7. Statement by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee on the outgoing Auditor General for Wales

– in the Senedd at 4:32 pm on 18 July 2018.

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Photo of Ann Jones Ann Jones Labour 4:32, 18 July 2018

A statement by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee on the outgoing Auditor General for Wales. I call on Nick Ramsay to deliver the statement.

Photo of Nick Ramsay Nick Ramsay Conservative

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Later this week, on 20 July, Huw Vaughan Thomas CBE will complete his last day in office as the Auditor General for Wales. I'd like to take this opportunity to reflect on his tenure as auditor general and to express thanks to him for his contributions to public life.

Huw was appointed auditor general in 2010, bringing with him a wealth of experience and expertise from his long and successful career across the public sector. He's proved to be an excellent appointee. Huw took to his role with many challenges ahead, starting with the difficult circumstances he inherited following incidents at the Wales Audit Office prior to his appointment. One of his first challenges was to present proposals to strengthen the governance and accountability of the organisation and oversee a period of organisational and cultural change. This he did with determination, and, following an internal review, he introduced a set of new governance arrangements, which restored public confidence and transformed the culture at the Wales Audit Office.

This period of change within Huw's term of office also saw the implementation of the Public Audit (Wales) Act 2013, which further strengthened and improved the accountability and governance arrangements of the AGW and the WAO, while preserving and protecting the independence and objectivity of the AGW. The introduction in 2014 of the Wales Audit Office board further strengthened governance of the WAO and even up until most recently Huw has been overseeing significant changes in culture and working practices, including recent investments in data analytics. As Huw comes to the end of his career, he has planted the seeds for the next generation of auditors, with investments in finance trainees and apprenticeships, inspiring maybe a future auditor general. During his term of office, Huw has been at the forefront of improving public services and securing value for money for the taxpayer. His role as auditor general has been crucial and influential, the driving force and heart of good governance and accountability. Under Huw's leadership, during times of renewed austerity and increased focus on public finances and challenge on how that money is spent, he has delivered.

Huw has always championed the importance of independent public audit in supporting effective scrutiny of the Welsh Government, not just in holding the Government to account, but also providing vital insights and supporting improvements. As auditor general, Huw has overseen the publication of numerous hard-hitting reports. These reports have shone a light on poor governance and the inefficient use of public money, and I specifically refer to some of Huw's most influential reports: in 2011, his special inspection report on Anglesey County Council, which resulted in commissioners being sent in by the Welsh Government to take over the operation of the council—a first for the UK; his report in 2012 on AWEMA, which, together with other audit reports, prompted wholesale changes to the Welsh Government's management of its £2.6 billion annual grants expenditure; his joint review in 2013 with Healthcare Inspectorate Wales of the governance arrangements at Betsi Cadwaladr UHB, which was a precursor to the health board being placed in special measures; his 2015 report on the regeneration investment fund for Wales, which sold public land at a significant undervalue, potentially losing the taxpayer tens of millions of pounds; and his first public interest report on an NHS body in 2017 in relation to Cardiff and Vale UHB's mismanagement of a consultancy contract.

Such reports, although sobering to read, have been crucial in identifying areas that need strengthening and driving forward improvements to Welsh Government decision making and how public services are delivered. The importance of this cannot be understated. This independent audit is supported through parliamentary scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee, which has worked closely with Huw over his term of office to maximise the impact of his work in holding the Welsh Government and other relevant organisations to account. Huw has been a constant source of support and advice to the committee, enhancing our work, and, increasingly, AGW reports have been used to inform the work of other Assembly committees, an excellent example of which is the Finance Committee's consideration of reports on fiscal preparedness.

In more recent times, Huw has also been pivotal to the implementation of the future generations Act of 2015. The Act requires the auditor general to report on the extent to which public bodies have applied the sustainable development principle to the way they set their objectives and the steps they're taking to meet those objectives. Huw has recently published his year 1 commentary report on how public bodies have responded to the Act, which identifies a number of emerging good practices across Wales for others to draw upon. The hard work and commitment demonstrated by Huw has been recognised with him being awarded a CBE in the 2018 Queen's birthday honours for services to public audit and accountability in Wales, and we extend our congratulations to Huw on this special achievement.

