Can local PACs scrutinise and deliver?

28 Feb 18

A recent report suggested introducing a system of local public accounts committees? But how will they secure compliance, asks David Walker.

The local delivery of public services in England is a mess. To chronic underfunding and self-defeating austerity have to be added the effects of 30 years of wilful dismemberment, chipping away at accountability and coherence. Outsourcing is part of the story along with the creation of academies and free schools, stock transfer and, through the disastrous 2012 Health and Social Care Act, an enforced disintegration of the NHS into commissioners and providers, with underfunded public health shunted off to councils.

Over the years, countervailing efforts have been made. Labour gave councils an oversight and scrutiny function, which the Centre for Public Scrutiny has made valiant efforts to sustain. Under David Cameron’s premiership, permanent secretaries drew up ‘accountability system statements’ to try to make the maps more coherent. But chaos still reigns, says the Association of Public Service Excellence report commissioned from De Montfort University.

There are, however, two big problems with the solution it proffers – a vamped up scrutiny committee. When the Commons communities and local government committee inquired last year, it found that existing scrutiny arrangements didn’t work. Councillors, like MPs, are first and foremost party people yet oversight requires non-partisan agreement. If councils are to bring order to health, schooling, further education, skills training or any other local service, scrutineers have to have a common, area-wide view that transcends party.

That’s utopian. Why – for example – should councillors in Northamptonshire sink their differences with a majority party that they say has comprehensively ruined county services? As for those councils where a single party has an overwhelming and seemingly permanent majority…

Would councils really be willing and able to staff and pay for mini versions of the NAO?

Even the strongest friend of elected local government has to admit the pool of talent among councillors isn’t fathomless. Good people are needed to become cabinet members or from the opposition front bench to hold them to account. Scrutiny is laborious and demanding. The House of Commons and other parliaments face the same problem: is there enough talent to make scrutiny committees effective?

The APSE report points to the Commons Public Accounts Committee and recommends local versions. But the analogy is ropey. For one thing, the PAC is fed by a skilled and rigorous investigative organisation, the National Audit Office. Would councils really be willing and able to staff and pay for mini versions of the NAO?

For another, the PAC and the NAO struggle to get their recommendations taken up. However trenchant, their reports can just sink into the limbo of executive inaction. Departments say they will comply but then, not many months later, the same inefficiency becomes apparent. How would councils secure compliance?

A radical localist would reply: give local authorities plenipotentiary powers over the NHS, schools and so on. But that’s tantamount to remaking health and education as local government functions. That could in theory make those services more coherent on an area-by-area basis. It doesn’t solve the oversight problem. Councils are electorally accountable but no one is rash enough to say that ensures they are efficient and effective in delivering services.

The Audit Commission once had the task of external monitoring service efficiency. It may be dead and buried, but the perennial problem of scrutiny remains.


  • David Walker

    former managing director, public reporting at the Audit Commission and deputy chair of an NHS trust

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