From Leigh to you

Edward Leigh, Tory MP, is stepping down from the chairmanship of the powerful
Commons Public Accounts Committee after the election.

What’s happened?

There are few MPs able to speak out as forcefully as Leigh, safe in the
knowledge they have a massive research facility to back their words. He has been
chairman of the PAC since 2001 and, as such, he is one of the most quoted
parliamentarians other than the prime minister and the leaders of opposition

But Leigh is stepping down from the post after the election, having had the
opportunity to speak on diverse areas of public policy and policy
implementation. Moving on creates an opening for someone else but it is worth
dwelling on his time in charge. What makes him interesting for accountants is he
was able to use the resources of the National Audit Office on which to base his
public comments. No one, in Britain at least, has a facility quite like it.

One of Leigh’s last opportunities to speak was on the BBC and the sums it
pays top stars. He laid into the broadcaster. “The BBC is currently immune from
being properly held to account for its spending of billions of pounds of
taxpayers money.” He added: “The committee believes the public’s view of what
level of transparency and accountability can be expected of a publicly owned and
funded corporation today is different than that currently prevailing at the

Given Leigh’s Thatcherite background (he worked in Lady Thatcher’s private
office from 1976-77) the chairmanship of the committee is perhaps the perfect
job. But the post is not about ideology. Cutting public spending and rolling
back the state is not the mission of the PAC. Its task is the more neutral role
of making sure money is spent wisely and that accounting is done correctly.
Accountability, is the watchword of the PAC rather than ideological zealotry.

What happens next?

On the dwindling emergency cashpot for the London Olympics, Leigh said the
people in charge had to “establish a soundly calculated, funded contingency.” On
the use of PFI to supply support planes to the RAF he said it had become a
“bureaucratic nightmare”. He has also warned of increasing pressure on military
medical facilities.

He may be regarded as “unpredictable” in some quarters but he has said little
in his role as PAC chairman that gives away an ideological bias. That said, his
time in charge is viewed as one in which the committee’s profile has risen and
the pronouncements of its chairman have become increasingly aggressive. In fact,
some observers believe he has made the hardest statements, based on NAO reports,
of any of the recent PAC chairman.

And though he steps down from the PAC (he is still standing for Parliament)
he made a point of trying to influence his successor by writing an open letter
on the ten areas where he believes huge savings could be made.His parting shot
was to implore civil servants to embrace the audit process for the expert
opinion it can provide. As a publication for accountants, we could only agree.

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