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Scottish Parliament Public Audit Committee

SCOTTISH PARLIAMENT PUBLIC AUDIT COMMITTEE

Contents:

Scope

Key Points

Background

Areas of Disagreement with AGS Reports

Written Evidence

Oral Evidence

Oral Evidence Briefing

Security Considerations

Checking Evidence in Advance of Publication

Publication of Committee Reports

Publicity

SG Formal Responses to Committee Reports

Clearance of SG Responses

Areas of Disagreement with Committee Reports

Progress Reports

Laying of Responses and Progress Reports

Parliamentary Debates

Scope

1. This section gives guidance on providing written and oral evidence to the Public Audit Committee of the Scottish Parliament (the Committee) and responding formally to any subsequent reports. The guidance is aimed primarily at the constituent parts of the Scottish Administration (i.e. the core Scottish Government (SG), the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, SG Executive Agencies and non-ministerial departments) and bodies sponsored by the SG. However, much of the guidance is relevant to other entities to which the Scottish Public Finance Manual (SPFM) is directly applicable and procedures consistent with the guidance should be followed as appropriate. General guidance covering SG Evidence and Responses to Committees of the Scottish Parliament is available on the SG Intranet.

Key Points

2. Any significant concerns over presentation, opinions and conclusions in AGS reports should be brought to the attention of the Committee in writing prior to any oral evidence session taking place.

3. Written evidence should specifically address each separately identifiable question / issue in turn in the same order as the written request from the Committee. Responses should be as focused and direct as possible.

4. Written responses to the conclusions and recommendations in AGS reports should follow the guidance on formal responses to Committee reports.

5. Accountable Officers should not attempt to justify policy objectives or Ministerial decisions.

6. The SG is required to respond to relevant conclusions and recommendations in Committee reports within 2 months of the reports being published.

7. SG formal responses should state explicitly whether or not the SG agreed or accepted - in part or in full - individual conclusions and recommendations. Responses should also include a summary of actions that the SG has already taken or intends to take with regard to the implementation of accepted recommendations.

8. It is the responsibility of the relevant Accountable Officer to ensure that accepted recommendations are implemented and that any undertakings given in the formal response are carried out.

9. The Committee has indicated that it will seek information from the SG on progress across a range of reports once or twice during each session of the Parliament.

Background

10. The Public Audit Committee is one of the mandatory committees established by the Scottish Parliament under chapter 6 of the Standing Orders. Its remit is to consider and report on the following:

  • any accounts laid before the Parliament;
  • or made to the Parliament by the Auditor General for Scotland (AGS); and
  • any other document laid before the Parliament, or referred to it by the Parliamentary Bureau or by the AGS, concerning financial control, accounting and auditing in relation to public expenditure.

11. In order to inform its deliberations the Committee may require relevant Accountable Officers and others (e.g. Ministers and Chairs of NDPB Boards) to provide written and/or oral evidence. The procedure normally adopted by the current Committee in relation to AGS reports - the main basis of Committee activity - is to ask the relevant Accountable Officers for written responses to AGS conclusions and recommendations and to any questions arising out of discussion by the Committee following briefings from the AGS. The Committee may then request additional written evidence and/or invite the relevant Accountable Officers to an oral evidence session. (Very occasionally the Committee may decide to go straight to oral evidence without asking for written evidence first.) Unresolved issues arising out of oral evidence sessions will be followed up in writing by the Committee. In cases where the Committee considers it appropriate to do so it will then publish its own report.

Areas of Disagreement with AGS Reports

12. Any significant concerns over presentation, opinions and conclusions in AGS reports should be brought to the attention of the Committee in writing prior to any oral evidence session taking place. Any such concerns should also be addressed in the Accountable Officer's opening statement at the evidence session.

Written Evidence

13. Written evidence should specifically address each separately identifiable question / issue in turn in the same order as the written request from the Committee, with the questions / issues being reproduced in bold in the response for ease of reference. Responses should be as focused and direct as possible but must also take into account the responsibility that Accountable Officers have towards the Parliament (and Ministers) to put relevant matters into their proper context. Written responses to the conclusions and recommendations in AGS reports should follow the guidance on formal responses to Committee reports - see paragraph 26.

