HC Deb 26 October 1987 vol 121 cc14-5
25. Mr. Allen

asked the right hon. Member for Ashton under Lyme, answering on behalf of the Public Accounts Commission, if he will give details of the occasions since 1984 when the Public Accounts Commission has modified, under section 4(2) of the National Audit Act 1983, the estimate prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General so as to provide for an increase in the number of staff employed in the National Audit Office.

Mr. Robert Sheldon

(on behalf of the Public Accounts Commission): I have been asked to reply on this occasion.

The Commission and the Comptroller and Auditor General have consistently agreed on the desirability of planned expansion of staff numbers in the NAO. In consequence, there was no need for the commission to modify any of the estimates laid before it under the National Audit Act by the C and AG.

Mr. Allen

Will my right hon. Friend list those PAC reports for which the Government still have not—[HON. MEMBERS: "Reading."]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman refer briefly to his notes rather than reading from them?

Mr. Allen

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the failure to put the reports before the House is a denial of parliamentary scrutiny? Does my right hon Friend concede that if additional staff were available for the National Audit Office the House could scrutinise the expenditure of the nationalised industries, M 15 and M16, as well as the special employment schemes, which do not currently come within the PAC remit?

Mr. Sheldon

It is, of course, a fact that the National Audit Office has difficulty in recruiting and keeping its staff, mainly because of the salary levels offered in the City, among other places. We have the further problem that nationalised industries lie outside our remit, as defined by the National Audit Act. What we can do is to ask the sponsoring Departments to come before us so that we can question them. However, we do not have direct entry into the nationalised industries? Some people think that that is a pity, but legislation is required to enable the PAC and the National Audit Office to have that entry.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

Will my right hon. Friend congratulate Sir Gordon Downey on his retirement? Is my right hon. Friend aware of the feeling abroad that Sir Gordon's successor should come from outside the Civil Service and from the private sector? If the problem of attracting anyone from the private sector is pay, will my right hon. Friend put it to the Prime Minister that the salary scale for the Comptroller and Auditor General should be substantially increased so that we can attract people of the calibre necessary to ensure that the Department is run effectively?

Mr. Sheldon

I am happy to pay tribute to the Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir Gordon Downey, who has been outstanding and a most effective Officer of the House of Commons. He set up the National Audit Office in a way which has commended itself to the whole of the Public Accounts Committee and the Public Accounts Commission. In relation to his replacement, there are problems about salary levels which are different in the public service from those which apply outside. That has caused some problems of which my hon. Friend will be aware. These are matters for further negotiation.

Mr. McAllion

My right hon. Friend seemed to suggest that there would be no independent audit for important nationalised industries such as the British Steel Corporation. That being so, how can we have faith in the assessment of performance of plants within the corporation, such as Ravenscraig, other than by believing what we are told by Ministers or BSC management? As it is widely held in Scotland that both BSC management and Ministers are intent on the closure of Ravenscraig, how can we have faith in any assessment that Ravenscraig is losing money compared with any other BSC plant?

Mr. Sheldon

Accountability lies with the Minister of the sponsoring Department coming to the House of Commons. As I said earlier, the Comptroller and Auditor General does not have direct rights to investigate the books and accounts of those nationalised industries. It would require further legislation to do that. Of course, that could be done by a private Member's Bill, if one were considered, but how far it would proceed in the House would be something for the Leader of the House and others to take into account.