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1.56 pm

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): I am pleased to second the motion moved by the Prime Minister, for three reasons. First, it underlines the bipartisanship and the lack of party politics that should inform the work of the NAO and the PAC. Secondly, it underlines the supremacy of Parliament. The appointment to this country’s oldest public office—it dates back to the 13th century, and has existed in its modern form for at least 150 years—can be made only on the Floor of the House of Commons by the Prime Minister of the day, with the support of the Chairman of the PAC, who is always a member of the Opposition.

Thirdly, I have worked with Tim Burr for a number of years. He is a man of incisiveness and integrity, and the NAO will be in safe hands under his stewardship until a permanent successor can be found.

I should like to pay tribute to Sir John Bourn, with whom I worked very closely.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I am concerned about how the continuity of work is maintained when one CAG retires and another takes over. First, the NAO has joined a consortium—along with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Clerk’s Department and other bodies—that provides advice on strengthening parliaments abroad. I hope that work will continue.

Secondly, I have been in correspondence with Sir John Bourn about how Health Ministers report to Parliament on independent NHS treatment centres, and he has commissioned an inquiry into that. Will the Chairman of the PAC give an assurance, to me and to other hon. Members with balls in the NAO’s court, that there will be continuity in respect of work that is currently under way?

Mr. Leigh: I can absolutely give that assurance—the king is dead, long live the king! The work will carry on. While Tim Burr is CAG, he will have all the powers and prerequisites of that office, and the NAO will carry on exactly as before.

I should like to pay a short tribute to Sir John Bourn. In numerous private briefings, I have found him to be immensely patient and kind, despite all my shortcomings. He is a wonderful civil servant in that sense. He may be in his 70s, but he has the spark and energy of a man in his 40s.

As has been said, Sir John has been CAG for more than 20 years. He has overseen a revolution in public accountability. He set a very ambitious agenda for the NAO from the outset and he followed some guiding principles that are still adhered to.

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First, audit must be unfettered. Sir John fought a long, and ultimately very successful campaign, to secure access to all Government Departments and agencies. Secondly, auditors must be professional and expert and he has equipped the NAO well. Next, we must have sound financial audit that requires modern professional accounting from Government. This is the point that the Prime Minister made, and it is an excellent one. Sir John’s active support for the introduction of accruals accounting—I pay tribute to the work that the Prime Minister did while Chancellor of the Exchequer in that respect—has helped drag Departments from the dark ages of the penny notebook system into the modern world, vastly improving the quality of information available to Parliament. In addition, audit should always be prepared to tackle the tricky issues of the day and not be deterred by vested interests. Sir John has reported on wars, on every major private finance initiative—PFI—deal, on waiting times in the NHS and, most recently, on major projects such as the Olympic games.

David Taylor: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the magic three letters PFI, and I am sure that what he says about the Comptroller and Auditor General and the NAO is true in so far as it goes. He says that the NAO has got to grips with modern techniques and methods, such as PFI, but why were the early and middle years reports so insipid and ineffectual? It seems that the NAO was being sucked into the received wisdom that PFI was a good—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) will not be seduced down that alleyway. He should not go down that route.

Mr. Leigh: Suffice it to say that, in my view, Sir John has been quite robust, but I will leave it at that. Of course, he could not get involved in the politics or the policy issue of whether we go down the PFI route. That was not his remit.

Sir John and I think that audit should shine light on often neglected areas, and his pioneering work on hospital infections, on services to stroke victims and, just last week, on services to people suffering from dementia, bear testament to his success. As the Father of the House has just said, audit should be able to prove its value. Sir John has set very stretching targets for the savings derived from the work of the NAO; they should generate £9 for every £1 spent. In those ways, Sir John has made a profound and lasting contribution to public audit and accountability. I pay tribute to him.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does my hon. Friend anticipate that Tim Burr will be able to improve on those financial savings?

Mr. Leigh: It would be difficult to do so. The targets are already stretching and we do not want targets that start distorting the work of the NAO.

I am pleased to second the motion to appoint Tim Burr pending the Government’s new arrangements that will be agreed, as the Father of the House has said, by the Public Accounts Commission, shortly following John Tiner’s review.

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Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Before my hon. Friend finishes his tribute to the outgoing CAG, will he say whether he agrees that the work that Sir John Bourn did to introduce public accountability to the BBC in undertaking its value-for-money audits is something that should go down on the record sheet as one of his great achievements?

Mr. Leigh: It certainly should, and we have a compromise at the moment. The Public Accounts Committee is strongly of the view that we should have full rights of access.

Tim Burr has been a public servant for 40 years. He worked at the centre of government until he joined the NAO 14 years ago, and he has been Sir John’s deputy for eight years. Tim Burr is very well qualified and I am confident that he will continue to develop the NAO’s work during his time in charge.

