HC Deb 09 December 1996 vol 287 cc17-8
29. Mr. Mudie

To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission what assessment he has made of the impact on the resources of the NAO of the repeated qualification of Department of Social Security votes and accounts. [6528]

Sir Terence Higgins (Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission)

The National Audit Office's resources and procedures for certifying accounts provide for qualifying the certificate when necessary. Qualification involves additional costs for the NAO, including, for example, preparation and agreement with the Comptroller and Auditor General of reports on the accounts and consequent hearings of the Public Accounts Select Committee. However, as it is several years since the accounts all received unqualified certificates, the additional costs of qualification are not readily identifiable.

Mr. Mudie

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that, since its inception eight or nine years ago, the income support vote has not once been cleared by the auditors. Despite that, and the yearly attendance at the Public Accounts Select Committee by the chief executive of the Benefits Agency, nothing seems to change, except the excuses given. How many more times will the Select Committee and the auditors have to go through that exercise, costing the taxpayers billions of pounds, before someone is brought to account over that continuing and repeated shortcoming?

Sir Terence Higgins

I read with interest the hon. Gentleman's contribution to the debate on 16 October and I understand his concern. He will realise, of course, that that is a matter not for the commission but for the Public Accounts Select Committee and the Department. None the less, I have no doubt that the expenditure that the National Audit Office devotes to that problem and the work it is doing are worth while. I hope that that will eventually result in the hon. Gentleman's concerns being met more fully than they have been in the past.

Mr. Steen

Would it not be a good idea to have targets for reducing the amount of bureaucracy in all Government Departments, including the Audit Commission, not just for skilled and semi-skilled workers but for unskilled workers? If the Government are committed to reducing the civil service, should not the Audit Commission be committed to reducing the number of bureaucrats?

Sir Terence Higgins

I am not clear exactly who my hon. Friend means when he refers to the Audit Commission. He may mean the Public Accounts Commission, which has very little bureaucracy—as the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) will confirm. That is one of many aspects that the NAO has looked into, and it is important that it should do so.

30. Mr. Harry Greenway

To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission how many staff with no professional accountancy qualifications are employed by the National Audit Office; what proportion this represents of the total staff; and if he will make a statement. [6529]

Sir Terence Higgins

The NAO employs some 728 staff. Of these, there are 419 qualified audit staff, 64 qualified accounting technicians and 98 people training for professional qualifications, making 71 per cent. of the total. It is important to note that a number of the remaining 29 per cent. have technical qualifications in other areas—for example, economics and operations research.

Mr. Greenway

In making evaluations of, say, education or a Government Department, is the NAO qualified to make judgments on policy, as it did recently on education and the running of schools? Does my right hon. Friend accept that some of us are puzzled that, in the middle of a financial evaluation, the NAO can make strong criticisms of the way in which schools are run? What does the NAO know about it?

Sir Terence Higgins

A considerable number of accountants are involved, but there are also a number of experts in other disciplines—including, I think, education—who can look at the matter, given the responsibilities of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the NAO for education.