COMMONS

Work of the Committee of Public Accounts 2010-15 report published

28 March 2015

Tighter spending plans have required not just a trimming of public services, but a full scale re-think about how services could best be delivered. Our focus has been to look at the way in which programmes and projects have been implemented to ensure they deliver value for money, regardless of our individual views on the underpinning policy.

Chair's comments

"As this Parliament draws to a close we have summarised the key areas of our work over the past five years in this report. We have drawn out the areas where progress has been made and where our successors might wish to press in future.

We recognise the commitment and achievements of those who work in public services and are conscious of the scale of their challenge in being expected to deliver ever more sophisticated public services with fewer resources and huge demographic pressures.

Against this backdrop, making sure the interests of taxpayers and service users are protected has never been more important.

We have assiduously followed the taxpayer’s pound wherever it was spent – in national public services, in local government services and in private sector contracts. In doing so I believe we have helped secure better and more consistent services for the public.

Since 2010 we have held 276 evidence sessions and published 244 unanimous reports to hold government to account for its performance. 88% of our recommendations were accepted by departments. In many cases we have successfully secured substantial changes.

For example, we shone a light on the once secret tax avoidance industry and gained public and cross party support for a more robust response from government. While much remains to be done, we welcome the progress HMRC has made in this area.

We secured consensus from government and from industry that private providers of public services do have a duty of care to the taxpayer. We succeeded in pushing the protection of whistleblowers further up the agenda of all government departments. By drawing attention to mistakes in the Department for Transport’s procurement of the West Coast Mainline, we helped to ensure that more recent procurements for Crossrail, Thameslink and Intercity Express have all benefited from more expert advice and a more appropriate level of challenge from senior staff.

After our discovery in 2012-13 that 63% of calls to government call centres were to higher rate telephone numbers, the Government accepted our recommendation that telephone lines serving vulnerable and low income groups never be charged above the geographic rate and that 03 numbers should be available for all government telephone lines. We also secured a commitment to close large mental health hospitals.

I am immensely proud of the achievements of this Committee, in the cross-party nature of our work and our relentless focus on the important job of scrutinising value for money of policy implementation. I wish the next Public Accounts Committee wholeheartedly every success in their endeavours."

The following conclusions of this report highlight the strength and influence this Committee has had:

We followed the taxpayer’s pound wherever it was spent

  • We secured greater transparency of the performance of private providers who deliver public services on behalf of government.

We strengthened accountability in complex delivery chains, increased transparency around how public funds are used and championed the rights of whistleblowers

  • We found that when centrally funded services had local delivery there was a need for clearer accountability processes.
  • It was not always clear to us who was responsible or accountable for performance when delivery was devolved to other bodies or organisations.
  • We found that light touch governance models were often ineffective in highlighting issues early enough.
  • We highlighted the need for greater central government ownership and oversight of off-payroll arrangements and queried the value for money of some public sector severance payments.
  • We tackled the lack of transparency, oversight and proper accountability around the use of confidentiality clauses.
  • We have sought to reinforce the important role played by whistleblowers and the need for them to be treated fairly.

We started the debate on tax practices but much more still needs to be done

  • We shone a light on the once secret tax avoidance industry and gained public and cross party support for a more robust response from government.
  • We challenged the abuse of tax reliefs, particularly those involving charitable donations.
  • We fostered international relationships to tackle tax avoidance, as an effective response relies on cross border cooperation.

We supported the development of the right skills in government to deliver value for money

  • We highlighted basic failings in how contracts are procured and managed and helped departments act as a more intelligent customer.
  • We demanded more continuity of leadership in major projects.

We promoted the need for a strong centre of government and better financial management of public funds

  • We made the case for a strong and more coordinated centre of government.
  • We pushed for improvements in the Whole of Government Accounts to secure better transparency and accountability over public finances.

We secured better and more consistent services for the public

  • We examined a broad range of public services and identified many instances of poor or inconsistent service.
  • We examined services that affect inequalities in life expectancies.
  • We sought to protect consumers when departments entered into deals that did not deliver a consistent service for all.

Margaret Hodge was speaking as the Committee published its 52nd Report of this Session on the work of the Committee of Public Accounts 2010-15.

Ensure projects delivery value for money

Since 2010, we have scrutinised the value for money secured from public spending against a backdrop of unprecedented austerity. Tighter spending plans have required not just a trimming of public services, but a full scale re-think about how services could best be delivered. Our focus has been to look at the way in which programmes and projects have been implemented to ensure they deliver value for money, regardless of our individual views on the underpinning policy.

We have also taken a strong interest in revenue collection, most notably tax avoidance. Partly as a consequence of our repeated focus on the subject, tax avoidance is no longer a niche topic of interest, but one that has rightly caught public and political attention. Our work on tax did not challenge the legitimacy of efficient tax planning, rather it brought into sharp focus the proliferation of a tax avoidance industry aimed at exploiting loopholes and complexity in our tax laws to deprive the Exchequer of much needed funds.

We challenged HM Revenue & Custom’s (HMRC) overly relaxed approach to tackling aggressive tax avoidance and our attention helped secure a change in its approach to compliance activity. We demanded answers from multinational organisations, including Google, Starbucks and Amazon, who used our complicated tax laws to avoid paying tax on profits generated in the UK.

