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Mr. Sheldon: As always, I was much entertained by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke). He is right to draw attention to the House's original intention to have some control over the expenditure of public money. The right to audit Government effectively was supposed to have been settled a long time ago--back in 1861 when Gladstone set up the Public Accounts Committee. The Exchequer and Audit Departments Act 1866, which established the Comptroller and Auditor General, followed on from that.
As my great friend John Garrett has shown in his great work, over the years the Treasury hijacked the rights of the House of Commons. Therefore the return match, as the right hon. Gentleman called it, was brought back into focus, and the result was the National Audit Act 1983. That was essential, to re-establish control by the House.
Access by the CAG should be the result of a right, and should not involve permission. He should not have to seek the permission of the people whom he is auditing; he should have an unqualified right of access--and I should not have to ask for that.
In 1983, the argument for the need to follow public money wherever it went was put strongly. However, I understand the anxieties expressed by some people at that time, because the National Audit Office was untried and did not have a record of achievement; it had only just been set up. However, it now has 17 years' experience, and we have seen its work and that of the CAG. The NAO constantly produces splendid reports, and 50 value- for-money reports have been published, so its reputation has never been higher. Given that fact, one might have expected the Treasury to be a little more relaxed about such matters and accept the next stage in the process, which would have been to re-establish what had been decided 140 years ago.
It is sad that the Treasury reacted in such a fashion. The opportunity to consider this issue is not likely to recur for another 20 or 30 years, or even more--it is only because of the Bill that we have had the opportunity to consider it now. This is the only chance that we have to resolve the problem. I am sure that the Sharman review is splendid and will provide a fair amount of information,
Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): We are debating an unusual issue. I begin where the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) left off when, in a powerful speech, he made the point that this is a matter between Parliament and the Executive. It is not the normal type of party political issue that we spend so much time debating in the House, usually fairly uselessly.
Parliament is on one side and the Executive are on the other. That is so much so, that before we came into the Chamber, I thought that we might find a string of those whose names have been loosely or closely associated with the forthcoming vacancy for Speaker speaking on behalf of Parliament, so as to demonstrate the strength of their feelings about the need for Parliament to control the Executive. I was therefore somewhat surprised to hear the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) speak. I thought that it might be a comeback attempt on his behalf, but perhaps that is not the case.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I am afraid that some of us made the mistake of coming in to listen to the debate. Of course that is always a problem in the House of Commons, because some of us are frequently persuaded that we might have to protect Parliament, even if we do so silently.
I am the third member of the Public Accounts Committee to speak in the debate, and this is one of the rare issues on which there is, at least in the Committee, complete cross-party agreement on what should be done. I hope that Parliament will pay attention to the fact that the Public Accounts Committee is united and determined on this issue. After all, those of us who are members of the PAC are the watchdogs of Parliament's rights over the Executive. I hope that hon. Members who are not members of the PAC will pay attention to the fact that there are such strong feelings about the issue, which are an important pointer to their best interests, as well as ours.
It is extraordinary that the Government are taking the line that they have taken--not least because to quite a large extent they seem to understand the importance of giving the National Audit Office the right of access to areas to which it might not previously have had access. That point has been made before, but the Government deserve to have it made again. The previous Government set up many non-departmental public bodies without giving the NAO proper access. On the whole, the present Government have behaved very properly and provided the NAO with access when a new NDPB is set up.
It is therefore a particular surprise that the Government are taking the line that they appear to be taking tonight. A point that has been made already, but which needs to be emphasised, is the fact that it is important for the Government themselves that the NAO should be in a position to look into all Government accounts. There is nothing worse for a Government than discovering a long way down the track how poorly their money has been spent. First, the later they discover that the more embarrassing it is for them, and secondly, by that time
Finally, I wish to make a point about the Economic Secretary's arguments. She seemed to think that the NAO was in danger of acting in grossly irresponsible way and, if given the sort of powers that we are discussing, suddenly wishing to pry into every individual's financial affairs. She seemed to think that it might act as it has not acted so far, just for the hell of it, or just because it was interested in Mr. Bloggs' personal finances. Frankly, I do not think that the NAO has ever acted in that way, and the Economic Secretary's idea that it would act in an overburdensome way towards small business means that she apparently thinks that if it were given such powers, its future behaviour would be totally unlike its behaviour in the past. She should not have made that assumption, because it is not realistic, and I hope that she will withdraw it when she winds up.
Mr. Cash: There is no need for me to make a long speech at this stage. The arguments have been presented well by some speakers who are extremely distinguished in this House. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Mr. Sheldon), a former chairman of the PAC, is in alliance with my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), its current chairman, and other PAC members have weighed in as well.
As a member of the House's other main Scrutiny Committee--the Select Committee on European Scrutiny--I am conscious of the fact that it is essential that Scrutiny Committees are listened to. If the juggernaut of Government can steamroller over the views of Scrutiny Committees--which is, in effect, what is happening today--one is bound to ask what on earth is going on. I do not need to go into the intricacies of the argument that has already been deployed. I think I am right in saying that the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams) is the Chairman of the Select Committee on Liaison--[Interruption.] Apparently, he is not. None the less, the Liaison Committee recently produced an important report on the Whips' power, and on whether they should have their present degree of control over Committees.
Mr. Cash: I accept your guidance with pleasure, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In a nutshell, the matter before us raises a question that is at the heart of our democratic system and the system of accountability. It is easy for people to make grandiose statements and then, somehow or other, for their remarks to float on the wind. The reality is that this matter raises such questions, and it is inconceivable that the amendment should not be accepted.
Mr. Flight: I just want to make the point that the Bill sets up Partnerships UK, with the intention of expanding considerably the private finance initiative activities in public-private partnerships. I hope that those partnerships are successful, as they are frequently the most efficient way of delivering to the public services that are now the duty of the Government. If, over the next decade, many areas of public service are to be handled on a mixed public-private basis, it is fundamental that Parliament have the power to follow by audit the money involved. It is a new, changed territory, to which, as matters currently stand, access for audit is strictly limited.
Our debate on Lords amendments does not touch on the PFI part of the Bill. However, if the Bill is passed without the National Audit Office having the ability to prod and examine in great depth what happens in public- private partnerships, Parliament will have surrendered a crucially important power.