Auditors shave pounds 775m from taxpayer's bill

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The Independent Online
Savings for the taxpayer of pounds 775m over the past three years were announced yesterday by the National Audit Office, the public-spending regulator.

Presenting his annual report, Sir John Bourn, head of the audit office, said pounds 240m had been saved in 1995, bringing the three-year total to pounds 775m.

Of the pounds 240m, more than pounds 34m came from cutting social security fraud. Another pounds 20m was saved by making universities take a more professional approach to buying supplies.

The Immigration Service was also told to pull up its socks and to pursue the airlines, especially those from the Third World, who had not paid their dues. This yielded a further pounds 1.6m.

Examination of the dealings between Customs and Excise and the Isle of Man showed more than pounds 1m mistakenly paid to the millionaires' tax haven.

One of the main recipients of the NAO's wrath, not for the first time, was the Ministry of Defence. Of the 25 major procurement projects underway, 90 per cent have failed or are likely to fail to meet their completion dates. The average delay, found the NAO, was 3.1 years.

Quarry House in Leeds, the new NHS executive headquarters, complete with swimming pool, also came in for criticism. Somebody in Whitehall, says the report, should have had their knuckles rapped for giving the go-ahead to a new building which will result in 2 per cent less office space than before.

The audit office is continuing its drive into education, which accounts for pounds 28bn of public money in England and pounds 2bn in Scotland and Wales. More than 1,000 grant-maintained schools fall within its remit, as well as further and higher education colleges, and the Student Loans Company, which the report says is unlikely to recover pounds 125m because borrowers have either died, or are unlikely to earn enough to pay back the loan.

While the NAO examines European Commission expenditure in the UK, it does not have the same rights as the much-maligned auditors in Brussels. They are able to trace public cash all the way to its final destination - something denied to Sir John and his colleagues, who, once the money is paid over into private hands, must give up the chase.