Public Accounts Committee should be wary of ‘a blame and scapegoat culture’, says FDA

15 March 2012
For immediate release

Responding to reports that chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, will today announce that civil servants are privately arguing that the PAC should be dismantled and that she considers civil servants should be accountable to Parliament, FDA General Secretary Jonathan Baume said:

"This is an important debate but Mrs Hodge is talking nonsense in claiming that civil servants want to abolish the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

"Civil servants have no problems with being held accountable for key decisions and implementation, but you cannot draw a simple line between ministerial oversight of policy and the delivery and implementation of policy. Nor does political impartiality mean that civil servants are independent of Government; instead the civil service loyally serves the elected Government of the day and is central to policy-making and the implementation of ministerial commitments and decisions.

"The longstanding convention is that civil servants are accountable to ministers and ministers to parliament, with the exception of permanent secretaries or chief executives who, as accounting officers, are directly accountable to Parliament through the PAC.

"What is important is that we ensure accountability but also maintain a clear, private space in which ministers and civil servants can discuss policy and implementation and not drift to a situation where civil servants are being asked to report - and potentially criticise - the conduct and decisions of elected ministers.

"Further, the PAC should be aware of the danger of setting in place a 'blame and scapegoat' culture. At a time when pay and pension benefits for those in senior posts across government and arms-length bodies are being reduced, fewer and fewer people will be willing to take up these very challenging roles if the PAC refuses them a fair and considered hearing on difficult issues, preferring instead to grab short-term media attention."

Mrs Hodge will also reportedly accuse former Cabinet Secretary Lord O'Donnell of acting - whilst still in post - "as if he had taken on the role of shop steward for aggrieved permanent secretaries".

Baume said: "The FDA wholeheartedly endorsed Lord O'Donnell's letter to Mrs Hodge of 20 December regarding the operation of the PAC, which challenged her cursory rewriting of longstanding constitutional conventions and also objected to what many saw as gratuitous bullying, with the PAC setting itself as prosecutor, judge and jury."

Notes for editors

1. The FDA is the trade union and professional body representing 18,000 of the UK's senior civil and public servants. Our members include policy advisors, senior managers, tax inspectors, economists, statisticians, accountants, special advisers, government lawyers, diplomats, crown prosecutors and NHS managers.

2. Members in HMRC are represented by the Association of Revenue and Customs (ARC), a section of the FDA.

3. The FDA (formerly the First Division Association) should be referred to simply as "The FDA" and can be described as "the senior public servants' union".

4. For further information contact:

  • Jonathan Baume, FDA General Secretary, tel: 020 7401 5555 or 07976 951191.
  • Oliver Rowe, Communications Manager, tel: 020 7401 5588.