[Thanks to Politics.co.uk for the pic]
Eric Pickles is the Secretary of State for Communities Local Government. Last week he caused astonishment by promising to abolish the Audit Commission (AC) and to privatise the its auditing functions.
Given that the remit of the Audit Commission is to make sure public services are carried out efficiently, and given that the Coalition Government's objective is to cut public spending by increasing the efficiency of public bodies, it looks a bit odd, to say the least. And it's not just me saying that.
Is there a back story to Eric Pickles and the Audit Commission?
Well, Eric has asked numerous Parliamentary Questions about the AC. They can be found here, and here, and here and here and here. There are more, but you get the idea. Here is the search page I worked from.
Here are 15 questions from Mr Pickles' total of 45 (forty five) between March 2008 and Feb 2010, all about the Audit Commission:
How many parking fines had they had ? (none)How many communications to Conservative members? (five)
What did their bill to the Government Car Agency come to?
How much in hotel reservations?
Gross yearly expenditure each year from 1995 to 2009?
How much spent at Shepherd's of Marsham Street?
What guidance on household waste had they put out?
How many Away Days had they had? (none)
Which body oversees the Audit Commission?
What external public affairs companies have they used?
Whether members of the AC are required to declare their political party?
How many employment disputes have they had?
Did members have to declare interests?
What political party membership did the AC members have?
This is a sample, because life is short. 45 questions in all, If you are interested, the full set is on my website here.
So Eric was On Their Case. Verging on the Obsessional. I have not looked in depth at the answers. Nothing struck me as outstandingly expensive or dodgy, but it is possible that they indulged themselves, as quangos tend to do. It is wrong to see things in binary terms, as in "Pickles Bad, therefore Audit Commission good". It looks as if the head of the AC was overpaid, as all such dignitaries tend to be. The reasonable response to this kind of thing is to reform, not to abolish.
Maybe Eric pieced all his Parliamentary answers together, perhaps for a book he is writing. Or perhaps it is in preparation for the hatchet job on the AC, because here is the chair of the AC defending it against a series of allegations, made by Pickles, which are based on his questions.
Or maybe he just did not like the Audit Commission, and wanted to chase them and give them more work to do.
But why would he not like them?
Mr Pickles was Leader of Bradford Metropolitan District Council from 1988 - 1990. He got the Tories in to power by a cunning bit of political chicanery involving breaking a convention in order to retain a Tory mayor with a casting vote.
Tony Grogan has chronicled this period, in a book (now online) called The Pickles Papers. In it we find that in planning for his policies, Eric read an Audit Commission report, "The Competitive Council" and looked also at the models of Conservative axepersons in local government provided by Shirley Porter, the Westminster gerrymanerer, (whose crimes were later uncovered by - wait for it - the Audit Commission). And he sat at the foot of Christopher Chop(e) the Tory Wandsworth axeman.
Once in office, he did a chainsaw job on the Council "announced a five-year plan to cut the council's budget by £50m, reduce the workforce by a third, privatise services and undertake council departmental restructures, many of which proved controversial."
The FT thinks his decision is ideological. But did the Audit Commission report on Eric's time in office in Bradford displease Eric in some way? If so, do we have a case of a Secretary of State making policy decisions on the basis of personal spite or obsession?
The truth about the Audit Commission's report on Pickles' time in Bradford is out there somewhere, drifting slowly towards the exit like a bubble of methane in a cavernous sigmoid colon. Which is another way of saying that I have put in a Freedom of Information request for the AC report on Pickles' Bradford.
Updates: Valuable NS blog and discussion here.
This video may help:
Update: The Audit Commission only keeps records for 6 years, so that trail went cold. I commissioned a researcher in Bradford to trawl through the records of the Bradford Telegraph and Argus, the local paper, but he drew a blank. There was no report of Pickles being trashed by the Audit Commission. So, although absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, there is no rational explanation for Pickles' obsessive animus against the Audit Commission.