HL Deb 26 July 2000 vol 616 cc433-46

5 Clause 8, page 5, line 5, leave out ("of a government department's accounts")

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason

5A Because it would alter the financial accounting and audit arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that the above reason may he deemed sufficient.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 5 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 5A. I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 6 and 6A, 7 and 7A, 7B and 7C, and 8 and 8A.

The issue of the relationship between Parliament and the Executive on the audit of and access to public expenditure is one which goes back not only to the beginning of the consideration of this Bill, nor back only to the National Audit Act 1983 or to the 1921 or the 1866 Acts. This issue is inherent in parliamentary government and I do not in any way regret the further debate on it that has taken place.

I shall not give a history lesson; I shall refer only to the history of this Bill. From the beginning of the consideration of this Bill, the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and members of the Public Accounts Committee have expressed their concerns about audit and access and have used the Bill as a vehicle to express their concerns. The Bill is not about accountability as such; it is about resource accounts. However, it is legitimate to say that, because it is about the accounts, it should cover also issues of access for audit purposes. That, indeed, has been a continuing theme throughout our debates.

We have responded right from the beginning to concerns expressed by the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and noble Lords opposite. First, we made clear our view that any new non-departmental public bodies which we set up since 1997 should be audited by the National Audit Office, and so they have been.

Secondly, we made it clear in Clause 8(2)(b) of the Bill that access should be available not only to financial records held by departments but to those held by any outside bodies which are deputed to hold their financial records.

Thirdly, and perhaps more importantly, we made it clear in amendments introduced during the passage of the Bill, and notably Clause 23, that we believe that changes in the law are necessary. Clause 23 clarifies the role of the House of Commons in the control of the National Audit Office. It makes it clear that the Comptroller and Auditor General and the National Audit Office are acting on behalf of the House of Commons and that they report directly to the House of Commons. I pay tribute to those who have exerted pressure on us. As a result we have made those matters clear.

Clause 23 makes clear that the responsibilities of the National Audit Office apply to any body that, exercises functions of a public nature or is entirely or substantially funded from public money". That goes a very long way towards a definition of the kind of public body that ought to be covered by the National Audit Office.

We have responded from the start. Since then, further pressure has been exerted on audit and accountability. I do not object to that. On audit, the matter came to a vote and your Lordships decided not to pursue the matter. On accountability, when the Bill first arrived in this House, we set up the Sharman review, which is about not just audit, but accountability, which the Bill patently is not.

I think that your Lordships have generally welcomed the accountability provisions. The Sharman committee met for the first time at 2.30 this afternoon. I do not know whether the meeting is still going on and whether we shall have the pleasure of seeing the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, in his place. The committee is almost certainly thrashing out its terms of reference as we speak.

Concerns were then expressed in this House about the implementation of any Sharman recommendations. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, waxed very eloquent on that. I do not blame him; he was entirely right to do so. We gave assurances that we would take the Sharman review very seriously. He is right to say that assurances are only assurances and should not be taken too seriously. I understand that, but the Sharman committee has many distinguished members, including many members of the Public Accounts Committee, as well as members of this House. We are not going to short-change them.

We have done more. We introduced amendments to make clear that the recommendations of the Sharman committee could be implemented by secondary legislation without waiting for further primary legislation, as there could well be a gap of 40, 50, 60 or 80 years between major legislation on public accounts.

The provisions in Clauses 8 and 23 that I have mentioned make it possible to implement any recommendations that the Sharman review may produce on greater scrutiny for audit purposes. Amendments Nos. 7A and 7B, which the manuscript amendment would remove, are a further assurance that any recommendations that Sharman makes about greater scrutiny for audit purposes can be implemented by secondary legislation. If the committee makes recommendations about value for money or other examination, that is fine. The Economic Secretary to the Treasury made clear in the Commons on Monday that we will take a positive and constructive view of any such recommendations which we believe can be implemented without primary legislation.

I repeat our assurance that the Government will not shrink from implementing any recommendations from the Sharman committee if they appear to be for the benefit of both Parliament and the executive. Parliament and the executive clearly have a concurrent interest. I shall come to the divergences later, but they are both interested in the proper expenditure of public money. That is a fundamental basis of our reaction to any Sharman recommendations. Of course, without knowing what he will recommend, I cannot say that we will implement all his recommendations, but I hope that my assurances go as far as conceivably possible in explaining that we believe the examination worthwhile and that we propose to take the committee's recommendations very seriously, including—I make this clear in case it is not already apparent—any reconsideration of the provisions of the National Audit Act 1983, which was called into question in the Commons on Monday.

