Civil servants are accountable to their Minister but are not directly accountable to Parliament.
Ministers rightly account to Parliament for their policy. Only Accounting Officers, usually the Permanent Secretary, have direct accountability to Parliament for the value for money spent by departments. In the case of the Dept for Health for example, this makes just one official, Sir David Nicholson, accountable for the spending of around 90% of the entire health budget. Can one person effectively be held accountable by Parliament for around £100 billion of spending? How much needs to be wasted before they lose the job?
There is also a democratic hole currently where work currently carried out by civil servants in a department is not disclosed to either their Minister or MPs. This was highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee hearings on HMRC. Whilst it is right to prevent politicians from accessing the tax affairs of an individual for political reasons (think Gordon Brown against Lord Ashcroft) it is odd to treat individuals and public limited companies as the same in terms of democratic scrutiny. In fact, public companies already have to disclose tax information, which would support drawing a distinction with individuals.
The recent cross party decision of the Public Accounts Committee to require an official to swear on oath – so concerned were we at the impression of misleading or vague evidence - reflects a wider concern that the current accountability arrangements are not working. It is still unclear whether the legal position stated by HMRC officials is correct.
These are not issues affecting just one select committee, but for Parliament as a whole. There may be a case for the relationship between Parliament and civil servants to change. I have written to Baroness Jay, Chair of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, asking the for the matter to be considered. The letter is enclosed with this post and I will update readers when a response is given.
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