Richard Heaton’s evidence to Public Accounts Committee shows MPs/Ministers need to rethink relationships with charities

Summary

Why the actions of the then Permanent Secretary at Cabinet Office, Richard Heaton were at textbook response to concerns of a government-funded charity, and why MPs & Ministers need to completely rethink government’s relationship with charities in general.

Before I start, declarations of interest:

  • Chair of Public Accounts Committee, Meg Hillier MP, follows Puffles
  • Richard Heaton, now Permanent Secretary of Ministry of Justice, follows Puffles
  • Caroline Flint MP – now on the Public Accounts Committee was one of the ministers I worked closest with during my time in Whitehall (but by no means was perched over her shoulder)
  • Chris Wormald, now Permanent Secretary of Department for Education, was once my director-general when he was at DCLG.

Not huge declarations of interest – I’m not claiming to be on first name terms with any of them or close advisers/associates. The point is for the reader is that being aware of the above may put into context what follows below.

Background

My previous blogpost on this issue is at https://adragonsbestfriend.wordpress.com/2015/10/15/was-a-new-piece-of-parliamentary-history-made-today/

The National Audit Office’s report is at https://www.nao.org.uk/report/investigation-the-governments-funding-of-kids-company/

The full video footage of the hearing is at http://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/da56e29f-2dc5-46cf-be0a-13f90698f69e?in=16:04:00

It’s worth watching the video footage in full if you’re interested in some of the principles around the relationship between ministers, civil servants and charities.

My storify of my tweets

https://storify.com/Puffles2010/richard-heaton-chris-wormald-s-evidence-to-the-pub

The report from the Public Accounts Committee is due in a few weeks. We’re yet to hear from the ministers who overruled Mr Heaton – Matt Hancock & Oliver Letwin. Their evidence will be interesting.

The relationship between ministers and charities

This is the big issue that emerges from the evidence session. Well-connected charities seemed able to secure government funding ahead of others, without the sound oversight of what they were delivering. This is aside from issues around roles & responsibilities of charity trustees.

If you look at it from a ministerial political incentive, the choice seems to be to deliver these things through local government, or to deliver them through charities. Charities that are in direct receipt of government grants have a financial incentive to be less critical publicly of ministers. They also are useful for ministers to call upon when launching new policies or reports when in need of supportive quotations. After all, people like charities more than they like politicians – though in recent times the former assumption is being tested more and more.

Why was so much senior civil service time taken up by a relatively small organisation operating over a limited geographical field?

This is another question – one that reflects just how over-centralised the UK system of public administration is. A London-based charity in the grand scheme of things shouldn’t have any incentive to have strong political relationships linked to funding. Their primary relationship should be with City Hall and the Mayor of London – properly scrutinised by the London Assembly.

Given that Mr Wormald has amongst other things all schools in England on his plate (due to the centralising nature of the academies program – for another post). Mr Heaton when he was in Cabinet Office was looking at so many other things such as the drafts of all legislation tabled in Parliament as First Parliamentary Counsel, all things digital…

An archived Tweet on how Cabinet Office shd use Twitter - Mr Heaton consults Puffles.
An archived Tweet on how Cabinet Office shd use Twitter – Mr Heaton consults Puffles.

…how did it get to the stage where so much of Mr Heaton’s time was taken up by this case?

For me, this wasn’t the fault of the senior civil servants – this was a ministerial call. Had they been more robust earlier on around controls, systems and processes, things could have been nipped in the bud much earlier. As it is, Mr Hancock and Mr Letwin need to come before one of Parliament’s committees to account for their actions. It may also be worth such committees calling former ministers Baroness Hughes and Tim Loughton to give evidence too.

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