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Lord Higgins: My Lords, I support the amendment. My noble friend Lady Anelay of St Johns has set out clearly the issues which concern her. Of course, both my noble friend and the Minister who is to reply have been deeply involved in issues surrounding the Dome for a considerable time.
In subsequent amendments we shall turn to the question of how the finances of non-departmental public bodies should be treated. However, the Dome is a specific case on which I think it is appropriate to focus at this point, not only for the reasons given by my noble friend but also because the question of whether such bodies should be audited by the National Audit Office is extremely important. No doubt the Minister will be able to confirm immediately whether the organisation concerned with the Dome will be audited by the National Audit Office as regards both financial propriety and value for money.
As far as concerns propriety, in the light of the remarks made by my noble friend and of the evidence submitted to the Select Committee to which she referred, it appears that the organisation may be in danger of finding itself trading in a condition of insolvency. Perhaps the Minister can tell the House whether that will be the case. It is important to ensure that the assets and liabilities of the organisation are set out clearly by the government department which has responsibility, at least to a certain extent, for its operation.
As to value for money, it is important to establish whether the National Audit Office will be able to look into the affairs of the Dome with that in mind. Inquiries based on value for money objectives were established some 20 years ago in the National Audit Office. Those inquiries are of great value. It is always a matter of concern if a letter of direction has to be issued to a particular body. If I understand correctly, the letter was issued on the grounds that further investment would not--I repeat, would not--represent value for money.
I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us on all these points. I think that my noble friend was right to draw the attention of the House to this matter in the context of the Bill as a whole.
Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, I, too, support the amendment moved by my noble friend, which I describe as the "throwing good money after bad" amendment. In it my noble friend seeks to ensure that the shambles which has taken place in the past cannot continue without a great deal more accountability than has been seen to be the case so far as concerns the tragedy of the Dome.
On this occasion, can the Minister take the opportunity to dissociate himself and the Government from the statement made yesterday by Mr Ayling who, when looking for another scapegoat, declared that the whole problem lay in the fact that the public had let the Dome down by not visiting it sufficiently?
Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I admire the ingenuity of the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, in using this Bill in order to try to introduce a debate on the finances of the Dome. I admire, too, the ingenuity of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in using the amendment to anticipate matters which I believe should be more properly debated in later amendments. The House will forgive me if I reply to the amendment rather than to the speeches.
Because the first accounts under this clause will be for 2001-02 at the earliest, it is likely that most payments concerned with the New Millennium Experience will be accounted for under the current system of cash-based appropriation accounts rather than under the resource-based system introduced by the Bill. To the extent that any payments relating to this matter are relevant to accounts prepared under this clause, then they will be included in those accounts. However, I do not believe that it is necessary or appropriate to refer specifically to this issue on the face of the Bill.
The only remark that I should like to make in addition to that explanation, in response to the questions put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, concerning the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General--this point might not arise naturally out of our debates on later amendments--is that I understand that the National Audit Office has already announced that it will be carrying out a value for money study into the Dome.
Baroness Anelay of St Johns: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, even if he believes that he was replying only to the amendment rather than to the speeches made in support of it. Perhaps I may assure him that, in framing my speech, I did so very much with the public interest in mind, which also forms the basis of my amendment. I am grateful, too, for the support of my noble friends.
However, I am concerned that the Minister states that the Bill already allows for the fact that there will be clarity as regards the accounts for moneys "paid out"--I believe that the Minister used those words. Perhaps I may remind the Minister that I am concerned also with moneys made available to the Dome and then repaid during the year. This matter is one to which I shall return in greater detail on another day. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
The noble Lord said: My Lords, in moving the amendment I shall speak also to a long series of amendments grouped with it. I hope that noble Lords will allow me to make a few opening remarks because the amendments cover an important part of the Bill.
Perhaps I may express my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for the two letters that he has written to me following our discussions in Grand Committee. Against the background of the provisions set out in the Bill, the Government have announced that the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, is to chair a group which will look into various aspects of the Government's financial affairs. That is very welcome, as was the letter from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, in which he drew attention to a Written Answer he gave a few days ago concerning the membership of the steering group to review the audit and accounting arrangements for central government. I agree with what the noble Lord said in his letter; namely, that the group will comprise a highly distinguished membership. We shall not see the "usual suspects", but rather a number of people who have vast experience in this area and on whose judgment one can reasonably rely.
The list, in alphabetical order, begins with the Comptroller and Auditor General and ends with Mr Alan Williams, a member of the Public Accounts Committee in another place. I mention Mr Williams because he was my peer for some 20 years. I assure the House that he is a man of the utmost integrity and reliability. This matter is important, and the Government have done well in their selection, although I understand that there will be additions to the list and that the terms of reference have not yet been considered.
