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Appointment of the Comptroller and Auditor General

Volume 470: debated on Wednesday 23 January 2008

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Timothy John Burr to the Office of Comptroller and Auditor General.

The National Audit Act 1983 prescribes that the Comptroller and Auditor General should be appointed by the Queen on a motion by the Prime Minister with the agreement of the Chair of the Select Committee on Public Accounts. Such a motion has been used only once, in 1987, when the then Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, proposed the appointment of Sir John Bourn. I am sure that the House will join me in expressing appreciation for the achievements of Sir John Bourn over his 20 years in service as he leaves at the end of this month.

I first visited Sir John in the 1980s, more than two decades ago, and have always found him to be courteous in his dealings with Members of Parliament. I thank him for the work that he has done. The House will be aware that the Public Accounts Commission, under my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), is undertaking a review of the governance of the National Audit Office, which supports the Comptroller and Auditor General in his work. The commission has asked John Tiner, the former managing director of the Financial Services Authority, to advise that review.

The position of the CAG was established nearly 150 years ago and it has been some 25 years since the reforms that saw the creation of the NAO, so the Government fully support the review and will allocate space in the forthcoming constitutional reform Bill for any necessary legislation agreed on a cross-party basis. The Government have taken a series of steps to enhance the transparency and accountability to Parliament of public spending, including the introduction of resource accounting and professional financial management in central Government. We will also align budgets, estimates and accounts to a common format to allow expenditure to be better tracked from allocation to spend.

In our “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper we set out proposals for parliamentary scrutiny of certain key positions in which Parliament has a strong interest. I can announce that my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office has today sent to the Liaison Committee a list of public appointments that we propose should be subject to pre-appointment scrutiny by their relevant Select Committee. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House. The list includes the appointment of the future CAGs; the chairs of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority and the regulators of water, communications, rail and post; chief inspectors; the Information Commissioner; the chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life and senior ombudsmen. I am also grateful to the Public Administration Committee for its work on the issue, which is timely and relevant. We will welcome the views of the Liaison Committee on the list of proposed appointments. The laws governing certain appointments like that of the CAG will continue to apply.

The motion before the House recommends that Tim Burr be appointed as the new Comptroller and Auditor General with the agreement of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I am grateful for his support.

Mr. Burr has been deputy CAG for nearly eight years, in addition to some seven years’ previous service at the NAO managing the audit of Departments including the Home Office, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise. That was preceded by a distinguished career in the civil service. I believe that Mr. Burr is eminently qualified to become CAG. Mr. Burr has undertaken to serve the House as CAG until the commission’s new governance arrangements can come into effect. I commend the motion to the House.

We are grateful to the Prime Minister for his motion and his words of support. This is an important announcement regarding an important post, and a matter that Parliament has quite properly decided should be taken seriously. That is evidenced by the fact that the motion is in the Prime Minister’s name and that he is here to move it.

I join the Prime Minister in thanking Sir John Bourn for his service. All those who have worked with him have a high regard for what he has done and for his organisation during his period of tenure. I also welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that he will implement the announcement that he made last July about his wish, and that of the Government, for a new process to scrutinise appointments of this nature. If the Liaison Committee and other Committees can act speedily, this appointment will, I hope, be the last when, as a matter of formal record, we are presented with a name but not a full CV—even though we know the details of the career of the proposed new Comptroller and Auditor General—and when no scrutiny of the appointment has taken place. I hope that the Liaison Committee and the Public Accounts Committee will move quickly to implement the new system.

It must be right that senior public servants should be appointed only after Parliament has scrutinised their appropriateness for the post. It is right that when Parliament comes to vote on such motions, it should be assured that the proposal has been scrutinised by Members of the House and that a CV has been presented for consideration.

I want to make two other points about the accountability and openness to which the Prime Minister is committed. The only thing that, unfortunately, marred Sir John Bourn’s career was the subject of expenses. That matter came into the public gaze last year, in particular. He was regarded as having spent more money than was justified in relation to his job. The same issue has surfaced once in relation to the proposed new—

Order. I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I must say to him and to the House that the motion is specifically about the appointment of a particular person. Although I allowed the Prime Minister a certain amount of latitude, this is not an opportunity for a general debate.