This recognition of Huw's outstanding contribution to public life consolidates a lifelong commitment to public life. He's been an auditor general who has not been afraid to say it like it is when necessary, and he leaves office with an excellent record, having served the people of Wales as auditor general for the last eight years. Huw, you've led with integrity and will leave a lasting legacy of renewed public confidence in public audit and accountability. We wish you well in the future. Diolch yn fawr.

Photo of Adam Price Adam Price Plaid Cymru 4:39, 18 July 2018


It’s my pleasure, also, to rise to thank the auditor general for his service. It is characteristic of him, to tell the truth, that he’s innovating, even in leaving, because I think he’s the first one of the auditors to propose a farewell letter that provides, in one place, an overview of the landscape that he has been observing over the last eight years. It is very useful, and it’s very scathing at times. There are references to some of the reports that have pointed to poor governance, but it is interesting to see that the WAO is one of the most important places that drives innovation. We don’t traditionally associate auditing with innovation, but the best practices team has been driving that agenda. The only other example I can think of is Brazil's court of accounts, where they also have an innovation laboratory, and maybe that’s greatly needed there.

The points that the auditor general makes in the letter are quite interesting in terms of the deficiencies he points out and in terms of our state, although we're perhaps not falling into the same kind of trouble as Brazil. But there is a reason for us to listen to the voice of the auditor general, because he does point out the lack of radical thinking, the fact that we can’t think innovatively enough and that we tend to think in terms of short term issues, rather than thinking in the long term, and that there is an overemphasis on efficiency rather than in looking more broadly and more purposefully at reshaping our public services in a more comprehensive way. There is an overemphasis on structures rather than outcomes, and then the tendency of course to repackage problems rather than tackle them at a foundational level. There's enough analysis. 

He also served on the Williams commission. We all know what the problems are. Excellent strategies, and not such a great disagreement among the parties—the truth that dare not speak its name in terms of values, perhaps. But how can we translate those objectives into policies that are going to deliver? The auditor general has done us a favour, even in saying farewell in terms of setting out the challenge that is how we in this Parliament can raise our horizons and start to realise some of the objectives that we all share. Thank you. 

Photo of Nick Ramsay Nick Ramsay Conservative 4:42, 18 July 2018

Thank you, Adam Price. I know very little about auditors in Brazil; it does sound a bit like a film, doesn't it? So, I'll leave that for other people to comment on.

There's going to be very little disagreement, I sense, in this statement. Adam, you've cited the auditor general's role in innovating and driving the agenda forward, and you're totally right. I think before Members go on the Public Accounts Committee—it's a little bit similar to finance, in this respect—I think they do think it's going to be a very dry subject, and that auditing is something that a certain type of person does in an office somewhere, or wherever it might be, out in the field. Of course, the reality, as you know, and I know, and previous chairs of PAC know, is that, actually, the reality is quite different. You're right; Huw has had a role in terms of driving the agenda forward—innovating, a key word—and a role of leadership. So, the job of the auditor general is something that, I think, has clearly changed over the years and will change in the future, but he does leave a legacy there of which he can be rightly proud.

We often talk about this place—initially the Assembly and now as it transforms into a Parliament—in establishing a new future for Wales. It's not just down to us in this Chamber here and the public; there are certain key figures who, throughout time, can be cited in the development of Westminster as being key, and they will be cited here. I've no doubt at all that in the future, people will look back and they will say that Huw's role as an auditor general came at a key point, and he didn't just transform the organisation of the Wales Audit Office, he also will have a role in transforming Wales as well.

