Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40
WEDNESDAY 15 NOVEMBER 2000
MP AND MR
40. I hope he will share them but can I just
add before he does, and I hope we can bring our discussion to
close within a very few minutes, details of any contractual relationships
into which the Government proposes to enter in relation to the
proposed spending, that is relevant. And an estimate of the unavoidable
expenditure that would arise in the event of the subsequent Bill
not being enacted or being substantially amended, that again is
relevant. Would you agree with that, Mr Judge?
(Mr Judge) I think that is precisely what we have
been trying to do throughout this process, to provide that information.
I think there are just two points I would add to that. Firstly,
and we obviously discussed this with the Social Security Select
Committee, there are some commercial issues hereterms that
we would not want to make public at that stage, before we signed
the contract, and the total liability that we think might be incurred
underneath it, because that would obviously weaken our negotiating
position. I think the other area where, to be honest, we learned
quite a bit from the process of discussing this with the Select
Committee, was the need not only to explain the scale and nature
of the expenditure for which we need cover through the Section
82 route, but also the scale of the expenditure for which we have
existing statutory cover. For quite a large chunk of the Child
Support Reform programme we can actually proceed under existing
primary legislation, because it is changing the way in which the
service is delivered rather than the actual policy which it is
delivering, if I can make that split. I think more of that contextual
information would be helpful to Parliament, and we have undertaken
to provide that.
Chairman: Thank you very much.
Mr Darvill: Following on from that, relating
to the exchange of correspondence between the Secretary of State
and our Chairman, in the Chairman's letter he did seek a number
of undertakings or assurances from the Government. They do not
appear to have been provided in the reply. I am just wondering
whether you can tell us which aspects of the information sought
it would not be possible to supply?
Chairman: You have given one. Obviously there
41. There are four requests in the letter of
(Angela Eagle) We had better write to you about that.
42. Mr Judge referred to the confidentiality
in respect of the amount of a specific contract, which would be
considered to be sensitive information. Are there any other areas
where there is a reason why Parliament could not have the information?
I am not sure you made it clear in reply to my question, and I
am not sure that you responded to Mr Darvill?
(Angela Eagle) There is no reason why Parliament should
not, so long as we do. Parliament would have to realise that these
positions are fluid. The first use of Section 82 powers granted
the potential for £45 million worth of expenditure, and we
would have got somewhere close to that had Royal Assent been delayed
further, and had we signed the contract with Affinity earlier.
When we drafted the Report we did not know when either of those
events would take place. That will always be the case went we
draft Section 82 reports. We are happy to give information so
long as it is not commercially in confidence. You would have to
realise that in the event it might not be accurate. There will
be an upper limit on it and we can then give the Report I suggested
we give, explaining to Parliament what, in the event, happened
in that period. The things that change, the calculations, are
when you can sign contracts and the date of Royal Assent. Once
those are established we can then re-do the sums and say, "Actually
we asked for 45 million in this case but only three million was
incurred". Had it been November we would have got far closer
to the 45.
43. We understand the circumstances, you have
explained them very well, where you use the power. Our concern
is how that power could be used in the future to ensure there
is a sufficient procedure here and that parliamentary protection
is given, hence the reason for the Chairman's letter seeking those
assurances. The concern I have is that if these powers were not
used so responsibly, as they clearly have been at the moment,
then the ability to expend public money without proper scrutiny
is available to the department concerned. That is what we need
to ensure does not happen.
(Angela Eagle) Can I also say, it is not in my interests
as a Minister to get the department into a situation where it
gets itself involved in nugatory expenditure, because that is
wasted expenditure that could have been better used on something
else. Clearly we are talking about this limited period and, therefore,
I think every case is likely to be slightly different. What I
am saying is, as we have done with the Child Support Reform, we
would want to give a very similar account about where we were
in that instance to Parliament, and be as open and transparent
as we could, subject to issues such as commercial confidentiality
and negotiations on procurement. Within that we will do all we
can to ensure that Parliament is provided with the relevant information
of the sort that the Chairman has listed.
44. You would agree with me, I hope, that it
would be a proper discipline for any government department to
provide the sort of information that the Chairman has requested
in his letter?
(Angela Eagle) Subject to the uncertainties that I
have talked about that are attendant on any of these procedures,
Chairman: Thank you very much.
