Part of Orders of the Day — Government Resources and Accounts Bill – in the House of Commons at 5:45 am on 29th February 2000.

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Photo of Oliver Letwin Oliver Letwin Conservative, West Dorset 5:45 am, 29th February 2000

The Deputy Chief Whip says thank you from a sedentary position. However, I fear that he may not thank me because I must progress to amendments Nos. 6 and 7, which we tabled. The Financial Secretary made a reasoned case for not accepting the gist of those amendments, which deal with publishing the information. He said that it would cost too much. That reminds us of Ministers' frequent resort to the doctrine that they cannot answer a parliamentary question because it would cost too much to find the information. It is remarkable that the Financial Secretary should use that argument in this context.

We are considering a case whereby the Treasury has prepared a set of accounts, which constitute whole of Government accounts. They are the crowning achievement of the resource accounting process. Clause 9 covers that and clause 10 refers to it. Clause 10 states: Where the Treasury intend the accounts under section 9 … to relate … to a particular body, the Treasury may … designate that body. When a body is designated, the information is to be delivered to the Treasury. That is a remarkable matter to put in statute. If we are simply considering an administrative internal action of the Treasury vis-a-vis other Departments, why have Ministers troubled the House with a request for a statute basis? The Treasury has discretion to insist on anything being delivered to it at any time of day or night.

A statute is reasonable only if the information is available to the public and especially to Parliament. That will happen if the information is required to be published. Amendments Nos. 6 and 7 would require that. The Financial Secretary will have to provide a better argument than claiming that a small cost will be associated with depositing the relevant item in the Library. I have not analysed how much it would cost to get a piece of paper photocopied in the Treasury, brought across by a messenger and deposited in the Library. However, I doubt whether it would make a major dent in the fiscal balance of our prudent Chancellor. I imagine that it would cost around £2. The cost argument is a non-starter. We are considering the serious matter of parliamentary accountability.