UK PAC Awayday and Working Cross-Party to Achieve Effective Scrutiny

By Adrian Jenner, Director, Parliamentary Relations Team, National Audit Office 


On Tuesday 20th July, the National Audit Office (NAO) welcomed the UK Public Accounts Committee to their offices, marking the Committee’s first ‘Awayday’ since February 2020. The visit, attended by 11 PAC Members, aimed to update the PAC on the NAO’s current priorities and programmes and to identify common goals and objectives as the Committee looks forward to the new parliamentary term in September. In this article, Adrian Jenner, NAO Director of Parliamentary Relations and a key speaker at the UKOTP Multilateral Forum in December 2019, gives his thoughts on the day’s proceedings and considers the question of how select committee members can put aside their political differences to achieve more effective scrutiny.

As an experienced observer of select committees - in particular, PAC - I am regularly asked how is it possible that MPs of different backgrounds and political affiliations are able to put all that aside and work effectively in the common and noble cause of scrutiny. Primarily two factors are key to helping most committees work well:

  • a consensual and popular chair;
  • Members making time to spend together away from the febrile atmosphere of Westminster and so enable reflection on working practices and identification of common goals and objectives. Ideally, at the start of a Parliament, a new committee will invest much time trying to “form, storm and norm” with the aim of getting to the “performing” stage. However, the events of the last year or so stopped the PAC from being able to do this and although the Committee performed effectively during the pandemic, it is clearly more problematic to achieve the same level of group synergy and buy-in over MS Teams - at least in my experience. ​

I had a number of anticipatory thoughts when on Tuesday we welcomed the PAC to the NAO’s offices when hosting the Committee’s first Awayday since February 2020.  I was preoccupied with questions such as how would the Members interact with each other? Would they challenge the accepted custom and practice of the Committee? Would they like the NAO’s programme of work? What do they think of the support we give them?

I am pleased to report that the day was a success and my internalised questions were answered in a resoundingly positive manner. Member turnout was impressive: nine MPs attended physically, two MPs participated through MS Teams. The Chair made a short and generous speech recognising the support and commitment she receives from the NAO and MPs on the committee; the C&AG gave a well-received strategic oversight of our planned work and support to Parliament, eliciting a number of questions and suggestions from the floor; and the LSE’s Professor Tony Travers gave a typically penetrating presentation about the strategic political and economic challenges facing the UK and the role that the PAC could play in shaping government response. The event certainly gave this observer much to think about and the active listening adopted by the Members indicated that, more importantly, it was stimulating for them too. 

With the House now in Recess, the PAC will also take a break until it returns on 9 September with a session on the Department for Work and Pensions’ Annual Report and Accounts when the Committee will meet around the horseshoe for the first time in 18 months. I am looking forward very much to being physically at PAC and observing the Committee continuing with the positivity Members displayed at the NAO on Tuesday. 

Adrian Jenner is the Director of Parliamentary Relations at the National Audit Office (NAO) and Chief of Staff to the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG). Before joining the NAO he held multiple roles at the House of Commons, where he worked with a wide variety of select committees, including the Defence, Health and Welsh Affairs Committees between 1998 and 2012. In June 2012 he became Clerk of the Public Accounts Committee whose remit is to examine “the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted to Parliament to meet the public expenditure, and of such other accounts laid before Parliament as the Committee may think fit”. He studied Government and Economics at the London School of Economics and subsequently gained an MBA from the Open University. He has worked with international organisations, including the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Council of Europe.