PAC defended by Macpherson

Sir Nicholas Macpherson, the Treasury permanent secretary, last week praised the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the National Audit Office (NAO) for their work in holding departments to account despite the “discomfort” of his fellow permanent secretaries.

By Joshua.Chambers

31 Jan 2013

“The guild of permanent secretaries will grumble about the NAO and PAC,” he said at a public lecture organised by Queen Mary University’s Mile End Group. “I hear it most weeks, either for missing the point or trivialising complex issues, but I would tend to attribute this to the discomfort of being held to account. I am in no doubt that the PAC, under the chairmanship of [previous and current chairs] Edward Leigh and Margaret Hodge… supported by Amyas Morse, the [NAO] comptroller, has made a difference to the quality of public administration.”

“Parliamentary criticism and challenge is very important for keeping officials and ministers on their toes. Whether our select committee system is strong enough, I think, is an interesting question,” he said later.

The Treasury permanent secretary also lamented the loss of some functions previously held by his department, including the Implementation Unit, and suggested that it may have been a mistake to give departments control over salaries. “Occasionally I wonder whether this was a mistake; it certainly was a mistake for the Treasury, since the Treasury is the only department – as far as I can make out – which has ever implemented its own rules on pay, with the result that the Treasury is now worse paid than any other department in Whitehall,” he said.

Macpherson also said he regretted losing influence with the loss of the Delivery Unit, which the Treasury used to run alongside Number 10. However, he welcomed the Cabinet Office taking control of procurement, stating that “we’ve been very happy to transfer the latter to the Cabinet Office, which under the excellent paymaster-general Francis Maude is doing a very good job in driving forward the efficiency agenda.”

Macpherson said he considered applying to become the part-time head of the civil service in order to strengthen the power of the Treasury. “For about ten seconds, I did think I should apply for it and use this as a land-grab to bring all these things back to the Treasury,” he said. But Treasury work left little room for another job: “The challenges the Treasury faces on the public finances and on the economy are so huge that if I was playing a role in terms of leading the civil service, something would have to give,” he said. “Much as I think the civil service important, I’m afraid I’ve always seen myself as a Treasury official first and a civil servant second.”

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