14. All written evidence provided by Portfolio Accountable Officers to the Committee should be cleared with the relevant SG Finance Business Partner (or equivalent) and, where considered appropriate, the responsible Cabinet Secretary or Minister. Portfolio Accountable Officers and SG Finance Business Partners and, where considered appropriate, the responsible Cabinet Secretary or Minister should be given the opportunity to comment in advance on written evidence being provided direct to the Committee by the Accountable Officers of SG Executive Agencies, non-ministerial departments and bodies sponsored by the SG.

Oral Evidence

15. Under section 23 of the Scotland Act 1998 the Parliament may require persons to attend its proceedings for the purpose of giving evidence. Organisations may suggest which of their officials would be best placed to give evidence but the decision rests with the Parliament. It has been assumed for the purposes of this guidance that the Committee would normally require relevant Accountable Officers to appear as witnesses at any oral evidence sessions in connection with reports initiated by the AGS. (In certain cases Portfolio Accountable Officers may be required to appear together with Accountable Officers for relevant SG Executive Agencies, non-ministerial departments or bodies sponsored by the SG.)

16. Witnesses at oral evidence sessions may be supported by other officials but their numbers should be kept to a minimum. Accountable Officers should not attempt to justify policy objectives or ministerial decisions. This reflects the principle that the merits of government programmes and projects are primarily a matter for political debate and ultimately for Ministers to explain. The Committee should address any such questions directly to the responsible Cabinet Secretary or Minister.

Oral Evidence Briefing

17. Given the wide breadth of coverage of AGS reports no rigid structure for the form of the brief can be set. Indeed individual Accountable Officers will have their own preferences on the form. It will have to contain adequate background material for the Accountable Officer to familiarise himself / herself with the subject and should contain specific suggested lines to take in response to any likely criticisms, as well as the specific conclusions or specific recommendations in the report. Committee members may ask questions on other aspects of the report, however, and the brief should attempt, as far as possible, to anticipate such questions and provide suggested answers.

18. The Committee may question Accountable Officers on issues which have not been covered in the AGS report. A report's silence on issues or accusations in the public domain will be no guarantee against their being raised. Officials preparing briefing should therefore, depending on the circumstances of the case, alert Accountable Officers to the possibility and offer appropriate briefing.

19. The amount of background and supplementary material will vary depending on the Accountable Officer's personal knowledge of the subjects under discussion. Officials preparing briefing may therefore find it helpful to seek an early meeting with the Accountable Officer to discuss the AGS report and the form and scope of the briefing. Relevant finance officials should be invited to any such meeting.

20. The timetable for preparation of briefing should allow for comments by the relevant finance officials and reasonably early clearance by the Accountable Officer of the general form of the briefing and the line to be taken, and for the final brief to be submitted to the Accountable Officer in good time before the hearing and in accordance with his or her wishes. Following on from that, the Accountable Officer may wish to meet officials to discuss aspects of the brief. A final briefing meeting with officials should normally be held either on the morning of the hearing or a day or so before.

Security Considerations

21. The Committee's policy is to conduct its hearings, as far as possible, in public and to publish as much evidence as possible. However, the Committee is prepared to consider requests by the Accountable Officer to take evidence in closed sessions and that confidential evidence given in such sessions or in writing should not be published. Security or other classifications intended to restrict publication must be used only when absolutely necessary and then only on a selective basis. The Committee will not agree to withhold publication simply because it may be inconvenient for the organisation in question. Any requests for the Committee to hear oral evidence in closed session or consider written evidence on a confidential basis should be addressed to the committee clerk in the first instance. The Committee is required to formally agree to consider issues in private or on a confidential basis in advance of the evidence being submitted. For this reason, any such requests should be submitted as far in advance as possible.

Checking Evidence in Advance of Publication

22. Committee proceedings are recorded verbatim and, except where there are security considerations, published in the Official Report. Witnesses are not sent a draft transcript to check. However, anyone who has given evidence will, on request to the Editor of the Official Report, be given access to a draft of his or her own evidence - it is not possible to see anyone else's evidence - in advance of publication and corrections can be made subject to the approval of the sub-editors. Witnesses should ensure that they take the opportunity to check their evidence and submit corrections.

Publication of Committee Reports

23. Committee reports are drafted by the Committee Clerks. Accountable Officers will be given sight of strictly embargoed copies of reports 24 hours in advance of publication.

24. Prior to publication the lead business area should, in consultation with the relevant SG Finance Business Partner, do the following:

  • minute Ministers, including the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth, informing them of the impending publication, summarising the findings, and highlighting any issues that are likely to attract public interest; and

  • prepare a "line to take" (see below) for use in response to media inquiries.

