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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman appreciates that we are not here this evening to discuss the details of the accounts. We are here to discuss the change in the Standing Order before the House, and I should be grateful if he would direct his remarks to that.

Mr. Howarth: I am most grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

One of the reasons advanced by the Government for the change in Standing Orders is resource accounting, which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton. We discussed some aspects of the presentation of accounts earlier. The Financial Secretary will have noticed the discrepancy between the £1,000 net resource requirement and the £101,000 cash requirement, which is 100 times that amount, in respect of the Postal Services Commission. Perhaps he can briefly explain that.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the Financial Secretary cannot briefly explain that, as it is not in order.

Mr. Howarth: I used the word "briefly", but I accept your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

We should all be grateful for the vote on account in respect of hon. Members' salaries. We all at least want to ensure that matters relating to hon. Members' salaries are not out of order, or our bank managers might be very unhappy campers.

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The Government have clearly had some difficulty with the application of resource accounting within the timetable that was envisaged for the more generally established cash-accounting mechanisms. Indeed, they have made an error in tabling the motion. I believe that the means by which they have sought to implement the proposal--a change in the Standing Orders--is not appropriate, but I accept that some change must be made. The votes on account are dated 27 February, but it is clear that they should have been presented to the House for consideration before 6 February, so I accept that some action is necessary.

1.47 am

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): It has become obvious that the motion is largely about time and timing, so it is also inevitably about Government competence. The crucial times have become clear during the debate. The clock started running as far back as 1998 or 1999, when, as the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) pointed out, resource accounting was launched on an unsuspecting world. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said, we all knew what parliamentary--and therefore procedural--response was required in respect of the introduction of resource accounting. That much seems clear and relatively uncontroversial, but then we come to the mystery.

The next crucial dates are 6 February, 27 February and 18 March. We know that existing Standing Orders require that these matters should have been dealt with by 6 February. Presumably, the Government knew that way back in 1998 and 1999. One would have thought that a competent Government would make proper provision and come to the House in plenty of time to give it an opportunity to reflect on the time scales. We should have been allowed to consider what was required, especially as this was a new process that we would all have to get used to. A competent Government would have looked ahead, planned, consulted and then made a proper alteration to Standing Orders or Sessional Orders.

However, none of that happened: 6 February came and went and we now find ourselves on 27 February with this badly drafted motion on the Order Paper. It asks the House not only to approve a change to Standing Orders, but to accept that these important matters, which, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon) pointed out, involve billions of pounds, must be considered between now and 18 March. My diary tells me that there are 12 parliamentary days between now and 18 March. As that day is a Sunday, it is of no use to us, and neither is 17 March, unless the Government intend to suggest that we start sitting on Saturdays and Sundays to help them out of their mess. However, the situation is worse than that because those 12 parliamentary days also include the day of the Budget and the Budget debate.

So, unless the matter will be tacked on to or subsumed by the Budget debate--I would have thought that that would be procedurally unacceptable--the Government are saying to us, "As at 27 February, we will give the House of Commons a very small amount of leeway and time in which to consider matters that involve billions of pounds of expenditure, covering a wide range of issues." As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) said, that includes defence issues, matters relating to the House of Commons itself, a very long list of detailed items of departmental expenditure, and so on.

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This is extremely unsatisfactory to say the least, and how we have got ourselves into this position is self-evident: the Government are either incompetent, or, worse--this is a more sinister explanation--they have conspired to bring the matter before the House so late as to give it insufficient time to consider not just the procedural matter but the substantive matter.

Mr. Edward Davey: I cannot agree with the right hon. Gentleman on this point, much as I should like to. I have here a document dated 24 March 1998, which contains the phrase:

The House was told more than two years ago that we would not be asked for approval for the vote on account until March 2001. Therefore, I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman's argument seems to fall.

Mr. Forth: I am not sure that it does. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for trying to help me; his expertise in and influence on these matters is beyond doubt. If we knew about the matter all along, why has it been brought before the House on February 27, late at night, in a rush, not allowing the House to give it proper consideration? That is the difficulty in which we find ourselves.

