Committee of Public Accounts (Public Accounts Committee)

38.65The Committee of Public Accounts (commonly known as the Public Accounts Committee) was first appointed in 1861.1 Standing Order No 148 now provides for its examination of the resource accounts and of ‘such other accounts laid before Parliament as the committee may think fit’. The number of members of the Committee is fixed at not more than 16. One of its members is by convention a Treasury Minister, who receives agendas but does not attend meetings. Its Chair must be a member of the Official Opposition.2

The committee is principally concerned with whether policy is carried out efficiently, effectively and economically, rather than with the merits of government policy. Its main functions are to see that public moneys are applied for the purposes prescribed by Parliament, that extravagance and waste are minimised and that sound financial practices are encouraged in estimating and contracting and in administration generally. The committee has a particular duty to look at excess votes (votes which seek approval for spending above what had been authorised in prior estimates), the questions on which cannot be put under the provisions of Standing Order No 55(3) unless the committee has reported that it sees ‘no objection to the sums necessary being provided by excess vote’.3 It is also notified when a government departmental minute has been laid before Parliament indicating that the department intends to take on a contingent liability or make a gift in excess of £300,000, and where the Government proposes not to follow normal practice in relation to contingent liabilities (see para 7.34 ).

The committee bases its work on reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General, presented to Parliament under the National Audit Act 1983, s 9, together with those on the appropriation and other accounts laid before Parliament. The committee has examined the accounts of the BBC and Bank of England to reflect the broader remit of the National Audit Office. The committee also considers memoranda submitted to it by the Comptroller and Auditor General (either as own-initiative exercises or in response to requests made by the committee4 ), and Treasury Minutes containing the Government's observations on previous committee reports. The Comptroller and Auditor General is required to take into account any proposals made by the committee in determining the National Audit Office's programme of economy, efficiency and effectiveness examinations.5 The committee has also reported on the Northern Ireland Accounts, with the assistance of the Comptroller and Auditor-General (Northern Ireland).6

The Comptroller and Auditor General (see para 6.44 ) attends all meetings, and regularly appears (as does the Treasury Officer of Accounts) as a witness, and is thus able to participate in exchanges with other witnesses. Other witnesses are normally the permanent secretaries of government departments, who (as accounting officers) have a direct and personal responsibility for their departments' expenditure, and other accounting officers. Less frequently, the committee takes evidence from other kinds of witness to provide context for its questioning of accounting officers.7

The Chair is ex officio a member of the Public Accounts Commission (see para 6.45 ). The Chair also has to give agreement to the motion for an Address moved by the Prime Minister to appoint a new Comptroller and Auditor General (see para 6.44 ).8

Footnotes

  1. CJ (1861) 130.
  2. SO No 122B(8)(f) and CJ (2009–10) 292. It had previously been the convention that the Chair of the Committee was a member of the Official Opposition.
  3. See para 34.21, Excess Votes; CJ (1981–82) 479.
  4. Since 1991, such memoranda may be exchanged with departmental select committees, CJ (1990–91) 559; SO No 137A.
  5. National Audit Act 1983, s 7A, as inserted by s 18 of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011, places a duty on the Comptroller and Auditor General to ‘have regard to any proposals made by the Committee of Public Accounts' (replacing a similar duty under s 1(3) of the 1983 Act).
  6. This function is now statutorily devolved to the Public Accounts Committee of the Northern Ireland Assembly, but during periods when the Assembly is suspended, reverts on an informal basis to the Committee of Public Accounts in the House of Commons.
  7. Public Accounts Committee, Session 2016–17, Oral evidence: Restoration and Renewal, 21 February 2017, HC 1005.
  8. Budget Responsibility and National Audit Act 2011, s 11. For a wider description of aspects of the Chair's functions, see HC Deb (1986–87) 109, cc 245–49.