Britain has one of the least corrupt public services in the world. Mistakes, yes they happen. Inefficiencies, certainly – what large complex organisations don’t have a constant battle with becoming overweight? But public servants pocketing public funds, or demanding bribes to do their jobs, is mercifully a very rare occurrence, now.
It was not always so – some of us are old enough to remember that as late as the 1970s there were cases of personal corruption, and sometimes organised corruption, in parts of the public services. Local government and the police featured in most of these cases. And as late as the 1980s there were cases of political corruption (Westminster Council) or political maladministration (Lambeth) that were deemed inappropriate.
People now forget that this was one of the principle reasons for the creation of the Audit Commission (AC) the NAO and the other audit bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The reason we have one of the least corrupt systems is because we made it that way, by creating a rigorous system of policing to ensure probity in public office.
A secondary reason for creating the AC was to provide the public with rigorous analysis of how well various local public bodies were doing in spending public money, not just honestly but efficiently and effectively as well. This role vastly increased in the 1990s under the previous Conservative government, not least after their failure with the Poll Tax. It was not New Labour that gave the AC the role Eric Pickles now finds so objectionable – that of monitoring the performance of local services. It was his Party.
This new role continued to be controversial, and it is true that the AC sometimes over-reached itself. Whilst Comprehensive Performance Assessments (CPA) of local authorities were generally regard as a success, the successor Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA) was viewed as a step too far by many. But the comparative performance data that the AC has published on local government, over nearly two decades now, has proved an invaluable source. Ministers, Councillors, citizens and academics have all been able to use this information to make judgements about local services.
The AC was limited, by statute, not to criticise government policy. But just occasionally it got around that, not least by teeming up with the NAO. Their joints reviews – especially the one of the youth criminal justice system some years back – were insightful and had a massive impact. No wonder some in Whitehall hate them.
Now all that is likely to disappear.
Or will it? The hasty announcement of the AC’s death has been characterized by a complete lack of clarity about what will replace it – for both financial and performance audit. The usual suspects have rushed to reassure us it will ‘save’ £50m, but given the uncertainties about how the new system will work this is not just speculation, it’s pure, utter, spin. In reality, many of the things the AC does will continue, but either being done by unaccountable private audit firms or they will disappear into the bowels of Mr Pickles ministry.
Many of us probably thought the new Coalition would make an interesting experiment is seeing how a more left-of-centre, or maybe centre-of-centre Party might restrain a more right-of-centre one. The announcement of the abolition of the AC is an example of how rather than 1 plus 1 equalling 1.5, with this government it is more often than not making 3, or even 4.
Neither the Lib Dems nor the Tories promised to abolish the AC in their Manifesto’s to the British people. Nor did the Coalition Agreement. What the Coalition did promise was a more open, consultative, style of government. What they clearly meant was they’d be open with and consult each other and the rest of us could go hang.
Getting rid of the AC is not just about abolishing a quango. The AC, alongside the National Audit Office, has an almost constitutional position – indeed in most countries the audit bodies are constitutional. The AC is responsible for the performance audit of nearly all the services that matter to people on the ground, besides health. Its future deserves a much more serious debate than a quick chat in Whitehall between the Coalition buddies and an almost instant decision by Mr Pickles.
Whatever the criticisms that can be levelled at the AC, and they are mostly not the ludicrous self-serving drivel being spouted by Ministers, it is far too important to be put to the sword on a whim. This is not about cuts, or the need to cull Whitehall, it is about a major feature of our democratic system. Margaret Thatcher, for all her faults, understood that – which is why the AC was formed under her government and strengthened by John Major. It’s about time someone told Mr Pickles, and his Lib Dem friends, that the term ‘elective dictatorship’ is a term of abuse, not something to be desired.
See also an excellent piece by Tony Travers here: