The increasingly convoluted attempts to reconcile Ministerial accountability to Parliament for spending public money and greater devolution of decision making about the use of such funds can sometimes appear designed solely to avoid the blindingly obvious conclusion that more local decision making requires more local accountability.
It would, however, also help if there were a clearer distinction between the things for which Government Ministers should properly be held to account by Parliament and the current focus on ensuring that other decision making bodies are up to the job and can, if something goes wrong, 'expect to be held to account ….. by Ministers and the Accounting Officer'. But not, note, by Parliament.
We can illustrate some of this by reference to major local transport schemes since yesterday saw publication of the latest of the accountability system statements that the Government sees as providing reassurance to the PAC that Ministers retain the necessary level of control and influence:
These system statements contain a lot of perfectly sensible elements and this one in itself largely repeats stock approaches. It does, however, follow hot on the heels of announcements by Transport Ministers on devolving major local transport schemes to local decision making which raise significant issues in the context of accountability.
First, there is the ‘key role’ for Local Enterprise Partnerships which will work with local transport authorities (LTAs) in new Local Transport Boards (LTBs). LEPs have the most extraordinarily confused accountability both locally and nationally given their wide range of governance and other structures, highly variable membership, frequent lack of corporate personality and private rather than public sector leadership. Had funds been devolved to the LTA the whole apparatus of propriety, audit and value for money that applies to local authorities would have been engaged immediately.
As it is, we now have a whole new set of arrangements to ensure that LTBs are operating properly in their role to agree, manage and oversee the delivery of a programme of transport schemes. Whilst the Government clearly want to emphasise LEP leadership, the bottom line is that locally elected politicians from the LTA (or LTAs) will have the majority vote. There is a legitimate issue about scale in some areas but there are Combined Authority and Integrated Transport Authority structures which can be used where LTAs wish to work together.
Secondly, whilst there is a 'key objective of removing Whitehall from the process of making decisions on which local schemes should or should not go ahead’ Ministers retain a responsibility ‘to ensure that the new local decision makers have arrangements in place to achieve the value for money … and we will shortly publish detailed guidance on [local assurance frameworks]'
These frameworks will cover governance, financial management, accountability, meeting value for money and environmental considerations and will need to be approved by the Department. These are also said to go beyond the general local authority accountability statements because they include elements that are specific to the approval and funding of major transport schemes.
There are indeed specific approaches to appraisal of transport schemes but these can, and indeed probably will be, a continuation of those already used. Beyond that the likelihood is that the statements will form a set of detailed accountability documents with each LTB which will tell us precious little that we didn't already know.
The further irony is that whilst an LTB might do quite a lot, one thing it won’t do is the actual delivery of the transport schemes. That is devolved to a body such as, well, a local authority. And the accountable body for holding the transport scheme funds will also be …. the local authority.
Thirdly, the original consultation document on the new devolved approach says:
‘This is not about passing the buck of responsibility from the centre, but enabling decision-making to be genuinely local whilst ensuring continued accountability for public funds to the national taxpayer.’
In fact, shouldn't it be precisely about passing the buck. Or perhaps less pejoratively about handing on the baton and expecting those making the decisions about priorities and about value for money to be held directly to account.
This is fundamentally about putting responsibility where it lies.
In fact with a system of delegated funding of the kind envisaged, one could argue that regularity is unlikely to be a problem and propriety should be assured by the accountable body doing its normal job. Value for money is likely to be determined by whether the scheme did what it should have done and was well managed. On that score, local responsibility seems the right answer, and if necessary the relevant LTB should answer to Parliament directly.
The other side of the coin, however, is about the use of the envelope of resources as a whole and whether in overall terms the approach that is being pursued secures value for money.
These are the issues on which Minsters should be called into the frame and on which there are some meaty questions including:
-the decision to allocate resources across the country on the basis of population with no account taken of transport need or other considerations or indeed wider priorities between areas and (whisper it) regions
- the whole notion of entrusting LTBs with responsibility for making decisions without any regard to wider outcomes from the programme as a whole.
Rather than the minutiae of individual schemes, the question of whether the programme should be more than just the sum of its locally agreed and perfectly accountable parts then starts to come into view.
Instead we seem to be ploughing straight on with a new and detailed apparatus which incorporates many things that are already requirements or expectations (and others which might have been unnecessary had the Audit Commission not been removed) but which focus on Ministers and Accounting Officers answering to Parliament for local failures rather than on the decisions that they actually made which determine the overall value for money from the majors programme. That does seem a touch odd.