HL Deb 21 November 2000 vol 619 cc649-51

2.43 p.m.

Lord Dixon-Smith asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they see and contribute to reports by the National Audit Office before these are made.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there is a long-standing convention that the Comptroller and Auditor-General's reports to Parliament are agreed with the accounting officer as to the facts. That is to avoid the Public Accounts Committee having to arbitrate between the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the audited body over disputed facts when they take evidence on reports.

Accounting officers may have some reservations about the interpretation of the facts in the report. Where such differences have not proved capable of resolution in discussion, they are explained in the report with the reasons for the differences of opinion clearly stated.

The conclusions and recommendations of the report are, however, for the Comptroller and Auditor-General alone to determine.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, in the outside world the relationships between client, auditor and regulators are separate, clearly defined and well understood, with the Inland Revenue having a well-known interest in conclusions. In a situation in which the government fill all of those roles, is the Minister confident that they can satisfy the public about the integrity of the arrangements which are necessary to keep the various roles separate?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Dixon-Smith, appears to ignore the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor-General reports not to the Government but to Parliament. It is the decision of Parliament—and it has been for many years—that the Comptroller and Auditor-General should clear up any issues of fact before the report is issued and considered by the Public Accounts Committee.

Lord Crickhowell

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that, whether or not Ministers or officials contribute to National Audit Office reports, no rules prevent the prompt debate of such reports in this House? Does he further agree that there is a strong need for an early debate of the report on the Dome?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there has been a convention for many years not only in this Government but in previous governments that reports from the Comptroller and Auditor-General to Parliament are considered by the Public Accounts Committee before there are further parliamentary procedures. It is our intention to continue with that very proper convention.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, what is to prevent the Comptroller and Auditor-General from clearing up matters of doubt, which one can understand may exist, with the Government before they publish the report?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is exactly what he does.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, will my noble friend consider reviewing the procedures that he has described, because one often finds that in practice the dividing line between fact and opinion is obscure? Will he consider my concept of the matter: that the public are entitled to complete confidence in the National Audit Office and that it is desirable in the public interest, never mind tradition, that nobody, but nobody, should interfere with the report which the Comptroller and Auditor-General seeks to make on his own initiative?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend about the need for complete confidence in the independence of the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor-General. However, I answered his questions in detail in my first Answer: that the issues agreed with the accounting officer are issues of factual accuracy; and that, if there is a reservation about the interpretation of facts which cannot be resolved, the difference of opinion is explained in the report. I believe that that is the transparency which my noble friend seeks.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we live in an age of full disclosure? Is not that reflected in the mission statement of the National Audit Office, a vital body which has as one of its seven core values a belief in open communications? Therefore, will the Government authorise the National Audit Office to disclose on what occasions and in what respect its reports have been altered by Ministers?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the reports which come to Parliament from the National Audit Office are factually correct and steps are taken to ensure that they are. If there is an issue of disclosure to Parliament of differences, my first Answer answered the noble Lord's question. Where there are disagreements they are explained in the report, with the reasons for the differences of opinion clearly stated.