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Hodge’s grillings are a hit – but what’s the use without powers of redress?

Margaret Hodge (credit: BBC News)If parliament’s ever produced a theatrical success, then it’s the recently-established public accounts committee (PAC), particularly in the last few months. It has dramatically raised the salience of tax avoidance by savaging the cheating devices of multinationals Amazon, Starbucks, Apple and Google. It has pilloried the soaring costs of HS2, it has excoriated a five-year extension to the Sellafield nuclear decommissioning contract worth £5bn given to a private consortium which had been witheringly criticised for spending money ‘like confetti’, and much else.

Its judgements are well reported in the media and provoke shock and anger. But then what happens? Very little, if anything. PAC’s remit is to expose failures or breakdowns in the government’s finances, not to propose remedies or redress. But it should be, otherwise the PAC reports are all too often a one-day wonder, but with no follow-through.

The PAC should be empowered in at least the cases of the most egregious misfeasance to table a resolution for debate and voting on the floor of the House of Commons which, if passed, would then be sent to the Lords, and if agreed there too, would command the force of law for being implemented.

Likewise select committees. They are the single most effective means for holding the government of the day to account, and some of their reports are incisive critiques of Executive policy or of the profound breakdowns or mishaps it can sometimes cause on the ground. But like PAC revelations, their reports at present have no mandatory force and after initial reporting in the media (if they’re lucky), they simply gather dust on the shelf. Yet some of the most significant reports with big implications for national policy should be acted upon.

A quota of perhaps half a dozen reports each year, selected by the Liaison Committee composed of the chairs of all the Select Committees, should be put on to the floor of the House for debate and vote, and likewise if passed, referred on to the Lords for confirmation (or otherwise) and thence to being implemented.

Similar arguments apply to Ombudsman reports which are often about individual injustices, but occasionally have implications for matters of important national concern. In such cases, yet currently they have no means of enforcement. It is at the discretion of the authority concerned as to whether it accepts the verdict of the Ombudsman or ignores it. That is not acceptable, and there should be a procedure whereby the relevant Select Committee should be able, perhaps at the prompting of the Ombudsman, to table a resolution to be put before the Commons and Lords which would redress the policy failure and, if approved, would be activated as a change in the law.

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