also accused of being "domineering" and exercising "excessive control over other departments".

The Ministry of Defence is praised by one as having "unsung successes", being "a solid pair of hands" and sorting out other department's "messes" like foot and mouth and the firefighters' strike, but criticised by many for poor procurement decisions.

The Home Office is taken to task for its handling of immigration and asylum. One judge accuses it of having "virtually lost control" of Britain's borders. Another says it sends out "appallingly tangled messages about drugs, asylum/immigration and law and order".

The Department for Transport gets sympathy for the task it faces, but is marked down for its handling of the railways. "The department lacks a strategy, lacks follow through on policy and has lost control of its own policy development," said one judge. Another accused it of "backing away from difficult issues like congestion charging".

In the programme, Sir Peter Kemp, a former permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office, backs The Westminster Hour's panel as an "excellent idea" and one which should be taken up by the National Audit Office as a way of helping central government departments examine and improve what they do.

Notes for Editors

Lord Blackwell (Head, Prime Minister’s Policy Unit, 1995-97; chairman, Centre for Policy Studies)
Beth Egan (Deputy Director, Social Market Foundation)
Sir Peter Kemp (Second Permanent Secretary, Cabinet Office, 1988-92, former member, Audit Commission)
Ruth Lea (Head of Policy Unit, Institute of Directors; former civil servant)
Sir Michael Lyons (Former Chief Executive, Birmingham City Council; Head, Institute of Local Government Studies, University of Birmingham)
Lord MacGregor (Cabinet minister at Treasury, MAFF, Education, Lord President, Transport, 1985-94)
Andrew Rawnsley (Presenter, The Westminster Hour; Chief Political Columnist, The Observer)
Matthew Taylor (Director, Institute for Public Policy Research; former assistant general secretary and director of policy, Labour Party)
Dr Tony Travers (Department of Government, London School of Economics)
Martin Weale (Director, National Institute for Economic and Social Research)
Baroness Williams (Former Labour cabinet minister; co-founder, Social Democratic Party; leader, Liberal Democrat peers, former Public Service Professor, Harvard University)
Dr Tony Wright (Labour MP; chairman, House of Commons Public Administration Committee).

Departments were judged on the record of the Government in their current areas of responsibility, if names or responsibilities have changed since Labour came to power.

For instance, DEFRA was judged on the MAFF handling of foot and mouth, as well as its own, and ODPM was assessed for the Government's handling throughout of local government and regional policy.

The Cabinet Office/Prime Minister's office was not judged for the "legislation" category because of its very limited role.

Full results are on The Westminster Hour's website -



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