Leader – Who will tell the public?

The public audit bodies are squabbling again. At issue this time is who should audit the new public service agreements which will govern relations between Whitehall departments and other bodies. Both the National Audit Office and the Audit Commission think they should do it. The truth is that neither body is really up to the job.

The NAO is trapped in the constitutional fiction that MPs can hold the government to account in parliament. Labour’s sledgehammer majority, like the Tories’ of a decade ago, and the power of the whips, means that parliament is a toothless watchdog. The public accounts committee, to which the NAO reports, jealously guards its crumb of independence, preventing the NAO from speaking out without its sanction. And the fact that all NAO reports need the prior approval of the departments they audit further reduces its bite.

In theory, the Audit Commission is even less accountable. Its audit reports go to councillors who rarely publish them and to NHS trust boards who are accountable to no one except the health secretary. Yet it is much more publicly accountable. Its performance indicators name and shame failing councils and it speaks out on the big issues.

Instead of jockeying for position, the NAO and the commission would do better to promote a debate about how public audit can make the government more accountable to the public it is supposed to serve.

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