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Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am somewhat astonished by the hyperbole and the passion exercised by the Minister in replying to these amendments. We are

12 Jul 2000 : Column 243

seeking to do something quite simple. We are saying that government bodies, in particular non-departmental public bodies, should be audited by the National Audit Office rather than by outside auditors. The Government and the noble Lord have made it clear on various occasions that they believe that is the right approach.

At the moment we have got what has been described time and time again as a "hotchpotch". We are seeking to clear up that mess and to ensure that there is consistency between the various public bodies which, as my noble friend Lord Freeman pointed out, are spending vast amounts of public money. So far as concerns Sharman, I merely used the expression "red herring" in relation to this amendment. I find it difficult to think of any reason why the noble Lord, Lord Sharman--if he should report on this aspect of the matter--should come to the conclusion that there should be an arrangement whereby the vast majority of public bodies are audited by the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General but some are not. If there is some extraordinary argument why a particular body should not be so audited, then Amendment No. 1 makes provision for that.

I accept a number of the noble Lord's points so far as concerns Amendment No. 2--it is a poor thing, but mine own--and Amendment No. 3 also has various problems. But, in your Lordships' role of asking another place to think again, this is something which it is itself concerned about--particularly the PAC--and it is appropriate that this matter should go back for further consideration. I believe that what we are seeking to do is entirely justified; it will lead to an improvement in our practices and increase parliamentary responsibility and authority in relation to the executive. That being so, I therefore beg leave to seek the opinion of the House so far as concerns Amendment No. 1.

4.9 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 1) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 119; Not-Contents, 129.

Division No. 1


Addington, L.
Anelay of St Johns, B.
Astor, V.
Astor of Hever, L.
Attlee, E.
Biffen, L.
Blatch, B.
Bradshaw, L.
Bridgeman, V.
Brougham and Vaux, L.
Burnham, L. [Teller]
Byford, B.
Campbell of Alloway, L.
Carnegy of Lour, B.
Carrington, L.
Cavendish of Furness, L.
Clark of Kempston, L.
Clement-Jones, L.
Coe, L.
Cope of Berkeley, L.
Courtown, E.
Cowdrey of Tonbridge, L.
Crathorne, L.
Dacre of Glanton, L.
Dahrendorf, L.
Dean of Harptree, L.
Denham, L.
Dixon-Smith, L.
Elles, B.
Elliott of Morpeth, L.
Elton, L.
Ezra, L.
Falkland, V.
Feldman, L.
Fookes, B.
Freeman, L.
Geddes, L.
Glenarthur, L.
Goodhart, L.
Goschen, V.
Gray of Contin, L.
Greaves, L.
Hamwee, B.
Hanham, B.
Harris of Greenwich, L.
Harris of Peckham, L.
Harris of Richmond, B.
Haslam, L.
Hayhoe, L.
Henley, L. [Teller]
Higgins, L.
Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, L.
Holderness, L.
Holme of Cheltenham, L.
Hooper, B.
Jacobs, L.
Jellicoe, E.
Jenkin of Roding, L.
Lane of Horsell, L.
Lester of Herne Hill, L.
Liverpool, E.
Lucas, L.
Luke, L.
McColl of Dulwich, L.
Macfarlane of Bearsden, L.
Mackie of Benshie, L.
McNally, L.
Maddock, B.
Mayhew of Twysden, L.
Miller of Chilthorne Domer, B.
Montrose, D.
Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L.
Naseby, L.
Newby, L.
Northbrook, L.
Northesk, E.
Northover, B.
Norton of Louth, L.
O'Cathain, B.
Onslow, E.
Park of Monmouth, B.
Perry of Southwark, B.
Perry of Walton, L.
Peyton of Yeovil, L.
Platt of Writtle, B.
Plumb, L.
Plummer of St. Marylebone, L.
Prior, L.
Redesdale, L.
Roberts of Conwy, L.
Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Roper, L.
Rotherwick, L.
Russell, E.
Saatchi, L.
Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Sanderson of Bowden, L.
Scott of Needham Market, B.
Seccombe, B.
Selsdon, L.
Sharp of Guildford, B.
Shaw of Northstead, L.
Shutt of Greetland, L.
Stewartby, L.
Stodart of Leaston, L.
Strathclyde, L.
Taverne, L.
Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Tordoff, L.
Trefgarne, L.
Wade of Chorlton, L.
Wallace of Saltaire, L.
Walmsley, B.
Warnock, B.
Willoughby de Broke, L.
Wright of Richmond, L.
Young, B.


