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There is a valid case for the Bill, which is popular and necessary. The British people feel strongly about their identity; we all do, and I certainly do. I hope that we will be given one further chance to look at the matter in greater detail to ensure that the idea is not killed stone dead today. I hope that the Minister understands that unless we address that today, future generations will not have any knowledge of it. All that
29 Jun 2007 : Column 628
could be lost, and things would fall into history. Today, we have a chance to restore them and put them back together without undoing the existing system of local government or creating huge extra expenditure or necessarily causing extra signs to be put up—which, as the Minister pointed out, could create clutter and have other implications. I therefore hope that my Bill is allowed to go into Committee. I hope that hon. Members will give it one more chance to go forward, and on that basis I commend it to the House.

Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second Time:—

The House divided: Ayes 19, Noes 1.
Division No. 168]
[1.23 pm


Carswell, Mr. Douglas
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Gauke, Mr. David
Grayling, Chris
Greening, Justine
Heald, Mr. Oliver
Heath, Mr. David
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Jenkin, Mr. Bernard
McIsaac, Shona
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
Osborne, Mr. George
Pugh, Dr. John
Randall, Mr. John
Rosindell, Andrew
Williams, Hywel
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. Mark Lancaster and
Mr. Robert Goodwill

Mackinlay, Andrew

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Frank Roy and
Jonathan Shaw

It appearing on the report of the Division that fewer than 40 Members having taken part in the Division, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the business under consideration stood over until the next s itting of the House.

Government Spending (Website) Bill [Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

1.34 pm

Mr. David Gauke (South-West Hertfordshire) (Con): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am speaking in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who originally put down his name for this Bill, which originated in the House of Lords. Given his concentration on foreign affairs, however, I have agreed to step into his place.

The Bill would establish a publicly searchable website containing information about expenditure by all Departments and Executive agencies. The idea is not entirely original: the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act was passed in the US in 2006 with bipartisan support, including that of Senator Barack Obama and other leading notables. In the US, any federal expenditure over the value of $25,000 must be recorded and the details must be made available on a website that is accessible by anybody.

The first reason I want to introduce such a website into the UK involves transparency. Where money is spent in the name of the public, it is right in principle that the public should be able to discover what that money has been spent on. That is an entirely sensible principle that should always stand. We should also be aware of evolving public expectations. Debate has raged in this House on recent Fridays about exemptions to freedom of information legislation for matters relating to this House. I have no intention of getting into that particular debate, but I have been struck by the way in which that issue has excited the public imagination. Strong feelings have been provoked, because the public increasingly have high expectations about what information should be available to them. There is a concern about secrecy and concealment, and there is a higher expectation that information will be provided.

Our media are evolving, and they are no longer concentrated in the hands of the few—in some respects, they are in the hands of the many—because of the development of the internet. We have seen the rise of bloggers. At the last US presidential election, for example, individuals with expertise in particular areas were able to participate—who would have thought that knowledge of typewriters used in 1970s army bases would be significant? Amateurs—I do not use the term in a pejorative sense—can engage through new technology in important public debates, but in order to do so they need information.

What better way of providing information is there than putting the details of public expenditure on to a single website, where people can study it and follow the money to see how Government spending is done? That is important not only in terms of transparency, but for the practical reason that we can use the public as a whole to scrutinise public expenditure. The National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee do a splendid job, but we can in a sense conscript the general public to hold the Government to account by scrutinising expenditure on a website.

The second reason the Bill should be allowed to progress is that it could enable us to achieve greater value for money. At this point, I am tempted to read out a whole list of areas of Government expenditure that seem absurd—a bumper book of Government waste. Although I could do that, I do not want to introduce a partisan point, because such waste will apply to any Government. There is always a way in which public money could be spent more wisely. The more we can scrutinise that, the better, and the less likely we are to have waste. I would argue that there is perhaps more waste at the moment than there should be, but I would rather not get into that; I would prefer to say that the more we scrutinise, the more we can achieve value for money for the taxpayer. The Government spend an enormous amount of money on our behalf—more than £500 billion last year, and it is continuing to rise. It has risen in absolute terms and has risen considerably as a percentage of gross domestic product. The need to scrutinise the value for money that our Government achieve becomes greater as time goes on. The Bill would give the general public, as well as journalists and politicians—it would certainly be useful for MPs—the tools with which to do that.

Let me briefly outline the Bill’s provisions. Clause 1 goes to the heart of the matter—it would require the Treasury to create a Government expenditure website. Clause 2 would give the Government the power to extend that to other public sector bodies, not only Government agencies but any other element within the public sector that receives funds directly or indirectly from a Government Department or Executive agency. Clause 3 would give the Treasury powers to determine content and availability. It would not be appropriate for the Bill to deal with every single detail; it is helpful to set up the framework and then let the details be dealt with by statutory instrument.

