Public bodies held to account

Public bodies held to account

What has happened to government accounting?

In the last days of this Parliament, there was a virtual avalanche of reports
revealing that Whitehall departments struggle to complete their accounting on
time – or to do it robustly.

The Home Office took flack for poor financial control and management, while
the House of Commons was castigated for overspending. The Department of Work and
Pensions has been told it should look to Australia and France for ideas on how
to control benefit fraud, while HM Revenue & Customs was slammed for
allegedly being unable to account for £400m.

So, is financial control simply out of control in Whitehall?

The fact is, financial control inside government has always been difficult.
Vast budgets, complex structures and the glacial pace at which the Civil Service
functions have all contributed to the problem.

But there is another factor, too: a lack of qualified and experienced
financial experts heading the finance function.

Mary Keegan, head of government accounting, aims to ensure that more
qualified accountants work as FDs in public bodies.

Keith Luck, finance chief at the Metropolitan Police, and Ann Beasley, FD at
HM Prison Service, demonstrate just what a qualified head of finance can achieve
– finances under control and an ability to deal with a crisis.

Looking forward, the Home Office will seek to emulate some of these
achievements. But while they are easy to identify, they are difficult to pull
off.

The temptation may be to let the control slip because, after all, this is
government and government should spend what’s necessary. But no public sector
finance chief can ignore the fact that they are handling public money, and the
best way to demonstrate accountability is through reliable accounts showing how
the cash is spent.

Gavin Hinks, editor AccountancyAge

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