This lecture replaced the previously announced lecture on 'Who do we think you are? The public from an MP's perspective'.
Natascha Engel MP
Natascha Engel was elected as Labour MP for North East Derbyshire in May 2005. She is currently the first Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, which was the first business committee to be created by the House and offers backbench MPs an opportunity to suggest subjects for debates.
She has also served as a member of the Select Committee on the Reform of the House of Commons, and the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
People, Parliament and Power - Open Lecture transcript
Natascha Engel, MP for North East Derbyshire and Chair of the House of Commons Backbench Business Committee: Just a couple of things first of all: thank you very much for your patience – that was unavoidable having a division but I got to the front of the queue and so I've managed to come back in record time. And thank you very much for your tolerance in my having changed the title of this lecture.
What happened was that while I was thinking about it several things happened and even though I had started off having quite a narrow idea, about MPs' views of what the electorate thinks, it didn’t really go anywhere. And then one thing happened, which was that I saw, a couple of weeks ago, a tweet by an MP which said:
"I have just had a constituent call to complain that their glue stick has dried up."
And because this lecture was looming it made me think: 'How did we arrive at a point where a man’s glue stick has dried up and he thinks that the best person to ask for help is his local MP?'
When I first became an MP, I thought the job would be about making and changing laws, and dealing with casework as a way of finding out what it was that the people I represented needed; what worked for them and what didn’t.
What I didn’t expect was for the job to be a translation service, a negotiation on behalf of constituents to help them find their way through what was an opaque and hostile bureaucracy, where you are constantly left thinking: 'But I thought you were supposed to help!'
These government agencies - this whole massive bureaucracy - it cannot be negotiated by ordinary people, even the ones who are very well-equipped to do so.
In fact, unless you have access to an MP’s Hotline and a House of Commons letterhead, it’s unlikely you’ll have any success at all. For many constituents who come to see me, it’s because they have tried everything and they are absolutely at the end of their tethers.
I’m not going to tell you about the man who had a prize-winning and successful micro brewery who nearly lost everything because Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs were threatening to seize his assets for a £4,000 fine that he didn’t owe, the local council pursuing him for £7,000 to demolish an office that he hadn’t built, and a gas company for a gas bill that he couldn’t possibly owe because he had everything on electricity.
The minefield he had to get through - all on 10p a minute premium rate phone lines - would have been impossible without the intervention of his MP. Far more distressing, though, are the social services cases that I have to deal with.
A constituent of mine left her violent, abusive, drug dealing partner when her youngest child was just a baby. She came from what they call a 'chaotic' family so when she moved out and contacted social services for help, they sectioned her and took her children away.
I helped the woman put in a complaint against social services about the sectioning and, miraculously, they admitted that it had been wrong and, even more miraculously, they apologised. But they hadn’t returned the children and were taking her to court on the grounds that she was an inadequate parent and should have her children removed.
The case against her was based on the fact that she had been sectioned. Even though they had admitted it was wrong, that was one of the factors being taken into account by the secret family court. And these courts are so secret that as a defendant, if you show the reports to anyone, even if you know them to be factually incorrect, you will be held in contempt of court.
The woman’s story became very messy, as these stories always do when you have people at breaking point being pursued by the very agencies that are supposed to be there to support them. It took a very long time, but eventually I got a meeting with the Head of Customer Care and Governance (who arrived half an hour late) – this is by the way a person who works for Childrens and Social Services.
I asked why no-one was keeping me informed, why no-one would return my calls and whether the court hearing had taken place.
"Oh yes," said the woman. "And an interim supervision order has been granted."
I asked her several times what the court proceedings were for. She said "They are for the benefit of the customer and we always have to have the best interest of the children in the forefront of our minds."
But why were they taking her to court? "We’re not taking her to court as such. It’s to enable The Service (that’s what they called it, The Service) to gain the benefit of independent adjudication and analysis."
