October 25, 2007 / 10:30 AM / in 10 years

Auditor steps down after spending row

LONDON (Reuters) - The chief auditor, the man charged with stopping government waste, announced he was stepping down on Thursday after criticism of his own lavish spending on foreign travel and top-notch restaurants.

<p>John Bourn, the head of the National Audit Office, in an undated photo. Bourn will step down early next year after 20 years in the job to avoid any conflicts of interest with other posts he holds, his office said on Thursday. REUTERS/National Audit Office/Handout</p>

Sir John Bourn, 73, who for 20 years served parliament by making sure public money was not frittered away on frivolous projects, said he would retire as comptroller and auditor general next January to avoid a conflict of interest.

The announcement follows weeks of criticism of Bourn’s high spending, including more than 330,000 pounds of taxpayer money spent on 45 trips to destinations such as Mauritius, Brazil and the Bahamas in the past three years.

Bourn’s wife frequently accompanied him on his first-class travels, including a weekend in Venice, although she didn’t go with him when he went to places such as Moldova and Kazakhstan.

In details released by Bourn’s National Audit Office last month in a bid to be open, it was also revealed that Bourn entertained the directors of accounting companies and defence contractors at hotels such as the Ritz, Dorchester and Savoy, spending 1,500 pounds on meals alone in one six-month period.

HOSPITALITY

Two weeks ago, parliament opened an inquiry into the role of the auditor-general after the Guardian revealed details of Bourn’s expenses and the fact he received hospitality from firms such as BAE Systems, a defence contractor involved in a controversial Saudi Arabian arms deal.

The National Audit Office had defended Bourn’s spending, saying it was important that the auditor-general showed others the same hospitality that they showed him, and explaining that the Mauritius trip was part of a “peer review” of auditors.

However, after the Guardian’s revelations the audit office did announce that Bourn would no longer take first class flights or travel with his wife without parliament’s approval.

In announcing his retirement, the audit office said Bourn was stepping down to avoid a possible conflict of interest since he also serves as chairman of the Professional Oversight Board.

From next April, both the board and the National Audit Office will have a corporate auditing and oversight role.

“It would be incompatible for me to hold the positions of both comptroller and auditor general and chairman of the board,” Bourn said in a statement.

“I have therefore decided to relinquish the position of comptroller and auditor general at the end of January 2008.”

In the wake of Bourn’s retirement, the government said it would make “legislative space available” to enact reforms to how the National Audit Office is run “if necessary”.

It also proposed that Tim Burr, the deputy comptroller and auditor general, take over from Bourn. That appointment will depend on parliamentary approval.

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