Bourn urges delay

Whitehall’s switch to full-blown resource accounting should be delayed a year to reduce the risk of fraud and theft, Sir John Bourn, the comptroller and auditor general, has told the Commons Procedure Committee.

The head of the National Audit Office said that ministers ‘might like to consider’ extending the deadline for the first fully resource-based department estimates. He argued that an extra year’s ‘dummy-run’, with new resource accounts produced alongside traditional cash accounts, would minimise confusion which could be used to cover ‘fraud and theft’.

Under the current timetable, all government departments must prepare resource accounts, as well as cash accounts, by April this year. The first published resource accounts will be laid before Parliament in 1999/2000, and the first public expenditure survey on a resource basis will be in the year 2000.

If Parliament approves the results, the first fully resource-based public spending round will be in 2001/02. Bourn ‘recommended’ that the final date for the estimates be moved to 2002/03, and that the ‘dual reporting’ period be extended from two years to three.

‘I think it’s immensely optimistic to believe we’ll get the whole system right first time,’ he said.

But Andrew Likierman. chief accountancy adviser to the Treasury and head of the government Accountancy Service, told Accountancy Age there was no need to revise the original timetable.

‘Inevitably one or two of the 57 departments will have problems,’ he said. The Ministry of Defence, for example, looks very unlikely to have resource accounts ready by April. ‘But,’ said Likierman, ‘We’re not going to say that we’ll let the programme slip. We’re saying that the reality is that we just don’t know. We’re being prudent.’

Bourn said he thought resource accounting might encourage more MPs to take an interest in government finances, but they might need some help.

‘There’ll be gold in there,’ he said. ‘But we may need direction from some expert geologists to find it.’

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