Bedtime reading for Whitehall

Papers

With temperatures predicted to drop over the weekend I thought I would pass on some recommended reading to help Progress members pass the cold winter evenings.

The Whole of Government Accounts may seem like a rather ‘dry’ and daunting read, but it is a must for anybody interested in public policy and finance. It is the compilation of all government revenue and spending, and shows exactly where our money goes. As a member of the public accounts committee I was able to question senior Treasury officials on the document last week.

The UK is the only country that consolidates not just national government, but local and regional government spending together into one published set of accounts in this way. It has the potential to vastly improve the value taxpayers get for their money.

Too often government decisions are taken within the silos of Whitehall departments, with important consequences for other parts of government being missed or ignored. The Whole of Government Accounts show us that the NHS Litigation Authority has more than doubled its provisions for claims of negligence from £9.2bn in 2007 to nearly £19bn in 2012. Spending in this area obviously has implications for the legal system, so we would hope this would spur Ministry of Justice officials, whose department is facing substantial cuts, to coordinate with the Department for health in this area.

On the subject of silos, it can also help us to shape future policy, avoiding large costs down the line. The total provision for nuclear power station decommissioning is estimated to be £60.9bn. This is a mindblowing figure that obviously could not have been conceived of back in the 1950s when the original nuclear power stations were being built. We need to properly challenge all big ticket government projects and policy ideas to avoid potential meltdowns in government finances in the future.

However, it seems that even in government this document is not as widely read as it should be. The boards of Whitehall departments, who this government decided were going to be a key vehicle for control and planning, do not review the Whole of Government Accounts despite the great advantages it could bring. It is important that there is an understanding of public spending not just at the Treasury, but throughout government.

So this handy document can help officials take a big picture view, enable joined up thinking and prevent potential pitfalls in the future. I would thoroughly recommend it to every member of Progress looking for some bedtime reading – and to Whitehall civil servants too!

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Nick Smith is member of parliament for Blaenau Gwent, member of the public accounts committee, and member of the Progress strategy board. He tweets @BlaenauGwentMP

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Photo: Joel Penner

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