Public Accounts Committee (Reports)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 3rd December 1973.

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Photo of Dr Alan Glyn Dr Alan Glyn , Windsor 12:00 am, 3rd December 1973

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen) has said. If anything, the debate has shown how important it is that we should bring up to date our parliamentary procedures to deal with these situations. The whole machinery for discussing the contents of the very detailed work of the Public Accounts Committee and other Select Committees is, to say the least, inadequate and the Government and the whole House should turn their attention to improving it.

I also agree with the hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget), who said that, after all, this was a nonpartisan debate. I think that the most effective words he used were that these reports were an indictment of all Governments. That is no reflection on the present Government, since these matters started before they took office, and it was they who decided that they should be dealt with in this way.

One of the most important facets of the future life in this country is North Sea oil and gas. We all realise that they are possibly our lifeline for the next 10, 15 or 20 years. The findings of the Public Accounts Committee are extraordinary. For example, had it not been for the Committee, the defects in the whole structure of evaluating the proper price to be paid for the right to develop these deposits would never have been discovered, I suggest. The hon. and learned Member for Northampton was right to say—though he perhaps used somewhat flowery language—what he did about how the contracts were originally evaluated. The point at issue is that we must have some machinery other than the existing machinery for looking at this kind of factor before contracts are signed. We have to look carefully at the Committee's findings because here we are dealing with something which, particularly in the light of the recent oil crisis, is of paramount importance. Had it not been for the Committee, this situation might well have gone by unobserved, leading to great loss of revenue to the country.

I want to put two points to my hon. Friend about the question of North Sea oil and gas. First, will the present rules allow an operating company to write off its own losses against the profits from North Sea oil? Has this been provided for in the contracts which have been signed? This is an important point.

Secondly, what is the present estimate of how quickly we can expedite the bringing into use of North Sea oil and gas because of the fundamental change in this country's—and indeed the world's—oil situation? Has my hon. Friend any idea of what proportion of British equipment is to be used in the process? Is the drilling equipment available in this country, or shall we have to turn to other countries, such as the United States, for it?

We have to turn our attention also to the very important question of how we manage to ensure that some of the detailed decisions of the Civil Service are subjected far more to the scrutiny of this House. I add my tribute to the Civil Service, but we have here a classic instance of a fundamental business transaction. I think that we would have done well to have sought the assistance of industry in the negotiations in the first instance. I make no party point on this, but it emerges from the report. We must find a way of challenging what has always gone by without challenge in the past. We must challenge detailed points which are fundamental because the sums of money with which we are dealing are so great that they cannot simply be passed without detailed scrutiny.

Such scrutiny must not only be conducted by Committees upstairs but must be the subject of debate on the Floor of the House. In the end the Government are responsible, but surely it would be very much better for the Government to use such machinery and thereby get the best possible bargain for our country, deciding in the end, and in the light of such scrutiny, which is the right course to adopt. It may not be the cheapest, but in their view it may be right, and they must make that decision.

I do not know whether it is fair to ask a detailed question on Concorde of a Treasury Minister, but, on the basis of the report, it is perfectly in order. How many more changes does the Minister think are necessary before the project is finalised? At what stage are the Government prepared to say "We cannot go on any longer improving ; we must now develop Concorde in its present state, because we have sufficient customers from China and elsewhere."?

I hope that, as a result of this debate, the House will be aware that many facets of individual expenditure can no longer be discussed only in Committee but should be scrutinised on the Floor of the House.