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3 Feb 1998 : Column 902

Clause 87

National Loans Fund lending

Amendments made: No. 285, in page 41, line 33, leave out 'Minister of the Crown' and insert 'Secretary of State'.
No. 286, in page 41, line 39, leave out 'Minister of the Crown' and insert 'Secretary of State'.--[Mr. Jon Owen Jones.]
Clause 87, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 88 and 89 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 90

Auditor General for Wales

7.15 pm

Mr. Ancram: I beg to move amendment No. 331, in page 42, leave out lines 28 and 29.

The First Deputy Chairman: With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 332, in page 42, line 42, leave out from first 'so' to end of line 43.

No. 476, in clause 92, page 43, line 28, after 'may', insert

'with the agreement of the Assembly.'.

No. 338, in page 44, line 1, leave out from '(7)' to 'shall' in line 3 and insert

'Each member of the staff of the Auditor General for Wales'.

No. 477, in clause 93, page 44, leave out lines 22 to 24.

No. 339, in page 44, leave out lines 25 to 29.

No. 478, in page 44, line 45, after 'Treasury', insert

'and shall publish in the form agreed by the Assembly details of any accounts audited by him during the financial year.'.

Mr. Ancram: Amendments Nos. 331, 332, 338 and 339 are probing amendments. Amendment No. 331 would delete subsection (2), which says:

the office of the Auditor General for Wales--

    "shall by the name of that office be a corporation sole."

What is a corporation sole? What does it mean? What would happen if the Auditor General for Wales were not a corporation sole? Would the people of Wales suffer if he were not? Are there financial considerations in being a corporation sole? Does it assist him in carrying out his job? In short, is this a necessary provision? In my limited experience of such matters, it seems a strange provision. I am sure that the Minister will convince me otherwise. I shall listen with interest to his explanation.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex): The Minister is a lost soul.

Mr. Ancram: If the Minister can explain how to transfer from a lost soul to a corporation sole, I shall be even more interested.

The Bill allows the Auditor General to be removed from office on the ground of misbehaviour if the Secretary of State recommends his removal to the Queen. However,

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the Secretary of State may make such a recommendation only with the consent of the assembly. Amendment No. 332, which is another probing amendment, would delete that extra provision. The approach in the Bill seems rather long-winded. Is it necessary? Either there is misbehaviour sufficient to warrant removal from office or there is not. If there was a wrong accusation of misbehaviour, I presume that the Auditor General for Wales would have remedies.

The assembly could second-guess the Secretary of State on what amounted to misbehaviour. What would happen if the Secretary of State and the assembly disagreed? Is it in the interests of Wales for an Auditor General to remain in office if the Secretary of State believes him to be guilty of sackable misbehaviour? Would that be good for respect for the authority of that important office? Would it not tend to undermine the position of the guardian of the financial integrity of the assembly? I ask in all seriousness whether we should guard against that danger and whether the provision requiring consultation with the assembly is necessary.

Amendment No. 338 refers to clause 92(7). Will the Minister explain its purpose? Does a distinction need to be made between the work of the staff of the Auditor General in their ordinary functions and that requiring them to be a Crown servant for the purposes of the Official Secrets Act 1989? That seems a strange provision. I tabled the probing amendment to find out the thinking behind it. I should have thought that if one is a Crown servant for the purposes of the Official Secrets Act, there is some logic in being a Crown servant otherwise as well.

Amendment No. 339 would omit clause 93(2). I tabled it because the provision seems odd. It appears to relate to the expenses of the Auditor General that cannot be met by income received by him. Provision is made for those expenses to be paid by others. I should have thought that either expenses were allowable and paid from outside, or not allowable and paid for by the Auditor General. The provision seems to cross those boundaries, and it sparked a degree of interest--not to say suspicion--in my mind. I should be grateful if the Minister could set my mind at rest and assure me that there is nothing to be suspicious about.

Mr. Rhodri Morgan: I assume that the answer to the many questions asked by the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) relates to the staffing structures of the assembly and the fact that the Auditor General's staff have to be firmly placed outside the assembly's staffing structures.

One of the controversies about setting up the assembly is whether Welsh Office civil service staff who will be transferred to work for the assembly will include what one could approximately call parliamentary staff. Such provision has been made separately for the Scottish Parliament but not for the Welsh assembly. The Welsh assembly's equivalent to parliamentary Clerks will not be separate from general assembly staff; they will be civil servants. There may be Chinese walls between them. In order to ensure that the Auditor General's staff are clearly not civil servants and not part of such an arrangement--which may itself come into question before the Bill has

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completed its passage--they have to be deemed a corporation sole. The Auditor General's staff will stand alone and be responsible only to the Auditor General.

I am not absolutely sure of my explanation, so I shall listen to any other possible explanations. I believe that the Bill has been structured in such a way to address the issue of how to separate the Auditor General's staff and to whom they are accountable; it ensures that they are not part of the general civil service of the Welsh Office.

Mr. Dafis: I wish to speak to amendments Nos. 477 and 478. Amendment No. 477 is not unlike amendment No. 339, but it would not omit so many lines of clause 93. It also concerns payment of the Auditor General's expenses and relates to additional expenditure that is not covered in the block. Would not such expenses be more appropriately met by the Auditor General's resources? In other words, why should not the money come from the Treasury?

Amendment No. 478 is simply about openness, and would provide for the publication of accounts audited by the Auditor General. Will the Minister say whether such publication will be required?

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): The question that occurs to me is whether the Auditor General is the servant of the assembly or of the Crown. From clause 90, it would appear that, as he is appointed by the Crown and can be sacked by the Secretary of State--albeit with the approval of the assembly--he is a servant of the Crown. However, under clause 91, he is to be paid by the assembly. I am not sure whether one can--or indeed ought to--serve two masters in that respect.

Our task in Committee must be to remove potential points of conflict. One potential point is brewing in the arrangements for the dismissal of the Auditor General. If the Auditor General has lost the confidence of the assembly, which pays him, he should go, irrespective of what the Secretary of State might think. If he has lost the confidence of the Secretary of State, but still has the confidence of the assembly, the obverse of the conflict arises. The Bill must provide for one or the other. The merit of amendment No. 332 is clarity; it provides for one and not the other.

Mr. Öpik: The Liberal Democrats similarly seek clarification. There seems to be a lack of certainty about whether the Auditor General will work for the Government or will be more independent. It goes without saying that we would prefer the post to be independent.

Perhaps it is just my schooling, but I, too, do not know what corporation sole means. It sounds like a technical description of a ghost, although I am sure that that is not the intent. I should be grateful for clarification.

I should like to make an observation on amendment No. 339. If we removed the specification that the assembly covered the Auditor General's expenses, even when they were caused by a failure on his or her part, we would effectively be introducing a fine. That is not the right way to go about things. If the individual is incompetent in the role, he or she should be released from employment. If there is a case for a fine, it should be

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pursued through the legal process. It would not be right--basically--to fine through expenses. I should welcome the Government's views on that.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings): I want to reaffirm the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) in two particular areas.

First, I hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy my inquiry about whether it is necessary to make the Auditor General a corporation sole when, as I understand its legal implications, it would make the Auditor General legally liable. I am interested in examples of when that might be deemed necessary.

The second point, which has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and is dealt with by amendment No. 332, is the removal of the Auditor General. It could cause conflict to make his removal subject to, first, consultation and, secondly, the approval of the assembly. One notices that they are separate. Surely that could open up a can of worms because, if the Auditor General were in conflict with the assembly, the consultation and approval process would be fraught with difficulties.

The amendments tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Devizes address both those issues. I should be grateful to hear what the Minister has to say about them.

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