Achieving value for money from devolution

1 November 2017

As Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, I continue to hold government to account in delivering vital public services and ensuring value for money for taxpayers.

This research by Reform is a timely reminder of what is at stake. Integrated healthcare keeps elderly, chronically ill patients out of hospital. Probation services can help reduce stubbornly high levels of reoffending. Skills training should be tailored to local labour markets to ensure everyone has the best chance of finding long term employment.

Public services are under real pressure. NHS trusts continue to run unsustainable deficits. The transforming rehabilitation programme which aims to help ex-offenders has been beset by problems, and we see too high a level of serious mental health issues in our prisons.

At the heart of this is the relationship between policymakers, commissioners and providers of public services. The devolution of this commissioning provides huge opportunities to deliver the radical change needed to a host of services, including healthcare, welfare-to-work and skills. Local authorities are better placed in many instances to design services that are tailored to residents’ needs.

This devolution must be accompanied by proper accountability of services. Too often Public Accounts Committee members will ask who is responsible for spending decisions, and watch as witnesses turn their heads left and right looking to each other for an answer. We call it PAC tennis. Government, local and central, must do better to account for public money. The lack of thinking around accountability arrangements as city region and combined authority deals were pushed through was highlighted in the Public Accounts Committee’s report Devolution in England: governance, financial accountability and following the taxpayer pound.

As local areas take control of more spending, decisions must be transparent and accountable. Local Enterprise Partnerships are still too opaque. It is no good transferring money to local authorities, for taxpayers to become more confused as to how it is spent. We need to be able to follow every pound of public money.

Central government must also provide better clarity of its objectives for devolution, as Reform argues. Something the Public Accounts Committee also highlighted in its report on Cities and Local Growth. The Department for Communities and Local Government must better show the link between devolution and economic growth and understand and track the benefits this could bring to local communities. Whitehall must articulate a vision of devolution beyond just cities and set out how it will judge success.

Clarity and accountability can drive the devolution agenda for the benefit of taxpayers and people using services across the country. The Public Accounts Committee will continue to scrutinise these issues but local scrutiny on the ground is essential and needs to be accessible to the citizen.

Reform’s report is adding to the debate over the future of devolution in England.

Meg Hillier MP, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

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