Mr. Gordon Prentice: On the appointment of Mr. Burr, did the Member have a pre-appointment hearing with Mr. Burr before my friend the Prime Minister appointed him?

Mr. Leigh: For Members who have just come into the debate, I should say that it is a temporary appointment, and I will talk about that in a moment if the hon. Gentleman gives me time. The governance of the NAO will be reviewed and the findings will be subject to debate on the Floor of the House, so we do not need to spend a lot of time on that issue now. However, needless to say, I think that we all recognise that the internal controls and administration of the NAO need strengthening. However, the cardinal principle that is very important for the House of Commons remains—that the CAG has the independence to write his own reports free from any interference from whatever quarter.

Bob Spink: Can my hon. Friend confirm whether Tim Burr will be an eligible candidate when the new and transparent appointment system is implemented?

Mr. Leigh: Of course Tim Burr will be an eligible candidate, but I have had no conversation with him. He will hold the appointment until a permanent appointment can be made.

This is only the second appointment under the current arrangements whereby the nomination is made by the Prime Minister with the support of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. During the debate the last time this happened, there was considerable support for making the appointment entirely a matter for the House. That is not an unreasonable view, as the CAG is an Officer of the House and he must be independent of the Government. That point was not lost on the Labour party in opposition. Indeed, summing up in the debate on Sir John Bourn’s appointment 20 years ago, the shadow Minister committed a future Labour Government to changing

My view, however, is that—I say this to the Prime Minister, to whom I am grateful for his presence—there is a need for the Government to have confidence in the person appointed because that person has unlimited
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access to all private papers and persons of the Government. Therefore, my view—of course, the House can take a different view—is that the current situation, in which both the Prime Minister and the Opposition Chairman of the PAC have to agree is not unreasonable. I say that as long as the Government appreciate the difference between selection and appointment. They need to be involved in the appointment, but not in the selection. That should be the job of the House.

In this sense, I want to proceed according to statute and to precedent, and I want to follow closely the precedent set by my predecessor Bob—now Lord—Sheldon. He selected the candidate after exhaustive interviews and that selection was then put to Mrs. Thatcher and she approved it. Clearly the process now needs to be modernised in accordance with good practice. There needs to be openness, open advertising and transparency, and I would need to be advised by a senior board in accordance with modern practice. Although all that can be arranged in agreement with the Government, I hope that the board would consist of a recently retired very senior servant—perhaps a former permanent secretary—a senior accountant from private practice and perhaps a recently retired officer from the NAO. I would need to listen to and consider their advice, but the Government do not need to be involved in that part of the process; otherwise there is the danger that I could find myself steered in classic Whitehall fashion in the direction of a safe candidate. I am sure that that would not be good for the future independence of the position. The Government do not have a right to a final veto.

Needless to say, I want to assure the House that I approach the task with the utmost seriousness. We all want to find someone of the highest calibre, great experience and, above all, independence of mind and spirit. I believe that such a person should serve for a fixed, lengthy and non-renewable term of the order of eight to 10 years, and they should not be allowed to return to the civil service if they came from it. There can be no question of their independence being compromised. All that is for discussion, but I assure the House that I am immensely proud of the independence and the work of the NAO and the Public Accounts Committee. During my watch, I will seek to preserve that.

2.8 pm

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase) (Lab): I associate myself with the generous tributes that have been paid to Sir John Bourn. His record is a distinguished one and I regretted very much that his final period in office was distracted by stories of exotic expenses. They should not be allowed to detract from the extraordinary service that he provided to the House and to the audit of public money over the years. I am sure that the appointment of Mr. Burr will be an excellent interim arrangement; I have no difficulties with that.

I should like to pay tribute to a former Member of the House, John Garrett. He could sometimes be curmudgeonly, but he was an heroic and stubborn protector of the interests of the House when it came to public money. He died just a few months ago. Back in 1987—the only other occasion on which the House has had the opportunity to discuss a motion of the kind that is before us—he said:

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that is, the Comptroller and Auditor General—

That point has been picked up by the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. We have improved things since then, and I hope that we will improve them further.

I agree with what has been said about the need to ensure that the Executive and Parliament have a joint interest in the appointment, for reasons that have been given. It is essential that there be fixed-term appointments. The emerging consensus is that key constitutional posts ought not to have open-ended terms of office, and the terms ought not to be renewed. It should not be possible to influence the process, and the terms should be secure and reasonably long. I hope that the appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General will conform to that—it is, I think, what the Government want—and that there will be a consistent pattern for all the constitutional watch-dogs.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): In light of the hon. Gentleman’s reference to the historical importance of the democratic principle, perhaps he will find it worth while to recall what Gladstone had to say on the subject when he introduced the arrangements in, I think, the 1860s. Many of the eternal truths that he laid out in an important speech on the subject are well worth rereading today.