The fact that this initiative has been taken should not in any way inhibit your Lordships from expressing views on the various amendments on the Marshalled List. Many of the arguments in favour of them are simply overwhelming. Should further thought be necessary in the light of the study group findings, we can rely on further legislation to put the matter right. In a sense, the Bill is a missed opportunity. There have been only two or three Bills of this kind in the past century. Time having been found for the Bill, to discover that other matters still need to be considered is unfortunate.
Another point on which I am not entirely clear relates to the proposals for the new investigation. What is the relationship between the so-called steering group to which I have referred and the group chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Sharman? There is presently some confusion. Will the steering group be concerned simply with such matters as terms of reference, or will it be concerned with the content of what is eventually reported to Parliament?
I turn now to the second letter that the Minister was kind enough to write to me, relating specifically to the amendments. There is a problem in that it is difficult to group the amendments in any way other than that
Problems arise both in regard to the government amendments and my own. Instead of dividing the issue of who should set accountancy standards from the content of the accounts, all the provisions are contained in single amendments, making it impossible to split them; it is equally impossible to group them in any way other than altogether. I fear that my amendments, especially those that are consequential, are not appropriate at certain points in the Bill.
Essentially, there are three points to deal with. First, who sets the standards on which government accounts should be based? Secondly, what form should the accounts take? Thirdly, and most importantly, should the standards and bases of the accounts be set by the Treasury or by some independent body? It will probably be most convenient if I speak to the government amendments and my amendments to them, rather than to my own amendments, since much of the ground covered is the same.
My amendments refer to the financial resources advisory committee and suggest that throughout the Bill it should be that body, rather than the Treasury, which should determine the accounting basis to be used by the Government. Much the same ground is covered by the government amendments, in particular Amendments Nos. 7, 21 and 26. Amendment No. 7 covers both points. The first part of the amendment states that the Treasury shall,
On the question of who should set the accounts, I suggest in my amendments that it should be the financial resources advisory committee, whereas the Government say that it should be the accounting standards board. I do not necessarily have any problem with that. The Government refer again in Amendment No. 21 to the accountancy standards board. Finally, in Amendment No. 26, they change tack and suggest that a body shall be set up--which I understand is to be the FRAB, although it is not mentioned in terms--to advise on certain aspects of the accounts. As regards the first two amendments, it is appropriate that the body should be the accounting standards board limited; and so far as concerns further advice, in the third amendment it is the FRAB. So there is no great problem with that.
This is a matter of particular concern. One of the major changes that will take place as a result of a movement to resource accounting is that for the first time there will be what amounts to a balance sheet for individual government departments and indeed for the whole of government accounts. This is a substantial advance and is to be welcomed. However, as one of my other amendments points out, it is important that there should be a balance sheet and that it should include contingent liabilities as well as other liabilities. The relevance of that is particularly appropriate in the area of social security, for which I have responsibility, especially in regard to pensions in the Department of Social Security accounts. It would be helpful if we could be clear that the Government's amendments on the matter and my own are coextensive.
The Minister's letter spells out what he has in mind. I imagine that he will say much the same in response to this debate. But the crucial matter is in the amendments that I have tabled to the government amendments, in particular my Amendment No. 22 to government Amendment No. 21, and my Amendment No. 27 to government Amendment No. 26.
The amendments propose that, in taking action under the Bill, the Government should accept whatever is proposed by the Accounting Standards Board and the FRAB. We are very concerned that the Government, in particular the Treasury, should not determine the form of the accounts. I have already quoted the example of the working families' tax credit which is treated as a tax reduction rather than an increase in public expenditure. The Government should not decide the way in which their accounts are presented; otherwise, there is far too much scope for presenting the figures in a way that is not in accordance with the underlying reality.
We on this side of the House strongly believe that, if this is the way in which the Government wish to deal with the matter, these two bodies should determine the accounting standards, in particular the adjustments to be made, because government accounts cannot be exactly the same as a company's accounts. At the end of the day, those bodies rather than the Treasury should be the final arbiter of the form and shape of the government accounts. It would be very strange if individual companies in this country could determine for themselves the accounting standards. Unless these amendments are accepted, essentially that is the position in which the Government will find themselves. I beg to move.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, we very much welcome the amendments tabled by the Government since the debate on this matter in Committee. We believe that the Government have moved a considerable way. As the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, made clear, at root is a real issue of substance; namely, whether the Treasury should itself set the guidelines. We on these Benches believe that the amendments tabled by the Minister now make it clear that, although the Treasury will still issue directives to departments--that is appropriate because it is to departments that directives are issued--they will be subject to standards laid down by the Accounting Standards Board. The Financial Reporting Advisory Board will review those standards and provide advice upon them. In his letter the Minister spelt out precisely the way in which that would be constituted. The deliberations of the board will be reported on and those reports will be made public by being laid before the House of Commons. In all these respects the Government have moved a considerable way in the direction that we indicated in Committee and, in that sense, we are prepared to accept the amendments.
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