By Tony Collins
A report published yesterday by the National Audit Office is an example of how the organisation has changed since it appointed Amyas Morse as Comptroller and Auditor General in June 2009.
The NAO scrutinises public spending and its auditors value their reputation for independence from the civil service.
But past NAO reports were sometimes deferential: the impression given at times was of clubby civil servants auditing other clubby civil servants. What needed to be said went unsaid, or was said indistinctly. That doesn’t seem to happen now.
Indeed, in a departure from convention, Amyas Morse and his colleagues put well-aimed questions to civil servants at hearings of the Public Accounts Committee.
In the past NAO representatives would say little at hearings of the Public Accounts Committee except, perhaps, to side with civil servants whom MPs were questioning.
Morse’s report published yesterday on the Equality and Human Rights Commission, which is part of the Home Office, is an example of straightforward reporting, with none of the circumlocution and coded language of the past.
In the report Morse went further than any NAO findings I remember: he questioned whether staff at the Equality and Human Rights Commission are competent enough to manage public funds properly.
He said the Commission is now better able to handle public money than when it was set up in 2007 but “deep-seated” problems remain. The NAO qualified the Commission’s 2009/10 accounts because of a variety of irregular payments and an unauthorised write-off of £874,000 on a failed website.
Said Morse: “In general the Commission continues to be over-reliant on interim staff. Four out of the seven members of the Senior Management Team and eight of the 19 Directors are interim appointments, including the Finance and IT Directors. Other key staff in Corporate Services, such as the Head of Procurement and the Finance Project Manager, are also interim appointments.
“I am concerned that once these interim staff depart, there is a risk that the improvements in controls that they have delivered will lapse…
“I remain concerned, too, about the culture of the Commission with regard to financial and administrative controls. It is clear that there is little general financial understanding or competence in the organisation, and that many managers have limited experience of the effective management of public money.”
Questions about how fit the Commission’s staff are to manage public money are likely to be asked at a hearing of the Public Accounts Committee on the NAO’s report.
Long may the NAO’s new pernicketiness and assiduous search for clarity and truth continue.