Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The noble Lord, Lord Carlile, was concerned that future generations may not be able to share his enthusiasm for marching in the student marches of the LSE. However, the position hitherto has been that marches and public processions are governed by the Public Order Act 1986, under which, in certain circumstances, advance notice may be required, conditions may be imposed and marches may even be banned.

We join in complimenting the police on the way in which they have facilitated the substantial number of peaceful protests in the area. They plainly do an important job in Westminster, not only in relation to demonstrations in the vicinity of Parliament but in relation to ceremonial occasions and sporting events too.

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1392

There have been a number of legal challenges to the legislation. This is not unexpected and, no doubt, it is not the end of them. But the police have facilitated peaceful protest while ensuring that those who live and work in Westminster can go about their lawful business. Judgments arising from legal challenges have served to clarify the law. Recently the courts have ruled that even where a demonstration is entirely peaceful in nature, it is justifiable to impose sanctions in certain circumstances on those who fail to comply with the authorisation procedure.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, spoke of the importance of the Human Rights Act and how the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham, in his judgment in Laporte, identified that there had been a shift in the way in which the right of assembly is now viewed by the law in our country. The Government are plainly encouraging and supporting the right to assembly, creating it as a legal right as opposed to in some way seeking to erode that right. I assure noble Lords that we believe strongly in freedom of assembly and the freedom to demonstrate.

The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, indicated that in the SOCPA provisions there appears to be a criminal offence of expressing a view in the vicinity of Parliament. I respectfully disagree. It applies only in relation to unauthorised demonstrations or where the conditions are breached. So plainly the notion that we in the United Kingdom have lost any right to protest is incorrect. It is a powerful right which is central to our democracy. Indeed, many noble Lords have spoken powerfully on that.

We believe that the measures we have put in place achieve the balance of allowing people to gather together to express their views and ensuring that those living and working in and around Parliament are able to access Parliament in safety and free from harassment. We keep the law under review but to repeal these provisions would be a retrograde step.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, was concerned that she could not easily get hold of an application form—which appears, apparently, nowhere but on Mark Thomas’s website—but there is no requirement in the legislation for a person to use a particular form. The application has to be in writing and stipulate the time, date, place and so on of the proposed demonstration. These issues are identified in Section 133.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, discussed national security in the context of these provisions. That, of course, is not specifically identified in these provisions but arises very acutely in the context of the intrusion provisions in relation to designated sites. I respectfully suggest that with these provisions we have a proportionate way of dealing with the perceived problem. The “English hero” that the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, described Mr Haw as being is still with us. His right to protest continues. It continues, however, in a proportionate and balanced way that sets the way in which one may protest against the way business is conducted in this area.

For those reasons, I regret I cannot support the Bill. Before sitting down, I shall make a simple point: the concern the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman,

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1393

identified in relation to Mr Haw’s position is covered also by the response I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, with regard to the new condition placed on Mr Haw, which will be made available.

I repeat that I regretfully cannot support the Bill.

3.51 pm

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer: My Lords, I warmly thank all noble Lords who have spoken this afternoon in support of the Bill. I knew I had missed out academically by not going to the LSE, but I clearly missed out on the quality of the protests I attended as well.

The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, laid her finger on it. I say to the Minister, yes, there have been some protests, but there is the issue of self-censorship; neither the Minister nor the Government can know how many protests there have not been as a result of this, or how many individuals have felt scared to turn up. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, who said incredibly kind words about me, and who is one of the people who have inspired a whole generation of political activists, said that the legislation undermines exactly what we want to protect.

All the contributions from around the House spelled out why there needs to be a Committee stage for the Bill. I am especially grateful for the support from the Conservative Benches expressed by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, and to hear that they share serious concerns about this issue.

I was surprised that the Minister felt that there was nothing the Government might be interested to look at here. The fact that there have been a lot of demonstrations recently in Parliament Square simply means there is more to protest about. When I asked the Government in a Written Question how many arrests had been made under SOCPA, the Answer came back that that information was not held centrally. So although there have been some convictions, no one knows how many arrests have been made, according to the Government.

I do not want to hold the House up, because I know time is pressing, but the case has been powerfully put, by all other noble Lords beside myself who have spoken, for a Committee stage.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

Government Spending (Website) Bill [HL]

3.54 pm

Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill is built upon twin pillars of transparency and value for money. I hope it is uncontroversial and will commend itself to all sides of your Lordships’ House.

The Government brought in the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It represents a significant advance in transparency and openness, which we believe are essential attributes of good government. There are now some practical issues about the

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1394

operation of the Act, but its basic intent is openness and transparency. My Bill is a companion to it, taking openness about expenditure into the computer age.

My party believes that when Governments spend money, they are spending our money. We paid the taxes, and it is our right to know what the Government are doing with them. The Government owe it to taxpayers to be transparent about how they spend money when they remove it from us by way of taxation.

