Friday, July 20, 2007

Record Breakers: Sir John Bourn

He would not be amused

We've blogged the dismaying case of our Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG) freeloading expenses many times (eg here, here, and here). Sadly, he still hasn't done the right thing, and the PAC still hasn't made him.

So what happens now?

The problem is that Sir John holds a unique position in Britain's governmental system. It's extremely hard to get rid of him. With a backsliding monarch you've always got the straightforward option of cutting off his/her head, but with the C&AG it's much more difficult.

Take a look at what it says on the NAO website:

"The absence of a written constitution in the United Kingdom means that the Supreme Audit Institution is established by Act of Parliament/Legislative body.

The National Audit Office's (NAO) independence derives from the unique position of the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG - the head of the SAI). All statutory powers and rights governing the audit of central government finances are vested in the C&AG personally; the NAO has no independent corporate status - the NAO are the staff of the C&AG, and the C&AG himself is part of the NAO.

The C&AG is appointed by HM The Queen, the Head of State, on an address from the House of Commons moved by the Prime Minister after agreement with the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

The C&AG can only be removed from office by HM The Queen on an address from both Houses of Parliament.

The appointment of the C&AG is "without limit of time"; the officeholder cannot be a Member of Parliament, a Lord or hold any office under the Crown. The C&AG's salary is paid directly from the Consolidated fund rather than from a Departmental Vote. The staff of the NAO are not civil servants, and the C&AG, within certain guidelines, determines their salaries and conditions of service. The C&AG has ultimate discretion as to his work programme and how it is executed.

The various conditions of service of the C&AG to secure independence are:

  • Special procedure for appointment

  • Special procedure for removal

  • Unlimited tenure

  • Control over resources/budget

  • Immunity/protection from the actions of others in the performance of his duties

  • Independence to frame workplans"

Now, we can all see why Gladstone set it up like that: he wanted to make quite sure that the C&AG was not dependent on any government department for his pay and rations, or his freedom to probe and harry.

But Gladstone probably also assumed gentlemen's rules: that a gentleman would always know when the time had come for the bottle of scotch and pearl handled revolver.

At 73, Bourn is way beyond normal retirement age. And he's been in post since 1988, almost two decades- way longer than most C&AGs. In fact, he's currently running second in the record books, getting close to the longest tenure ever, the 21 years put in by the very first C&AG, Sir William Dunbar, between 1867 and 1888.

But we taxpayers don't want a record breaker. We want a C&AG who is above suspicion, and is not compromised in his pursuit of government waste. And we want a C&AG who is accountable to us, and who cannot simply hold onto power as long as he likes.

It just won't do.

Bourn should make a gentleman's exit soonest, and his successor should be appointed on a fixed term. Just like virtually every other Auditor General in the developed world.

PS For future reference a BOM correspondent has provided this (virtually) complete list of office holders:

1867 Sir William Dunbar
1888 ?
1896 R. Mills
1900 D. Richmond
1904 Sir J. Kempe
1911 Sir H. Gibson
1921 Sir M. Ramsay
1931 Sir G. Upcott
1946 Sir Frank Tribe
1958 Sir E. Compton
1966 Sir B. Fraser
1971 Sir D. Pitbaldo
1976 Sir Dennis Henley
1981 Sir Gordon Downey
1988- Sir John Bourn

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