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Mr. Hogg: And incompetent.

Mr. Tipping: I am happy to live with that last insult, but not selfish and discourteous.

Mr. Hogg: And incompetent.

Mr. Tipping: I shall not engage in that debate. It was a lively debate, and it gets livelier as we proceed. I believe that the motion is for the benefit of all Members. I do not believe that it is selfish or discourteous. It is right that all Members should have the opportunity to listen to the Chancellor and to the response, and to vote in deferred Divisions if they wish.

Question put:--

The House proceeded to a Division.

Mr. Tipping: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thought that this would be a deferred Division.

Madam Deputy Speaker: My apologies to the House. It must have been the liveliness of the debate.

Mr. Hogg: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Once a Division has been called, I think that it has to be proceeded with.

Madam Deputy Speaker: That is not the case. The Division will be deferred.

Division deferred till Wednesday 28 February.

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Vote on Account 2001-02

12.38 am

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): I beg to move,

I have no doubt that we shall have an equally lively debate on this motion. Standing Order No. 55(2)(a) covers votes on account with questions to be put not later than 6 February. The purpose of the motion is to amend the Standing Order so that a vote on account resolution can be taken with the spring rather than the winter supplementary estimates.

The procedure is to meet the requirements of the House when it is necessary to take estimates at a different time than is normally allowed for in Standing Orders. This procedural change is part of the process of introducing resource accounting and budgeting to allow Parliament an additional three months to scrutinise 1999-2000 resource accounts before voting Supply for the first time, and to produce a more accurate reflection of Departments' needs for the early months of 2001-02 by basing the proportion on account for resources and cash on the anticipated provision for 2001-02 main estimates. I commend the motion to the House.

12.39 am

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): We have no objection in principle to the change of date.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): Oh really!

Mr. Letwin: I speak for the official Opposition. I may represent forces unseen rather than those visible in the House.

We have no objection in principle to the alteration of the date, which was prefigured in either 1997 or 1998 and is a necessary consequence of resource budgeting. As the Financial Secretary is well aware, resource budgeting commands the support of and was originated by the Conservative party. While we are at it, resource budgeting is a matter of consensus between all parties, which is not something that recommends itself to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth).

Mr. Forth: My hon. Friend says that the alteration was prefigured in 1997 or 1998. Can he guess, imagine or speculate as to why such an important change to Standing Orders is being considered by the House now?

Mr. Letwin: No, I cannot. My right hon. Friend makes the good point that it would undoubtedly have been better had the House had time to consider the issue. Indeed, we could have had upwards of two years to do so. Although it is remarkable that we have been given only a few days, I would not wish to oppose the substance of the change of date.

I reiterate two points that emerged during proceedings on the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 and which, alas, do not seem to be reflected in the documents that underlie the debate. First, the Supply estimates for

27 Feb 2001 : Column 855

2000-01 remain wholly obscure to any ordinary intellect and it is impossible for any ordinary Member of the House to discern from them what on earth is going on. It was presumably Gladstone's intention when he devised the system that it should illuminate rather than obscure the nature of Government accounts. It has remained the case, however, that the presentation of those accounts obscures rather than illuminates. To put it mildly, that is regrettable.

It will take time to change the system under which we have all laboured for some years. Although I do not accuse the Government of having invented it, no Member of the House has the slightest idea of what is voted for what and why or the size of any increase, and the Select Committees that inspect those matters do so in a manner that unfortunately leaves much to be desired.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): Shameful.

Mr. Letwin: This is not a party matter and, as the hon. Gentleman says from the Liberal Benches, it is ultimately shameful that we all sit here, year after year, voting on account and, ultimately, voting on the estimates themselves without having the slightest idea of what we are collectively doing.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): As an extraordinary intellect, perhaps my hon. Friend can explain why he supports changing 6 February to 18 March in paragraph (2) of Standing Order No. 55? Why is such a change suddenly wholly defensible? Can he explain the significance of the extra 40 days?

Mr. Letwin: Yes, I think I can, although I cannot explain the substance of the Supply estimates, which is a more serious problem. My hon. Friend is a member of the Treasury Committee and I suspect that he cannot explain that to me, either. The 40 days, the Financial Secretary will agree, are occasioned by the fact that the timetable set for resource accounting some years ago envisaged a termination date approximately 40 days later than that used in cash accounting. I believe that that will occur only in the first year of resource accounting, although I am subject to correction.

As we began the practice of resource accounting and have supported it throughout, and as it is material to implementing certain of our most important policies--for example, restructuring the approach to pensions--we want to give a fair wind to whatever needs to be done to make resource accounting work.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): My hon. Friend said that most Members do not have the slightest idea of what Ministers intend. Does he think that the Minister whom he faces this evening is acting knowingly or from a position of nescience?

Mr. Letwin: If I may, I shall correct my hon. Friend, who is normally punctilious in his accuracy. I did not say that I thought that very few Members knew what was going on. I said that no Member did, and I meant that. I do not believe that there is any living Member of the

27 Feb 2001 : Column 856

House of Commons--indeed, there has probably been no living Member for a long while--who has, or had, the slightest idea of what is really going on in the supplementary estimates.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury is probably one of the most intelligent members of the Government, and I do not mean that ironically.

Mr. Forth: It would not be difficult.

Mr. Letwin: I shall let my right hon. Friend's comment pass in silence.

I suspect that, despite having the advantage of--if I remember correctly--some 2,000 of the most intelligent officials in Whitehall behind him, the Financial Secretary also has not the slightest idea of what is in the estimates, because no living human being could understand them. They were not invented to be understood; they were invented as an art form. There is a serious administrative problem here, which is not being faced.

Before I end what I had intended to be a rather briefer speech, let me mention another problem, which I think could be cured much more quickly.

Mr. Fallon: Before my hon. Friend deals with that problem, may I point out that some Back Benchers try to keep up with policy that is made on the Front Bench? Obviously, it involves us from time to time.

My hon. Friend seemed to say that he supported this change because it was a one-off. I see no reference to that in any of the four estimates already presented for the next year in the Vote Office. Is my hon. Friend saying that he supports this change in resource accounting just for the coming financial year, as a one-off change, and does not support a permanent change in the Standing Order?

Let us be clear. We are not being asked to change a Sessional Order; we are being asked to change a Standing Order, which is a serious matter.

Mr. Letwin: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. I understand--although I am subject to correction by the Financial Secretary--that in either 1997 or 1998, when the matter was first raised, it was intended that the change of date should apply to the first year's preparation because of the delay entailed in the original programme for resource accounting. I believe it is intended that thereafter resource accounts should be produced according to the timetable that previously applied to cash accounts, which would permit--and, I suppose, therefore necessitate--a reversion of the Standing Orders to their original form after the event.

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