The amendments carried in this House at Third Reading went much further than any amendments asked for or debated in the past. They went way beyond the examination for audit purposes of departments' or NDPBs' accounts. They covered the whole range of examination of public expenditure by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Mr David Davis read out the version of Clause 8 as it would have been if Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 had been carried. Subsection (1) read: For the purposes of an examination by the Comptroller and Auditor General—

  1. (a) he shall have a right of access at all reasonable times to any relevant documents; and
  2. (b) a person who holds or has control of any of these documents shall give the Comptroller and Auditor General any assistance, information or explanation which he requires in relation to any of those documents".
The right would apply to any documents, held or controlled by a government department or a relevant non-departmental public body, or (b) which are documents to which a government department or relevant non-departmental public body has, or can obtain, access". We resisted those amendments on the grounds that they went far beyond the scope of the Bill, even if they were not spoken to on that basis by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, or the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. They were taken up in Monday's debate in the Commons on the proper terms that they are issues between Parliament and the executive on the control of public expenditure. The eloquent speeches of Mr David Davis, Mr Edward Davey, Mr Alan. Williams, Mr Robert Sheldon and others all addressed the relationship between Parliament and the executive in the control of public expenditure—not departmental audit, but the whole role of the National Audit Office in the examination of public expenditure. The debate was one-sided, with the Minister left on her own. The arguments will endure. Some of the things said will remain the constant concern of this Government and future governments for many years to come.

However, that is not what we are debating today. The Opposition's manuscript amendment would not reinstate those Amendments Nos. 5 and 6. The Opposition want to replace our Amendments Nos. 7A and 7B with the original Lords Amendment No. 7, which applies only to departmental audit.

This is a strange kind of ping-pong. We start a serious process of discussion of public policy. Points are put to us and we respond. Those who have put their points to us then move away to the next ping-pong table. We respond there. They move away again. We are not playing at the same ping-pong table at any stage. We have responded positively to everything that has been said to us. I am even responding positively to the points that were made in the Commons on Monday on the wider issues raised by the Lords amendments that the Commons have disagreed to. Instead of debating the matter discussed in the Commons, we are going back to the issue of access for departmental audit.

I shall not repeat the arguments that I used on a number of occasions about the defects of the Lords' amendment which would now be re-instated—the definition of a non-departmental body, the burdens of businesses and so on. We have gone past that. I am convinced that this is now crunch time.

I am also convinced that this Government have gone the extra mile in seeking to persuade your Lordships, and Parliament in general, that this is a Bill that is coherent in its own right and pays proper respect to the rights of Parliament, the National Audit Office and the Comptroller and Auditor General in departmental accounts. The Government have set up a body to examine the wider issue of accountability in the form of the Sharman review, and they have given every assurance that the Sharman review will be taken extremely seriously and can be implemented by government. Under those circumstances, I shall be sorry if your Lordships return to the amendment now tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 5 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 5A.—(Lord McIntosh of Haringey.)

4 p.m.

Lord Higgins

My Lords, I rise to speak to the amendments enumerated by the Minister. The Minister has recounted the history of these matters and we are now debating a series of amendments. The Minister referred to the various amendments that the Government have tabled, in particular the reasons given by the Commons. Earlier I commented on the way in which committees set up to produce such reasons sometimes get into a rut. On this occasion the reason given is that, it would alter the financial accounting and audit arrangements made by the Commons, and the Commons do not offer any further reason, trusting that the above reason may be deemed sufficient". I believe that is a strange reason because the whole of the Bill concerns financial accounting and audit arrangements.

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, First, the power provides the Treasury with the right to decide to which bodies the Comptroller and Auditor General can or cannot have access". It is for Parliament to decide that and not for the Treasury to do so. Secondly, he stated, the proposal does nothing to overcome the problem of the time-consuming negotiations that are currently necessary", for the Comptroller and Auditor General to obtain access to particular areas where government money is being spent. Thirdly, he said, the provision will also place the CAG's access powers in secondary legislation, rather than in primary legislation". Only a moment ago the Minister stressed that this whole matter is fundamental to the control of Parliament over the executive, as it has been down the centuries. It is not appropriate that it should be dealt with in secondary legislation. Finally, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee said, the effect of the order-making power is to add to the hotch-potch of arrangements referred to in the Committee's ninth report. It is not a global solution and will allow current anomalies to be handled only on a piecemeal basis".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/7/00; col. 836.] For those reasons I do not believe that it would be right for your Lordships to accept the amendments that the Government have put forward. The Minister says that this is an attempt to meet the points made, but in the debates in another place to which I have just referred those amendments were described as retrograde, not progressive. That is an important point.

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.

