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Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con):
I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but does it reassure him that, on Report at least, there will be a more than adequate opportunity to table further
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amendments should Members who were not on the Standing Committee wish to do so? He should not be unduly concerned about the Committee stage.
Mark Simmonds: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. He took part in the Second Reading debate, and he takes an extreme and consistent interest in these matters. I look forward to his contributions on Report.
This debate is vital. The Government are considering extending the Bill to include a provision allowing the effectiveness of British bilateral aid spending to be assessed in more than just the 10 largest recipient countries as specified in the Bill, and possibly doubling the number. As I am sure all Members will agree, the money resolution would greatly strengthen the assessment of aid effectiveness. It would ensure accountability for more than just 44.2 per cent. of bilateral aid spending and would include countries such as Mozambique and Kenyawhich are currently excludedas recent allegations demonstrate the necessity for increased accountability and transparency. Such an amendment may involve a corresponding increase in costs, which may or may not be covered by the resolution. Similarly, a proposal to increase the Bill's scope to include humanitarian aidto which reference has already been madecould have a varying impact on its financial implications, particularly as the number and extent of humanitarian aid programmes are unpredictable.
I hope and trust that the resolution will authorise general expenditure resulting from the Bill, probably covering issues that I and others have raised, such as independent monitoring and assessment criteria relating to the millennium development goals. However, I think it is still important to consider how such expenditure may arise, and the nature of any proposed amendments is therefore of great importance.
While I understand the generic nature of the money resolution, the Minister said that he had an idea of the maximum charge that must not be extended. Can he also tell us whether he expects the estimate for future financial years to be the same as the first-year estimates? Are the costs front-loaded, or will they increase over time as the aid budget grows exponentially towards 0.7 per cent. of gross domestic product? The Minister spoke of plans for expenditure covering only three years. Why should that be the case, given that the 0.7 per cent. will not be reached until 2013, seven years from now? Can the Minister assure us that the cost of the Bill will be financed by the reduction in leakage that its implementation will facilitate, and will not have a negative impact on poverty alleviation?
As it stands, the motion will not prevent any amendments tabled after Second Reading from being discussed in Committee. However, it would have been useful if the Minister had tabled Government amendments earlier, so that their possible implications could have been discussed during this debate.
Neither the Minister nor any other Member may amend the motion. That preserves its generic nature, and the guarantee that it covers all eventualities. If it has to be altered, the original version must be withdrawn and resubmitted with its scope extended. Such action would hinder the Bill's progress, and Conservative Members do not want that. I trust that the Minister will confirm that there are no circumstances in which such an eventuality would arise.
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Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Given the importance that the Government attach to the Bill's passage, what consideration have they given to speeding up the process by providing Government time rather than private Members' time on Fridays?
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): This motion illustrates all too well the weaknesses of the money resolution process, as both the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) have illustrated rather well. As is so often the case, the House is being asked to endorse what amounts to a blank cheque. That would be bad enough in the best of circumstances, but in the case of this Bill it is particularly egregious.
"it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of . . . any expenditure incurred by the Secretary of State in consequence of the Act; and . . . any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money so provided".
If that is not a blank cheque, I do not know what is. Because we normally know from a given Bill's Second Reading its parameters and detailed provisions, we can make a rough estimate of such expenditure; indeed, I seem to recall that on certain very rare occasions, Ministers have been kind enough to give the House some idea of the expenditure involved. However, this is a different case altogether.
At one and the same time, it contains too many provisionsa point commented on by the Minister and criticised by my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegnessand too few. Indeed, many contributions on Second Reading suggested, very positively and helpfully, provisions that could be included in it.
All these issues will have financial ramifications. We are in the absurd position of being asked by the Government to approve a money resolution for a Bill that we know will be amended, both in Committee and on Report, by Ministers and, I hope, by other Members of the House when we are given an opportunity to do so. How can we possibly, on behalf of our taxpayers, sign up to the incurring of "any expenditure" by the Secretary of State in respect of a Bill whose provisions we know will be radically altered by both the Government and the House at large?
This surely is an absurdity and we should not be prepared to accept it. I shall therefore be very reluctant to give my support to such a money resolution, but I should point out that I am looking forward enormously to considering the Bill on Report. It is substantial, containing many clauses, and we know from Second Reading that the House will want to debate many
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aspects of it, probably at length, and to vote on it, probably repeatedly, in order to ensure that it is absolutely right and achieves the objectives set out for it. So although the money resolution is unfortunate, misdirected, mistimed and wrong, I hope that we can correct all that in Committee and on Report.
Mr. Thomas: With your leave, Mr. Speaker, I shall reply briefly to one or two of the points that have been made. The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds) may now be aware that Government amendments and amendments from my right hon. Friend the Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Mr. Clarke) are being tabled as we speak. I recognise that Members like to have early sight of Government amendments; nevertheless, all will want the Government to take time to get them right. I hope that Opposition Membersand, indeed, Government Memberswill appreciate the amendments that are being tabled.
The hon. Member for Boston and Skegness asked about the distribution of expenditure and whether some will be front-loaded. Some investment in new systems will indeed be required, so some front-loading will be necessary. He also asked why a three-year period is specified, given that it will take seven years to reach the 0.7 per cent. target. The three-year period relates to the comprehensive spending review period. We will not necessarily be able to speed up progress toward the 0.7 per cent. target; it would take the international finance facility to do that. If the hon. Gentleman is aware of any leakage, I hope that he will inform us of it, so that we can take action to correct it. I can reassure him that I foresee no scenario in which we will have to withdraw the money resolution.
The hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) asked whether Government time and other assistance might be needed to speed up the Bill's passage. Given that it has the support of Front Benchers in all parts of the House, there should be no circumstances in which Government time is needed to progress the Bill. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could seek reassurance from the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) that he agrees with that assessment.
The right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst asked for more information on the distribution of costs. The regulatory impact assessment was, I believe, made available in the Library last week, and it provides some clarity on how the costs are set out.
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