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27 Feb 2001 : Column 861

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): I apologise to the House that I was not present at the start of the debate, but I have been watching it in my office. I hastened here before retiring to make a considerable point.

If the Government intend that the provision should apply only for the limited period of this year, they should introduce a Sessional Order, which will fall. They have introduced an alteration to Standing Orders which they will have to change again. Can anyone imagine anything more crazy than that?

Mr. Letwin: I have moved from ignorance, through a wiser state of confusion, and now the clouds have parted and I emerge into the light. My right hon. Friend knows more about the House's procedures than almost any other living person. He has explained for the first time how the Government should have acted. I hope that the Minister will take due account of that preferable way of achieving his intention.

1.2 am

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton): We have heard some fairly poor arguments in the debate, and especially in respect of the motion. If I am wrong, I stand to be corrected, but my understanding is that Standing Orders cannot contain temporary provisions, and that Standing Orders relating to financial matters cannot be changed by Sessional Orders.

If Standing Order No. 55 were not amended in the way proposed, the House would not be able to receive votes on account for the coming financial year, based on resource accounting. The arguments that have been advanced tonight therefore fall at their first examination. We should put aside what we have heard so far, and address the substance of the motion.

Like the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), Liberal Democrat Members have nothing against the proposal. The proposed timing change is exactly right, and the proposal has not been foisted suddenly on the House. I was a member of the Select Committee on Procedure that considered the issue. We published the second report, HC 438, for the 1997-98 Session. All these issues, particularly the need to have resource-based accounts for 2000-01 in the spring, were foreshadowed in Treasury memorandums to the Select Committee inquiry and were reported on by the Committee.

The Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir John Bourn, in evidence to the Select Committee, referred to that change, as did the chief officer for accountancy, Professor Andrew Likierman. Therefore, nothing should come as a surprise to right hon. and hon. Members if they have followed the process carefully.

I am concerned about two issues at the heart of the argument and what lies behind it. The first is how the House changes its Standing Orders. The Government propose changes to Standing Orders. Although that has been the case for a number of decades, it did not used to be. The Chair used to propose changes to Standing Orders until, in the 1920s or 1930s, the Government took over that power. I believe that it was a major constitutional change that slid by the House. We should revert--

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Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. I must stop the hon. Gentleman there. This is not an occasion for a wide-ranging debate on how Standing Orders work. It is a very narrow motion and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman and any other hon. Members who were thinking of contributing would confine their remarks precisely to the motion before the House.

Mr. Davey: Of course I will do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was merely seeking to argue that the process of changing the Standing Orders that is before us is not a good one. I think that I have made that point.

My other concern is that the reason for this change that was foreshadowed in the Procedure Committee report has not been met. Paragraph 30 of the report shows that the Treasury said, and the Committee accepted it, that the reason for this specific change was that

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mr. Purchase) says from a sedentary position that the Financial Secretary has already said that. He did not say that in specific terms--he gave a separate excuse for that point. I am going back to the reason that was given to the Select Committee--the real reason. As I was saying, paragraph 30 of the report says:

I took the liberty earlier this evening to talk to the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. I asked him whether, to his knowledge, either his Committee or a Select Committee had scrutinised the first set of resource accounts.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I say to the hon. Gentleman again that the motion is to do with a simple change to a date in a Standing Order. That is all. I would be grateful if he would confine his remarks to that.

Mr. Davey: With respect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am doing that. I wish to explain myself. The quote to which I referred was about that change. I am concerned that the reason that was originally given to the Select Committee for the change has not been met.

I am concerned that the House and Select Committees have not scrutinised the first set of published resource accounts--the reason we were given for the need for delay. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury might argue that that is the fault of Select Committees. That may be so, but why have they failed to take those measures? I have raised the matter previously in debates on the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000. If I went into the reasons for what has happened, I should be out of order, so I will not take that route--

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Hon. Members: Go on!

Mr. Letwin: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the idea that such scrutiny could be conducted effectively between now and 18 March is ludicrous?

Mr. Davey: I concur with the hon. Gentleman on that point. Indeed, I agreed with what he said during his opening remarks--that the accounts and estimates produced on the resource basis are not as clear as we were promised in the Standing Committee on the legislation that foreshadowed this proposed change in the Standing Orders.

The House spends much time debating such matters as Standing Orders and procedures, but spends little time on the substance--the cash and resources that we are sent to this place to scrutinise. That is a major problem--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman is again wandering off the subject. I should be grateful if he would now conclude.

Mr. Davey: I have done so, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

1.11 am

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks): Mr. Deputy Speaker, the motion presents the House with a difficulty that your predecessor in the Chair this evening was able to clear up. Madam Deputy Speaker reminded the House that we can debate only the specific motion before us.

We are in a difficulty for two reasons, however. The title of the motion, which is not of course part of the motion, is "Vote on Account 2001-02". Madam Deputy Speaker ruled and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury clarified that the alteration of the Standing Order cannot possibly apply simply to the vote on account 2001-02, because we are altering a--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I make it plain to the hon. Gentleman that, this evening, we are simply changing a Standing Order in the way set out?

Mr. Fallon: I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker; that was the purpose of some of the earlier points of order. I was drawing the attention of the House to the title of the motion--"Vote on Account 2001-02". As Madam Deputy Speaker implied, something is wrong; if we are changing a Standing Order, it cannot be related to a vote on account for a particular year.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It might help the House if we try to clarify the exact status of the rubric--the title of the motion. Surely, the title "Vote on Account 2001-02" is an error. That indicates the Government's intention, which is that the vote is for this year, but the title should simply read "Vote on Account". If the motion were to go to a deferred Division--as is possible--might the offending figures, "2001-02", have been removed by the time the voting paper appears? I believe those figures to be an error.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. That title "Vote on Account 2001-02" is not

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an error. If he reads the Standing Order that is being changed, he will see that it refers to the "coming financial year".

Mr. Fallon: The House is in some difficulty. The present Standing Order refers to the "coming financial year", but the provision for votes on account for the coming financial year is being translated from the paragraph applying to 6 February to the paragraph applying to 18 March. By changing the Standing Orders, that will apply to every subsequent financial year. Am I not correct, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to say that the change in Standing Orders will apply to every subsequent financial year?

Perhaps that change has to be classified in House of Commons business as a vote on account for 2001-02, but shortly before you took the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the Minister conceded that he will have to change the Standing Order again for the future year, so something else is wrong. Of course the date of 18 March should only apply to the current year. The motion should state 18 March 2001, because the Minister has already made it clear that he will have to change it for the future year.

I hope that you will agree, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that something is wrong; either the rubric is slightly misleading, or the date is incomplete, because the Minister has conceded that he is changing a Standing Order, but only on a temporary basis, and that he will return to the House to change it again the following year.

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