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3 Dec 2002 : Column 870—continued

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): What a waste of public money.

Andrew Mackinlay: I agree with my hon. Friend.

Peter Bottomley: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I think that the hon. Gentleman is talking about recurrent expenditure and not non-operating appropriations.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I advise the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) that we should stick to appropriations-in-aid.

Andrew Mackinlay: In that case, we should receive a fuller explanation from Members on the Treasury

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Bench as to precisely what the appropriations-in-aid are. A simple explanatory document in plain English could have been produced for people who are not necessarily au fait with the details of the estimates—not only for humble Members of Parliament such as me but also for people outside. They would then have been able to understand the reason for the debate, because there has not been an adequate explanation.

We should be proclaiming the amount of expenditure; we should not be ashamed of it. I cannot understand why the Government are ashamed of the measures that we are endorsing, or authorising, or giving authority to, tonight. Why are we so shy about it? We all make mistakes sometimes. The Minister could have got the mistake over quickly, beaten her breast three times and said, XThis is something that we are proud of, and we should proclaim it from the Dispatch Box," because we could be told about all these achievements.

Having made the point, I would hope that Treasury Ministers and the House authorities will not simply avoid a repetition of this occurrence but will reflect on how the House can in future give a critical examination of the estimates in general, and of any variations for the remedy of any procedural error that does occur; because otherwise, it seems to me, we just reinforce the charade of this House of Commons rubber-stamping tablets of stone handed down by the Executive of the day, which I am not prepared to acquiesce in any longer.

10.51 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): Given the late hour, and the Financial Secretary's charming apology—I think that it was an apology, however short—it is tempting to nod through this error involving £3 billion of Government expenditure and laugh it off as an administrative error which we should not spend too much time on.

However, the mistake, and the speech by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), highlight the fact that there are some very substantive issues that the Government need to address, which cast light on the way in which the House scrutinises—or perhaps on many occasions fails to scrutinise—the expenditure side of the Government accounts. That for me was highlighted when I rang the Library earlier today to establish what this evening's debate was about.

The Library faxed through to me the very brief description that the Financial Secretary gave us about the substance of the debate. When a series of simple questions were then asked about what the sums of money consisted of, and what the causes of some of the errors were, the Library could not tell us the answers. It therefore telephoned the Treasury, and spoke to its contact for the Treasury officials to establish what these amounts were and what they related to, and to ask some basic questions about them—whether they were net or gross, and which Departments they related to specifically. I am afraid to say that the Treasury message that came back was that both the Treasury officials and the Library were uncertain about some of these answers, and that perhaps they were issues that we should raise in the debate. When we reach the stage when not only the Library but the Treasury officials are uncertain about what we are being asked to approve, it is incumbent on the House to scrutinise very carefully what the Government are putting before us.

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May I therefore ask the Financial Secretary some specific points about the comments that she made at the beginning? First, can she give us some more detail about why that £3 billion of expenditure has been mislaid for a time in the Government's accounts? Who made the error and why was it not picked up? Is there no system of checks within the Treasury that would be expected to pick up errors of this type? Was the error a consequence of the shift to resource accounting and budgeting, or was it a consequence of some other error in the Department?

Secondly, as the hon. Members for Thurrock and for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk) asked in their speeches, what exactly are the amounts that have been put before us today? It suggests a certain amount of carelessness when the largest figure on the table before us, which we assume is £2,068,154,000 for what was then the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions, is not even denominated correctly, so we cannot establish whether that is the precise sum. But what are these sums?

There are quite a variety of them, from that £2,068,154,000 for the DTLR all the way down to smaller sums, such as £76,000 for the Department of Trade and Industry. What exactly are those amounts? Can the Financial Secretary tell us what underlies those very large figures, which she expects us to scrutinise and approve tonight?

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The hon. Gentleman is making a very powerful point. I am looking at the figure for the DTLR and it clearly states—this may be a misprint—X2.068,154,000". That is extraordinary. There are commas and a delineating point. What is the figure? Are we talking about trillions or billions? Given that the Treasury presumably has a computer that works, is it not extraordinary that we are discussing the fact that the Government have made a mistake with £3 billion of taxpayers' money?

