The Duncan manifesto

Financial district
By Atholl Duncan, Executive Director, UK and Global with ICAS

7 June 2017

We could all benefit from electing more MPs with financial acumen.

That is my conclusion after an election campaign that must have sent many chartered accountants reaching for the valium as we plumbed new depths of uncosted promises and unexplained policies. 

Diane Abbott MP was bottom of the class with her confusion over the cost of 10,000 new police officers. She suggested the bill would be £300,000 a year – £30 for each recruit.

Vince Cable struggled with his numbers on public pay in a manner that would have embarrassed the most junior trainee in accounts.

The Conservatives published a virtually uncosted manifesto and the Scottish Nationalists had their less than glorious moments, too.

I recently stumbled upon a dusty tome in my garage that charts the history of political blunders through the years. At the heart of every misjudgment lay unrealistic assumptions and a lack of scepticism around their numbers. Some only cost the public purse hundreds of millions. Many cost the nation billions. Nearly all paid a heavy political price.

So, which would top the charts? The Suez Crisis would certainly be up there. The failed British action in Egypt heralded what some historians regard as the end of Britain’s role as a world superpower.

As a new intake of parliamentarians heads for the green benches, what can they learn from the failures of the past?

Learning from the past

As Baroness Shirley Williams put it: “The cost of such blunders comes not only in billions of pounds wasted but in the enormous amounts of damage caused to public confidence. The lessons are clear. Don’t shuffle ministers every few months. Give parliament time to make legislation effective and understandable. Above all, listen and deliberate.”

Most of our new MPs will not have benefited from a career in business and finance. Their background has been as professional politicians – former councillors, researchers or political advisers. They and many of their colleagues need to better understand financial and economic issues. ICAS will help them through our work with the Industry and Parliament Trust.

There also needs to be a focus on improving scrutiny of legislation in parliamentary committees, with increased emphasis on the expert witness. ICAS will help there too. Post-legislative reviews should also be introduced. Parliament should undo what’s done if the promised costs and benefits do not materialise.

The powers, scope and resources of the National Audit Office and Audit Scotland should also continue to be enhanced. Their greater financial scrutiny can only be for the common good.

Perhaps it is even time to introduce an independent body into our election process to provide impartial scrutiny of financial promises and pledges made in party manifestos. That might focus more political attention on the detail, better serve the public interest and lower the blood pressure of some CAs as Britain goes to the polls.

This article was first featured in the June 2017 edition of CA magazine

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