Friday, 13 July 2012

Whither the accountability of civil servants?

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster was Cabinet Secretary between 1979 and 1987. He's the one who came up with the phrase "economical with the actualité" in connection with the Peter Wright/Spycatcher business.

Great wordsmith that he is, he's done it again – here's his vintage encapsulation of Whitehall wisdom, a gem, one to treasure, quoted in yesterday's TimesMandarins’ warning over Civil Service ‘politicisation’:
Lord Armstrong insisted that calling civil servants before committees to blame them for the failure of major projects would not accord with the principles of “natural justice”.
Turns out the House of Lords Constitution Committee is taking evidence on these upstart select committees being disobliging to Whitehall officials.

Margaret Hodge at the Public Accounts Committee seems to have particularly upset their Eminences, also Bernard Jenkin at the Public Administration Select Committee. They can't be too pleased with Keith Vaz and his Home Affairs Committee either, forever moaning about having information withheld from them, and recently Andrew Tyrie's Treasury Select Committee ditto.

The Chairman of the Lords Committee is Baroness Jay and what she's finding is that when you poke a stick in the wasps' nest, out come furious buzzing issues like responsibility and accountability and politicisation and openness and policy and delivery and management and budgeting and contractors and consultants and SpAds and NDPBs and ALBs and public service and, don't forget, natural justice. It's fearful.

You can read all about it in the written evidence, Rt Hon Peter Riddell's contribution (pp.19-22) highly recommended.

And you can watch the General Secretary of the First Division Association give evidence to the Committee, followed by four of his lowliest members – Lord Armstrong (see above), Lord Wilson, Lord Turnbull and Sir-Gus-now-Lord O'Donnell – on two hours of the most peculiar-but-fascinating TV.

Lord Turnbull gives it as his opinion that no-one will ever find out who was responsible for failure, so there's no point these idiotic select committees asking.

And the combative O'Donnell wants to know about the accountability of the select committees, who are they responsible to and what are their objectives?

Baroness Jay is in for a fine old time, trying to write up her findings but, in summary, the gist seems to be this – accountability and responsibility need to be distinguished but they can't be defined, no-one's responsible for anything, whatever "responsible" means, and the select committees don't need any new powers to do their job, whatever that is and anyway it's probably unconstitutional, because the present rules work perfectly well and much better than the Americans'.

It's an almost immaculate defence of the status quo and apparently we have testimony from Sir David "Shifty" Normington to look forward to in the final report. But there is just the tiniest Hodge-shaped chink detectable in the armour.

What their lordships seem to be saying is that when we taxpayers hand over our £700 billion to Whitehall for their safekeeping every year, there is absolutely no way of knowing how it will be spent or wasted because no-one is in charge, no-one has a clue what's going on, not even our highly esteemed senior civil servants who are scarcely paid a bean for labouring away at the coalface of public service, it would be a breach of natural justice to expect them to and it's no-one's fault except possibly ministers, who are clueless, and would someone please rid us of Margaret Hodge, PDQ.

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Updated 16 February 2015

"... would someone please rid us of Margaret Hodge, PDQ". That was 2½ years ago. Now the magnificent Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is standing down after five years and she has delivered a valedictory speech recording Whitehall's attempt to get the PAC closed down.

She likens Whitehall to a collection of Freemasons and accuses it of standing in the way of the high quality public services we want, need, deserve and pay for.

Long sections of her speech are published by the excellent Tony Collins – please read.

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