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Ministers 'kicking the Audit Commission's corpse'

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Local government ministers have been accused of making “completely false” claims of excessive spending by the Audit Commission.

England’s spending watchdog is set to be scrapped by 2012, saving £50m a year, but its former communications director David Walker, left, warned that its abolition would result in a “hugely greater sum”.

Mr Walker told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that communities secretary Eric Pickles had scrapped the quango in a “rush to have a headline”.

And he said junior local government minister Bob Neill had been “naive” to make claims of disproportionate spending on events at Newmarket racecourse and on press officers.

“Either Mr Neill knew or he didn’t know - and if he didn’t know, he should have known - that these charges were completely false,” Mr Walker said.

“It shows how naive some of these ministers seem to be about organisational life in the private as well as the public sector.”

Mr Walker said the commission regularly needed to hold meetings with staff and clients, and Newmarket offered “value for money” on non-race days.

He’s obviously got some kind of brief from his teenage special adviser

David Walker

Asked about Mr Neill’s description of the watchdog’s “army of 48 press officers”, he said: “It’s the apparent naivety and malevolence of that. An organisation with 48 press officers would need to be pretty large.

“The Audit Commission isn’t that big - we in fact, at the time he said that, had two press officers. He’s obviously got some kind of brief from his teenage special adviser.”

Mr Walker added: “The puzzle to me is they’ve announced our abolition - why go on kicking the corpse?”

Mr Pickles announced in August that he planned to scrap the body.

Mr Walker said: “The irony of this is that we were, just before the abolition announcement, proposing to the Communities (and Local Government) Department efficiency savings over two years totalling some £50m.

“Eric Pickles comes along and says ‘I’m going to abolish them and save £50m’.

“It turns out, when you look at our redundancy obligations and pensions and so on, the cost of abolition could end up to a hugely greater sum.”

Ministers should have taken a “little more time” to consult and possibly save the taxpayer millions of pounds, he added.

Mr Neill responded: “The figures suggested today are costs for closing down the whole Audit Commission, but that is not the plan we have proposed. We want to see its successful in-house audit practice continue to thrive, but as private sector organisation in the open market.

“This will lead to public savings in the region of £50m in operating costs plus the return expected from the sale of the audit business, which will significantly reduce any liabilities.

“We made the decision to disband the Audit Commission because the cost saving and to create greater transparency in local government where councils are free to choose independent, external auditors from an open field.”  

  • The Guardian reported the contents a letter the commission’s chief executive, Eugene Sullivan, to the permanent secretary in Mr Pickles’s department and the National Audit Office warns that the costs include £75m in redundancy packages and £15m in contracts for rented properties. There is also an estimated £400m in pensions liabilities. The letter is said to warn that it could even be under a legal obligation to raise its fees charged to local authorities to conduct audits to cover the costs of closing down.
  • 1 Comment

Readers' comments (1)

  • Roger

    Act in haste and repent at your lesiure seems to be an increasingly appropriate catchphrase for this coalition we now have.
    Of course the Audit Commission will few friends if any and that is as much down to its own heavy handedness as to anything to do with the cost of running it.
    Once again, 13 years of pent up anger and frustration has seen something culled more out of revenge and than any form of long term vision - I was going to say planning, but we all know they hate that as a function too!

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