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News, gossip and insight from PoliticsHome Editor Paul Waugh

Dodging the Hodge Bullets

Today's Public Accounts Committee report on the OIympics certainly grabbed a fair few headlines.

The Indy splashed on the story, while other papers and TV and radio stations all seized on the line that the Government was heading for a £2bn overspend on its £9.3bn budget.

Well, it turns out that No.10 are furious with not just the coverage but with the PAC itself. Sources tell me that the £788m on land acquisition and the £826m on legacy projects were never intended to be included in the budget set by the last Government. They accept that spending on security has increased but insist that is covered within the contingency fund.

They say that in fact the DCMS has shown that the Olympics spend is still within budget and that we should be celebrating the fact that such a huge infrastructure project is on track and delivered ahead of time.

Of course some select committees would feel they weren't doing their jobs properly if they didn't occasionally get a serious pushback from Whitehall.

There is a deeper irritation, however. Downing Street feel that the PAC has turned away from its traditional role of scrutinising projects and policies already completed to trying to second-guess what may happen in the future. "They've moved away from looking backwards and are now trying to crystal ball stuff," said one insider. "It's very irritating. It's their job to scrutinise retrospectively, not to predict the unknowable."

The examples given by my source include: a recent report suggesting fraud and corruption in overseas aid "could" rise; a November 2010 report on train overcrowding predictions; a report on DWP IT programmes going forward; and a report on the future cost of aircraft carriers.

It also seems as if some of the animus comes from the way PAC chairman, Labour's Margaret Hodge, has hit at the Coalition in recent months on a string of policies.

I've just put this to PAC sources and they deny the committee is doing anything beyond its remit. They point out that they take their cue from the NAO's own reports and in each case cited above the NAO has been in the business of projecting into the future to prevent misspending. As for the Olympics, they say that the 'total cost to the public purse' - including land and legacy issues - is a valid metric. "The Olympics is monitored on a 'keep on track' basis," one source says.

There is separate issue right now and that's the way the PAC treats civil servants who appear before it. Emails released today show that Sir Gus O'Donnell complained to Ms Hodge that its sessions were too often a 'theatrical exercise in public humiliation'. But that's another story.

I suspect the increasing antipathy between Downing Street and the PAC is going to get worse before it gets better.

Of course, when Labour was in power it also got irritated with the PAC, particularly its chairman in the first Blair term, David Davis. Ministers would grumble that he was 'showboating', if I recall correctly. 

And at least that's one thing this Government and the last one had in common: DD's not exactly popular in the current No.10 either...

 

 

 

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