Public sector audits fall short

News that demands have been made for an independent audit of NHS IT projects
should come as no surprise to experienced watchers of public sector auditing.

The audit was called for by top UK academics, after they became aware that a
National Audit Office examination of the NHS would not be looking at major
technology issues affecting the department.

But many anomalies exist when it comes to auditing public money, some
beneficiaries of which do not appear to be audited at all by parliament’s
financial watchdog.

Take the BBC, for example. The struggle to allow the NAO to look at the
broadcaster’s accounts seems to rumble on endlessly, with government and the
board of directors holding out against examination by parliament’s financial

Most recently, culture secretary Tessa Jowell was called before a Lords
committee to answer why the NAO was not permitted access to Aunty’s financial

During negotiations on the renewal of the BBC’s charter, a call was made for
the spending watchdog to take ‘responsibility for assessing the efficiency of
the BBC and evaluating its funding requirements when the proposed level of the
licence fee is set’.

The government has said that ‘untrammelled’ access to the BBC’s finances
would undermine the BBC’s independence.

An argument of such an arcane nature is set to continue, but the BBC is one
of many public bodies without an audit undertaken by parliament. The argument is
obvious – it’s public money, so parliament should be taking a look. But
historically it has proved difficult to press the point home. No doubt campaigns
like those related to the BBC and the NHS will continue.

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