Ensuring scrutiny in a changing public sector landscape

28 Oct 16

The Public Accounts Committee has a vital role in providing parliamentary oversight of government spending and public services but its work is changing in response to devolution. There is a need for a whole system view of scrutiny

The remit of the Public Accounts Committee in scrutinising value for money of public spending was once fairly limited to government itself. As delivery models for public services change, so the reach of the committee has spread beyond government departments to also examine public bodies and private companies providing public services. I know this mirrors the experience of my local government scrutiny committee colleagues. 

It is in this context that the Centre for Public Scrutiny is holding its Democracy, governance and the truth conference. In many ways, these three words perfectly captures what drives the work of my committee and others who have the privilege of scrutinising and holding to account those with responsibility for public services. 

I have a clear view that it is my responsibility to get the best for taxpayers. Whilst we do that through the lens of value for money, financial sustainability and efficiency, we must never lose sight of taxpayers and the people whose lives we are aiming to improve through public services.

Select committees and local government scrutiny, similarly, face the challenge of scrutinising against the backdrop of public spending cuts, increased demand and the seismic impact of Brexit. My committee is currently looking at the financial sustainability of local government and we will be publishing our report before Christmas. In taking evidence it is clear that local government, with support from organisations such as CIPFA and the LGA, are doing all they can to become more commercial and entrepreneurial but in the teeth of reduced funding each organisation is facing an uphill struggle

Local government is often held up as leading the way in the transformation of public services and overview and scrutiny has played its part in providing assurance change is effective, efficient and value for money. We must have the confidence and skills to be loud and clear when we identify concerns or where value is not being provided. The best leaders and decision-makers do recognise the value of external involvement and how it this leads to better outcomes. 

It is my opinion that we need to take a whole system view of how we continue to effectively scrutinise spend on public services. Given the moves towards further devolution, it is vitally important that the PAC takes stock of where accountability lies in relation to devolution. Parliament, local government and the public must be absolutely assured that devolved spending is subject to effective scrutiny and there are clear lines of accountability for delivering value for money. We must ensure that new governance and scrutiny arrangements arising from devolution, complements and not further complicates what already exists. 

Meg Hiller will be delivering a keynote address at the CfPS conference: Democracy, governance and the truth on 1 December 2016. More information here

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