Clause 4 provides some important and practical exemptions. Clearly, we would not want to detail expenditure in areas where it would in any way damage national security, the effectiveness of our armed forces, or relations with other states or with international organisations or courts. Clause 5 deals with another practical difficulty with regard to data protection. It provides an exemption in view of the fact that some information would infringe other people’s data rights. Clause 6 would give the Information Commissioner the power to examine the Government’s compliance with the objectives set out in the Bill.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): On clause 5, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that it is his intention to exempt, for example, any payments that might be made to a person in for an industrial injury, which would not necessarily be an appropriate thing to put into the public domain? Indeed, as he no doubt knows, it sometimes enhances the capacity of the two parties—employer and employee—to reach a solution if the matter is kept private.

Mr. Gauke: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who makes an excellent point. I entirely concur. Clause 5 is intended precisely for that kind of circumstance. He provides a useful example that illustrates my point; I am sure that we could come up with others.

Clause 7 would require the Government to provide an annual report to both Houses of Parliament. Clause 8 ensures that any statutory instruments follow the affirmative resolution procedure.

Let me tackle the practical concerns that may arise and perhaps anticipate the remarks of the hon. Member for Lincoln (Gillian Merron)—I join other hon. Members in congratulating on her new post. I do not know whether this morning was a foretaste of things to come—for her sake, I hope not. However, we see the breadth of her expertise today.

Cost will be a practical concern. An obvious remark is that implementing the Bill will be expensive. However, the evidence from the United States suggests that that is not the case. The US estimate for the trial period, from 2007-11, of the cost of the new website is $15 million. Of course, the US is a much bigger economy than ours, but the figure relates to federal, not state expenditure. None the less, if it costs as little there, we should not be too alarmed about incurring substantial costs in the UK. Indeed, there may be potential savings. For example, if matters are routinely put on the website, savings could be made through a reduction in the number of parliamentary questions.

Andrew Miller: Let me try to help put the US comparison into perspective. The hon. Gentleman said that the federal Administration, not the state Administrations, incurred the cost. Does he know roughly how many transactions are involved in the $15 million expenditure?

Mr. Gauke: I cannot answer that. The website is being introduced now, in the course of this year. I cannot therefore tell the hon. Gentleman the number of transactions. We should explore the matter in greater detail in Committee, but I stress that it is not expensive. Of course, it is difficult to imagine that greater transparency and throwing light on Government expenditure will not identify considerably greater savings when the information is in the public domain.

Another practical point that may be made is that much information is already in the public domain, for example, on the Treasury website, in the Red Book and so on. However, there is nothing as comprehensive or easily accessible in the UK when compared with the US. We all know, as Members of Parliament, that there are times when it can be difficult to go from one source to another, from one Department to another and so on when searching for information. Although various publications exist, we do not have one specific source. Members of Parliament have the privilege of asking parliamentary questions. Again, I could provide a long list, but it would not be a good use of time, of occasions when information about Government expenditure is requested but the answer is that it could be provided only at disproportionate cost. If we build into the system the provision of information on a website, the problem goes away.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Is my hon. Friend aware that large-scale trawls have taken place when a request has been made under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and that, for example, health trusts had to provide much information, which proved expensive and distracted them from their work?

Mr. Gauke: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We can ask parliamentary questions and make FOI requests. The general public can do the latter, too. However, that can be time consuming for those seeking and those providing the information. It would be better if that process were more systematic. Let me revert to the US example, which may be of interest to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller).

In the US, there is a de minimis requirement that the information is provided if the transaction is greater than $25,000. The Bill would permit a similar provision, which would rule out some of the silly and trivial matters that would cause disproportionate difficulties, while allowing the larger ones to be addressed.

Concern has been expressed about revealing improper information. There are provisions in the Bill to protect personal data and to ensure that national security, our armed forces and our relations with overseas Governments and institutions are protected. That is only right. Given that this is an enabling Bill, there is scope for greater provision for the Treasury to identify particular areas of concern.

This is an important Bill that deserves further consideration. We are living in a time when the public expect to have information and to be able to scrutinise what the Government, of whatever party, are doing. We are living in a world of greater openness and transparency in which more people can participate in the public debate because of the evolution of technology, which is to be welcomed. We are also living in a world in which Government expenditure is considerable. If we wish to enable the public to participate in debates on value for money, and if we want greater scrutiny and greater value for money in public expenditure, the Bill would provide a useful tool for ourselves and the public. It would benefit this country for the Government to have a website setting out their expenditure.

1.52 pm

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) is presenting an intriguing idea, and I can certainly see the merits of some aspects of his argument. He is right to say that the nature of the media and of the world that we live in is changing. We now live in a world of blogs and of instant camera shots from so-called newsworthy scenes.

