“I still get angry – and that is the word for it, angry – 10 years into the role, when I see badly-thought-through programmes and wasted public money,” says outgoing watchdog chief Sir Amyas Morse. “And the reason I’m angry is because the citizen ends up picking up the tab. They are the ones who end up suffering.”
For almost a decade, as comptroller and auditor general – the head of the National Audit Office – it’s been Morse’s statutory duty to keep an eagle eye on the spending of central government departments, holding ministers and civil servants to account for cost overruns, project mismanagement and profligacy with taxpayers’ money.
He doesn’t have far to look. As he prepares to leave his post in May, Morse’s final public speech at the Institute for Government last week included a damning list of failures: Crossrail costing £2.8bn more than forecast; changes to probation costing £467m to put right; the smart meters fiasco that will cost at least £500m more than originally estimated; and the Ministry of Defence’s latest unaffordable and unsustainable 10-year equipment plan going over budget by at least £7bn. And that’s just a selection from the past few months.
Morse looks back in anger at the billions that could have been spent on vital services, wasted instead through what he calls “inappropriate bravado” on the part of government ministers, lording it over cowed civil servants, behind an increasing amount of secrecy and spin. “We don’t need people jumping out of an aeroplane in the dark with a parachute of taxpayers’ money,” he says.
A proud Scot – his only meeting with Theresa May was a “brief conversation” at a No 10 Burns Night last year – Morse cares passionately about public services. While his upbringing has contributed to his concern for fairness, it’s his decade at the watchdog, to which he came from a senior position in consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers via the MoD, that has fuelled his rage over the wasteful ways of too many government ministers. “I really realised that society belongs to us. We’re all paying for it.”
Public money is finite, he points out. There is no magic money tree. When money is lost in one place, it’s taken away from another programme, usually one that’s easier to cut. Every wasted £1bn, he says, is enough to run NHS England for three days, fund 625m A&E attendances, 135m day cases in hospital, or 4m ambulance attendances.
Morse has warned the government that it needs to invest more in the NHS and social care, to meet the needs of an ageing population. In 2016-17, the UK spent just over £170bn on health and social care – more than 10% of GDP, but less than the 11.2% of GDP Germany spent in 2015 on health alone. …”