New PACAC chair William Wragg must unite his colleagues around a programme of “sustained and forensic scrutiny” of the government’s looming civil service reforms and the future of the union in a role that “will need stamina”, the Institute for Government has said.
Wragg, who has been Conservative MP for the Greater Manchester constituency of Hazel Grove since 2015, yesterday won the ballot to succeed Sir Bernard Jenkin as chair of the influential Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, beating David Jones. Jenkin did not seek re-election as PACAC chair, but was unsuccessful in his bid to take the helm of the Defence Select Committee.
IfG programme director Alex Thomas said the looming prospect of a Dominic Cummings-driven shakeup of the civil service and post-Brexit debate surrounding devolution and the constituent nations of the union meant new PACAC chair Wragg and his panel would have significant tasks ahead. He was speaking ahead of the secret ballot in which Wragg defeated sole rival David Jones by 335 votes to 183.
“The next PACAC chair will lead the parliamentary scrutiny of the civil service reform agenda being championed by Dominic Cummings, with the crucial topics of constitutional and electoral policy and devolution also falling to the committee,” Thomas said.
“The next PACAC chair will need to look beyond the headlines and past the government’s rhetoric about government transformation, and instead assess what these plans mean in practice – and work to hold those leading this agenda in government, both at ministerial and official level, to account.
“The committee can help identify where real progress has been made, like on commercial and procurement capacity, and where further and faster change is needed, for example on digital and data projects.”
Thomas noted that PACAC and its predecessor, the Public Administration Select Committee, had been catalysts for change in the past, with “wide-ranging, in-depth work” on issues ranging from special advisers to ministerial accountability, and prerogative powers to public inquiries.
But he said that “strongly held and differing views” among PACAC’s members and the fact that much of its scrutiny was focused “firmly through the contentious lens of Brexit” had been an issue more recently.
Thomas said Wragg would need to bring the committee together and “ensure that events do not knock their work off course”.
He added that PACAC would also need to look at whether the government had the right capacity, skills and structures and the strengths and weaknesses emerging from challenge of delivering Brexit.
Other significant lines of inquiry would be how well the Cabinet Office, No. 10 Downing Street and the Treasury were keeping up momentum around reform and what skills the civil servants of the 2020s needed.
Thomas noted that while other committees led on specific nations of the UK, a “purposeful PACAC” could bring “coherence and sharpness” to debate on the future of the union.
“Brexit means that structures underpinning the devolution settlement will come under intense strain and parliament needs to find its voice in a new world of majority government,” he said.
“This is a moment for more joint working across the territorial committees and with the Lords Constitution Committee.”
In addition to Wragg, other new select committee chairs include former health secretary Jeremy Hunt and former business secretary Greg Clark.
Hunt will chair the Health and Social Care Select Committee while Clark will chair the Science and Technology Select Committee. Tobias Elwood was elected as chair of the Defence Select Committee, beating Jenkin in the process. while Tom Tugendhat was re-elected as chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.