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Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the reason given is a privilege reason. It is comparable to the reason in relation to public expenditure. It is not a new phrase; it is always used when the Commons conceive that their views are affected by Commons privilege.
Lord Higgins: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I realise that. However, it is a strange reason to give when the Bill is concerned with these very arrangements. If it were the case that we were precluded from moving such amendments, one would have thought that the Speaker would have certified the Bill as a money Bill in the first place. As I understand it, that is not the case. Your Lordships have considered this point all the way through.
The Minister has stressed--to some extent what he has said is correct--that the Government have sought to meet a number of points that have been pressed upon them in another place and in this House. He suggests that the amendments that were tabled in another place seek to meet the points that we make in saying that we should stay with Amendment No. 7.
It is clear from the speech of the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Mr David Davis, in another place--I believe it is also the general view of the Public Accounts Committee--that he does not regard these amendments now before us in lieu of the original amendment as satisfactory. He pointed out that,
Throughout the passage of this Bill we have had a problem in as much as the Minister has sought to stress that the issues that we raise somehow do not relate to the Bill. Clearly, they are within the Long Title. As such an event occurs only three times in 150 years, clearly it is right that we should be able to raise these matters on this Bill.
The Minister has been too concerned to restrict our debates to the narrow issues, although again, as pointed out in another place, the Bill in its original form covers a number of points concerned with auditing and so on. It is also true that the Bill covers the proposals in regard to resource accounting that we on these Benches, and I believe throughout Parliament, have welcomed, although in another place it has been suggested that a Bill of three clauses would have been sufficient to achieve that objective.
We have been over the ground a number of times in previous debates and I shall not weary the House by going over it again. But in relation to the right of access, which is what is at issue here, the Government are saying that the Comptroller and Auditor General has a right to roam. That point was clearly dealt with in the debate in another place. On the one hand it was argued--it is certainly the case--that the extent to which the National Audit Office is likely to roam in some irresponsible way is gravely limited by its resources, which are not as great as they might be. Having been chairman of the Public Accounts Committee which determines those resources, I can say that that is certainly so. Certainly the intrusion, which was made much of in the Minister's speech in the other place, is not likely to be on any scale.
In any event, in terms of this amendment, the National Audit Office would have to operate within the same constraints of intrusion which the Government themselves exercise. The same regulations and code of practice will apply equally. So we on this side do not believe that there will be the kind of dangers in our Amendment No. 7C, which we are suggesting should be reinstated, as the Government argue. Moreover, the Comptroller and Auditor General should not need to negotiate with those who spend public money and whose affairs he feels he ought to examine; that is not something that the representative of Parliament ought to have to do. He ought to have the right. As Mr Sheldon--the former chairman of the PAC and now the chairman of the Liaison Committee in another place--said, we want to go back to the situation of the 1866 Act which, "covered the lot", as he expressed it. The reality is that, at the moment, the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General do not cover the lot in terms of public expenditure.
I make just one further brief point. We welcome the Sharman committee. But this is a tremendously wasted opportunity. If the Government felt that these matters needed to be examined, then clearly the Sharman committee or its equivalent should have been set up in time for its recommendations to be incorporated in this Bill. We know it is extremely rare for a Bill of this kind to come before us.
We are glad to hear that the Sharman committee met this afternoon. We still have no explanation from the Minister as to what the relationship is between that group and the so-called steering group. The Minister merely says it is a steering group which has been set up with a very distinguished membership. But as to exactly how the two interact, I fear we remain very much in the dark. However, we shall await their reports in due course. To say that all the recommendations can be implemented by secondary legislation rather anticipates what the committee may say. It may be that they require primary legislation. At all events, it is likely to be some time before we make any progress on that. Meanwhile, we should pursue this matter and the other place should have an opportunity to consider it further.
Baroness Sharp of Guildford: My Lords, the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, seeks to reject the Government's amendment put forward in the Commons and to reinstate Lords Amendment No. 7. From these Benches we wholly support that proposal.
