Sir John Bourn, Comptroller and Auditor-General who enjoyed wielding his new powers – obituary

Sir John Bourn in 2008 - Julian Simmonds
Sir John Bourn in 2008 - Julian Simmonds

Sir John Bourn, who has died aged 88, exercised formidable surveillance over spending in Whitehall for 20 years as the most powerful Comptroller and Auditor-General since Edward II created the office in 1314; but his reign was ended by financial excesses of his own.

A former senior MoD official who knew where bodies were likely to be buried, Bourn revelled in the authority granted him under an Act of 1983, promoted by Norman St John-Stevas, which made him an officer of the Commons, chosen by the Public Accounts Committee rather than the Government.

Bourn harnessed these powers to uncover and publicise staggering examples of waste, or worse; his old department, the Property Services Agency and the agencies handling benefits were regular targets. He estimated that inquiries by his National Audit Office saved the taxpayer more than £200 million a year, though far more went unrecovered. Several of his investigations led to prosecutions.

Taxpayers, Bourn maintained, were “customers of government”, entitled to good service. He identified poor standards and gaps in provision, warning in 1992 that no study had been made of the adequacy of Britain’s sea defences.

Bourn refused to sign off the accounts of bodies that could not show where the money was going; the Department of Social Security, Child Support Agency and National Insurance Fund suffered this indignity year after year. He refused to certify the accounts of the Legal Aid Fund for several years, having detected fraud.

Comparing best and worst practice, he asked why it cost one police force £89 to keep a prisoner in the cells overnight, and another £2,008.

Bourn identified recurring shortcomings: MoD procurements running billions over budget and years behind schedule; three-quarters of urban ambulances failing to respond to 999 calls within 14 minutes; and costly and ineffective computer management in the Health Service. He highlighted the cost of NHS staff accidentally injecting themselves, and the way “redundant” public employees were paid off, then rehired.

Tracking down public money became harder, he said, as businessmen who did not understand the rules were brought in to run new semi-autonomous agencies. As Whitehall reforms begun by Margaret Thatcher gathered pace under John Major, he warned that the potential for fraud was increasing.

Some of Bourn’s reports settled political arguments, for instance over the least expensive yard for building warships. Others started new ones, as when in 1989 he discovered that ministers had paid British Aerospace a secret “sweetener” of £38 million for taking Rover off their hands.

He demonstrated his independence most forcefully when in 1992 he insisted on checking “to my own satisfaction” whether a £4,700 payment by the Treasury to libel solicitors engaged by the Chancellor, Norman Lamont, had properly been made. Lamont had evicted a “sex therapist” from a flat at his Kensington home, a situation covered lovingly by the tabloids. Bourn’s digging unearthed other fees paid in respect of libel suits brought or faced by ministers.

Sir John Bourn, 2008 - Julian Simmonds
Sir John Bourn, 2008 - Julian Simmonds

Bourn gained financial oversight of the security services in 1993, and for six years was also Auditor-General for Wales. In 1994 he demanded further powers to track down fraud and incompetence after identifying £56 million of waste on the Pergau dam project, under which Malaysia gained an aid project of dubious value in return for buying British military equipment.

He was highly regarded in the worlds of accountancy and academia, chairing several professional bodies and in 1996 turning down the directorship of LSE, where he was a visiting professor and governor, despite a proffered £30,000 salary increase.

Under Major he was floated as a possible Inspector of Constabulary or Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, and in 2006 Tony Blair gave him the extra responsibility of policing the Ministerial Code in a fresh attempt to combat “sleaze”.

Such was Bourn’s influence that he stayed on 13 years beyond the normal retirement age. He would have continued, but in 2007 Freedom of Information requests exposed expenses claims on a heroic scale, in embarrassing contrast to the regime he applied to others.

Over three years Bourn, his wife and his secretary had run up bills of £365,000 for 43 foreign trips, remarkable for an official with little overseas business. Sir John and Lady Bourn had flown first class to San Francisco, Venice, Lisbon, Brazil (at a cost of £15,997), South Africa, the Bahamas and Budapest, usually staying at five-star hotels.

