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House of Commons Hansard
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National Audit Office
01 July 2020
Volume 678

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I beg to move,

That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that Her Majesty will appoint Dame Fiona Reynolds DBE to the Office of Chair of the National Audit Office from 10 January 2021.

Should Her Majesty choose to do so, Dame Fiona will take over from Lord Bichard, whose two terms in the post have capped a long and distinguished career in public service. His departure will leave some rather large shoes to fill in the NAO boardroom, but I believe Dame Fiona is more than capable of filling them, at least metaphorically. She has spent most of her life working to preserve the best of this country, holding senior roles at the Council for National Parks and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. For more than a decade, she was responsible for great swathes of our heritage as director general of the National Trust. She has worked in central Government, sat on the boards of institutions including the BBC and has, since 2012, served as Master at Emmanuel College, Cambridge. Alongside all that, she somehow found time to write a book, “The Fight for Beauty”, described by one reviewer as

“a warning against thoughtless depredation authorised by policy-makers”.

In many ways, that also describes the role of the NAO. So Dame Fiona is perfect for this role, and that is a view shared by the Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), who, in accordance with the law, has given her seal of approval to the proposed appointment. I am sure Dame Fiona will do an excellent job, and I commend this motion to the House.

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It gives me great pleasure to support the motion proposed by the Prime Minister to appoint Dame Fiona Reynolds, who, as he has highlighted, has had a distinguished career, particularly as head of the National Trust and, more recently, as Master of Emmanuel College. She is the first woman to hold this important position, and I also put on record my thanks to Lord Bichard, who will have given six years of service when he hands over the reins to Dame Fiona in January.

The NAO is crucial in holding the Government to account, safeguarding taxpayers’ money, and, increasingly, under the new Comptroller and Auditor General, Gareth Davies, learning to do better. So it is heartening that the Prime Minister and I agree on the importance of the NAO and the suitability of Dame Fiona to take up this role. Her considerable experience will be well played in the NAO. Of course, the Comptroller and Auditor General determines all the audit procedures, but she will have a pivotal role on the board in making sure that the organisation becomes as modern and sophisticated as it needs to be to deal with the challenges of the modern world. So I fully and wholeheartedly endorse her. This was the first virtual appointment and I have not yet met Dame Fiona, so I look forward to doing so when lockdown restrictions lift still further.

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I am delighted to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s motion. I declare an interest in this subject, because although I was not part of the selection process at all, Dame Fiona is a constituent of mine. I know her and have met her on a number of occasions. She will make an excellent candidate, for the reasons I am about to give—my right hon. Friend will be grateful to know that I will do so briefly. She has had a role in academia, recently being Master at Emmanuel College, having gained a first at Cambridge. For 10 years, she was well known as the director of the National Trust, building its membership from 10 million to 19 million. As the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee has said, she was part of government. In the Cabinet Office, she formed a new unit which brought the ideas of gender equality to a range of government initiatives.

As well as being in academia, government and non-governmental organisations, Dame Fiona has had a range of business appointments, with Wessex Water, the Grosvenor Estate, the BBC and John Lewis. She brings a wealth of experience to this job and she will bring an inquiring mind. She is a highly bright person who will be there to challenge and work with, on an excellent basis, our Comptroller and Auditor General, Gareth Davies. All in all, her appointment will be a benefit to this House, to the Government and to this country.

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The SNP too welcomes the appointment of Dame Fiona Reynolds to the role of chair of the National Audit Office. We appreciate the involvement of Caroline Gardner, as Auditor General for Scotland, in the appointment panel, which is good. We are sure that, given Dame Fiona’s previous role in the Council for National Parks, she will have a good ability to see the wood for the trees in holding the Government to account. I look forward to her doing so with her great skill and experience.

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I too welcome this appointment. Clearly, the candidate is very well qualified.

For those not familiar with the structure of the NAO board, it is very different from any other board in any other company, or in the public sector, in that it does not set policy. When we created the current structure, we made it clear that the board would not interfere in the absolute right of the Comptroller and Auditor General himself to determine what he should investigate.

I think that this role is going to become increasingly important, because the chair of the board will have to lead it in its decisions to give the NAO adequate resources to deal with the very difficult position that we find ourselves in with the massive increase in public spending that is going to arise as a result of covid-19. For every £1 the NAO spends it saves £9, but there is going to be a lot of work, and a lot of extra resources need to be given to it.

