Comptroller and Auditor General

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:09 pm on 6th March 2019.

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Photo of Richard Bacon Richard Bacon Conservative, South Norfolk 3:09 pm, 6th March 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Meg Hillier. I would like to make two quick points.

The first point is about Sir Amyas Morse, who has been Comptroller and Auditor General for 10 years. I was one of those who cross-examined him when he appeared before the Public Accounts Committee before he was appointed. He has done an extraordinarily good job over 10 years and built up the National Audit Office, from a good position under his predecessors, to a point where it is now without question one of the best supreme audit institutions in the world, if not the best supreme audit institution in the world. He is widely respected both here and internationally. It is quite fair to say that he really has done the state some service. We are all deeply in his debt.

My second point is about the consequences of the abolition of the Audit Commission and the fact that we are now appointing, in Mr Gareth Davies, an individual of the highest calibre who has spent most of his life at the Audit Commission. Following the abolition of the Audit Commission, there are concerns about the departmental understanding of the picture emerging from local audit work. Indeed, as Mr Davies said in his evidence, referred to by my hon. Friend Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, there is still a risk that, even when things are being flagged up by the local auditor, either the governance of the authority itself or the Department are not acting quickly enough to pick up and address those points.

My concern was that there might be, either in slow time or in quick time, a move to burden the NAO with a whole load of extra responsibilities, frankly swamping it with the work of local government audit. In fact, the work of local government audit is being done quite effectively. There is no evidence that it is not being done well. However, there is evidence that it is not being picked up quickly enough and, where local auditors are issuing qualifications, the Department of state concerned, in this case the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, is not necessarily responding quickly enough. Under the new Secretary of State, who has been in office for nine or 10 months, I am confident that changes are afoot, particularly since the debacle of Northamptonshire County Council. I just wanted to make the point that it is very important that we do not take an extremely good institution that is well-run and functioning extremely well, and try to extend its scope unnecessarily. I was therefore very relieved when I read Mr Davies’s other evidence where he said:

“When an organisation like the NAO demonstrates its capability, it is very tempting to give it additional tasks, and if you are not careful you can lose focus on your prime objectives.”

I was very gratified to see that he is extremely cautious about doing that. I commend his wisdom, evident in the evidence he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds, and I commend his appointment as Comptroller and Auditor General.