HC Deb 19 July 2004 vol 424 cc101-13 8.25 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Don Touhig)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 4, line 30 at end insert— '(3A) In determining how to exercise his functions under this section, the Auditor General for Wales shall take into account the views of the Audit Committee as to the studies which he should undertake or promote under this section.'.

The amendment would require the Auditor General for Wales to take account of the views of the National Assembly's Audit Committee in determining which studies to undertake or promote in the exercise of his functions under clause 3. That provision will enable the Auditor General to undertake comparative cross-cutting and forward-looking studies on value for money.

The Auditor General's powers to undertake value-for-money examinations are currently retrospective, in that they relate to the way in which the Assembly and its sponsored bodies have used resources in discharging functions. Sections 100 and 145 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, which relate to value-for-money examinations in respect of the National Assembly, Assembly-sponsored public bodies and national health service bodies in Wales, require the Auditor General to take account of the Committee's views. The amendment brings clause 3 into line with those provisions.

In practice, the Auditor General would consult the Audit Committee on his proposals under clause 3. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), who has apologised being unable to be present, remarked on the difference in approach during our debate in Standing Committee. I believe that the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) also did that. I undertook to reflect on the remarks that were made. I have done that.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

Will the Under-Secretary assure us that, if the Auditor General believes that an important item needs investigating but could prove embarrassing to the Assembly, he would none the less proceed in the public interest?

Mr. Touhig

The right hon. Gentleman knows from his ministerial experience that the Auditor General has always exercised such independence. In our debate in Committee and in another place, the Auditor General's independence was never questioned.

In Committee, I undertook to reflect on the comments of the hon. Member for Caernarfon, which were supported by the hon. Member for Leominster. That is the reason for the amendment.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con)

I thank the Minister for introducing the Government amendment to subsection (3) of clause 3, which adds to the Auditor General's understanding of his abilities to comment on a body's objectives in considering their economy, efficiency and effectiveness. I am also grateful to the hon.

Member for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams), and I am pleased that the Government have undertaken, following the suggestion that we made in Committee, to modify the wording of this subsection to allow the Auditor General to make the most constructive input possible without impinging on his independence.

We do not want the Auditor General to be constrained in doing his work and we were concerned that, as the Bill stands, the provision would have discouraged him from commenting on policies that he might discover to be causing ineffectiveness or inefficiency. However, this arrangement is the same as the one that applies to the Audit Commission, which has caused no problems in the current audit arrangements. The amendment will allow the Auditor General to learn and seek advice from the Audit Commission, and that will further guarantee that he will not be constrained by the wording of the subsection. We therefore intend to support the Government amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Order for Third Reading read.

8.29 pm
Mr. Touhig

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill was brought from another place on 12 May. It received its Second Reading on 17 June, was considered in Standing Committee on 29 June and has been considered on Report this evening. It is an excellent example of how the Government and the National Assembly are working together in partnership in the interests of the people of Wales. It will deliver a unified public audit body with responsibility for public audit standards in Wales vested in a single, readily identifiable head—the Auditor General for Wales.

The Bill's objective has been widely welcomed by all who have been involved in its early scrutiny. That includes the stakeholders, most notably the Auditor General for Wales himself, the National Assembly, the National Audit Office, the Audit Commission and the Welsh Local Government Association. I also welcome the fact that the Bill's objectives have generally received all-party support during its passage through Parliament, both here and in another place.

The Bill was first published in draft in April 2003. More than 200 organisations were consulted, and the Bill has been scrutinised by both the Welsh Affairs Committee and the Committee of the National Assembly. Of the 41 recommendations for change or clarification made as a result of the pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation, 19 were accepted. This process has given further proof, if any were needed, of the immense value of pre-legislative scrutiny in refining and improving draft legislation before its introduction to Parliament. The draft Transport (Wales) Bill represents a further significant advance in the development of pre-legislative scrutiny, in that it was considered last month by a joint Committee of the House of Commons and the Assembly.