I am not sure that the Government share our beliefs on taxpayer accountability, but I think that we are on the same page on value for money. Governments do not like wasting money, if only because of the ever vigilant Select Committees in another place and the Comptroller and Auditor-General, both ready and willing to criticise. I shall not get into a critique of the Government’s performance on value for money over the past 10 years, because the important thing is that I am sure that there is a desire within government to achieve value for money. Transparency is a weapon in the war to win value for money, and the Bill is designed to improve transparency about government spending, thereby contributing to a climate of openness and debate. Poor value for money should have nowhere to hide.

Before explaining the detailed contents of the Bill, let me set out an important premise on which it is based. The Treasury wants to achieve value for money. That is what I learnt when, many years ago, I spent two years on secondment to the Treasury, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that that remains a core value. The Bill is drafted with significant implementation powers given to the Treasury on the premise that it will want to implement it in a way that exerts the maximum pressure on spending departments to be open about their expenditure. If the Bill passes into law, it could be implemented in a minimalist way—I fully accept that. But my belief is that the Treasury will enthusiastically embrace this approach to openness.

The Bill is entitled the Government Spending (Website) Bill. I had hoped that it would be called the slightly sexier Government Spending (Transparency) Bill, but I was told, politely but firmly, by our excellent Public Bill Office, which has helped me enormously with the Bill’s preparation, that “transparency” is a slogan, and slogans are not allowed.

Clause 1(1) sets out the basic requirement that:

There has to be a website, it has to be publicly available, and it has to be searchable. In essence, once it is up and running, citizens can go online to find out, for example, how much the Government have spent with individual suppliers such as EDS, or on particular things, such as travel and entertainment.

Subsection (2) provides that it does not apply to expenditure out of the Scottish or Welsh Consolidated Funds. That is not because transparency and value for money are unimportant in Scotland and Wales, but because they are devolved matters. I hope that if the Bill becomes law, the other

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1395

Administrations will want to follow suit with their own transparency laws. Subsection (3) makes it clear that there should be no payment for access to the website because barriers to openness would be wholly inappropriate.

Clause 3 gives the Treasury power to specify the content of the website and its availability. Some of this is easy, such as the hours of access. Other aspects are much more technical, such as the classification or coding systems to be used. The Treasury is clearly in the best position to determine how the database should be constructed.

Clause 3(2) allows the Treasury to specify different information for different amounts of expenditure. It may be appropriate for less information to be available for amounts below a threshold of, say, £25,000. The Bill allows the Treasury to achieve maximum transparency while allowing sensible derogations.

Clause 1(4) to (6) deals with the time the information is available, from 30 days after expenditure to five financial years thereafter. This is to allow comparisons to be made over time.

Under Clause 1, the website applies to government departments and executive agencies, but much government money is actually spent by other bodies. For example, most of the Department of Health’s budget is spent by various NHS bodies—strategic health authorities, primary care trusts, NHS trusts and NHS foundation trusts. Any examination of how the £100 billion pounds of the Department of Health budget is spent will need to follow that money through the system. Clause 2 gives the Treasury power to extend the website to public sector bodies that receive government money, but it would not require private sector companies or charities to open up their books if they get public funding. This places a proper boundary on the ability to follow public money.

I am well aware that bringing other parts of the public sector within the website could raise practical issues. I have some knowledge of NHS accounting systems and it would not be an understatement to describe them as diverse. If the website is extended to the NHS, which I certainly hope it will be, it will be important for the practical issues of coding and consistency to have been addressed first.

Political issues could also be at stake. Because of the way that the licence fee is structured, the BBC could be required under Clause 2 to bring its expenditure within the website. I personally think that that would be a good thing, but I recognise that it would not be without controversy and should be decided by Parliament. That is why, in Clause 8, I have made the power in Clause 2, which is to extend the website beyond government departments, subject to the affirmative procedure.

The Bill contains relatively few exemptions from disclosure because it is based on the presumption of openness. The Freedom of Information Act 2000 has more exemptions but the scope of that Act goes way beyond how money has been spent and covers policy matters and details of dealings between the Government and others. For historical records of

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1396

expenditure, the exemptions should be very few in number. Clause 4, however, contains important exemptions for information that would prejudice national security and related matters. Those are in line with the exemptions found in the Freedom of Information Act.

Clause 5 makes it clear that the Data Protection Act 1998 is not changed by this Bill, so private information about civil servants’ salaries, for example, benefit payments or the tax affairs of individual taxpayers will remain private.

Clause 6 gives the Information Commissioner an important power to examine compliance, and subsection (2) allows the relevant Secretary of State to make regulations to facilitate the use of these powers.

