Select Committee on Procedure Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 56 - 59)




  56. Can I apologise for keeping you waiting for a quarter of an hour. We think we organise our affairs well with a very simple, short agenda and when you actually come to deal with the private business it proves rather longer and more difficult and contentious than was originally thought. Can I welcome you, Mr David Davis, as Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, and Archy Kirkwood, as Chairman of the Committee on Social Security. We are very grateful to you for being prepared to come and help us with our inquiry into the use of Section 82. Can I start the questioning from the chair. Last week we had, of course, the Minister, Angela Eagle, in front of us and we asked why the Government had not utilised the traditional method of a paving Bill. The Minister replied: "Not only is parliamentary time scarce, but so is Parliamentary Counsel's drafting time." The Minister went on to add: "Using legislative time ... for purely administrative expenditure did not seem to us to be, if we were going to do it a lot"—that is significant - "a reasonable use of Parliament's time." Can I ask both of you to answer in turn. Could we begin by looking at why the Government originally sought Section 82 powers. Do you think it was actually necessary to grant these powers in this form as opposed to using a paving Bill or awaiting Royal Assent on the principal legislation?

  (Mr Davis) Thank you. Good afternoon to you. We thought we would get some really difficult questions as a result of the wait! Let us start with the fact that there is a real issue here. There is a real issue in terms of making IT projects work in government. The DSS in particular has a terrible track record with NIRS2 and all of the other issues that go with that. They are conflating two problems here. One is the problem which is at the heart of most of the failures in IT, namely they do not put enough work into the very first part of understanding precisely what they are doing in designing software. The other problem is the pressure on them to deliver on a certain timetable. So it is an important issue—and I do not deny it is an important issue—but I do not agree, I have to say, that the argument put in the Memorandum to you in section 2.5, as well as in the Minister's evidence to you, is an argument that stands up. Firstly, how much time are we talking about? A paving Bill, if we are talking about a paving Bill—and I accept they would perhaps want to start before the main Bill is through—should be a relatively uncontroversial Bill. It is fairly straightforward, it has a clear purpose to it, but it is amendable and, as a result, it gives powers to the Chamber of the House, to all Members of the House to actually exercise some influence. So, I do not think it is quite the pressure on the timetable that it is claimed to be. I cannot imagine a paving Bill for something like this running for a long time. It could be got through in a few hours on the floor of the House with everybody having a say to it. The second thing, however, is that I think the Department has been a little less than clear in its own thinking in terms of the types of expenditure it is already allowed. There are various categories of expenditure—preliminary and preparatory expenditure. What Section 82 is about is allowing preparatory expenditure. The preliminary expenditure in the definition by the Treasury is expenditure for scoping or pilot work or detailed implications of policy. They were allowed up to £500,000 on that until recently when it went up to £900,000. Nobody approached the Committee of Public Accounts or me to say, "Could we make it £2 million?" because if they had said, "In order to prevent some of these IT disasters, could we make this £2 million for IT projects?" I suspect I would have recommended to the Committee of Public Accounts that that would be a better way to do it because that allows a small amount money to be used for a very narrowly defined and specific purpose. My judgment is that this was an unnecessary change and delivered, you may remember, in a very difficult way because it was not debated and it was one that fell within the guillotine. You may remember the reason that we were able to even get the procedure we have now arose from my raising a point of order, the first point of order under the new procedure as it turned out, at the end of business when we were voting, during the division. To be fair to Stephen Timms, though, he did arrange to meet both Archy Kirkwood and myself. The issue was not debated properly, not thought through properly and, in my judgment, was probably unnecessary.

  57. Can I bring our discussion to a halt. There is now a division in the Commons. I am obliged to suspend this meeting for ten minutes. Can I ask everyone to be back within ten minutes then, Mr Kirkwood, it will be your turn to respond.
  (Mr Kirkwood) It will give me time to think of something to say.

  Chairman: I do not think that will be difficult in your case!

  The Committee was suspended from 16.50 to 17.01 for a division in the House


  58. Can we resume. Mr Davis, you had answered the first question. Mr Kirkwood, as Chairman of the Social Security Select Committee, over to you.
  (Mr Kirkwood) I do accept, Chairman, that contracts of this kind are unusual, but if the question is was it necessary in this case, frankly, the answer is no because the contract was eventually only signed after Royal Assent for the Child Support legislation that it was seeking to prepare for. There was no need at all, in fact, for the Department to take a Section 82 activity through the House at all. My view, and I concur with what David Davis was saying earlier, is that a project of the scale of replacing the Child Support Agency's computers occurs very rarely. It is a major piece of information technology re-engineering. I think it is the kind of event that you could anticipate happening once every ten years or so. If that is the case, and it is difficult to disentangle what expenditure the Department is engaging in with the Affinity Group because they are a supplier of choice, the Department is working closely with them to try and work out projects and there are good reasons for that which we understand, the totality of the ICT contracts that the Department may be entering into in the next couple of years may be as much as £2.5 billion, so it is a huge amount of money. This was certainly a first and very significant step. You could perfectly well argue, in my view, that a paving Bill would have been a more elegant way and transparent way to proceed. I suppose the DSS as a Department is unique because it is forced to use technology as it does all its work through technology. I think Ministers are right to identify the lack of adequate technology as one of their main problems and they are addressing that as quickly as they can. If they are going to resort to Section 82 procedures every year in order to address these matters, then I, for one, would be very, very nervous about that. The Child Support computer was a separate case and I think in retrospect they did not need it, but if they felt they did need it, they should have brought forward a paving Bill. I agree with David Davis on cause shown, working with the House closely and the Committees closely, that we could have seen it through in a very short space of time indeed.

  59. Your answers, gentlemen, dovetail very well into my next question. Please could you describe the discussions between your respective Committees and the Government during the passage of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill. Did you feel that the Government were receptive to input from the two Committees?
  (Mr Davis) I can answer very briefly. We saw the proposal and passed it straight on to the Social Security Committee because really they had the expertise in this area. It was not one where we had a great deal of interface with the Government.

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