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Mr. Flight: The hon. Gentleman did a better job than I did of explaining the PFI in relation to standard 21. Standard 21 deals with PFI and what is used to hide liabilities in that context, but contingent liabilities are covered by a separate rule, FRS12, which is the doctrine of remoteness. Under that rule, roll-over cannot be used as a justification for believing that a liability may be remote.
Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He anticipates me, as I was about to come to that point, specifically to pick up his example of Network Rail, where the remoteness test is the fig leaf that the Government are hiding behind.
The Secretary of State for Transport did not dwell on the matter in his statement of 27 June. He referred Members who asked him about contingent liabilities to the minute that he had just published, suggesting that we went to the Library, put towels round our heads, and studied it. I have not put a towel round my head, but I have indeed studied it. Interestingly, it reveals that in making their decision the Government seem to have leaned heavily on the advice of the Office for National Statistics. Paragraph 19 of the minute, which deals with non-statutory contingent liabilities, refers to the confirmation by the Office for National Statistics that
On 28 June, the day after the statement and the publication of the minute, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the main watchdog that the House relies on, published a press release entitled "Comptroller and Auditor General's view on the appropriate accounting treatment for Network Rail". Hon. Members should look at it, because it suggests that he is in complete disagreement with the Office for National Statistics. I quote:
Sir John's view is that the Government's interest in Network Rail is akin to an equity shareholder's interest. The Government is effectively providing security for the providers of debt finance to
Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde): The hon. Gentleman is speaking with great clarity. Does he agree that our focus on rules may not enable us to examine reality? When Railtrack experienced problems, the Government believed that they were the only body that could sort out the liabilities that are associated with the railway system. If Network Rail ran into unforeseen problems and was in commercial difficulties, who would be there to pick up the pieces? The Government of the day.
Mr. Davey: The right hon. Gentleman is right, and reaches the core of the debate. The political point is that hon. Members cannot be clear that the Government's finances are being soundly run. We are elected to make those judgments and ensure that the taxpayer is not being saddled with debts that will result in higher taxes or cuts in public expenditure down the line. That lies behind this welcome and important debate.
The Government appear to be structuring Network Rail on guidance that the ONS has accepted. However, the ONS watchdog is examining the information and is worried about it. The National Audit Office has made a public statement to express its concern. Hon. Members should take serious note of that, and the Government should provide a proper, full debate in their time so that we can ensure that we know what is going on.
Rob Marris: The hon. Gentleman has been generous in giving way. His comments suggest a difference of opinion between various watchdog bodies. Against that background, how could the new clause be implemented, when such a range of opinion exists about the way in which figures can be drawn up?
Mr. Davey: I am not sure whether I understand the hon. Gentleman. The new clause would help matters because it would flush out the issue so that it was in the public domain. That needs to be done. The issue needs greater public debate by Select Committees, including the Public Accounts Committee. If we are to put the future of
Mr. Hoban: The new clause appears to change the rules of accounting for Government liabilities to bring them in line with generally accepted UK accounting practice. I believe that the Comptroller and Auditor General is relying on that practice to state that Network Rail is Government controlled and the liabilities should therefore be on the Government's balance sheet.
Let us consider the debate between the various bodies. The Government have been trying to say, "Well, the ONS has told us that that's okay." Yet the ONS is acting simply in an advisory capacity; it is not making decisions for the Government. It is up to the Government to decide, the ONS to advise and the NAO to audit the decisions. The Government cannot try to escape responsibility by relying on the words of others. The spirit of the Government's rules, to which they presumably try to keep when making such important decisions, is being broken.
Two key documents cover this matter. One is "Government Accounting", and chapter 26 is the relevant section, for those hon. Members who want to wade through that heavy document. Technical note 1 deals with accounting for PFI transactions. In the case of Network Rail, as was the case for London Underground, the whole framework seems to rest on the edifice of letters of comfort. What does chapter 26.3.1 of "Government Accounting" have to say about letters of comfort? It says:
My hon. Friend the Member for Truro and St. Austell anticipated the Government's thinking on this. In November last year, he asked a parliamentary question of the then Under-Secretary at the then Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. My hon. Friend asked:
Is it any wonder that people are concerned about this matter? The process is neither transparent nor clear. The Government are not keeping to their own rules and guidance, and Parliament's main watchdog is not happy. The Government must think again, and promote a much wider debate on this issue. If they do not, their whole financial framework for the public finances will be undermined. They must tell us why they favour these off balance sheet approaches.