Publicity

25. Responses to the publication of Committee reports should where possible avoid comment that could pre-empt formal responses to the reports. Media briefing may respond to criticisms contained in or engendered by a report but should make it clear that careful consideration would be given to the recommendations and that a formal response would be provided to the Committee in due course. Officials may also provide relevant factual information and correct any mis-statements of fact or interpretation in media coverage.

SG Formal Responses to Committee Reports

26. Under the terms of a protocol between the SG and the Scottish Parliament the SG is required to provide a formal response to relevant conclusions and recommendations in Committee reports via the relevant SG Accountable Officer within 2 months of publication. Responses should be prepared by the lead business area with primary responsibility for the subject matter in liaison with the relevant SG Finance Business Partner. The SG Finance Business Partner should ensure that the necessary work is being undertaken and monitor progress. The response should include the following:

  • in respect of each conclusion and recommendation, an explicit statement as to whether or not it is agreed or accepted - in part or in full. (The statement should be provided at the beginning of the responses to individual conclusions and recommendations and should, so far as possible, avoid the use of ambiguous terms such as "noted"); 
  • a detailed explanation of the SG's position where a conclusion or recommendation was not being agreed or accepted, either in part or in full; and

  • a summary of actions that the SG has already taken or intends to take with regard to the implementation of accepted recommendations. (Care should be taken to avoid making commitments that may not be achievable in the foreseeable future.)

27. In the unlikely event of a Parliamentary debate on a Committee report being held within 2 months of its publication and before a SG formal response can be finalised it will be necessary for the relevant Accountable Officer to provide a preliminary response.

28. It is the responsibility of the relevant Accountable Officer to ensure that accepted recommendations are implemented and that any undertakings given in the formal response are carried out.

Clearance of SG Responses

29. All SG formal responses to Committee reports should be cleared by the relevant SG Finance Business Partner, the responsible Cabinet Secretary or Minister and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth. Where it is considered appropriate to do so the Accountable Officer for a SG Executive Agency or non-ministerial department may provide the formal response to a Committee report. However, any such response would be subject to the same guidance on timetable, coverage and clearance - except that it would also require clearance by the relevant Portfolio Accountable Officer.

Areas of Disagreement with Committee Reports

30. The Committee may pursue any areas of disagreement raised in a formal response from the SG in correspondence with officials and/or Ministers and by requiring officials and/or Ministers to appear before the Committee in person. The Committee would write in the first instance to the Accountable Officer who should then consider the response with relevant Ministers. Ministers should respond on policy related issues leaving the Accountable Officer to respond on operational related issues. In the event of the Committee being dissatisfied with any part of the response(s) it has a number of options open to it i.e. pursue the matter further in correspondence; require officials and/or Ministers to appear before the Committee; refer to relevant subject Committees; and/or invoke a parliamentary debate.

Progress Reports

31. Undertakings to provide progress reports to the Committee on specific issues may be included in the formal responses to specific reports. In addition the Committee may seek progress reports on the implementation of specific recommendations included in one or more of its reports. In this respect the Committee has indicated that it will seek information on progress across a range of reports once or twice during each session of the Parliament. Current practice is for the Committee to agree which of its recommendations it wishes to see included in a progress report at the time it considers the formal SG response to a report. Accountable Officers will be notified of these issues in writing by the Committee Clerks. Any progress reports should be cleared by the relevant SG Finance Business Partners, Accountable Officers and Ministers.

Laying of Responses and Progress Reports

32. Responses, including follow-up responses, to Committee reports and progress reports should be laid before the Parliament. The full formal responses should be laid within the 2 months period whether or not the Parliament is in recess. In addition consideration should be given to whether any other written evidence would benefit from being laid. Guidance on Laying Reports before the Scottish and UK Parliaments is available on the SG Intranet.

33. The placing of copies in SPICe's Document Supply Centre and notification in the Parliament's Business Bulletin is all that is done as standard in order to bring laid documents to the attention of MSPs and the wider public. Consideration should be given on a case by case basis to whether additional publicity for responses and progress reports is desirable and arrangements made as necessary.

Parliamentary Debates

34. Parliamentary debates may be held on issues arising from Committee reports. Any associated briefing for Ministers should be cleared by the relevant SG Finance Business Partners and Portfolio Accountable Officers and copied to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Employment and Sustainable Growth.

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Page Published / Updated: May 2011