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When I was involved in local government, one of the great arguments was whether we could have zero-based budgeting and whether it would be a good idea to build up a budget each year from zero, rather than making
incremental changes. There is obvious merit in zero-based budgeting, but it is also extraordinarily difficult and, in terms of national expenditure, probably impossible. One of the substitutes is complete transparency about what is being done.

I see the Bill as one of a series of potential reforms, some of which would be of this House. As I have said, I would like to see estimates days and our scrutiny of the comprehensive spending review much better organised and more focused. We should have specialist resources available to Members and those outside—it has been described as the “Office of the Taxpayer”—so that similar resources are available to those scrutinising the Treasury as there are to the Treasury itself. That would enable better scrutiny of the figures on the proposed website, so that Members could better do the job that our constituents assume we do in scrutinising Government expenditure. If we had such a resource to advise individual Members and Select Committees, they could do their job that much better.

Other simple procedural changes could see evidence-taking sessions on the Finance Bill, as other public Bills now have, with the benefit—if this Bill goes through—of serious information about Government expenditure. We would then be able to ask the questions that should be asked in the context of the Government’s expenditure and taxation plans.

There is a raft of reform that would greatly improve our scrutiny of Government spending. The Bill would be a starting point by putting information that is, obviously, known to the Government in the public domain in a much more effective way. However, I have some concerns about the Bill. For example, I am worried about some of the categories of exempt information. I especially note that information could be exempt if it were likely to prejudice relations between the United Kingdom and any other state, international organisation or international court, because we have heard that one before. If we had a Department of State, say the Ministry of Defence, paying large amounts of money to a dignitary of another state, say a Foreign or Defence Minister of a state in the middle east, it would be wise to put the spotlight of publicity on it, so that we could assess whether it was corrupt behaviour or not.

Andrew Miller: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but I should point out that such behaviour has been illegal since 2002.

Mr. Heath: That is an interesting point. Let us not be distracted into a debate on that point, but I think that we will find that the Ministry of Defence is still making payments that look very similar to the payments that were made illegal under the 2002 legislation. It alarms many of us that investigations into what could be a breach of the law have been discontinued, but that is a matter for another day. All I am saying is that transparency produces trust because it allows proper scrutiny. Transparency means that the Government cannot do things that they should not be allowed to do. That is the benefit of arrangements such as those in the Bill, and that is why I will certainly support it if the opportunity arises later this afternoon.


2.9 pm

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): I shall be as brief as I can, because I know that the Minister does not want the passage of this important Bill to be held up. I note that she volunteered to be Minister for Fridays because she enjoys them so much.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) on the cogent and logical way in which he presented the case for the Bill. There can be no doubt that the people of our country cherish the freedom of information that they have been given already—we need only consider the outrage that was felt when it was suggested that Members of Parliament might withdraw information that had previously been available. The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) referred to his office expenses, but surely knowing what is being spent in our education system and health service is every bit as important as knowing how many paperclips the hon. Gentleman has bought for his office. That is why the Bill is so important.

One of the problems we face is that the Freedom of Information Act is so often honoured in the breach rather than in the observance. The UK is a big company, and companies present accounts to their shareholders in great detail. UK plc turns over £523.4 billion, so people have a right to know what the money is spent on. It is difficult for members of the public and Members of Parliament to operate within the FOA because they do not always know which questions to ask—as Donald Rumsfeld said, there are known unknowns and unknown unknowns. I am sure the Department of Health and the Treasury hope that many questions will not be asked because the answers might be embarrassing. If we had known beforehand which questions to ask about the release of foreign prisoners, for example, we could have put information about the problems into the public domain.

How often are we told in answer to a parliamentary question that the cost of supplying the requested information is prohibitive? If the Government put the information on the web, we or journalists could do the hard work.

Andrew Miller: The hon. Gentleman is right—or he will be when there is better integration of datasets across the Government. Is he saying that the Opposition now support the principles set out in the transforming government White Paper?

Mr. Goodwill: The Opposition are aware that the Treasury must have some knowledge of what is going on in the accounts of UK plc, and we should like more of that information to be available to the general public.