Of course I accept that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I was not proposing that it should be. My point was that I hope that the new appointee’s period of office, which I believe will begin on 1 February, will see an open regime, such as that which the Prime Minister has advocated elsewhere. The expenses of the new CAG and his colleagues should be in the public domain as a matter of course, as they are for all senior public servants. Our expenses are in the public domain, and that is proper and right. I hope that the new regime will ensure that that happens.

We welcome Mr. Burr’s appointment. We wish him well in his very important job. Scrutiny of the public accounts in this country by Parliament is very important and we all recognise that it is done better now than it has been in the past. We need to continue to do it well. We pay tribute to those on the Liaison Committee and the Public Accounts Committee who are part of the process. It is a good example of public service. It is important that Mr. Burr and his team do a good job to ensure that everything we spend is as well spent as possible, in the public interest.

Yesterday, I received the Tiner review of the governance of the CAG and the NAO, which was referred to by the Prime Minister, although I have not yet had a chance to read it. It is now being circulated to the members of the Liaison Committee and the Public Accounts Commission. The commission will consider it at our meeting with Mr. Tiner on 5 February. We are grateful to him for producing that report so early.

On the question of appointments, I thank the Prime Minister and welcome the pleasingly long list of appointments that will be referred to the Committees of this House. I shall have a response from the Liaison Committee within the next week or so, and we welcome what we have heard.

As the Chair of the House of Commons Commission, I very often work with the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), who is the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee. He will be involved in the selection and appointment, although the Commission will not.

Has my right hon. Friend formed an early view on the suggestion made at the meeting in December by the outgoing CAG, Sir John Bourn, that his replacement should have a limited tenure?

That question was covered by the Tiner review. The Chair of the PAC and I believe that there should be a time limit. I have not read the Tiner review yet, but I suspect that the dispute will be more about the length of service than about whether there should be a limit.

My right hon. Friend will recall our recent discussions in this Chamber about the outgoing CAG, but is he aware that the typical tenure for parallel appointments in other countries is five years? It is never more than 10, and certainly nothing like the 20 years that Sir John has enjoyed—the second longest tenure in the post’s history.

Yes, I am aware of the tenure limits elsewhere. In preliminary discussions, the Chair of the PAC and I made it clear that we hoped that a limit would be adopted, and that up to 10 years would be appropriate. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend will be able to contain his impatience in that regard.

There is widespread agreement that there should be a time limit, and Sir John Bourn himself thinks so, but does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it should be longer rather than shorter? In the US, the Budget and Accounting Act 1921 sets a term limit of 15 years for the equivalent post there. That may be a little long, but might not a limit of only five or six years be too short?

If I give any more commitments to the House, there will not be much point in having the report from John Tiner. I shall stick to what I have said already, which is that the Chair of the PAC and I feel that a limit of up to 10 years should be considered.

As Chair of the Commission, I should like to express the House’s gratitude to Sir John Bourn. We are indebted to him for his 20 years of service. There may be disagreements about some matters, but right at the beginning of his tenure in the post he did something of supreme importance: he made the early and brave decision that the NAO would deliver to the taxpayer £6 in savings for every £1 that the taxpayer gave him to carry out his duties. That was a risky decision, but he achieved the target that he had set. In fact, he increased the ratio to 7:1. At the request of the Commission and the PAC, he then raised it to 8:1, and subsequently to 9:1, which is where it stands today. Under Sir John Bourn, the NAO is producing savings for the taxpayer that are nine times as great as his total annual operational budget. This year alone, the savings are likely to total £667 million, and I am sure that that is delightful news for the Prime Minister. Sir John should feel proud of that achievement, and he deserves the House’s thanks.

Sir John Bourn has also recognised that the House of Commons has a wider responsibility in the world. Like the US, France and other nations, we have experience that is valuable for the emerging democracies. As the Chair of the PAC will no doubt say, our NAO and the system that supports it are greatly admired throughout the world. The NAO has fee-paying contracts with the UN and other international bodies to help emerging democracies establish systems of scrutiny and accountability. Sir John has taken some stick, including some from this side of the House, for the additional work that he has done, but I think that we owe the third world a duty to share our experience. We cannot tell countries what they must do; we can only share our experience, good or bad.

