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An absolute disgrace indeed. So what is National Audit Office going to do about it? Probably book into the nearest five star hotel that British Council can find in Libya if 'Private Eye'is right about the British Council-FCO style life-style apparently enjoyed by its boss and his wife!

Private Eye writes (11-24 May 2007 edition):

Bourn freebie

"Why does 73-year-old comptroller and auditor general Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office since 1998 carry on working long after other top public officials have called it a day? Information unearthed by Private Eye using the Freedom of Information Act suggests it might be because the job has long enabled Sir John, whose task is to ensure taxpayers' money isn't wasted, to live the high life at the expense of, er, the taxpayer.

"Although the NAO (motto "helping the nation spend wisely") might be thought a largely domestic operation, in the three years up to this March Sir John managed 43 separate foreign trips, on 22 of which he was accompanied by his wife Ardita.

"Among Sir John and Lady Bourn's crucial engagements were a four-day trip to Mauritius for a "peer review" of the island's audit office and, in one six week period in 2005, successive trips to India, Morocco and Canada to discuss training projects and a "global working group". All told, in the past three years the total travel bill for Sir John's private office tops £336,000, of which £76,000 went on Lady Bourn's fares. The NAO insists that "Lady Bourn attends where necessary to meet the expectations of the host in line with established practice in the diplomatic service and her presence is greatly appreciated".

"Except that Sir John is the country's top public beancounter, not a diplomat. And what little is known of the trips on which Lady Bourn has travelled suggests it isn't all work, work, work either. In February 2005 the Bourns stayed a couple of days extra in Auckland, New Zealand, once the Commonwealth Auditors Conference had finished. Their trip to a two-day "working group on privatisation" in Brazil that September was extended by three days.

"But most pleasant of all was a sojourn in the Bahamas six months ago to attend the Caribbean Organisation of State Audit Offices Congress. The conference ran from 16th to 19th October, but the couple didn't travel until the 18th. After a tough day's work on the 19th they took a much-needed break under the Caribbean sun ( a balmy 80 C in October) before flying home five days later.

"Sir John also made 12 single-night trips for all but one of which, oddly, Lady Bourn's wifely diplomatic presence wasn't required. The NAO said it couldn't name the hotels the Bourns stayed in - but they are known to do things in style. When the NAO audited the International Atomic Energy Authority for nine years until 2003, on is regular visits to its Vienna HQ Sir John always insisted on staying in a suite at the city's finest hotel, the Sacher, costing several hundreds of pounds a night.

"The same goes for flying. Until it was grounded four years ago, Sir John made trips to the US on Concorde, eschewing the much cheaper Jumbo "in order to manage competing demands in the UK and USA", according to the NAO.

" Some taxpayers, and maybe even the Public Accounts Commission that oversees the NAO, might ponder the value of Sir John's globe-trotting. Did he really need to attend the Caribbean auditors' get-together (with his wife) rather than stay at home and work in Britain's public finances? Or was he enticed by a few days' subsidised holiday after a single day's business? And weren't many of the meetings quite technical and more suited to one of the NAO's numerous directors or specialists?

"Commenting on suspect dealings elsewhere recently, Sir John quoted Lord Nolan on standards: 'Holders of public office should take decisions solely in terms of the public interest. They should not do so in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family or their friends.'

"It was presumably such high principles that a year ago persuaded the Prime Minister to appoint Sir John as his
'independent adviser on ministerial interests' in the wake of David Blunkett inappropriately obtaining first-class rail tickets for his then squeeze Kimberley Fortier. Six months later Sir John and Lady Bourn were sunning themselves in the Bahamas at public expense - first class all the way, of course." (Private Eye No 1184 11 May-24 May 2007)

The NAO is also British Council's external auditor .......... Don't hold your breath therefore for the NAO to be asking too many searching questions of BC - or for Lord Nolan's principles on providing freebies to relatives of future Libyan leaders to be top of this NAO Comptroller and Auditor General's in-tray if this Private Eye story is even half-way accurate ........



An excellent blog which, quite rightly, concentrates on just one, very important, area of this whole, messy freebies for the well connected/relationship building issue.

I thought your readers might be interested in how difficult it has actually been to get this information from the 'transparent and accountable' British Council.

My original enquiry was made back in January. Had I not known that the British Council's original response was incomplete I would have had to accept what they told me. I was, however, aware that the British Council had sponsored a young learner and it was clear that this student did not fit into any of the categories given in their original response. I told the British Council that the information given was incomplete but they continued to insist it was correct. It wasn't until I told them which class to look at that they finally admitted their error and provided the information you have used in this blog. What sort of organisation is it that requires you to know the answer before you ask the question?

I have to ask myself whether the failure to provide this information was a genuine mistake or whether it was intentional.

You have picked up on serious ethical issues that could - indeed, should - cause the British Council severe embarrassment. Yet there are still further issues surrounding this provision of free courses to, amongst others, the child of a high ranking official. It is very difficult for a foreign organisation to get the necessary permission to provide education services in Libya and, given that the country is well known for corruption, one cannot but question why these particular sponsorships have taken place, especially when the British Council's own "Code of Conduct" is consulted. Paragraph 10 states: "In conducting its business the British Council will not seek advantage by giving or receiving any improper gifts, entertainment or payments. You must be sure that your own conduct would be justifiable under the scrutiny of the press, the public or competitors and would withstand examination by those to whom you are accountable. ... You must not therefore give to, or accept from, any British Council contact any gift or service, in cash or kind, which has commercial value and could be viewed as an inducement or a reward for business." and "In the British Council's dealings with commercial contacts and public officials you are expected to act with honesty and integrity. You must avoid offering or giving them inducements, tips or similar payments."

Enough said.

I am still awaiting further clarification on my enquiry because the response so far provided has proved to be inaccurate, vague and slow. Watch this space...


I don't think that the Council has really even tried to hide the exclusiveness of its school in Tripoli, perhaps due to the difficulty of even getting into the country, they thought that no one would be looking? The new centre is located outside of the centre in the most affluent area of town, though this is nothing new to the Council. When they were just starting up a few years back, they were so desperate to hire that I saw them turn a blind eye and take on proselytizing evangelists. In my experience with the Council, the list simply goes on and on.

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