Thursday, May 31, 2007

Credibility Gap

Time to go

We've been holding off writing this post in the hope that the man in question would do The Right Thing. But sadly he hasn't.

A couple of weeks back we were all shocked and disappointed to learn that Sir John Bourn, our redoubtable Comptroller and Auditor General, had been abusing his position. On the back of that old favourite the "international conference" circuit, he and his wife had been jetting round the world first class, staying in luxury five star hotels, and generally living the life of larry. All at our expense (see this blog, and original Private Eye article posted at the Lone Voice).

Further details since then have served only to increase concern. Over the last three years he's taken 43 overseas trips , 22 of them with his wife in tow. At nearly £8 grand a throw, that's clocked up £336,000 of expenses. And it turns out he's stayed at some pretty fancy joints. For example, on several trips to Vienna to see the International Atomic Energy Authority:

"On every occasion he is reported to have stayed in a suite at the five-star Hotel Sacher.The elegant hotel, situated next door to the Vienna State Opera, is famous for Sachertorte, a rich chocolate cake which is a Viennese culinary speciality.

A similar room there today varies from £453 in low season, to £2,789 at peak times."

And that in spite of the fact that the IAEA's official travel agency recommends a list of standard business hotels priced from a modest £70, to £108 for a double room with breakfast.
So contrary to what the NAO originally claimed, Sir John has not simply stayed at the hotels recommended by hosts. He's gone for the very best available, and has often stayed on well past the end of official business. For example, at a conference in the Bahamas last year, he and his wife did not arrive until the penultimate day, but then stayed on for a further four days.

Unsurprisingly Sir John is on the defensive, and he's just cancelled a trip to yet another conference at yet another five star hotel in Malta.

But defensiveness is not enough. Above all else, an auditor needs credibility. He has to be whiter than white: not just do as I say, but do as I do. All the forensic auditing skills in the world amount to nothing if the man himself is compromised by his own behaviour.

We taxpayers need an Auditor General who can walk the crooked streets of Big Government neither tarnished nor afraid.

Sir John can no longer do that.

He should resign now.

PS Sir John is 73 and has been in post for nearly two decades (appointed 1988). On both counts, there is something very unusual going on. First, the normal civil service retirement age is 60, so why is he still there? And second, according to a well-informed BOM correspondent who was himself a top government auditor, other countries have a fixed tenure arrangement for their audit chiefs. You can certainly see the case for it, so how come Britain doesn't have the same? We will investigate further.


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