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Madam Speaker: No. I have not been informed by Ministers that they seek to make a statement. Perhaps I can refer the hon. Lady to the Order Paper for Thursday of this week when, on a motion for the Adjournment, the very subject in which she is interested will be there for debate by the entire House.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will be aware that hon. Members from both sides of the House may seek to amend on a non-political basis the Government Resources and Accounts Bill so as to guarantee the rights of the House. You will also know that the Bill's long title says that it will

It has been intimated that there is some confusion at an official level and that some officials think that we are circumscribed by the long title. Will you confirm that the reason why the long title is the last part of a Bill to face amendment is to ensure that the long title can be brought into line with amendments that have been made in Committee and on Report?

Madam Speaker: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me a little notice of his point of order. The House knows, however, that the Speaker never gives hypothetical rulings. By inviting me to give a firm ruling at this stage on the technical scope of the Bill, he is effectively inviting me to prejudice decisions that have to be made by the Chairman of the Standing Committee and not by me. I suggest that he uses his skill, his experience and, I know, his ingenuity as well as his knowledge of the Clerks in the Public Bill Office, to secure the objectives that he has in mind.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. You will be aware from reports in the written press and the broadcast media of elderly patients having food and water withheld as a result of the lack of national health service beds. Those reports will have been met with horror and disbelief inside the House and beyond. Given that they have come from eminent consultants and from patients' groups, there needs to be a full inquiry. Should not the Secretary of State for Health ask to make a statement on that matter, and could not time be made available for it during today's proceedings given that people must now wonder what sort of culture we live

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in when all the stops can be pulled out to provide a dome for our entertainment but when the necessities of life are withheld from our elderly patients?

Madam Speaker: As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, I shall not comment on the political issue that he has raised, but I can tell him, as I am sure he knows, that no Minister is coming to the House today to make a statement on it. May I respectfully draw his attention and that of his hon. Friends to the fact that, tomorrow, they can table parliamentary questions to the Secretary of State for Health, for answer before the House rises for the Christmas recess?

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. At about half-past 10 this morning, a Cabinet Office report relating to the north-south divide was given to the media. At 4 o'clock this afternoon, it was still not available in the Vote Office, although throughout the day the media have been asking Members with a constituency interest in the north for their comments. Could you in future ensure that the Cabinet Office makes such documents available to Members at the same time as it does to the media?

Madam Speaker: It probably is an important document, and I shall consider the matter. This is the first time I have been made aware of the document, but if the hon. Gentleman leaves the matter with me, I shall make some inquiries.

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Orders of the Day

Government Resources and Accounts Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

4.19 pm

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Andrew Smith): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill is a major milestone on the way to full implementation of the biggest reform and modernisation of the management of the country's public finances since Gladstone's time. Resource accounting and budgeting is a vital part of our modernisation agenda and demonstrates the Government's commitment to introduce best practice accounting methods in line with the code for fiscal stability.

Before I go into the detail of the Bill, let me say that it is good if we can describe what Parliament does in everyday terms, wherever possible. That is, I have to say, more of a challenge with this Bill than it is with most. We are shifting the focus of how we plan and judge Government spending from looking at the cash that we spend each year to looking at what the public get for their money in that year. We are looking not only at the supermarket receipt, but at what is in the shopping trolley.

Cash controls will, of course, remain, but we shall also have proper measures of the resources used up, not just of the money spent. The accounts will be more recognisable to those familiar with private sector accounts; for example, the equivalents of profit and loss, cashflow and a balance sheet. One could say that we are putting the Government's accounts on a more business-like footing.

The Bill delivers four major reforms. First, it introduces resource accounting and budgeting into the Government accounts and modernises the operation of other aspects of the Exchequer and audit Acts. Secondly, it improves the way in which Parliament votes on and scrutinises public spending, with proper measurement of the full economic costs of Government activities, better treatment of capital spending and systematic reporting of the allocation of resources to objectives.

Thirdly, the Bill provides enabling legislation for the preparation and audit of consolidated accounts for the whole public sector. Fourthly, it enables us to set up Partnerships UK, a new body designed to make the public sector a better client in public finance initiative and public-private partnership deals.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington): I am having difficulty with the Bill. Having spent 11 years on the Public Accounts Committee--I believe that I left the Committee in 1991--I have taken note of a statement by the National Audit Office, which is headed by an Officer of Parliament, the Comptroller and Auditor General. The statement says that, as currently drafted, the Bill threatens to weaken the Comptroller and Auditor General's independence and his relationship to Parliament. I regard that as a major intervention by the National Audit Office.

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From what I hear from my hon. Friends, who are all in favour of a shift to resource accounting, they, like me--I have spent the weekend reading papers on the subject--are profoundly concerned about the speed with which the Bill is being introduced, given that there are clear reservations throughout the National Audit Office. The NAO is concerned that Departments are not ready to accept the legislation because they have not fulfilled all the requirements placed on them and on which the Comptroller and Auditor General reported to the Public Accounts Committee. What is happening? If the NAO is resisting, why are we proceeding with the Bill in this way?

Mr. Smith: Obviously, I defer to the experience and knowledge of my hon. Friend and our colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee. They have made an invaluable contribution to the development of the resource accounting and budgeting approach. However, it is important to remember that the whole purpose of the Bill is to place the accounting and budgeting process on a resources basis, not to change the audit arrangements. The aim is broadly to import existing audit arrangements and powers--no more and no less--into the new approach. I am happy to undertake to continue discussion with the Public Accounts Committee and to listen carefully to anything that the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General have to say about the specific points raised by my hon. Friend.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the development of resource accounting and budgeting has had to pass through certain trigger points, according to which we are on course. Should any Department not be ready at trigger point 3, which is currently being audited by the NAO, it will have to wait a year before it can have audited resource accounts. However, I have no reason to expect that to happen.

Work on this approach to accounting and budgeting has a fairly long, bipartisan history. It began in 1994, under the previous Government, and has been taken up with enthusiasm by the current Government. I hope that our proposals to make the change to resource accounting and budgeting will be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House. The House will be glad to hear that implementation is on schedule and that all Departments are on course to prepare audited resource accounts for the current financial year.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Given Ministers' enthusiasm for redesignating Government expenditures as tax credits, will the Chief Secretary confirm that the Bill confers on him and his colleagues unfettered discretion in future to fiddle the figures?

Mr. Smith: Absolutely not. An attack couched in that tone by an Opposition Member is unfortunate in respect of a Bill that has a bipartisan history and gives effectto principles which hon. Members on both sides acknowledge make good sense. The figures produced as we carry out our responsibilities under the Bill will be subject to the normal audit arrangements. The standards to be applied are generally accepted accounting practice and have been informed by the advice of the independent Financial Reporting Advisory Board. That should give the

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hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. The Bill is not about fiddling the figures, but about putting our accounts on an accruals, rather than a cash, basis. Cash controls currently in operation will remain, and it will be possible to reconcile the accounts to cash control totals. There is no question of fiddling the figures.

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