Leading Article: Rolling back accountability

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The Independent Online
IN A MUCH-REPORTED speech, delivered two weekends ago, Michael Portillo talked of the need 'to rebuild national self- confidence and self-belief', to assert 'the value and the quality of the British way of life and British institutions'. One of the greatest British institutions has been public service: secretive, conservative and elitist, perhaps, but also disinterested, incorruptible and fair-minded. Government departments have sometimes blown taxpayers' money on ill-costed and ill-conceived projects, from groundnuts to missiles, but the idea that public servants will play by the rules in general and not line their own pockets in particular has been taken for granted, like clean water. And, like clean water, we may not understand its importance until we have lost it.

That is why a report last week from the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC), giving 26 recent examples of money being wasted and improperly spent, is so important. The committee was established by Gladstone in 1861 to ensure adequate stewardship of public money and assets. He understood that the ethos of public service is different from that prevailing in private business. Private companies exist primarily to make profits. This may entail taking risks and cutting corners. If customers get goods and services they like, at a price they are willing to pay, the company will flourish, share values will rise and nobody will be greatly upset that established procedures have been broken. Breaking the rules is often admired in the private sector; haphazard budgeting will be forgiven if money is spent with flair.

The public sector must be guided by a different scale of values. People do not have a choice about paying taxes; they may have little or no choice about using public sector services, such as education, health or the benefits system. Huge sums of money are involved and they must be spent carefully and equitably, according to clear procedures, with clear channels of accountability. It can be argued that the rule-bound public sector would sometimes benefit from a little private sector flair. But the Tories, with Mr Portillo seemingly in the vanguard, are going much further than that. They are trying to change the culture of almost the entire public sector so that it is guided by 'market' principles. They want a 'core state' with the traditional civil service confined largely to policy-making. They are removing or reducing local authority control over such services as education and policing. So public money is spent by dozens of 'agencies', hundreds of quangos and thousands of contracts for particular services. There are three consequences. First, control and accountability become almost impossible when money is so widely dispersed. Second, appointments to the responsible bodies and the allocation of contracts become open to patronage and corruption. Third, the ethos of public service - established by people who work alongside each other, in local authorities or Whitehall departments, for most of their lives - is diluted. Worse, as Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, has pointed out, there is a danger that the ideal of public service is denigrated by pro-market Tory rhetoric.

The growth of unaccountable and uncontrollable power continues. It has been calculated that, by 1996, there will be some 8,000 quangos spending pounds 54bn - nearly a quarter of all government spending. Ministers seem increasingly reluctant - as the Matrix Churchill inquiry has shown - to take responsibility even for what happens in their own departments. If they regard changes in guidelines on arms sales to a potentially hostile foreign power as none of their business, what hope that they will bother when - to quote one of the PAC's examples - a regional health authority allows an official to make 'a bonfire of the rules' and waste pounds 10m 'at the expense of the health care for sick people'?

Mr Portillo argued that the threat to the British way of life came from cynics and defeatists in 'the chattering classes'. But he seemed blind to the far greater threats posed by his own party. Nothing is more important to Britain than the stability and integrity of its governing system - whatever our economic decline, whatever our educational failings, that remains as a source for national pride. But Gladstone observed that the British constitution 'presumes more boldly than any other, the good faith of those who work for it'. The growing list of scandals, from Matrix Churchill to Westminster to those outlined in the PAC report, calls that good faith into question.