MPs versus mandarin: round two

Written By: David Hencke
Published: May 1, 2016 Last modified: October 25, 2016

A senior civil servant will be given a fresh chance on May 3 to explain the more than £1 billion of criminal assets that should have been seized by the state.

MPs on the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee closed down a hearing earlier this month after Mark Sedwill, permanent secretary at the Home Office, was unable to provide any explanation of why the ministry had failed to recover the money.

In extraordinary exchanges between MPs and Sedwill, he was accused of turning the hearing into “a farce” and of “an exercise in Sir Humphreyism” in trying to wriggle out of answering their questions.

The permanent secretary was there to answer damning findings by the National Audit Office, reported in Tribune last month, which revealed that criminals were getting away with keeping their ill gotten gains because of public spending cuts among financial investigators and a failure to meet promised targets.

The disclosures were an embarrassment to Theresa May, the Home Secretary, who had told the Police Federation that it was stepping up confiscation of criminal assets to ensure “crime doesn’t pay.” The row at the committee broke out when Stephen Phillips, a QC and Conservative MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham, challenged Sedwill to explain the failures, and he started complaining that he didn’t agree there were any.

Instead he said the Government had praised the Home Office for his work, which MPs regarded as irrelevant in the context of the NAO report.

Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the committee, decided to take the -unprecedented step of closing down the hearing.

She told him: “I do not think we have any option but to adjourn this. This is something I never wanted to do in this committee. As Mr Phillips said, we want to get answers. This is a hugely important area and I am really disappointed that we are going to have to take this form of action. I do not think we are going to get very much further today.”

Mark Sedwill will have to submit a new memorandum to MPs when ­appears before them again

About David Hencke

David Hencke is Tribune's Westminster Correspondent