IfG spots ‘patterns of failure’ in civil service that led to Windrush and Grenfell crises
Report criticises system that allows ministers and officials to blame each other for mistakes
Jamaican immigrants arriving in Tilbury from the ex-troopship HMT Empire Windrush. Credit: PA
The Institute for Government has said recent crises including the Grenfell fire, Windrush immigration scandal and Carillion collapse were affected by “the same patterns of failure repeatedly occurring” in Whitehall.
In a new report the think tank explores the increasingly weak system of accountability in government, caused by “fundamental gaps” in Whitehall’s accountability, an increasingly complex public-sector landscape and a “pervading culture of blame”.
It concludes that under current arrangements it is often difficult to know who should be held to account when things go wrong, with ministers and officials blaming each other and failing to learn from past mistakes.
The IfG’s director Bronwen Maddox has called for responses to the arguments outlined in the report, which will inform IfG recommendations to be published later this year.
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The report, Accountability in modern government, looks at the lines of accountability between public sector workers, elected officials and the public.
Maddox, in her foreword to the report, said: “Without good accountability there are risks that the extraordinary powers granted to ministers and officials can be misused, or that resources can be wasted through inefficiency and poor management of public money.”
She added that government was becoming more complex and that recent tragedies such as Grenfell had shown how difficult it is to establish who to hold to account.
It found that Whitehall conventions on accountability – whereby officials are responsible to ministers but guided by rules on impartiality – had been used to “sustain a tradition of secrecy”.
In the case of Universal Credit and its initial unfeasible timetable, for example, the report said “a ‘good news’ culture developed, which delayed efforts to face up to the problems”. When the crisis came to a head, ministers and civil servants blamed one another – something the IfG said also happened over “the roll-out of Universal Credit and, more recently, the Windrush immigration cases”.
The think tank highlighted that even when failures are clearly attributable to ministers, many are not held to account for their decisions. Chris Grayling, for example, remains a member of cabinet despite the failures of his probation reforms, while none of the ministerial advocates of the Metronet project to upgrade London’s underground rail network were held to account for its failure.
There have also been repeated failures in areas that are clearly the responsibility of officials, such as “systemic” weak contract management across the civil service, which suggests that no one has taken overall responsibility for tackling problems.
The IfG report lists a “string of failures” that came about because of poor commercial skills in government, including the G4S staff shortfall at the 2012 Olympic Games, G4S and Serco overbilling for electronic monitoring of offenders and the collapse of Carillion. The IfG also cites Carillion as an example of the dysfunctional systems of accountability in Whitehall – each permanent secretary was only responsible for the provider’s contracts with their department, yet “weaknesses cut across departmental boundaries”.
The think tank praised recent efforts to professionalise activities such as contract management, but pointed out the heads of profession are not formally accountable to parliament.
Tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire, which caused 71 deaths, have undermined public trust in institutions and provoked questions about who should be held to account for failures in public services, the IfG added.
Benoit Guerin, senior researcher at the Institute for Government, said: “Accountability helps people know how the government is doing and where to go when things go wrong. A lack of accountability is worrying because it increases the risk of failure and decreases legitimacy of the state in the eyes of the public.
“With this project, we want to start a debate about how accountability in the public sector could be strengthened with the aim of making recommendations for reform. We welcome contributions from those interested in, and concerned about, the state of accountability in the UK.”
The report comes as pressure mounts on the government over the Windrush scandal, after a leaked letter obtained by the Guardian appears to show that ministers knew about the impact of immigration policy changes on the so-called Windrush generation at least two years ago.
The letter, dated May 2016, relates to the cases of two brothers who arrived in Britain from Jamaica in 1971. One has faced threats of deportation and had his benefits stopped and the other has not been allowed back into Britain since a visit to Jamaica in 2001.
They are among a number of the Windrush generation – named after a ship that brought migrant workers from the West Indies in the post-war years – who have been affected by a requirement brought in while Theresa May was home secretary that people provide greater proof of their right to reside in order to work, rent property or access benefits and some public services.
The letter is signed by James Brokenshire, then immigration minister, but he said he had not seen it before. “We did, as a Home Office, look compassionately over a number of individual cases. And you do try to make the right decisions,” he told ITV’s Peston on Sunday.
The scandal has prompted interjections from former civil service head Sir Bob Kerslake and FDA union general secretary Dave Penman, who defended officials after home secretary Amber Rudd said she was concerned “the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy”.
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