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The UK Department for Business and Trade has been accused by a Lords’ committee of hampering an inquiry into the performance of regulators, fuelling concerns over the accountability of government bodies to parliament.
The House of Lords industry and regulators committee said on Thursday that despite numerous prompts, business secretary Kemi Badenoch had failed to appear at a hearing or provide detailed written answers to their inquiry.
The committee last July invited Badenoch to take part in the hearing along with other department officials. The peers said they were “unconvinced” by the department’s explanation that it was prevented from participating given “ongoing consultations”.
“Given the widespread concerns we heard about the accountability of regulators, it is all the more frustrating that the department acted in a manner which hampered the committee’s own attempts to hold the government to account,” the peers said.
Government departments are facing criticism for their failure to disclose critical information in the public interest. Last week, MPs on the House of Commons’ defence committee investigating the UK’s readiness for war said they had been “hampered . . . by a lack of government transparency”.
The Department for Transport has also been criticised recently for failures of governance and oversight on the UK’s flagship HS2 high-speed railway line after years of warnings over spiralling costs.
Meanwhile, the lack of regulatory supervision of the Post Office, which is owned by the government, has come under scrutiny in light of the Horizon IT scandal.
Lord Clive Hollick, chair of the Lords industry and regulators committee during the inquiry, has written to the Department for Business and Trade asking whether there is a watchdog responsible for monitoring the Post Office.
The criticisms of the business department are part of the committee’s report “Who watches the watchdogs?”, which called for urgent reforms to improve the accountability and performance of the UK’s 90 regulators.
It found that there was a “perception” that some regulatory executives have been appointed on account of their political loyalty rather than their experience and capability.
Other obstacles included a lack of funding and an over-reliance on cash from government affecting their operational independence.
The peers called for a new, independent statutory body to be created — an “Office for Regulatory Performance” — to advise and support parliament and its committees in holding regulators to account.
The Ministry of Defence said: “We are committed to working collaboratively with the committee and ensuring they have access to relevant information. However, there are some aspects of military planning and operations that must be held at a higher classification in order to safeguard operational security.”
The Department for Business and Trade had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.