In addition, further improvements have been made to the Public Audit (Wales) Bill as a result of amendments made during its passage through another place and in this House. A total of 32 amendments have been made. Apart from reflecting great credit on the Members of both Houses who participated in the Bill's passage—they have made an important contribution—this process has also demonstrated the Government's determination to achieve a very high quality Bill in an open-minded, non-partisan way. It has demonstrated the House operating at its very best. A total of 23 amendments were made during the Bill's passage through the other place. Eight Government amendments were moved and accepted during its debate in Standing Committee, and I earlier moved a further amendment that resulted from that debate.

In Committee, I also undertook to reflect on comments made by the hon. Members for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) and for Caernarfon (Hywel Williams) on the principle that the Auditor General for Wales cannot question the policy objectives of a body for which he has audit responsibilities. The hon. Member for Leominster suggested that the wording of clause 3 might be modified to enable the Auditor General to make a constructive input without impinging on his independence."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 29 June 2004; c. 12.] I promised to look at the wording of the clause and consider whether it was possible or appropriate to make any changes. I have done so, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the wording of clause 3 preventing the Auditor General from questioning the merits of policy objectives is consistent with the provisions already enacted in the Government of Wales Act 1998. It is clear and unambiguous and it reflects a well-established, acceptable principle. As I said in Committee, it does not prevent the Auditor General from expressing a view on the way in which organisations are working towards achieving their objectives. For this reason, the Government are of the view that the wording should remain unchanged. I hope that I have been able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman's concerns on that issue and that he is content with the explanation that I have given him this evening.

The hon. Gentleman also expressed the view in Committee that the treatment of criminal sanctions in the Bill was inconsistent, and he urged the Government to reconsider those provisions. However, the Government remain of the view that their position in trying to preserve consistency in sanctions in the context of primary legislation is entirely consistent. If criminal sanctions in primary legislation are to be reviewed, it is right that that should be done on an England and Wales basis, and not on a piecemeal basis.

In Committee, I announced that the Government intend to amend section 49 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 to drop the imprisonment sanction that currently applies to the unlawful disclosure of information under its provisions. It will also be deleted from clause 54 once the Bill is enacted and receives Royal Assent. I mentioned in Committee that the detail of repeal is still under consideration, but it will be done at the earliest opportunity. That is an excellent example of how the Government are prepared to consider and act on the issue of criminal sanctions in a structured and consistent way.

In addition to announcing the criminal sanction repeal, I also reaffirm the Government's determination to proceed with orders that will bring both section 49 of the Audit Commission Act 1998 and clause 54 of this Bill, once enacted, wholly within the spirit of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. The amendments will be made before the end of the year—I first made that pledge to amend clause 54 on Second Reading, I repeated it in Committee, and I reaffirm it now.

I wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones), who chairs the Welsh Affairs Committee, to parliamentary colleagues, and to the National Assembly for the scrutiny that they conducted when this Bill was presented in draft. The Bill, and the public audit process that it heralds, have benefited considerably from their endeavours. I also wish to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgend (Mr. Griffiths) for his chairmanship of the Standing Committee. He chaired proceedings in a good-humoured and thoroughly professional way, which is his hallmark. I know of his plans to retire at the next election—he will be sadly missed on both sides of the House.

This Bill offers a single framework for public audit in Wales, with expertise brought together in a single body that will serve the whole spectrum of public sector bodies in Wales. That will complement the inclusive and cross-cutting way in which government works in Wales. A single audit body will also facilitate the development of and spread best audit practice. The Bill will ensure the maintenance and continuing development of the high standards of financial accountability and probity that already exist in Wales. Taxpayers have a right to expect continual improvement in the standards that underpin the spending of their money.

The Bill will give the Auditor General the tools that he or she needs to meet the challenges that lie ahead: for instance, from the increasing complexity of financial management systems. It will enable him or her to be both an effective watchdog and a valuable adviser to the public sector in Wales. It will also enable the Auditor General and his or her staff to participate fully in the development of audit and corporate governance both within the United Kingdom and internationally.

With those few remarks, I commend the Bill to the House.

8.37 pm
Mr. Wiggin

I have had an enjoyable day in Wales, at the Royal Welsh show. It is a shame that we are considering the Bill today, when Welsh Labour Members could have been at the show, along with the Prince of Wales. The Government seem to be keen to get Welsh business done this week, however, which is why the Welsh Grand Committee is sitting tomorrow, despite the fact that the report on which we will comment was released only at lunchtime today.

