HC Deb 24 March 1994 vol 240 cc524-8

Queen's recommendation having been signified

Motion made, and Question proposed, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to that Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967.—[Mr. Lightbown.]

10.14 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I am not against this money resolution, but I believe that when money resolutions come before the House—except when there is an open and shut case for supporting them, and we know how much finance the House is committing—the Minister responsible ought to give the House an explanation of them.

The Bill allows the Parliamentary Commissioner to investigate administrative actions taken by administrative staff of certain tribunals, which are listed in new schedule 4. The relevant tribunals, for the purposes of section 5(7), are: Tribunals constituted in Great Britain under regulations made under section 4 of the Vaccine Damage Payments Act 1979. Child support appeal tribunals constituted under section 21 of the Child Support Act 1991. Social security appeal tribunals constituted under section 41 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. Disability appeal tribunals constituted under section 43 of that Act. Medical appeal tribunals constituted under section 50 of that Act. All these are clearly defined areas in which the Parliamentary Commissioner is to have his powers extended, and I welcome that.

This money resolution is not like the one attached to the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill. All hon. Members recognise that as a Bill that will not need similar examination. This Bill, however, is rather more vague in its application. I am sure that the Minister will be able to give us some idea of the amount of money that Parliament will provide—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What does the Bill say?

Mr. Cryer

Private Members' Bills do not offer the same detail as the Government can provide. Government Bills always include information about their financial effects. It provides Parliament with a helpful guide if we are told about those effects. With private Members' Bills, therefore, it is all the more relevant that the Minister should outline the sort of expenditure that he anticipates. I do not think that it will be very much, but it is useful to obtain such information from Ministers.

Before I began speaking on money resolutions, they often went through on the nod and Ministers sometimes did not even bother to turn up. They were certainly not briefed. Now they are briefed and are here to answer questions that hon. Members want to ask them.

Mr. Jacques Arnold (Gravesham)

The hon. Gentleman flatters himself.

Mr. Cryer

I probably have more experience than most hon. Members in discussing money resolutions. When I started, Ministers were not here, or they were not briefed, but now they are—that is a welcome development. I assure the Minister that I am not attempting to be hostile to his Bill, but I assume that if he had had the financial information before now he would have put it in an explanatory memorandum to the Bill—there is no reason not to do that.

Private Members who promote legislation in this place do so willingly, to serve some useful purpose. We realise that only legislation of this sort will get through private Members' time on a Friday in any case. Thus it seems to me that money resolution debates serve a very useful purpose. I assume that the fact that the motion stands on the Order Paper in the name of a member of the Government indicates Government support for the Bill. No doubt the Minister will be able to confirm that. It is helpful to have a look at these matters. The Minister will be able to use the information that his Department provides, and it will appear in the record.

Private Members' Bills that are enacted have exactly the same force as the most important Government legislation. In the case of their own Bill, Ministers provide some sort of estimate—alas, frequently inaccurate. In this case too there ought to be some sort of estimate so that when the Bill becomes law, as I hope it will, we shall not find that, with soaring expenses, the money provided by Parliament is virtually open ended. I realise that the various votes that Parliament approves each year constitute one of the limiting factors in public expenditure. None the less, we need some idea of the proportion of funds that will be taken up by the implementation of this legislation.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend plays a very useful role by speaking in debates on money resolutions. There is no doubt that this helps the Government in some respects. It makes them study more closely the financial implications of legislation, and it ensures that Whips are here to sort things out at the end of the day. I do not know whether my hon. Friend is aware that during the last parliamentary Session the House spent 11 hours debating money resolutions. I believe that my hon. Friend was involved in every debate. I always think that my hon. Friend's contributions at the end of the day are like the epilogues that one used to see on television.

My hon. Friend plays a useful role also by ensuring that members of staff are provided with taxis to take them home. [Interruption.] I think that this is important, as does my hon. Friend. It has to be remembered that in this building there are workers—real workers—who do not have a taxi paid for by the state until after 10.30 pm. In this respect my hon. Friend does an important job.

Mr. Cryer

My hon. Friend, in his brief intervention, has refuted a rather cheap sneer from the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris), who suggested that money resolution debates are not useful. I have always maintained that they are very useful. The time allowed is 45 minutes, but there are some people who want to abolish them. That would be wrong. For many years during my membership of the House money resolutions simply were not discussed.

On occasions, during the course of such a debate, it has been discovered that the money resolution did not cover the authority provided by the Bill. Firearms legislation is an example. In one case, two additional money resolutions were required. There is no doubt that some of the omissions that had to be dealt with by the additional money resolutions were discovered during debate on the first one.

