Accounts Commission - our changing role

The Accounts Commission has played a pivotal role in Scottish public life over the last 40 years.

It has changed – as local government has changed through successive reorganisations. But its central function remains the same - as independent watchdog, and catalyst for improvement in the way around half of all public money is spent in Scotland.

The Commission started life in 1975, a year of enormous upheaval in local government.  Around 250 burgh, town and county councils -some dating back to medieval times - were swept away to be replaced by 65 regional and district councils and 20 joint boards.

It was ahead of its time – the equivalent body in England, the Audit Commission (abolished by the UK Government in 2015) took a further seven years, launching in 1982.

Under the old system, councils were audited by local accountants, often based in the same town. Their annual reports were of variable quality and were sent directly to Scottish Secretary.

A new model was required but a balance had to be struck between local authorities, democratically accountable through elected councillors and the Scottish Secretary, appointed by the elected UK government.

The solution was the Commission for Local Authority Accounts in Scotland (a bit of a mouthful, it was later shortened to the Accounts Commission). Its members were appointed by the Scottish Secretary but they had statutory independence enshrined by the 1973 Local Government Scotland Act.  This also gave independent powers to the head of the new audit service, the Controller of Audit.

In theory the new system was fine. In practice, it was to prove problematic largely because of political differences between Conservative Scottish Secretaries and Labour-run councils. This tension was evident even before Commission members were appointed.  Labour MP Hugh Brown telling Parliament he feared they may be the Scottish Secretary’s “hatchet men” in the middle….

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The first challenges