45. Can I just move on to the reporting procedures
that we are talking about here. In the official evidence that
you gave to us you said that you had an open mind on whether the
Report should come to the floor of the House or to the Delegated
Legislation Committee. Can you just say what an open mind consists
of? Governments with open minds are rather dangerous things on
(Angela Eagle) It is up to Parliament to decide the
most appropriate way that it wants to scrutinise this. We already
have a process where both the PAC and the Social Security Select
Committee can have a look at a draft report before it is laid
to Parliament, and Parliament then get a copy of that report when
it is laid. I do have an open mind on the way in which Parliament
then decides to debate that. Sometimes debates upstairs can be
more detailed than debates on the floor of the House. Westminster
Hall might be a place where a more detailed debate of this kind
of issue could be held. I have an open mind.
Mr Stunell: Can I take that further? I am pleased
it is that open. It is up to the House, you just said!
Chairman: Let me just correct this. It is not
up to the House. Whether these matters are debated in Committee
or on the floor of the House is actually a decision of Government,
that is what is important.
46. The point I want to make is, if you are
here as a Minister speaking on behalf of the Government, as well
as the Department, are you in a position to say that the Government
is genuinely open and if it receives a request from a select committee
or from the Official Opposition or the Liberal Democrats they
would not block that being brought to the floor of the House or
to wherever others thought was an appropriate move?
(Angela Eagle) We have an open mind, that is the position.
I think that Section 82 is a particular power. We have said that
we want the transparency. We want to take away any suspicion that
this is some underhand way of subverting Parliament's ability
to scrutinise expenditure.
47. Would you accept
(Angela Eagle) It is not for me as a mere junior Minister
to decide, either for the Government or for Parliament, what procedures
might be best to debate, which particular reports. There are channels
for doing this, which I would not dare anticipate. I think the
spirit of what I am saying is that we are happy for Section 82
Reports to be debated in a way that enables people genuinely to
believe that it is an open and transparent process. We are aware
that we are expending money ahead of Royal Assent for an Act of
Parliament and this is an unusual power. In that respect we have
an open mind.
48. I just want to press you a little bit more.
I understand there are limits to what you can give by way of wider
commitment. The attitude of the Department and the attitude of
you as a Minister is a reflection of the attitude of the Government
and vice versa. I think if we were to produce a recommendation
which dealt with this and said that this had to be an open matter
where, if you like, the House or, indeed, the Select Committees,
for argument sake Social Security and Public Accounts, had, in
effect, a right to decide the route that would be used, would
the Department be seeking to obstruct that right or would it say,
"No, fair enough. We genuinely have an open mind. If that
is what the Committee wants to see, that is what we will comply
(Angela Eagle) In order for the Section 82 power to
be useful we have to be able to use it in a way that gives us
the power ahead of Royal Assent. If you look at its first use,
we had officials go to the Social Security Select Committee with
a draft report and give evidence, we then had a debate upstairs
in which I was the responsible Minister, which was a very wide
ranging debate about what we were going to do with the powers
to expend the money conferred upon us by Parliament, and Parliament
then passed the report which allowed us to spend the money. Now
that worked very well in my experience and I hope I have been
able to get over some of my views about how that worked. In my
experience we have had a far more focused debate about the expenditure
of this money than I have known, certainly than we did on the
JSA Bill in Committee. That seemed to work well. If you are asking
me to agree, before I have even seen it, to whatever the Committee
might write down as a recommendation then I would say we will
have a look at it, but we have an open mind.
49. Maybe I can push what Andrew Stunell is
saying a little bit further, and I know Clive wants to come in.
Do you think the Government would in any way be sympathetic in
receiving a request for a debate on the floor on this matter if
it came from the official opposition, opposition parties or, for
that matter, from the Social Security Select Committee or the
Public Accounts Committee? Minister, I fully accept that you have
sought to be very open and full in the responses which you have
given to this Committee this afternoon. I think, because we are
dealing with a unique situation, a precedent has been set and
it is possible that further precedents may be set. What this Committee
is trying to find out is whether you, as a Government Minister,
believeI am not asking you to commit the Governmentthat
the Government might be sympathetic in considering an application
or a request for this sort of matter to be debated on the floor
of the House if it came from the opposition party, or opposition
parties, or the Social Security Select Committee itself in respect
of your own department or from the Public Accounts Committee?