We broadly welcome the Bill in principle, and believe that the consolidation of a single audit regime in Wales will benefit the people of Wales; the new Wales Audit Office has great potential to improve the best value use of resources in public services and government in Wales. The Conservatives have worked hard to improve the Bill as much as possible in both Houses of Parliament, and we owe our thanks to the noble Baroness Noakes and the noble Lord Roberts of Conwy, who contributed enormously to that improvement.

In Committee, we proposed 44 amendments to improve the Bill, while Plaid Cymru proposed only two. The Liberal Democrats put down not a single, solitary amendment. I therefore hope that they will not try to claim the credit, although I suspect that they probably will.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD)

I noticed that, in Committee, the hon. Gentleman criticised me for not being present for its proceedings. Was he aware of the fact that I was not on the Committee? In the context of this Bill, would he like a private audit of his parliamentary knowledge, so that he does not commit the same gaffe in future?

Mr. Wiggin

The hon. Gentleman should have read Hansard more carefully. We were critical of his press release, to the Delyn Chronicle, I think, in which he claimed full credit for all the amendments to the Bill, despite the fact, as he has just told the House, that he was not on the Committee. I am therefore grateful to him for intervening at this moment, and he is welcome to dive in whenever he feels like doing so.

The independence of the Auditor General is paramount, as are transparency and consistency. Unfortunately, I did not agree with what the Minister said—I feel that the Bill falls down on at least one of those, with inconsistencies remaining throughout the Bill. Most of its contents are lifted from the current audit arrangements for England and Wales under the Audit Commission Act 1998. It should have been based on the principles of effective audit of public money in Wales. The Government have worked hard with us to improve it significantly, but the opportunity to give Wales the best possible audit regime has to an extent been missed.

The Bill is an amalgamation of existing and new provisions, so there is an underlying theme of inconsistency. One of the inconsistencies that concern us most appears in clauses 5 and 11. We have brought it to the Government's attention on several occasions. It concerns the Auditor General's right of access. Clause 5 deals with registered social landlords and local government, and applies criminal sanctions for noncompliance, whereas clause 11 deals with rights of access to general information, but no criminal sanctions apply.

The Government have created inconsistencies in Wales because of their insistence on keeping criminal law consistent with England, but even that argument is faulty, because the Assembly is given the ability to create criminal offences in clause 39. Any consistency in criminal law between England and Wales will be broken as soon as the Assembly uses that power. There was the potential for Wales to have a far more logical audit regime if internal consistency had been the focus. In simply regurgitating what already exists in England, the Bill represents something of a missed opportunity for Wales.

We think it important for the Bill itself to be consistent, so that the people of Wales are not faced with the potential confusion caused by different rules for different people. Either there should be criminal sanctions for all, or there should be none. We have made it clear throughout that we do not consider criminal sanctions necessary.

Let me say something about schedule 2. As we said in Committee in connection with our new clause 1 and amendment No. 44, it is a shame that the Auditor General does not have power to extend his value-for-money studies to English local government. Under schedule 2 to the Audit Commission Act, the Audit Commission in England will be able to study Welsh bodies, but no such power is given to the Auditor General.

I am sure we can trust the good will of the Audit Commission to co-operate if necessary, but the Bill should include a duty for the commission to co-operate in respect of the Auditor General's functions under sections 41 and 42 of the Act. I am sure that none of us would want Wales to be at a disadvantage, or would want the Auditor General's work to be hindered because he has no power to conduct comparative studies in England. It seems most unfair that the Audit Commission should have the equivalent power in Wales.

In Committee we tabled some useful amendments on, for instance, electronic publishing, which I feel the Government did not take as seriously as I would have liked. We have the chance to create a new audit regime for Wales that is light years ahead, or at least a few steps ahead, of any other regime. I should have thought that that was in line with the Government's claim that they would make Wales a world-class place. The opportunity for Wales to lead the world in audit regimes has not been fully taken, and I think we should all regret that.

I thank the Minister for what he has said today about clause 54, which is controversial. We welcome the removal of imprisonment from the list of criminal sanctions. It is a victory for whistleblowers throughout Wales, who no longer face the possibility of being put in prison for disclosing information about local government. Conservative Members have worked hard with the Government to improve the clause enough for us to be able to support it. Although the Liberal Democrats have tried to claim the credit, I think even they will have to admit that the further amendments are a result of pressure from the Conservatives and the Minister's hard work—although I doubt that that will appear in their press release. They are likely to skate over that important fact.

