New Clause 1 — Integrated audit

Part of Mental Health Outcomes (Measurement) – in the House of Commons at 1:56 pm on 17th December 2013.

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Photo of Andy Sawford Andy Sawford Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 1:56 pm, 17th December 2013

The hon. Lady makes an interesting and important point. I should perhaps declare an interest as an officer of the all-party group on local growth, local enterprise partnerships and enterprise zones. I think the Minister can also claim to have held that auspicious role in the past. The group has been concerned about how we can make sure that LEPs are as effective as possible, principally in regenerating areas and communities and ensuring local growth, but also as regards democracy. LEPs must be accountable to communities, particularly given that they have mixed boards taken from the public and private sectors. In my area—I am not sure about the hon. Lady’s—there are two different types of authorities, and district councils around the country, in particular, have been very concerned about whether they have a powerful enough voice in the governance of LEPs.

The hon. Lady mentioned political representation on LEPs and their political leanings. A modest change to this Bill would address some of the issues about how LEPs are growing and developing to suggest that they should be audited in an integrated and proper way. That could enable elected local councillors to ask questions of and examine the performance of their LEP so as to enhance the local accountability and democracy that she and I want to see around the country in relation to the growing role of LEPs.

New clause 2 is about transparency. The independence and transparency of audit is not sufficiently safeguarded by the Bill. We recognise that the Bill has been improved during its passage through Parliament, and that the Government have sought to put in place ways to ensure an element of independence—for example, of local auditors. We had substantial discussion about how we would ensure the independence of members of the audit panels that recommend the appointment of auditors. However, there are significant issues in relation to how local authorities are finding new ways of working, particularly with private sector companies and other suppliers. We want to bring greater transparency to the relationship between local authorities and the private contractors to whom, increasingly, large amounts of public services are being contracted out.

The new clause is partly inspired by the strong points made by my hon. Friend John McDonnell on Second Reading, when he encouraged us to look at the work of Transparency International. I assure him that I read its report on corruption, as did my hon. Friend Chris Williamson, and used it to raise some important questions in Committee. Indeed, the Minister met representatives of Transparency International, so interested had he become in the strength of its recommendations and the issues that it was throwing up. Transparency International says:

“Private companies, when operating services in the public interest, should be required to comply with the Freedom of Information Act with regard to those services. Specifically, audit reports from local authorities should be covered under the Freedom of Information Act or published directly as public documents.”

I agree.

Our new clause draws on amendments that have been tabled at every stage in the Lords and in Committee. I pay tribute to the work of Lord Wills in this regard. At each stage, the Government have warmed a little more to the arguments that have been made. The Liberal

Democrats have been encouraging, too. Lord Tope and Lord Wallace of Saltaire spoke in the Lords in favour of greater transparency. Lord Tope said:

“My Lords, Liberal Democrats campaigned hard for freedom of information long before the Act was passed and have since been consistent and enthusiastic supporters of its provisions. It follows therefore that we start with considerable sympathy for the issue that the noble Lord, Lord Wills, is pursuing…I am grateful to him for pursuing the issue at all stages of the Bill.”

I hope that he noticed that we took these matters forward in Committee. Lord Wallace of Saltaire said:

“I encourage the noble Lord to pursue this issue further. I will repeat what I said on Report: both Parliament and the Government need to look at this issue in general.”—[Hansard, House of Lords, 24 July 2013; Vol. 747, c. 1319-1324.]

They are both right.

The Government’s main counter is that transparency increases costs and is not necessary because councils can already be subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. However, that is not sufficient given the travel towards ever greater outsourcing of services. Local government controls about a quarter of all public spending and contracts out an increasing amount of services to private providers. It is responsible for making decisions about a number of matters where the interests of private companies are often in tension with the wishes of the electorate. For all those reasons, local government is inherently exposed to corruption risks. On the whole, it navigates and mitigates those risks admirably, and we should recognise that and keep in proportion the level of concern. However, the public will want to know that we in this place have done our very best to ensure that there is transparency in how local authorities mitigate the risks and manage contracts.

Two recent reports by the National Audit Office are very worrying. They warn of a crisis of confidence and highlight the fact that much of the work of central Government is being contracted out to firms such as Serco, with a contract of £1.8 billion; Capita, with a contract of over £1 billion; and companies such as G4S and Atos. We all know from our constituencies some of the problems with Atos, which has contracts approaching £1 billion but is singularly failing to deliver for our constituents. The reports highlight the issues and problems that have emerged in the management of these contracts. In its memorandum, the NAO says:

“Transparency is needed to ensure that no one within the contractor can hide problems and that it is in the contractor’s commercial interest to focus on their client’s (the government’s) needs”— or, indeed, the needs of local government. The Institute for Government says:

“The current pace and scale of outsourcing outstrips the ability of Whitehall officials to design and manage complex contracts effectively.”

We know the scale of the contracts that local authorities are negotiating around the country. Some are working successfully but in others there are problems, and the public want to know that there is a measure of real accountability and transparency. Hon. Members will recognise that this is a challenge for local authorities as well as for central Government.

The new clause aims to bring some transparency to the billions of pounds of public money that are at stake with regard to tackling fraud, corruption, incompetence and inefficiency in terms of citizens’ rights to know about the services provided to them and taxpayers’ rights to know about the services that they pay for. We have all agreed at various stages of our debate that local government and the relevant authorities that are subject to the Bill in schedule 2 are generally bodies that conduct themselves—in their financial probity and their conduct and standards in public office, including that of elected members and boards and their officers—in a manner that we would all want to see. However, we also know about occasions—we have to be honest about them—when those organisations fall short, sometimes wilfully and sometimes because of maladministration or error. We discussed some examples of that and what we can learn from them in Committee.