Dr. Wright: I am always glad to accept a reference to Gladstone. The period to which the hon. Gentleman refers was the great era of public service reform, which we should never forget. Until now, there have been difficulties and inconsistencies in how we make key public appointments. The issue of pre-appointment hearings has rightly arisen. I am glad that the Prime Minister said what he did, because it was slightly odd that when the Government came forward with their welcome list of suggestions for posts that would in future be subject to pre-appointment hearings by Parliament, the Comptroller and Auditor General was not on it, yet there could scarcely be a more pivotal position, as far as the interests of Parliament and the public are concerned. I am glad that we are attending to that.

Alongside the issue of the extent to which Parliament is involved in such appointments, there is the question of which appointments should require the approval of the official Opposition. That is another check that we should put into the system. There is also the issue that we are discussing now—the final approval by Parliament, on a motion in someone’s name. At the moment, there is considerable confusion on all those fronts. The Government today presented a list of suggested posts for which there should be pre-appointment hearings. So far there has not been clarity on what the basis should be for such a list, but perhaps the list will help us with that point. We need clarity, and that certainly applies to the appointment that we are discussing, too.

There have been recent instances of the confusion that I mention. For example, Sir Michael Scholar’s appointment as chairman of the Statistics Board was approved by both Houses of Parliament, but it did not
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have to be; it was just thought to be a good, constitutional thing to do, as indeed it was. That shows that there is inconsistency. The new chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life said recently that he would have liked a pre-appointment hearing, because it would have increased his authority, and that he would have liked his appointment to be subject to a resolution of the House, which would have allowed Members of all parties to support his appointment. We need to ensure consistency in the arrangements.

After the review of the governance of the National Audit Office, and when we have taken a view on issues such as term limits, I hope that we will have a clear system, in which there are reasonable term limits—a subject that has already been mentioned. I hope that the appointment process will be controlled by the Commissioner for Public Appointments; that is the system that we have put in place over the past 10 or 15 years to ensure the integrity of the public appointments process. The system should be supervised by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, and should be linked to pre-appointment hearings in the House, which would, I presume, be held by the Public Accounts Committee. That would give Parliament a role in the process. A motion should also be brought before the House, as has happened today. I hope that that is the process at which we arrive. In a sense, we are discussing an interim point on the journey to that destination.

Mr. Alan Williams: The Comptroller and Auditor General’s independence from the Executive is of absolute, fundamental importance. The format that my hon. Friend proposes presents us with a problem, because of course the Government control the majority in the House. I foresee a danger, and I ask him to think about it, as I know that he is open-minded. There is a danger that if we demand a vote in the House—this may sound undemocratic, but I cannot see a way around that—and the Government used their Whips, we could end up with a Government appointee. That is a dangerous possibility, so I ask my hon. Friend to think twice about that.

Dr. Wright: My right hon. Friend’s concern would be met if we insisted on parliamentary involvement in the process. The new element will be the direct involvement of Parliament through a pre-appointment hearing, in which Parliament assures itself that the candidate is robustly independent.

Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright: No, because I am about to finish my speech, but before I do so, let me say that if anyone would like to read further thoughts on the subject, the Public Administration Committee has just issued an excellent report, “Parliament and public appointments: Pre-appointment hearings by select committees”, which deals with many of the issues involved. I recommend it to the House.

2.17 pm

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con) rose—

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Mr. Leigh: Will the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) give way on his last point?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that we ought to move on.

Mr. Gauke: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I thought I was about to have the new experience of being intervened on before I had begun my remarks.

First, I join right hon. and hon. Members in paying tribute to Sir John Bourn for the service that he has provided in his 20 years as Comptroller and Auditor General. He has been an effective examiner of Government expenditure and provided outstanding service in identifying waste, as the Father of the House eloquently explained. Sir John also showed support for the Public Accounts Committee, which does so much to protect the interests of the taxpayer. As we have heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), the Chairman of that Committee, Sir John has been an invaluable servant of the House.

The National Audit Act 1983 enables the CAG to carry out examinations of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of public bodies and Government Departments. I do not want to shatter the bipartisan atmosphere, but I must say that never before has that role been so necessary or so relevant. Hon. Members of all parties recognise that although public spending may be very high, there are still great questions about the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of much of that spending. In that context, the appointment that we are debating is of considerable importance.

Sir John has undoubtedly learned a great deal in his 20 years as Comptroller and Auditor General. He wrote about his experiences in his recent book “Public Sector Auditing: Is it Value for Money?”, which is so popular that the Library was unable to locate a copy of it when I asked it to do so earlier this week. It had been deluged with requests for it. He characterised public sector bureaucracy as something that

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