The Public Accounts Select Committee members are the Reservoir Dogs of Parliament. It’s not just their capacity to terrorise, but the black humour they use for light relief as they hunt down the multibillion-pound stashes of public money absorbed by government departments.
At the end of today’s grilling, Tory MP Stephen Barclay asked the NHS’s Sir David Nicholson if he had appointed anyone “outside the NHS on a short-term contract” to “support” him before the session. Yes. A sidekick explained that this was not for “coaching”, but to help the team “prepare”. And yes, he would write to the committee about the “day rate” charged, which unfortunately he did not have to hand.
The mere reference to “coaching” caused the fearsome Labour chair, Margaret Hodge, and her right-hand man, the Tory Richard Bacon, to giggle sardonically. “We just wondered whether it was Tim Yeo,” Ms Hodge said, smiling sweetly. This referred to the select committee chairman who has suspended himself over allegations – which he denies – that he coached a businessman in a company in which he had a financial interest on what to say when he appeared before him.
Whoever it was doing the prepping seemed to have advised the NHS boss to get his retaliation in first and sound deeply aggrieved. Before the hearing, Barclay had discovered through Freedom of Information figures that 52 staff had been gagged by severance payments worth £2bn since 2008.
Nicholson “absolutely” refuted involvement “in any kind of cover-up in relation to the expenditure that’s identified”. Such compromise agreements did not “necessarily” – a judicious use of this adverb – mean that “someone has been stopped speaking about patient safety”.
But the committee also had other work, to account for the awe-inspiring disappearance of many billions – it wasn’t always clear how many – into the black hole of the NHS computer systems, money for which there had, so far, apparently been next to no return. Another £1.2bn was due to be spent on yet another system to make medical records accessible across the country – one of which Ms Hodge warned: “Sounds like the next disaster waiting for happen.”
At one point Sir David insisted some of the centralised national IT infrastructure worked well. Bacon, referring to Nicholson’s political past, said he was unsurprised that as “a former Stalinist” he was in favour of national schemes. Or was it some “other bit” of the communist party the NHS chief had joined? Yes, if there’s ever a Public Accounts Committee: The Movie, bring on Quentin Tarantino.