Independence of new major projects watchdog is "unimpeachable", says chief exec Tony Meggs

Chief executive of the Infrastructure and Projects Watchdog seeks to reassure MPs after merger with Treasury unit – and John Manzoni says new organisation will have more "teeth"

By matt.foster

20 Jan 2016

The independence of the watchdog set up to keep an eye on major government projects is "unimpeachable", in spite of its merger with an arm of the Treasury, the organisation's chief executive Tony Meggs has told MPs.

It was announced before Christmas that the Major Projects Authority (MPA) – set up in the last parliament to provide independent assurance and support for the government's £511bn Major Projects Portfolio – would be combined with Infrastructure UK, a Treasury unit that works on long-term planning and investment in infrastructure projects.

The new body, dubbed the Infrastructure and Projects Authority, came into existence at the start of January, and will continue to publish its annual "traffic light" assessment of the progress made on big schemes, including the Universal Credit welfare reforms, Crossrail and High Speed 2.

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Meggs, the former MPA chief who stays on as head of the new organisation, was questioned on the merger by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on Wednesday.

PAC member Richard Bacon, a Conservative MP, told Meggs he was concerned that the joining of the two organisations – which makes the IPA accountable to chancellor George Osborne as well as the Cabinet Office – could risk making the watchdog "a cheerleader for projects that the other part of government is trying to push forward and make happen", diluting its role as an independent assurance agency.

Bacon said: "No one would suggest, to take a very crude example, merging the Department for Transport, responsible for delivering big infrastructure projects, a new motorway or whatever it was, with the value for money team at the National Audit Office studying transport and expect it to cause anything other than problems."

But Meggs told the committee that he "honestly" did not believe the merger of the two organisations would undermine accountability, insisting that the IPA would remain "entirely independent" and "unimpeachable".

He added: "We use outside parties to conduct the reviews, people with no vested interest whatsoever in obtaining any particular outcomes. So while the IPA runs those reviews, sets the terms of reference, we use independent people from across government, from many different departments, and also from outside of government – we have about sixty or so first-class, independent assurers."

The IPA chief also talked up the benefits of absorbing expertise from Infrastructure UK, saying the combined organisation would be able to "increase the level of support and intervention that we provide to projects", including by drawing on a "route map" devised by the infrastructure body for setting up new projects.

He added: "One of the things that we do in our work is we don't just provide an independent assessment. We also, most importantly, create a series of recommendations. Every report has a series of recommendations. And we will provide whatever support we can to departments and to individual projects in attempting to address those recommendations, and we will follow up on them. I think the level of expertise that we now have in the combined IPA, in the combined entities, will be improved."

The merger was not, he added, "designed as an attempt to save money" in the running of the two organisations.

Civil service chief executive John Manzoni, appearing alongside Meggs, said the involvement of the Treasury would in fact bolster up scrutiny of the Major Projects Portfolio, with the clout of Whitehall's most powerful department giving the MPA "teeth" in its assurance role.

"Now it's the Treasury and the Cabinet Office saying 'by the way, the following conditions have to be met before you go through this gate'," Manzoni added. "There isn't any space between the two in this new entity, and I think that's actually going to strengthen that aspect of the MPA, not weaken it."

A report published by the separate National Audit Office spending watchdog earlier this month pointed out that a third of the government's major projects were currently rated as either 'amber-red', meaning success is "in doubt", or 'red', meaning the project "appears to be unachievable".

Meggs told the committee that there were three broad themes common to projects that ran into difficulty, including "a failure to set up projects correctly in the first place", a lack of resources, which he said could be "acute in some areas", and the "unrealistic timescale" of some schemes.

"As we go through the planning process that we've got going on right now with single departmental plans we're going to be looking very, very closely at those timescales for some of these large transformation projects to try and make sure that they are as realistic as possible," he added.

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