Links forged with OECD

We sought better transparency around tax reliefs, including Gift Aid, so Parliament could more readily identify those reliefs which were most susceptible to abuse. And we forged international links, particularly with the OECD, to help strengthen the UK’s response on this important issue. Our work has led directly to a more vigorous response to avoidance from HMRC and we welcome the commitments from the Government and the Opposition to take stronger action on tax avoidance in the next Parliament.

In this Parliament, as a result of the Government’s agenda to reform public services, we have seen a shift towards more varied delivery models involving more private and third sector providers, as well as more localised delivery, for example, with Clinical Commissioning Groups in health, and free schools and academies in education. These changes have required us to think carefully about the way accountability should work and whether the arrangements put in place for localised services are sufficient to protect public money. Whilst a consensus, particularly around transparency, has evolved with both the CBI and major private providers of public services, the Government has yet to adopt greater transparency to ensure proper accountability.

For us as a committee, we have had to re-think how we could best follow the taxpayers’ pound wherever it was spent.

Departments resisted "robust oversight"

We have examined many localised services, ranging from roads and flood defences to health and education. Departments have often resisted our calls for them to put in place stronger, more robust oversight when they have devolved funds to other organisations. Yet time and again we found instances where devolved accountability was not supported by increased clarity and transparency of performance and responsibility. We were pleased that the Government did concede the need for action in specific circumstances, for example, on the Durand Academy and Accident and Emergency services.

We identified successes too, such as the Troubled Families programme, where close working by central and local bodies led to intelligent planning and effective delivery–this was a model of good accountability. However this debate will continue into the next Parliament, as the issue of proper accountability in a devolved framework still requires attention.

We uncovered the mostly uneven relationship between contractors and government, where contractors have used their greater commercial skills to negotiate advantageous terms, yet they have not been held properly accountable for their performance. At the same time, government has done little to transfer risk to private providers and when major programmes like FiReControl and National Programme for IT (NPfIT) have failed, the taxpayer has picked up the tab. We have examined instances where poor contracting oversight and low standards of integrity among providers has led to money being paid out where services have not been delivered.

Champions of whistleblowing

We have maintained a strong focus on propriety, tackling head on concerns about the prevalence of off-payroll payments for public officials and excessive severance payments at the BBC. In the same vein we have championed the importance of whistleblowing as a window on what is happening on the ground. The need to ensure greater transparency and the importance of protecting whistleblowers have both consistently emerged as important issues.

We have developed new ways of holding the Executive to account on value for money. For instance we have carried out a number of landscape reviews to establish clarity against which we can judge performance. We have regularly evaluated the big Government reform programmes like Universal Credit, the Work Programme and the reforms to the Probation Service. We have returned to issues where we were concerned that performance remained poor, like Sellafield or the roll-out of superfast broadband in rural areas, or where we were concerned that our recommendations have not been accepted or implemented.

Our unique view of the value for money delivered across all government departments, covering an incredibly broad range of projects and programmes, has allowed us to identify systemic issues and challenges that came up time and again. We have been disappointed by the weaknesses at the centre of government and the lack of willingness to address these. Treasury and the Cabinet Office do not presently use their knowledge, experience and information to spread good practice and ensure that the lessons of past failures are heeded across government. There are thousands of talented and committed public servants but government still suffers from a lack of vital skills that are required to deliver projects and programmes in the 21st century. We have pushed hard to raise the level of commercial, financial, IT and project delivery skills across government.

Accountability structures "not fit for purpose"

We championed the introduction of the Major Projects Authority and its Leadership Academy and view this as an intelligent and robust response to a systemic problem in government. We raised the bar for financial skills in government to ensure that projects, like those in the Ministry of Defence’s major projects portfolio, were delivered by individuals with the expertise needed to calculate realistic costs and manage budgets. We have argued that individuals should stay in their jobs for longer so that they can see important projects through and we believe that accountability structures in Whitehall are not fit for purpose. There have been some improvements but not enough has yet been done to secure a culture change across the public sector.

Central to all our work has been a sustained focus on the outcomes delivered for the public. Too often we have found that public services have not been framed with the citizen at the centre of thinking, and too often those who lose out are the most vulnerable. This has ranged from concerns about the quality of medical assessments for benefit claimants, to the importance of effective delivery of broadband services for people in rural areas, to our work that led to the end of premium rate, telephone charges for millions of people using government call centres. Our recent work on the quality of care for people with learning disabilities was a classic case in point, where the flaws in system design and perverse financial incentives resulted in performance that officials accepted was totally indefensible. We were successful here in securing the commitment to close large mental health hospitals.

As this Parliament draws to a close we have summarised the key areas of our work over the past five years in this report. We have drawn out the areas where progress has been made and where our successors might wish to press in future. We recognise the commitment and achievements of those who work in public services and are conscious of the scale of their challenge in being expected to deliver ever more sophisticated public services with fewer resources and huge demographic pressures. Against this backdrop, making sure the interests of taxpayers and service users are protected has never been more important.

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