Mr. Edward Davey: I think I can elucidate. The Financial Secretary may wish to intervene, but the Order Paper specifically refers to a "Vote on Account 2001-02". I understood that to mean that the change in the Standing Order would apply only to that vote.
As far as I can see, nothing in the motion specifically relates it to the year 2001-02. I should be grateful if you, Madam Deputy Speaker, could clarify whether we are changing the Standing Orders simply for the accounts in the coming year, or whether we are doing it for every financial year, as the current Standing Orders suggest.
Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Your understanding--which is also mine, from my reading of the Order Paper--seems to contradict what the Minister indicated to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), from a sedentary position. The Minister indicated that, as far as he was concerned, this was a change to the Standing Order only in respect of the accounts for the financial year 2001-02. It might assist the House if the Minister told us whether your understanding and mine, Madam Deputy Speaker, is incorrect.
Mr. Timms: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. May I help the House by making the position a little clearer? The intention is that the change will apply to this year only. The vote on account, which would normally be based on a proportion--45 per cent.--of the current year's figures, cannot be so based this year because there is no set of resource accounts to use. Therefore, exceptionally, the 45 per cent. proportion is based on the projection of spending next year. Therefore, the measure needs to be used only once. When we get to the winter accounts next year, we will be--
Mr. Fallon: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Minister's explanation is absolutely correct and assists the House. However, the motion cannot be right because it amends our Standing Orders, not a Sessional Order. The changes apply permanently. Standing Orders are not changed from Session to Session and will incorporate the words
Mr. Forth: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Surely if the Minister's intention were to be reflected in the motion, it should have said, at the very least, "on a day not later than 18 March 2001", to put it beyond doubt that it was a one-off and time limited. What the Minister has stated as his and the Government's intention is not reflected in the motion. That obviously causes the House some confusion. Are we to believe the Minister's explanation, or the words on which we will be asked to vote? That is what we need your guidance on.
Mr. Howarth: For any year. If the Minister's intention is that the motion should apply only to the accounts relating to the coming year, it will be necessary, once those are disposed of at some later date, for the House to be invited again to change the Standing Orders. Therefore, it seems to us that the motion, in the terms in which the Government have moved it, is defective.
Mr. Bercow: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am sorry, but the position is now gloriously unclear and hon. Members will, I think, require clarification. If the practice that is proposed this year to embody the Government's intention is to be discontinued in a future year, will a motion of revocation be required--yes or no?
Madam Deputy Speaker: I remind the hon. Gentleman that I have given a ruling on the point of order. The motion that we are debating is as stated on the Order Paper. The other points that have been made are matters for debate.
Mr. Fallon: Madam Deputy Speaker has surely ruled absolutely correctly. The Minister is trying to change the Standing Orders and has tabled a motion so to change them. However, as a consequence of Madam Deputy Speaker's ruling, he has made it clear that he will have to change the Standing Orders again. I submit to my hon. Friend that that is an abuse of Standing Orders. The purpose of Standing Orders is to be standing--they should govern our conduct Session after Session. The Minister has said that he is changing a Standing Order but will have to have to change it again for the next financial year. Therefore, he should not be pursuing this particular procedure today.
Mr. Letwin: I agree with my hon. Friend that, now that the debate which was not a debate has revealed that the motion is less well worded than it should have been, it would have been better if the Minister had arranged for it to be properly worded initially.
Mr. Timms: The procedure that we are following is an entirely normal one. As I understand it, a subsequent change will be needed. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for the intent of the motion. However, to achieve that intent, we have had to proceed as we have. There is no other way of achieving that intention.
Mr. Letwin: I am learning more and more, but, unfortunately, I am learning conflictingly from my hon. Friends and from the Minister. I know not whether this is the ordinary way of proceeding. Regardless, as we are agreed that the intent is reasonable, I shall rest there for a moment.
I should like, however, to draw attention to what is not in the right order at all--the matter of how we are to reconcile the columns in the vote on account that are to be the subject of the vote to which the change in Standing Orders refers. In our consideration of the Government Resources and Accounts Act, we very carefully and--I am sure that the Financial Secretary would agree--at inordinate length spelled out the dangers and difficulties of operating simultaneously a cash and resource accounting system. We made it completely clear, and abundantly clear to the Financial Secretary, that, to enable any sensible discussion of those votes on account to occur, it would be necessary for the House to be able to reconcile the cash figures with the resource accounting figures.
Even a cursory inspection of the figures in the columns will show that, as is not unexpected, the cash requirement is in many cases significantly in excess of the resource accounting figure. The difference between those figures will lie, presumably, in that part of expenditure that is investment and which is not therefore a loss, in profit and loss terms, and so does not enter into the resource accounting figures. That is understood.
However, there is an oddity. In principle, in a steady state, the cash expended in one year as investment should replace depreciation from a previous year. It is of the utmost importance that we are able to understand the relationship between the excess cash going into investment and the depreciation in the resource accounting figures. Otherwise, we will not know what is happening to capital expenditure and its relationship with the assets being depreciated.
That is a severe, and odd, deficiency. I have not checked Hansard, but I seem to recall that we were given assurances during the passage of the Government Resources and Accounts Act that the problem would not arise and that reconciliations would be shown. I hope that the Financial Secretary will ask his officials, at a more opportune time of day, to provide reconciliations. In that way, when the accounts come up for voting, we will at least be able to understand the broad headings and their reconciliation one with another.
As I said earlier, no one in the House will understand anything about the supply estimates. That is a much greater problem but one that can be remedied over time, as we develop a system of accountability that enables the House of Commons to hold the Government to account in a knowledgeable and pellucid way, rather than in a form that is opaque and lacking in knowledge.