Committee of Public Accounts

The History and order of reference of the PAC

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a number of financial committees were established in Parliament, but real and permanent change was slow.  Within the House of Commons there existed a small group of interested members of Parliament who pressed for improvements and in 1857 one of them, Sir Francis Baring, successfully called for a Select Committee on Public Monies. 

The Committe, which Baring was to chair, secured the support of Gladstone and Palmerston, and was set up to inquire into the "Receipt, Issue and Audit of Public Monies in the Exchequer, the Pay Office, and the Audit Department".  The Committee's efforts formed the basis for the financial reforms of the next decade, and it was described by a Head of the Treasury a generation or more later as "having practically decided the form in which Parliamentary control over expenditure should be established." It recommended that the system of appropriation accounts in use for the services was extended to other civil departments, with acounts to be compiled annually and considered by a committee of the House of Commons nominated by the Speaker.

Despite this development, progress in implementing the recommendations was slow, with Disraeli, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, not minded to act.  Only in 1859, with William Gladstone in this post did the idea of a Committee of Public Accounts receive the necessary support, and in 1861, Gladstone moved for a committee and the motion was carried to create the Committee of Public Accounts.  The following year the House of Commons passed a Standing Order to make the appointment permanent.  The Standing Order which exists today ( No. 148) differs little from the original. It states that the Committee is appointed for:

“for the examination of the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by Parliament to meet the public expenditure, and [since 1934] of such other accounts laid before Parliament as the Committee may think fit”.

In 2007, the Committee of Public Accounts celebrated the 150th anniversary of its inception by commissioning a short publication entitled:

Constitution and powers

The Committee consists of sixteen members, of whom a quorum is four. The members are nominated at the beginning of each Parliament (before December 1974, Members were nominated at the beginning of each Session) on the basis of a motion made by a Government minister, after consultation with the Opposition. Changes in membership are made from time to time during the Parliament, often because Members have become Ministers or front-bench opposition spokesmen.

The party proportions of the Committee, like other committees, are the same as in the House, and at present this gives 9 Labour members, 5 Conservative members, and 2 minority party members (at present from the Liberal Democrats). One of the members is the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who does not normally attend. The Committee chooses its own chairman, traditionally an Opposition member, usually with previous experience as a Treasury minister. Divisions in the Committee are very rare, generally occurring less than once a year.

The remit of the Committee

Following the passing of the National Audit Act 1983, the main work of the Committee has been the examination of the Reports made by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) on his value for money (VFM) studies of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which Government Departments and other bodies have used their resources to further their objectives.  About two-thirds of these reports, of which there are around 60 a year, are taken up by the Committee, either by taking oral evidence or occasionally by sending written questions to the Government departments concerned.  The Committee's objective is to draw lessons from past successes and failures which can be applied to future activity by the department examined or more generally.

The Committee does not consider the formulation or merits of policy; it focuses on value-for-money criteria which are based on:

• economy: the minimising of costs of resources used for an activity, having regard to appropriate quality

• efficiency: the relationship between the output in terms of goods, services or other results and the resources used to produce them

• effectiveness: the relationship between the intended impact and the actual impact of an activity or product