View from the House – Malcolm Bruce

The idea that the government should present an annual report setting out its performance in relation to its commitments is good, in principle. After all, it is a legal requirement for companies.

The marked distinction between the government’s report and a company report is, of course, that there is no independent audit for HMG. The government decides what targets to accept and gives its own account of how it has performed.

In this year’s report, student tuition fees are not mentioned – presumably because they were not promised, just imposed. Perhaps that is why there is also no mention of reductions in disability allowances.

Even commitments central to Labour’s campaign pledges – on health and education – are subject to time-warp presentation.

Labour claimed they would increase the proportion of GNP spent on education.

This, they say, has been fulfilled on the basis of their promises for the next two years, ignoring that the share has actually fallen during their first two years.

You don’t fulfil a pledge by repeating it. You can only fulfil it retrospectively when you have delivered.

This is not an attack on Labour’s good intentions. But without an independent assessment – say, by the National Audit Office – on what promised and quantifiable outcomes have been achieved, a government report on itself is worthless.

There is something we could perhaps learn from New Zealand where public service agreements have led to contracts between ministers and departmental chief executives open to inspection and with clearly identified outcomes.

Freedom of information legislation, on a far more open basis than Jack Straw is prepared to consider, is crucial. It means ministers and officials know exchanges between them in the process of policy formulation may be made public. This means records cannot be rewritten to fit events.

If the government is serious about being held to account on the delivery of its policies it needs to allow independent assessment of performance.

Malcolm Bruce is Liberal Democrat MP for Gordon and the party’s spokesman for Treasury affairs.

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