Public accounts committee chair Meg Hillier (Lab) has raised concerns over inadequate scrutiny and accountability relating to devolution deals, sustainability and transformation plans, local enterprise partnerships and schools.
Speaking at the Centre for Public Scrutiny’s national conference, Ms Hillier said the “drive to devolve has been beset with problems”.
She drew on the example of the West Midlands, where “the map is very confusing, with some areas in and some areas out”, making scrutiny of the devolution negotiations and the resulting combined authority more difficult.
The Hackney South and Shoreditch MP also criticised the “secret conversations” about devolution between local areas and with the government and added that the “citizen [hadn’t] got a clue” that devolution was happening.
“If a neighbouring area is getting a power and you are not, you need to know,” Ms Hillier said. “I don’t see any reason for the lack of openness.”
Ms Hillier said there was a “huge gap of accountability in the NHS” and that councillors could not fill it.
“STPs aren’t helping; they are not adding accountability,” she said.
She added that the appointment of Chartered Institute for Public Finance & Accountancy chief executive Rob Whiteman as independent chair of the North East London STP, which covers her constituency, came “completely out of the blue” and that local MPs “had no idea” it was going to happen.
At an earlier speech at the same event, CfPS chair Lord Kerslake also voiced concerns over STP transparency.
Lord Kerslake said the approach behind creating STPs, of planning health and care services through “local leadership, outside of individual institutions”, was “the right one”, but added that “notwithstanding the publication of some plans, much more needs to be done” around scrutiny.
“I am chair of [the board of] King’s College Hospital and I received the full STP two weeks ago. The board didn’t have access [to the STP] until it was published, effectively. That is an extraordinary state of affairs,” said Lord Kerslake.
He added that the CfPS has jointly produced with NHS Clinical Commissioners a “checklist” for the scrutiny of STPs.
Ms Hillier also used her speech to claim accountability and scrutiny of LEPs was “poor” in some places and that this was worrying when LEPs were “spending a lot of money”.
She said the committee had seen examples of LEP board members failing to declare conflicts of interest, not publishing the minutes of their meetings, and favouring their own businesses with public funding.
She also raised concerns over accountability in education due to the expansion of academies and free schools.
“I don’t know if you’ve met your schools commissioners, but they feel very distant from the centre,” Ms Hillier added.
She said that councils’ scrutiny function may struggle to cope with the amount of work ahead.
“I have no desire for the [public accounts] committee to start crawling all over local government accounts; we can’t,” she said. “But you are under-resourced for this task.”