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This speech was given as part of an Adjournment Debate in Westminster Hall on 2 March 2010.

Watch Richard’s speech

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) (Con): I am grateful to have the opportunity to take part in this debate. I want to focus on the narrow issue of the correspondence between me and the permanent secretary of the Department for Communities and Local Government, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) referred in his introduction. Since that correspondence there has been an extraordinary and indefensible outburst from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw). I should like to hear the Minister, on behalf of the Government, condemn what was said and state, on the record, that civil servants have done nothing wrong in relation to such matters.

I wrote to the permanent secretary, Mr. Peter Housden, on 3 February. As a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I see permanent secretaries from various Departments twice a week, and have done so for the eight-and-a-half years that I have been a member of the Committee. I am familiar with the fact that one of the titles of the permanent secretary-it is the reason why the permanent secretary is the witness before the Public Accounts Committee-is accounting officer. Permanent secretaries are legally, as opposed to politically, responsible to Parliament for the effective, efficient and economic use of public funds.

This morning, I was at a seminar, which was chaired by the admirable Peter Riddell, at which a former senior Labour Cabinet Minister, who has only recently stepped down from the Cabinet, said, "Ministers are there to represent the public interest first and foremost in obtaining value for money in the use of public resources. That is their job. It is the job of accounting officers, of permanent secretaries, to stand behind them to make sure, if there is any falling short from that standard, that they notify it to the appropriate authorities."

The right hon. Member for Exeter accused Mr. Peter Housden of being biased and said that he was not surprised that the documents had been leaked. May I say for the record that the documents were not leaked? They were sent to me in response to a letter that I had written to the permanent secretary. Mr. Housden copied them to the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell. I can hardly think of a less likely way to leak something than to send a copy of what one is doing to the Cabinet Secretary. In his letter, which he also attached to the Secretary of State, he said that

“I am concerned that the approach you are currently proposing”-

that is the approach currently proposed by the Secretary of State-

“makes it difficult for me to meet the standards expected of me as Accounting Officer.”

Far from leaking the documents, he did the right thing.

As for seriously mishandling the situation, I have since had a letter from the Comptroller and Auditor General to whom I also copied the correspondence. It is a fact of the nature of requesting a direction from a Secretary of State that the permanent secretary will also send copies of it to the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General. In his letter, Mr. Housden alludes to that. He says:

“As I am required to do, I will send copies of your instruction and this letter, to the Comptroller and Auditor General, who will normally draw the matter to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee.”

In his letter to me, which I received yesterday by e-mail, the Comptroller and Auditor General said:

“The Accounting Officer has followed the correct procedure for raising his concerns about the value for money of the scheme by seeking a Direction from his Secretary of State and notifying me. In accordance with the provisions set down in 'Managing Public Money'”-

which is a Treasury guidance document-

"I have notified the Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts of this Direction."

In other words, there is no question but that the permanent secretary has acted properly.

The reason he acted properly is that he was concerned that the approach being proposed by the Government was improper, an indefensible use of public funds, unfeasible in the sense of being undeliverable, and almost certainly unlawful. In such circumstances, he did exactly the right thing. I see that Mrs. Humble has transmogrified into you, Mr. Jones, in the last couple of seconds, so I will address my concluding comments to you.

I repeat my request to the Minister to ensure that we all understand, on the record, that the behaviour of that civil servant has been in the finest traditions of the civil service rather than against them. We all understand that the career of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has, in some ways, been an anger management therapy and a working out of his feelings towards his former employer at the BBC, but that is not a reason to lash out at civil servants, and I hope that the Minister will confirm that.

 



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