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