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Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): I will be brief and, I hope, not too repetitive. It is rather amusing for those of us who served on the Committee considering the Bill to think back to our early sittings, right at the beginning of the parliamentary Session, when we were suggesting amendments. We were told by the Economic Secretary and her colleagues that we must not amend the Bill because the Government needed it in a hurry. However, once it left the House of Commons, they seemed to mislay it in the House of Lords. Recently, it resurfaced, and the Bill that was so urgent that it could not be amended is being brought before the House in the week before the summer recess.

This is typical of the rather inadequate reasons that the Government have given for not accepting sensible amendments to the Bill. We have heard those reasons repeated tonight I do not know how often. I despair of the ability of some Ministers to understand anything outside their brief.

It is perfectly obvious to most people that the purpose of the Bill is as defined in the long title. Yet the mantra has been repeated again today, "It is not in the purpose of the Bill." I am surprised that you did not descend on the Minister from a great height when she said that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because she was taking over from

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you the power to decide what is permissible in the House of Commons. Perhaps she is after Madam Speaker's job--I had not thought of that before. Despite what you may say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Minister says that we cannot do it. It does not matter what you say, Mr. Deputy Speaker--the Minister has spoken.

The Minister's complaint is that we are dealing with audit. But as my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) asked, who brought audit into the Bill, who incorporated it into the long title and who incorporated it into clause after clause but the Government? The arguments that have been made on certain aspects of the Bill are, to my mind, fraudulent.

Now, there is Sharman. Like the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), I am participating in the review--although with no great hope or expectation--simply because we cannot afford to be accused of not participating. However, I do not believe that anyone outside this House should have the right to determine what powers it needs. It is effrontery for the Executive to tell Parliament that we should not have the right to inspect them. For those who are being monitored to say what can be monitored would be mildly comical if we saw it in a Whitehall farce--yet that is what is being proposed.

If the Minister wants to establish confidence in the Sharman exercise, will she undertake that, as it will be a House of Commons matter, it will be decided, like other such matters, on a free vote of the House? I have no doubt that, in the spirit of good will that she professes, she will be eager to give us that reassurance. If she would like to do so in an intervention, it would shorten my speech because I would sit down immediately. She should not feel inhibited or restrained. I ask her to save the House from the rest of my speech by giving us that assurance. The Minister's silence reinforces my worst suspicions and fears, although I am sure that, ultimately, they will be unjustified. However, I am twitching slightly about the Government's intentions.

At the heart of the matter--and we must constantly return to it--is whether we have a parliamentary democracy and parliamentary accountability. Access is fundamental to that--on all Government expenditure and income. If Parliament does not have that access, it cannot exercise proper control over the Executive.

Parliament cannot carry out those duties without the work of the NAO--as the present Chairman of the PAC, its previous Chairman, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and other members of the Committee confirm. However, the Treasury denies the NAO the rights that it needs. Those rights will be determined by the Treasury. My right hon. Friend and I suggested to Ministers that, as a halfway house solution, such matters could be dealt with on an ad hoc basis in the short term.

As the Minister is aware, I listen carefully to everything that she says. The Treasury now tells us that we must proceed case by case, but in Committee the Minister dismissed that idea. She said that we could not deal with such matters piecemeal. However, she covered her back by saying that we could not deal with them as a whole either. That left us somewhat bemused as to whether we would find a resolution in that impasse.

Such negotiation for access is inadequate for us--for Parliament; we have to go begging to a pathetic little quango that represents no one. For six months, someone's

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appointee had the right to hold our auditor to account. I would have sacked the chairman and the chief executive of the Housing Corporation. They kept the NAO away from the Focus housing association. They knew that a £1.5 million fraud had been perpetrated against Focus, yet they would not let the parliamentary watchdog in.

Mr. Cash: The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case, as indeed did the Chairman of the PAC, my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis). The matter is the essence of parliamentary democracy and parliamentary accountability. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, if the Treasury is obdurate and stubborn, the remedy is to mount an organised campaign on both sides of the House? Against the Whip, the House should decide that it will insist on those measures. There should be sufficient publicity that the newspapers can add their comments.

Mr. Williams: The hon. Gentleman has been a Member of the House for a considerable time. My right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne and I have been Members for even longer. It is a long time since I believed that Back Benchers were likely to stage an uprising against the power of the Whips. That happens on few occasions. The patronage and power of the Whips is so great that Back Benchers live in dread of them.

