Rowan Atkinson as Johnny English Photo PA
MPs have poured scorn on the Cabinet Office’s response to calls for a review of Whitehall’s system of appointing crown representatives to monitor major suppliers in the wake of the Carillion collapse.
Their anger follows a letter from Cabinet Office minister David Lidington that insisted there was a limit to the level of inside intelligence the so-called crown reps could access, and that they could “only react to information given to them by the company” meaning that problems “could arise” if they were misled.
Work and Pensions Select Committee chair Frank Field said Lidington’s response was a telling illustration of the complacency that had allowed ministers to keep awarding Carillion government contracts following the July 2017 profits warning that preceded the firm’s plunge into insolvency at the beginning of this year.
“The picture the [Cabinet Office minister] paints of our crown representatives is more Johnny English than James Bond, instilling little confidence in their ability or capacity to defend the public interest in the multi-billion pound world of government outsourcing,” Field said, referring to Rowan Atkinson's hapless spy character.
Field’s committee and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee – chaired by Rachel Reeves – in May called on the Cabinet Office to review the roles and responsibilities of crown reps, and to look at whether the role should be better resourced.
They also asked what impact there had been as a result of the lack of a crown rep for Carillion being in place for between August and November 2017 and questioned the government’s approach to risk-rating the business in a way which did not include all of its public-sector contracts.
Dissatisfied with the Cabinet Office’s original response, Field and Reeves sought additional clarifications on resourcing and the impact of the vacant post, prompting their latest concerns.
While Lidington accepted that better resourcing operations to employ more crown reps and “strategic partner managers” would allow Whitehall to increase its overview of suppliers, he did not commit to doing so in the letter.
He also said that crown reps were supported by a full-time markets and suppliers team with relationships managers and business analysts, and in the case of Carillion a Senior Civil Service level partnering manager. Lidington said the result was that the crown rep vacancy had not compromised the government’s response to Carillion’s problems.
BEIS select committee chair Reeves said there was an inherent contradiction in Lidington’s response.
“The Cabinet Office told us that crown representatives are an important part of how it deals with the businesses that supply it,” she said.
“They also told us the absence of a crown representative for the stricken Carillion wasn’t a problem.
“Both of these things cannot be true at the same time. The reality must be that either the crown representative system failed for Carillion or it has never worked at all. Whichever is true, the government urgently needs to tackle the central issue, which is to get a grip on its suppliers and protect the interest of taxpayers and those who rely on these businesses.”