Our reasons for rejecting the Government's amendment are as follows. First, far from it being simply an issue of accountability, it is a fairly precise amendment and the issue about which we are concerned is access. The main purpose of the series of amendments tabled at Third Reading by the Opposition was to give the Comptroller and Auditor General rights of access to documentation that he needed to fulfil his responsibilities as auditor of public moneys. At present he is frustrated in that function by the fact that he has to negotiate with departments and, through them, with non-departmental public bodies in order to obtain the documentation.
That is time-consuming and costly in terms both of personnel and frustration of personnel when they find it difficult to obtain the documentation they need. It was to prevent those costs and those frustrations that it was proposed throughout the discussions on the Bill in the other place and in this House that the Comptroller and Auditor General should be given reasonable rights of access directly to those documents he needed and amendments were tabled to that effect.
Admittedly, the government amendment removes departments as gatekeepers, as they have been to date. The amendment put forward by the Government in the other place puts the Treasury in place of the department as gatekeeper. The Treasury is, arguably, a more formidable gatekeeper than departments. Indeed it suggests that the Comptroller and Auditor General will have to go cap in hand to the Treasury every time he has difficulty in gaining the access he needs. Far from having the right of access, as was proposed in the original amendment, instead it proposes that the Treasury shall have the right to decide to which bodies the Comptroller and Auditor General can or cannot have access.
Thirdly, the provision does nothing to simplify the procedures. The proposal in the original amendment was far simpler; that is, it gave the Comptroller and Auditor General the right to have access to the documents that he needed. As I say, the amendment does nothing to simplify that, which a right of access in primary legislation would ensure and which we would like to see. It is yet another item of piecemeal legislation which merely adds to the hotchpotch of arrangements in this area referred to by the Public Accounts Committee in its 9th Report of 1999-2000.
By contrast, the original amendment tabled by the Opposition at Third Reading was clear and straightforward. It is not, as was claimed by the Government in the other place, an unconstrained right to roam. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, mentioned this. It states clearly that the Comptroller and Auditor General will have the right to apply only for documents,
We come back time and again to the fundamental purpose of this amendment. In that sense the Minister is right that it is broadly about accountability in terms of the relationship between Parliament and its officers and their right properly to fulfil the functions set out under the 1866 Exchequer and Audit Departments Act; that is, to regulate the receipt, custody and issue of public moneys and provide the audit thereof.
As has been made clear from the outset of our discussions in this House on the Bill, the purpose of these amendments is to gain access in order to fulfil those tasks of audit. This is the fourth set of amendments that has been proposed covering the issue. Time and again, those proposing these amendments--the issue received cross-party support from members of the PAC in the other place--have
Time and again the Treasury has raised new objections. Initially, we had the argument that the Bill is not about audit. Then the impossibility of defining "non-departmental public bodies" was put forward, followed by the issue of the extra red tape and the regulations involved. There have also been many references to the Sharman report. Those arguments are not directly relevant to the issue of access. None of that detracts from the fundamental purpose of the original set of amendments--namely, to reinforce Parliament's control over public moneys--or from the Treasury's purpose, which is to frustrate that objective.
The amendment passed by the House of Commons is nothing but a move in the same direction. Indeed, as indicated, it concentrates discretion in the hands of the Treasury and makes the Comptroller and Auditor General subject to Treasury decisions and subordinate legislation. I should like to offer the House one final quotation. This one comes from Mr Sheldon, a previous chairman of the PAC, who said:
In many respects, this is a minor issue; but it is a minor issue about a fundamental principle. It is about the powers of Parliament vis-a-vis the executive. From these Benches, as I said previously, we believe that the power of the executive has grown too strong over the years and that, where there is an opportunity to reverse that tendency, we should pursue it. We therefore support the Opposition in their Amendment No. 7 and urge the House to reject Amendments Nos. 7A and 7B, which have been put forward by the Government.
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