Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Roper: My Lords, I shall not detain the House for long, but I feel that I ought to intervene at this point to express my support for the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. I was greatly influenced by the debate that took place in the other place. When we discussed this matter on Third Reading, I was not totally convinced on the strength of the argument that was then advanced. Indeed, the Minister made a rather strong case against the amendment on that occasion--rather stronger than that made by the Economic Secretary in another place.

26 Jul 2000 : Column 443

However, having had an opportunity to read the report of the debate that was referred to by my noble friend, it seems to me that the quality of the debate in the other place last Monday indicates the importance of this matter. It was quite extraordinary to see such support from all parts of another place. Although this is not the greatest of matters, that support seems to indicate that it is an important parliamentary matter.

When he introduced the debate, the Minister referred to the concurrent interests that exist at some stages. Of course there are such interests; but there are other occasions--and this is one of them--when there is inevitably a difference of view between the executive and the legislature. The views expressed in that one-sided debate on Monday night in another place indicate why it is important for us to carry the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, this evening.

Lord Norton of Louth: My Lords, I rise to reinforce briefly the points just made. I completely agree with the arguments advanced by my noble friend Lord Higgins and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. My comments will be short because many of the points contained in my notes are identical to what both speakers have said.

The amendments originally made by your Lordships' House served to strengthen and protect the position of Parliament in relation to the executive. The noble Baroness is quite right to say that there is a fundamental point at issue; indeed, it is actually an important constitutional point. I appreciate that the Government won the vote in the other place, but they very clearly lost the argument. The Minister has conceded that fact to some extent. Indeed, not one Labour Back-Bencher spoke in support of the Government's position. If one reads the report of the debate, it is quite clear that the Government do not have the support of the chairman of the PAC or of his immediately predecessor, Robert Sheldon, who was a very distinguished Labour member of that committee. Indeed, he abstained in the vote that took place. Moreover, as I understand it, the Government do not have the support of the current members of the PAC.

The arguments for the House to pass the noble Lord's amendment are compelling. I believe that the order-making powers proposed by the Government are inadequate. My noble friend Lord Higgins has put on record the comments made in the other place by David Davis, the current chairman of the PAC. Indeed, my noble friend outlined the four points that were made at that time. The first of the latter is especially important; namely, that the power to be given under the Government's proposals will provide the Treasury with the right to decide to which bodies the Comptroller and Auditor General may have access. That is an extremely important point.

The Government's proposed amendments would leave Parliament's ability to engage in proper scrutiny to the discretion of the government of the day. That cannot be right. We need to protect the position of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The noble Baroness talked about the latter fulfilling his

26 Jul 2000 : Column 444

responsibility, but I believe that she could have referred to his "fulfilling his responsibility as an Officer of Parliament". That is a fundamental point.

Mention has also been made of the fact that the Lords amendments would not create a "general right of access", as was claimed in the Treasury's memorandum: they are limited to the issue of government access. That is quite clear from the amendment. The further point was made in another place that they are also limited in practical terms because of the limited resources of the NAO, which cannot, therefore, go on a general roaming exercise. The point about the review team under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, has already been addressed. However, the Sharman review cannot deliver the necessary statutory vehicle to entrench Parliament's rights. It is extremely important to bear that in mind.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, quoted from Alan Williams, who is a Labour member of the PAC. As she indicated, his words were very powerful and I do not intend to repeat them. However, I shall merely conclude with the final words of Alan Williams in that debate:

    "I merely want to record that this is far more than a debate about auditing, it is about the power of Parliament against the Executive. In this Bill, the Executive is winning".--[Official Report, Commons, 24/7/00; col. 844.]

I do not want the executive to win; I want Parliament to win.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I have again the difficulty that I have experienced on many previous occasions of choosing between addressing the amendment or the arguments that have been put forward in the debate. The arguments put forward in this debate bear no relation to the amendment now before the House. Those arguments reflect what I previously described: when we attempt to respond to the game of ping-pong that we are playing, the other side abandons the table and goes to another table next door.

When a clutch of amendments was put forward by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, on Third Reading in this House, I addressed them. I did so seriously and one by one. I drew attention to the fact that they would broaden the definition. If there was a slip of the tongue that allowed the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, to think that I meant that they did not cover departmental accounts, that was a mistake. I made quite clear what I meant: they would broaden the definition to cover all of the activities of the National Audit Office. I addressed that. Neither the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, nor the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, addressed that. No one addressed it. However, I addressed the amendments before us.

Now we have a single amendment which does not constitute the range of amendments which the House of Commons debated. The House of Commons debated the amendments which I addressed and which were not addressed by their proponents in this House. The thrust of the debate in the House of Commons, which was a high quality debate, did not concern the

26 Jul 2000 : Column 445

amendment before us today; it concerned fundamentally Amendments Nos. 5 and 6. It concerned the amendments which raise the general issue of accountability for all public expenditure, not just departmental accounts. As I say, it was a good debate. But what did the speakers in that debate talk about? What did Mr David Davis choose to talk about? He talked about the fraud in the Focus Housing Association. That would not be covered by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, which is before us today. Fine speeches were made about the role of Parliament, which must be addressed. I have argued that they do not have to be addressed in the Bill; but they are certainly not addressed by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, today.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, the problem with the Focus Housing Association was that the Comptroller and Auditor General had not been able to gain access to its documentation. Difficulties in obtaining access to that documentation were discussed. It seems to me that the amendment we are considering concerns this whole issue of access to documentation.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I am sorry, but it does not. These are not documents to which, under the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, a department has or can obtain access to. This is a much wider issue. It is a proper issue and one which deserves to be addressed. However, it is not addressed by Amendment No. 7C.

That applies to many of the comments made in the course of the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, both referred to the speech of Mr David Davis. In that fine speech Mr Davis talked of the time-consuming and embarrassing need for an inquiry to simplify proceedings. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, went so far as to say that the Treasury would require the NAO to go cap in hand every time the latter wanted access to accounts. However, that is not what Amendments Nos. 7A and 7B achieve. They provide that Sharman recommendations on access to anything related to public expenditure can be implemented by secondary legislation. They are not to be used on an ad hoc basis as required. That is made clear by the fact that orders are to be made only by affirmative resolution.

It is intended that we shall have the ability to implement Sharman recommendations on access to any issue of public expenditure without the need to wait for primary legislation. That is what the amendment is about. It is not a retrograde amendment but one which pursues the line of recognition--I nearly said conciliation, but it is not conciliation--of the force of the arguments. That has been the line we have taken throughout the debate.

I have attempted again to address the amendment before us. I respect the speeches made by those on the Front Benches and by the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Norton. However, they are still speeches

26 Jul 2000 : Column 446

addressing the amendments that went to the Commons and not speeches about the amendment before us tonight. I hope that on that basis the noble Lord will not feel it necessary to press Amendment No. 7C.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page