Former Public Accounts Committee clerk Ken Brown is leaving potential victims to sweat while he considers how far he should reveal what has taken place behind the scenes on this powerful watchdog committee.
‘I’m careful about blowing gaffes,’ he confides as he looks back on over 30 years of service. But he is ‘thinking about putting a few things on paper’.
This most circumspect of officials has seen a lottery regulator quit after members of his committee discovered he had accepted hospitality from one of the firms behind the successful bid. He was also at the side of former chairman David Davis – now Tory Party chairman – in his confrontation with the Treasury over the powers of the National Audit Office in the PFI and PPP era.
Lack of accountant-trained MPs
One thing he is clear on is that during the last eight years there have been very few accountant-trained MPs on the most influential and oldest of parliament’s select committees.
There have been just three, all Tories: Michael Stern, Tim Smith and – in the current committee – Nick Gibb. ‘It is useful for the PAC to have one or two qualified accountants, but not essential,’ he says. What was more important was MPs should have had a wide experience of business or the delivery of public services. And be prepared for ‘homework’.
There are two major battles under way: ensuring Sir John Bourn, comptroller and auditor general, ends up with sufficient powers to follow public money into the private sector where necessary; and fending off the avaricious eyes of other committees at the huge resource of the NAO – thought to be at the PAC’s beck and call.
Positive response to Sharman report
Brown believes Lord Sharman’s report, drawn up in the wake of the fights over the government’s resource accounting legislation, has had a ‘positive’ response from within government, which he sees as recognising the need for change.
And he stresses existing arrangements for NAO briefings for other select committees, seconding NAO staff to assist them and liaising over committee work, which already exist, ensure that committees ‘complement each other rather than conflict’.
He also strongly defends the need for a committee that takes a forensic approach, examines events usually on the basis of NAO reports and which then draws out the lessons to be learned – rather than getting involved, as other committees do, in arbitrating between those concerned and debating matters of policy.
The PAC, he says, would always promote ‘the appropriate, better use of NAO resources’. And he points out the NAO is independent by act of parliament.
Operations to come under PAC microscope
But change there is: the current, tried and tested formula for operations, much criticised by some Whitehall victims, will come under the committee’s own microscope this spring in a search for improvement.
MPs are concerned that top civil servants seek special training before appearing before them, getting colleagues to question them in pantomime committees, and have become accustomed to the practice of general ‘core’ questioning by the chairman for 20 minutes followed by 15 minutes from each MP, so closely timed that some panicked MPs have been heard to remark: ‘I’ve only got a minute left!’ as they run out of time.
Going over time, says Brown, earns them ‘a black spot’ from the chair.
Again in the teeth of Whitehall complaints, he says that members are right to take a robust approach to questions and to insist on getting answers because they are looking after taxpayers’ interests.
Taking too long to get things done
Critics have complained about the time taken for MPs to get around to dealing with events, to a failure to hold individuals to account – on many occasions the accounting officers responsible have moved on or retired and the actual perpetrators are rarely seen.
Not always so, says Brown.
After the Passport Office fiasco, he points out, Davis, then the chairman, agreed with the NAO on the need for an urgent investigation and by the autumn the culprits were sweating it out before the committee.
The PAC held a marathon eight-hour session on the privatisation of Railtrack during which they heard from a series of specialist witnesses as well as accounting officers. He says: ‘It was successful but not something to be repeated.’
Brown believes the current system properly employs the two most powerful weapons available in a democracy, nuisance and publicity, and has made a point of enjoying close working relations with the media.
There should not be a power to punish
But he firmly rejects any idea that the committee should have a power of punishment.
He is careful to underplay his role in events which span the chairmanships of Labour’s Robert Sheldon and Davis and now Edward Leigh for the Tories, which he claims is limited to organising the committee’s work and advising on procedure.
Though he admits members are well briefed by the NAO and question lists are drawn up, he denies feeding MPs their lines – and, asked if he writes draft reports, insists: ‘They are the chairman’s reports.’
But he is aware ‘victims’ may think more of his role and jokes, off the record : ‘I don’t come out in pictures and I don’t reflect in mirrors.’ (Sorry, Ken).
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