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Mr. Bercow: The possibility of 18 March being a Sunday obviously needs to be adequately addressed.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That intervention is irrelevant.

Mr. Fallon: I had not considered the possibility of 18 March occurring on a Sunday.

Mr. Bercow rose--

Mr. Fallon: I shall, of course, give way if my hon. Friend wants to make a separate point.

Mr. Bercow: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way because I was making only the first of two points, and I know that he will be attentive to that fact. Does he not agree that to be told, in effect, that changing the Standing Order involves changing the Standing Order is not only a tautology, but about as useful as Heidegger's "nothing noths"? Does he agree that we need to know--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman must be very careful if he is attempting to criticise the Chair in any way. It is very ill-advised.

Mr. Fallon: I shall not pursue the phrasing of the motion any longer; I simply leave the House with my suggestion that it would have been better entitled, "Alteration to Standing Orders", rather than, "Vote and

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Account 2001-02", and that it might have been more complete if it had included reference to the year after the date in line 2, but I shall not pursue that matter any more.

We have some further difficulties, given what the Minister has said. I now fully understand, although there is no reference to this in the motion, that the change is intended to accommodate the greater change to resource accounting and budgeting. The Minister has not quite explained that to me, and I am further baffled by the reference made by the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) to three months because I understand that the change involves approximately 40 days. I do not understand how it somehow allows the House or its Committees a further three months for scrutiny.

Mr. Edward Davey: Under Standing Order No. 55(2), which relates to a date in February--

Mr. Timms: It refers to 6 February.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the Minister for that comment. Under Standing Order No. 55(2), votes on account were traditionally put before the House in November. That is why the change was suggested, and why it would allow an extra three months to scrutinise the resource accounts, but that has not taken place.

Mr. Fallon: I hesitate to correct my hon. colleague on the Select Committee on the Treasury, but, in effect, the Minister is, as I think I have now said four times, translating the provisions of paragraph (2) to paragraph (3); he is changing the date from 6 February to 18 March, which allows an additional 40 days. Of course the House allows an additional 40 days under Standing Order No. 55(3) in certain circumstances--for votes that relate to defence services, and there may well be good reasons for that; for supplementary estimates, and equally I can understand why there may well be good reasons for that; and for excess votes, but only provided that they have been scrutinised by the Public Accounts Committee. In other words, the additional 40 days are allowed and provided for under our Standing Orders, but that is subject to certain safeguards and they are allowed only for a certain category of votes.

In proposing the change, the Financial Secretary is, in effect, classifying all estimates for the subsequent financial year under the category covered by Standing Order No. 55(3). All those estimates will fall under what was previously screened off for three particular categories alone. The change deserves a greater explanation than he has given us tonight.

The Financial Secretary should have explained to my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)--perhaps he will when he responds to the debate--why the change is being made so long after the move to resource and account budgeting was first trailed. He has had a number of years in which to make the change to the Standing Order, and I am slightly puzzled why he is doing it this year.

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Mr. Davey: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Fallon: Yes, but I hope that this intervention will be a little more fruitful than the previous one.

Mr. Davey: I shall not rise to that bait. The change could not be made earlier because the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 had to become law before it could be made. Until that happened, this change to Standing Orders could not be put before the House.

Mr. Fallon: I am not particularly satisfied by that explanation, either. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Government Resources and Accounts Act 2000 has been law for some time.

Mr. Davey: This is a new Session.

Mr. Fallon: The hon. Gentleman says that it is a new Session but, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) reminded us, we are not dealing with Sessional Orders. We are dealing with the Standing Orders of the House, and they are not produced or revised every Session at the whim and convenience of the Government. Any change to them is a very serious matter. These Standing Orders were reprinted a month ago, so I am puzzled as to why we are now being asked suddenly to amend them. Why did the Financial Secretary not introduce the change a little earlier in the Session so that we would not now be rushed into making the change after the period beginning in February had already begun?

Once the Act to which the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton referred had become law, the Financial Secretary could have come to the House to make the change. He is making it at a very late stage in the proceedings and, in the normal course of events, the estimates that he is trying to translate from Standing Order No. 55(2) to 55(3) would be presented in the next couple of weeks in any event. He could and should have made the change very much earlier in this Session.

Mr. Forth: Is my hon. Friend aware that, between now and March 18--which is a Sunday by the way--only 12 parliamentary days are available. Of them, a number will be taken up by the Budget and the Budget debate. Is he not rather worried by that fact?

Mr. Fallon: I am concerned about that. My right hon. Friend has anticipated my remarks, because I was about to refer to the votes that are currently available in the Vote Office. At the moment, only four have been presented and they are all dated February. The first is for £120 million and is for the central Government supply estimates. The second is a vote for £212 million, which is the vote on account for the House and its running costs. The third--the vote on account for the National Audit Office--is for £46 million. The final vote is the supply estimate for the Electoral Commission, which is £4 million. Only four documents are before the House. My right hon. Friend may well want to explore when the remaining documents will be presented and how we will have sufficient time to conclude our deliberations on them before 18 March because, as the Leader of the House has indicated, there is substantial business to discuss before then.

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As for what the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton was struggling to say, the purpose of the Standing Order, as I understand it, is to ensure that everyone--including the PAC and the departmental Select Committees--has sufficient time before the beginning of the financial year to subject the estimates to reasonable parliamentary scrutiny. However, if we classify them as matters that do not have to be considered before 6 February, we will weaken the scrutiny of the departmental Select Committees and the control of the PAC.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood. The Treasury and the Procedure Committee decided that we needed three months to consider the first set of resource accounts so that the House would have some knowledge of how they were used and of their structure. As a result, we could then scrutinise the estimates that would be covered by the Standing Order. It is the accounts that are relevant, not the estimates.

Mr. Fallon: The motion refers to the estimates, not the accounts. We are not dealing with them.

Mr. Davey: The Standing Order was changed to enable departmental Select Committees to get used to the new system by studying the first set of resource accounts. That is what the Procedure Committee was told and it is what Her Majesty's Treasury set out in memorandum to justify the change.

Mr. Fallon: I hope that the hon. Gentleman has studied the motion. It refers to the voting of estimates, not of accounts. We are discussing the estimates and asking for the departmental Select Committees and the PAC to be given time to consider them. We have been subjected to a confused procedure. The Financial Secretary has been caught out trying to amend a Standing Order on a temporary and sessional basis. He has been honest enough to concede that he will return to the House--presumably next November or December--to amend the order again so that it does not apply to 2002-03.

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): The reciprocal argument is that we should give the Government the power to commit a future Parliament to the provisions of a Standing Order. Surely it is only right that we pass an order that is relevant for the time being. A future Parliament must have the right to change it. The Financial Secretary cannot make that commitment, however good he is, and I respect him greatly.

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