HC Deb 26 March 1998 vol 309 cc749-51
Dr. Marek

I beg to move amendment No. 226, in page 56, line 42, at end insert — '(2) 'The Treasury shall reimburse the Assembly for any costs in providing information under this section.'. There are about 10 minutes available to us and another three groups of amendments on the list. Let us see whether we can deal with more than one amendment, because the next two are worthy of some debate.

Amendment No. 226 seeks slightly to curtail the power of the Treasury, and its influence is all-pervasive in the Bill, which we have been considering over nine days. This straightforward amendment seeks to place a responsibility on the Treasury to pay for the work and effort that will be required in acceding to Treasury wishes when it asks for information. Of course, the Treasury could ask for all sorts of information in many ways. Indeed, it probably does so now.

I suspect that the Treasury probably tries to moderate its demands, to ensure that the information that it requests will be valuable and that disproportionate cost will not be involved. However, that may change once we have a national assembly whose responsibility will be in Wales. Once the Treasury has given a block grant to the assembly, it may say, "This information may be useful to us, but it will cost a lot of money. However, the assembly will have to pay for it, so let us ask for the information anyway."

As good parliamentarians, we should try to curtail the Treasury's powers, which are all-pervasive. It rules our lives every day, from morning to evening. I hope that the amendment will find some favour at least on the Back Benches, if not on the Front Benches.

Mr. Evans

I have read the amendment, and I am not awfully keen on it. It would place the onus on the Treasury. I suspect that there are rather busy people in the Treasury who will not invent work for themselves merely to create a raison d'etre for being there. They have other important things to do.

We have heard so much about how reasonable everybody will be, to ensure that the assembly will work. I suspect that those involved will not ask for information from the assembly, apart from information that is absolutely necessary for the proper scrutiny and proper working of the assembly.

I suspect—I am a suspicious sort of fellow—that we see the first inkling of what will happen when people start to point the finger at the assembly, wondering whether they are getting value for money or whether the money is being spent here, there and everywhere. The hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) and others may be saying, "Part of the problem is the Treasury. It is the Treasury again that is to blame, because it is asking for so much information and not making a contribution for all the extra work that that involves."

I fear that, if accepted, the amendment could cause a precedent, in that we shall all have to start to bear the cost of all the work that we create. I have in mind all the parliamentary questions that we table—we understand how much it costs to table a written or oral question. If we have to bear the cost of all the information that we want, I suspect that the office cost allowance will increase so disproportionately that it will hardly be worth asking the questions in the first place.

Mr. Hain

I am not sure that the office cost allowance comes within the terms of the amendment and the debate upon it. I shall let that point pass, eloquently though it was made.

The Welsh Office provides a range of information to the Treasury, which supports the Treasury's management of public finance and its responsibilities for macro-economic policy. For instance, the Welsh Office supplies information about the split of its expenditure and that of the public bodies that it funds, between capital and revenue, information about European Union receipts and information to confirm figures held on the Treasury's database.

To ensure that the Treasury will continue to receive that information after devolution, we decided exceptionally to include a provision in the Bill to require the assembly to provide information to the Treasury that it needs for the exercise of its functions.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), who takes a keen interest in Treasury matters—I know that he was an eloquent Opposition Treasury spokesman—that the Treasury will not impose greater burdens on the assembly in requesting information than it now imposes on the Welsh Office. The cost of providing that information is already provided for in the administrative costs of the Welsh Office. It is unnecessary to provide for the Treasury to reimburse the costs of providing such information, as my hon. Friend suggests through his amendment.

I think that we want to get on with an arrangement between the assembly and the Treasury that is practical common sense and not bound up with the quasi-contractual framework that my hon. Friend suggests for the provision of ordinary information. I invite my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment.

Dr. Marek

If the Treasury sought to ask only for information that was necessary for it to carry out its functions, I would not have any problems. However, the clause is drawn more widely than that, and allows the Treasury to cause a great deal of time and money to be spent by the national assembly if it, the Treasury, so wishes.

First, I invite my hon. Friend the Minister to look at the clause again. If he wants in another place to suggest that the Treasury ask only for information that is necessary for it to carry out its functions—in other words, to narrow the clause—I shall be happy. Secondly, as I am not in a position to insist that my hon. Friend should adopt that approach, and as we want another few minutes on St. David's day, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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