A few months ago, I was privileged to participate in a seminar at St. George’s house at Windsor castle, under the chairmanship of Sir David Brown, the chairman of Motorola, entitled “The media in a seamless, mobile age”. Some of the issues that we discussed impinge on what the hon. Gentleman has been saying. The nature of the relationship between the media and the Government, and between the media and the people, has changed. The media have become an immensely more powerful tool. Individuals, through blogs, have become their own publishing houses and can portray information in any way that they choose, and it is sometimes a misleading and inaccurate way. Some of us might accuse The Mail on Sunday of doing that on a regular basis.

There is an argument that the more transparent the Government machinery becomes, the more difficult it is for misinformation to be the order of the day. I
accept that point. I have some difficulty, however, with the hon. Gentleman’s evidence about the cost of the provision. I was trying to do some mental arithmetic on the number of transactions in the Government and their agencies that would be in excess of a certain figure. If we use the American de minimis provision of $25,000 and round it up and call it £15,000, for the sake of argument, that would result in a huge number of transactions. I suspect—I am open to correction when my hon. Friend the Minister replies—that that is not comparing apples with apples. The federal Administration in the United States undertake a lot of detailed expenditure in areas of direct federal responsibility, such as defence. That would involve a huge number of figures, but a lot of that would be outwith the scope of the Bill.

If we analyse the number of direct transactions for which the House takes responsibility, because of our different structure I suspect we will find that the hon. Gentleman’s comparison with the United States is not reasonable. For $15 million, we will not get the kind of tool that he wants. The big cost is not the establishment of the tool but the data flows into it. That could only be made feasible through a great deal more integration between operating systems in Government Departments, whereby information from different systems could be integrated at the press of a button.

That would take a leap of faith on the part of Opposition parties, all of which have expressed concern, reservations and opposition to the centralising of data as envisaged in the transformational government White Paper. When the concepts described in the transformational government White Paper bear fruit, the kind of change that the hon. Gentleman suggests would be feasible, and would have a lower impact on the public purse. If, however, somebody offered him a choice between spending £10 million in his constituency or spending it on setting up a central Government website, I know that, as I would, he would regard a brand new hospital, new schools, new roads or more policeman for his constituency as a higher priority.

If the Opposition are serious about helping such transparency to come about, we need them to come on board with the philosophy behind the transformational government White Paper, so that sensible data sharing can take place, with the kind of protections that he rightly describes. In that regard, the role of the Information Commissioner is mission-critical. He may have seen some articles I wrote about that in The House Magazine some months ago . It is possible to create the kind of mechanisms in which the public would have confidence, which would allow data sharing, and which would in turn make his approach perfectly feasible. But I caution the House about leaping into that as a separate, one-off project in isolation. In practice, the cost would be considerably more than £15 million.

I am a fan of transparency—I have always said that if people want to see my office accounts, they are welcome to do so. I have even said that to candidates who have stood against me. We, as public servants, ought to be transparent, and Government Departments should also be transparent. There is nothing wrong in principle with what the hon. Gentleman is saying. However, he should persuade his colleagues to take a more forward-looking approach to those things that are fundamental
to the changes that reflect the world in which we live—a world that has to deal with instant responses in blogs and so on.

People expect Governments to change accordingly. Like me, the hon. Gentleman will no doubt receive dozens of e-mails from constituents who think that because they can press a button and send a message instantly, we have the capacity to reciprocate instantly. I am sure that, as a matter of course, he prioritises his responses based on his constituents’ needs rather than their ability to communicate rapidly.

We must think the proposal through carefully. I would support the hon. Gentleman in keeping pressure on Her Majesty’s Government to improve transparency, but I urge the Opposition to think about my remarks. The hon. Gentleman set out a powerful case for why, if we are to have better governance and more transparency, there is a need to use IT sensibly so that costs are driven down. We do not want a separate system bolted on the end because that would drive costs up, and by considerably more than £15 million in my judgment.

2.1 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I am pleased that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) was here to move the Second Reading of the Bill. I understand why the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) was unable to be present.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire espoused the important principle of transparency, which would make the affairs of the Government and information on the use of public money more available to the taxpayer. The Bill builds on a strong feeling that many of us have, which is that the House is not at all good at scrutinising Government expenditure. The apparatus of the House almost militates against it. We have a myth called estimates day. It is a myth because it is supposed to be the day when we look at what the Government are spending, but we do nothing of the kind. We use it as an excuse for a useful debate on a subject of choice, but we do not examine Government expenditure in any realistic way. The level of scrutiny right through the system is riddled with inconsistencies. There is a lack of information, which is what the Bill is about, and a lack of rigour in applying scrutiny.

We have the National Audit Office, and it does an excellent job, as does the Public Accounts Committee. In many ways, however, our colleagues on the PAC merely scratch the surface of Government expenditure. They look at specific topics that have come to the notice or interest of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the NAO, which they scrutinise in depth and produce interesting points for discussion and lessons to be learned by the Government. The great merit of the Bill is that it would open up that information to anyone who wished to access it so that they could ask the relevant question and do the relevant sums. It is not the Government’s money; it is our money, because it derives from the taxpayer. People should be able to ask why it is being used in a particular way.

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