The Department for Education’s top civil servant has admitted that better communication could have solved an administrative error that led to it being the only department hauled in front of MPs over poor accounting.
Jonathan Slater (pictured), the DfE’s permanent secretary, told the House of Commons public accounts committee on Wednesday that the need for five so-called “excess votes” – permission for spending above approved limits – in the past two financial years could have been avoided.
The DfE is the only Whitehall department under investigation by the public accounts committee for the breaches.
Officials said this was to do with the complexity of academy accounts and that staff had failed to account for the government building schools more cheaply.
Officials admitted last year that the government faced a bill of upwards of £20 million to sort out confusion over academy land after the National Audit Office warned that it could not determine that the DfE’s estimates of its value were correct.
Slater said it “should have been possible” for the department to account for reductions in the cost of school building early enough to avoid the excess vote in 2014-15, but said none of the errors made any difference to the amount of money going to schools.
It comes down to how much it will cost to rebuild the school if it burns down
“We’re not talking about actual money,” he said.
“It’s all to do with the important question of how one accounts for the valuation of the building, which comes down to how much it will cost to rebuild the school if it burns down. It costs less to rebuild schools that burn down than it used to.
“The people who have succeeded to bring down the costs from 2013-14 onwards and the people constructing the accounts should have been talking to each other. If they had, this wouldn’t have happened. I’m not seeking to deny it. It wasn’t deliberate, it should have been possible.”
Slater said problems also stemmed from academy trusts “valuing their assets differently” to the department, and described the “extreme complexity” of having to consolidate thousands of academy trust accounts with departmental spending.
“The fact that I’m the only permanent secretary in front of you during this hearing and I’ve got to explain five excess votes over two financial years demonstrates the scale of the challenge the department has been finding the task of consolidating the accounts of the best part of 3,000 academy trusts,” he said.
He said locking down the valuation of land and buildings had been a “particular challenge”, adding: “You can see the department is not yet completely on top of that task and this is one, but not, to be honest, the only sign of that challenge.”
Richard Bacon, a Conservative MP and committee member, questioned why the issues with accounting had not been worked out earlier.
“This is surely something that could have been thought about, worked out, understood and known at the time that the [academies] policy was being designed,” he said.
He said the department had created a system that was not “effective and efficient” and produced “mind-blowing complexity”, which made it “almost impossible” for Slater to carry out his role as the department’s accounting officer.
Slater said planned accounting changes should mean the excess votes “won’t happen next year”.