The fact that local authorities are covered by the Freedom of Information Act does not always provide the necessary transparency for private sector bodies carrying out public sector work, nor does the right of electors to inspect the accounts and audit documents, important though that is; indeed, it is provided for in a welcome way in the Bill. The Government have argued that the transparency that is intended in these provisions would increase costs, but we would argue that transparency can save money. Some of the work of the Audit Commission has saved billions of pounds of public money. There is evidence from local authorities around the country of how transparency can at times shine a light on areas of public spending that leads to savings to the public purse. I think the Minister would support that general point; indeed, he and his colleagues have talked about armchair auditors.

We deliberately included the word “significant” in the new clause to make it clear that it is not intended to cover the provision of services by small businesses, nor the work of town and parish councils, as in those cases it might be unnecessarily onerous in terms of cost. That acknowledges the Government’s concern in that respect. It would allow a local auditor

“a right of access at all reasonable times to audit documents from private companies to whom the local authority has contracted significant services during the last financial year...A local auditor must make available on request any audit documents, obtained under subsection (1), subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.”

That would clearly make these documents available to the public. We seek to define “private company” in the context of how freedom of information may apply in relation to the process of audit, so that it would mean

“any legal entity, including joint ventures, not-for-profit organisations, mutually-held organisations and charities.”

Of course, many more of those bodies are now involved in providing public services.

To ensure that the Minister understands that we intend to be very reasonable and measured in making this proposal, we have included a sunset clause. I hope that the Government recognise that that means that if the new clause proves to be particularly onerous, or unnecessary, they could at a future time consider whether it is any longer needed.

Our final amendment in this group, amendment 13, centres on the independence of audit. It is straightforward and I do not intend to detain the House on it for long. It is an important principle that independent audit means that companies should not be auditing themselves. As I have said, councils are increasingly outsourcing contracts to the private sector. When a company, be it PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and Touche, KPMG, Ernst and Young or some other provider—perhaps a smaller firm or even a new entrant to the audit market, as the Government hope will happen—provides services other than audit to a council, it should not then audit those same services. That is a simple but very important principle, because there is clearly a conflict of interest when a firm is auditing itself.

In Committee we heard assurances that in such circumstances an audit firm would, by virtue of the expectations in the contract with the council and, to some extent, with regard to the codes of professional standards and probity that govern and guide how auditors operate, make sure that a different person or even a different team within the company would carry out the audit so as to bring a measure of independence when looking at areas of spend and operation for which that self-same company is responsible. We listened to those arguments, which were made by a number of hon. Members. We know that auditors already seek to uphold professional standards of conduct and that in the private sector they sometimes need to have different teams when they work with a major company as both an auditor and a supplier.

We would argue, however, that it is a matter for the shareholders of those private companies to resolve any conflicts of interest. Our focus in this Bill is on arrangements for local and other relevant authorities that are spending billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and where it is our responsibility to make sure that conflicts or interest are resolved.

Our amendment does not seek to prevent a company from undertaking audit work when it has other interests in the relevant authority. We recognise that that would go too far and that there are significant issues with regard to what is, in effect, an oligopoly in this market. We do not wish to narrow further the number of firms that could bid to undertake the audit work. Our amendment does say, however, that the audit firm would have to subcontract to another firm any part of its work that relates to the auditing of services that it already provides. Given that the Government envisage some arrangements whereby more than one auditor may be appointed to carry out work, we do not see what the problem is with the amendment. It seems perfectly sensible and I hope they will consider it.

The Minister has assured us that in many local authorities it will be commonplace for a company to be able to subcontract parts of its audits to different audit firms or to be able to make arrangements in relation to combined authorities where different auditors work together. He has assured us that that is a feasible and, indeed, desirable part of the arrangements as currently envisaged, and we see the amendment as a logical extension of that.

I welcome the new clauses tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington, who has a strong interest in maximising transparency, which is the focus of his new clause 3. On new clause 4, independent studies have been done on the effect of changes in local authority structure since the Local Government Act 2000. I gently say to my hon. Friend that I would rather leave it to local authorities, local residents and interested parties to review their arrangements than ask for central Government’s verdict on what is the most effective structure for local democracy in any given local authority area.

New clause 5 addresses how local authority capacity has been diminished. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to that, because it is an important point that was raised in Committee. On new clause 6, compromise agreements are a matter of increasing public concern. We sought to raise the issue in Committee, where we tabled amendments that would have meant that compromise agreements could not effectively gag employees. I am sorry that the Government did not accept them.

On Government amendment 2, I thank the Minister for his letter explaining this minor technical amendment. Government amendment 3 makes sense to us on the cross-border point, notwithstanding the wider policy point about the treatment of internal drainage boards, which we will come to later. Government amendment 4 is a tidying-up amendment.

Finally, on Government amendment 5, I am very pleased that the Government have responded to the points we made in Committee about recognising the qualifications of auditors. The amendment does not go far enough to address the important issue of auditors needing to understand the scope of public audit, a point that was powerfully made by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy in its representations to us and, indeed, by the draft Bill Committee; nevertheless, I welcome the amendment.