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Lord Higgins: My Lords, I have not often served on committees set up to give reasons to your Lordships for rejecting or accepting amendments. However, like the noble Baroness, I believe that from time to time such committees are unimaginative and come up with the usual formula. In fairness to the Government, perhaps excessively so. The committee could have stated that it was making alternative arrangements which were better, and it missed a spin point!

However, the amendment is welcome and I join the noble Baroness in congratulating the War Widows Association and in particular the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, on the way in which she has pursued the provision.

Lord Goodhart: My Lords, we are sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, is not here today to see the final vindication of her campaign. We on these Benches strongly supported the amendment and are delighted that, although it will not reach the statute book, a better version will find its place. We are therefore entirely happy with the amendment.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, this is a very special parliamentary occasion for many of us in all

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parts of the House, not least of course for the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, whose constancy in the cause of making life better for Britain's war widows is rightly honoured by all who know her.

It is a special occasion also, as my noble friend said, for the admirable War Widows Association, over which the noble Baroness presides and of which the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes, and I have the honour to be vice-presidents.

The conventions of the House do not allow me from these Benches to call the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, as a Cross-Bencher, "my noble friend". But in fact we have been good friends and fellow campaigners for many years. Her parliamentary record is held in high admiration and has been further enhanced by her work on the Bill.

As she is unable for compelling family reasons to attend the debate, she asked me by letter to say how deeply sorry she is not to be here. Characteristically, she writes in praise of everyone who contributed to previous debates on this issue and specifically referred to my noble friends Lady Hollis, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean and Lord Carter, as well as to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, in full recognition that Ministers past and present who have been unable to help on the scenes have often done so behind them.

Her message also refers to the noble Lord, Lord Astor of Hever, the noble Earl, her kinsman, Lord Russell, Mrs Jacqui Lait MP and, of course, the noble Lord, Lord Freyberg, who has often spoken here and with such distinction about the rightful claims of war widows.

My right honourable friend Jeff Rooker MP has also been most supportive. Indeed, he personally espoused the war widows' cause and is to be warmly congratulated on his speech about it in another place on 24th July. He said:

    "Members of the armed forces enter into a unique contract with the state. In effect, they agree to die for their country if necessary. They are commanded to go into situations where they might be killed. It goes without saying that the people of this country ... are extremely grateful to them for their dedication, service and sacrifice".--[Official Report, Commons, 24/7/00; col. 816.]

That is the case which many of us here today--and of course the noble Baroness, Lady Strange--have argued in justification of the change in the law that has now been announced. For my part, I believe that of all duties that it falls to Parliament to discharge, none is of more compelling priority than our bounden duty to act justly to men and women who were prepared to lay down their lives for this country and the dependants of those who did so. That is the duty we are addressing today.

A war widow's pension is not a passport to la dolce vita, and it never has been--as I know from being the son of a war widow who was widowed when I was seven--any more than a war pension itself. Indeed, I am reminded of Kipling's sharp comment on the subject when he wrote:

    "Think where 'e's been,

Think what 'e's seen, Think of his pension-- An' Gawd save the Queen".

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I want also briefly to refer today to all the enormous help given by the Officers' Pensions Society on this and related issues of importance to war and service widows and, in particular, to the untiring efforts of its former General Secretary, Major General Peter Bonnet. I know that his friends on both sides of both Houses of Parliament wish him Godspeed in recovering from his illness and look forward to seeing him again soon. We shall rejoice to see him.

General Bonnet's successor, Major General James Gordon, wrote to me yesterday welcoming the Government's decision to introduce pensions for life for war widows, regardless of whether they remarry. However, like others of us, he deeply regrets the continuing exclusion of service widows and widows who have already remarried, or whose spouses died from non-attributable causes while serving just as devotedly, or whose circumstances pre-date the changes in the regulations. General Gordon writes:

    "This Society has always maintained that all service widows should be treated the same when it comes to remarriage, as why should anyone be financially penalised for the natural act of trying to build a new life after bereavement. If the MoD Pensions Review eventually delivers that, as was indicated in a joint MoD/DSS press release on 21 July 2000, a great wrong will have been righted, but the 'no retrospection' rule will inevitably exclude many equally deserving people".

I know that my noble friends Lady Hollis and Lady Symons of Vernham Dean will have that in mind in their continuing work on provision for war and war service widows and hope very much that they will keep in close touch with the Officers' Pensions Society and the War Widows Association alike on all issues of concern to them.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I shall be brief. As my noble friend Lord Higgins said, one would not know from the rather dull words of Amendment No. 26A that any good news has been given by the Government. The words look like the usual dead hand of the Treasury. However, the good news has been given and I believe that it is only fair and, indeed, perhaps gallant of me to stand up and congratulate the Government on taking this decision.