Photo of Mike Hedges Mike Hedges Labour 4:44, 18 July 2018

I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on the retirement of the auditor general, Huw Vaughan Thomas. I've been a member of the Public Accounts Committee, or a substitute member, since 2011. To me, the outgoing auditor general had two great strengths, which I hope Nick Ramsay will agree with me on: knowing what the key areas to investigate and report on were, and proportionality in his response. If anybody follows the auditor general's reports, the auditor general's office produces many each year, but it's actually about identifying the key ones, going into them in detail, and reporting back and taking them before the Public Accounts Committee, because if the Public Accounts Committee received all of them, they'd spend an hour each week just receiving and accepting. So, it's the proportionality in what to deal with and highlighting major failings of Government departments—Penmon fish farm, Kancoat, Powys Fadog, the Circuit of Wales—projects that could never have succeeded and that should have been picked up by the civil servants at the very earliest moment as projects that were incapable of success. The failure to do that—. The auditor general has brought those to the attention of Welsh Government, which I hope will work in the future—that people will cast a critical eye over projects and whether they actually can work or not. Many projects will fail, many good projects will fail for all sorts of reasons, but if the auditor general leaves us with something, it's that people cast a critical eye over projects and say, 'Can this project actually succeed?', and when the answer is 'no', then those projects don't get taken forward and money is not spent on them. Can I just finally wish Huw Vaughan Thomas a long and happy retirement? I've enjoyed seven years of discussions, not always agreements with him, but always something that I think I've learnt a lot from, and I hope he's enjoyed.

Photo of Nick Ramsay Nick Ramsay Conservative 4:46, 18 July 2018

One certainty of life on the Public Accounts Committee is that Mike Hedges cannot leave it. He always ends up leaving and then coming back at some point, and I think you're probably one of the most experienced Members on that committee now, Mike.

You made some very valid points. In true Mike Hedges style, I rattled off a long list of successful reports the auditor general gave, and you've completed the list, actually, with a list of the public accounts reports that we've done on the back of the auditor general's reports, such as on the Circuit of Wales and a long list of others. But you're right, it is about casting a critical eye, and one of the reasons why I've enjoyed being Chair of public accounts so much is that it allows you to get away from the traditional political-type arguments that people expect us to have in this Chamber, and we rightly have, and it takes you into a cross-party area where we are not being critical of the Government because they are them and we are us, we are doing it because we are trying to highlight—trying to provide that critical eye that you spoke about and cast light on areas that have failed and then enable and allow the Welsh Government to improve those areas, either directly, if it's the Welsh Government that's gone slightly off the path, or if it's another organisation that is related—. That's one asset of the Public Accounts Committee. I know that we've had some witnesses before us over recent months and they've confessed to being terrified. We don't aim to terrify them, but I think it is the very idea of being in front of a public accounts committee, whether it be here or in Brazil or in Westminster, wherever it may be—it does carry a certain gravitas to it.

Working with the auditor general and his office has been a great privilege for me, and I'm sure I speak for Darren Millar, and previous Chairs who've worked with Huw. He has provided a robustness that has uniquely complemented the committee and allowed us to move forward as a committee and as an institution, and, as I said in my previous response to Adam, hopefully he will allow Wales to move forward a little bit too in terms of efficient spend of public money and delivering what the people of Wales expect from us.


The Llywydd took the Chair.

Photo of Mohammad Asghar Mohammad Asghar Conservative 4:48, 18 July 2018

I'm very grateful for this opportunity to say a few words in tribute to Huw Vaughan Thomas on his retirement as the Auditor General for Wales. I have served on the Public Accounts Committee for the whole time since Huw's appointment in October 2010. In that time, I have been impressed by his commitment to the role, his pursuit of excellence and his dedication to his duties. His experience, gained us a variety of Government roles in a number of distinguished public appointments and in the private sector, made him uniquely placed to be Auditor General for Wales.

In his time, he has never shied away from the challenge of helping organisations become more efficient and effective in delivering public services. These include the Welsh Government. His reports into issues such as the Welsh Government's relationship with Pinewood and its initial funding of the Circuit of Wales project, which my colleague Nick Ramsay has already mentioned, highlighted serious deficiencies in administration and accountability. If properly addressed, these reports will have lasting beneficial effects on achieving value for money. I believe Huw Thomas's term as auditor general will be defined by the legacy he has left behind and its impact on the public sector. He has raised the audit bar—the quality bar—to such a high level that it will be a tough act to follow. Thank you, Huw. You have done a wonderful job for the last eight years for this nation. All that remains is to wish Huw a long and happy retirement, and to welcome Adrian Crompton to this important and challenging role, to follow in his footsteps. Thank you.

