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29 Jan 2003 : Column 913—continued

Mr. Rendel: Is there not a third instance where the CAG could do with further access? When we were talking about tax credits recently, it came to light that the CAG needs to have direct access to the accounts of those private sector firms that are handing out tax credits to ensure that they are doing it properly.

Mr. Leigh: The CAG has asked for access to employers' records, but that is being resisted by the Inland Revenue. I do not know why. The Inland Revenue claims that that would add to the tax burden, but the CAG's staff are skilled in doing their work to ensure that they would not increase burdens on business. In effect, the private sector is a tax collector, so why should there not be such an audit?

Mr. Bacon: Is there not a fourth example? The Financial Services Authority could do with some oversight, judging by its recent performance on split capital investment trusts, when it denied knowing anything about what was going on and later had to admit that it had been informed about what was going on in Guernsey.

Mr. Leigh: That is a bridge too far for the time being, but my hon. Friend makes his point, and we may return to that—perhaps he can do so, when he is Chairman of the PAC in a few years' time.

I am part of a long tradition, established by Gladstone, of Opposition Members chairing the most powerful Select Committee of the House. We are able to consider matters of the utmost political sensitivity, but because we focus on delivery, rather than policy, we sustain the cross-party consensus that is fundamental to our success. Our work reaches into every corner of government and covers every pound of the £650 billion

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that the Government collect and spend each year. Some may argue that our work skims the surface, but our presence alone focuses minds. Our recommendations—by and large, the Government accept them—make a real difference. In my view, government is only as good as the independent parliamentary scrutiny that it receives. I believe that we play our part in that process, and I commend the motion to the House.

2.27 pm

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West): I congratulate the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh), on the way in which he has taken up his new role. His speech today echoed the enthusiasm that he shows in Committee, and these 70 reports show the effectiveness with which he and the Committee work. The humour that he has brought to the Committee has been very helpful on occasions, and he has demonstrated that again today.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that he would abstain from any political partisanship. Of course the PAC Chairman is always an Opposition Member, and one of the delights of being its Chairman, which is one of the best appointments in Parliament, is that within about two years of a change in government, one is in the happy position of always questioning the other side. We had a long, long spell of questioning the other side.

I joined the Committee just over 12 years ago, and what impressed me then—it still impresses me now—is that, although the Committee reflects what the Chairman has said, it has an ethos of its own and its job is to get at the facts and to produce reports based on the facts, regardless of which party is behind the Administration at the time.

I wish to join the hon. Gentleman in extending our thanks to the National Audit Office and, indeed, its equivalent in Northern Ireland. That is more than ritualistic; it is important that the House of Commons understand the NAO's importance. With national income and expenditure of more than £700 billion, even with 70 reports a year, we would still not get very far, as a bunch of 15 Members of Parliament, unless we had the quality and depth of research contained in the reports that we receive from the NAO. That tribute is not meaningless; it is important because, without the NAO, financial accountability would not exist in the House.

I should also like to thank the NAO in relation to my role on the Liaison Committee. The NAO is now extending the help that it gives to the other Select Committees by seconding people, where appropriate, to help them with studies. Indeed, as the House has asked the other Select Committees to carry out a more detailed examination of estimates, the NAO is preparing to support them in that work.

It is also important to realise that a review is being undertaken into the back-up for the Select Committees. What depressed me when I became Chairman of the Liaison Committee was the inadequacy—not the low quality—of the support given to the Select Committees. A review is now in hand to examine the support that the Committees need, and the NAO is playing a leading role in it. That should reassure hon. Members, because the NAO will be absolutely objective. When I gave evidence

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to the Modernisation Committee, I recommended that the NAO should be used in that way because I knew that we would get an objective assessment of what is needed.

As the Chairman of the PAC has intimated, we have tried several innovations this year. Once or twice in the past, we have called " permanent secretaries and " accounting officers, but that never became a habit. However, two recent episodes justify our decision to determine who will come before us—not just the current accounting officer, but the previous one or whoever was in office at the time.

One of those instances relates to rail privatisation and goes back a couple of years. We recalled a witness whom we expected to give a very rough time, and we were provided with a good insight, even compared with the NAO report. The man who had sat there dealing with the practical managerial problems of trying to implement the policy, regardless of its rights and wrongs, was able to give us an insight into why some of the decisions had been taken. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) will remember that occasion.

