westminster diary

After 10 years' continuous service on the Commons public accounts committee, veteran Swansea West MP Alan Williams has come to know well, if not always to like, the NHS chief executives summoned to explain the latest health service fiasco.

'When Duncan Nichol was in charge I described him as Sylvester Stallone: different parts but the same script,' recalls the silver haired Welshman. 'We had Duncan I, the West Midlands, and Duncan II, Wessex. I asked if there are any more, and the cry went up from my colleagues: 'Don't forget Duncan III, Chelsea and Westminster.'

When, just before his retirement, Sir Duncan appeared before the PAC, it was known he was to take up a post at Manchester University. 'My last question to him was: 'What are you going to lecture in - chaos theory?''

Indeed, the PAC can be an excruciating experience for witnesses, who are often not so much cross-examined as chastised, humiliated and treated with theatrical contempt by the MPs.

It will come as little comfort to Sir Alan Langlands - who suffered a recent PAC mauling over the Guy's Hospital development cost over-run - to know that Mr Williams, one of his tormentors, actually quite likes him.

'He has a different style to Sir Duncan. I think he's a good witness, and tries to give us the answers to questions. I feel he tries to address the shortcomings and remedy them.'

Unlike Sir Duncan? Mr Williams searches for a diplomatic way of conveying his belief that Sir Duncan was unhelpful

'There was an antipathy towards Sir Duncan. No, antipathy is the wrong word. It was frustration in a way.'

The PAC is now Mr Williams' political passion. Aged 69, he has been an MP since 1964, and reached ministerial level in the late 1970s before 18 years of Conservative rule put paid to any dreams of further advancement.

He rejects the allegation that the PAC is unnecessarily confrontational. The civil servants who come before him are trained to be as oblique and long-winded as possible, he says.

'That's why we constantly butt in.' MPs can be genuinely angry, suggests Mr Williams. He is personally incensed by the way NHS employment laws mean it is often impossible for miscreant managers to face censure. 'It's a bit like the police: as long as they get out of the force in time, they escape disciplinary action.'

The PAC should be enlarged he says. It has just 50 sittings a year in which to monitor£350bn of public expenditure, and members can get bogged down by its administrative demands. A second committee should be set up to share the load, he argues. 'If you didn't have the PAC you would have Moscow-style inefficiency and corruption such as that associated with some third world countries.'