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Public Accounts

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:55 pm on 12th March 2009.

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Photo of Douglas Carswell Douglas Carswell Conservative, Harwich 2:55 pm, 12th March 2009

Absolutely. I welcome any initiative from any part of the House—this is a cross-party issue, not a partisan one—to ensure that this legislature is better able to hold the Executive to account on how they spend our money.

Once upon a time there was genuine scrutiny. Indeed, as some people may know, a war was once fought over the extent to which the House was able to vote to approve supply and Government moneys. However, this House has slowly but definitely lost its power to oversee how the Executive spend our money. The quango state, on which the PAC produces so many of its reports, is in effect beyond budgetary scrutiny. Retrospective audit on the PAC is pretty much all that is left.

Belying each PAC report and the National Audit Office reports on which we comment is a profound question: why is our legislature now so supine and spineless? Why is our legislature not able to do a better job of scrutinising how the Government spend money? Instead of conducting merely retrospective audit, why does this House not properly scrutinise forward spending proposals? The failure of this House to oversee Whitehall budgets properly makes the work of the PAC vital.

My second point concerns what I see as a pattern in those 14 reports. The PAC produces a vast number of reports. Each week, it seems, we produce a report. Sometimes, scarcely a day goes by when I do not switch on the radio to listen to the "Today" programme and hear my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh talking about one of the reports. It is great that we produce so many reports, but to what effect are they produced? We give permanent secretaries a hard time and we can huff and puff, but the waste and the catastrophically inept project management and public procurement continue.

Let us take just one area—defence procurement. It has almost become a cliché for the Public Accounts Committee to produce reports criticising such procurement that catalogue incompetence and failure, yet nothing happens. On the basis of my short time serving on the PAC, I suspect that there is a more profound reason for that failure, and it is this: when big government and big business meet, we get corporatism, and we find that taxpayers' money is siphoned off for their convenience rather than that of the taxpayer.

If the supplier is constrained in any market, the seller is by definition allowed to set the terms of trade. I wonder whether too much of public procurement is inept and incompetent because big government restrains the number of people who can bid for the work. That applies whether we are talking about big defence procurement contracts or the Warm Front scheme: it is the same story, the same pattern of corporate government constraining supply.

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