‘More accountants in government’ is the clarion call from Justine Greening,
Conservative MP for Putney.
Her call goes relatively unheard, of course, as the Rotherham-born accountant
finds herself in parliamentary recess. Constituents are more interested in what
she can do for them rather in listening to her concerns about the balance of
skills within parliament.
Nevertheless, reflecting on her first term as an MP, and the recent Keystone
Cops-like attempts by parliament to review and debate the company law reform
bill, Greening is bent on filling the House of Commons benches with as many
accountants as possible. Her background in finance – she trained with Price
Waterhouse and worked in finance positions at both SmithKline and Centrica –
lends her the authority to make that call. Indeed, she juggled her finance roles
while forging her burgeoning political career.
Greening sees two main reasons to boost the ranks of trained finance
professionals in parliament. The ICAEW-qualified accountant bemoans the lack of
financially astute individuals involved in policy making, and she is also
worried about a dearth of qualified FDs looking after the coffers of government
‘Essentially, parliament’s debates are financial,’ Greening says. ‘We have
debates about balancing books in the NHS, and Gershon Review savings going on
across government. A lot of the debates and challenges we face are financially
focused and financially driven.
‘It’s about value for money, and accountants are ideally placed to understand
what sorts of business case we should expect to see from politicians and
government – often we don’t.’
To be fair this is an aspect that the current government is dealing with.
However, her concerns are timely, with the Treasury in a rush to meet its target
of filling central government head finance roles with qualified accountants
before the end of the year, and Home Office accounts two years away from
receiving an unqualified audit report.
Greening reckons the numbers of accountants working centrally are
‘As an opposition MP, when the Conservatives get back into power I’d be very
interested to look how budgets are managed and whether the control aspects are
good enough. I’d also be interested to cast an accountant’s eye over how we
financially manage and control government spend.’
Greening cites continual qualification of the Department of Work and
Pensions’ accounts as a particular example of the problems government faces,
because the level of benefit fraud cannot be established with any level of
One of the biggest problems faced by central government in recent times is
the continual change in IT systems to meet the requirements of evolving
legislation. Greening, while not coming out in defence of IT consultants and
software companies that have taken stick for failed large-scale projects, says
that IT has been ‘badly served’ by parliament.
‘Most government policies – including those in the DWP where I’m on the
select committee – are critically delivered by an IT system of some sort, but
the legislation we’re presented with in parliament will not include the IT
proposals in any detail whatsoever.
‘OK, 50 years ago when departments filed paper that would be fine, but now
understanding whether the IT will be able to deliver is very important.’
While she understands that an army of new accountants in parliament won’t be
a panacea for this issue, she sees finance professionals as experienced in
dealing with business issues, and knowing what questions to ask, what to demand
and what to expect.
‘We don’t see the nuts and bolts presented. As you get more accountants in
parliament we will say: “How can we sign off on a policy proposal when you
haven’t shown us the IT details? How do we know that it’s value for money?”’
‘You’d end up with a much more rigorous view of not only what the policy
should deliver, but the pragmatic question of whether it can actually happen
with the plan you have.’
Concerns over the financial know-how of her fellow MPs is never stronger than
when discussing the company law reform bill – renamed the companies bill
following a vote won by the opposition.
She is particularly enraged by the government’s apparent lack of interest in
the bill’s passage through parliament. ‘Parliament has been going for a long
time, but we’ve never had a situation where the government of the day had so few
of its own committee members turn up to a session, especially when we were
really concerned there wasn’t enough time to debate a bill that will be the
largest ever to pass through parliament – around 1,300 clauses, and every one of
them needs to be agreed!’
This lackadaisical attitude concerns her because of the message it puts
across about how parliament understands and values business.
‘If ever there was a bill that needed full scrutiny it is this one,’ she
Closer to home, Greening sees an even bigger challenge for her party: that of
bringing the right skills to parliament, although she might not necessarily
agree with her leader’s approach to that aim. Much to the amusement of
observers, Tory leader David Cameron recently took tea to encourage more women
into the party.
‘The Conservative Party has been interested in getting more diversity among
our candidates,’ says Greening, ‘but the other half of the debate is making
sure, not only who they are, but what skills people will bring in.
‘When I was elected someone said to me: “It’s really good for diversity in
I said jokingly: “Yes, you’re right, there aren’t nearly enough accountants
on the green benches!”’
While her party continues to decide on its direction, she is making the most
of the accountants that are in parliament. Several have got together to form the
Associate Parliamentary Group on Business, Finance and Accountancy. It’s a
cross-party gathering that includes financial secretary to the Treasury Mark
Hoban, Lib-Dem shadow chancellor Vincent Cable and Treasury select committee
chair John McFall.
The group’s aim is to look at financial literacy among children, although
Greening wryly suggests they could offer a helping hand to some in parliament.
Along with ACCA’s public policy unit, it’s another small step towards more
finance-oriented schemes aimed at mixing politics and business.
‘We’re there to raise awareness of financial issues in politics and policy
making. Hopefully, after the next election I’ll be joined by more accountants
who want to get involved.’
That, of course, depends on whether government can continue to offer
opportunities for accountants that are as alluring as those in the private
From finance to politics in three not so easy steps
Contrary to popular belief, politicians are not necessarily born into
politics, says Justine Greening, Conservative MP for Putney.
Greening became an MP because of her desire to play a part in policy making.
Her career in accounting and finance on the other hand was more structured and
planned. Greening saw her training as an ICAEW-qualified accountant as a
’marketable qualification’ that would open doors for her.
‘My training as an auditor was a brilliant grounding to work in business. In
the early 1990s I did insolvency, like many others. It was a great experience.’
Three years followed where Greening worked in Lausanne, Switzerland, and
discovered a different way of doing business from the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ model.
‘Sometimes they’re more formal than us. There are different dress codes, ways of
addressing each other – I needed to learn and appreciate sensitivities.’
These experiences appear to have stood Greening in good stead for a career in
politics. Contemplating how Britain was viewed from the European mainland
kickstarted her decision to join the Conservatives.
Serving as an MP, however, was never part of the plan. But her work at the
coalface of politics while juggling a business career and even finding time to
complete an MBA, prepared her well for life as a politician. Now focused on
looking out for her constituents, and policy making, Greening is happy with her
‘I took a decision that rather than moaning at the TV I’d try and do
something about it myself.’
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