HC Deb 27 July 1998 vol 317 cc17-8
42. Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

What recent discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the resourcing implications of extending the role of the National Audit Office in respect of housing associations. [50810]

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission)

I last met the Chancellor of the Exchequer on 26 March, accompanied by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Among other matters, we discussed the case for the Comptroller and Auditor General having a guaranteed right of access to all voluntary housing bodies, which are in receipt of central Government grants totalling £1.2 billion a year. As I have said to the hon. Gentleman and the House before, I believe that the absence of such rights of access represents a serious gap in accountability for public funds. The resource implications of a guaranteed right of access to the voluntary housing sector would depend on the frequency and extent to which such rights were exercised. It would be for Parliament to decide what additional resources to provide to meet the needs identified by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Mr. Heath

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, with whom I have been conducting a lonely dialogue on this subject for some months, occasionally joined by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. Will he scour the ranks of the newly announced Government to find someone who will take the matter seriously and change the system so that we have proper accountability across the whole public sector?

Mr. Sheldon

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is a major scandal that the European Court of Auditors can find out where this £1.2 billion of public money is spent when the Comptroller and Auditor General, acting on behalf of the House, cannot. This is a major gap and he is right to keep raising the matter.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I have great faith in my right hon. Friend's ability to get this matter examined seriously. While he is about it, will he look at the interrelationship between the National Audit Office and the auditing system for some nationalised industries? It is clear that with the growth of independent agencies, some parts of the Government system are not making clear to Parliament exactly how they spend their money. That is a worrying gap.

Mr. Sheldon

My hon. Friend is right. I have campaigned for many years to try to give the Comptroller and Auditor General access to the nationalised industries in the same way that he should have access to the Housing Corporation. My hon. Friend is right to pursue this subject, and I hope that she continues to pursue it.