I want to make one serious point. I understand that the noble Baroness is saying that the regulations will not come into force until later in the year. I believe that we shall have to make it clear to certain war widows who may be lining up their men for a trip to the altar that they should wait until the regulations are passed or they may find themselves on the wrong side of the dividing line. I am sure that the noble Baroness and her noble friend Lady Symons are aware of that point, and I shall probably send an e-mail to the indefatigable Mrs Jenny Green to remind her, not perhaps for her own benefit but so that she may disseminate the information to other members of the War Widows Association who may well be making plans.

I believe that two groups should be thanked: first, your Lordships. I regret to say that, despite the noble Baroness's words, I am fairly certain that if we had not put a little steel into this issue, the Government would still be allowing the MoD to slip, as it is so good at doing and has done so efficiently for many years.

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Therefore, I believe that your Lordships, led by the noble Baroness, Lady Strange, are to be congratulated.

It is also only fair that I should remind your Lordships of the remarks that I made on a previous outing of this matter when I said that, as a Minister, I had tried to shift the MoD but had failed fairly miserably to persuade them to move. They continually told me that the matter was under review. My noble friend Lord Astor, who was then at the MoD, tried as well, and was probably told the same thing. I concluded that I hoped that the noble Baronesses, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean and Lady Hollis, would do better. In fact, I believe that I used a Scottish expression, hoping that "the lasses would do better than the laddies". I am pleased to see that the lasses have, indeed, in this instance at least, done better than the laddies.

Baroness Hollis of Heigham: My Lords, I am most grateful that the House has responded so warmly. I am delighted to be associated with this announcement. Therefore, I beg to move.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 26 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 26A.--(Baroness Hollis of Heigham.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Government Resources and Accounts Bill

3.45 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I beg to move that the Commons reasons be now considered.

Moved, That the Commons reasons be now considered.--(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

[The page and line numbers refer to HL Bill 42 as first printed for the Lords.]

5Clause 8, page 5, line 5, leave out ("of a government department's accounts")
The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason--
5ABecause it would alter the financial accounting and audit arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that the above reason may be deemed sufficient.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 5 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 5A. I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 6 and 6A, 7 and 7A, 7B and 7C, and 8 and 8A.

The issue of the relationship between Parliament and the Executive on the audit of and access to public expenditure is one which goes back not only to the

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beginning of the consideration of this Bill, nor back only to the National Audit Act 1983 or to the 1921 or the 1866 Acts. This issue is inherent in parliamentary government and I do not in any way regret the further debate on it that has taken place.

I shall not give a history lesson; I shall refer only to the history of this Bill. From the beginning of the consideration of this Bill, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and members of the Public Accounts Committee have expressed their concerns about audit and access and have used the Bill as a vehicle to express their concerns. The Bill is not about accountability as such; it is about resource accounts. However, it is legitimate to say that, because it is about the accounts, it should cover also issues of access for audit purposes. That, indeed, has been a continuing theme throughout our debates.

We have responded right from the beginning to concerns expressed by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and noble Lords opposite. First, we made clear our view that any new non-departmental public bodies which we set up since 1997 should be audited by the National Audit Office, and so they have been.

Secondly, we made it clear in Clause 8(2)(b) of the Bill that access should be available not only to financial records held by departments but to those held by any outside bodies which are deputed to hold their financial records.

Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, we made it clear in amendments introduced during the passage of the Bill, and notably Clause 23, that we believe that changes in the law are necessary. Clause 23 clarifies the role of the House of Commons in the control of the National Audit Office. It makes it clear that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office are acting on behalf of the House of Commons and that they report directly to the House of Commons. I pay tribute to those who have exerted pressure on us. As a result we have made those matters clear.

Clause 23 makes clear that the responsibilities of the National Audit Office apply to any body that,

    "exercises functions of a public nature or is entirely or substantially funded from public money".

That goes a very long way towards a definition of the kind of public body that ought to be covered by the National Audit Office.

We have responded from the start. Since then, further pressure has been exerted on audit and accountability. I do not object to that. On audit, the matter came to a vote and your Lordships decided not to pursue the matter. On accountability, when the Bill first arrived in this House, we set up the Sharman review, which is about not just audit, but accountability, which the Bill patently is not.

I think that your Lordships have generally welcomed the accountability provisions. The Sharman committee met for the first time at 2.30 this afternoon. I do not know whether the meeting is still going on and whether we shall have the pleasure of seeing the noble

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Lord, Lord Sharman, in his place. The committee is almost certainly thrashing out its terms of reference as we speak.

Concerns were then expressed in this House about the implementation of any Sharman recommendations. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, waxed very eloquent on that. I do not blame him; he was entirely right to do so. We gave assurances that we would take the Sharman review very seriously. He is right to say that assurances are only assurances and should not be taken too seriously. I understand that, but the Sharman committee has many distinguished members, including many members of the Public Accounts Committee, as well as members of this House. We are not going to short-change them.