The Government's proposals and assurances, however, have not gone quite as far as we might have liked to safeguard whistleblowers in Wales who disclose information other than the exceptions in clause 54(2). We still have no access to the wording of the promised amendment to the Freedom of Information Act. In Committee and again today, the Minister said that the Bill should not be enacted until 2005, and that by then we shall have been able to see the wording of the amendment. I hope that our trust in that promise will not prove to have been misplaced.

Overall, the Bill is a welcome measure for the people of Wales, so it has our support. While amendments have been made to the controversial clause 54, which deals with restrictions on disclosure of information, we must all ensure that whistleblowers are not deterred from reporting corruption in local government audit. We have tried our best to improve the Bill, and the 23 amendments made in the other place were the result, as I said, of the hard work of Baroness Noakes and Lord Roberts of Conwy.

The creation of a single audit body for Wales will benefit the people of Wales. The Government have worked hard on consideration of our amendments, and the Bill is a better measure as a result. I was a member of the Welsh Affairs Committee when it began its consultation, so I know that the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) has done a great deal of work, as have all members of the Committee. Their contribution was valuable because the Government listened to them, and that was the most constructive aspect of pre-legislative scrutiny. It is, however, a shame that the Government have chosen the short-sighted approach of simply importing current audit arrangements instead of grasping the chance to make Wales the beacon of good audit practice.

8.45 pm
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)

I, too, support the Bill. The Liberal Democrats have backed an improvement in audit arrangements in Wales for some time, and the Minister will know that a number of local authorities are concerned about the nature of audit reports and their public availability. The Bill will strengthen the position of the Auditor General for Wales, ensuring that his work is more widely available and is used to better effect. Local government was once afraid of his advent, but nowadays he is seen as a "friend" who can assist local authorities' work by improving the effectiveness and efficiency of public service delivery.

Combing two audit bodies into one organisation will bring genuine benefits to Wales. One of my constituents, for example, complained about the disposal of surplus NHS property and planning arrangements for the site. Unfortunately, one audit body looked at details of the disposal while the other was brought in to look at the remaining problems. As a result, my constituent felt that the overall issue did not receive the attention that it would have received from a single body. Arguments about who was responsible for amendments, including Government amendments, are not edifying, but we should put on record our thanks to my noble Friends in the other place for their contribution. Lord Evans made a commitment to deal with the problems caused by clause 54, but it was left to the Under-Secretary to deliver the details of the solution in Committee and on the Floor of the House. We accept his commitment to amend the clause by altering section 49 of the Audit Commission Act 1998. On Second Reading, my hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said that he did so because the Minister has an honest face but, in fact, the Minister is on the record as giving that assurance on at least three occasions.

One of the Welsh Affairs Committee's concerns in taking evidence was that combining two bodies into a single body should result in lower overheads and costs. Work is going ahead to set up the audit body under the control of the Auditor General for Wales. He will surely ensure that his own business is run as effectively and efficiently as possible, and take the opportunity to reduce the associated overheads.

Tribute has been paid to the work that the hon. Member for Clwyd, South (Mr. Jones) has done as Chairman of the Welsh Affairs Committee. Although the process can never be important as the outcome, that process has pointed the way towards greater cooperation between this place and the Assembly. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman's efforts to ensure that such co-operation has proceeded smoothly and productively.

The work of the Welsh Affairs Committee is greatly appreciated, as was the Minister's willingness to table amendments to ensure that section 49 of the 1998 Act meets our requirements. As such, we will support the Bill.

8.51 pm
Mr. Redwood

I welcome the principle of a more streamlined audit in Wales, and welcome the idea behind the Bill that the Auditor General for Wales should be concerned about efficiency, effectiveness and economy—about value for money—as well as about regularity and ensuring high standards of accountancy throughout the Principality. I do not wish to be the party pooper tonight, given that there is much consensus between the major parties, but on Third Reading we should ask ourselves a basic question. Is it likely that the Auditor General, charged with the powers in the Bill—on the likely assumption that it goes through in its current form—will succeed in rooting out the waste and inefficiency that we know exists throughout government in Wales at all levels?

