HC Deb 01 April 1998 vol 309 cc1265-71

Queen's recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question proposed, That for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Regional Development Agencies Bill it is expedient to authorise any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money provided by Parliament under the Superannuation Act 1972.—[Mr. Clelland.]

3.41 pm
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I am slightly, but only slightly, surprised that we do not have a Treasury Minister here to speak to the resolution. It strikes me that it would be a courtesy to the House were a Treasury Minister to come here to explain to us what the words on the Order Paper mean. They read rather ominously to me, because I have not been given any explanation. The resolution that we are being asked to approve gives a completely blank cheque to the Government, the Department or the Secretary of State to spend any money under the auspices of the Regional Development Agencies Bill.

The wording of the resolution is: it is expedient to authorise any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money provided by Parliament". At the stage of the money resolution—which is an important part of parliamentary procedure, when the House is asked to authorise the expenditure of taxpayers' money in the furtherance of the Bill's objectives—and when a Bill has returned from Standing Committee, where it has been scrutinised most carefully, surely it would not be unreasonable for the House to expect at least a range of costs to be given by a Treasury Minister. Given that the resolution stands in the name of a Treasury Minister, one might have expected a Treasury Minister to come and tell the House, fairly briefly, the sort of moneys that might be expected to be spent arising from the Bill and under the terms of the money resolution.

I say that because I suspect that the sort of costs that will arise from the Bill will fall into two broad categories. The first could be described as administrative costs, for example, those arising from clauses 1 to 3, in which reference is made to between eight and 15 members of each of the nine proposed development agencies. On reading that, one can immediately envisage the sort of structures and bureaucracy that might arise from such a provision. There are to be nine agencies spread across the country and, inevitably, each will have offices, staff, expenses and all the other things that go with such bodies.

Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk)

My right hon. Friend's concern is a proper one. He might not have had time to study the Standing Committee proceedings in detail, but I am sure that he would like to know that Conservative members of the Committee moved an amendment to place a cash limit on the pay that could be given to RDA boards, the pensions that could be paid to members of RDA boards and the compensation that could be paid to non-executive members of boards for loss of office. The Government rejected that amendment.

Mr. Forth

I am not surprised to hear that. My hon. Friend brings to this matter a sense of financial responsibility and probity of the kind that we expect from Conservative Benches. Equally, I am not surprised that the Government rejected his proposal. Within that vignette lies the fear that I am trying to express today: substantial expenditure could flow from the provisions of the Bill as it has emerged from Standing Committee. That expenditure could flow from the nine agencies, their staffing needs and so on. One has only to glance through the Bill to see the scope for expenditure that it provides.

I fear that the direct costs will be bad enough—and, given my hon. Friend's comments, I suspect that there will be little opportunity for effective control. Even worse than that, clause 4 outlines the range of activities that the agencies would undertake, all of which will require substantial expenditure. The House is being asked today to approve that considerable expenditure without having any idea of the range of costs involved.

I am now aware of your views regarding money resolutions, Madam Speaker. I believe that they should provide an opportunity for the House to consider, as part of our general scrutiny of legislation, the sorts of costs that would arise from a Bill. In this case, we must focus particularly on those financial aspects. It has been my experience—my hon. Friend may wish to correct me in relation to this legislation—that Standing Committees are not always able to examine the totality of costs that may arise from a Bill's provisions. That may not be the case with this legislation, but although my hon. Friend made a valiant effort to provide a mechanism for restraining the costs that might arise, the Government rejected his suggestion. Therefore, I think that we are entitled to be even more suspicious. My suspicion increases when I read clause 7, which states: A regional development agency shall— (a) formulate, and keep under review, a strategy in relation to its purposes". The formulation and review of a strategy suggests an on-going mechanism that carries with it a considerable cost. We are given no idea of the sorts of cost that may be involved.

In that context, I suggest that, when a money resolution of this or any other kind is put before the House, the Treasury Minister in whose name the money resolution is made should routinely seek to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, in order to explain the amount of money that might be involved. If we have no such explanation—and I am afraid that there is none in this case—the House must remain uninformed as to the nature of the expenditure and the general range of costs involved. Therefore, we are being asked to sign what I would characterise as a blank cheque. It is not the first time that this has happened.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Does my right hon. Friend remember the debate in which he and I participated on the morning after the House sat all night? He and I waited up to debate the money resolution on the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill, which both my right hon. Friend and I wholly support. That was one of the few occasions when the House had the opportunity to debate a money resolution. Hon. Members were able to debate how much ordinary taxpayers should spend on a legitimate and important piece of parliamentary legislation. The point is that the House had the chance to debate that important question.