Mr. David Harris (St. Ives)

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that, as indicated by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), his only reason for keeping us here at this hour is to enable staff members to be provided with taxis home? Can he give us an estimate of the cost to the taxpayer?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. I advise the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) not to do so. He must return to the money resolution.

Mr. Cryer

I would not go down that road in any case, as I am very concerned about the expenditure of money. I have listed the relevant tribunals for the purposes of section 5(7) of the original Act and have related them to this money resolution, which says that it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to that Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967. The Bill must exist to remedy a defect. Can the Minister tell us how many cases the Government expect in an average year? Private Members' Bills—which are very useful, and are debated on Fridays—and money resolutions, are sometimes regarded as a bit of a nuisance, as are the 10 or so Fridays when private Members' Bills are taken. I suspect that we are dealing with a money resolution to implement a private Member's Bill which was taken on a Friday and which, if the Jopling report is implemented, hon. Members would be denied.

I shall not go further down that road, but merely point out the great use of those Bills. Sometimes, because the Government do not have enough time, they provide an hon. Member with legislation to discuss on a Friday, if he is lucky enough to come in the first 10 or so in the ballot. I do not know whether the Bill is an example of that, but if it is, the Minister should have a good knowledge of the background to and reason for the legislation.

The various appeal tribunals are listed in five specific areas, so that the Parliamentary Commissioner can take action where there is cause for concern or complaint about any irregularity.

The complex nature of the Bill, in that it is Government inspired—it is none the worse for that, nor is it any less valuable or important—means that the Government may well have more detailed information than would be available to the ordinary private Member about how the financial effects of the Bill have been calculated, and the number of cases and incidents in each of the five sections listed in schedule 4 that occur each year.

I understand that the Bill was introduced to plug a legislative gap, not a loophole. As a result of demand, the Parliamentary Commissioner should have the opportunity to examine those cases, because of irregularities and complaints, yet his powers do not extend to them. It would be interesting to know from the Minister whether one, two, three, four or a dozen cases are involved. As a result, the extra expenses—which I do not expect will be very much —in which the Parliamentary Commissioner will be involved can be calculated fairly accurately. He or she serves a useful purpose and I am all in favour of that expenditure.

It is worth noting that Labour legislation introduced the Parliamentary Commissioner in the first place, based on the Swedish concept known as the ombudsman, and it has been extended widely. The existence of the Parliamentary Commissioner shows how even the present ideologically-driven Government recognise that they have to maintain and supplement some means of ensuring that there is some application of justice to administrative corners which affect only a tiny number of people, but which should be sustained because it was a good idea. It stemmed from the infamous Crichel Down case where a great injustice was determined by administrative fiat.

The money resolution provides additional finance of a minor nature to enliven and illuminate administrative loopholes which may be mundane but which are extremely important to the persons involved. I welcome the money resolution. I hope that the Minister will say that a money resolution indicates endorsement of the purpose of the Bill. I hope that he can give me the information that have requested.

Although another money resolution is on the Order Paper, I do not intend to debate it, because I feel that in that instance it is such an open and shut case that debate is not required. I am satisfied in my own mind that the amount of expenditure on that legislation is well curtailed and prescribed. That is not so in this case. Therefore, I hope very much that the Minister will respond with the modest amount of information that I have requested.

10.30 pm
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. David Davis)

I shall endeavour to help the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) in all his interests this evening, to the best of my ability.

This resolution is a standard money resolution, drafted to give Parliament authority to provide money under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967. The hon. Gentleman is quite right: it is a private Member's Bill and it has Government support. That answers his first point.

The resolution has been framed to enable funds to be made available to allow the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration to discharge his additional responsibilities under the Bill. These are in respect of investigating the administrative actions of staff in certain tribunals, which the hon. Gentleman has already listed and which are not currently within the Parliamentary Commissioner's jurisdiction.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether I could estimate the extent of the costs implicit in the resolution. It is not clear at this stage whether any additional resources would be necessary. It is also not possible to estimate at this stage how many additional complaints would arise, forwarded by hon. Members, as a result of the Bill being passed. I am sure, however, that the Parliamentary Commissioner will endeavour to keep additional costs to a minimum.

It is therefore not possible to make an assessment of the full extent of the costs, but the resolution has been put forward on a contingency basis.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any increase attributable to that Act in the sums payable out of money so provided under the Parliamentary Commissioner Act 1967.