Former Treasury permanent secretary Lord Nick Macpherson has lamented the lack of parliamentary scrutiny of the government’s long-term spending plans – despite being grateful for not being summoned before MPs more often to explain them.
Macpherson told an Institute for Government event titled How well does the government stick to its public spending plans? that the Treasury Select Committee had not done a proper job of examining the issue during his 15 years at the helm of the finance ministry.
“It was far too busy grandstanding”, he told the event, which was is part of a larger study on the history of public spending control.
Macpherson speculated that the committee would argue that studies were the job of the Public Accounts Committee, which in turn would argue that its role was to examine micro-expenditure.
He insisted that it must be in parliament’s capacity to resource the kind of scrutiny he was thinking of.
“I’d like to see stronger legislative oversight,” he said. “Even the Institute for Fiscal Studies has more interest in the macro stuff and tax. It [just] doesn’t have the capacity to go into serious public spending.”
However, he conceded: “When I was at the Exchequer, it suited me quite well that I did not have to go to parliament so often.”
Former Cabinet secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell told the event he believed the Public Accounts Committee should pay more attention to departmental underspending as well as cases where projects dramatically exceeded expectations.
“I do think they are responsible for the fact that they never haul analysts in and say ‘why did you underspend?’” he said.
Macpherson had noted earlier in the session that departments that underspent on their budgets were “less likely to be criticised”, but added that for all he knew they should be.
The event was run in conjunction with the Nuffield Foundation, the Blavatnik School of Government, the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Economic and Social Research Council.