Photo of Nick Ramsay Nick Ramsay Conservative 4:50, 18 July 2018

Running out of accolades now—[Laughter.] I knew I shouldn't have mentioned Mike Hedges as being the longest serving, because obviously my colleague Mohammad Asghar has been on the committee a long time as well.

Yes, your points are well made. Over the last two years, since I've been Chair of the committee, we've looked at a number of different areas. The Circuit of Wales is an obvious one. Kancoat, I think, was mentioned by Mike. And in all that time, Huw has given me as Chair, the Members, but also the committee clerks a lot of support as well. It is a tough act to follow, and the next auditor general doesn't need to be like the last auditor general—doesn't need to be like Huw. It is a role that—. I know, from my discussions with Huw, he has told me you take it and you make what you want from it. There are certain key levels that you have to reach within that job, but at the same time—. It's also, of course, worth pointing out: it's an interesting mixture, because you're the auditor general but you're also the chief executive of a very important organisation within Wales. So, it's not an easy job to follow. We wish Adrian Crompton the best in taking up the cudgels there. But it's worth pointing out Huw has not just been respected by people here; he's also got a wider respect. I've visited other audit offices and auditor generals across the UK—and, indeed, we speak to them from across the world—and he's very highly regarded. I have no doubt at all that once you've relaxed a bit, Huw, then you will move on to other things, and I know you've had a very diverse and interesting career, and I'm sure that in the future you will still have much to give to Welsh life.

Photo of Mr Neil Hamilton Mr Neil Hamilton UKIP 4:52, 18 July 2018

I'd like to add my few poor words to the eloquent encomiums of those who have spoken in this debate hitherto, and they're very genuinely meant. It would be very easy for a debate of this kind to degenerate into empty formality, but this is very much the opposite. I think that Huw Vaughan Thomas has been an outstanding public servant, not only in this office of auditor general, but in the many other roles that he's performed in the course of a long and distinguished career of public service.

Auditing, famously, is for those who find accountancy too exciting, but to be auditor general is a different thing altogether, and Huw famously started his time in office by saying, 'I'm not an accountant, but I have experience of being an accounting officer', and the two roles, of course, are very, very different. He has been, I think, an outstanding success as auditor general, starting on what we might have called a bit of a sticky wicket. He had to sort his own office out before he could start on anything else, and after a very unfortunate series of errors in his own department before he took office, he had to impose the kind of financial rectitude upon the audit office that he has tried to impose on all other arms of Government ever since.

He has been a firm hand on the tiller, and has steadied the ship, and in the course of the last seven or eight years, I think that he has transformed the audit office in Wales, and I think he has shown a depth of vision here as well, not just in the sense that he's applied a minute scrutiny to the accounts of Government departments, but also because he has exercised his power of choice in a very good way, and has concentrated upon, I think, some of the bigger issues that needed to be drawn out of the way that a huge amount of public money is spent in Wales, to the lasting benefit of the taxpayer and, indeed, good government in general.

Because I was running out of interesting reading material, I actually read the 2011 report of the Public Accounts Committee, when Darren Millar was the Chair of it, on the problems of the Wales Audit Office itself. That said, right at the very beginning of Huw's tenure of office, he was forthright, open and transparent, and that is the principle upon which he has conducted himself in his great office in the whole time he's been there. He has spoken truth to power, and there is no task, I think, more vital in a democratic system, because all Governments of whatever persuasion at times think that they have a kind of inviolability and that they can do no wrong, or little wrong. It is very important that the cross-party consensus that Nick Ramsay referred to should sometimes cause them to think again and to draw themselves up.

It would be tedious to go through the long list of public offices that Huw Vaughan Thomas has held, but I think it's an important element of his experience that he was the chief executive of two local authorities before he became the auditor general—in Gwynedd and Denbighshire. He chaired the Big Lottery Fund in Wales as well, and he had experience in Government departments in other parts of the United Kingdom. He's served on organisations like the Parole Board for England and Wales. He's got a vast breadth of experience, as well as a depth in the areas that we're talking about today. So, I think that we should salute him for his success in his office, and for the inheritance that he is handing on to his successor. He is a hard act to follow. Nobody is, of course, indispensable, but nevertheless I think he will be remembered as one of the great auditors, not just of Wales but also of the United Kingdom, and the whole people of Wales thank him for his service.

