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Session 1999-2000
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Delegated Legislation Committee Debates

The Draft Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000 (Transfer of NAO Staff etc.) Order 2000

Seventh Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation

Wednesday 22 March 2000

[Mr. Frank Cook

in the Chair]

Draft Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000 (Transfer of NAO Staff etc.) Order 2000

4.30 pm

The Minister of State, Scotland Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): I beg to move,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000 (Transfer of NAO Staff etc.) Order 2000.

This is a technical measure made necessary by new audit arrangements in Scotland. The Scotland Act 1998 required the Scottish Parliament to legislate, setting out detailed arrangements for auditing the accounts of the Scottish Executive and other public bodies in Scotland, and for conducting value-for-money studies into how those bodies use their resources. The Act also set up the office of Auditor General for Scotland and transferred various functions of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Detailed arrangements for conducting audits and value-for-money studies were, however, for the Scottish Parliament to enact. It has now done so, through the Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000, which received royal assent on 17 January.

Among its many facets, the Act puts in place arrangements for the establishment of a unified public audit service in Scotland, called Audit Scotland. The order makes provision consequential on the Act. In particular, it provides for the transfer of about 40 staff, plus property and liabilities, from the National Audit Office in Scotland to Audit Scotland on 1 April 2000.

On 1 April, the Auditor General for Scotland will take over from the Comptroller and Auditor General responsibility for audit and value-for-money studies in relation to the Scottish Administration and other developed Scottish bodies. In that connection, NAO staff employed, and property or liabilities held in conjunction with those responsibilities, should also transfer to Audit Scotland.

Personnel currently working for the National Audit Office in Scotland and the Accounts Commission will staff Audit Scotland as the new unified Scottish public audit service. Audit Scotland's main role will be to support the Auditor General for Scotland and the Accounts Commission in their duties of scrutinising the financial effectiveness of local and central Government. However, although the Accounts Commission and the Auditor General for Scotland will have policy responsibility for their own areas, and will decide who should carry out an audit, Audit Scotland will deliver the audit. That will include contracting with private firms when the Auditor General or the Accounts Commission decide that an audit should be undertaken by the private sector.

I stress the independence of the Auditor General for Scotland; it will be for the Auditor General to decide on the audit programme specified by the Scotland Act, and the Executive will have no control over that programme. Mr. Robert Black, formerly controller of audit with the Accounts Commission has been appointed the new Auditor General for Scotland.

The Accounts Commission is a devolved body, so the transfer of staff and other rights and liabilities from the Accounts Commission to Audit Scotland is provided for in the Act of the Scottish Parliament. However, the National Audit Office was established under United Kingdom legislation, so the order is needed to transfer NAO staff, property and liabilities. The order provides for the transfer of NAO staff in Edinburgh and the rights and liabilities of the Comptroller and Auditor General to Audit Scotland with effect from 1 April 2000. The property referred to does not include the premises at present occupied by the NAO in Edinburgh.

Under the order, staff transferred from the NAO will be employed by Audit Scotland on terms and conditions at least equal to those that they enjoyed while employed by the NAO. The transferred staff can continue to participate in the principal civil service pension scheme.

The order is a technical, but necessary, measure providing for the smooth introduction of the new audit arrangements made necessary by the Scotland Act 1998 and set out in detail in the Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000.

4.34 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I shall not detain the Committee for any great length of time, but two comments that should be made about the order.

First, I welcome it. It is clearly part of implementing the arrangements for devolution and, although it is a technical order, it is important. I am a little surprised that we did not do it earlier. Some problems that have arisen over the last four or five months because hon. Members have not been certain what role the Audit Commission might have in affairs north of the border have been slightly unfortunate. It is clear that Audit Scotland, and any committee of the Scottish Parliament that may exist in tandem with it, will take the lead on devolved matters; we will not deal in areas of expenditure that have been devolved. The sooner that is all up and running, the better.

