Audit powers boost for Commons bodies

The new audit role will be a major part of moves to boost their influence and standing, Commons leader Robin Cook said.

As chairman of the Modernisation Committee he outlined new powers and money to enable the bodies – renamed as ‘Scrutiny Committees’ – to hold the government to account, examine draft legislation and check that public money is well spent.

The new-style all-party bodies, whose chairmen may be paid extra, will specifically be tasked to ‘examine and report on main estimates, annual expenditure plans and annual resource accounts’.

Each committee will appoint one member as ‘rapporteur’ on financial affairs to lead the new scrutiny of accounts.

Staff from the National Audit Office will be seconded to the committees to help in this new role, working closely with the rapporteur.

Cook said the scrutiny of departmental spending was a weakness of the current system, which the new proposals would put right. Committees have been lobbying for these new powers, staff and money to tackle this job for years.

As well as NAO staff, there will be a major increase in the personnel and financial resources available for the new Scrutiny Committees with a central ‘Specialist Support Unit’ put in place.

The new role for the department committees will involve close liaison with the existing Public Accounts Committee, which now occasionally reviews departmental estimates. If the departmental scrutiny committee discovered major problems, the PAC would then be able to take the issue up.

Cook said it was important that each department was quizzed every year on their spending. Senior Tory Nick Winterton and chairman of the Commons Procedure Committee said increasing parliamentary oversight and control of government spending was the best way to rein in the executive.

If Commons approves paying committee chairmen, then PAC chairman Edward Leigh would be on of those certain to be paid and would probably be one of the highest paid.

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