PAC to the future? Labour MPs Gisela Stuart, Helen Goodman & Meg Hillier on the race to be the next Margaret Hodge

With longstanding public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge announcing that she won't be seeking another five years at the helm of parliament's powerful cross-party spending watchdog, Civil Service World asked the three Labour MPs hoping to succeed her why they want the job, and whether they think the committee's treatment of officials needs to change

By matt.foster

27 May 2015

Why do you want to become chair of the public accounts committee?

Helen Goodman (pictured centre): "I think it's a really important committee and I think it can play a significant role in improving the effectiveness of government and the value for money that we get for taxpayers. And I've got a longstanding interest – I was on the PAC between 2005 and 2007. But I was also a Treasury civil servant from 1980 to 1996 so I've been thinking about these issues for a very, very, very long time!"

Meg Hillier (pictured right): "I get mad when I see waste and bad management of public money. My constituents work hard and expect their taxes to be spent properly. It's also important that there's proper evaluation of how effective projects are. Too often outcomes are poor, but the money's been spent before government has picked this up. I've been a member of PAC over the last four years, and I've also seen some of the projects I had a hand in as a minister being scrutinised by the committee, which means I have a good handle on how government works from outside and within."

Gisela Stuart (pictured left): "While getting value for money is important at the best of times, when we are facing cutbacks and there's less money around, you've got to justify spending decisions more than ever. This is the one committee – because it touches every part of government at every level – where the broader your background, the better. I have experience as a pensions lawyer, in social security, foreign affairs, defence, I've served as a health minister, and have sat on a number of committees as well as negotiating in Brussels which meant I was working across government. So I think I'd probably bring experiences to the committee which are both relevant and unusual."

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Where would you like to see PAC turn its attention over the course of the next parliament?

Helen Goodman: "The first thing we have to ask is whether money has been spent for the purposes for which it was voted. The next thing is – have we secured value for money? PAC is often good at discovering when a particular program or project has not been done very well. But I think one of the things that is interesting is not necessarily just saying, 'there's a problem here in the Department of Health' or 'this project in the Ministry of Defence is shambolic' – but rather looking into the patterns of what goes well and what goes badly.

"There are some things where we continue to make mistakes and, rather than repeating the mistakes, we should be learning lessons. So we need to ask why it is that big IT projects tend to go rather badly? Let's look at what's happened on those small number of occasions when it's gone well, because the more we move towards digital government, the more important it is that we get on top of how to manage these projects. Or to take another example – Whitehall's capacity for procurement is still not very good. Why is this? It's because in Whitehall the way to make your career is to be very good at writing policy papers. But maybe we should think about other skills and other capabilities which, from the point of view of the citizen, are just as important."

Meg Hillier: "It's vital we look at health spending as this is a big issue for us for the next parliament and beyond. We should also do more international comparisons – which are not routine in Whitehall.  

"I'm also keen that we keep a close eye on transparency and accountability. In many services it's really difficult to track who is ultimately responsible locally or nationally for performance. A number of providers are private companies paid by the taxpayer so we need to hold them to account too, and not just leave that to the departments. We need to continue our work on tax. I'm also a strong advocate of open data, so that the public can track spending in areas that interest them and hold local providers to account."

Gisela Stuart: "Devolution is going to be the big issue for the next parliament. We know it needs to happen but we have to do it in a way which is sustainable and possible.

"I think one of the challenges for all the select committees is ensuring that you don't just leave it at one response from the government. One of the things that I'm very conscious of, and I think we need to explore after the committee elections have happened, is how you coordinate follow-up with the subject-specific committees.

"I haven't done the number crunching, but when I looked through the list of ministerial appointments in the current government it seemed to me as if there were an increasing number of cross-departmental appointments, which is a kind of recognition that none of these departments live in a silo. And neither should the scrutiny take place in a silo."

What do you make of criticism of the way PAC has treated civil servants in recent years? There's a perception among some in Whitehall that the committee can resort to hectoring witnesses or sometimes fails to give credit when a department has improved

Helen Goodman: "I think it cuts both ways. Obviously, if you set as your objective improving value for money you need to look at what's gone badly, and you need to look at what's gone well. So that speaks to what officials are saying – let's examine what's gone well and let's see if it can be applied in other places. Of course that's true.

"But I think members of parliament and the public also feel a degree of concern that people can be responsible for something going badly and then there appear to be no consequences for that person. And then they go off to another department and something else they're involved in goes badly. I don't think that is satisfactory. I think that concern about a lack of the buck stopping anywhere is one of the things that PAC is reflecting in its dealings with officials."

Meg Hillier: "I always prefer the polite approach. But I would get frustrated if a witness was obfuscating or, as has happened, a permanent secretary sits in front of the committee saying one thing and then within a week the department announces a change of direction. So I'd say to civil servants that if they approach the committee openly and honestly, they'll get an easier ride than if they fudge an answer or dodge a question. I believe in quite a formal approach – much of our audience is the public at home so I'd dispense with first name terms and address witnesses more formally so that others could follow what's happening more easily...

"What we need to do is give the civil service more confidence to allow the actual project managers to be witnesses rather than just the permanent secretary. They often want to protect junior members of staff but those directly responsible day-to-day can be better witnesses and if they are managing large government projects should be held to account in their own right."

Gisela Stuart: "Like Margaret, I've been at both ends. I've been a minister in front of a select committee. And you know what to do as a minister when you don't particularly want to answer a question! That means when you're on a select committee you can tell fairly quickly whether the person on the other end has the slightest intention of answering the question... I've seen this on the defence committee. The current permanent secretary, Jon Thompson, has got a much more open approach to answering. I think when Margaret lost it – if you wanted to use that term – was when she recognised, as someone who's been there, that there's no intention of answering the question.

"If there is one area where I think the civil servants are really caught between a rock and a hard place is with independent bodies. The phrase I tend to use is the 'hollowing out' of government. This isn't a party political issue because we started it and the Tories continued it, but when a situation comes up we increasingly create an independent body to deal with it. We need to be able to sort out where the buck stops with independent agencies. We still haven't worked out precisely how to do that."

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