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PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMISSION

Private Contractors

34. Mr. Bayley: To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission what assessment the commission has made of the adequacy of the resources available to the Comptroller and Auditor General to evaluate whether private suppliers of services purchased by public authorities are meeting the terms of their contracts and providing value for money.[2030]

Mr. Robert Sheldon (Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission): The commission regularly meets to assess the adequacy of the resources available to the Comptroller and Auditor General. Resources required to examine the economy, efficiency and effectiveness of services purchased by public authorities and provided by private suppliers are included in the estimates, but are not assessed separately. The Comptroller and Auditor General does not, however, have a guaranteed right of access to the records of contractors where the activities of Government Departments are contracted out. The then Chairman of the commission and I recommended to the previous Administration that the Comptroller and Auditor General should have such access and I hope that we can achieve that aim under the present Administration.

Mr. Bayley: I am grateful to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission for his useful response. Will he consider the position of passenger rail services which,

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as a result of privatisation, now attract a much larger public subsidy than when they were run by British Rail? Does the Chairman agree that the audit trail is inevitably much more complicated when one has to follow it through to contractors? Does he also agree that access to private rail operators' records is necessary if the Government are to ensure that value for money is achieved as a result of that increased public subsidy?

Mr. Sheldon: There is unquestionably a need for greater access. The Comptroller and Auditor General does not have access to contracted-out functions. In addition, he does not have the same rights of access to final recipients of European Union funds in the United Kingdom, although the European Court of Auditors does. That is a gap, and I shall continue to press for Government action to fill it.

Mr. Rowe: I welcome the right hon. Gentleman, whose chairmanship of the Public Accounts Committee has been long and distinguished.

I also welcome this opportunity to place on record for the first time in this Parliament that, as a Conservative Member, I share the right hon. Gentleman's view that there is a big gap in the Comptroller and Auditor General's powers. The capacity to follow public money and its effectiveness further than is currently the case is an indispensable part of an effective Public Accounts Committee and of the Comptroller and Auditor General's function. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will make every effort to urge the new Administration to take that on board.

Mr. Sheldon: I thank the hon. Gentleman for those remarks.

There was unanimity in the Public Accounts Committee on the need to follow public money into some areas where private contractors are involved. As the hon. Gentleman said, we shall have to make progress on that issue.

Role of the Commission

35. Mr. Campbell-Savours: To ask the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission what discussions he has had with the Comptroller and Auditor General on the role of the Public Accounts Commission.[2031]

Mr. Sheldon: Since becoming Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, I have not yet had discussions with the Comptroller and Auditor General. The role of the Commission is set out in legislation, as my hon. Friend knows.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: My right hon. Friend has been a Treasury Minister. He has been Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee for 14 years, and he has worked closely with the National Audit Office throughout that time. Does he agree that there is no better organisation--no more independent organisation--capable of carrying out a review of the nation's finances, especially with a view to establishing what the nation's liabilities are?

Mr. Sheldon: I fully endorse what my hon. Friend said about the National Audit Office. Its standing has

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undoubtedly grown during the past several years, and the people and accountants involved in it have the highest reputation in the country. However, in preparing their forecasts of the public finances, they will review the assumptions adopted for economic growth, unemployment and interest rates and the conventions used for projecting proceeds from privatisation and from those measures that are called spend to save. I believe that the reputation of the National Audit Office will be fully vindicated by the report that we shall shortly receive.

CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

Accounts (Surplus)

36. Mr. Flynn: To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, what factors underlie the surplus of £1.9 million in the accounts published in the Church Commission Report 1996.[2032]

Mr. Stuart Bell (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners) rose--

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Mr. Bell: May I assure the House that the thunder that is outside at the moment, rattling around the precincts of the House, is nothing to do with my appointment as Second Church Estates Commissioner?

In answer to my hon. Friend, the £1.9 million figure represents the unconsolidated surplus in the commissioners' own books. The actual consolidated surplus is £9 million.

Mr. Flynn: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his appointment as our official conduit to the Almighty, but may I address my remarks to the rather more worldly financial turmoil of the Church of England? Will he meet those organisations that are campaigning for recovery of Church funds through the parishes protection group, who were asking why we have not had the independent investigation that the Social Security Select Committee has asked for into the £1 billion lost fund of the Church of England and the £2.5 billion shortfall in the funds for clergy pensions?

Mr. Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. I have spent a weekend on the Queen Anne's Bounty and the First Fruits and Tenths, so I am edging my way into the high finance of the Church. Evidence was given to the Social Security Select Committee; the Committee has not raised further issues with the commissioners at this time. Clearly, any further submissions will be looked at and will be taken into account by the Church Commissioners.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: I also extend my welcome to the hon. Gentleman on his appointment to his important post.

When the hon. Gentleman considers that surplus in the recent accounts, will he look at the Pensions Measure 1997, which was passed in the previous Parliament? It will require all dioceses and parishes to pay all future pensions--a move that will place a severe strain on some

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parishes and dioceses and may make some unviable. If that is the case, will the hon. Gentleman consult on the subject of whether some of the future pensions in some specific dioceses should be paid from the centre?

Mr. Bell: The hon. Gentleman is right. The Pensions Measure received Royal Assent at Eastertime. The actual surplus figures reflect a programme of cutting expenditure and rebalancing the allocation of assets. The aim is to bring the commissioners' assets and liabilities into a more sustainable balance. On that basis--I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree--the commissioners can better preserve their support for the needier dioceses and parishes.

Relationship with Parliament

37. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, representing the Church Commissioners, if the Church Commissioners will review their relationship with, and accountability to, Parliament.[2033]

Mr. Stuart Bell: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. We should certainly wish to review the role of Parliament in relation to the Church and we should wish to begin with the Question Time which we have available by leave of the Speaker and the leadership of the House. Obviously, it is not enough to have a five-minute question spot in order to deal with all questions regarding the Church.

Mr. Mackinlay: With the greatest respect to the Church of England and the commissioners, may I invite my hon. Friend to consider that, in a modern democratic Parliament containing--at the very most--a minority of Members who are communicants of the Church of England, it is not sensible or right to have a parliamentary Question Time for this function? Even while the Church remains established, should not the commissioners come to Parliament and have their powers and jurisdiction repatriated to them so that they can make their own statutes? It is not the function of a modern Parliament to have questions answered relating to just one denomination: it is time for a review.

Mr. Bell: My hon. Friend is making the case for a disestablished Church. That is not a matter for the commissioners. We in this Parliament have to ensure that there is no disestablishment by stealth or by disorganisation. At the moment, Church and Parliament are as one; it would be for others to open any debate on the subject of establishment.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: I am reminded by a colleague that, when the Welsh Church was disestablished, the money went not to the Church but to the universities. I, too, welcome the hon. Gentleman to his responsibilities. We are grateful to the commissioners for coming to Parliament and talking to the Ecclesiastical Committee. It has proved an advance that the early stages of Church legislation should be considered by Synod rather than going through all stages in this House.

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Perhaps we might have a day's debate in a year or two on general Church issues, when the sort of point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) could be aired. We need to consider not only legislation but a wider review of the work of the Church--which has more to do with Bible than balance sheets.

Mr. Bell: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's comments. The distinction between Bible and balance sheet was no doubt clear in the minds of those who

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wished for my appointment. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for reminding us that Lloyd George disestablished the Church in Wales. Once it was disestablished, he forgot about it and went on to higher things.

I hope, during the years leading up to the millennium, for greater Church participation in this Parliament. After all, the millennium is the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ.

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