As I said on Monday, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is a sort of ‘Grand Inquisition’ that interrogates senior civil servants to ensure the Government is giving taxpayers value for money. Founded by Gladstone a century and a half ago, it is chaired always by an opposition MP – since 2001 this has been me.
It is essential that the PAC maintain its non-partisan character, so that the objectivity of its investigations is not compromised. As a result, we don’t go into policy. I must also be very careful to adhere to this impartiality when speaking as its Chairman.
Sitting on it are sixteen MPs from the three main parties, reflecting in number the current makeup of the House of Commons, at the moment: 9 Labour, 5 Conservative, 2 Lib Dems.
Nonetheless, like me, all are expected to suspend their party allegiance when acting as members of the PAC. In line with this expectation, there has not been a vote put to the PAC in living memory.
Appearing before it is certainly not an experience relished by civil servants; indeed a video of me grilling one such hapless individual is used as part of a civil service training video to warn aspirant Sir Humphreys of the fate that awaits them if they fail to cut the mustard! After all, to have a group of professional debaters fire hostile questions at you and to be obliged to answer them, before a public audience, with a stenographer recording your replies, every ‘um’ and ‘er’ of which are also recorded and filmed for possible broadcast on radio, television and webcast (on the Parliament Live TV channel, and some on the BBC parliament channel), cannot be enormously enjoyable.
If your answers don’t satisfy the committee, it will press relentlessly for satisfactory explanations, and, although it has no actual power to sack you, it may even call for you to resign. I have on occasion asked people to consider their position. They usually go, as after such a call from the PAC they are damaged goods.
So there is often a strong element of public humiliation in the hearings. But the knowledge that the threat of such hangs over them is, I hope, a spur to its potential victims to try that little bit harder; after all, it is taxpayers’ money that both pays their wages and provides the funding for all the projects they oversee.
Just occasionally, the effect of a PAC hearing can lead to the resignation of a cabinet minister. This happened in 2006, when an investigation led by my indefatigable colleague and committee member Richard Bacon into the Government’s failure to deport significant numbers of foreign prisoners, some of whom had seriously re-offended, caused Charles Clarke to quit as Home Secretary.
As for yesterday’s session, it was the turn of the cumbersomely-named ‘Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform’ (formerly known as the Department of Trade and Industry) to be examined.
The hearing was trying to get to the bottom of how well they had implemented something called the ‘Administrative Burdens Reduction Programme’ – the Government’s latest wheeze for freeing business from red tape.
Opinion was divided as to the success of the Government’s initiative. Although it was acknowledged that there had been some improvement, some members felt that there was still much further to go, particularly when it came to helping small businesses; others that it is in the nature of businessmen to endlessly whinge about the slightest burden.
Just over a year ago, the Government had set a target of saving £16 billion, or 25% of GDP by 2010. In spite of its differences about the efficacy of the programme, the committee was united in thinking this figure somewhat arbitrary. According to a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) (whose research is the basis for almost all PAC hearings), the figure was based on a similar initiative by the Dutch and the Danes – it was apparently a purely political decision: 25% as a target looks good in the newspapers.
So the witnesses (Sir Brian Bender, the Permanent Secretary at the Department, and William Sargent, the Executive Chairman of a body called the Better Regulation Executive) were unable to satisfy us that their target had a sound financial basis. I pointed out that so far, from a budget of £35 million to complete the project, they had spent £17 million on consultants – nearly half the total budget, for what seemed to me and some other members little measurable improvement. And they couldn’t give an accurate figure for any of their other costs. This did not smack of efficiency or value for money.
So that is the sort of thing the committee does, on behalf of the taxpayers of the nation. It has taught me a great deal about the machinery of government and the operation of the civil service, and I certainly regard it as a privilege and an honour to be able to chair its hearings, all of which, by the way, are open to the public.
For further information on the PAC, see its website www.parliament.uk/pac