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The Earl of Mar and Kellie: My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the orders. I am happy to pay tribute to the Government for incorporating the sensible recommendations made by my noble friend Lord Sharman in his report Audit and Accountability for Central Government. I regret that he is unable to be in his place today.
The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, in his responseI am sure he will recallrecognised that this was a valid point despite the difference in organisation of public and private sectors. Does the noble Lord still consider that to be valid? If so, what steps have been taken in the past year to ensure that the second recommendation has been put in place? Furthermore, what are the Government's plans to ensure that this is carried out?
My second question is simpler. It is about Network Rail and its borrowings. There is some confusion about the public sector status of the Network Rail borrowings. Do the orders help to resolve that confusion?
Baroness Wilcox: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his clear, speedy and helpful explanation of the three orders. We on these Benches, as did the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, for the Liberal Democrats, welcome these orders which enhance the role of the Comptroller and Auditor-General in the auditing of government accounts and non-departmental public bodies.
As the Minister explained, the first order makes the Comptroller and Auditor-General the statutory auditor for 25 non-departmental bodies, of which he already audits five. The transfer of powers for the remaining 20 will occur as the contracts with the
The Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 (Audit of Health Service Bodies) Order 2003 makes the Comptroller and Auditor-General responsible for auditing special health authorities and that includes the Dental Practice Board.
Together these orders move towards a situation where the Comptroller and Auditor-General has greater statutory power. We applaud the Government's response to the report of the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, Audit and Accountability for Central Government. We believe that these measures will create a clearer audit process, while at the same time maintainingas is essentialfull accountability to Parliament.
There is, however, a price to be paid for accountability. That is the burden which is imposed upon the audited bodies. It is vital that these burdens are kept to a minimumand I am grateful to the Comptroller and Auditor-General for his assurances that he will strive to do that. I can only stress the importance of his keeping his eye on the ball with this issue, and not allow the auditing process to add unnecessarily in time and money to the burdens of those affected. The last thing we want is for the auditing process to cost the taxpayer more money than it saves. Can the Minister give me one last reassurance on the matter, given that we are ready to agree that these draft orders be approved?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Earl and the noble Baroness for their reception of these orders. I can deal quickly with their questions. The answer to the question of the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, about audit committees is that the Government are preparing an audit committee handbook for government departments. We hope to issue that shortly. It will cover the point raised in debate on the report.
On the question of Network Rail, I simply challenge his view that there is any confusion. The Comptroller and Auditor-General's view is that the accounts of Network Rail should be consolidated in the accounts of the Strategic Rail Authority. They will be under generally accepted accounting practice. The order does not affect that issue.
I can gladly confirm to the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, that the protocols which have been entered into with the Comptroller and Auditor-General are based on the requirement that there should be no extra expense to non-departmental public bodies or indeed to special health authorities involved in these changes.
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