Overview: back to reality for NAO’s new senior auditor

Amyas Morse is coming into the
National Audit Office to
become the most senior auditor of central government finances. It’s a tough job
and means putting departments and senior civil servants on the spot.

Most of all, his job will be to restore confidence in the NAO after the
furore over accounting for expenses of its former chief Sir John Bourn.

What’s happened

Morse joins the NAO from the Ministry of Defence where, since 2006, he has
been defence commercial director, the man in charge of improving procurement.
That means getting defence staff to think much more like the private sector and
drive hard bargains when buying for the UK’s armed forces.

Last week we learned that he is to move to the NAO where he will be
comptroller and auditor general, Whitehall’s top financial inquisitor. In one
move he goes from being quizzed by MPs on a regular basis to being the chief aid
to parliamentarians seeking to grill civil servants over the management of the
country’s finances.

What will happen

Morse brings substantial private sector experience to the NAO post having
once headed the Coopers & Lybrand practice in Scotland and then going on to
become global head of assurance under PricewaterhouseCoopers.

It’s this private sector experience ­ rather than being a career civil
servant ­ that the government currently likes.

In effect he has travelled from being a top private sector auditor to being
the most senior auditor of government finance.

He is used to dealing with MPs after appearing before select committees
himself during his spell at the MOD, and that experience must mean he also knows
the financial habits of civil servants.

Not everyone believes that is such a good idea. One MP on the defence select
committee, who has
questioned Morse in the past, highlighted the irony of the new NAO chief coming
from a department which has had its own budgetary difficulties in the past. Lib
Dem Mike Hancock said: ‘There is not a major project in the MoD in the last ten
years that has not either been over budget or over time or both.’

But after the debacle over Sir John Bourn, the watchdog needs its reputation
and Morse has been picked as the man to do just that.

The future is not without its challenges. Government finances are moving into
a tricky period as tax revenues fall and the Whitehall balance sheet takes on
the cost of buying into UK banks and underwriting business lending. Downing
Street will want a favourable report card but the NAO, and Morse, will be there
to ensure that they tell it like it is.

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