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Wednesday 05 April 2017

Think like a service user, act like a taxpayer

By Kay Hender
Kay Hender talks to Meg Hillier, Chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, about grandstanding, Brexit… and circus school.

Meg Hillier’s office is steeped in history. She tells me that, when he was Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) from 1959 to 1963, future Prime Minister Harold Wilson worked at the grand round table we’re sitting at, “possibly where you are now, shaping future Labour Government policies”. In the days before Portcullis House, two or three MPs often shared the same room, so Hillier says Wilson “became Chair of PAC in order to have this office”. She reveals that before it was designated to the PAC Chair, it was a bedroom. If walls could talk…

The office is dated by the sign above the door, announcing the domain of the ‘Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee’. Hillier is the second female Chair of the PAC, which is charged with holding ministers and civil servants to account for the efficient delivery of public services. She has been filling the rather big shoes of fellow Labour MP Margaret Hodge since June 2015.

Hillier clearly relishes the scope of her role: “You see in your hand the guts of Whitehall spread before you – the good, the bad and the ugly – and we’ve seen all of that in just the last year and a half alone,” she says.

Corporate tax and HMRC

Hillier says she’s most proud of “the work we’ve been doing on tax”. She highlights what’s been dubbed ‘the Flint amendment’ – named after PAC member Caroline Flint – which allows ministers to require multinationals operating in the UK to publish information on their finances and the taxes they pay. Hillier explains that while the Flint amendment was included in the Finance Act, implementation is being held back because “the Government is saying it doesn’t want to go it alone. So, we’re asking ‘how many countries do you need to work with before you go for this?’”

The PAC has been asking HMRC to be more transparent over the details of corporation tax settlements for years, creating problems for officials bound by the department’s confidentiality rules. PAC’s questioning of senior HMRC staff about this issue has been criticised by both the FDA and its members in the past, with the Committee famously compelling an HMRC lawyer to swear on the Bible before answering questions on corporation tax in 2011.

Hillier is clear that “the rules need to be changed” to allow civil servants to be more open. She says: “I don’t blame current officials for sticking to the rules they’ve got, that’s their job… We’ve been very clear on some of the work HMRC has been doing on enforcement, they get a very good return rate on some of this. We push for more because we’re impatient to see more money coming into the Exchequer. We’ve been pushing for more civil servants in parts of HMRC, such as compliance, because we recognise that. The problem is they have to abide by confidentiality which gives the companies succour to hide behind it too.”

I ask if she thinks the Government and its civil servants should be held to account by select committees in the same way. As the saying goes: civil servants advise, ministers decide.

“Ministers need to take responsibility overall,” she says, “but if you’re running a very large multi-billion project, a minister is not going to be over the detail of that; it’s just not possible with the number of things in a minister’s portfolio. We have Accounting Officers for a reason, they’re responsible for the money and guarding taxpayers’ money wisely… Our job is not to question policy but look at the efficiency, effectiveness and value for money of Government spending… Sometimes you’ll get a civil servant saying ‘The Secretary of State said…’, so we’ll know that strays into policy and say, ‘OK, we get it’.”

‘Grandstanding’

When I ask Hillier about the frequent allegations of committee ‘grandstanding” thrown at her predecessor, she responds that “people who say that are usually on the receiving end of questions, I would hazard… Styles of questioning are a different thing to grandstanding. Grandstanding is someone proclaiming from the position of Chair on something without basis and using it as a political platform.”

I remind Hillier of the first question the committee asked of civil service Chief Executive John Manzoni, during Margaret Hodge’s time as Chair, not long after he had been appointed: “What is the point of you?”

“I don’t think it’s grandstanding, it’s asking questions that people want to know,” Hillier quickly replies. “I can’t remember the John Manzoni one, but there were lots of discussions about who was running the civil service – there were two heads and then it was one… I don’t imagine John Manzoni was thrown by that question. [You wouldn’t say] that to a junior person… they’ve maybe stepped up to the plate because they’re the right person for that project, so we do try to welcome them… There are times when witnesses try to grandstand and see it as an opportunity to get headlines the next day – we don’t like being spun so it works both ways.”#

Hillier’s advice to a civil servant facing PAC is “be straight, be honest, don’t be defensive… When things have gone wrong, admit it.” She adds: “My mantra is we need to think like a user and act like a taxpayer, and so do civil servants. We give credit to people who’ve acknowledged problems and tell us when something went wrong, because then we can move on and ask ‘What next?’ We won’t parade it.”

Brexit

Hillier believes the civil service faces a huge challenge in meeting the demands of Brexit, given the likely pace of negotiations and policy changes. “We’ve got two years to get a lot of this done. [The PAC is] worried there isn’t enough thinking about how this is going to translate in a post-Brexit world. Brexit is dominating, the political eye is being taken off other balls, but it’s still a big unknown.

“It’ll be interesting to do a headcount now and a headcount when we’re some way down the Brexit line, to see how many [more] civil servants there are as a result of coming out of Europe. You could add it up quite quickly, but it’s too early yet.”

On the subject of her own organisational skills, Hillier says: “I’d be in logistics if I wasn’t doing this. I’m a busy Mum, I have lots of lists and I have [my assistant] Emily. I have fantastic teams at the NAO and my own office. I’ve got three children but I’m not a mollycoddling mother. My eldest, who’s a teenager, says he really likes the fact that I just trust him to get on with things. It’s the same as the civil servants in front of us, working parents juggling children, they work long hours too.”

Away from work, Hillier says she’s “quite good at compartmentalising. When I’m with my children that’s it – I make sure I carve out time to do something different. For a while I went to circus school with my daughter – I represent the National Centre for Circus Arts in Hoxton. She and I can do a bit of acrobatics. But I’m better at juggling work and life than juggling balls.”


Kay Hender is Editor of Public Service Magazine.
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