UK Politics

Spending watchdog 'will whistle and shout about Whitehall'

Margaret Hodge MP
Image caption Margaret Hodge says the former head of the civil service "berated" her

The chairman of Parliament's spending watchdog has promised to make life "uncomfortable" for ministers and civil servants who refuse to comply with it.

Labour MP Margaret Hodge said it "is our job to blow the whistle and shout loudly" to eradicate waste.

In a speech, she added that the Public Accounts Committee has faced "obfuscation" during its inquiries.

Mrs Hodge also accused former civil service boss Sir Gus O'Donnell of acting as a "shop steward" for staff.

Unions representing civil servants said they were accountable to Parliament through ministers but officials needed to continue to be given the "space" to provide private advice.

The Public Accounts Committee was set up to look at the value for money of Whitehall spending.

Recent inquiries have dealt with the cost of the London Olympics, the BBC, defence procurement and HM Revenue and Customs' relationship with large businesses.

'Real challenge'

Addressing the Policy Exchange think tank in London, Mrs Hodge said: "Lately, it seems that the Public Accounts Committee has been rattling the cage too much for some.

"There are those who say that shows we're doing our job properly, but there is a real challenge from the civil service on how we are approaching our work on behalf of Parliament and the taxpayer."

She added: "Some have upped the ante, even asserting that the PAC's activism affronts some constitutional principle - of which the civil servants consider themselves custodians. Anonymous briefings suggest that some would even like to dismantle the committee itself...

"But it's our job to blow the whistle and shout loudly when the evidence before us is that the executive is not doing a good enough job. That is going to be uncomfortable for both ministers and the civil service."

'Shop steward'

Mrs Hodge said that Sir Gus, now Lord O'Donnell, in a letter he wrote to her shortly before retiring, "berated me for the way in which the Public Accounts Committee was seeking to hold the executive to account.

"He was particularly exercised about the hearings we had held during the autumn involving HM Revenue & Customs investigating how it had tackled tax disputes with large corporations and specifically the settlement it had made with Goldman Sachs."

She also said: "It was as if he had taken on the role of shop steward for aggrieved permanent secretaries."

Mrs Hodge said the "old doctrine of accountability isn't fit for the 21st Century", as ministers are in charge of thousands of civil servants, meaning they take less direct responsibility for staff actions, while Whitehall workers are unelected.

Mrs Hodge also said: "It's our job to blow the whistle and shout loudly when the evidence before us is that the executive is not doing a good enough job. That is going to be uncomfortable for both ministers and the civil service.

"Rather than responding defensively, the civil service should embrace the opportunity. It is in all our interests for this to happen. It will help all of us to deliver better public services with better value."

'Bullying'

The First Division Association said it was right to have a debate about who officials were accountable to, since the civil service was far more "complex" than when existing conventions were drawn up in the 19th Century.

But Jonathan Baume, the union's head, warned against aggressive questioning of officials when they appeared before parliamentary committees which amounted to "little more than gratuitous bullying".

He said he fully supported Lord O'Donnell's views about the relationship between civil servants, ministers and Parliament.

"There needs to be full accountability," he told Radio 4's Today programme.

"I don't think any civil servant is trying to object to that. What you do need to allow though is a space that ensures ministers and civil servants can talk in private about decisions."

"And you don't get a situation where civil servants have been asked to appear before select committees and, in effect, giving the lowdown on the behaviour of ministers and passing comment on the behaviour of ministers.

"It is about trying to draw a fine line around accountability that protects both ministers and civil servants."

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