Mr. David Davis: I intervene again on the right hon. Gentleman--I am tempted to refer to him as my right hon. Friend--to prevent him from travelling further into error. Before the previous intervention, he mentioned the prospect of sacking the chairman of the Housing Corporation. He could not, of course, have sacked the permanent secretary at the then Department of the Environment--Mr. Andrew Turnbull, who is now a permanent secretary at the Treasury.

Mr. Williams: We all know of the right hon. Gentleman's devotion to the cause of the PAC. I will not venture further on the point because we should not comment on civil servants who cannot speak in this place.

There is so much nonsense behind the defences that have been made. I do not know whether Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the Minister who replied to the debate in the House of Lords, was badly briefed or whether he does not understand this place. He has never been a Member of this place, so he may not understand the processes of democratic accountability. He said:


this point was touched on by the Chairman of the PAC--


I have never heard such a constitutional absurdity. It must have been in my noble Friend's brief because he could not have been daft enough to think it up himself. As he pointed out in another part of his speech, there are more than 200 executive NDPBs and they are only a third of all NDPBs. The NAO produces 50 reports a year. Does anyone seriously suggest that the most important control by Parliament is a value-for-money study? The NAO

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deals with individual aspects of the actions of individual organisations. If the NAO does not have the fundamental right of access where required, we neuter its role.

I do not want to delay hon. Members, because I realise that we shall not receive a reasonable response to our arguments. I merely want to record that this is far more than a debate about auditing, it is about the power of Parliament against the Executive. In this Bill, the Executive are winning.

8.30 pm

Mr. Brooke: I shall be extremely brief in this, my first contribution to the entire proceedings on the Bill. My only qualification for making a contribution at this late stage is that I hold a masters degree in business administration. During Parliament's 735 years, only two MBAs have sat in a Cabinet. After the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), I am confident--as I have been before, but it is confirmed this evening--that he will unquestionably be the third.

This debate is part of a great roll of parliamentary history, a fact that has been alluded to by several speakers in the debate. The right hon. Member for Ashton- under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon) referred to the National Audit Act 1983, and that falls into the roll-call of legislation from 1866, 1921 and 1957.

Another event occurred in 1983. It was on the Monday of holy week when the then Prime Minister dined out the then permanent secretary to the Treasury and asked him over dinner whether he had any regrets. He said, "Prime Minister, if you had not asked me, I would not have dreamed of referring to any regret at all. But I do have a single regret. In all my time in the Treasury, the Board of the Treasury has never met." The Prime Minister asked for further information and learned that the board's own roll-call had been in 1677, 1827, 1856 and 1919. By the end of the meal she said, "I agree that the Board of the Treasury has not met since 1919, but it will meet before you cease to be permanent secretary." Before the election, on Maundy Thursday of holy week in 1983, the board met.

This is a great event. The fact that only 20 of us have gathered in the Chamber to take part in this debate makes the point, in a sense. If this were a lesser event in this great Parliament's history, no doubt the place would be crowded. There are only a limited number of people who take the closest possible interest in this issue, and I shall not go over all the points that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden made so admirably. Those who were not in the Chamber when he made them missed a considerable parliamentary contribution.

I listened closely to the Economic Secretary defending the Government's position on the ground that it was fundamentally founded on the Sharman review, and I heard my right hon. Friend say that if he had believed that the review was going to be used in that way, he would not have been prepared to serve on it. It is an absolute Exocet to the Government's position if the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee was put on the review body under what must be regarded as a slightly false premise.

My judgment is that of a visitor to the debate who has taken part only at its end. The London business school has been in existence for 36 years, and it is regarded as the best business school in the world outside the United

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States; many American business schools go back 100 years. At all stages of the Bill's proceedings, it has been worth making the case for the London business school to examine this issue. It is a classic instance showing where the role of Government should be played out in terms of the relationship between the Executive and Parliament.

Many in the House will have listened to people reading out football results, and there is a particular tone of voice in which a result is read out, to suggest in advance that it was a draw. On the basis of what I have heard this evening, it is Haltemprice and Howden 4, Welwyn Hatfield 0. I appreciate that there will be a return match, but at the moment the Government are a long way behind.


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