Switching to my role as Chair of the Liaison Committee, I should like to thank Sir John Bourn for a third thing that he has done. One source of grievance between the PAC and the other Committees has always been that the NAO is a PAC asset. The PAC has guarded it jealously over the years but, at the request of the Liaison Committee and with the approval of myself and the Chairman of the PAC, Sir John has changed the NAO’s role. He has started to give support to the Select Committees in the form of evidence and witnesses and, most importantly, by making available specialist secondees who help with the Committees’ staffing and background work. That is an invaluable role for the NAO, and one that is very welcome. I think that Sir John has every reason to be proud of what he has done for the House of Commons and for Parliament in his 20 years as CAG.

Finally, I welcome the appointment of Tim Burr. He is a delightful and very unassuming man, with integrity and great ability. He will do the job well, and I hope that he finds it a fascinating experience.

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.

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?

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.

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.

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—

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.

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.

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.

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?

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.

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?

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.

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

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

“the method of appointment so that there is no ambiguity between the role of the Executive and that of the House.”—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1201.]

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 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.

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:

“the arrangements by which he”—

that is, the Comptroller and Auditor General—

“is nominated pay inadequate respect to Parliamentary democracy”.—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1182.]

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.

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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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

“looks inward, not outward, to process rather than outcomes, to hierarchies rather than teams, to rules rather than initiative and to detachment from, rather than engagement in, human interests”.

It is certainly not for the National Audit Office to solve all those problems on its own, or even by working with the Public Accounts Committee. Those problems need to be addressed through a more fundamental change to how government is run.

I endorse all the remarks that have been made about Sir John Bourn and the distinguished service that he has provided to the nation. As my hon. Friend is moving on to the subject of the Public Accounts Committee in relation to the NAO, may I reaffirm that it is essential that the chairmanship of the PAC is in the hands of the main Opposition party? That also deals with the question of parliamentary control, to which the Father of the House referred. Above all else, there must be maximum independence in such a vital constitutional area.

My hon. Friend makes an important and valuable point. I shall shortly turn to the issue of the independence of the CAG. As part of the overall process, the chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee is rightly in the hands of a member of the Opposition. I do not believe that there is any desire on any side to change that. I am happy to reaffirm what my hon. Friend said.

The National Audit Office and the CAG can identify the worst examples of lack of economy, inefficiency and ineffectiveness in the public sector. Under Sir John’s leadership, and in partnership with the Public Accounts Committee, they have consistently done so.

One of the reasons why Sir John has been successful is that he has been demonstrably independent of the Executive—a point made by a number of right hon. and hon. Members. He has done that in various ways. He has been straightforward in his reports, and he has not pulled his punches. In November, for example, he released e-mails demonstrating that senior HMRC staff were aware of the full child benefit database being provided to the NAO, and that the debacle could not be blamed entirely on one low-level official. That demonstrated, once again, Sir John’s independence.

There are various matters in respect of independence that need to be raised in the context of the motion. On the first, I hope the House will forgive me for making a controversial point. The economics editor of The Sunday Telegraph, Liam Halligan, wrote at the weekend that it remains his view that Sir John

“has been hounded out of office—after a series of heavily spun leaks against him—by ministers tired of being held to account by Bourn and his auditing team.”

I would be grateful if the Exchequer Secretary could confirm in the course of her remarks that, as far as she is aware, no Government Minister, official or special adviser has briefed against Sir John.

Another issue is the appointments process, which we have been debating for some time. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, and the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright), the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee, I have been reading the Official Report of the last time the matter was debated, in December 1987. As has been said, a number of Labour Members, including their Front Bencher, the Treasurer of Her Majesty's Household, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown), who no doubt follows these matters closely and is present today, suggested at that time that Parliament might have a greater role in the appointments process to ensure independence from the Executive. Indeed, the right hon. Gentleman went on to state:

“The Labour party intends to give effect to this principle when in government”—[Official Report, 16 December 1987; Vol. 124, c. 1201.]