We are trying to safeguard the ability of this House to do what
it is there to do which is actually the provision of money to
Government and the proper scrutiny of Government action and legislation.
(Angela Eagle) Yes. I cannot turn into Margaret Beckett,
however much you might want me to, and say that is what the official
Government line as of yet on any stated event might be. What I
am saying is that our use of this power, our only use of it so
far, and the way in which it was used, the scrutiny that we had
in the Select Committee and then, as it happened, upstairs was,
I thought, very transparent and effective. I am not going to sit
here and presume what Margaret Beckett's view or any future Leader
of the House's view on any such report would be. The view that
I have been authorised to put to you is that we have an open mind
and that is the one that I have put. I do not feel I can go any
further than that and dig myself into any hole you might put in
front of me.
Chairman: I have admired tremendously the way
in which you have dealt with our questions and you have indicated
to me the line of action that we can take on this matter, that
is to write to Margaret Beckett as a Committee to seek an assurance
from her as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House.
Clive, was there one final matter?
50. Leading on from that, a comment that you
may not want to comment on. It is how the House actually defeats
itself in scrutinising some of these things, what led to the guillotine
being imposed, for instance, and what other items were possibly
debated at length that led to the House not having the opportunity
to examine the clauses relating to Section 82 powers in a way
that perhaps it otherwise might have done.
(Angela Eagle) I do not feel I can comment too much
as a Government Minister on the way that the House decides to
scrutinise legislation before it. I do not know whether some of
the changes that will be tried out in the next session might make
it more possible to get some of the bits of Bills that have not
been reached before; time will tell.
51. Again following Mr Efford's question, why
was that particular section subject to a guillotine in both Committee
and on the floor, I think that is what we are trying to get at?
(Angela Eagle) Mr Winterton, all I can do is to say
that I was not one of the Ministers that dealt with that Bill
in detail. I was not on that Bill. I am quite happy to go away
and see if we can discover and talk to the witness and the people
who were on the Bill what the circumstances were and why the guillotine
descended as it did. It would be wrong of me to pretend I have
any insight at the moment into those events.
Mr Efford: Can we clarify that the item was
not guillotined, the Bill was guillotined.
52. The Bill was guillotined. Because Section
82 came late in the Bill that was caught up in the guillotine,
that I think is the explanation, Minister, is it not?
(Angela Eagle) It is, but as to why that happened
in more detail I cannot enlighten you.
53. I do not want to put you in any difficult
spot at all.
(Angela Eagle) You have already tried.
54. Just one quick question, something that
occurred to me reading through the Section itself, and that relates
to the two year period for that. I wonder if you have any comments
about that two year period, whether you feel it is long enough
or not long enough or whether it should be a shorter period? What
is your observation on the workings of the Section?
(Angela Eagle) We think it is about right simply because
it is based on the 18 month to two year kind of period that we
know from experience, not only in Government but elsewhere, it
takes to begin, develop and put into effect major change programmes
in already complex organisations. We think it is about right.
Clearly it might be something, if we have more experience of Section
82 in I do not know how many years, the Committee might want to
(Mr Judge) The final version of the report itself,
as well as setting a ceiling on the amount of money, also set
a shorter time period in terms of how long it would apply for
and specified that. It depends on the project.
(Angela Eagle) If you have a small project it is going
to be different from if you have a complex or a large project.
(Mr Judge) It also depends on where the Bill sits
in relation to the Section 82 Report. In this case we gave evidence
to the Select Committee the day after the Second Reading of the
Bill but those timings could be different in the future.
55. Thank you very much. Just one point of clarification.
I think, Minister, you did say earlier that these matters might
be debated in Committee upstairs, in Westminster Hall, or on the
floor, unfortunately Westminster Hall would not be available because
it is quite likely that a division would take place and Westminster
Hall is not the forum, certainly at this stage, for divisions.
I think I got the gist of what you were saying. Can I thank you,
Minister, very much indeed, and Mr Judge, for the very helpful
way that you have sought to deal with our questions. You have
gone, I think, as far as any Minister could have gone in seeking
to respond to what are very important questions for this Committee
acting on behalf of the House. Can I thank you both very much
for the evidence that you have given. Thank you.
(Angela Eagle) Thank you.