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National Audit Office

Volume 587: debated on Wednesday 29 October 2014

I beg to move,

That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Lord Bichard KCB to the Office of Chair of the National Audit Office.

This is only the second time that a Prime Minister has moved a motion to appoint the chair of the National Audit Office and the first time the process has been applied to someone new to the role. It is a direct result of our Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011 to strengthen the governance of the National Audit Office. At a time when we are working hard to deal with our debts, it reflects the critical role of the NAO in scrutinising public expenditure and safeguarding the interests of hard-working taxpayers.

First, I would like to thank Professor Sir Andrew Likierman who is standing down when his term of office ends in January. As the NAO’s inaugural independent chair, he has played a vital role in establishing the NAO board as an effective governance body.

The proposed new chair, Lord Bichard, has been chosen following an open competition by a selection panel that included the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, the Auditor General for Scotland and the permanent secretary of the Treasury. Lord Bichard has had a distinguished career in local and central Government. His many roles have included chief executive of Brent and Gloucestershire local authorities, chief executive of the Benefits Agency and permanent secretary of the Department for Employment, which then became the Department for Education and Employment. He led the vital inquiry into child protection measures following the horrific Soham murders, and also served as chair of the Legal Services Commission, chair of the Design Council and founding director at the Institute for Government.

I believe Lord Bichard’s extensive experience across the public sector makes him an outstanding choice as the independent chair of the National Audit Office, and I have no hesitation in commending this motion to the House.

This is the second occasion when we have had time set aside in the House to debate the public appointment of the chair of the National Audit Office. I warmly welcome and support the process whereby both the Executive and the legislature are involved in the appointment to this important post, and the fact that the Prime Minister is present to propose to the House the appointment of Lord Bichard. I join him in thanking Sir Andrew Likierman for his excellent stewardship of the organisation over the past few years since its inception.

I have known Michael Bichard for many years. Indeed, I first met him before he joined the civil service when he was working as a chief executive in local government. He is a man of outstanding ability and clear judgment, and he brings to the role vast experience across the public sector from his roles in local government, leading a government agency and leading a Government Department. He has also run a very successful higher education institution and was involved in establishing the Institute for Government as its first director. I have every confidence in his ability to fulfil this new role.

I agree with the Prime Minister that in the current times, with continuing pressures to reduce public expenditure and borrowing, we need a strong, fearless and high quality National Audit Office to provide well-evidenced information on how the taxpayers’ pound is being spent. Sir Michael’s long experience and undoubted knowledge and expertise make him an excellent choice as chair of this important institution. I am delighted to be able to support the motion before the House.

I support the motion. Two years ago, when the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011 set up the chair of the National Audit Office, there were two chief concerns: to strengthen the governance of the National Audit Office in a way which, it was widely agreed, it could benefit from; and to ensure at the same time the continued statutory independence of the Comptroller and Auditor General in exercising his statutory functions. The CAG is an officer of the House of Commons, and it is vital that his independence and ability to undertake inquiries, wherever he—or she, were there a female doing the job—feels necessary, is unfettered. The 2011 Act needed to pull off the trick of providing both for the chair to have the ability to advise the CAG, and for the CAG to have regard to that advice while at the same time continuing to have

“complete discretion in the carrying out of…functions”.

This House owes a debt of gratitude to Professor Sir Andrew Likierman for the way he has carried out that task. I have every confidence that Lord Bichard, who has a very distinguished career in public service, will be able to perform the same function with equal skill. I have no hesitation in commending the motion to the House.

Question put and agreed to.