Acton, L.
Ampthill, L.
Andrews, B.
Archer of Sandwell, L.
Ashley of Stoke, L.
Bach, L. [Teller]
Barnett, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L.
Berkeley, L.
Bernstein of Craigweil, L.
Billingham, B.
Blackstone, B.
Blease, L.
Borrie, L.
Brett, L.
Brooke of Alverthorpe, L.
Brookman, L.
Bruce of Donington, L.
Burlison, L.
Carter, L. [Teller]
Christopher, L.
Clarke of Hampstead, L.
Clinton-Davis, L.
Crawley, B.
Currie of Marylebone, L.
Davies of Coity, L.
Davies of Oldham, L.
Desai, L.
Dixon, L.
Donoughue, L.
Dormand of Easington, L.
Dubs, L.
Elder, L.
Evans of Parkside, L.
Ewing of Kirkford, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Faulkner of Worcester, L.
Filkin, L.
Fyfe of Fairfield, L.
Gavron, L.
Gibson of Market Rasen, B.
Gilbert, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L.
Goldsmith, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L.
Goudie, B.
Gould of Potternewton, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L.
Grenfell, L.
Hardy of Wath, L.
Harris of Haringey, L.
Haskel, L.
Hayman, B.
Healey, L.
Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Hollis of Heigham, B.
Howells of St. Davids, B.
Hoyle, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L.
Hunt of Kings Heath, L.
Irvine of Lairg, L. (Lord Chancellor)
Islwyn, L.
Jeger, B.
King of West Bromwich, L.
Kirkhill, L.
Laming, L.
Layard, L.
Lipsey, L.
Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Longford, E.
Macdonald of Tradeston, L.
McIntosh of Haringey, L.
MacKenzie of Culkein, L.
Mackenzie of Framwellgate, L.
Merlyn-Rees, L.
Milner of Leeds, L.
Mishcon, L.
Mitchell, L.
Morgan, L.
Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Morris of Manchester, L.
Nicol, B.
Palmer, L.
Parekh, L.
Patel, L.
Paul, L.
Peston, L.
Pitkeathley, B.
Plant of Highfield, L.
Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Prys-Davies, L.
Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Rendell of Babergh, B.
Richard, L.
Rogers of Riverside, L.
Roll of Ipsden, L.
Sainsbury of Turville, L.
Sawyer, L.
Scotland of Asthal, B.
Serota, B.
Sewel, L.
Shepherd, L.
Shore of Stepney, L.
Simon, V.
Smith of Gilmorehill, B.
Smith of Leigh, L.
Stallard, L.
Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Strabolgi, L.
Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Taylor of Blackburn, L.
Taylor of Gryfe, L.
Thornton, B.
Tomlinson, L.
Turnberg, L.
Turner of Camden, B.
Uddin, B.
Varley, L.
Warner, L.
Warwick of Undercliffe, B.
Whitaker, B.
Whitty, L.
Wilkins, B.
Williams of Elvel, L.
Williams of Mostyn, L.
Williamson of Horton, L.
Woolmer of Leeds, L.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

12 Jul 2000 : Column 245

4.19 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 not moved.]

Clause 8 [Comptroller and Auditor General: access to information]:

Viscount Bridgeman moved Amendment No. 4:

    Page 5, line 31, leave out ("of a government department's accounts").

The noble Viscount said: My Lords, in moving Amendment No. 4, I should like to speak also to Amendments Nos. 5 to 9. We moved a similar amendment on Report. At that stage the Minister told the House that the amendment did not address the concerns he had expressed in Committee. I must ask the Minister to think again. I suggest to the House that a number of points require further consideration. I shall take those points in turn. First, the Government said that the amendment would significantly increase the C&AG's right of access. It did not. It translated existing negotiated practice into statute. That is an important point which was not addressed by the Minister in reply to my previous amendment. I was pleased to hear my noble friend Lord Shaw make that point also. Secondly, the Government said that the amendment would allow the C&AG to follow public money wherever it went. But the amendment limits access to documents to which the NDPBs can obtain access. Thirdly, the Government said that it would lead to the duplication of work of other departments. As I understand it, it is not the C&AG's intention to

12 Jul 2000 : Column 246

have a programme of routine monitoring. The power of access will be exercised only for a specific purpose. The Minister also suggested that the powers would deter contractors from coming forward to compete for PFI work. Such contractors do come forward in numbers despite the fact that the Government have already agreed to give such contractors access.

The Government had a further objection. They said that the provision would increase the right of access of the C&AG far beyond what is reasonable. As my noble friend Lord Freeman pointed out, the C&AG is effectively the servant of Parliament and it is for Parliament rather than the Government--in practice, civil servants--to decide what he reasonably needs in order to carry out his work for Parliament. Our amendment is designed to extend the C&AG's statutory rights but--I repeat this point--only in a way which replaces negotiated access. The Public Accounts Committee has already stated that it wants access to be more robust and more consistent. I quote the words of the ninth report of the Public Accounts Committee:

    "In order to examine the accountability of departments, the C&AG needs matching statutory rights of access so he can give Parliament independent assurance that public funds have been spent properly".

As I stated on Report, the present regime of negotiation is time-wasting, somewhat unseemly and threatens our independence. The Government have already agreed that the C&AG should have a right of access to contractors, but the terms of access have to be written into each and every contract. Quite simply, such terms are often missed. The Minister mentioned the Housing Corporation and the disposition of its funds. The C&AG has already reported individually on the handling of funds by a number of housing associations. That is a matter of established practice.

I return to the question of overlap. The C&AG is seeking statutory powers which will have the effect of saving time and effort. They will avoid the possibility of errors in drafting contracts and will be used only in specific instances where there is a specific purpose. To the question, "How do you know they will?", the answer is, "The C&AG is, like any other public body, accountable to Parliament for the efficient use of his time and resources". At Report stage, the Minister gave the example of the supplier of paper clips. The extent to which the paper clip supplier has made available his records to the government department or NDPB with which he contracts will, under our amendment, be available to the C&AG, but no more than that.

The Minister has difficulty with the matter of access to documents which are held or controlled by a non-departmental public body on the ground, inter alia, that it is difficult to define what an NDPB is. That sounds like inhibiting the C&AG from making proper investigations because, through a difficulty with definition, it might result in his straying into places where he should not. I suggest that the question of definition is not insurmountable and could be solved with the co-operation of the C&AG. I would also point

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out that the inclusion of "accounting officer" in Amendment No. 9 expressly corrals the extent of powers of access to NDPBs. I beg to move.

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