The Role of Accounting Officers: A Perspective from the United Kingdom

By Glicksman, Brian | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

The Role of Accounting Officers: A Perspective from the United Kingdom


Glicksman, Brian, Canadian Parliamentary Review


The Canadian Federal Accountability Act created the new office of "Accounting Officer" following recommendations contained in the Gomery Report and other recent studies. In March 2007 the Public Accounts Committee adopted a "Protocol for Accounting Officers". This report was concurred in by a majority of members of the House of Commons in May. The idea to create Accounting Officers was borrowed from the United Kingdom. This article outlines how the office works in the UK.

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I spent nearly six years as a Director in the Treasury of the United Kingdom with the title Treasury Officer of Accounts", a long-standing title which goes back to the mid-19th century. It forms a link back to the times of the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who introduced wide-ranging reforms of our public accounts during the Victorian era. Before I describe the work of accounting officers in the modern era I think it is worth mentioning that this reform was introduced as a partnership between Parliament and the Treasury of the day.

A joint committee of Parliament and the Treasury developed the new accounting arrangements, which were then given statutory form through the Exchequer and Audit Act of 1866. The joint committee was called the Committee on Public Accounts which, to this day, retains a Treasury Minister, the Financial Secretary, as an ex officio member. I believe the committee is unique among the United Kingdom Parliamentary Select Committees in having a Government Minister as a member. Normally, members of Select Committees are drawn solely from the backbenches. The presence of a Treasury Minister on the Public Accounts Committee underlines the commonality of interest between Parliament and the Treasury in seeking to promote good financial management--and in uncovering poor financial management.

These days the convention is that the Financial Secretary only participates once in the committee's proceedings--immediately after being appointed, and then only for a brief 15 minutes or so, leaving the committee to get on with its business in the same way as other select committees. However, the Treasury Officer of Accounts sits with the committee at all its hearings, and occasionally at private sessions, to help the committee with its business, if necessary.

This little digression about the relationship between the Treasury and the Public Accounts Committee, makes the point that the process of accountability is inextricably linked to improvement in financial management. Inevitably, relations between Parliament and the executive can sometimes become a little fraught but both we and the committee nevertheless try to ensure that we make positive use of their work.

The UK System of Accounting Officers

The Accounting Officer concept has recently been introduced in Canada after some debate and I have been asked to speak about the UK system of Accounting Officers, their role and their relation to Parliament. I know very little about the arrangements in Canada so I will restrict myself to describing the arrangements that we have in the UK. Whether these have any relevance to Canada is for others to judge. I would only say that it would obviously be dangerous to assume that, just because the title of the post is the same, then everything else must be the same too. Clearly much will depend on the context in which Accounting Officers work and the powers that they have. There may well be important differences in these respects between our countries. Also, as I am now retired, any comments I make are in a personal capacity. I no longer speak as a representative of the UK Government.

Parliamentary Controls

Over the centuries, Parliament has secured many rights in relation to the executive. A few are relevant to the position of Accounting Officers.

First, the Government needs Parliament's approval to raise money through taxation and it needs Parliament's approval to spend money. …

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