We have done more. We introduced amendments to make clear that the recommendations of the Sharman committee could be implemented by secondary legislation without waiting for further primary legislation, as there could well be a gap of 40, 50, 60 or 80 years between major legislation on public accounts.

The provisions in Clauses 8 and 23 that I have mentioned make it possible to implement any recommendations that the Sharman review may produce on greater scrutiny for audit purposes. Amendments Nos. 7A and 7B, which the manuscript amendment would remove, are a further assurance that any recommendations that Sharman makes about greater scrutiny for audit purposes can be implemented by secondary legislation. If the committee makes recommendations about value for money or other examination, that is fine. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury made clear in the Commons on Monday that we will take a positive and constructive view of any such recommendations which we believe can be implemented without primary legislation.

I repeat our assurance that the Government will not shrink from implementing any recommendations from the Sharman committee if they appear to be for the benefit of both Parliament and the executive. Parliament and the executive clearly have a concurrent interest. I shall come to the divergences later, but they are both interested in the proper expenditure of public money. That is a fundamental basis of our reaction to any Sharman recommendations. Of course, without knowing what he will recommend, I cannot say that we will implement all his recommendations, but I hope that my assurances go as far as conceivably possible in explaining that we believe the examination worthwhile and that we propose to take the committee's recommendations very seriously, including--I make this clear in case it is not already apparent--any reconsideration of the provisions of the National Audit Act 1983, which was called into question in the Commons on Monday.

The amendments carried in this House at Third Reading went much further than any amendments asked for or debated in the past. They went way beyond the examination for audit purposes of departments' or NDPBs' accounts. They covered the whole range of examination of public expenditure by

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the Comptroller and Auditor General. Mr David Davis read out the version of Clause 8 as it would have been if Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 had been carried. Subsection (1) read:

    "For the purposes of an examination by the Comptroller and Auditor General--

(a) he shall have a right of access at all reasonable times to any relevant documents; and (b) a person who holds or has control of any of these documents shall give the Comptroller and Auditor General any assistance, information or explanation which he requires in relation to any of those documents". The right would apply to any documents,

    "held or controlled by a government department or a relevant non-departmental public body, or

(b) which are documents to which a government department or relevant non-departmental public body has, or can obtain, access".

We resisted those amendments on the grounds that they went far beyond the scope of the Bill, even if they were not spoken to on that basis by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, or the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. They were taken up in Monday's debate in the Commons on the proper terms that they are issues between Parliament and the executive on the control of public expenditure. The eloquent speeches of Mr David Davis, Mr Edward Davey, Mr Alan Williams, Mr Robert Sheldon and others all addressed the relationship between Parliament and the executive in the control of public expenditure--not departmental audit, but the whole role of the National Audit Office in the examination of public expenditure. The debate was one-sided, with the Minister left on her own. The arguments will endure. Some of the things said will remain the constant concern of this Government and future governments for many years to come.

However, that is not what we are debating today. The Opposition's manuscript amendment would not reinstate those Amendments Nos. 5 and 6. The Opposition want to replace our Amendments Nos. 7A and 7B with the original Lords Amendment No. 7, which applies only to departmental audit.

This is a strange kind of ping-pong. We start a serious process of discussion of public policy. Points are put to us and we respond. Those who have put their points to us then move away to the next ping-pong table. We respond there. They move away again. We are not playing at the same ping-pong table at any stage. We have responded positively to everything that has been said to us. I am even responding positively to the points that were made in the Commons on Monday on the wider issues raised by the Lords amendments that the Commons have disagreed to. Instead of debating the matter discussed in the Commons, we are going back to the issue of access for departmental audit.

I shall not repeat the arguments that I used on a number of occasions about the defects of the Lords' amendment which would now be re-instated--the definition of a non-departmental body, the burdens of businesses and so on. We have gone past that. I am convinced that this is now crunch time.

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I am also convinced that this Government have gone the extra mile in seeking to persuade your Lordships, and Parliament in general, that this is a Bill that is coherent in its own right and pays proper respect to the rights of Parliament, the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General in departmental accounts. The Government have set up a body to examine the wider issue of accountability in the form of the Sharman review, and they have given every assurance that the Sharman review will be taken extremely seriously and can be implemented by government. Under those circumstances, I shall be sorry if your Lordships return to the amendment now tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 5 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 5A.--(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

4 p.m.

Lord Higgins : My Lords, I rise to speak to the amendments enumerated by the Minister. The Minister has recounted the history of these matters and we are now debating a series of amendments. The Minister referred to the various amendments that the Government have tabled, in particular the reasons given by the Commons. Earlier I commented on the way in which committees set up to produce such reasons sometimes get into a rut. On this occasion the reason given is that,

    "it would alter the financial accounting and audit arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that the above reason may be deemed sufficient".

I believe that is a strange reason because the whole of the Bill concerns financial accounting and audit arrangements.

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