PAC introduces the "Hodge doctrine?"
While attention has been focussed on the UK Border Agency hearings at the Home Affairs Select Committee, a lower profile hearing on Monday broke some new ground on civil service accountability. At issue was whether Home Office Permanent Secretary Dame Helen Ghosh would appear before the PAC to answer questions about the decisions she took during her five year tenure.
Custom and practice is that the current Permanent secretary answers for the actions of their predecessor. The PAC expressed its frustration at this in the case of the FIRE inquiry and we argued then they should have been able to call back Sir Peter Housden to explain his decisions. This time the committee ordered Dame Helen to appear alongside her successor, Bronwyn Hill. PAC chair Margaret Hodge, set out the committee’s new doctrine:
“Thank you to Helen Ghosh for agreeing to come. I’m sorry I had to sign an order to encourage your presence and I perhaps ought to explain why – it’s just that this committee is absolutely adamant that those who are responsible are also accountable. Whether it’s at Perm Sec level or project management level – it’s one of the very strong bees in our bonnet. As you were Permanent Secretary at the Department for five years, we thought it was right that you should be held to account. Now I know that’s a slight change to how these things have been done in the past, but I think it’s a really strong view of this committee that that’s how we should operate.”
In response, Dame Helen noted that this was setting a new precedent:
“Well just on that point Chairman, if that’s the policy of the committee, I think it would be good to have formal agreement to that effect with the Cabinet Secretary so that we don’t have to go through this process every time. Since that’s obviously not the tradition I think it would be good to have some discussion on that.”
The upshot was that rather than Bronwyn Hill have to answer for her predecessor, Dame Helen could account for her own decisions – a much more satisfactory position and a real advance in the cause of accountability.
In fact, the hearing itself revealed that simply calling back Dame Helen might not have been enough, as much of the interrogation revolved around the initial set up of the scheme in 2003-4 – and whether Defra officials believed the so-called “dynamic hybrid” scheme could work. For these Dame Helen could do no more but point out that these were decisions for her predecessor, Sir Brian Bender.
Much questioning turned on whether Sir Brian should have asked Ministers for an Accounting Officer direction. At the time, Accounting Officer responsibilities were confined to value for money (the additional cost of implementing England’s single payment scheme over initial estimates seems to be running at some £800m, taking into account cost overruns and EU fines for making a hash of it). Changes to Treasury rules earlier this year require Accounting Officers to judge ”feasibility” of spending not just value for money. But the sorry saga of rural payments underlines the case we made in Making Policy Better for forcing the civil service to give an explicit view on whether there is a robust enough basis for proceeding with a policy – to bring added clarity to the respective accountabilities of ministers and civil servants.