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Thirdly, there are the Sharman orders. In response to Lord Sharman’s report “Holding to Account”, the Government announced that they would strengthen the statutory powers of the National Audit Office’s Comptroller and Auditor General. Parliament has approved a number of orders to give the CAG statutory audit responsibility for non-departmental public bodies and special health authorities. Lord Sharman also recommended that the CAG become auditor of the non-departmental public bodies that have also been set up as companies, and he will become eligible to do so from the financial year 2008-09, once
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the Companies Act 2006 is in force. The Treasury is working closely with the NAO and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—the successor to the Department of Trade and Industry—to ensure that the changes are implemented from April 2008, and to date 90 companies and subsidiary companies have been identified. When the powers are in place, the NAO will be able to offer Parliament a more comprehensive account of public business, so hon. Members will have a fuller picture of how public money is used.

Fourthly, I commend to the House a short and readable new Treasury publication “Managing Public Money”. It is now the Treasury’s reference guide on standards and ethics in the use of public funds. Its predecessor, “Government Accounting”, had been around for many years and was an essential tool for all parts of the public sector, but over time it had become too lengthy and unwieldy. The new publication is much shorter, and is drafted to set out the principles that need to be applied. It is important for everyone making decisions relating to the use of public resources to appreciate the high standards expected. Of particular interest to the House will be the guidance to officials on parliamentary and Treasury controls over public expenditure and the need for legislation to enable Government spending. Copies of “Managing Public Money” have been sent to the Library and to the relevant parliamentary Committees—and they are doubtless in fantastically high demand.

I hope that the fifth initiative that I wish to explain will ease all our work in monetary scrutiny. On 3 July, the Prime Minister announced his goals for constitutional change and proposed that the Executive become more accountable to the public and Parliament through 12 reforms. In addition, the Government are committed to enabling the close scrutiny of public spending, for which reliable information is a prerequisite. We have a strong track record of improving financial management and transparency over the past decade, but in one area Parliament’s task has been complicated by the ways in which records of public money have been formatted.

Largely for historical reasons, we use different systems to set the control budgets, to present the annual estimates and to publish audited accounts. The accounts produced are all accurate and comply with their own reporting principles, but it is not easy, for instance, to compare planned expenditure with actual expenditure when using these systems. The differences between those outputs can cause confusion and inefficiency, so the task of parliamentary scrutiny of public spending is made more difficult than it need be.

The Government have therefore put in place an alignment project. In practical terms that will involve substantial effort, but it will help us to progress in respect of the need for clarity, coherence, consistency and transparency, and therefore better accountability. The core part of the project is a better alignment of budgets, estimates and accounts, but it has wider implications. We will also be reviewing the frequency, format and terminology of all financial documents laid before Parliament. We aim to put changes in place by the end of the CSR 2007 period, subject to legislative requirements.

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The Government look forward to consulting Parliament to take that project forward, and will work closely with the Public Accounts Committee and the NAO on its detailed implementation. I hope and believe that it will be a welcome step towards making the various systems used to control and report on public spending easier to understand and more efficient to operate.

Finally, many happy returns to the PAC, which is 150 years old. I do not know what the symbol is for 150th anniversaries, but perhaps in the case of the PAC it should be a magnifying glass. I have been looking at the records of some old debates. I found one from 102 years ago, in which it emerged that the Admiralty had spent nearly £500,000 without having signed a contract to do so. It seems that some things never change, despite all our best efforts. All of us who have been involved are proud of the way in which the PAC is constituted and does its job for Parliament. It provides an invaluable service to all of us, and I wish it a happy anniversary and many more years.

9.10 pm

Mr. Leigh: I thank the Exchequer Secretary for her kind words to the Committee. I thank all those who have taken part in the debate, especially the right hon. Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Williams), the Father of the House, who is a stalwart member of the Committee. I also thank him for laying to rest the canard that we are somehow trying to compromise the editorial independence of the BBC. There is no question of our trying to do that.

