Ministers, agencies and excuses

It is not clear, writes Nicholas Timmins, who should be responsible for failures in the public services
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The Independent Online
The crisis in the prisons has thrown into sharp relief a question that has been increasingly exercising politicians, civil servants and academics in recent months. Just where, after the transformation of government of the past decade, does account ability now lie? The question affects quangos and agencies, schools and hospitals, training and local government. The prisons crisis has thrown it up starkly in relation to the hived off "next steps" agencies - for some people, it has cast doubt on the v alidity of the whole initiative.

But in many cases the principles behind the agencies - ministers remain responsible for policy, while the agencies are responsible for operational matters - are doing well. In what might be described as mechanistic, operational areas - passports, drivin

g licences, MOT testing - the new system has proved an undoubted success. Delegated responsibility, clear targets and greater freedom of action have improved performance and brought better service and shorter waits for the customer.

A second group of agencies is more politically sensitive - employment and the Benefits Agency, for example - but has not so far generated great controversy, although MPs and others remain less than confident that they can hold ministers and the agencies themselves to account.

At the far end of the spectrum, however, are some highly political undertakings - for example, the prison service, the Child Support Agency and the NHS. (This last is not an agency but it is increasingly being treated by ministers as though it were one.)With this group, there is a growing sense that no one, least of all the politicians, is really accountable.

In the NHS, for example, next week will see publication of a report on the continuing disarray in the London Ambulance Service. But the inquiry has been chaired by William Wells, the minsterially-appointed chairman of the South Thames Regional Health Authority, which is directly responsible for managing the service. What guarantee does that provide of a fierce independence in its conclusions, or of criticism, should it be merited, of how ministers and the NHS executive reacted when the ambulance service's computer-aided dispatch system collapsed in 1992?

Ministers seem determined to bury Aneurin Bevan's dictum that whenever a maid kicked over a pail of slops in the NHS, the sound would echo in Whitehall - and not just for the NHS. As far as possible, management alone is to be responsible.

In the prison service, Michael Howard's continued insistence that there remains "a perfectly clear" distinction between policy and operations has become untenable. The Home Office yesterday confirmed that the Home Secretary no longer has a prison division within his department providing policy advice within the Home Office. "Policy advice comes from the agency," a spokeswoman said. "That," Jack Straw, Labour's Home Affairs spokesman, said, "makes it wholly untenable to argue there is a distinction, whenboth policy and operations are united in the agency."

Circumstances - and not only this week's "dreadful, dreadful" escapes and riots - to use Mr Howard's words - have conspired to make the prison service the most acute example of the dilemma. Mr Howard has been the most profoundly political Home Secretary,declaring that "prison works" and implying that the success of the battle against crime can be judged by how many people are in prison, not how few.

The controversy over how Derek Lewis was appointed to head the prison service has not helped, any more than the payment of his £35,000 bonus on top of his £125,000 salary, despite Whitemoor. The patently confused policy over whether he or Mr Howard should go before the media to answer for what has gone wrong belies the clear division Mr Howard claims. A similar confusion can be observed at the Department of Health about when Alan Langlands, the NHS chief executive, should face the media music and when it should be Virginia Bottomley, the Secretary of State for Health.

In some agencies, the dividing line between policy and operations may simply not exist. With the Child Support Agency, for example, MPs asked Ros Hepplewhite, its former chief executive, whether the formula for claiming cash from absent parents was too complicated. She answered that the formula was policy - a given. Would it be easier to get absent parents to pay if the lone mother on benefit kept some of the money, instead of the Treasury claiming it all? Again, she said, that was a policy matter. She couldn't answer.

Yet both are clearly operational as well as policy questions. And if MPs cannot know the views of those running the system on whether such policy changes would improve matters, how can they form their recommendations? The division isn't clear.

The confusion is further reflected in the fact that the DSS retains a policy division to advise on the Child Support Agency, while the Home Office does not for prisons. And it was Alistair Burt, the junior social security minister - not Ann Chant, the CSA's new chief executive - who announced the recent decision to postpone pursuit of 350,000 fathers because of the agency's backlog. Was that a policy decision or an operational one? Solutions to these accountability dilemmas are not at all obvious. When it comes to inquiries, they are. Plainly they should be independent - and seen to be.

But when it comes to agencies, it may be that the single model the Government has produced for them all cannot work. Some functions clearly can be handled in the present way - but then no ministers ever found their jobs on the line because of a six-week delay in issuing passports. For others, such as the CSA, the operations may be too politically sensitive for the divide ever to work properly.

If such a retreat is not acceptable, agency chief executives might have to be more politically exposed - placed before select committees and freed to comment on the impact of policy on operations. If Mr Lewis is to be held accountable for running the prisons, should not he be free to express a view on whether the policy of filling them up is helpful?

The most radical answer would be to make the agency heads genuinely political appointments - fully answerable to MPs and the public, and liable to be removed on a change of government. That would be a deeply un-British solution, and one that would raise a fresh mesh of issues about accountability to Parliament and people. But under the present arrangement, something has to give.

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