Gerry Steinberg MPIn the House...

Commons Gate

National Audit Office Supply Estimate 2003-2004

Public Accounts Committee 24 Feb 2003

Labour Party logo

National Audit Office Supply Estimate 2003-2004

Examination of Witnesses

SIR JOHN BOURN KCB, Comptroller and Auditor General, MR TIM BURR, Deputy Comptroller and Auditor General and MR MICHAEL WHITEHOUSE, Assistant Auditor General, National Audit Office, further examined.

Mr Steinberg

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): A couple of questions for interest's sake not to put you on the spot or anything like that. I notice it says additional support to parliament, to the Committee of Public Accounts and through a programme of secondments to other select committees. What is that all about?

Sir John Bourn: Several select committees have asked whether I can second staff to work for the Clerk, so we have seconded staff to do that. Mr Williams, through his responsibilities in the House, is particularly concerned. I am very keen to do what I can if a select committee asks whether we would be able to second someone to work for the committee secretariat. If I can do that, I will be glad to do it. The person who goes to work for the select committee is the select committee's man or woman.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Who pays for them?

Sir John Bourn: The House of Commons pays.

Chairman: There are no resource implications in that work.

Mr Steinberg

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): The actual Committee pays.

Sir John Bourn: Yes.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Does that leave you short staffed?

Sir John Bourn: No. I have a secondment programme and I am always interested in having a relatively small number of people seconded from the Office to other organisations. It would not be right for somebody to spend their entire working life in the National Audit Office. It would be valuable to have some wider experience and one valuable area for that is working for the House of Commons.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Which are the NDPBs which you have taken over recently?

Sir John Bourn: I have a list of them here: the Alcohol Education Research Council; British Potato Council; Construction Industry Training Board; English Partnerships; Environment Agency, which is a big one; Football Licensing Authority; Home Grown Cereals Authority; Housing Corporation, another big one; Meat and Livestock Commission; Oil and Pipelines Agency; Sea Fish Industry Authority. Those are just some of them.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Could we have a list of them sometime?

Sir John Bourn: Certainly.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): On two occasions I have given a talk to trainees at the National Audit Office and one of the questions they ask is how many organisations are audited by the NAO. My answer is: everything except the BBC and the Civil List. Is that an accurate answer?

Sir John Bourn: The total number in this financial year is 590, to which the 40 we are talking about will be added in the next financial year.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Are there any you do not have your claws in yet?

Sir John Bourn: There are the ones, as you rightly say, where the Committee have ambitions and have recommended we secure the audit. The BBC is one, the Civil List is another. There are others where one might harbour ambitions. There is, waiting in the mountains, as one might say, the Bank of England. There is the Financial Services Authority. Those would all be ones where, with the Committee's support, I could see we would be able to do useful work.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So why did Sharman not recommend that at the time?

Sir John Bourn: He did recommend the BBC.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): So it is the government which stopped it.

Sir John Bourn: Yes, that is right.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): What about the Bank of England?

Sir John Bourn: That is more my idea. I have touched on it from time to time with members of the Committee. What we have concentrated on, and the big push with which the Committee has been so helpful, is getting all the executive non-departmental public bodies. That was the big immediate target. Then, getting the extension of the access rights to give me by right, as distinct from by negotiation, access to the books and records of contractors to central government, which was a big thing to get. Also getting the government to support my becoming the auditor of PLCs which are owned by the government, of which one might think there would be hardly any left after privatisation, but where there are in fact very many left. These are very often in museums and areas like that where a PLC is set up to run the restaurant, the car park, things of that kind, which has taken them away from me and hence from parliament and that is something the government have agreed with and we are now negotiating.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): Really when I give the answer that the only two things you do not audit are the BBC and the Civil List that is not accurate.

Sir John Bourn: Certainly not. There is another set. If one really wants to look at this in a very wide way, there are the remaining public corporations of which there are very few now. The NAO never audited them and the PAC and the C&AG have tried ever since 1945 to get the audit of these bodies, did not succeed in that, the governments of successive parties would never agree to that. However, the wheel of history brings strange results in that privatisation of all of these public sector monopolies led to the creation of regulators, of which we are the auditors, so we have been able to bring to the PAC work on water, on gas and electricity, which we never could do when they were nationalised

Public Accounts | Back to front page!