UK Politics

Commons 'should face National Audit Office checks'

Parliament
Image caption Risks remain to the Commons' reputation, says the report

The Commons should be subject to statutory checks by the National Audit Office to avoid a repeat of damage done by the expenses scandal, a report says.

There had been no "lessons learned" exercise and risks to the reputation of the Commons remained, the Institute for Government said.

It should move away from "governance of MPs, by MPs and for MPs", it said.

Commons Speaker John Bercow welcomed the report but said it was a "very brief study of complex issues".

'Failed checks'

Following the expenses scandal, the government rushed through interim changes to the system while a seven-month inquiry was carried out.

A new expenses system came into force for MPs after the general election and more details of claims are now being published.

But the Institute for Government said there remained "failed checks and balances" in the rest of the Commons administration, which is headed up by the House of Commons Commission.

The Commission, chaired by Speaker John Bercow, is also made up of the Commons leader and shadow leader along with three other MPs who are not ministers.

Some of its responsibilities are delegated to a management board of the Commons Clerk, five heads of Commons departments and one non-executive member.

'Lack of urgency'

The report says the new expenses system run by an external body - the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority - had been viewed as a "sufficient catharsis" by the Commons, which had not carried out a "lessons learnt" exercise.

But it said "weaknesses" remained in the way the Commons was run and there was a "lack of urgency in tackling remaining risks to the reputation of the Commons".

It said the NAO had no statutory powers to carry out audit and value for money studies on Parliament, in the way it has for other bodies.

MPs can agree to NAO reports on a voluntary basis, but the Institute for Government said that rule allowed them "to limit the scope of the NAO's work and to control publication of its findings".

The Commission itself should include someone who is not an MP and the report says the management board has only one outsider. "Good practice" suggested there should be at least two independent members, it said.

The report recommended that legislation be passed to give the NAO powers to carry out full audits which would be debated by the Public Accounts Committee, with some members of the public invited to attend.

The Speaker's office said "full-scope audits" were carried out by the NAO, although they were not statutorily enforceable.

The Institute for Government says putting them on a statutory footing would put the power in the hands of the auditors, not the Commons, and would allow the NAO to launch inquiries into any area they felt was not offering value for money.

The report notes that both Houses of Parliament value the principle of self regulation, which is why people who were not MPs or peers had been excluded from the running of the Commons.

But it says: "The consequence of this is that the House of Commons has effectively declared itself exempt from many of the standards that it insists on for other parts of the public and private sector.

"Recent events suggest that this model is not working for either MPs or the public."

'Real advance'

It also points out that Chancellor George Osborne had said in the Budget that the Royal Family had agreed to allow Civil List expenditure to be subject to NAO and Public Accounts Committee scrutiny.

"The House of Commons must surely now accept that these arguments apply equally to itself," it said.

The Institute for Government said there had been some "encouraging signs of change" in recent weeks - including a new five-year strategy which it said represented a "real advance", as it now aimed to increase public respect for Parliament - rather than just provide services for MPs.

It also said budgets for subsidised food and select committee's overseas travel had been reduced and there were changes under way to modernise the Speaker's office.

The report also recommends more staff for the Speaker and Commons chief executive to help them reform the Commons and that MPs with specific skills in financial management, "change management" and public or media engagement be given places on the Commission.

Commons Speaker John Bercow welcomed the report but added: "I would not agree with all the interpretation made in the report since this was after all a very brief study of complex issues.

"My commitment to reform of the way that the House of Commons works is well known. I am determined that the changes necessary to ensure that the House of Commons is valued as the central institution in our democracy are made."

He said the report acknowledged important changes had already been made adding: "These changes are just the start and I hope that the publication of this report helps spur further discussion within the House and outside."

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