‘Hard work doesn’t let Whitehall off the hook on transparency’: Meg Hillier on the civil service’s Covid response

Public Accounts Committee chair warns that perm sec churn ‘requires younger civil servants to have the courage to call out ministers’
Owen Humphreys/PA Wire/PA Images

By Meg Hillier

03 Jun 2021

During the emergency of the Covid-19 pandemic thousands of civil servants stepped up and adapted to work at speed and deliver major new projects at an extraordinary pace.

Whitehall had to meet unprecedented challenges to deliver new policies and services very fast. But the pace of change and hard work of civil servants doesn’t let Whitehall off the hook of transparency and accountability. Parliament granted government sweeping powers to act. But permission to act fast was not carte blanche for government to act fast and loose.

The Public Accounts Committee examines the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of how government spends taxpayers money. We are also a crucial part of the system to help keep government honest.

At the start of the pandemic we understandably saw a flurry of ministerial directions. The system of directions makes it clear when decisions are made outside normal spending rules.

But there were numerous examples of poor record keeping in relation to letting contracts and keeping track of decisions. The civil service considers its record keeping a strength, but this and the lateness in publishing contracts undermine this claim.

As ministers have faced far less direct scrutiny in the House of Commons than normal, transparency from and within wider Whitehall is even more important than usual. At the speed that measures were introduced we all knew there would be mistakes but part of the test for Whitehall is how quickly mistakes were acknowledged and put right.

The Cabinet Office has now accepted that there had been a lack of transparency over many contracts awarded, and that the emergency procedures did not remove departments’ responsibility to properly manage conflicts of interest.

One of the challenges for Whitehall as we emerge from the emergency phase of the pandemic is how to balance speed with risk.

I have commented in previous years about the movement of permanent secretaries and senior civil servants around Whitehall. However, in the past year we have seen a new trend, with able and experienced civil servants ousted from their roles by their political masters. With the cabinet secretary and senior permanent secretaries only the visible tip of this Trumpian iceberg. This has been dressed up, in part, as a need to reform government. But the new incumbents are largely in the same mould as those who have left and there is not clear evidence of any significant culture change.

This churn at top level led to a loss of institutional memory, and requires younger civil servants, with a long Whitehall career still ahead of them, to have the courage to call out ministers. It is vital that civil servants are enabled to talk truth to power. This makes accounting officer assessments of spending particularly interesting reading, and the PAC has increasingly prioritised our work in this area.

In my report each year I highlight departments of concern. Some, such as the Ministry of Defence, feature because of the perennial challenges of managing major projects. Others, such as the Ministry of Justice, because a series of significant policies mean that every part of the department is changing – there is little business as usual. This year includes the Department of Health for its approach to social care (a regular concern of the PAC’s) and the Department for Education for its seeming disconnect from the reality of front-line school leaders are headliners.  

As we emerge from Covid it is a reminder that governments always plan and deliver within a four to five-year horizon. Yet many of the knotty issues facing our country and the world require longer-term thinking. The civil service could help bridge the gap between general election manifestos and delivery of solutions to the knotty problems. To do so it will need to work better together – joined up government is part of the answer.

Meg Hillier is the chair of the Public Accounts Committee and the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch

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