I thank the spokesman for the Liberal party for her speech, and especially for reminding us of the accountability gap, which I have not heard expressed so clearly before. I also thank the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), who brings a lot of life to our Committee. He made a fair point about civil servants. Certainly, in my brief inglorious career as a Minister I never encountered a compliant civil servant. It was more a question of “No, Minister” than “Yes, Minister”. There is a serious point, however. We saw with the Rural Payments Agency saga that while the permanent secretary, Sir Brian Bender, had a close and continuing relationship with the Secretary of State, the project director did not. It is a question of officers and men, I think. Many project directors have a tenuous link with Ministers, and that is something that we need to address.

I am grateful for the assiduity of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon), and especially for his comments about the need for a single project director. We have gone back to the point again and again in these debates, but it needs underlining. For instance, for the Bowman project—a huge Ministry of Defence project—there was no senior responsible owner.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne), who is a new member of the Committee, which reminds me to take up one more important point about where our systems often fail. As we saw with the NHS IT project, we often publish our report only for the Department to say that it has dealt with the problem. That is because we have shot ourselves in the foot, because our report has been so long delayed after the initial NAO report. I am trying to put pressure on
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the otherwise excellent NAO to try to speed up the process. It is because it is so careful that the process can take so long, but I want to see clearance speeded up. I say to Ministers and civil servants who read the report of this debate that there are often long delays between the NAO team finishing its investigation and its being allowed to publish its report. I want to see the process brought right up to the PAC hearing, so that we get up-to-date information. After the hearing, the NAO should write the draft report much more quickly, so that we can publish it. The whole process should be completed within three months, if possible, so that on the day that the PAC publishes its report we do not get the response from Ministers, as we frequently do, “Well, it’s a very interesting report, but we’ve dealt with all those points.” I am grateful to my hon. Friend for highlighting that point.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr. Hammond), the shadow Chief Secretary, for his highly intelligent and thoughtful contribution. He reminded us that we are now committed to sharing the proceeds of growth. As a loyal member of the Conservative party, I accept that mantra, which has been put forward by our Front Benchers. It is not for me, as the Chairman of the PAC, to get involved in that debate now, but I am entitled to make the point that just a 2 per cent. efficiency saving every year would deliver £8 billion either for tax cuts or for more spending on essential public services. Our work is, therefore, right at the centre of the debate.

Question put and agreed to.



Sefton Coastal Woods

9.16 pm

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): It gives me great pleasure to present this public petition to the House this evening.

The petition states:

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To lie upon the Table.

Rachel Pullen

9.18 pm

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): I wish to present to the House a petition that raises an interesting case.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

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Schools (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Watts.]

9.19 pm

Mr. Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): This debate is about school building and reorganisation in the Berwick-upon-Tweed constituency, which is a large one, covering more than 1,000 square miles, in an enormous county with a small population. Some of the schools are within a few miles of Ashington, such as Lynemouth, Ellington and Linton; others, such as Cambo, are not far from Newcastle airport and others are closer to Edinburgh than to Tyneside, including those in Berwick-upon-Tweed, and are the northernmost schools in England in the Minister’s jurisdiction. I am glad that the Minister for Schools and Learners, the hon. Member for South Dorset (Jim Knight), who takes an interest in our problems in Northumberland, is in the Chamber to answer the debate.

The size of the area means that it is expensive to provide education there. A larger number of schools, including many village first schools, is needed because of the travel distances involved. Transport costs are high and statutory transport requirements take a significant slice of the budget, even though the county now charges pupils aged over 16 heavily; it costs them £360 to travel to school or college—an issue I have raised on other occasions.

However, to deal with such expensive requirements Northumberland receives less money than most other authorities; only four authorities in England have less funding per pupil. In the current year, Northumberland has £3,552 per pupil against the England average of £3,888. Of course, some areas are well above that average, but in Northumberland the costs and pressures are high. On the other side of the border, funding is hugely better in Scotland, which is particularly apparent to my constituents given where they live.