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, as ever. I am not sure whether I agree that the sum is a trillion. I did not read the figure in that way, but it certainly denotes a certain carelessness when the Government have to return to the House to clarify whether £3 billion of expenditure has been lost, but then cannot even get the digits right.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Does not this whole saga highlight the appalling degree of innumeracy that often exists at the highest levels of Government? This is a nation of 60 million people that spends £420 billion—approximately £7,000 per head, on average—but that expenditure is subject to much less scrutiny than that of a parish of 600, which spends £4,200 at £7 per head. Have we not got the telescope the wrong way round in this country?

Mr. Laws: The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful point, which supports the position taken by the hon. Member for Thurrock. I hope to make a few more comments about that matter in a minute, but perhaps the Financial Secretary can clarify what the amounts are. We know that they are likely to represent capital expenditure, but what do they relate to? Why is the amount for the DTLR so large? Are these net payments

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and receipts, or are they the gross amounts that have been paid? Does the fact that officials and Ministers are discussing these matters as we speak suggest that some of those exceptionally basic questions are not in the forefront of Treasury Ministers' minds?

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): The hon. Gentleman asks whether the amounts are net or gross, and whether they are receipts or payments. That is not entirely clear because the Department for International Development has a negative figure of £6 million. What on earth are we talking about—expenditure, receipts or both? The Government have not been entirely straightforward in explaining this matter to us.

Mr. Laws: That is another powerful point—[Interruption.] Very powerful points are being made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.

We do not know precisely what the figures are. We suspect that the negative amounts are capital receipts, but perhaps the Financial Secretary will clarify that. We do not know whether they have been netted off against capital payments. We look forward to the Financial Secretary's enlightening us on that later in the debate, because we certainly will not want to approve the estimates unless we know what they are.

Can the Financial Secretary also clarify whether the amounts have been spent and received already? Are we being asked for retrospective permission for expenditure and receipts that have already been given effect, or is the House being consulted in advance of any of these payments and expenditure being approved? What checks will be put in place in future to ensure that such errors are not repeated?

A number of Members have commented on the attitude of the House of Commons to the expenditure issues underlying this debate. That raises a wider issue that is directly relevant to the debate and to the way in which the House holds the Government to account for expenditure. To many of us, it seems that we still have a medieval system in this country in terms of the scrutiny of Government expenditure and receipts. We still act as if we were a Parliament in the 13th, 14th or 15th century being asked simply to approve revenue raising by a monarch, and being unconcerned about how the monarch spends that money once it is raised. We spend time on scrutinising the tax elements of the Budget, and sometimes we do not approve of them, but we have no record of scrutinising expenditure measures as many other legislatures throughout the world do.

The Select Committee on Procedure commented on that in 1981, when it produced a report saying:

The Committee supported that in 1997–98 by saying:

You may be aware, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that over the last year my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) has made similar points and expressed similar concerns about the lack of scrutiny of expenditure in this place. He has pointed out in a number of debates that the last occasion when the House turned down a request from Ministers for cash

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was in 1919, when the then Lord Chancellor was denied the funding for a second bathroom. That highlights the appalling lack of scrutiny of Government expenditure, which will rise, including these specific measures, to some £511 billion by the end of this expenditure review period.

The Government therefore have two major questions to answer tonight. First, as the hon. Member for Thurrock asked: what will they do to improve scrutiny of expenditure in the future, to make such errors less likely to occur by having a proper debate in this place, and to give the House power to scrutinise expenditure, to suggest increases in expenditure and to suggest changes to expenditure priorities? All those measures are available in other legislatures across the world, but not in this House. Those scrutiny measures relate directly to this debate, as, if we had such scrutiny, we would be less likely to vote through measures that miss out £3 billion worth of Government expenditure. Secondly, will the Financial Secretary respond to the detailed questions that I posed at the beginning of my comments about what the expenditure is, and the safeguards in the future? Unless we receive a persuasive response to both questions, we will be obliged to object to the estimates being approved.

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