Home Office permanent secretary Mark Sedwill has been asked to reappear before the Public Accounts Committee, after a testy hearing in which MPs questioned the department's response to a report on stripping criminals of the proceeds of their crimes.
Confiscation orders are used by justice authorities to recover assets and demonstrate that crime doesn't pay, and the policy is overseen by the Home Office, with agencies including the Crown Prosecution Service, the National Crime Agency, and HM Courts and Tribunals involved in investigation and enforcement.
But a 2014 report by PAC said "poor implementation" of the confiscation order scheme had "severely hampered" its effectiveness, with a "lack of clarity" over which agencies were responsible and "no understanding of what makes good performance and delivers value for money".
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The National Audit Office (NAO) spending watchdog last month published a check-up on progress against PAC's recommendations. It said that while there had been a 4% increase in the overall enforcement rate for confiscation orders imposed since 2013, and a £22m uplift in the amount collected, the criminal justice bodies involved had made progress on "only one" of the committee's six recommendations.
"I wasn't in a position to say this was a report that the government could accept, uncontentiously" – Mark Sedwill
Sedwill appeared before PAC on Monday to face questions on the scheme – and made clear that the Home Office did not agree with some of the NAO's findings.
The Home Office perm sec said that while he agreed with the majority of "the content" of the "mostly balanced" report, there remained "some issues between the government and the NAO on the findings and conclusions".
"I didn't think those were irresolvable," he added. "But I wasn't in a position to clear the report on that basis and essentially say this was a report that the government could accept, uncontentiously, as the evidence basis for this hearing."
Sedwill told the committee that he did not believe the NAO had "properly reflected" progress made by the Home Office against PAC's recommendations, including the NAO's view that the Home Office had not issued national guidelines to law enforcement agencies to try and iron out inconsistency in the system.
The Home Office perm sec said he believed guidance issued by the Crown Prosecution Service and College of Policing on confiscation orders was enough to count as progress against PAC's recommendation.
But CPS chief executive Alison Saunders, also appearing before the committee, confirmed that while her organisation had set up a dedicated proceeds of crime division, it had not issued a common set of criteria as asked for by PAC.
Conservative MP Stephen Phillips said he was "flabbergasted and at a loss" by the response of both Sedwill and Saunders.
"We've got the NAO saying on the one hand that it hasn't been complied with and I think Ms Saunders saying it hasn't been complied with – and you [Sedwill] saying that whatever's been done is enough, even though we agreed the recommendation and it hasn't been met."
Sedwill said the department had not committed to "fully" meeting all six of the committee's conclusions by March 2015, but said there had been "progress" against each of the aims.
"I don't think it would have been apparent to us that it would have been interpreted that all the recommendations would have to be completely implemented by then," the perm sec told the committee.
That prompted an intervention from NAO head Amyas Morse, who said it was "a bit off" that the department had given "different dates for different recommendations" to be taken up if they "weren't meant".
PAC chair Meg Hillier (left) at this point decided to suspend the committee meeting and call Sedwill, Saunders and Constable Mick Creedon – national lead officer for serious and organised crime – back for another session within the next ten days.
"This is a hugely important," Hillier said. "This is getting criminal assets back to the taxpayer, people who have defrauded the system.
She added: "We sensed an urgency about this in 2013, which came out in our report in 2014. It was within government's remit to say you disagree with some of the dates – that happens all the times with our recommendations. But to agree them and then to come back with this confused message and to disagree with an NAO report is extraordinary and unprecedented in my experience on this committee."
"PAC is not here to hang you or trip you up" – Stephen Phillips MP
Addressing Sedwill, Phillips said that PAC was "not here to hang you or trip you up".
But he added: "The committee is here to try and find out where we are, to hold you to account if you haven't got far enough and to make recommendations which you can then either accept or not accept as to the way forward. That is the purpose of this committee."
And Phillips described a letter from the perm sec to the committee setting out the Home Office's progress as "a great exercise in Sir Humprheyism".
"It says 'well we don't give accounting officer clearance to this report, and here's a lot of good things the government has done'. But it doesn't actually tell me where you disagree with the NAO and why you disagree with the NAO about the conclusions that they've reached. So it's impossible for me to ask you questions and then form a judgement about it."
While Sedwill told Hillier that the Home Office was "ready to work through" each of the NAO's findings and set out its position, the PAC chair said her committee was was "not in the business of getting involved in the dialogue between the NAO and the Home Office".
Describing the hearing as a "farce", she said she had been left without "any option but to adjourn".
She added: "This is something I never wanted to do in this committee. As Mr Phillips said we want to get answers. It's a hugely important area – and I'm really disappointed that we're going to have to take this action."
The difficult PAC exchange comes after the Home Affairs Committee gave Sedwill's deputy, second permanent secretary Olly Robbins, a tough time over his answers on the budget of the Border Force.