Conservatives risk good governance with plans to axe the Audit Commission

A version of this post appeared on the Liberal Conspiracy

I was astonished to learn today that Eric Pickles will be axing the Audit Commission. Or more precisely, according to the leaked memo on the FT site, the commission will be privatised. Pickles is notorious for being ideologically wedded to cuts as shown from his time as leader of Bradford Council.

From the Telegraph’s one-sided report you’d think the Commission were a bunch of no-good layabouts responsible for, among other things, the terror of the fortnightly bin collection which keeps all good Tories awake at night.

No doubt mistakes have been made by the Commission at times, and they have overpaid some top staff – but which public or private sector organisation hasn’t in recent times?

In my three years on the Audit Committee at Brighton & Hove City Council I have been struck by the conscientious, helpful and detailed work Audit Commission staff have done for the council. The Commission has also helped to make the performance of public bodies more accountable, such as with the OnePlace site which barely got the chance to get going before being canned.

All the staff are experienced and understand local government – because that’s what they do. They also are public servants and take their duties seriously. It must be especially galling that these highly skilled, dedicated staff have been given the axe in a way that, without any consultation or debate, goes against all that might be called ‘good governance’.

How on earth does Pickles think we are going to get the same kind of scrutiny of our public bodies from corporate auditors, inexperienced in local government, and who failed to prevent a litany of corporate fraud and failures? Furthermore, why are private-sector corporate auditors going to be any cheaper to hire in than the Audit Commission who didn’t need to make a profit from their work?

As public bodies continue to be rocked by the cuts and upheavals being rained down on them, I don’t think that now is a sensible time to also completely uproot the key scrutiny and overview body which works to ensure services are robust and money well spent.

If Pickles wanted some genuine savings he could have simplified the framework used to audit local government services. There would be plenty of people, including those in the Commission, with good suggestions on how to streamline the audit framework. Instead, as I understand it, he’s ditched the entire framework and now the Commission too.

I’m appalled by this political meddling in what is an arms-length commission to hold local government to account. This is yet another ill-judged, ideological and unnecessary cut which will end up costing us all a lot more in the long term.

(Updated 14/8/10 to include a link to the Liberal Conspiracy, and include paragraph on saving through simplifying the audit framework.)

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