Ministries of Transport and Justice face Parliament

Summary

What happens when Parliament spots things going wrong

This is what happened earlier with the announcement of the interim report into the Westcoast shambles and the new interpreters contract shambles.

OK Pooffles, who’s to blame for #trainfail?

“Firm judgments should not be made based upon what are provisional findings or wider conclusions drawn at this stage.”

A quotation from the press release.

That said, the points raised in the interim report (see here for the pdf) make for interesting reading for those interested in the finer details of public administration.  In particular paragraphs 3.2.3 and 3.2.4 on matrix management structures and the impact of the large scale cuts.

Maria Eagle MP, the Shadow Transport Secretary was on top form in Parliament responding to the Transport Secretary’s statement – if anything reflected by the lack of responses to her very targeted questions to ministers. See the transcript here, note the questions Ms Eagle asked then note the number of questions that the Transport Secretary chose to respond to. If any MP is reading this, the best thing you can do is to submit each question Ms Eagle put to ministers in the Commons as individual written PQs – and force the answers out that way. Otherwise ministers will simply be able to ignore them.

The above is not a party-political point, it’s about the scrutiny of an executive by a legislature point. The same would apply if the party roles were reversed with a different party in power. There is an incentive for ministers to blame civil servants in such situations – the latter cannot speak out publicly. (Hence noting trouble at the top when in this case one of the suspended civil servants did exactly the opposite).

As far as the cuts and reshuffles go, the whole thing bodes ill for the Department for Transport, with significant personnel changes both at senior civil service and ministerial level. But how can you hold anyone to account for the cuts in a scenario like this? Ultimately the decision on the speed and scale of the cuts were taken by The Treasury and Downing Street. The impact of the cuts led to “significant resourcing challenges” – which is civil service speak for:

If you want commercial commissioning to work, you must resource your commissioning bodies.Otherwise you’ll get screwed. We got screwed”

The nature of the cuts meant that there was no salami-slicing of directorates and teams in Whitehall. It really was back to the drawing board stuff, asking the basics such as asking what functions should each department be doing, what functions are they legally bound to carry out and which ones can be dropped, devolved or outsourced. As a result, lots of people will have had to apply for posts in the new structures or did what I did and take the redundancy/voluntary exit packages. Trying to run a franchising process while all of this is happening is…challenging. You’ve got people worried about their futures, you’ve got new teams trying to form and work out possibly new jobs, roles, functions, policy areas and relationships. You’ve got the churn at the top of the senior civil service – and at ministerial level too, recalling that all of the Tory transport ministers were reshuffled away weeks before this whole thing blew up.

On the public administration side, you’ve got criticism of the matrix management set up. The problem of accountability here is the regular churn of senior civil servants and permanent secretaries. The current incumbent can reasonably argue that he’s not been in post nearly long enough to be responsible for the set up in place upon taking post. The Permanent Secretary and the Transport Secretary may be directly accountable but given the two have only been in post for a very short period of time, can they be held responsible for a set up that, in the grand scheme of things takes ages to turn around? It’s a bit like dropping a new captain on an oil tanker as it’s heading towards the rocks – then telling that captain he/she is responsible for any of the environmental damage done.

In terms of future parliamentary inquiries, the Public Accounts Committee will be very interested because of the sums of money involved. Beyond that, the Public Administration Select Committee may be interested in the lessons learned over complex matrix management and the resourcing of commissioning units in the public sector: are they properly resourced to face private sector contractors? Finally, the Transport Select Committee I hope will want to look at what alternative options there are to franchising, given that the very narrow scope of the internal review makes clear that franchising is the option they are going with, only they want to make it work properly. My major fear about all parliamentary inquiries is whether they are properly resourced. Parliamentary select committees all too often are not. That needs to change. Urgently.

What about interpreters? Isn’t this all parlez-vous-Inglese?

Absolutely not – this is about ensuring the course of justice – which is in the public interest. This is what is at risk. Just because someone does not speak English does not mean they do not have the right to justice. You hear stories of people from the UK getting into trouble abroad saying they did not understand proceedings because they were in a foreign language, well similar applies here, just the other way around.

Now, if you thought Nick Buckles of G4S (on Olympics’ security shambles) was painful viewing, have a look at Capita’s Andy Parker in front of the Public Accounts Committee. Margaret Hodge, the Chair of the Committee was on top form, absolutely shredding Parker and Sunna Van Loo – who was also summoned. Neither of the two seemed to be in command of the key facts that should have been absolutely basic top line material for a hearing such as this. This made me wonder whether they were incredibly badly briefed or incredibly clueless as to the operations that they were/are running.

The other thing I noticed in the footage was the audience sitting just behind the two witnesses being grilled. Their facial expressions spoke volumes. At various points, every answer the witnesses gave were greeted with expressions of outrage and/or shakes of the head – to the extent that the committee picked up on it. Whether they should have referred to this – or even cleared the room – is another matter. (As far as the Commons Chamber is concerned, MPs are not allowed to refer to people sitting in the public or press galleries).

Given the evidence given to the Committee, both in public, written evidence and the online forum here, I’m expecting the Public Accounts Committee to fire one hell of a broadside at the Ministry of Justice. I’m also expecting the Ministry of Justice and Whitehall as a whole to completely ignore most of the lessons learnt and carry on as normal. At the moment Parliament’s powers are very limited in terms of being able to compel the government of the day to do anything – in particular where there might be a public interest on issues of public administration. Until that changes, I fear we’ll see repeats of the shambles that seem to be popping up all over the place of late.

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