20 March 2013

Last week at a joint meeting of the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies and the Institute of Public Administration Len Cook spoke about relationships between Ministers and their chief executives/permanent heads. He used illustrations from his experiences as a departmental head in both New Zealand and Britain.

In spite of harsh criticisms of the Civil Service by current UK Ministers, including the Prime Minister commenting that officials were the “enemies of enterprise” and the Cabinet Office Minister complaining repeatedly about the obstructiveness of civil servants, Cook admired the professionalism of his British colleagues. He felt the Cabinet Office Minister’s apparent belief in the superiority of governance relationships in New Zealand was misplaced.

Cook spoke of the way British institutions reinforce good government.  They have a constitutional significance not replicated in the New Zealand version of the Westminster model.  An example of what he meant may be the role of the Public Accounts Committee when compared with select committees in New Zealand.  In both countries the extent of select committee influence has been dramatically played out this month.

Officials from Solid Energy have been criticised for their unresponsiveness to the Commerce select committee when exploring reasons for the dramatic failure of that SOE.  The Speaker has been asked to consider whether a reluctance to provide information to the select committee, which was subsequently disclosed, in detail, in the media, constituted contempt.

In Britain, the former head of the Serious Fraud Office who seemed to take a similarly unhelpful stance when being examined by the Public Accounts Committee two weeks ago, last week wrote what is described as “…an extraordinary and abject apology to Parliament…” for arguing that he had done nothing wrong when challenged by the committee about the improper approval of substantial payments to close colleagues before he left office.

The letter, published by the Guardian, includes a “…deep and unreserved apology…” for actions that “…fell well short of the standard that the committee are entitled to expect…” The incident related to about £1 million in termination payments made to three SFO staff members, and allowing one of them to work two days a week from her home in the Lake District and paying over £27,500 a year for travel to London each week for the other three days.

A committee member who had described the official as “slovenly and sloppy” in his handling of public money and who noted a refusal at the time to apologise, said that the change in attitude was a victory for the select committee system. “…These proceedings are not all about grandstanding – they can actually get to the heart of the matter and have a real impact on public services…”

The committee was very critical of the management of the SFO. During the former head’s leadership there was a series of spectacularly unsuccessful investigations.One case has led to a damages claim of £300 million against the Government.