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The Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission was asked—

National Audit Office

25. Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What recent assessment the Commission has made of the level of funding of the National Audit Office. [64566]
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Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough) (Con): The Public Accounts Commission considered the NAO's proposed estimate for 2006–07 on 28 February 2006 and endorsed its request for £70.4 million in resources for the current financial year. The NAO will use these resources to      support parliamentary scrutiny of Government programmes through a financial audit of some 470 central Government accounts, the production of 60 major reports on public expenditure programmes and the provision of advice and support for the Public Accounts Committee and other Select Committees.

Mr. Hollobone: I congratulate my hon. Friend on the tremendous work done by the NAO. Which report does he regard as its most successful?

Mr. Leigh: My hon. Friend may be aware that the Comptroller and Auditor General is entirely independent in terms of the reports that he brings to Parliament, but there was one report that I encouraged him to introduce. It was described by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury as a tour de force—it was written, of course, by the NAO and I take no credit for it—and it looked at how we can reduce waste across government. Whatever may divide this House in policy terms, surely we are united in the view that there is always room for improvement in abolishing waste in government, hence the report.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I wonder whether the amount that the hon. Gentleman referred to will be enough to conduct a full survey of the BBC's accounts. Does he believe that the NAO should adopt a complete and unfettered approach to the BBC's accounts?

Mr. Leigh: I agree; indeed, we have conducted a long-standing campaign to open up the BBC's accounts and have reached a voluntary arrangement in that regard. But there is no reason why this Parliament and the PAC should not have full oversight of the BBC, which spends up to £3 billion a year based on what is fundamentally a poll tax.


The hon. Member for Gosport, representing the Electoral Commission, was asked—

Polling Stations (Access)

26. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What the Commission's policy is on reducing the distance travelled by voters to a polling station. [64567]

Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): The Commission has published guidance on the factors that should be considered in deciding the location of polling stations, including voters' access needs. However, the responsibility for designating polling districts and places rests with local councils, which are required to do so with a view to giving all voters in their area such reasonable voting facilities as is practicable.

Mr. Bone: Will my hon. Friend comment on the fact that in recent by-elections in my constituency, polling
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stations have been withdrawn and people have had to travel a considerable distance to vote, which has discouraged them from voting? Will he take that into account and see whether anything can be done to change the situation?

Peter Viggers: The Commission cannot initiate a review of the location of a polling station. However,
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groups of 30 or more voters, and parish councils and their equivalents in Scotland and Wales, can make representations to the Commission if they believe that there is inadequate provision of facilities for voting in parliamentary elections in a particular area. The Commission may then decide to direct local authorities to alter polling places or stations.

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Points of Order

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to reply to a point of order, and then we will have today's points of order.

On 15 February, I undertook to investigate a matter raised with me by the hon. Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns). I know that the House will understand why my response is a little later than I would have wished. On 26 January, the hon. Gentleman tabled a priority written question to the Department of Health about a private finance initiative contract at his local hospital. The question was for answer on 31 January. On that date, the Department gave a holding reply, but it did not answer the question until a fortnight later, on 14 February. The hon. Gentleman also raised with me the fact that the text of that answer had been e-mailed by the Department to a journalist the previous day. The Minister concerned—the Minister of State, Department of Health, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms    Winterton)—wrote to me on 15 February apologising for the delay. She undertook to redouble efforts to ensure that questions were answered promptly. I am grateful, but the delay in this case was far too long.

On the sending of the e-mail, the Minister said that her Department received many requests for information through parliamentary questions, letters and telephone inquiries, and that she would expect answers to be consistent. This misses the point. Parliamentary questions are not to be regarded as just one sort of request for information. They are a key element in the accountability of Ministers to Parliament, and must be treated as such. In this case, the reply given to the journalist was more than simply consistent with the reply later given to the hon. Member: it was identical. This should not have happened, and I hope that lessons have been learned.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Have you been notified of the Health Secretary's intention to make an urgent statement to the House and answer questions on the crisis in the NHS? Otherwise, we will be in the same position on this matter, with the Health Secretary out and about giving all sorts of information to the media and answering questions from them, but saying nothing in this House on a matter of grave concern to right hon. and hon. Members on both sides.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following the remarks by the Secretary of State for Health, I looked at the
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accounts of a hospital in Fullwood in my constituency, and found that it has a deficit of £4 million. I will not now have an opportunity to question the Secretary of State on that until after the Whitsun recess. Could she be brought to the House so that MPs have an opportunity to question her on her statement?

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. This matter has been raised in the House, and it will be raised again. Therefore, what the Secretary of State has said outside the House has already been brought to the attention of the House. It is my priority that the Secretary of State keep the House informed, and as long as she does so, she conforms to the requirements that I have always stipulated. There are ways of questioning a Minister other than orally; as the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr.   Evans) knows, questions can be put in written form.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Following your comments and the points about the Health Secretary, I was a porter at Newmarket hospital on Friday morning, and there has been a collapse in morale in the health service—[Laughter.] That was because I offered them a visit by the Health Secretary. Given the problems of closure of wards and theatres and the collapse in morale, I hope that the Health Secretary will come to the House as a matter of urgency to explain the rising deficits and all the other problems of the NHS.

Mr. Speaker: I used to be a full-time officer looking after porters, and in the old days I would have given the hon. Gentleman a union card.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. [Hon. Members: "Mr. Speaker!"] I apologise, Mr. Speaker. Following your comments that the House should be fully informed, may I say that 700 jobs have been lost at my hospital trust since the Secretary of State came to the House for questions, and that we have a deficit of £30 million? Doctors, nurses and porters are being made redundant, and the House has not been informed about that.

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