Mr. Forth

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of that, because he well illustrates the fact that our eternal vigilance on money resolutions must never slack or cease. I remind my hon. Friend, in the same regard, that on that occasion we received no answers from the Minister to satisfy us about the amounts of expenditure that would be involved. I hope that this will be an important parliamentary occasion, in that it will be the first time since the general election when the House will be told by a Minister about the range of costs associated with a money resolution. I suspect that my hon. Friend will not hold his breath waiting for that to happen, but we must all travel hopefully, in the expectation that we may, eventually, arrive at a state of erudition.

My eye lit upon clause 10, which says: The Secretary of State may, with the approval of the Treasury, make to a regional development agency grants of such amounts, and on such terms, as he thinks fit. We are being asked, in approving the money resolution, to approve that blanket provision without any idea of the range of costs involved. I should have thought that it would give rise to very considerable levels of expenditure.

Mr. Soames


Madam Speaker

I hope that it is a shorter intervention.

Mr. Soames

It will be a very short intervention, Madam Speaker. Is my right hon. Friend aware that I hope to catch your eye, Madam Speaker, later in the debate—

Madam Speaker

In that case, turn your very pleasant face to the Chair.

Mr. Soames

I apologise. You know that no disrespect would ever be intended towards you, Madam Speaker.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that within clause 10 falls the whole logic of the point that he and I debated on that long, cold spring morning, when we debated how the Rio declaration would fit with the aspirations of the National Federation of Badger Groups? Does my right hon. Friend remember?

Mr. Forth

Yes, I do. It is burnt on my memory. The reference that my hon. Friend made—as only he could—to both the Rio declaration and the friends of the badgers, contributed significantly to that debate. I hope that, if the House is very lucky and behaves itself extraordinarily well, he might remind himself how both Rio and badgers are relevant to the money resolution— and if he managed to get that round you, Madam Speaker, I would admire him even more than I do now.

The simple point that I want to make about the money resolution is twofold. First, there is a procedural question: whether it should be mandatory for Ministers in whose name the money resolution is laid before the House to do the House the courtesy of coming here and setting out, briefly, the nature of the money resolution, its background and, most crucially, the range of costs that might be involved, so that the House may take a proper view of the matter and pass its own judgment.

The second matter, which flows naturally from the first, is the substantive point in the money resolution. I suspect that, in this case, the amount of taxpayers' money that may be spent as a result of the Bill and money resolution is significant and substantial. Surely it is right that we should be told of the range of expenditure that might be involved, so that the House might properly come to a conclusion.

If the House is not given that information, I and some of my hon. Friends—I do not know how many— might be sorely tempted to feel that it is our duty to express, in a Division, our view that we are entirely dissatisfied, not only with the procedural aspects, but with the lack of substance so far offered to the House.

3.53 pm
Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

My hon. Friend and I—

Mr. Forth

Right hon. Friend.

Mr. Soames

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and I appear to be the only two people in the entire House other than you, Madam Speaker, who really believe that is the job of Members of Parliament to hold the Executive to account, so it is a great moment for the House of Commons under the present Administration that we are entitled—indeed, permitted—to debate the money resolution.

I remember a morning not long ago: a cold, damp, spring morning, after the House had been sitting all night. Regrettably, Madam Speaker, you were not in the Chair; you were attending to other administrative matters. One of your incredibly efficient and excellent Deputies was in the Chair, and he will recall to you, Madam Speaker, the moment when my right hon. Friend and I thought it fit to draw to the attention of the House the opportunity that we had in our consideration of the Road Traffic Reduction (United Kingdom Targets) Bill to debate the money resolution. The scene that passed before our eyes was one from older days, when you, Madam Speaker, were on the Back Benches, when—

Madam Speaker

Order. I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman. I must bring him back to the motion on the Order Paper. He is romanticising and taking me along with him, but I must attend to the business of the House. I bring him back to the motion which, he will notice, is a very limited motion. It deals only with superannuation costs. I am sure that he can read it correctly and will understand that. We will come back to superannuation costs now. Thank you.

Mr. Soames

It is because the money resolution deals with superannuation costs that I am able to remind you, Madam Speaker, of days that you will well remember, when Bob Cryer, a gentleman whose loss is much lamented and who was so sadly taken from us, often used to detain the House on the money resolution on superannuation motions for the greater benefit of the House, and the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) used to support him. It is a source of great pleasure to me and to hon. Members on both sides of the House that Mr. Cryer's fine widow and splendid son are now in the House to deal with such matters.

