Have you heard of Robert Devereux? Does Una O’Brien ring any bells? Chris Wormald? Ursula Brennan? I’d wager that these are all unfamiliar names to you. But as permanent secretaries at the departments of Work and Pensions, Health, Education, and Defence they oversee budgets of £160 billion, £105 billion, nearly £60 billion and some £40 billion respectively. They are some of the most important and powerful figures in British public life, yet they manage to absolve themselves from public scrutiny thanks to a constitutional doctrine that was developed in pre-democratic times, and which is conspicuously unsuited to the workings of 21st century government.
Surely it is not right to continue the farce of suggesting that ministers are accountable for everything that happens in their departments when everyone knows this cannot be the case?
In an IPPR publication published more than six years ago I and a former colleague Ben Rogers argued that senior civil servants should be held directly accountable for their actions and not be allowed to hide behind the doctrine of ministerial responsibility. Today in an important speech at Policy Exchange, Margaret Hodge, chair of the influential Public Accounts Committee, argued much the same.
She does not mince her words. In her speech she said that holding the government to account involved not just ‘here today, gone tomorrow ministers’, but also civil servants ‘who are responsible for the execution of policy’. Senior civil servants, she claimed, can be adept at using the doctrine to make detailed scrutiny ineffective. She ended by staying that it was time to ‘rethink and restate the relationship between parliament, government and the civil service’.
That this intervention by Hodge stems in part from a letter written to her by the outgoing head of the civil service, Sir (now Lord) Gus O’Donnell before Christmas who could not believe that she had had the temerity to probe the activities of officials – in this case officials at HM Revenue and Customs who had struck a deal with Goldman Sachs that ended up costing the taxpayer millions in unpaid tax – underlines just how stuck in the past today's senior mandarins are.
O’Donnell was particularly aggrieved that Hodge’s committee had asked an HMRC lawyer to testify on oath about the Goldman Sachs deal. It was, he said, ‘a theatrical exercise in public humiliation’, clearly exceeding the remit of the committee to question permanent secretaries in their function as accounting officers for their departments.
Now Margaret Hodge has fired back, and the whole question of the extent and limits of civil service accountability to parliament has been blown open. This is to be welcomed.
On the civil service side, the argument is that the over-reaching parliamentary committees are hampering effective government. The demands of select committees now absorb hours of civil service time. And, anyway, civil servants remain accountable to the ministers they serve, who in turn account to parliament and the people.
If only this was true. The fact is that the doctrine of ministerial responsibility is based on a complete constitutional fiction: the tradition of civil service neutrality means that ministers have no formal say in the appointment or dismissal of senior officials – a fact which grievously undermines this notion of internal accountability. This combined with the absence of any external accountability means that Whitehall is now the only major institution of our public life that is unaccountable to anybody else.
The net effect is that there is no effective pressure on the civil service to modernise, change and improve. As one senior official confided to us during the research for our report: 'Why are we poor at delivery? It’s because there aren’t any rewards or sanctions for good delivery.'
So how can things be resolved? As we argued in our report, the answer is to set out those areas for which officials have operational responsibility and hold them publicly to account for them. Of course, there will be grey areas, but broadly speaking ministers should account for policy and resourcing and executive officials should account operational delivery. Parliamentary committees would then be able to call before them ministers or civil servants depending on the matter they wanted to scrutinize or investigate.
So Margaret Hodge deserves praise for opening up this debate and demanding reform in this area. Rather than resisting her calls, the civil service should respond positively and proactively. If they do, better government and oversight will be the result.
This article was first published on the IPPR website.