My point is illustrated by the remarks made by the Minister at Third Reading. In speaking to the amendments and the matter of access and he said: Indeed, the Comptroller and Auditor General himself admitted that in giving evidence to the Public Accounts Committee. However, the Opposition have responded in the most extraordinary way: by removing the requirement that the clause should apply to departmental accounts, which is what is meant in Amendments Nos. 4 and 5".—[Official Report, 12/7/00; col. 249.] That is not what was meant by Amendments Nos. 4 and 5. He said what was meant by those amendments in another passage of his speech. A number of people came up to me after the Division was called saying, "Is it really true that this does what the Minister said; that by removing the requirement the clause would apply to departmental accounts?" He should have said, "We remove the requirement that it applies only to departmental accounts". I do not suggest that the Minister intended to mislead the House at Third Reading, but in reality we sought to widen the scope to include these measures that are clearly of great concern to Members of another place. He pointed out that the debate in another place was rather one-sided. Apart from the Minister's speeches, no one spoke in favour of the line that the Government took on the amendments.

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.

4.15 p.m.

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.

That is one reason we reject this amendment. Secondly, the provision does nothing to overcome the problem of the time-consuming and frustrating negotiations that are necessary to secure access. Indeed, in making the whole arrangement subject to affirmative resolution via secondary legislation, in many ways it makes the procedures yet more cumbersome and more difficult to handle.

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, held or controlled by a government department or a relevant non-departmental public body, or … which are documents to which a government department or a relevant non-departmental public body has, or can obtain, access". In other words, the National Audit Office has to follow the access guidelines that the Government themselves follow. It is not a wholesale right to roam.

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.

In the other place a Labour Member, Mr Alan Williams, who is a member of the Public Accounts Committee, said, At the heart of the matter—and we must constantly return to it—is whether we have a parliamentary democracy and parliamentary accountability. Access is fundamental to that—on all Government expenditure and income. If Parliament does not have that access, it cannot exercise propose control over the Executive". Further, he said, It is effrontery for the Executive to tell Parliament that we should not have the right to inspect them. For those who are being monitored to say what can be monitored would be mildly comical if we saw it in a Whitehall farce—yet that is what is being proposed".—(Official Report, Commons, 24/7/00; col. 842.) 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 tried to meet the objections raised by the Treasury in terms of limiting the scope and trying to define "non-departmental public bodies".

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.

I shall quote again from the debate that took place in the other place. This time I refer to the words of Mr David Davis, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, who said: We should not assume that the Treasury would permit these rights automatically. Time and again, even in the course of the Bill's passage through Parliament, the Treasury has argued that the Comptroller and Auditor General should not have access to private bodies. That happened in connection with housing associations, which are now known as registered social landlords. It will happen again in connection with the PFI companies that will deliver public services in the coming years".—[Official Report. Commons, 24/7/00; col. 837.] 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: Access by the CAG should be the result of a right, and not involve permission. He should not have to seek the permission of the people whom he is auditing; he should have an unqualified right of access—I should not have to ask for that".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/7/00; col. 845.] 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-à-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.

Lord Roper

My Lords, I shall not detain the House for long, but I feel that I ought to intervene at this point to express my support for the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins. I was greatly influenced by the debate that took place in the other place. When we discussed this matter on Third Reading, I was not totally convinced on the strength of the argument that was then advanced. Indeed, the Minister made a rather strong case against the amendment on that occasion—rather stronger than that made by the Economic Secretary in another place.

However, having had an opportunity to read the report of the debate that was referred to by my noble friend, it seems to me that the quality of the debate in the other place last Monday indicates the importance of this matter. It was quite extraordinary to see such support from all parts of another place. Although this is not the greatest of matters, that support seems to indicate that it is an important parliamentary matter.

When he introduced the debate, the Minister referred to the concurrent interests that exist at some stages. Of course there are such interests; but there are other occasions—and this is one of them—when there is inevitably a difference of view between the executive and the legislature. The views expressed in that one-sided debate on Monday night in another place indicate why it is important for us to carry the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, this evening.

Lord Norton of Louth

My Lords, I rise to reinforce briefly the points just made. I completely agree with the arguments advanced by my noble friend Lord Higgins and the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. My comments will be short because many of the points contained in my notes are identical to what both speakers have said.

The amendments originally made by your Lordships' House served to strengthen and protect the position of Parliament in relation to the executive. The noble Baroness is quite right to say that there is a fundamental point at issue; indeed, it is actually an important constitutional point. I appreciate that the Government won the vote in the other place, but they very clearly lost the argument. The Minister has conceded that fact to some extent. Indeed, not one Labour Back-Bencher spoke in support of the Government's position. If one reads the report of the debate, it is quite clear that the Government do not have the support of the chairman of the PAC or of his immediately predecessor, Robert Sheldon, who was a very distinguished Labour member of that committee. Indeed, he abstained in the vote that took place. Moreover, as I understand it, the Government do not have the support of the current members of the PAC.