We have been told by no less an authority than the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the United Kingdom—on this occasion, he has probably underestimated the situation, but he is giving us a general truth—that there is more than £21 billion of waste throughout UK government as a whole. Tonight, we are interested in only the Welsh portion of that figure. According to a rough calculation, one would assume about £1 billion-plus of waste in government in Wales. If we allow for the fact that some of that waste will be accounted for by the UK Government's doing "Union things" in Wales, we probably arrive at a rough figure of about £500 million of waste and unnecessary expenditure—the Chancellor must have that figure in mind—in the devolved areas and local authorities, which the Auditor General should root out as his main task. The Minister is welcome to intervene if he has a more precise figure. I see that he is with me so far, because he is not seeking to intervene or to deny what I am saying.

In his review, the Chancellor has greatly underestimated the extent of wasteful and unnecessary expenditure and flattered the public sector's efficiency and effectiveness; but better the sinner who repenteth a bit than the sinner who does not recognise that he is sinning at all. I am happy to start off by rooting out some £1 billion of wasteful expenditure in Wales, and I want an Auditor General who is capable of getting to grips immediately with the £500 million, which must be the devolved Welsh portion of the Chancellor's own figures.

So how is the Bill going to help? We are told that the Auditor General will carry out studies to assess the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of various policies and institutions. The Minister has told us—I am sure that he is right—that the Auditor General will be fearless and independent. He will know that it is his job to root out all such problems in turn as he decides to study them, and then to lay measures before the Assembly so that it can see for itself just how bad things might be.

That, Madam Deputy Speaker, is where I wonder whether the Bill is strong enough to deal with the extent of the waste already identified by the Chancellor. My worry is that worthy work will be done in the first year or two—all sorts of studies will be commissioned and much money spent on investigating and assembling figures, listening to what witnesses have to say and so forth—but the end result will not challenge the underlying problem, which is a top-heavy bureaucratic structure. I fear that we will not hear that there could be much cheaper and easier ways of achieving things if policies were changed. It is difficult for an auditor, who is used to checking, reviewing and ensuring that numbers are accurate in his professional career, to move into the much more dynamic task of asking the big questions: is the money wisely spent; is the policy achieving its objectives; are there other ways in which an administration could achieve its objective? Much of what is assessed will be deeply political territory.

What if the efficiency review reveals that a wholesale transfer of functions from the public to the private sector is the best way of lowering costs and improving the quality of the service? That would be very difficult in the Welsh context, given the political composition of those to whom the Auditor General would be reporting. What if the efficiency and effectiveness review revealed that a large number of public servants—over and above the 104,000 UK-wide losses so far identified by the Chancellor—would have to go? To the best of my knowledge, we have not yet had a breakdown of what the overall figures mean for Wales. That, too, could be extremely sensitive territory, but it is impossible for the Auditor General to do the job as described in the Bill's remit unless he or she gets into that sensitive territory and starts considering whether all the public sector workers in Wales have a worthwhile job that is being carried out in a way that delivers value for the Welsh taxpayer.

I am suspicious of the function to review best value. I think that "best value" is one of those gross misnomers. A best-value regime has, in many cases, become a way of avoiding giving real value for the taxpayer and has generated a huge bureaucracy on top of what would otherwise be relatively sensible services. I do not believe that this particular philosophy in this Bill will cut through or dismiss best value because the Auditor General is invited by the Bill's language to go along with the best-value regime—a trumped-up method introduced by the Labour Government to avoid proper competitive tendering and contracting out. That is a fundamental flaw in the Bill, reflecting the flaw in the underlying policy that it is trying to review.

I am also very concerned about a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin). He was, perhaps characteristically, a little too generous to the Government in making his criticism and passing over it. The question is—have the Government got the balance right in the Bill for protecting the whistleblower? My hon. Friend has done some good hard work with colleagues in Committee to get across the need to protect the whistleblower. I am sure that the Government have moved some way and I am grateful that they have seen the point.

