Former ministers must be held to account when their policies go wrong

Former ministers must be held to account when their policies go wrong

A new report is demanding that ministers be called to explain when things go wrong under their watch – even if they are no longer in office. This means beefing up scrutiny by ensuring select committees get the information they need more quickly and have the resources to use it.

Published today by the Institute for Government, Accountability in modern government: Recommendations for change looks at how to strengthen government accountability and strengthen public faith in institutions.

It argues that Parliament should recall former ministers to give evidence when policies they have presided over have gone wrong. This would mean holding the architects of policies (such as the ‘hostile environment’ or failed probation reforms) to account directly, as well as their political successors, and the officials who advised them, particularly when foreseeable risks that were not flagged up to the minister arise in the course of a project.

This is just one of the recommendations in the report, which aims to address problems in the relationship between ministers and civil servants, the complexities of modern government and the culture of blame. Others include clarifying what people get for the money spent on public services, improving specialist skills across Whitehall to prevent repeated failures, and better scrutinising the links between local public services.

Benoit Guerin, Senior Researcher at the Institute for Government, said:

“Governing has become increasingly complex, but that is not an excuse for negligence. The public’s dissatisfaction with the Government’s response to Windrush and other scandals shows that there are dangerous weaknesses in the current accountability system. These can be addressed, and we suggest steps the Government should take to strengthen accountability.”

Meg Hillier MP, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said:

“This report from the IfG echoes many of the key challenges for government set out in my annual report as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee: the lack of accountability and someone willing to step up when things go wrong; the need for more pre-scrutiny of government’s big plans to anticipate problems and potential waste of taxpayers’ money, and a review of local scrutiny arrangements as greater spending powers are passed to new city regions. These are all big challenges for the Government which it needs to take notice of and take action on, and I hope it will carefully consider the IfG’s report.”

Former Cabinet minister Dominic Grieve MP said:

“The report highlights serious and systemic problems that seem to beset the civil service and its relationship with politicians and ministers which are capable of being addressed. I very much hope the recommendations will be acted upon. They have the capacity to greatly improve the quality of governance that we can deliver.”

Sir Ian Cheshire, the Government’s Lead Non-Executive, said:

“This Institute for Government report makes important recommendations to improve the governance of the civil service so that it is better equipped to meet the challenges ahead.”