Although we did not agree with those decisions, we had a better understanding of the motivation and, indeed, the attempts by some of the individuals concerned to do their best. That led to a less abrasive report than we might otherwise have produced, whereas relatively recently—I shall not name the occasion—we had an example where the reverse happened. Very recently, someone who had been made a permanent secretary had to answer on behalf of a predecessor who had been in place for the previous four years. In the end, that person had to say, "I was not there. I don't know." That is our point, and the head of the civil service should understand that, although we know that he is not happy about our decision.

It is an enormous advantage to us if we can have first-hand experience, rather than always having before us a witness who has read the same report as we have read and then been briefed on what the questions might be by civil servants who were previously in that post. There is no substitute for questioning the person who was in post at the time, especially with very important examinations. I know that the head of the civil service and his permanent secretary colleagues are not happy, but they must recognise that accountability to the House comes above their sensitivities and sensibilities.

Our second innovation is in relation to visits—I am not talking about visits to Australia, New Zealand or the United States. We made visits to the Treasury building and the Heart hospital, and a memorable visit to Kensington palace. Because of the sensitivities of one Member who is present today, I shall not go into that in depth, but we can look back on that experience with more than fondness, as the taxpayer had previously been receiving reimbursements of only £69 a week for seven bedrooms and seven living rooms, whereas, in a year and a half, he will be receiving £120,000 a year for that same property. That is a small example, but it demonstrates the advantage of looking at things oneself.

That case—the hon. Gentleman and I may view it from different angles—demonstrated what I found when I first started asking questions. The palace said in its recent statement that the apartment had five

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bedrooms and five living rooms. In a parliamentary answer, the Department said that that same property had seven bedrooms and seven living rooms. I suspect that the truth is that the other two bedrooms and living rooms were for staff and therefore did not count in the palace's version. When I first started asking about grace and favour accommodation, I pursued a series of questions for about 12 months. As a result of the constant changing of the figures that the Department received from the palace, we discovered 100 grace-and-favour apartments that the Department did not even know existed. There is a value in scrutiny, which we may pursue with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

I want to raise the issue of no-go areas. We have produced about 70 reports, but we have been impeded in some ways by the existence of no-go areas, some of which the Chairman has referred to. The BBC is one of the most outrageous examples. I shall discuss that at some length. The National Audit Office is not allowed to audit the BBC, even though it receives £2.5 billion of statutorily raised money in the form of the fee, which, in Sharman's terms, constitutes public money. It should be monitored by the NAO.

As it happened, Mr. Dyke and the permanent secretary appeared before us to answer questions in relation to collecting the television licence fee. In our discussions, he repeated the old standby argument that if the BBC allowed the NAO and the PAC to investigate and audit its resources, its editorial freedom would be undermined. As we cannot consider policy, I do not see how that could arise. In any case, the BBC appears before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, which can consider policy, to discuss its work, but it cannot appear before us to discuss money. One is left with a clear impression that they are more worried about money than about editorial freedom, because, of course, we audit the BBC World Service, and have done so for many years. In the more than 12 years that I have been on the Committee, I have never been aware of any complaint from the BBC that our monitoring of the overseas service had in any way impinged on its editorial freedom. I thought that we should confirm that, however, so I asked the permanent secretary if she would check with her Department whether there had been any complaints about the role of the NAO and the PAC in relation to the World Service in the previous six years. A footnote to our report states:

Thus the argument does not stand up.

It got worse, however. Mr. Dyke displayed a sheer arrogance, verging on contempt for the Committee, which was revealed in his answers to questions. I pursued the issue with him and, in answer to question 223, he said:

I followed up by asking,

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Mr. Dyke responded:

I responded:

Mr. Dyke replied:

Therefore, according to Mr. Dyke, he had taken the trouble to prepare to answer a question that he was not prepared to answer when he came to the Committee.

I ask my colleagues to cast back their memories: I recollect that from that stage I became somewhat impatient with Mr. Dyke; I called in the Comptroller and Auditor General, and I mentioned the matter of contempt of Parliament. Strangely, there is no mention of that in the minutes. I had the Clerk check the transcripts this morning. I draw that to your attention, too, Madam Deputy Speaker, as responsibility for Hansard rests also with you. In some mysterious way, part of the hearing—it may have been ill-tempered, and I may have been fractious and wrong, in which case I do not deserve to be protected from my wrong-headedness—has not been recorded as it should have been. If my hon. Friends recollect the occasion—

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