Public Accounts Committee (United Kingdom)

The Committee of Public Accounts is a select committee of the British House of Commons. It is responsible for overseeing government expenditures, and to ensure they are effective and honest. The committee is seen as a crucial mechanism for ensuring transparency and accountability in government financial operations, having been described by Professor the Lord Hennessy as "the queen of the select committees...[which] by its very existence exert[s] a cleansing effect in all government departments."


The recommendation for the creation of a committee to oversee government accounts was first put forward in 1857 by a small group of interested Members of Parliament led by Sir Francis Baring. The structure and function of the PAC date back to reforms initiated by William Ewart Gladstone, when he was British Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1860s. The first Public Accounts Committee was established in 1861 by a resolution of the British House of Commons:

There shall be a standing committee designated "The Committee of Public Accounts"; for the examination of the Accounts showing the appropriation of sums granted by Parliament to meet the Public Expenditure, to consist of nine members, who shall be nominated at the commencement of every Session, and of whom five shall be a quorum. 31 March 1862.

The form has since been replicated in virtually all Commonwealth of Nations and many non-Commonwealth countries. A minister from Her Majesty's Treasury sits on the committee but, by convention, does not attend hearings. The Chair of the committee is always drawn from the main opposition party and is usually a former senior Minister.

The Exchequer and Audit Departments Act 1866 appointed The Committee of Public Accounts to oversee the work of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) [1] The Committee continues to be assisted by the C&AG who is a permanent witness at its hearings, along with his staff of the National Audit Office, who provide briefings on each report and assist in the preparation of the Committee's own reports.

Notable failures highlighted by the Public Accounts Committee

The Public Accounts Committee has criticised the expenditure on numerous government projects over the years, such as:

  • the NHS National Programme for IT, which was described as one of the worst fiascos ever in the history of public sector contracts.[2]
  • the decommissioning of the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing site, noting the cost of decommissioning had now reached £67.5 billion, and there was "no indication of when that cost will stop rising".[3][4]


The Committee's members for the 2017 session of Parliament are as follows:[5]

Member Party Constituency
Meg Hillier MP (Chair) Labour Co-op Hackney South and Shoreditch
Bim Afolami MP Conservative Hitchin and Harpenden
Heidi Allen MP Liberal Democrats South Cambridgeshire
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown MP Conservative The Cotswolds
Martyn Day MP Scottish National Party Linlithgow and East Falkirk
Christopher Evans MP Labour Co-op Islwyn
Caroline Flint MP Labour Don Valley
Luke Graham MP Conservative Ochil and South Perthshire
Andrew Jones MP Conservative Harrogate and Knaresborough
Gillian Keegan MP Conservative Chichester
Shabana Mahmood MP Labour Birmingham, Ladywood
Nigel Mills MP Conservative Amber Valley
Layla Moran MP Liberal Democrat Oxford West and Abingdon
Bridget Phillipson MP Labour Houghton and Sunderland South
Gareth Snell MP Labour Co-op Stoke-on-Trent Central

Chairs of the Public Accounts Committee (1861–present)

House of Commons standing orders give the opposition party the right to chair the committee[6]

Year Chairman Party
1861–63 Sir Francis Tornhill Baring Liberal
1864–1866 Rt Hon Edward Pleydell-Bouverie Liberal
1866 Mr George Sclater-Booth Conservative
1867–68 Mr Hugh C E Childers Liberal
1869 Mr William Pollard-Urquhart Liberal
1870–71 Rt Hon George Ward Hunt Conservative
1872–73 Mr George Sclater-Booth Conservative
1874–76 Rt Hon John George Dodson Liberal
1877–1880 Lord Frederick Cavendish Liberal
1884–85 Sir Henry Holland Conservative
1886 Sir John Eldon Gorst Conservative
1887–88 Sir John Lubbock Liberal Unionist
1889–92 Sir Ughtred Kay-Shuttleworth Liberal
1893 Mr Edmond Wodehouse Liberal Unionist
1894–95 Sir Richard Temple Conservative
1896–1900 Mr Arthur O'Connor Irish National
1901–05 Rt Hon Sir Arthur Hayter Liberal
1906–08 Rt Hon Victor Christian William Cavendish Liberal Unionist
1908–18 Col Robert Williams Unionist
1919–20 Rt Hon Sir Francis Dyke Acland Liberal
1921–22 Mr Aneurin Williams Liberal
1923 Mr Frederick William Jowett JP Labour
1924 Lt Col Rt Hon Walter Edward Guinness Conservative
1924–29 Rt Hon Willian Graham JP Labour
1929–31 Mr Arthur Michael Samuel Conservative
1931–38 Mr Morgan Jones Labour
1938–41 Rt Hon Frederick William Pethick-Lawrence Labour
1941–43 Lt Col Rt Hon Walter Elliot Unionist
1943–45 Lt Col Sir Assheton Pownall OBE TD Unionist
1946–48 Rt Hon Osbert Peake Conservative
1948–50 Rt Hon Ralph Assheton Conservative
1950–51 Sir Ronald Cross and Rt Hon Charles Waterhouse Conservative
1951–52 Mr John Edwards Labour
1952–59 Sir George Benson Labour
1959–63 Rt Hon Harold Wilson Labour
1963–64 Rt Hon A.L.N. Douglas Houghton Labour
1964–70 Rt Hon John Boyd-Carpenter Conservative
1970–73 Rt Hon Harold Lever Labour
1972–73 Rt Hon Edmund Dell (Acting chair during Harold Lever's illness) Labour
1974–79 Rt Hon Edward DuCann Conservative
1979–83 Rt Hon Joel Barnett Labour
1983–97 Rt Hon Robert Sheldon Labour
1997–2001 Rt Hon David Davis Conservative
2001–10 Mr Edward Leigh Conservative
2010–15 Rt Hon Dame Margaret Hodge Labour
2015- Ms Meg Hillier Labour


The PAC is concerned that central government funding cuts left many local authorities subject to “enormous pressure” and “in a worrying financial position”.[7]

See also


Further reading

  • David McGee, The Overseers – Public Accounts Committees and Public Spending, Pluto Press, London 2002.
  • Stapenhurst, Rick; Sahgal, Vinod; Woodley, William; Pelizzo, Riccardo; World Bank, 1 May 2005, Policy Research Working Paper WPS3613, Scrutinizing public expenditures: assessing the performance of public accounts committees
  • Pelizzo, Riccardo, Stapenhurst, Rick, Saghal, Vinod and William Woodley, What Makes Public Accounts Committees Work?, Politics and Policy, vol. 34, n. 4, December 2006. pp. 774–793.
  • Riccardo Pelizzo and Rick Stapenhurst, Strengthening Public Accounts Committees by Targeting Regional and Country Specific Weaknesses, in Anwar Shah (ed.), Performance Accountability and Combating Corruption, Washington DC, The World Bank, 2007, pp. 379–393.
  • Jacobs, K. 1997. ‘A reforming accountability’, International Journal of Health Planning and Management 12: 169–85.
  • Jacobs, K.1998. ‘Value for money auditing in New Zealand: competing for control in the public sector’, British Accounting Review 30: 343–360
  • Jones, C. 1987. ‘The Origins of the Victorian Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee’, MA, University of Melbourne.
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