As you rightly reminded us, Madam Speaker, we are dealing with the money resolution relating to the Superannuation Act 1972. I support my right hon. Friend in respect of clause 10 of the Bill, which states: The Secretary of State may, with the approval of the Treasury, make to a regional development agency grants of such amounts, and on such terms, as he thinks fit. Whether those sums are voted by the Government on a superannuation basis or on any other basis, they are worthy of being debated by the House which, if it does not express the views of the ordinary electorate in the voting of Supply, has no right even to exist.

The points expressed by my right hon. Friend in relation to the motion should be taken seriously by Ministers. It is a matter of regret to me that the Financial Secretary—a woman who, for whatever reason, commands the universal admiration of Conservative Members—is not in her place. Her parents were constituents of mine, when I had the honour to represent the Crawley seat. Indeed, she is an esteemed alumnette of the Thomas Bennett community college in Crawley. It may be that her training in that previous existence led her to draft clause 10, which states—

Madam Speaker

Order. We shall deal with clause 10 in due course, when we come to it. For the moment we will deal with the money resolution. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will be neither tedious nor repetitious, but will come to a conclusion now.

Mr. Soames

I will come to a conclusion, Madam Speaker, and it has never been an ambition of mine to be either tedious or repetitious.

Clause 10, which relates to the Superannuation Act 1972, states: The Secretary of State may, with the approval of the Treasury, make to a regional development agency grants of such amounts, and on such terms, as he thinks fit"— or, in the case of the Financial Secretary, as she thinks fit.

It is wrong for a Government to have the right to make fit applications of that type to the House of Commons. It is wrong for it to be done without permission and without any estimate of the size of the request that the Financial Secretary will make. We are asked to pass on the nod a money resolution dealing only with superannuation, and we do not know how much money will be made available to the Financial Secretary.

Madam Speaker, like your predecessors were and your successors will be, you are all that remains of that thin gap between the Government and the outside world, which can hold the Government accountable and protect the right of the House to vote Supply. As we understand it, the House is being asked to vote an unlimited sum on superannuation.

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning is ready to reply to the debate. He is a good and straight man and a good Minister. He will do his very best. As I have said on another occasion, he will have been furnished with a brief that is impeccably written by honourable civil servants who are charged with drafting legislation for the House with parliamentary clerks and parliamentary counsel. He will bring before the House the money resolution and ask us to vote, on the nod, for unlimited Supply on superannuation.

If I were to say to you, Madam Speaker, that you could have unlimited Supply for your pension, you would say to me, "I would like to have unlimited Supply, but that is quite wrong. I could not have such a thing without it being approved by the House of Commons." We are saying that the liberty that is given to you, Madam Speaker, should be given to Conservative Members, whose only job in life is to try, on the few brief occasions available to us, to deal in straight and open debate with the Labour Government and the amount of money that is voted on the nod on issues such as superannuation.

We have to ask ourselves—[Interruption.] I give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles).

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)


Madam Speaker

I am ready to put the Question. Does the Minister wish to reply?

4.2 pm

The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning (Mr. Richard Caborn)

I must put some comments on the record. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Soames) has had a very good lunch and seems a little emotional, if not a little tired. If hon. Members look at column 485 of Hansard on 14 January, they will see that there was a money resolution open for debate. I do not think that any Conservative Member rose to speak on that resolution. Indeed, it went through on the nod. I think that a little twinge of hypocrisy prevails this afternoon.

I will put the case for the money resolution. As you have said, Madam Speaker, it invites the House to authorise that part of the amendment to the Regional Development Agencies Bill on RDA pensions, to be debated later, which would create a charge on public funds. The amendment will have the technical effect of increasing the sums payable out of money provided by Parliament under the Superannuation Act 1972, if necessary. We are advised that the money resolution agreed by the House on Second Reading is unlikely to be wide enough to cover the additional sums.

The net effect on the public purse is likely to be minimal. By far the bulk of RDA staff are to transfer from Government offices, English Partnerships and the Rural Development Commission, some of whom have existing public sector pension entitlements, and all of whom are paid from the public purse. With that short explanation, I hope that the House will agree to the money resolution.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Regional Development Agencies Bill it is expedient to authorise any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable out of money provided by Parliament under the Superannuation Act 1972.