Select Committee on Liaison First Report


Extract from the First Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, The Work of the Committee in the 1997 Parliament, HC109 (Session 2000-01)

Supplementary Estimates

November 1999: Horizon expenses

13.  On 8 November 1999, we sought information in writing on a Supplementary Estimate for £8 million, described in the accompanying notes as being for "a payment to the Post Office for Horizon re-negotiation costs". Having recently reported on the Horizon Project, we found this additional sum puzzling. We asked for a response from the Department by 18 November. The answer was repeatedly delayed, despite reminders, and was eventually received on 7 December 1999. It confirmed the impression conveyed in a written answer of 11 November 1999 that the sum was to reimburse the Post Office for payments it had agreed to make to ICL for additional expenses in May 1999 while Ministers pondered on whether to terminate the Benefit Card project, as they eventually did at the end of May 1999.

14.  We sought a delay in putting the sum to the House for its approval, pending further inquiry, and possible wider debate on the Estimate as a peg for a debate on the Horizon project. It would have been possible simply to reduce the total sum voted and seek authorisation of the Supplementary Estimate early in 2000 as part of the process of authorisation of the Spring Supplementary Estimates. The Treasury refused to accede to this request, pleading the urgency of making the payment in view of the fact that the Post Office had already made the payment to ICL. The Estimate was duly voted on and passed on 16 December 1999.

15.   We had found ourselves effectively powerless. We had no desire for a full-blown debate at that stage, which would in any event have been difficult to organise at such short notice. We could have produced a Special Report to the House but to little practical effect. It seemed that Ministers could, in the absence of a full Report to put to the House for debate on an Estimates Day, simply override concerns on a Supplementary Estimate expressed by a Committee.

November 2000: Dounreay

16.  We took no further action, however, judging that this was an isolated and exceptional incident. We were wrong. In November 2000 we examined the Supplementary Estimates sought by DTI, as is our normal practice, and sought details of several of these. One was for an additional sum of £45 million for nuclear decommissioning. The response from the DTI explained that it was a sum for the programme of decommissioning and waste management at Dounreay, for which a sum of £90 million had been appropriated in the Main Estimates.

17.  The increase sought was on a substantial scale. Based on our previous detailed work on Dounreay, it seemed highly improbable that additional and hitherto unplanned expenditure on such a scale should be required in the few remaining months of the current financial year. We therefore sought further details, in a letter sent on 17 November 2000. We requested these further details by the end of November 2000. They were not provided until 8 December 2000.

18.  The December response was in the form of a short table listing a dozen programmes for decommissioning and waste management at Dounreay, showing the apparent baseline financing in the Main Estimates and the additional sums now sought. A number of the detailed programmes for which no money had apparently been allocated in the Main Estimates had to our certain knowledge already got underway in the previous financial year. The baseline level of expenditure assumed for the 2000-01 Main Estimate seems to antedate even the June 1998 incident which led to the closure of the Fuel Cycle Area. For example, it assumed income from processing and reprocessing of £9 million, although there has never been the slightest suggestion that these activities would be restarted this financial year.

19.  All in all, the details provided raised as many questions as they answered, and suggested an alarming level of departmental ignorance of the decommissioning and waste management programme at Dounreay. As in the previous year, however, there was little in practice which we could do. We had no desire to obstruct the payment to UKAEA of funds which informal inquiry confirmed were indeed needed. Oral evidence from the department is time-consuming, and would have little result. The sum was duly voted in December 2000.


20.  The Chairman and Clerk of this Committee gave oral evidence to the Procedure Committee in July 1998 on committees and Government Expenditure Plans. The Procedure Committee reported in July 1999.[67] Although it concluded that there was no need for formal referral of Supplementary Estimates to committees, apparently because it felt that there would be insufficient time for their consideration, it regarded it as "vital" that explanations should be provided to committees as promptly as possible.

21.   The system is failing, judging from our experience. We have the time, the expertise and the will to do our job, even within the largely unnecessary constraints of the timetable for considering the Winter Supplementary Estimates. But the absence of any formal powers means that departments can get away with delay and obfuscation. We consider that no Supplementary Estimate should be capable of being put to the House for decision until reported on by the relevant Departmental Committee. We give notice that we do not intend to be obstructed for a third time in our examination of the department's Supplementary Estimates.

67  Sixth Report, Procedure for Debate on the Government's Expenditure Plans, HC 295 of 1998-99, paragraph 50: First Special Report, HC 388 of 1999-2000 Back

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