The Labour MP for Barking is not someone who gives up causes easily. And today, Margaret Hodge has given a speech at Policy Exchange that picks a fight with the civil service and its propensity for hiding from taking accountability for its actions. She says: “the old doctrine of accountability isn’t fit for the 21st century”. This might sound like process but it strikes at the very way in which government works.
Since the Sir Humphrey image works so well, I’ll mention it now. Aircraft carriers, IT projects, border checks – the slippery Sir Humphreys are forever hiding behind their department’s ministers to avoid proper accountability for the sometimes very expensive decisions they make. Or, at least, that’s the view of many politicians. Hodge views a lively Parliament, and in particular, its select committees as providing a “check on executive overreach and, as importantly, executive waste and incompetence” by “parliamentary scrutiny, inquiry and ‘fuss-making’”.
The public accounts committee (PAC) has made headlines recently, of course, for its investigation into the deals HMRC had made with several companies over their tax liabilities. Margaret Hodge was our MP of the Month recently for her work on it. We were impressed by her determination to get to the bottom of several deals made by HMRC. This led to the extraordinary scene when Hodge demanded that a senior civil servant took an oath on the bible during a PAC hearing. Hodge has supporters, but some also believe she’s taken things too far and has created an overly-aggressive committee that breaches the constitutional balance of how government works. Former civil service chief Sir Gus O’Donnell certainly believes so.
The struggle between civil servants and ministers – as evident in any diary or account of previous governments – is nothing new. The fight being picked up by MPs (and Hodge is a former minister) with such enthusiasm is relatively new. But it’s a sign of what the elected select committees want to achieve.
As Hodge says in her speech: “We are not interested in lining shelves with reports that don’t make a difference.” Select committees increasingly want to make as big an impact as possible. And with former ministers often chairing, and many MPs in the committee ranks not facing promotion in this coalition government, there is much less incentive to hold back because of future roles in government. At Total Politics, we think active, questionning, hard-hitting select committees are a good development. Much of what the government does is still hidden away, so it's welcome that MPs want to check those decisions are the right ones.