I said that I was struggling to understand anything she was saying. All I could think of was that the mother I was representing - she wouldn’t have understood a word; she wouldn’t have even got as far as getting a meeting with these people. She would have been totally crushed.
"Are you trying to take her children away and are you using the fact that she was sectioned as a reason for doing so?"
"Oh, that’s nothing to do with us. We only deal with the children."
I said that they were passing me from one agency to another. But they both had in common the fact that their phones ring and ring and even when you do get through to a voicemail, no-one ever gets back. That, I said, concerned me.
"Yes, I can explain that. You see, we have calls coming in horizontally. They go to a call centre."
"All I know," I said, "is what I know from the nursery and what neighbours and family have told me.
"The nursery says the children are balanced, stable, happy, loved, well-cared for, clean and fed. The only thing that bothered them was the disruptive effect of a man, I assume a social worker, from your office -?"
"Yes", she said. "A male social worker from the district has been."
"So this man arrived at the nursery unannounced with a court order to interview the children alone. They said the children were very upset after that."
"Yes," said the Head of Customer Care and Governance. "An investigation is underway."
"That happened a year ago!" I said.
I explained that she was preventing me from adequately representing my constituent’s interests.
"I’m trying to help her appeal against what could be a wrongful use of the Mental Health Act as a consequence of which she is scared that she might lose her children forever!"
"We can only apologise for what is clearly a glitch in communications and I assure you that this has been a learning curve for us."
I’m not judging whether my constituent is a good mother or not. The children might well be better off in care. I doubt it but I have no idea. What is so alarming is the power these people hold over others, often very vulnerable and distressed people.
I am saying that this power is not checked enough. They are not being carefully enough watched and no-one is holding them to account when they make mistakes. They seem to be free to do what they want, no matter what damage they might cause.
But the most worrying thing is that this lack of accountability and lack of scrutiny is replicated in the plethora of government agencies and quangos. I’m sure it used to be much simpler. There were politicians, some of whom were Ministers who were held to account by those who were not.
Ministers took decisions for which they were responsible and accountable, and their civil servants advised them and carried out those decisions.
There was a public sector to deliver things like the Health Service; there was local government for schools, bins and swimming pools. There were Armed Forces and the Labour Exchange.
We knew what they did and who they were, and we knew what the lines of responsibility were. We could see far more clearly what the taxpayer’s money was being spent on and we knew who to blame when things went wrong.
And when they did, people would be sacked or they would resign. Today there are 23 non-Ministerial departments, 11 public corporations, 340 agencies and public bodies. There may be more, and certainly are if you take the devolved administrations into account, there will be.
Each of these has Heads, Directors, Non-Executive Directors, CEOs or Director Generals. Some of these are hybrid Permanent Secretaries of Government Departments but even that role has become so professionalised and politicised that it is beyond recognition.
These are the organisations like – and I’ll list just a few of them now:
- the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority
- the Food Standards Agency
- the Civil Aviation Authority
- the Office of the Rail Regulator
- the Water Services Regulation Authority
- NHS England
- NHS Blood and Transplant
- the NHS Litigation Authority
- National Institute of Clinical Excellence (the NHS is particularly rich in quangos)
- the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets
- the Green Investment Bank
- Ordnance Survey
- the Horserace Betting Levy Board
- The Arts Council
- Sport England and
- the Olympic Delivery Authority.
The people who head up these organisations mostly earn upwards of £160,000 a year. Some, like the head of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, earn around £350,000. Many of them work only a couple of days a week.
The new chairman of HS2 Ltd, David Higgins, is being paid £750,000 a year to help drive down the escalating costs of the high speed rail project. All of these agencies and quangos have buildings, boards and staff. Even their communications directors usually earn around £150,000 or more.
And I’m not saying that the work they do isn’t important, I’m sure a lot of it is. They may or may not be worth the money they are paid.
What I am saying is that the work they do and the vast amount of public money they spend doing it, is not accounted for well enough and is certainly not well-enough scrutinised. And I’m also saying that we have lost sight of who is responsible when something goes wrong. People are moved to another quango, are retired early or paid off.