Over the same period he had claimed nearly £27,000 for 175 lunches and dinners – some with Whitehall mandarins – at the Ritz, the Savoy, the Dorchester, the Mirabelle and so forth; the bills for two ranged from £80 to £301. He had also been the guest at the British Grand Prix of BAE Systems, around the time that he – exceptionally – refused to release an NAO report on alleged corruption in the company’s Al Yamamah deal with Saudi Arabia.

MPs and civil service unions were outraged, and Private Eye put out a special issue, The Bourn Complicity. Bourn was found to have acted “in accordance with existing rules”, but the NAO said that he and his wife would no longer travel first class without parliamentary approval.

Facing a grilling from the MPs who had appointed him, Bourn stood down in January 2008. HM Revenue & Customs found him liable for £100,000 in unpaid taxes, including a fine, but the NAO paid.

John Bryant Bourn was born on February 21 1934, the son of Henry and Beatrice Bourn. He was educated at Southgate County Grammar school and LSE, where he took a First in Economics in 1954 and a PhD four years later.

Joining the Air Ministry in 1956, he rose swiftly. After a year at the Treasury he went to the MoD in 1964 as private secretary to the permanent secretary. Seconded to the Civil Service College in 1969, he returned to the MoD three years later.

From 1974 to 1977 he served in the Northern Ireland Office; five years back at the MoD followed, before a second spell at the NIO. In 1985 he returned to the MoD for the final time, as deputy under-secretary for procurement – the area where some of the most profligate spending would be identified.

Bourn’s appointment as Comptroller in 1987 stemmed from a trawl conducted by Robert Sheldon, Labour chairman of the PAC. In his first weeks, he qualified the accounts of the Export Credit Guarantee Department; noted that the MoD had doubled its staff overseeing naval refits when its dockyards were privatised; and highlighted fraudulent claims for job creation grants. One company claimed to have created 80 jobs; when an inspection found only 45, it said it was operating a shift system.

Realising its ways were under threat, Whitehall sought to keep Bourn in the dark. In 1988 he issued a stern warning to civil servants about withholding information after a Labour MP noticed a Ministry and Agriculture Fisheries and Food official on a train reading a document marked “Not for NAO eyes”. Two years later, the Cabinet Office was caught doing the same.

Bourn told the NHS it could make £500 million a year by selling redundant property; disclosed that there had never been a stocktaking at the Victoria & Albert Museum; found that most inner-city doctors’ surgeries did not meet basic standards; and asked why 85 per cent of the cost of new City Technology Colleges was being met by the taxpayer, not the private sector as intended.

He discovered that the £38.5 million privatisation of the Plant Breeding Institute had not brought the taxpayer a penny as it was not the government’s to sell; uncovered a £50 million rag trade tax fraud under which firms went into liquidation with the Revenue as sole creditor then restarted under a new name; and found that housing benefit fraud was costing £5 billion a year.

Understandably, the MoD had most to fear. Bourn criticised it for letting BAe take a £190 million windfall profit on land after purchasing the Royal Ordnance factories; reported that the Royal Navy could not say which of its ships were capable of fighting duties, and that crashes by low-flying RAF jets had cost £1 billion in a decade; and disclosed that the MoD had lost track of £6 billion worth of stores.

One remarkable fraud came to light in 1996. Bourn found that a former British embassy employee in Amman had stolen £330,000 over 21 years by claiming the pensions of dead diplomats. By the time he was asked to resign, he was diverting 23 pensions to himself. He appropriated five more after losing his job, being prosecuted only after the son of one “claimant” contacted the government on an unrelated matter.

In 1993 the World Health Organisation commissioned Bourn to carry out an audit which uncovered serious misuse of funds in its Brazzaville office. He found WHO’s background of cronyism and officials’ refusal to co-operate intolerable, and after two years refused to continue.

As chairman of the Accountancy Foundation Review Board, Bourn called in 2002 for the accountancy regulator to have powers to prevent an Enron-type scandal in Britain. He also chaired the World Bank’s multilateral audit advisory group. He was appointed CB in 1986 and KCB in 1991.

In 1959 John Bourn married Ardita Fleming, who died in 2018. A daughter also predeceased him and he is survived by a son.

Sir John Bourn, born February 21 1934, died November 22 2022