In March next year the Audit Commission will be abolished. Strangely, there hasn’t been much publicity over this, given how much interest Audit Commission reports generate in the media. With it will go an important principle of public life – that the audit of public money spent by 11,000 public bodies, including local government and significant chunks of the NHS, should be as genuinely independent as possible to protect the public purse. And hence the media silence: a dirty deed is being undertaken.
What the government wants to put in its place (but not until 2017 at the earliest, thereby giving them a couple of years or more to operate in the dark, it hopes) is what the Health Service Journal describes as “a clunky set of committee-like arrangements aimed at preventing council leaders choosing for themselves who will ensure they are spending public money properly”.
But the government may have problems keeping this quiet. A recent study by the Institute for Government argues that this “is one of the coalition government’s bigger mistakes”. Which is saying quite something.
Currently the Audit Commission appoints the auditors, and then stands behind them statutorily and financially if a council or other public body seeks to challenge the auditors’ view that money is being misspent or insufficiently protected. Equally, the Audit Commission can back the public body if the auditors seek to rack up their fees unacceptably.
A succession of attempts have been made to create organisations which can oversee the work of other public bodies (never private, capitalist ones, please note): the Care Quality Commission (now in its umpteenth iteration, all costing a small fortune), the National Policing Improvement Agency and the NHS Modernisation Agency, to name but three. This attack on the Audit Commission seems as though it might be different. Although Audit Commission reports are sometimes used as a stick with which to beat publicly owned organisations, the principle of public audit is a sound one, and one that workers would utilise if in power. Watch this space – and whatever bits of the media you patronise – to see what happens next… ■