Although it is important to protect the whistleblower against some of the more extreme penalties and results that could occur, it is very difficult—it is not dealt with properly in the Bill—to protect a whistleblower from loss of promotion prospects or from a difficult working environment if they wish to carry on working in the same public body. The Auditor General can make progress only if there are honest whistleblowers in the different public institutions and levels of public administration in Wales who are prepared to come forward and say how scandalous it was that so much money was spent on this and that, or that money has not been spent with great economy or good purpose.

I am sure that some people in Welsh public services have a high-minded belief in providing value for taxpayers and would love to tell their stories tonight, especially if they resulted in improved performance. However, they will not do so because they know that their working arrangements would become very difficult and that some of their colleagues who found the ineffective and uneconomic practices convenient would obviously dislike it very much if they had the whistle blown on them.

Mr. Wiggin

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend for mentioning whistleblowers. I completely agree with his point about protecting them not only from imprisonment, but further if possible. As I am sure he is aware, the Minister once introduced a Bill to protect whistleblowers, which is why we have been able to deal constructively with this Bill. However, my right hon. Friend is probably thinking—perhaps he would like to comment—about James Cameron, a whistleblower who was treated very cruelly by the Government when he revealed the scandal of Romanian people coming to this country when they should not—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. We really ought to be discussing the Third Reading of the Bill.

Mr. Redwood

I am grateful for your sage advice, Madame Deputy Speaker. It is better not to get involved in individual cases outside Wales, although the general point affects Wales materially. I am glad that the Minister has some sympathy for the drift of my remarks, which is that I want more protection—I hope that the Minister will think about this when he legislates again—to be offered to those whistleblowers who are good public servants, who feel strongly about the public sector ethos and the need to provide a good service and who need to criticise one, two or three of their senior colleagues to make their point, but who are still deterred from doing that by the likelihood of the retaliatory action that can be taken in the public service.

If the Auditor General is to succeed, he or she must create an ethos that enables people in the public services in Wales to understand the essential need to spend public money wisely and to run things efficiently. It must enable them to see attempts to explain to those in positions of responsibility how money could be better spent and how things could be better managed as part of good management and good husbandry, rather than as whistleblowing.

That is one of the differences between parts of the public service and the private sector in Britain that is not entirely helpful to the public sector. In a good private sector company, a chairman or chief executive would introduce a suggestion scheme inviting employees, however lowly, to put forward ideas that would save an extra 1 or 2 per cent. on cost. People would co-operate in the right spirit, and middle managers would not feel resentful because they would know that they were all engaged in a dreadful struggle to keep the business competitive.

There is not the same sense in the public sector. There is much more resentment if someone junior tells people above them that things could be so much more efficient or effective if only they were done differently. That can lead to recriminations, retaliation, unreasonable discrimination, failure to promote, sidelining and all the other things that some good public servants experience. It can be more difficult to get to the bottom of such matters, given public sector secrecy and confidentiality. So my second main point is that we really need better protection for whistleblowers if the provisions are to work.

In conclusion, I am not against good or streamlined audit. I agree with one thing the Liberal Democrats said: we must audit the auditor to ensure that the new arrangements are not only better, but cheaper. However, in the context of such streamlining, we might need to return to the provisions to strengthen the Auditor General's position so that he can protect whistleblowers better—a lot of his work will depend on that—and so that effectiveness, efficiency and economy studies can have some real bite. My fear is that, for all the good intentions, cross-party working and agreement that we have witnessed this evening—and, I understand, during the Bill's earlier stages—whoever is in government in two or three years' time will discover that the £500 million-plus a year of waste in Welsh public spending that the Auditor General should root out, and which has been identified in general terms by the Chancellor, is still going on. If so, our legislation will have failed.

9.3 pm

Mr. Touhig

With the leave of the House, I wish to reply to the debate.

We have had another good but brief debate on the Bill. The outcome has confirmed the constructive and co-operative approach that the House has taken to the Bill since its publication in draft form in April 2003. I pay tribute to Government spokesmen and Opposition Members—in the other place, too—for the positive way in which they have responded to the Bill. I also welcome the support that hon. Members have given the Bill in Committee and this evening.

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) welcomed the Bill, and I am delighted that he did so—as he will know. He asked whether the Bill could be made more effective, as he was concerned that it replicated a number of existing practices. However, what is in place has been tested; it is proven. When things work, we should not change them merely to be new and different.