When was the last time a head of one of these organisations was sacked? And how would you actually go about doing it? Who can sack them? Remember the huge mess everyone got into with Sharon Shoesmith?
When a constituent comes to me to complain about his treatment at the hands of ATOS during a medical assessment, and if I think there is a pattern of behaviour that concerns me, if I think there is a systemic problem, where do I go?
I go to the Welfare Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions, she goes to Jobcentre Plus and Jobcentre Plus go to ATOS because they are contracted to deliver medical assessments.
Eventually, I get a letter from ATOS saying: "No - they are confident that there is no systemic failure."
If you then launch a persistent campaign of Parliamentary Questions and Freedom of Information s, if you write newspaper articles, do interviews, get adjournment debates, you may, if you’re lucky, achieve something. You might get an apology or maybe your constituent gets a goodwill payment.
But it doesn’t address the bigger problem.
This unaccountable jungle was created by politicians in all good faith. We wanted more professionalism in order to give our constituents the best and most professional public services their taxes could buy.
We didn’t realise that what we created would take on a life of its own. Government after government has had every intention of scaling down the number of these organisations but every quango bonfire fails to light. Because that isn’t necessarily the problem either.
The problem is their opaqueness. It’s their casual disregard for the taxpayer, for Government and for Parliament.
The Public Accounts Committee interviewed the heads of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority recently. When asked how much the cost of something might rise, one of the chiefs said, "It will possibly go up by a handful of billions."
That’s how casual they are about taxpayer money.
At the moment, it’s only Parliamentary Select Committees that have any opportunity to question these people, but even then, pinning them down and understanding what they say isn’t easy.
A man called Dominic Dunn was appointed to one of the many NHS quangos for £63,000 a year to work three days a week.
He was asked by a Select Committee member: "We don’t have enough radiotherapy in my part of the country. Is it your job to address that lack?"
Dominic Dunn replied: "I certainly agree with avoiding the situation where there is enforcement action necessary."
When the Treasury Select Committee asked the head of the Financial Conduct Authority about approving the appointment of the Reverend Paul Flowers to the chair of the Co-op bank, he said, "I don’t think it was a mistake, given the information I had at the time."
Committee members pressed and pressed him about the crystal methodist’s previous convictions, but at no point would the FCA chief take responsibility or blame.
There was nothing the Committee could do about it other than shake their heads and despair.
It was Andrew Tyrie, the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, who once said that the role of Select Committees should be refocused so that they concentrate their scrutiny not only on Government Ministers but as much on the panoply of quangos, commissions, Trusts and corporations that are currently beyond any democratic control.
And when we look at the high profile select committees, we see that there is hope. Andrew Tyrie and his work on the Banking Commission, the heroic Margaret Hodge on Public Accounts, Keith Vaz who did so much to expose wrongdoing and corruption in the police, Bernard Jenkin’s work on the civil service and John Whittingdale’s dogged pursuit of phone hacking.
It is Parliamentary Select Committees that hold the answer.
But to do the job properly, we need to increase their power and resources. We should look at giving them investigative powers, making accountants and QCs available to them to monitor and scrutinise these agencies and quangos. They should be able to root out malpractice, monitor performance, track and question expenditure. And if someone isn’t performing, they should be sacked.
So when my micro-brewer comes to see me, I know that I need to go to the Treasury Select Committee and find out why HMRC are allowed to pursue him for money he doesn’t owe and to get it stopped.
And when my woman complains about her treatment by social services I will go to the local government and justice select committees to find out what is going on in the secret family courts.
And the systemic failures in the medical assessments by ATOS, those will be properly looked at by the DWP Select Committee. These clearer lines of responsibility would give our constituents a clearer idea of what it is we can do and what powers we have.
But I’m afraid those powers will never include the power to turn dried out glue back into liquid. Thank you.
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Video: recorded by BBC Parliament