Margaret Hodge: Theresa May must show “radical determination” to change culture at top of civil service
Former Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge calls on new prime minister Theresa May to appoint a third of perm secs from outside the civil service and challenge the “masonic” culture among senior officials
Margaret Hodge, former chair of Public Accounts Committee, has urged prime minister Theresa May to bring in Whitehall outsiders to shake-up the top levels of the civil service which still “resemble a masonic lodge”.
In a new booked recounting her time as chair of the powerful cross-party committee of MPs, Hodge outlines the reforms that she believes would help reduce wasteful government spending, and takes aim at a senior civil service she argues is "full of people from a similar background, who have mostly been lifelong civil servants and whose main purpose is to protect themselves and each other".
The former PAC chair writes: “There is a worrying complacency and resistance to change at the heart of the civil service, sadly combined with a lack of interest by our political leaders … so change is slow and limited, and high levels of waste recur time and time again.”
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Speaking to CSW in advance of the book's publication, Hodge called on prime minister Theresa May to tackle this culture by showing the same drive that led her to sack “the entire team of Notting Hill luvvies that ran our country for six years”.
“I would urge her to show the same radical determination in saying: 'I'm going to make sure a third of my perm secs come in from outside',” Hodge told CSW.
“[May is] establishing new departments, she could do it. I think you have to get that quantum in — if you had enough [outsiders] you could then start going for the culture change that is needed.”
Hodge's book outlines the former PAC chair's thoughts on the civil service reforms she believes are needed to reduce waste and improve value for money — for example developing better financial and project management skills, setting out stronger strategic control from the centre of government, and reducing turnover in key posts.
Hodge also argues that the doctrine of ministerial accountability must be “revisited and revised” to make government more open to parliamentary and public scrutiny.
Currently, convention holds that ministers, not officials, are accountable to parliament for policy implementation. Ministers are also not able to hire or fire civil servants, and Hodge argues that these two traditions mean officials are never held properly to account.
“In fact, civil servants escape external accountability because they are protected by the convention of ministerial responsibility, and they escape internal accountability because ministers are powerless to hold them to account in any meaningful way,” she says.
Hodge's books contains strong criticism not only of senior civil servants generally, but of individual officials and public figures.
She recalls her “somewhat fractious" early relationship with National Audit Office chief Amyas Morse in the early days of her tenure as PAC chair.
According to Hodge’s book, Morse scuppered the PAC chair’s plans for her committee to appoint its own advisers — rather than relying on support from the NAO — by speaking to Conservative committee members behind her back.
This made Hodge “furious”, she writes, but even more determined to be as independent as possible, and it led to her appointing three personal advisers who met with her weekly to discuss PAC business.
In time, however, Hodge and Morse “got to know and like each other and developed a great mutual respect”, she says, adding: “The same cannot be said of my relationship with [then-cabinet secretary] Gus O'Donnell and some senior civil servants.”
Hodge — who was sometimes accused of grandstanding during her high-prfile time as PAC chair — recounts the time she received a highly critical letter from Gus O'Donnell after a committee hearing at which HMRC lawyer Anthony Inglese was made to give evidence under oath.
Soon afterwards, Hodge claims she met a researcher from a think tank which had been carrying out a government-commissioned study of the work of the Public Accounts Committee.
“She was only officialdom's messenger,” writes Hodge, “but her message was blunt.”
After reading a string of anonymous criticism about the committee and Hodge, the researcher relayed an “explicit threat” from officials that if PAC “did not change how we held civil servants to account, we would be closed down. Shut up or we will shut you down”.
Hodge says she discussed the report with all committee members and her predecessor as chair Sir Edward Leigh.
She writes: “They were unanimous in saying that the views expressed were completely inappropriate, reflecting a completely mistaken view of the power of the civil service and the role of parliament."
The approach taken by officials “had backfired,” she said — “and the committee became even more determined to hold civil servants to account in the way we saw fit, whether they liked it or not.”
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