Getting information from the internet is difficult and costly, but the cost should be borne by the people who need the information rather than by the Government who are searching for it. It has often been said that getting information from the internet is like getting a glass of water from a waterfall, but if the Government put information into the public domain, citizens will do the hard work of finding out what they want to know.


The Bill is infinitely sensible. It would provide a free website so that members of the public and others could find information about Government expenditure going back five years. However, there are some details that we shall need to explore if the Bill goes into Committee, as I hope it will. Data protection has been mentioned and there are provisions on national security, but we should consider the de minimis level for expenditure and a sensible definition of commercially sensitive information. I have often asked for information—for example, on a pharmacy in East Ayton—only to be told that it is commercially sensitive. There could be savings in providing such information on a website, because civil servants would not need to search for it to provide answers to parliamentary questions.

We support the Bill in its aim to make freedom of information a reality rather than just a concept that can in practice be fraught with difficulty and prevarication. As my hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor said when he unveiled his “follow the money” campaign in November:

Many people reasonably ask where the extra tax they have paid has been spent and how much has been wasted. The Bill would empower each of Her Majesty’s subjects who has access to the web. If the Prime Minister is so proud of his record at No. 11, why should he fear the Bill? I commend the Bill to the House; it is a no-brainer.

2.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Cabinet Office (Gillian Merron): I thank the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Gauke) for his courteous and kind words about my new position, and for standing in for his colleague, the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). I am sure the hon. Gentleman is most appreciative. I, too, am standing in for a colleague who is well respected in the House and who will do a tremendous job in this role—whoever they are.

The Government have made great strides in openness and transparency in many areas, as we have in promoting value for money, especially in respect of public expenditure. The Government do not support the Bill, not because we have any objections to its apparent aims, but because it is unnecessary and because the burden and costs that it would impose have not been adequately considered. I will elaborate on those points.

The Bill is unnecessary because a huge amount of public spending data are already made publicly available. For example, the Treasury’s public website already contains a great deal of information on public spending. There are copies of the central Government supply estimates for a five-year period, which contain detailed departmental spending plans for particular financial years. There are copies of public expenditure statistical analyses going back to 1999-2000, in which the data are broken down in a variety of ways, including by departmental groups, central and local government, public corporations, country and region, and function. There are copies of the Budget and pre-Budget reports going back to 1998. There is detailed information on Treasury spending controls,
including past and forthcoming spending reviews that set budgetary limits on spending by Departments, and there is a public sector finances databank, which is updated monthly and contains runs of data for various aspects of expenditure and finance. That list of available information is quite weighty, but it is by no means exhaustive. It simply gives a flavour of the large amount of public expenditure information that is already available on the Treasury’s public website.

In addition, the websites of other Departments provide a variety of financial information, whether in the form of departmental reports, audited departmental accounts or spending information relating to non-departmental public bodies or Executive agencies. Audited resource accounts for Departments provide the most comprehensive and accurate information on actual expenditure outturn. The Government have made strides to speed up the provision of such information. The faster closing of resource accounts requires those accounts to be presented to Parliament before the summer recess, which I hope the House will welcome. Importantly, departmental reports also provide information regarding public service agreements, to show not only how much we spend, but what we are achieving with the resources. Most public spending data currently made available relate to full financial years—whether outturn or plans.

What is most important is that detailed, accurate and independently audited information about public spending is made available as soon as it is reasonable to do so. Work is already under way in the Treasury to expand further the quantity of expenditure information on the public website, as well as to restructure the information to make it easier to navigate and search. That means that the public website will also hold detailed background and guidance material relating to public spending issues. I hope that hon. Members welcome that development.

A great deal of public spending data, broken down in many ways, is already freely available, but the Bill is unnecessary for a second reason, which is that any interested parties are able, if necessary, to seek further information under the Freedom of Information Act, which the Government introduced in 2000. The Act is part of the Government’s drive towards more open and accountable government. It creates a statutory right of access to Government information, subject of course to the necessary exemptions and safeguards, which strike an appropriate balance between openness and the ability of public bodies to conduct their business efficiently and effectively. The Act is an important and powerful tool and any public expenditure information not already published—a considerable amount is published—could be sought under its provisions. Any refusals of such requests must be properly justified and are subject to scrutiny by the Information Commissioner.

