HM Revenue and Customs, the Public Accounts Committee and accountability

On 18 December 2006, Paul Gray, Acting Chairman of HM Revenue and Customs, appeared before the House of Commons’ Public Account Committee and was questioned on the performance of the department’s main IT supplier Capgemini – and about the billions of pounds due to be paid to the company.

Senior officials when they come before the Public Accounts Committee usually glide through the proceedings, and they wonder why, at the end, MPs had not asked half the awkward questions officials had been briefed to expect.

At the hearing on 18 December 2006 Gray, in the words of one person who attended the proceedings, “was treated pretty lightly, largely because he was not confrontational – he was trying genuinely to help the committee”.

Gray is an honourable exception. Often witnesses, when they come before the committee and are asked difficult questions on the performance of their department, seem to regard it as their duty to increase the horizon of MPs’ ignorance.

This is a pity because the Public Accounts Committee is regarded as one of the pillars on which rests accountability to Parliament over major IT projects. It may be worth looking then at how the Public Accounts Committee works.

Stage One:

The National Audit Office investigates whether a department has obtained value over say a large IT-related contact, and produces a draft report which has to be agreed with the department.

This process usually involves the audit office’s having to change a draft report until it satisfies the department’s head civil servant, usually a permanent secretary, who will then sign off the report. This means the report can be published.

The audit office investigated the NHS’s National Programme for IT [NPfIT], for example, and produced three draft reports, all of which were seen by Computer Weekly. A comparison between the drafts and the final report indicates that almost every paragraph was contested, with the result that the final report lost much of the strength, vigour and precision of the drafts.

There were even minor changes of wording. The draft report, for example, had an appendix headed: “Concerns raised in correspondence with the National Audit Office”. The final report said: “Matters raised in correspondence with the National Audit Office”.

The final version of the report on the NPfIT has been mentioned regularly by ministers and senior health officials as they seek to provide independent evidence of the success of the National Programme.

Stage Two:

The National Audit Office writes a draft press release on its report for the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee who is currently Edward Leigh MP.

Stage Three:

The department that is the subject of the audit office’s report briefs its officials, known as “witnesses”, who are due to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions on the report.

Stage Four:

The National Audit Office produces a confidential briefing note to members of the Public Accounts Committee. It prompts MPs on some of the more difficult questions they could ask, but which have doubtless been covered in the briefings permanent secretaries have received from their subordinates.

Sometimes members of the Committee also receive unsolicited papers, documents, emails and other material from the public, suppliers, consultants or journalists which they can use to inform their questions.

Loyal MPs representing the party in power will often ignore this extraneous material, preferring instead to ask the questions departmental officials are happy to answer.

Stage Five:

The hearing begins. Seats behind the witnesses are occupied by some of the most important people in the committee room. They are there to brief the witnesses, and sometimes they take up an entire row of seats.

There are honourable exceptions, Gray included, but usually the witnesses give long, complex and evasive answers, taking up much of the 10 minutes allocated to MP to ask questions and receive answers. At times, when some of the well-briefed MPs try to ask tough supplementary questions, they are prevented by the chairman from doing so, their time having run out.

The hearing ends, and the witnesses file out into the corridor, their faces aglow.

Stage Six:

A report of the Public Accounts of Committee is written, largely by the National Audit Office. Often it makes some good recommendations, the more potent of which are ignored by the department and the government.

For example the Public Accounts Committee published a report on 13 November 2000 into the crash of a Chinook ZD 576 helicopter on 2 June 1994. The crash on the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland killed 29 people including the four crew. Twenty-five intelligence and police VIPs died.

Nobody knows what caused the crash, though the unreliable safety-critical FADEC engine-control software was thought by the committee – and by an RAF Board of Inquiry – to be a possible factor in the accident.

Despite the lack of any hard evidence on what caused the crash, the Chinook’s two pilots, Flight Lieutenants Rick Cook and Jonathan Tapper were found by two air marshals to have been grossly negligent.

The all-party Public Accounts Committee, after considering the circumstances of the crash in some detail – and receiving technical briefings from the National Audit Office – accused the Ministry of Defence of “unwarrantable arrogance”. The MoD had upheld strongly the findings of gross negligence against the pilots

The committee’s report said: “We simply cannot understand why the Department continue to defend the unsustainable finding of gross negligence and recommend it should be set aside.”

Now, six years on, the finding against Cook and Tapper has not been overturned. In effect the Ministry and Defence and the government have ignored a key recommendation of the Public Accounts Committee.

These six stages explain the main mechanism for accounting to Parliament on the progress or otherwise of large and risky IT-related projects and programmes.

The committee’s existence leads us to believe that Parliament can always hold departments to account over big and costly projects. But it’s only a perception.