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National Audit Office

Volume 448: debated on Monday 3 July 2006

21. If he will make a statement on the progress of the National Audit Office in meeting its performance targets for 2006-07. (81384)

The National Audit Office will present its annual report and accounts to Parliament later this month, setting out its achievements for the year to 31 March 2006 and how it has used its resources. During the year, the NAO produced 61 major reports on the value for money achieved by Departments in using resources across a range of public expenditure. Examples include returning failed asylum seekers, progress in improving Government efficiency, and the failure of MG Rover. The Comptroller and Auditor General certified more than 500 accounts during the year and I know that the House will congratulate the NAO on identifying £555 million-worth of financial savings arising from its work in 2005—a return of more than £8 for every pound funded by Parliament. The Public Accounts Commission will have the opportunity to examine the NAO’s performance on the House’s behalf when it meets to consider the NAO’s corporate plan tomorrow.

I congratulate the NAO on last week’s report into the failure that is the Child Support Agency. Is it not an absolute scandal that it costs the CSA 70p to collect each £1 of child support, and that 60 per cent. of outstanding child support payments totalling £3.5 billion are deemed uncollectable?

That is really a matter for the Public Accounts Committee, rather than the Public Accounts Commission, but one is bound to feel that what we have read about is the latest in a series of disastrous performances by the CSA, which reflect what I suspect is the unpleasant experience of too many of our constituents. Our first inquiry, which was conducted a long time ago, discovered that—unbelievably—the CSA was set up with just one quarter of the staff that it required. Ever since then, it has never recovered.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the National Audit Office is saving this country a lot of money and is he concerned that its expansion is being resisted by the Executive, because they are worried that it would expose their incompetence and weaknesses?

On the latter point, I do not know what the Executive’s aspirations might be, but if there is any such aspiration, it is having no effect. The Public Accounts Commission’s role is to ensure that the NAO has the money that it requires and, so far, there has been no serious attempt by the Treasury to curtail the grants that we were considering making to the NAO. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman. Furthermore, because it has been so successful, we asked the NAO to consider whether, instead of achieving an £8:£1 rate of return for the taxpayer, it could do better. To our surprise, the NAO has said that in 2007 it hopes to increase that ratio from the present £8 to £9 for every £1 that it costs.

Does the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission agree that, if the NAO is to maintain and preserve its reputation for professionalism and independence, it would do well to resist the well-known pressure from Government for it to soft pedal its criticism of private finance initiative projects? He speaks of the savings that the NAO has achieved. If he were to press the Government to abandon PFI, which is prohibitive in cost, flawed in concept and intolerable in consequences for taxpayers, citizens and public sector workers, the savings would be vastly greater than the sum that he quoted.

Again, that is a matter for the Public Accounts Committee. If the Government have been trying get the National Audit Office to curb criticism of PFI, they have been singularly unsuccessful, and they certainly have not managed to limit the activities of the Public Accounts Committee, on which I sit.