Mr. Letwin: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the genesis of the change is that the Government believe, as, regrettably, Governments have for a long time, that votes on account and, indeed, the whole of the rest of the panoply of the Gladstonian system, are formalities and that we should be asked to vote through £250 billion with hardly a nod or a wink?

Mr. Forth: I fear that my hon. Friend is all too correct in his analysis. Yet again, we have an example--this is a very glaring and expensive one--of the Government genuinely believing that parliamentary scrutiny, whether of financial or any other matter, is so marginal and irrelevant that it can be reduced to the proposed process for both the motion before us and Standing Orders generally. I do not want to get too distracted by the debate--

Mr. Fallon: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I beg to move, That the House sit in private.

Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 163 (House to sit in private):--

The House divided: Ayes 1, Noes 62.

Division No. 137
[1.55 am


Davey, Edward (Kingston)

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Eric Forth and
Mr. Gerald Howarth.


Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)
Austin, John
Banks, Tony
Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Brown, Russell (Dumfries)
Burgon, Colin
Butler, Mrs Christine
Cann, Jamie
Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Clelland, David
Coaker, Vernon
Coleman, Iain
Cox, Tom
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Davidson, Ian
Dobbin, Jim
Drew, David
Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hendrick, Mark
Hepburn, Stephen
Heppell, John
Hill, Keith
Hood, Jimmy
Hope, Phil
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Hurst, Alan
Jenkins, Brian
Kilfoyle, Peter
Leslie, Christopher
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
McAvoy, Thomas
McNulty, Tony
Marshall-Andrews, Robert
Michael, Rt Hon Alun
Miller, Andrew
Moffatt, Laura
Mudie, George
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Naysmith, Dr Doug
Öpik, Lembit
Pearson, Ian
Pope, Greg
Purchase, Ken
Rendel, David
Roy, Frank
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Sawford, Phil
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
Smith, Angela (Basildon)
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Timms, Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)
Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Ward, Ms Claire
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Wood, Mike
Woolas, Phil

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Graham Allen and
Mr. Clive Betts.

Question accordingly negatived.

27 Feb 2001 : Column 874

Mr. Forth: Furthermore--[Interruption.] It is very gratifying to address such a lively House at this hour and I trust that that interest will continue for quite some time. [Hon. Members: "No."] Oh yes, for quite some time. We were discussing Standing Orders. As you know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, 100 Members are required to vote on a closure motion so the Government Deputy Chief Whip would have to magic up another 38 Members if he wanted to try to truncate the debate, which I am sure is far from his mind. We can relax, enjoy a full-length debate with no threat of Government truncation and explore the important matter before us.

We were talking, were we not, about time--which is very appropriate, given what has just happened. In this instance, "time" relates to how the Government can possibly expect the House to be able to give proper consideration to the billions of pounds to which we have referred, in the brief period remaining between today and the date of 18 March that is mentioned in the motion.

As I have said, there are few enough parliamentary days, and many of those will already be committed. How can the Government expect us to do justice to the items in the accounts? They involve detailed matters, and matters requiring considerable debate. My hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset has already indicated their opacity; that would be bad enough, but their length, breadth and depth suggest to me that, in all conscience, we should give them much more time than the motion allows.

This is yet another matter--not the first that we have encountered this evening, and perhaps not the last--that places a substantial question mark over the Government's competence. It certainly places a question mark over their attitude to the House of Commons and the role it has played through the centuries, acting on behalf of the taxpayer in scrutinising accounts and satisfying us that matters are as they should be. It cannot be right for the

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Government seriously to suggest that this pathetically inadequate amount of time can do justice to that job of scrutiny and accountability.

Confusion has featured throughout the debate. There has been procedural confusion; confusion has also been created by the fact that the Minister's version, rulings from the Chair and the text of the motion all seemed to be at odds. The only proper way out, surely, is for the Government to withdraw the motion and table another that reflects accurately what the Minister tells us is his intention and that of the Government. I hope they will do so, because that would contribute in a small way to correcting what all of us who have spoken consider to be a grotesque error on their part.

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