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A rather clumsy episode

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Newspaper reports that the Audit Commission hired a lobbying company, among other things, to “combat the activities of Eric Pickles” is undoubtedly damaging for the organisation.

Having spent almost 30 years building up a reputation for impartiality and evidence-based research, this infelicitous remark in a paper written by lobbyists could not have come at a worse time.

The future of public sector regulation is uncertain. All parties are committed to a quango cull.

The Conservatives have set themselves against the Comprehensive Area Assessment (CAA). A story that appears to show the commission hiring political lobbyists to undermine leading Tory frontbenchers incurs not only reputational damage but also risks cruel treatment if Caroline Spelman replaces John Denham at Eland House.

The Audit Commission has proved a ‘least-worst’ option for local government

Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics

To make matters worse, the lobbying company concerned, Connect Public Affairs, was founded by Rosie Winterton, who is local government minister and who has answered parliamentary questions relating to the company and the commission.

Cosy

She no longer has any formal link to the company, but there can be no doubt that issues of this kind feed the public’s belief there is a cosy political class that operates in and around Westminster.

In reality, the whole episode looks clumsy.

For a start, it is odd the commission hired a lobbying company with what appear to be left-leaning credentials to - employing the word that should have been used - ‘inform’ Conservative politicians.

Why did someone write down something as maladroit as “combat the activities of Eric Pickles” when their client was well known to be politically independent?

Mistakes

This was a series of mistakes, not political bias.

The commission includes politicians from all parties. It is safe to assume senior officials did not know what was being done.

Chief executive Steve Bundred has, after all, made a name for himself as being ‘dry’ on the future of public spending - closer to the Tory line than Labour’s.

The Audit Commission has proved a ‘least-worst’ option for local government. It has managed the introduction of performance indicators, best value, comprehensive performance assessments and now oversees CAA.

All of this, plus its ‘probity’ work, has been achieved with reasonable care. It would be a pity if one ill-judged incident put this success in jeopardy.

As John F Kennedy was fond of saying: “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.”

Tony Travers, Director, Greater London Group, London School of Economics                               

  • 2 Comments

Readers' comments (2)

  • The conditional tense, Tony, please. 'It is odd the commission hired...' It would have been odd. But the Commission did not hire a lobbying company. The Commission had a contract with Connect Public Affairs to provide analysis of parliamentary business and public affairs. It's cost effective to employ specialists for this sort of work. The Commission did not ask Connect or anyone else to 'lobby' shadow ministers or anyone else. An error, you say, does not become a mistake until you refuse to correct it. Agreed. We have written to the Sunday Times asking for the correction.

    David Walker, Managing Director, Communications
    Audit Commission

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  • It is odd that despite Audit Commission protestations the story is both plausible and believable. That should worry the Commission. Does it indicate that it has strayed onto political territory? Or does it instead indicate that the Commission, faced with an increasing number of detractors who are questioning the value of its inspection regime is attempting to bat off detractors instead of improving what it does and how it does it? The latter I fear.

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