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Audit Commission closure 'may be delayed further'

31 March 11 16:27
Audit Commission chairman Michael O'Higgins
By Jon Manel
PM, BBC Radio 4

The Audit Commission - England's spending watchdog which the government vowed to abolish as part of its "bonfire of the quangos" - could still exist in 2015, the BBC has learned.

The commission was informed last year that it would be one of 192 public sector organisations to be closed.

The commission's own chairman, Michael O'Higgins, said it was taking longer than expected to "light the match".

The government says it is "committed to disbanding" the commission after 2012.

The Audit Commission checks up on the accounts of local authorities, emergency services and the NHS in England.

Michael O'Higgins, told BBC Radio 4's PM programme: "The latest we've been told by officials is that they were looking at the latter part of 2014, possibly the end of 2014 for the Audit Commission itself.

"The audit practice, which is the bulk of the commission, might well have transferred before then".

And he claims his organisation could survive for even longer than that:

"If somebody gave me decent odds, I might have a small wager on 2015... it's a possibility."

The Audit Commission has previously been accused of being desperate to keep itself "going for longer" but Mr O'Higgins insisted that is not the case.

He said he does not want his organisation to still be functioning in 2015.

"There's no desire on our part to be here for any longer than is necessary to ensure a transition to effective new structures".

He added: "The complexity of the functions that we do has meant that it has taken officials quite some time to work through the implications of transferring some of our functions and of creating a new structure for the delivery of local audit services."

'Decentralised regime'

The government announced the Audit Commission's abolition last August and said "the aim is for a new system to be in place from the 2012-13 financial year".

The Department of Communities and Local Government, which is in charge of abolishing the quango, declined to answer questions on whether the spending watchdog will still exist in 2014 or 2015.

A spokesman told the BBC: "The government is committed to disbanding the Audit Commission after 2012.

"The government has already taken significant steps to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of auditing arrangements including the abolition of the Comprehensive Area Assessments and the stopping of the Commission's research and inspection activities.

"Proposals for establishing a new decentralised, local audit regime that will replace the Audit Commission have now been published for consultation."

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has previously accused the Audit Commission of become a "creature of the Whitehall state" and that "it cannot live on past glory".

He has claimed that abolishing it will save millions of pounds a year.

It is clear that the Audit Commission is certainly now preparing to be around for longer than had been expected.

One well-placed insider told the BBC that it may well have to start taking on new staff to fill key roles, as people leave to take new jobs elsewhere.

Since its abolition was announced, the quango says it has made 414 members of staff redundant.

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