HL Deb 09 July 1979 vol 401 cc653-6

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether in the light of the recommendations of the Public Accounts Committee in the previous Parliament they will now direct that the accounts of the National Enterprise Board be opened to and audited by the Comptroller and Auditor-General.


My Lords, my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster announced in another place on 23rd June that the Government intend to proceed with the review of the functions of the Comptroller and Auditor-General which was put in hand by the previous Administration in January last. My noble friend's Question raises issues which need to be considered against that background, but a statement will be made as soon as possible.


My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he able to reassure me that priority will be given to this issue in the review to which he referred, first, in the light of the clear expression of view by the responsible and senior committee in another place and, secondly, because at the end of the last Parliament the sum of £4,500 million was granted to this body to deal with, by the last statute to get Her Majesty's Assent before the dissolution?


My Lords, my noble friend is quite correct to remind us of the views of what he terms the most " responsible and senior committee " in another place, and of the fact that this matter has been going on for some time. It is indeed a question of priorities. The duties of the Comptroller and Auditor-General in general are being looked at; but, as my noble friend knows well, the whole role of the NEB is being considered. In that context, we need to get entirely clear and agreed the role of the NEB before we announce the results of this matter.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the original recommendation from the Public Accounts Committee was made on 25th July 1978? Nearly a year has elapsed and the last Government promised a decision on this matter to this House in Question Time in November 1978. Therefore, there has been an unconscionable delay. Would he bear in mind that, if the NEB is given some residual powers, these accounts should be subject to the Comptroller and Auditor-General in accordance with the decision and recommendations of the PAC?


My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that observation. We are fully aware of the length of time that this matter has been kept waiting. We are also mindful of the fact that one must get clarity and certainty about the role of such an important body as the NEB before one takes final decisions on the process of audit or control of its accounts.


My Lords, would not the noble Viscount recognise that one agrees with examination of accounts and that is acceptable, but this body has performed a very valuable service to the economy of this country and it is important from the point of view of the regions? I hope the National Enterprise Board will not be axed.


My Lords, in our review of the NEB the noble Lord's views have been expressed clearly and in considerable detail to us. We have taken into account—and will continue to take into account until the moment of decision—all views which are expressed on the past role of the NEB.


My Lords, would my noble friend agree that, in fact, the role of the NEB had nothing to do with the Question asked by my noble friend, which is entirely a matter of carrying out a recommendation of a committee of the House of Commons?


My Lords, as I have already indicated, we have said that we will continue the review started by the previous Administration which goes into the role of the Comptroller and Auditor-General not only in relation to the NEB but in relation to other matters as well. But, if I may say so, I think there is relevance in my previous answers, in that to submit in haste to a new procedure in relation to its accounts a body whose role is being discussed in major degree is not an entirely sensible procedure either. But both these bodies—and I am sorry to disappoint my noble friends—are under review. The importance of the point raised in the original Question by my noble friend is fully accepted by the Government and will be taken into account, and we hope to announce the result shortly.


My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to expand a little on his answers to these questions? There really is no connection at all between the role of the NEB and whether or not somebody should look properly at what it is doing. I accept that the Government have a month or so to look at it, but to talk about acting in haste when it has already been well over a year seems to me to be a little optimistic.


My Lords, all I would say, rather than repeat what I said earlier, is that we have not been looking at it for very long and I think the two subjects are connected.


My Lords, will my noble friend accept that the anxieties which have been widely expressed this afternoon are certainly not diminished by the published statement of the chairman of this body, that responsibility to Ministers is equivalent to responsibility to Parliament? Is there not a very strong case that a body so headed should be subject to the most rigid parliamentary scrutiny on the money it has already spent, whatever its future may be?


My Lords, I do not wish my previous answers in any way to mean that the Government do not accept that the NEB should be responsible to procedures of scrutiny which will satisfy Parliament.