The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, Margaret Hodge, has called for a dialogue to be opened on how to change the civil service, as she declared “the system is broke” in a speech given at the University of East Anglia.
Giving the annual John Garrett memorial lecture, Ms Hodge lamented the operation of the civil service as a barrier preventing value for money.
The veteran Labour MP admitted that civil servants fail to be trained to meet the demands of modern government, which requires delivering projects and programmes rather than just developing policies.
Ms Hodge said: “There are lots of fantastically bright and able people who join the civil service so it’s not a matter that there is not the capability there but they are not developed and trained in the right way to carry out the tasks that are required of modern government.”
She added: “They have not got the commercial skills, they do not know how to run projects, they have not got the financial skills, they do not know about I.T.”
The worst thing about the civil service, according to the first female Chair of the Public Accounts Committee is that the route to promotion, which involves changing positions every few years, means “nobody sees anything through from beginning to end”. This leaves little feeling of responsibility or accountability for projects or programmes, Hodge explained.
During her speech on holding government to account, Hodge cited examples of poor management at a substantial cost to the state. She used an example of how ten changes of civil servants responsible for the attempt to regionalise fire control in five years led to the scheme’s abandonment, at a cost of £400m.
Ms Hodge also recalled the decision under the previous government to privatise the transfer of energy from offshore wind farms to the National Grid. Although the farms’ lifespan only lasted a decade, the contract was awarded for double that amount of that time. The income awarded was irrespective of whether the energy was used and linked to the retail price index instead of the cost price index, with a maximum of ten per cent of the contract lost if pipe failure prevented the transmission of energy. Energy prices could rise almost 20% in the next ten to 15 years as a result of energy infrastructure, Hodge stated “If we just managed things better we could really make an impact”.
Under Hodge’s leadership the “queen of the select committees” has striven to make civil servants more accountable. With her committee now recalling civil servants responsible for projects they no longer are involved with, Hodge claimed that the culture is beginning to change.
Speaking to Concrete, Ms Hodge claimed that the current student finance system “just is not working”. She believes that radical change needs to be made to student loans to make higher education accessible but more affordable to the state. The Public Accounts Committee recently concluded that up to £80 bn worth of student loans would not get paid back.
With most of the people who go to university still from middle class backgrounds and students from low income households in a minority, Hodge viewed that funding students through higher education should not provide a massive subsidy for the middle class.
She said: “I just wonder whether we ought to go to a system that subsidises tuition but does not subsidise living expenses”.
For Hodge, a postgraduate loan system is unaffordable in the current situation and the way to fund postgraduates was only through providing bursaries. Last autumn the government announced a boost to the amount of money available for bursaries to postgraduate students, albeit at the expense of bursaries to undergraduates.