The arguments for the House to pass the noble Lord's amendment are compelling. I believe that the order-making powers proposed by the Government are inadequate. My noble friend Lord Higgins has put on record the comments made in the other place by David Davis, the current chairman of the PAC. Indeed, my noble friend outlined the four points that were made at that time. The first of the latter is especially important; namely, that the power to be given under the Government's proposals will provide the Treasury with the right to decide to which bodies the Comptroller and Auditor General may have access. That is an extremely important point.

The Government's proposed amendments would leave Parliament's ability to engage in proper scrutiny to the discretion of the government of the day. That cannot be right. We need to protect the position of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The noble Baroness talked about the latter fulfilling his responsibility, but I believe that she could have referred to his "fulfilling his responsibility as an Officer of Parliament". That is a fundamental point.

Mention has also been made of the fact that the Lords amendments would not create a "general right of access", as was claimed in the Treasury's memorandum: they are limited to the issue of government access. That is quite clear from the amendment. The further point was made in another place that they are also limited in practical terms because of the limited resources of the NAO, which cannot, therefore, go on a general roaming exercise. The point about the review team under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Sharman, has already been addressed. However, the Sharman review cannot deliver the necessary statutory vehicle to entrench Parliament's rights. It is extremely important to bear that in mind.

The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, quoted from Alan Williams, who is a Labour member of the PAC. As she indicated, his words were very powerful and I do not intend to repeat them. However, I shall merely conclude with the final words of Alan Williams in that debate: I merely want to record that this is far more than a debate about auditing, it is about the power of Parliament against the Executive. In this Bill, the Executive is winning".—[Official Report, Commons, 24/7/00; col. 844.] I do not want the executive to win; I want Parliament to win.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have again the difficulty that I have experienced on many previous occasions of choosing between addressing the amendment or the arguments that have been put forward in the debate. The arguments put forward in this debate bear no relation to the amendment now before the House. Those arguments reflect what I previously described: when we attempt to respond to the game of ping-pong that we are playing, the other side abandons the table and goes to another table next door.

When a clutch of amendments was put forward by the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, on Third Reading in this House, I addressed them. I did so seriously and one by one. I drew attention to the fact that they would broaden the definition. If there was a slip of the tongue that allowed the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, to think that I meant that they did not cover departmental accounts, that was a mistake. I made quite clear what I meant: they would broaden the definition to cover all of the activities of the National Audit Office. I addressed that. Neither the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, nor the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, addressed that. No one addressed it. However, I addressed the amendments before us.

Now we have a single amendment which does not constitute the range of amendments which the House of Commons debated. The House of Commons debated the amendments which I addressed and which were not addressed by their proponents in this House. The thrust of the debate in the House of Commons, which was a high quality debate, did not concern the amendment before us today; it concerned fundamentally Amendments Nos. 5 and 6. It concerned the amendments which raise the general issue of accountability for all public expenditure, not just departmental accounts. As I say, it was a good debate. But what did the speakers in that debate talk about? What did Mr David Davis choose to talk about? He talked about the fraud in the Focus Housing Association. That would not be covered by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, which is before us today. Fine speeches were made about the role of Parliament, which must be addressed. I have argued that they do not have to be addressed in the Bill; but they are certainly not addressed by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, today.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

My Lords, the problem with the Focus Housing Association was that the Comptroller and Auditor General had not been able to gain access to its documentation. Difficulties in obtaining access to that documentation were discussed. It seems to me that the amendment we are considering concerns this whole issue of access to documentation.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am sorry, but it does not. These are not documents to which, under the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, a department has or can obtain access to. This is a much wider issue. It is a proper issue and one which deserves to be addressed. However, it is not addressed by Amendment No. 7C.

That applies to many of the comments made in the course of the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, and the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, both referred to the speech of Mr David Davis. In that fine speech Mr Davis talked of the time-consuming and embarrassing need for an inquiry to simplify proceedings. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, went so far as to say that the Treasury would require the NAO to go cap in hand every time the latter wanted access to accounts. However, that is not what Amendments Nos. 7A and 7B achieve. They provide that Sharman recommendations on access to anything related to public expenditure can be implemented by secondary legislation. They are not to be used on an ad hoc basis as required. That is made clear by the fact that orders are to be made only by affirmative resolution.

It is intended that we shall have the ability to implement Sharman recommendations on access to any issue of public expenditure without the need to wait for primary legislation. That is what the amendment is about. It is not a retrograde amendment but one which pursues the line of recognition—I nearly said conciliation, but it is not conciliation—of the force of the arguments. That has been the line we have taken throughout the debate.

I have attempted again to address the amendment before us. I respect the speeches made by those on the Front Benches and by the noble Lords, Lord Roper and Lord Norton. However, they are still speeches addressing the amendments that went to the Commons and not speeches about the amendment before us tonight. I hope that on that basis the noble Lord will not feel it necessary to press Amendment No. 7C.

On Question, Motion agreed to.