There has been on the Government’s part no unseemly haste to do so but, as we have heard, John Tiner is reviewing the corporate governance of the NAO and we may soon have proposals on these matters. Indeed, we have heard proposals from the Minister for the Cabinet Office. There seems to be a mood on both sides of the House in favour of greater transparency and parliamentary involvement in public appointments. We await Mr. Tiner’s proposals with interest and look forward to examining the proposals from the Minister for the Cabinet Office. Contrary to what the Prime Minister said, we have just checked with the Library and details are not yet available there.

In fairness, we should acknowledge that under the current arrangements for the appointment of the CAG the Chairman of the PAC has a key role in the appointment, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. No one doubts his independence from the Executive, or generally. The fact that an Opposition Member has an influential role in the appointment is important, as the Father of the House observed, allowing greater parliamentary involvement. We must ensure that the governing party, whichever party it may be, does not have too much control through the use of its Whips. There is clearly a balance to be struck, as the Chairman of the PAC recognised.

That is an important point and it should be underlined. At present there is a complete balance because the Chairman of the PAC is, by definition, from the Opposition and the Prime Minister is, by definition, from the Government. It sounds very democratic—I say this to the Chairman of the Public Administration Committee—to hand the appointment over to a Committee, but under the rules of the House, a Committee would always have a Government majority so it would appoint somebody and that would be approved by the Government. The Government would thus effectively make the appointment, which would be dangerous. The present system, which was created under the 1983 Act, was probably quite a wise compromise.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As has been mentioned, the fact that the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is an Opposition Member provides a degree of balance within the system. If that role is diminished to any extent, we need to consider the issue of balance.

In the context of the Tiner review, it is entirely understandable that the appointment of Mr. Burr is only temporary. A full explanation has been provided by the Prime Minister. Without any criticism of Mr. Burr—a man of integrity and incisiveness, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Chairman of the PAC—we should acknowledge that short-term appointments can weaken the perception of independence.

When appointees are waiting for a decision from the Executive as to reappointment, there may be a perception that that official is not entirely independent and that he is in some respect beholden to the Executive. In the current economic conditions, the point is particularly relevant to the delayed appointment of the Governor of the Bank of England, but I shall not dwell on that. The point should be taken into account in any appointment process where independence from the Executive is crucial.

Finally, I welcome Mr. Burr to his new role. As we have heard this afternoon, those who know him speak highly of him. He has already given a number of years of distinguished service to the National Audit Office. I know that going from No. 2 to No. 1 in an organisation is not always easy, as the Prime Minister may agree. None the less, we wish Mr. Burr well for the future.

I close the debate by echoing from my own experience the tributes that have rung out from all parts of the House this afternoon to the record, experience and public service of Sir John Bourn, who retires at the end of the month.

The most important Select Committee on which I served when I first entered the House, when we were in opposition in the 1992-97 Parliament, was the Public Accounts Committee. At that time, Sir John was relatively new in his period of service, and I found him an extremely courteous and sophisticated Comptroller and Auditor General, who was always willing to listen to questions from new Members and help them with the complexities of holding the Government to account through the work of the PAC and the National Audit Office. If anyone went to him worried about issues in particular Departments, he was always ready with an interested ear and an arched eyebrow, full of good suggestions about how to pursue the matter—indeed, he often allowed the NAO to pursue it, to the benefit of the effectiveness of public expenditure.

I pay my own tribute to Sir John as Comptroller and Auditor General. As has been said, he served for 20 years, and it is not an inconsiderable achievement to establish and maintain an excellent record for leadership when in the public gaze for so long. He steered the NAO into becoming a body that, as many right hon. and hon. Members have said today, is regarded as world class by its profession. It is influential internationally and does an extremely good job in the UK in ensuring that we get best value for money from our public expenditure.

As there has not been a new CAG appointment since 1987, I take this opportunity to emphasise the Government’s regard for the importance of the ability of the CAG and the NAO to secure their professional independence as auditors of the Government and, obviously, of the Government’s accountability to Parliament.

