Exclusive: Committee chairs criticise departmental report responses

Departmental select committee chairs have provided mixed reviews of the departments they scrutinise for a Civil Service World Special Report, which has found that 40 per cent of them are dissatisfied with departments’ responses to their reports.


By Joshua.Chambers

22 Feb 2012

Meanwhile, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Margaret Hodge, has defended her decision to call Home Office permanent secretary Dame Helen Ghosh to answer for her actions in her previous role as head of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). Hodge told CSW that she’s ready to call civil servants again to discuss their work in previous roles, and has even considered calling retired civil servants to answer for their decisions.

CSW questioned 14 departmental select committee chairs, finding that six of them have been unhappy with the responses to their reports by departments, while eight pronounced themselves satisfied.

One critic, work and pensions chair Dame Anne Begg, said: “Too often, government responses have merely repeated information known to the committee when our report was drafted. Nor do responses to our specific recommendations always take sufficient account of the argument underpinning them.”

But Malcolm Bruce, International Development Committee chair, said the department’s responses “are fairly constructive and they comment or qualify in a very systematic manner.”

Eleven committee chairs are happy with access to departmental witnesses and the witnesses’ performances, while three have not always been satisfied. Meanwhile, Hodge showed herself unwilling to back down in a developing clash with senior civil servants, some of whom have complained anonymously in the press over Hodge’s insistence on questioning civil servants on their work in positions that they no longer occupy. Asked by CSW whether she will again call former accounting officers in front of the PAC to answer for their actions in previous jobs, Hodge said: “Yes, we will. We think it’s really important that people who are responsible should also be accountable.”

Referring to the decision to call Ghosh to discuss problems at the Rural Payments Agency, a Defra quango, when she was permanent secretary, Hodge added: “[Dame Helen] had been at Defra for the five years that the Rural Payments Agency scheme had been a complete shambles, so it was pointless having the new permanent secretary, who was only just in post, being accountable.”

Hodge also defended her decision to ask Anthony Inglese, a lawyer at HMRC, to swear an oath while giving evidence to PAC. “In the interests of trying to find out the truth, in relation to very serious allegations, it was sadly an appropriate use of the oath at that time,” she said. “I hope it will be very infrequent.”

Hodge also hinted that she could call retired civil servants to give evidence to her committee. She has, she said, considered calling a retired Treasury official to an inquiry into the private finance initiative.

See our Special Report and Editorial.

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