The hon. Gentleman rehearsed some of the arguments about criminal sanctions that he made in Committee. I regret that we shall have to differ on those points. He was also concerned about co-operation between the Auditor General for Wales and the National Audit Office. During the passage of previous Bills, we have stressed the importance of cross-border co-operation and we shall certainly see that under this measure.

The hon. Gentleman had a little spat about press releases with the Liberal Democrat representative, the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams). The hon. Member for Leominster showed the Committee a Liberal Democrat press release in which the party claimed great success in securing changes to the Bill, but he topped that with a press release of his own that was worthy of a prize for fiction, in which he laid claim to what I described as the "Wiggin clauses". We take that in good humour, but we recognise the importance of co-operation and collaboration on the Bill.

The Government acknowledge that there are differences in the matter of criminal sanctions. Where functions have been devolved to the Assembly, there is scope for secondary legislation in respect of criminal offences to diverge, but the Government take the view that, where possible, sanctions should be common to England and Wales, because we have common legal and criminal justice systems.

The hon. Gentleman thinks that the Bill is unimaginative and a lost opportunity. Again, we have to differ. The main purpose of the Bill is to allow for a unitary audit structure, and it goes a long way to deliver that for Wales.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire talked about transparency. It is vital that any audit is as transparent as possible and that everyone can see that auditors' work on our behalf, scrutinising both public spending and the services provided for us, is open and transparent. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the changes we proposed to clause 54. I have given my pledge that the Government will continue along the lines that I indicated in Committee and this evening, although I am not sure whether I shall be able personally to see them through—that will depend on something that may take place shortly.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) spoke at some length about waste and inefficiency in Wales. Obviously, in all aspects of public service we have to examine whether we are getting value for money and ensure that we are not wasting the valuable resources at our disposal, whether in the Westminster Government, the Assembly or local government.

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman knows a lot about waste. In his time as Secretary of State for Wales, we saw the waste of mass unemployment in Wales. There was waste when our industries were being run down while his party was in power, but there was a thin red line of Labour local authorities protecting services from the ravages that he and his party were perpetrating on the people of Wales.

Mr. Redwood

That nonsense is not worthy of the Minister, so I shall not reply to it. Will he tell the House what is the waste per person in Wales under the Chancellor's waste watch? For every adult countrywide, £450 a year is being tipped down the drain. How much is it for every Welsh person?

Mr. Touhig

The right hon. Gentleman has the advantage of me. I am not able to give him or the House that figure. However, I agree with him that waste and inefficiency should be tackled. I certainly tried to do that in a previous incarnation when I was chair of the finance committee of my county council, again in opposition to the policies that he was pursuing in the Wales Office and which led to a great deal of waste and inefficiency in Wales.

Audit practice has moved on. As I said when I was introducing the amendment, under clause 3 the Auditor General will have the opportunity to look forward, to look at policy development and public expenditure proposals. That is a benefit. We should not merely be looking backwards.

I note the comments about whistleblowers made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham. Of course, if I am not mistaken he had already left the Government in 1996, when I introduced a Bill to protect whistleblowers. Nevertheless, the Conservative party—I assume that he supported his party line—totally opposed that Bill and, in fact, left whistleblowers unprotected until a Labour Government were elected and did something about it, with the support and generosity of an Opposition Member.

This Bill will rationalise public audit arrangements in Wales. In doing so, it will greatly help the public's understanding of the audit system. We all talk about audit and say, "Oh, audit is boring. Audit is uninteresting", but when things go wrong, the first people to whom we turn are auditors and we ask, "Why has this happened? Why has something gone wrong?" So it is important that we recognise the Bill's value.

The Bill will vest overall responsibility for ensuring audit standards across the Welsh public sector in the hands of the Auditor General for Wales. It will bring a wealth of accounting and audit expertise within a single organisation and enable the Auditor General for Wales and his staff to build on the already generally high standards of public financial accountability that we enjoy in Wales. I am grateful to hon. Members on both sides of the House and those in the other place for the support that they have given to the Bill. We have worked together. That shows Parliament at its best, as I have said twice before. The Bill is hugely beneficial, in the public interest and has widespread support on both sides of the House. I am happy therefore to commend it to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

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