Sir John Bourn, then an officer of the British House of Commons, was holder of the office of Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) and, as such, head of the National Audit Office. He took up his post in 1988 after a series of senior appointments in the Ministry of Defence and the Northern Ireland Office. In May 1998 he was awarded an Honorary Degree from the Open University as Doctor of the University. He was also the first Auditor General for Wales until Jeremy Colman took over this role on 1 April 2005.
On 25 October 2007 his office announced that he would step down early in 2008 after 20 years in the job to avoid any conflicts of interest with other posts he holds.
The decision followed criticism from opposition parties and the media over Bourn's high spending, such as a recent overseas trip that ran up taxpayer costs of more than £16,000. His expenses and conducts have frequently been highlighted in the satirical magazine Private Eye. In September 2008 the magazine published a special report, 'The Bourn Complicity', alleging that under his leadership numerous government expenditure failings escaped scrutiny while Bourn (frequently accompanied by his wife) went on unnecessary and extravagant foreign trips, and accepted lavish hospitality from contractors.
Bourn said in a statement he would retire on 31 January 2008 in order to avoid any conflict with his post as chairman of the Professional Oversight Board, a body that oversees professional accountancy bodies.
Bourn has been a visiting professor at the London School of Economics since 1983, and is also a governor of the School. In March 2006 he was appointed "independent advisor on ministerial interests" by Tony Blair, to advise ministers on potential clashes between their public duties and private affairs, and to investigate any claims that the rules have been broken. However this appointment was revoked following the controversy around the C&AG's travel expenditure.
The National Audit Office carries out a small amount of work in the field of international audits, worth about £4m in revenue per year, and which according to Private Eye make a net loss. Bourn came under criticism for the extent and extravagance of his overseas travel arising from this work. Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show that, in the three years to March 2007, Bourn made 43 overseas visits; Private Eye claimed this was far more than the revenue generated would justify, and that in many cases more junior staff should have gone instead. On 22 of these trips, Bourn was accompanied by his wife Ardita. He claimed £336,000 in travel expenses in addition to his £164,430 salary.
Records show that he stayed almost exclusively in five star hotels, such as the Hotel Sacher in Vienna, the Astoria in St Petersburg, the Gresham Palace hotel in Budapest and the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh. Bourn's flights were exclusively first class on long haul and business class on shorter visits. He also travelled to Croatia, Turkey, Jordan and Bulgaria for discussions or the launch of twinning projects involving co-operation between the NAO and other state audit offices. The records show that the couple enjoyed a week-long stay in the Bahamas in 2006 to attend the Caribbean Organisation of State Audit Offices Congress.
A spokesman for Bourn claimed that he normally stayed at hotels which were "recommended by the host organisation", however an investigation by The Daily Telegraph suggested that on several of the most expensive trips, no such recommendations were made. Bourn's expenses emerged after a freedom of information request by Private Eye magazine, which said that his expenses were far in excess of what a senior civil servant would have been permitted.
It emerged that Bourn rode to and from his office in Victoria, London in a chauffeur driven vehicle at the taxpayers' expense. The financial cost of this is unknown due to it being funded directly from the consolidated fund and therefore not being included within the NAO's accounts. Additionally, the personal benefit to his wife of NAO-funded travel had not been fully accounted for. When Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs investigated these as taxable benefits, Bourn was found liable for 6 years of unpaid taxes - but the outstanding sum of about £100,000 (including a fine) was settled by the NAO out of taxpayers' money.
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