There was bound to be a transitional phase but with the benefit of hindsight, especially in the light of problems with the Scottish Parliament building, which seem to have excited comment in this House, the sooner there are proper mechanisms for scrutiny and control north of the border, rather than the existence of some grey area, the better. With that, I welcome the order. It is properly drafted, as far as I can tell from having read through it on a couple of occasions. I hope that I do not have to eat my words subsequently, although the Minister would probably have to do that if it all went wrong. It is a desirable move, and it is clearly important in the devolution context.

4.36 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine): I, too, do not have too many concerns about the order. Sometimes, there is a feeling in the House that a minor historic moment might be taking place, and I am not sure whether this is one. We are considering an order that is consequential on an Act of the Scottish Parliament, and I am not sure whether that has been done before.

There might be a procedural point for the future. When I went to the Vote Office for a copy of the Act referred to in the explanatory notes, it did not have a copy. Fortunately the Library accessed the Act on its website. That may be the way forward for all of us. If Acts passed in the Scottish Parliament impinge on the legislative process, we might need ready access to them.

Key to the order is the hard work done by the staff. Members of Parliament have nothing but praise for the work that the National Audit Office does to help us to do our job of holding Government accountable to the wishes of the relevant Parliaments. I should like an assurance from the Minister that staff have been consulted on the effect of the transfer on them, and that the order does not affect the rights that they would have had if this had been a commercial transfer in the private sector. What will happen with the transfer of costs? Historically, I imagine that the NAO came out of United Kingdom expenditure, not out of the Scottish block. Now that the staff are being transferred, will that additional cost be met out of the existing block or have there been any minor adjustments in the funding of the Scottish block?

4.38 pm

Mr. Wilson: I thank the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) for the constructive tone of their remarks. Everyone recognises that this is a technical order, but that it is necessary and quite important. I am tempted to puff out my chest with pride at the suggestion that I am making history by introducing it. I cannot think of a more appropriate person to be the first to enact a piece of legislation consequential upon an Act of the Scottish Parliament.

Mrs Anne McGuire (Stirling): No wonder he is blushing.

Mr. Wilson: I am flushed with pride.

I must tell the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that any confusion must have been the result of not checking with the Library. The transfer was provided for in the Scotland Act. Everything that has happened since July 1999 comes under the purview of Audit Scotland, and that was anticipated in the Scotland Act. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that there was bound to be a transitional phase in which it would be perfectly legimate to ask these questions. We agree that it is necessary and valuable to clarify the position through the order.

The reason that was it was not introduced earlier-

Mr Grieve: I forgive the Minister entirely, because he could not introduce it until the Scottish Parliament enacted the legislation. I suppose that the criticism must lie at Edinburgh's door, not down here.

Mr. Wilson: The Committee would not expect me to engage in even a syllable of criticism of our comrades in Edinburgh. But the hon. Gentleman is correct. The answer to his question lay in the point made by the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine.

I also asked whether staff were consulted. They were. The great majority-perhaps all the staff-were precisely based elsewhere. They have transferred to Edinburgh voluntarily over recent months, and their terms and conditions are protected under the terms of transport transfer. I repeat that their terms and conditions will be as good as in their previous employment. I will have to come back to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine on his question about where the cost from the Scottish block comes from. I will not attempt to answer now, because I need advice. If the Committee will accept that, I shall write to all its members on that point.

I am grateful for the support of Opposition Members and look forward to the order working.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

    That the Committee has considered the draft Public Finance and Accountability (Scotland) Act 2000 (Transfer of NAO staff etc.) Order 2000.

Committee rose at nineteen minutes to Five o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
Cook, Mr. Frank (Chairman)
Brown, Mr. Russell
Clarke, Mr. Tom
Fyfe, Mrs
Galloway, Mr.
Grieve, Mr.
McGuire, Mrs
Moore, Mr.
Osborne, Ms
Robathan, Mr.
Ross, Mr. Ernie
Stewart, Mr. David
Tynan, Mr.
Wilson, Mr.
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2): Smith, Sir Robert (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine).

 
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