PAC chair seeking ways to beef up local government spending scrutiny

17 Oct 18

The Public Accounts Committee chair has been speaking “behind the scenes to persuade various players” to enhance the scrutiny of local government spending. 

Meg Hillier - photo: Akin FalopeMeg Hillier [pictured right] has told PF how local government is spending money needs to be more “transparent” for an increasingly “savvy” British public.

“I think the British public are much more savvy about things - they don’t trust the authority to spend things well,” she said to PF.

Since the Audit Commission was formally dissolved in 2015 “there isn’t the same level of transparency locally”, Hillier said.

Local authority finances “used to be well demonstrated”, she said, “so I think [making them more transparent again] is just something that we need to keep pushing on.”

Although she said it was “early days” and did not wish to say who she had been speaking to, she said she saw devolution as an opportunity to improve closer examination of how public money was spent. 

“At metro mayor level or at a bigger regional level there is an opportunity for value for money audit and analysis because there are certain discreet pots of money coming down for very particular projects, so it’s easier to track it through from the day to day budget value for money,” she said.

Hillier was speaking to PF after the shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne told the Labour Party conference last month: “We will give local authorities public accounts committees to improve local government spending decisions.”

Local PACs was one of the Labour Party’s pledges in its 2015 manifesto so that “every pound spend by local bodies creates value for money for local taxpayers”.

Hillier said she was not able to give a clear view on what her vision for the extra layer of scrutiny of local government spending would be but did not believe local PACs were necessarily the answer as they would require “huge infrastructure”.

“I am not advocating we go out and set up lots of mini NAOs [National Audit Offices] - there is a bit of realism in this,” she added.

But Ed Hammond, director of Centre for Public Scrutiny, which has long been an advocate of local PACs, told PF that there is an “urgent need” for such bodies.

“Local PACs will be bodies led by elected councillors, empowered to follow the public pound across a local area, cutting across different organisations to get a real picture of the value for money of public services,” he suggested.

“In a world of increasingly complex decision making, and with greater pressure on finances, there is an urgent need for these bodies to give the public the assurance they need on the services they rely on.”

An Institute for Government report, out on Monday, said that government should “review the case for setting up local Public Accounts Committees” to “provide new capacity to local government to scrutinise performance across the breadth of services offered in a region”.

These could initially be trialed in mayoral combined authorities, the IfG suggested.

Local PACs were discusssed in an IfG-led Twitter discussion on the report:

The Conservative mayor of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority James Palmer believed there was already enough local authority financial scrutiny in place.

Although, he suggested if more fiscal devolution was handed down to metro mayors then “that of course must come with the necessary level of local governance and scrutiny”.

“Whether that comes in the form of a local public accounts committee is of course a discussion that would need to be had as part of further devolved powers.”

Northern metro mayors recently called for post-Brexit EU replacement funding to go straight to the regions, bypassing Whitehall.  

Chief executive of the Localis think-tank Jonathan Werran recently wrote a blog for PF on the future of fiscal devolution - see here.

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