An added problem—not on the same scale but worrying none the less—arises from the Government’s plans, announced earlier this year, to take so-called surplus cash from schools. The amount could be as much as £225 million over the whole country, some of which may already have been spent, because nowadays schools need to conserve money in their budgets for repairs and other commitments, or save money one year for a new project in the following year. The policy is based on assumptions that are not well founded and it could be damaging.

In the 2004 Budget, the Prime Minister—then the Chancellor—said that he would ensure

I sat up with a start when I heard those words. I counted up the schools in my constituency and wondered how the policy would be delivered in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

I am still asking how that promise will apply in my constituency, where as well as three high schools we have many old first and middle schools that require refurbishment or rebuilding. Some of our schools date from the 1870s, although they are among the better
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built ones and when refurbished some of them are very good. Many of the schools were built just after the Education Act 1944. Some date from the 1950s and a lot from the 1960s—they are generally the worst, as some were deliberately built with only a 25-year life span and have been patched together since.

The then Chancellor made his promise about secondary schools, although for many purposes middle schools count as secondary schools, too. However, I shall concentrate on two high schools. Coquet school in Amble is the most recently built of our high schools and the only one that was built for the age group it serves—the three-tier system to which I shall refer in more detail. Although the school has some problems, they do not compare with those at the other high schools in my constituency, at Berwick and Alnwick.

Most of the buildings at Berwick community high school are old and outdated, although some are more recent. They were built for a style of teaching that is no longer practised. The teaching approach was very different 50 years ago and was based on children sitting in rows, facing the front. The school had serious, unexpected problems with its boiler, which is exactly why schools need reserves in their budget. The buildings are not compliant with the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 and some of them cannot be made so.

The state of the buildings is shown in sharp relief when we look just a few miles away to Duns and Eyemouth where £50 million to £75 million has been spent on new schools. No parent from Berwick can send their children to those schools, because they are on the other side of the border which, educationally, is something of an iron curtain. There are very few ways to cross the border educationally, but my constituents look over it and see heavy spending on the schools on the other side that their schools do not share.

The worst problems for high schools are faced by the Duchess’s community high school in Alnwick where the main buildings are old and declining. They have passed the end of their useful life and there is a severe capacity problem. The school was built for 900 pupils, but now has 1,150 on a split site. The dining hall seats only 200 children, but more than 1,000 children have to use it during the lunch break. That means that there are numerous sittings and that pupils have to be pushed out quickly so that the next lot can get in. That is an impossible situation.

According to the fire certificate, the assembly hall can fit only 300 pupils, but that is not even enough to hold the sixth form for sixth-form assemblies. I am very familiar with the room, because on most of the occasions on which I have been elected to the House the votes have been counted in the high school hall. That happened in my very first election, but even the elections have now moved on. They now take place in the much more spacious, comfortable and attractive leisure centre on the other side of town. However, the school is still condemned to use its very constricted hall. There are only eight science labs for 13 science staff; 13 mobile classrooms in a state of disrepair; and heating problems.

Then we have the problems of the Bailiffgate site, which is an old building some distance away from the main school. Getting to it involves crossing a road, and it is on four floors with narrow staircases. It is essentially an old domestic property across the road
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from Alnwick castle, and it does not have sound-proofed music rooms. Despite the quality of the musical effort at the Duchess’s high school, that is not always appreciated by people trying to do other work in the same building. It is impossible for the building to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act and timetables have to be rewritten to accommodate pupils with mobility problems so that they can stay on the ground floor. We certainly cannot get 21st century best practice for learning environments given the constraints of the buildings.

It is impossible to make any progress in reducing the carbon cost of the school. It still uses a coal-fired boiler and the buildings are very draughty. Because of the use of a split site, one hour per pupil teaching time is lost every week because of movement between the sites. The school has been made as safe as it can be, but there are still serious issues of safety.

In 2003, Ofsted drew attention to the difficulties caused by the buildings, particularly the Bailiffgate annexe. In its report, the inspectors gave a list of things that the school should do and one was to

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