Photo of Nick Ramsay Nick Ramsay Conservative 4:56, 18 July 2018

'The great auditors'—how do I follow that? I stand to be corrected, but I think it was Tony Blair who once said we cannot change our country without first changing ourselves. I might be wrong, but I think it was back when he was starting out and he first became Labour leader. I think the point you made about what the auditor general inherited with the Wales Audit Office as it was and the reputation that it had—clearly, it needed turning around for the good of government, for the good of Wales, for the good of everyone, and he achieved that. He first of all showed that the Wales Audit Office could meet the challenge and get on with the job of scrutinising everything else.

Yes, we do salute the outgoing auditor general, and we recognise that the next auditor general will have that tough act to follow. I think one thing is clear: yes, we've done a lot of hard-hitting reports over the last few years, and I know that Darren Millar and previous audit Chairs have also had their role to play in earlier reports, and that job is not going to get any easier—let's not pretend it will. The Assembly now has been with us for 20 years. We're looking at the transformation of this place into a Parliament, and it's going to become increasingly important for the Wales Audit Office to step up to the mark as well and renew itself.

It's interesting that Huw Vaughan Thomas leaves at a time when we have the situation here with the multiple leadership elections going on in the different parties. So, currently, the parties here are in a process of renewal and rejuvenation, which is so important to all parties, and so important to government.

I'm sure that Huw will rejuvenate himself once he's left the auditor general's office, and will very much appreciate the rest and a change of life. We've got to look to the future now. We've got to make sure that we get on with the job that we're tasked with, and it's not just a question of criticising the Government when we feel they've done wrong, it's a question of appreciating where Government gets it right as well. We have, of course, the great advantage on the Public Accounts Committee that we get to speak to the officials, not just the Minister—it's not just the Cabinet Secretaries, it's not just the headline, but it is what lies beneath that. It's the area that doesn't often get the publicity that it needs, and it's our job on the Public Accounts Committee, and indeed, of course, the other committees in the Assembly, to make sure that over the future months and years to come that light is shone on areas of public life that don't always get it, and we all work together to try and make Wales a little bit of a better place.

Photo of Mr Simon Thomas Mr Simon Thomas Plaid Cymru 4:59, 18 July 2018


Thank you to Nick Ramsay for bringing this statement forward on behalf of the Public Accounts Committee today, which enables me, on behalf of the Finance Committee, to endorse the thanks expressed to the auditor general. Although he works mainly with Nick's committee, of course, the governance of the auditor's office come to the Finance Committee, and we have very much appreciated the willingness of Huw Vaughan Thomas to collaborate with us, and the way in which he has facilitated that work. For a second there, when you were talking about regeneration, I thought that Huw was going to become some sort of Doctor Who and regenerate in some alternative form. But, it’s not quite that situation. But, he has certainly cast light where light needed to be cast and has ensured that our democracy here works far more successfully.

Just to remind ourselves that Huw as auditor general is one of the few lead officials within public service in Wales that we as an Assembly appoint. Therefore, it is appropriate that we officially put on record our thanks to him. He has left a legacy for the Finance Committee. He has audited under the systems governing his operations and decided that legislation needed to be improved to facilitate the work of the next auditor general and of the office in future. Therefore, he has left a legacy for us to work with too. But, the main thing to do and to say today is something that I couldn’t have done in the Parliament that I was once a Member of, and that is to turn to somebody in the gallery, who isn’t a stranger to us, and to refer to him in personal terms and to thank Huw Vaughan Thomas for all of his work as Auditor General for Wales, and to tell him, 'Don’t be a stranger to this Assembly from now on either.'

Photo of Nick Ramsay Nick Ramsay Conservative 5:01, 18 July 2018

When people ask me to give them a solid reason why we should have more Assembly Members, I often cite the fact that not only do I chair the Public Accounts Committee and have that role of looking back, but of course I sit with Simon Thomas on the Finance Committee with the job of looking financially forward. I'm trying to look both ways at once sometimes, which wouldn't happen in larger institutions. And of course I've spoken about public accounts, but it was the Finance Committee that had the valuable role of recruiting the new auditor general, and I sat with Simon Thomas on the interview panel—it seems a long time ago now—to make sure that—

Photo of Nick Ramsay Nick Ramsay Conservative

I wondered why it seemed so long ago. Yes, it was a totally different weather situation then.