A further concern about the Bill relates to the potential for relatively poor-quality data to appear under the planned process. When the issue was discussed in another place it was stated:


That is all well and good, but the quality of data is vital, not least to a consistent approach. Financial information that has been audited, or scrutinised and validated centrally by the Treasury, is surely of greater value in the long term.

As I have said, the burden of cost that the Bill would impose has not been adequately considered. When the matter was discussed in another place, it was stated that the expected cost of the Bill would be £2 million in the first year and £7.5 million over four years. It was acknowledged that such costs were based on estimates produced by the US Congressional Budget Office of the cost of implementing not dissimilar legislation in the US by 2008. The US estimate suggested that it would cost $15 million to set up and maintain such a website over the first five years.

Mr. Goodwill: Does the Minister have any estimate of the savings that could be made under the Bill? For example, civil servants would not have to spend time looking for information to respond to parliamentary questions and other freedom of information searches.

Gillian Merron: May I respectfully suggest that that might be a question for the Bill’s promoter? My job today is to assure the House of the steps that the Government take to provide the fullest information in the most accessible form to the widest number of people.

Several factors undermine the validity of such a broad-brush approach. The Congressional Budget Office report acknowledged:

It also stated that according to the Office of Management and Budget,

The US costings make it clear that existing US databases covering such things as federal assistance awards and applications for federal grants would mean that compliance costs would be reduced because the required information was already available. In addition, the US Congressional Budget Office report did not attempt to measure likely compliance costs for those who would have to input the data on the new website. As the report states:

I believe that before making such a legislative change in this country, it would be sensible and prudent to have a clear idea of the extent of the burden and cost that would be imposed.

The central requirement of the Bill is the creation of a new website specifically for spending data, but that could be seen as contrary to the recommendations that arose from Sir David Varney’s review of public service delivery, “Service transformation: A better service for citizens and businesses, a better deal for the taxpayer”—I hope that we can all unite around that
principle. The review was published on 6 December 2006. It is available on the Treasury public website and recommends

As hon. Members will be aware, the pre-Budget report noted that the Government strongly welcomed the report and had agreed to take forward its recommendations.

I urge hon. Members to consider the points that I have made and to join me in concluding that detailed Government spending information is made freely and publicly available and that the costs associated with the Bill have not been properly considered. I ask hon. Members to join me in opposing the Bill.

2.23 pm

Mr. Gauke: Let me address two points that the Minister made. She suggested that all the information is already out there. However, surely having one website on which all information—more than is available at present—could be found would bring about greater transparency.

I noted the Minister’s comments about costs. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr. Goodwill) pointed out, I have no doubt that the Bill would lead to savings owing to its effects on freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions. More substantially, given the greater scrutiny for which the Bill provides, we would get better value for money. Some of the most egregious examples of Government waste would be reduced because of the pressure that transparency would bring to bear on the Government and the civil service. I am afraid that I am not persuaded by the arguments presented by the Minister. I believe that the House should give the Bill a Second Reading.

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


The House divided: Ayes 15, Noes 2.
Division No. 169]
[2.25pm



AYES


Carswell, Mr. Douglas
Davies, Philip
Gauke, Mr. David
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Greening, Justine
Heath, Mr. David
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Howarth, David
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Kennedy, rh Mr. Charles
Mackinlay, Andrew
Mitchell, Mr. Andrew
Newmark, Mr. Brooks
Osborne, Mr. George
Steen, Mr. Anthony
Williams, Hywel
Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. John Randall and
Mr. Mark Lancaster
NOES


Dismore, Mr. Andrew
McIsaac, Shona
Tellers for the Noes:

Andrew Miller and
Jonathan Shaw

It appearing on the report of the Division that 40 Members were not present, Mr. Deputy Speaker declared that the Question was not decided, and the business under consideration stood over until the next sitting of the House.


Remaining Private Members’ Bills

TELECOMMUNICATIONS MASTS (pLANNING CONTROL) BILL

Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members: Object.

To be read a Second time on Friday 19 October.


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