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Public Accounts Committee Early Action hearing

By David Robinson

 Last week David gave evidence to the Public Accounts Committee evidence session on Early Action, following up the National Audit Office’s landscape review of early action released last month.

He was joined in the first session by Task Force member Anna Coote from the new economics foundation and Samantha Callan from the Centre for Social Justice. David outlined the main ideas from The Triple Dividend and The Deciding Time, focusing particularly on our ideas for how central government could better incentivise early action, for example through ten year plans in the spending review.

These ‘pre-hearings’ with external experts  set the committee up for the second half, where MPs led by chair Margaret Hodge grill senior departmental officials. This session had an influential panel – the Permanent Secretaries of the Departments of Education (Chris Wormald) and Health (Una O’Brien), and the Director General for Public Services at the Treasury (Julian Kelly).

First a reason to be cheerful: that the National Audit Office undertook the early action landscape review and that the Public Accounts Committee discussed it is a measure of progress. It is what the Early Action Task Force called for in our first report, the Triple Dividend, and it was encouraging to hear senior politicians and officials talk seriously and naturally about “early action” – even the phrase wasn’t used two years ago.

Not that anyone is as yet in charge. When PAC chair Margaret Hodge asked the direct question the Permanent Secretaries and the Director General were briefly rendered silent. Then they argued that early action is too big and too diverse to be led or coordinated by a single minister or by one department. Replace “early action” in the sentence with “public spending” or with “government” to reveal the absurdity of their position. “Public spending is too big to be coordinated by one department,” “government is too diverse to be led by one person.” It is precisely because early action transcends the boundaries that leadership is so important.

Our own suggestion is that the Treasury should lead on the spending incentives needed (early action comes down to better spending of public money, after all) and the Cabinet Office should help by embedding some of the new mechanisms (for example social investment) across government.

Much of the debate centred on two related questions: what carrots and sticks, or levers can central government use to incentivise early action across public services; and how can government (and the PAC) know whether they are working?

First up was ring-fencing, one of the strongest levers available to Government to direct budgets, but with the potential to create new silos between areas of spend, which can in themselves hinder early action. In health Una O’Brien pointed to the new ring fence around the public health budget and predicted substantial improvements in practice as a result. She was confident that they would be able to track how money was spent and what it achieved. In contrast, Chris Wormald was forced to explain why the ring-fence had been removed from his department’s Early Intervention Grant. He suggested that beyond certain ‘national priorities’ which should be protected (one of the largest of which is the schools budget), ring-fencing hampers local autonomy, but was less clear on how he would know what the money was then spent on.

A weaker lever, but for us an important one, is information on how much is being spent and what it’s achieving, allowing departments and local authorities to be held to account. Una O’Brien agreed it would be useful to agree a shared definition of early action across government and thought that the NAO report “would prompt a definition”. Chris Wormald suggested best practice (for example in social work) encompassed both early and late, and would be impossible to classify. As MP Fiona Mactaggert pointed out, that’s certainly not the case with social work at the moment, which if anything is waiting later and later to intervene. We plan to carry on our work on measuring early action spend and working with those in government who are also interested in pursuing it.

Evidence is important, everyone agreed, and a flurry of new institutions is working on this including the Early Intervention Foundation, Education Endowment Fund, What Works centres and more. But as both David and Margaret Hodge pointed out, there is strong evidence that some acute interventions – prisons, the care system, for example – work very badly indeed, and that should feature much more highly in our thinking.

These and several other issues were discussed in depth and we expect to feature in the PAC’s report of the session, and to be followed up in future studies. Committee members’ repeated reference to 10 year plans was perhaps the most encouraging feature of the debate. The Treasury’s Julian Kelly promised to “take away the idea.” We are ever more convinced of the importance of longer term planning and having brought the proposal to the table will not be letting up until the thing is done. The Chair was also determined: “we look forward to some indications, especially from the Treasury, that this work is being taken seriously across government.”

All in all a useful and constructive afternoon. The session gave welcome recognition to our arguments and to the case for early action, but also revealed how far there is to go. As Margaret Hodge concluded “this is the beginning of a conversation.”

Read the full transcript or watch the video.

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