Saturday, July 07, 2007

Bourn- We're Still Waiting

We expected better
The dispiriting saga of Sir John Bourn continues.

As you will know, Sir John, our grandly titled Comptroller and Auditor General, and the man charged with rooting out waste and financial malfeasance in government, has badly let us down (see previous blogs here and here).

Thanks to Private Eye, we now know this apparent model of fiscal rectitude and public duty is sadly just like all the rest. Not only did he think it perfectly OK to spend public money jetting around the world first class with his wife in tow, but once exposed he failed to fall on his sword.

To make matters even worse, we now learn that in not originally reporting the cost of these trips, the NAO breached its own accounting standards. Accountancy Age reports:

"Expenses incurred by his wife when accompanying him on overseas trips were not recorded in his remuneration, nor the tax paid on them. The NAO’s own audit committee has now decided they should have been.

Though his own expenses are not disclosable, expenses for his wife, who accompanied him on trips, should have been reported as part of his remuneration, the NAO has concluded, as well as the tax paid on the benefits by the government body.

Those amounted to thousands of pounds. Her expenses were, annually from 2001/02 to 2005/06: £7,432, £18,394, £25,811, £24,969 and £25,309. The corresponding tax bills paid by the NAO were £6,432, £15,924, £22,713, £21,972 and £22,272.

The total benefits over the five years were £191,000." (htp DS)

Just make sure you understand what's being said here- the NAO audit committee is recognising Lady B's travel expenses form part of Sir John's remuneration. But it's not him that had to pay the tax due- that cost ended up back with us taxpayers. A double whammy.

To those of us intent on the prosecution of government waste, all of this is simply unacceptable. It isn't just a question of public morality- although God knows, that's important enough. It's also the plain fact that to have credibility- to do his job properly- the Auditor General has to be above suspicion. We've already seen examples of NAO reports that have been nobbled by dark forces (eg last year's report on the NHS Supercomputer- see here), and in all future Whitehall fights he is now fatally compromised.

And what of the others involved in Parliament's financial watchdog functions? The normally voluble Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee has been noticeably silent, and the limp wristed reponse of the Public Accounts Commission was terminally disheartening (see this blog).

Trust. It takes years to build. But you can lose it in a flash.

We expected much better.

PS Yes, I realise the Eye didn't just stumble on this story, and that Bourn is clearly the subject of a campaign from those Whitehall dark forces. But the mud only stuck because the story is true. And yes, I am hoping that somewhere behind the scenes the PAC is working hard on Bourn's successor. But come on guys, it's two months now. It's time for action.

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