As many Members have mentioned, it is especially important that the CAG be independent. In addition to supporting Parliament in holding the Government to account, the NAO helps to improve government through objective reporting and recommendations for improved management practices. Departments in Whitehall do best by taking a great deal of notice of such recommendations; after NAO reports are published, Departments put a great deal of effort into mending their ways and closing the loopholes that have led to inefficient spending. The NAO also helps citizens by providing greater transparency, bringing their concerns to light and prompting improvements in public services and public service outcomes. All of us in this House have an interest in that.

The NAO’s role and responsibilities have substantially increased since 1988 and they continue to evolve. Since Sir John took up his post in that year, the number of financial reports has remained broadly the same at about 480. However, their scale and complexity have increased through the changeover to accruals-based resource accounting. In 1988, the NAO produced 31 value-for-money reports, seven memos to the Public Accounts Committee and two reports on the accounts. In 2007, it produced 60 value-for-money reports and 25 reports on the accounts. In addition, the NAO now reports on a range of other matters, including annual reports on budget assumptions and impact assessments.

In 1988, the NAO supported 30 meetings of the PAC; sometimes it seems as though that Committee now has more meetings than that in one week. In 2007, that number had increased to 58, with 61 PAC reports, and the NAO now supports 13 other parliamentary Committees. For me as the Treasury Minister with responsibility for ensuring that we try to increase our productivity as a country, the interesting statistic is that in 1988 the NAO employed 900 staff; by 2007, that number had fallen to 850. We are getting a great deal more effort, work and added value from a slightly reduced staff.

In 1988, 40 contracts had been outsourced; in 2007, that number had increased to 155, which amounts to about 25 per cent. of NAO resources. I have twice been a member of the Public Accounts Committee and my experience is that the NAO benefits greatly from the transfer of information from the private sector and other areas through secondments and outsourcing.

Since 1997, the CAG has reported annually on financial management in the European Union. In recent years, he has also been asked to undertake a range of substantial reviews at the Government’s request, such as a review of the Financial Services Authority in 2007 and a review of Home Office statistics on asylum and migration in 2004. As to the future, the House will know that provisions in the Companies Act 2006 will enable the CAG to become eligible to audit non-departmental public bodies. That is likely to add a further 80 or more bodies to the audit portfolio.

I should reiterate what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said: in its July 2007 report, the Public Accounts Commission decided to review the corporate governance of the NAO to ensure that it is in line with best practice. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams); he was probably the most long-standing member of the Public Accounts Committee and is chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, as well as being Father of the House—a triple whammy. John Tiner agreed to chair that NAO corporate governance review; my right hon. Friend said that its report has arrived on his desk, but that he has not yet had time to read it. Obviously, the corporate governance of the NAO is of great interest to all of us and we look forward to the Public Accounts Commission report, its response to Mr. Tiner’s suggestions and its suggestions on how to take forward the new management arrangements for the NAO and the office of Comptroller and Auditor General.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said, the Government have agreed, if necessary, to enact reforms to the governance of the NAO that proceed from the Public Accounts Commission’s decisions. I look forward to receiving the commission’s detailed suggestions in due course.

Finally, I echo the widespread welcome today for Mr. Burr’s appointment. I agree with right hon. and hon. Members from across the House that he is eminently qualified to assume the post of Comptroller and Auditor General. He has made a substantial contribution as Sir John Bourn’s deputy over the past eight years, and I am grateful for his flexibility and understanding in stepping into the role while the Public Accounts Commission continues its work on governance. I note that Mr. Burr has indicated his intention to serve as Comptroller and Auditor General only until the reforms flowing from the process are completed and in place, and I thank him for that. I support the motion.

Question put and agreed to.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. While the House has been sitting, tens of thousands of off-duty policemen have been demonstrating on the streets of London. Many are lobbying hon. Members of the House. They are demonstrating because the deal that they had with the Government has been reneged on and their pay agreement has been broken. Has the Home Secretary given any indication to the Speaker’s Office whether she is going to come to the House and explain how the Government got into this mess?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will realise, that is not a matter for the Speaker at this stage.