The philosophy of the Bill is to trust the Treasury to want to implement it in a way that achieves maximum transparency and value for money. But it is also right that there is scrutiny by Parliament, so Clause 7 provides that the Treasury must prepare a report each year on the use of the website and, crucially, the effectiveness of the website in allowing public access to information about government spending. The report would be laid before both Houses of Parliament and I am sure that one or more parliamentary committees would take an interest in the way that the Bill was implemented. I express a personal hope that a committee of both Houses dedicated to the availability of information for the public could be set up, but that is a question above my pay grade.

In relation to the Bill itself, I should finally mention commencement. Under Clause 9, the Act comes into force one year after it is passed. That one year is to allow the Treasury to create the website and set the detailed rules and procedures. I believe that is a reasonable timeframe for an initial website, bearing in mind that the complexities of, say, the NHS, do not have to be addressed at the outset. The Bill asks, in effect, for only a pretty basic website. Over time, I am sure that the website could be made richer in content and more sophisticated in functionality. The best can be the enemy of the good, and there is no harm in starting in a modest way.

What will all this cost, and can it be done? The US Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act 2006, which is the original inspiration for my Bill, is already law in the US. The Congressional Budget Office estimated a cost of $4 million in the first year and about $15 million in total over the first four years. Surely it cannot be any more expensive to do the same thing in the UK. I do not believe that a figure of £2 million in the first year and £7.5 million over four years cannot easily and willingly be found in the Treasury’s existing budget of around £180 million a year.

I have a passionate belief in the power of open and transparent information in achieving value for money. I hope that passion is shared by other noble Lords. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Noakes.)

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1397

4.06 pm

Lord Newby: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, on introducing this Bill. There is a pretty widespread sense of unease across the country that the Government have spent very much more on public services, but that the additional output and improvement in services has not been seen to be proportionate. A frequently asked question is, “Where has all the additional money gone?”. Under existing accounting rules and practices, it is extraordinarily difficult for a Member of your Lordships’ House, far less an ordinary citizen, to answer that question and to discover in any detail whatever how government expenditure has been incurred and spent. Therefore, this Bill opens a window into this largely closed world, which many citizens and specialists in particular policy areas would greatly welcome. Therefore, we support the Bill.

At the very least, the fact that there was greater openness would cause both civil servants and those bidding for contracts to think even harder than they do about value for money. If I and the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and anyone in the country can look up a particular area and see in some detail how money is being spent, we can exercise what judgment we have on whether value for money has been sought and achieved. Whether it is a civil servant or a consultant—I declare an interest as a consultant who sometimes bids for public sector contracts—if we think that someone is able to look over our shoulders, that is a very good constraint on all concerned.

What, then, can the objections be to such a Bill? First, there could be a technical objection that it cannot be done and it is far too complicated. Secondly—I am not sure whether the noble Baroness mentioned this—there is the question of commercial confidentiality. It could be said that in dealing with many aspects of government policy, the Government are contracting with someone to deliver or provide something, and it would be completely improper for the details of that contract to be made public. The answer to both those questions lies in the Federal Funding Accountability and Transparency Act in the United States. Frankly, if the US federal Government feel that they can do it and that commercial confidentiality is not an over-riding constraint, those arguments should fall here.

I am extremely grateful to the noble Baroness for directing me to the White House website—not a website that I usually frequent. Two things struck me about the information that it gave about the Act, as it now is in the United States. The first thing is the extent to which it felt able to go down to pretty small contracts. I think the noble Baroness mentioned £25,000. The United States has gone down to $25,000, and it will publish details of expenditure down to that quite fine-grain level, which is very impressive.

The other thing, which I hope might infuse our discussion, is that this was a bipartisan Bill in the United States. The President warmly signed it, it was supported by people on all sides, and one of its principal sponsors was Senator Barack Obama from Illinois, who is as near to new Labour, despite his

26 Jan 2007 : Column 1398

wobble on Iraq, as you can get. Here we have a Bill that, in the United States, has bipartisan support, has been accepted as practicable and has been signed into effect. Therefore, although I do not necessarily want to follow American policy, I respect it, and I believe that this is one area in which we could usefully follow it.

4.11 pm

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for placing the Bill before the House so that a select group of your Lordships may consider this very important issue.

The Government view the provision of public spending information that is clear, concise, timely and accurate as extremely important. I agree with all the points that the noble Baroness made at the beginning of her speech. Our view is reflected in the fact that one of the Treasury’s formal objectives, as set out on its public website, is to,

The noble Baroness asked for confirmation that value for money is still a core value of the Treasury, and I confirm that it is.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked what the objections are to the Bill. The Bill may appear to imply that the Treasury does not currently make up-to-date and comprehensive government expenditure information freely available. On the contrary, the Treasury’s public website, which had well over a million hits last year, already contains a great deal of information about public spending. This includes: copies of the central government supply estimates for a five-year period, which contain detailed departmental spending plans for a particular financial year; and copies of public expenditure statistical analyses going back to 1999.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page