Whitehall focus Press attention influences aid, warns NAO

6 Nov 03
Media and parliamentary interest may dictate the level of humanitarian aid the Department for International Development provides, a report from the National Audit Office warned this week.

07 November 2003

Media and parliamentary interest may dictate the level of humanitarian aid the Department for International Development provides, a report from the National Audit Office warned this week.

Using the department's own figures, the watchdog found that since 1997 it had given five times as much assistance to Europe as for emergencies in Africa. This, it said, may reflect a bias in 'resource distribution', where media, or public, interest is greatest.

The UK is the second largest contributing nation for humanitarian aid, after the US, providing £279m in 2001/02.

'It is disturbing to learn that it (the department) cannot be sure that those to whom it is giving assistance are always those most in need,' said Edward Leigh, chair of the Public Accounts Committee. 'DfID clearly needs to better plan and monitor its emergency aid to ensure that there is the strongest possible link between this aid and its humanitarian principles.'

The NAO also found that while the department was generally effective in giving humanitarian aid, it failed to monitor and evaluate its performance. Its plans for some emergencies gave scant details on how the aid or intervention would be useful or cost effective, the report, published on November 5, found.

The watchdog recommended that the department increases its monitoring in order to learn lessons from its interventions.

However, the NAO did praise the department's speed of response in meeting short-term objectives, such as providing food, water and shelter, while non-government organisations said it was impressive when reacting to sudden disasters.

The watchdog said it should consider spreading funding for some areas over a number of years, allowing its 'partners' to plan for transitions.

The department is also urged to develop a strategy for disaster reduction in countries that are prone to large-scale problems.

'The department is a leading player in the response to emergencies,' said Sir John Bourn, the auditor general. 'It should, however, take steps to improve the targeting, monitoring and evaluation of the assistance it provides.'

Reid promises fewer staff at the DoH

The Department of Health will take the lead in cutting NHS administrative staff, according to Health Secretary John Reid.

Appearing before the Commons' health select committee, Reid said the devolution of powers away from Whitehall meant his department needed fewer staff. He said moves were under way to reduce its core complement by 1,400 to around 2,200 employees.

While around 700 jobs would transfer to other bodies, the remainder would not be replaced.

Reid told the committee's hearing on NHS spending that this was the 'first and largest such change programme' in Whitehall, and he hinted of more cuts to come.

National health and social care bodies employ more than 19,000 people and the department will be looking at their roles and their efficiency.

NHS chief executive Sir Nigel Crisp is due to complete a progress report on the implementation of both the department's programme and a wider review of arm's-length bodies by next April.

At that time, Reid said, the department would urge strategic health authorities and primary care trusts to look carefully at their staffing levels too, to avoid accusations of unnecessary bureaucracy.

'Politicians and civil servants should focus on strategic issues rather than on day-to-day management of the NHS. But the process of devolving power to the front line has to start from the top. We cannot tell others to act efficiently if we're not prepared to do so ourselves,' he told MPs.

Think-tank slams proposals for database of 'life events'

Proposals from the Office of National Statistics for an integrated electronic database of 'life events' have been attacked as 'the foundations for a compulsory dossier on every citizen'.

The Foundation for Information Policy Research, a think-tank that examines the relationship between IT and society, argued that the ONS plan for modernising civil registration, suggesting linking the recording of births, marriages and deaths, is too wide-ranging. The FIPR maintained that the database would develop its own momentum to include information on social security benefits and tax and criminal records.

It predicted that it would be extended to cover information on causes of death and health history to assist with health care planning. It would also include child protection information to improve the efficiency of social services and to provide extensive other information to combat terrorism. Such a collection of information was a breach of civil liberties and might be vulnerable to 'determined hackers or corrupt insiders', suggested the FIPR.

Nicholas Bohm, author of the FIPR's response, said: 'We should not be moving towards a system where our very identity is dependent on registration by the government in a central database.'


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