But, yes, you're quite right: it's as we discussed during that process. This is an important role. That cannot be overstated. I think I said 'understated' in my initial speech; I meant 'overstated', of course. It cannot be overstated, and it's really important that the process, not just the people involved, but the process of audit itself moves on and develops. It wasn't that long ago, of course, that the Wales Audit Office came into existence, compared with other audit bodies across the UK. So, it's still a young body, but as I said before, it will have a very increasing role.

I've been very grateful to Huw Vaughan Thomas for the support he's given me and the committee clerks during my time as the Chair of public accounts, and I'm convinced that he leaves a legacy of which he can be proud, and which stands us in good stead for the future.

Photo of Darren Millar Darren Millar Conservative 5:03, 18 July 2018

I just want to pay my tribute as well to the work of Huw Vaughan Thomas for the eight years that he served as auditor general. Six of those he spent with me as the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, and I have to say that he was always extremely professional. He maintained absolutely his independence, and of course he pulled no punches in the reports that he published. Many of those reports would regularly hit the headlines, as they have done since.

I think it's testament to his work that the committee was able to undertake a number of reforms as well in the last Assembly, as a result of the sound advice and the wisdom that was given to us by the auditor general in terms of adapting our own working practices. I can recall many a meeting in different parts of the UK when the committee went to meet with audit committees up in Scotland, in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland, and it's fair to say that the respect that was there amongst his counterparts in those legislatures was extremely high in terms of the regard in which Huw was held.

And, of course, it is important to point out that for much of the decades of public service that Huw has given to the nation of the UK and this nation of Wales, the biggest proportion of that has been here in our country. On behalf of the people of north Wales and my own constituents, I want to put on record Huw's contribution as chief executive of Denbighshire for a number of years—a local authority that had its challenges during his tenure there, but, again, one that was under good leadership during his time in office.

I think it's also just important to put on record that Huw has not just made a huge impact in terms of his contribution to the public sector, but also to the charitable sector over the years. He's held many roles on a number of charities that also, of course, benefit the public, not least his work as chair of the National Registers of Communication Professionals Working with Deaf and Deafblind People and of course the national trustee status that he held with RNID in Wales, and of course roles on the Prince's Trust and other organisations too. I think it's important to reflect that when you give work out, giving it to a busy person is very often the way to make sure that things are done. And I know that Huw's time was not his own very often, and that he will cherish, no doubt, the extra time that he will now have to be able to focus on his own personal interests. But I wish him every success in his retirement. I think his CBE was richly deserved in the birthday honours list, and I look forward very much to seeing what role Huw will play in the future of Wales as we go forward.

Just one final comment. We've referred to the strains on Assembly Members at times and our capacity to work. I couldn't help but notice that the Llywydd made a statement on the future of the Assembly earlier on today. It's worth reflecting on the fact that, of course, Huw Vaughan Thomas did serve on the Richard commission way back when, which made some clear recommendations about the capacity of this National Assembly, and his sage advice on the Richard commission, I believe, still stands today. If there's something else that I think it's important for us to reflect on, it's the advice that he gave as a member of that Richard commission on the capacity of this Assembly, and in particular the numbers of Assembly Members. 

Photo of Nick Ramsay Nick Ramsay Conservative 5:07, 18 July 2018

I've very little to add to that, Llywydd, you'll be pleased to know, other than as a former PAC chair, I know how closely Darren Millar worked with Huw and did a lot of important work. I should probably have pointed out at the start that Huw is in the gallery. I'm just thinking of people watching this from outside and we're all looking heavenward as if he's sitting on a cloud somewhere, but no, he's actually there. But all that remains for me to say is congratulations on your CBE and good luck in the future. 

Photo of Elin Jones Elin Jones Plaid Cymru


I thank the Chair. I also thank the auditor general and best wishes for the future from us all at this Assembly.