|Higher Education Bill
The Chairman: Order. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is not debating the Chairman's ruling.
Mr. Rendel: Not for a moment, Mr. Hood. I would not dream of ignoring your ruling, which is why I sat down as soon as you made it.
Column Number: 54There is an interesting, if rather nice, constitutional point here about the precedents between the Government and Parliament. The Sharman report made it clear that Parliament votes the money for everything that the Government do, so reports on how that money has been spent should come back to Parliament. Clearly, Parliament may then question the Government about the way in which that money has been spent and how they handled the vote they were given. There is an argument to be made in line with the Conservative amendment. As that money has also been voted by Parliamentalbeit indirectlythe reports should come back to Parliament in the first instance. Can the Minister comment on that matter?
Alan Johnson: I shall try to cover the points raised. The hon. Members for Westmorland and Lonsdale and for Newbury have strayed into wider areas, but I should like to return to the amendment.
Amendment No. 124 would remove the requirement for the AHRC to provide a statement of accounts to the Secretary of State and transfer that line of reporting to Parliament. That is the Groundhog Day element of the matter. It is sensible that the AHRClike any other public bodyshould be accountable to the Secretary of State and provide statements to him. We have established that it is cheap to provide the money in that way.
Mr. Collins: The Minister advances an interesting and radical constitutional doctrine. He has just said that all public bodies should be accountable to a Secretary of State, not to Parliament. Is that his view?
Alan Johnson: I hesitate to point out that, ultimately, the statement will come to Parliament via the Comptroller and Auditor General. That was the hon. Member for Newbury's point. It is right that it should be provided to the Secretary of State first.
Similarly, in the case of amendment No. 123, as the Secretary of State will be allocating the funding, it is only appropriate that the AHRC provides statements of accounts for each financial year in accordance with the specification from the Secretary of State that we discussed in a similar amendment.
Amendment No. 129 would remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to transmit to the Comptroller and Auditor General a statement of accounts in a specified time period. As specified in clause 6, that time limit is there because it is consistent with the wording of the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000. That Act requires Departments to send their accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General by 30 November each year, and there is no intention of changing that requirement, which is governed by an act that governs all non-departmental Government bodies.
That does not differ from the AHRB arrangements. That is exactly how the AHRB operates, except that it has to go through a convoluted bureaucracy, because it is a company limited by guarantee. It reports as a company and to the Charity Commission as a registered charity. The provision will avoid making them go through that process. There will only, therefore, need to be a single report. In the
Column Number: 55Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000, 30 November is the latest date set out in statute, but best practice is to lay accounts before Parliament before the summer recess, and that is what the AHRC will be expected to do. That answers the point: the latest date that accounts can be submitted is 30 November, but best practice is that they are submitted much earlier.
Mr. Collins: The Minister is elucidating the point very helpfully. As we all know, technologyin particular, information technologyis marching along rapidly. In the world of e-mail, it is much quicker to produce most documents than was the case some years ago. He referred to 30 November as being written into legislation in 2000. Is it his understanding that Government might be prepared to considernot immediately or as part of this legislation, but in due coursethe case for bringing the date forward? That would reflect the fact that it is now easier to produce reports than was the case some years ago?
Alan Johnson: My radicalism has run out. I do not think that I can go that far, but it is sensible for any Government to keep arrangements under review. If there is any technology that enables us to improve the accounting arrangements, we should use that.
The other question that the hon. Gentleman asked was about which accountants are used. The AHRB has its own accountants. That will be the arrangement that will apply after it has converted to a research council. Those accountants work with the National Audit Office.
Mr. Collins: The Minister has answered that part of the question. The other part of it was whethereither now that the AHRB is part of the research councils' family but not itself a research council, or in future when it becomes a research councilhe would expect that the research councils collectively, including the arts and humanities one, would share the same accountant or, at least, the same accounting arrangements?
Alan Johnson: That would not be an expectation. That they use the same accounting arrangements is important, but I do not feel qualified to comment on whether they should use the same accountant. I am not sure whether there is sense in that arrangement, but I will pass the hon. Gentleman's comments on to the DTI.
The hon. Gentleman again asks us to make changes. It is a probing amendment, but I hope that I have given some answers. Making the changes would be inconsistent with the operation and accountability of the existing research councils, all of which have the same requirements. It would also be at odds with the well-established framework of accountability for non-departmental public bodies where public money is concerned. It is right that the statement of accounts be laid before Parliament, as would happen under our proposals. The amendment would prevent their submission to the Secretary of State first. The previous set of amendments removed the Secretary of State altogether.
Column Number: 56The set of amendments under discussion does not provide for the Secretary of State to receive the statement of accounts, instead it goes to Parliament; it removes him from asking for the accounts in a form and at a time when he requires; but it reintroduces him into the process to transmit each statement of accounts to the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is slightly illogical, but for no other reason than that it would be inconsistent with the current sensible arrangements.
Having given the assurances and the information that hon. Members requested I hope that they either withdraw the amendments or that the Committee rejects them.
Mr. Collins: The Minister has once again been able to provide several important assurances and clarifications. I am not sure that we agree with him that our amendments were entirely illogical; after all we would not wish to make the post of Secretary of State entirely redundant. None the less, on the basis of his assurances and considering that he has advanced arguments that he has already used persuasively, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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|Prepared 10 February 2004