Politicians tend to be obsessed with policy, of course, but efficiency is all the more important when we are rapidly increasing spending. When we rapidly increased spending on the NHS under the last Labour Government, we found that there was a dramatic decline in productivity. Without getting involved in policy, the chair and the Comptroller and Auditor General will have a crucial role in ensuring efficiency. I can see the Prime Minister sitting in front of me. I know that he will want to ensure that he appoints somebody in every Department who is a well-qualified finance officer to ensure that as we increase spending, we do not increase waste.

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It is an honour to support the Prime Minister on the motion to appoint Dame Fiona Reynolds as chairman of the National Audit Office. It is rare that this House makes such an appointment, and so I wish to add my support as one of the new generation of Members.

In an era where we spend almost £4 in £10 of the national income, it is imperative that we spend it effectively, not to return money to the Treasury coffers but so that we can deliver the healthcare, education, police, armed forces and infrastructure that our country needs. This appointment is a vital part of how we achieve that, because it means that this House, independent of Government, has the ability to draw back the curtain and to see the facts as they are, not as we might wish them to be. That is a cornerstone of the rule of law under a sovereign Parliament. This right dates back centuries, but we owe it in its current form to William Gladstone—a great moderniser and disruptor who, we should note, was not afraid to make changes to the machinery of government in order to deliver for the working people of Britain.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) on securing a candidate of great calibre and unimpeachable independence. Having devoted much of her life to the world of conservation, Dame Fiona clearly takes the long view. I wish her many years of effective service in the knowledge that she has our full support.

Question put and agreed to.

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I will now suspend the House for three minutes in order to have a safe turnover of personnel and cleanliness at the Dispatch Box.

Sitting suspended.

On resuming—

Finance Bill (Ways and Means) (Coronavirus)

Resolved,

That provision (including provision having retrospective effect) may be made—

(a) about the taxation of payments made under the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employment income support scheme or other schemes providing support to employers or businesses as a result of coronavirus or coronavirus disease;

(b) about the protected pension age of members of pension schemes who are re-employed as a result of coronavirus;

(c) about the application of the statutory residence test to certain persons present in the United Kingdom for reasons connected with coronavirus;

(d) about tax relief under the enterprise investment scheme and the seed enterprise investment scheme where convertible loan agreements are entered into under the scheme known as the Future Fund;

(e) amending section 135 of the Finance Act 2008 (interest on unpaid tax in case of disaster or emergency of national significance);

(f) about refunds of the higher rate of stamp duty land tax under Schedule 4ZA to the Finance Act 2003 in cases where purchasers have been prevented from disposing of their previous main residence by exceptional circumstances;

(g) providing for HGV road user levy not to be charged for a temporary period;

(h) modifying requirements relating to enterprise management incentives in relation to persons who are not required to work for reasons connected with coronavirus disease.—(Jesse Norman.)

Finance Bill (Programme) (No. 2)

Ordered,

That the Order of 27 April 2020 (Finance Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraph (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration—

(a) shall be taken on each of the two days in the order shown in the first column of the following Table, and

(b) shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.

Proceedings

Time for conclusion of proceedings

First day

Amendments to Part 2; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to Part 2

Two hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to the impact of the Bill on the environment; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the impact of the Bill on the United Kingdom meeting the UN Sustainable Development Goals; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the impact of the Bill on the United Kingdom meeting its Paris climate change commitments; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the impact of the Bill on human and ecological wellbeing; amendments to Clauses 8 to 10, 83, 84 and 90 to 94 and 103 and Schedule 12; other new Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to the environment

Four hours after the commencement of proceedings on the Motion for this Order

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to the impact of the Bill on job creation; new Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to the subject-matter of any of Clauses 7, 11 and 15 to 21 and Schedules 1 and 2; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the impact of the Bill on parts of the United Kingdom and regions in England, including its impact on employment in those parts and regions

Second Day

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to any review of all tax reliefs contained in the Bill; new Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to the subject-matter of any of Clauses 23, 28 to 31 and 36 and Schedules 3 and 5

2pm

New Clauses, new Schedules and amendments relating to the response to coronavirus; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the impact of the Bill on poverty of all persons in the United Kingdom; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to child poverty; remaining proceedings on Consideration

4pm

—(Jesse Norman.)