Saturday 18 August 2012 by John Hyde

The Ministry of Justice is blighted by poor financial management and a lack of expertise for drawing up outsourcing contracts, a select committee states today.

A report by the Justice Select Committee says while improvements had been made in structure in the five years since the MoJ was formed, this is marred by the poor performance of the Legal Services Commission (LSC). Missing the deadline for submitting departmental accounts for the past three years was 'unacceptable' and gave the impression of poor financial controls, the report says.

And despite cutting the use of agency staff by half, the department still spends £75m every year to shore up the finance team. The report says financial management has improved, but this was coming from a 'low base'. 'It seems to us that, until recently, there has been an unacceptable complacency about the department's performance,' says the report.

'We fear that there is still a defeatist mindset within the MoJ on this issue, exemplified by the outgoing permanent secretary's apparent dismissal of the possibility of meeting the government's own deadline of laying accounts by 30 June.'

On commissioning services, the committee says the department has yet to convince its members it had the 'necessary skills' to make them successful. 'The examples of problems within the MoJ's commissioning show a tendency for them to be poorly designed. It seems clear that the department has insufficient experience and skills to commission effectively, so the MoJ should draw upon the experience of others.'

On the Language Services Framework Agreement in place nationally since February 2012, the committee added it was too early to say whether early problems had been resolved. It intends to take evidence on this matter in October. The report says there is 'no excuse' for the LSC's failure to implement a system of online submissions by solicitors. The Law Society will be requested to suggest providers that are willing to adhere to a fully online process.

The committee says the LSC must establish a clear plan for how it intends to reduce 'significantly' its error rate. Despite the problems identified, committee chairman Sir Alan Beith is content with the progress made within the MoJ.

He said: 'The formation of the MoJ in 2007 was a major machinery of government change which was poorly handled at the time, but we are satisfied that the philosophical divide between the Home Office and the MoJ strikes the right balance between law enforcement and liberty.

'Over the past five years a lot of effort has been expended in integrating the new department, for which much credit must go to the recently departed permanent secretary, Sir Suma Chakrabarti. Despite early problems which led to substandard performance in some areas, this effort is now having rewards which we were able to see for ourselves when we visited the ministry's headquarters on an open access basis, and spoke to staff at all levels.'

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