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20 April 2024

Labour’s waste-finder general

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee: Britain isn’t corrupt, it’s incompetent.

By Will Dunn

Sooner or later the Palace of Westminster will have to close. Someone will be injured (or worse) by falling masonry, or it will become contaminated with sewage or asbestos or, as happened in 1834, it will burn to the ground. The building that houses parliament has come to embody one of its most enduring problems: the grand failure of capital maintenance, in which assets are allowed to decline until their condition becomes a crisis – at which point the problem is so expensive that it is fundamentally unsolvable. The most recent estimate for parliament is that refurbishment could cost up to £22bn and take 76 years, a sum neither party wants to inflict on the public purse, so every vote becomes an exercise in avoiding the issue.

The same accounting failure affects our water system, railways, defence infrastructure, hospitals and schools. Politicians promise new buildings while failing to account for those already built with crumbling concrete. Contracts are written in haste by officials who do not fully understand the risks involved. When the project fails and the costs spiral, they are hauled in front of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and its chair, Meg Hillier.

Hillier occupies a unique position. The 55-year-old MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch is one of just 27 sitting Labour MPs who have experience in government (she was a junior minister at the Home Office between 2007 and 2010), and for the past decade she has been one of government’s most influential scrutineers, leading a cross-party group of MPs that see, as she puts it, “the guts of Whitehall, spread before us”. The PAC has the power to request evidence and demand answers from every government department, and its reports are often scathing, describing, for example, the “seismic” failures of projects such as HS2 and the Post Office’s Horizon system, the “raiding” of NHS capital budgets, the “all-time low” in HMRC customer service levels, the “glacial pace” and “extortionate” costs of the Ministry of Defence’s nuclear submarine decommissioning project, which is 15 years behind schedule and £800m over budget.

These reports may embarrass the government, but half of the committee’s members are Conservatives. The others form a diverse group of MPs from across many of parliament’s dividing lines. “That teamwork is very unusual in parliament,” Hillier told me. The PAC meets regularly in person: “We have a ruthless preparation regime,” she said, “everybody prepares together.” She speaks rapidly and in detail, informed by the reams of evidence that are submitted to the PAC, the papers they are allowed to access and her regular conversations with permanent secretaries across Whitehall. Her decade as chair has involved a mission not only to build a coherent team that can agree on unflinching assessments of the work of the state, but also a high level of trust that will give it access to “people, papers and purses” across government.

Her room is a good place to meet; Harold Wilson, who chaired the PAC from 1959 to 1963 while shadow chancellor, is said to have wanted the job for its grand riverside office. Above the door, the word “assiduity” – attention to detail – is painted in old-fashioned blackletter type. On the walls are framed pictures of former PAC chairs. In the centre, in a golden frame, is William Gladstone, who formally proposed the committee as chancellor in the early 1860s. Beneath the men in their frames (and one woman: Hillier’s immediate predecessor, Margaret Hodge, was the first female chair) there is a tea trolley that looks as if it could have been in continuous service since Wilson’s day.

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The bookshelves behind her desk reach towards the wood-panelled ceiling. There’s a comprehensive collection of political biographies, of which her husband is a keen reader. Immediately behind her chair is a shelf on which a few titles are within reach – Left Out, Patrick Maguire and Gabriel Pogrund’s account of Labour’s humiliation under Jeremy Corbyn, a novel called Letters to a Young Politician by Alistair McAlpine, and Power: A User’s Guide by the American organisational psychologist Julie Diamond.

Assiduity aside, the PAC’s guiding principle is that it is always more expensive to fix things after they break. Everywhere in the public sector there are examples of what Hillier calls “cost shunting” – the robbing of one resource to pay the urgent needs of another. “There’s always something more important to spend the money on. Everyone’s always got another priority.” This short-term scrambling leads to procurement failures that can look rather dodgy from the outside, but Hillier said Britain is a long way from being a corrupt country: bad contracts and a lack of transparency are the result of “incompetence, rather than wilful profiteering”.

In her role as “waste-finder general” – a title she relishes – Hillier is also central to the project that will allow Labour to fulfil its promise to voters if it wins the next election. With almost no headroom for spending, high levels of personal tax and rising national debt (the government spent more than £100bn on debt interest in 2022-23) Labour’s only means of paying for policy is to find efficiencies. Gareth Davies, the head of the National Audit Office (NAO), told parliament in January that there are significant savings to be found: his estimate is that outdated infrastructure and a lack of maintenance are wasting £20bn a year.

More than this, however, Hillier said that whoever forms the next government will need to embrace what she calls “slow politics” – the need to make policy that accounts realistically for the huge spending challenges ahead, such as our ageing society and the climate crisis. “Good politics is looking 20 years ahead, at least,” she told me. She is wary of the “retail offerings” of election manifestos, especially where they come at the cost of long-term thinking.

George Osborne would doubtless argue that HS2 was a good example of slow politics, a project designed to create jobs and attract investment over a long period of time, and bear fruit in another parliament. The same is true of investments in renewable power and energy efficiency, which had they been implemented more quickly would have helped reduce the economic impact of Russia’s war in Ukraine. The problem is that such plans are a magnet for opportunists to “cut the green crap” or to cancel the railway line, raiding the slow, sensible money to give voters a quick fix.

The answer, said Hillier, is to be brutally honest with the public about how well public money is being spent. Rachel Reeves has already announced plans for an Office for Value for Money; we already have the NAO to look at spending that has happened, but Labour says this new body would ask such questions before the money is spent.

Politicians like Hillier are increasingly significant in the low-growth, high-debt world in which the UK and other major economies find themselves. Her priorities will be the priorities of many future governments: “The ruthless, ruthless pursuit of value for money, finding and challenging waste, and making it clear that if money is not being spent well, there will have to be tough decisions.”

[See also: John Hayes: “Tory voters want full-fat Conservatism”]

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