New Clause 6 — Annual reports: parliamentary approval

Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 12:00 pm on 16th June 2006.

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'(1) It shall be a duty of the Secretary of State to make a motion for a resolution approving each annual report in the House of Commons, within three months of the report being laid.

(2) It shall be a duty of a Minister of the Crown to make a motion for a resolution approving each annual report in the House of Lords, within three months of the report being laid.'. — [Mr. Leigh.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It gives me great pleasure to move new clause 6 in this important debate. I hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will give me a chance to say a few words, because it is the first time that I have spoken on a Friday since the death of my dear friend, the late Eric Forth. I hope that you will forgive me if I join hon. Friends and other hon. Members who have paid tribute to him. They say that imitation is the best form of flattery, but I am conscious that I could never imitate the way in which my late right hon. Friend scrutinised Bills so effectively on a Friday.

Hon. Members will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to speak at length, because we have already had a very useful debate. I will not repeat what my late friend used to do so superbly, speaking for about an hour and then saying, "And I now come to the end of my preliminary remarks." I thought that as he was such a dear friend, I would do this almost as an Eric Forth memorial day, and wondered what sort of amendment I could table that would pay tribute to his memory—a sensible amendment that could possibly be accepted by the promoter of the Bill.

That is why I came up with new clause 6, which is supported by my right hon. and hon. Friends. It says:

"It shall be a duty of the Secretary of State to make a motion for a resolution approving each annual report in the House of Commons, within three months of the report being laid."

That would merely ensure that when the Bill is passed, as I am sure it will be, and we have the annual report, it is debated on the Floor of the House. If the sponsors of the Bill feel able to accept the new clause, what greater tribute could there be to my late right hon. Friend than that we have not only achieved an annual report on a very important subject, but achieved more debate and greater scrutiny on the Floor of the House, which is what his whole life was dedicated to?

I hope that I am pushing on an open door, because Mr. Clarke himself said on Second Reading:

"As the International Development Committee has pointed out repeatedly, parliamentary scrutiny and a coherent policy across Government are of the utmost importance. An annual report to Parliament carries more status than a departmental report or information posted online, and invites debate on the Floor of the House."

If my amendment were passed, that is, presumably, precisely what would happen. It would not simply invite debate, it would ensure debate. Later in the debate, my hon. Friend Angela Browning said that

"the Bill would ensure that the House has an opportunity to hold a similarly robust and informed scrutiny debate."—[ Hansard, 20 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 1072, 1082.]

I am not sure that the Bill as presently drafted does necessarily ensure that there will be an informed debate, but my new clause, which is tabled in a very positive spirit, would achieve that. I very much hope that the Bill will be passed with the new clause as part of it.

The right hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill said in Committee:

"The Minister's views reflect my own. He has said as much as we would expect him to say in the debate. However, it might be helpful if I say that I would certainly look forward to the report being debated annually in both Houses."—[ Official Report, Standing Committee B, 15 February 2006; c. 5.]

What would a debate achieve? It would allow better scrutiny of the report and the progress that had been made in the past year in international development. That is a vital issue, yet we devote far less time to it in Select Committees, Standing Committees and debates and Question Time on the Floor of the House than to discussing, for example, the Foreign Office. In its public expenditure and its importance to the national interest, international development is, arguably, as important as the Foreign Office. Some of us often wonder what the Foreign Office does, but we all know what international development achieves. Why does our parliamentary system ensure that the Department for International Development gets so much less scrutiny than the affairs of the Foreign Office?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Many of my constituents make the same point. They would like many more opportunities to debate international development, which is increasingly important to the public. Does my hon. Friend get the same feedback from his constituents, and does he agree that the new clause would guarantee much more regular debate of international development issues, which the public would love to happen?

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

Like my colleagues, I get as many letters and cards about international development as on any other issue. That is good. There is a well-organised lobby, and I sometimes believe that, in our work in Parliament and in the prominence that we give different matters, issues such as international development do not receive as much scrutiny as they should.

The Secretary of State, a gentleman for whom I have the greatest respect, is in his place. I also have the greatest respect for his permanent secretary, who has appeared before the Public Accounts Committee on two or three occasions. The Department is one of the few that has a good record of public scrutiny before the PAC, and of ensuring that money is well spent. The accounts are not qualified. Again, the PAC has few sittings on international development, partly because the Department is so effective in bilateral aid. We have not held hearings in which enormous criticism has been made of lack of value for money, waste and so on. However, if we have less scrutiny by the National Audit Office, which reports to Parliament, and less scrutiny by the PAC, it is all the more important to accept an amendment such as the new clause, which, as my hon. Friend Philip Davies said, reflects the public interest in such issues.

If the new clause were accepted we could debate the finer points, which one can never get from an annual report. Many organisations produce annual reports. The promoter does not believe the Bill to be part of gesture politics. He believes that it will make a difference; he wants to make a difference and have a real debate. He does not simply want another annual report, to be put in a pigeonhole. How many annual reports do we receive every day in our post—from great British public companies and this and that agency? How many hon. Members can put their hands on their hearts and say that they read them?

However, debates here make a difference. Members of Parliament are present for this debate, which is well attended. How many people are watching it, not only in the Public Gallery but on television? I doubt whether there will be great reportage about it in the papers tomorrow, but it is our opportunity to put the Secretary of State on the spot, which we cannot do with an annual report alone. However, we can do that if he is brought to the House on the back of a detailed annual report, and made to answer for what he has achieved.

An annual debate would raise awareness of the extreme poverty in many countries. I hope that it would promote greater interest and perhaps encourage the public to make greater donations. It would also lead to more detailed and better understanding of the report. It is necessary.

Let us be honest: there is a tendency in annual reports to gloss over things and do the bare minimum. The Bill is specific about what it wants in the annual report, but we all know about statistics, lies and damned lies. When writing something that is not scrutinised publicly, it is easy to gloss over embarrassing things. So this is our opportunity to hold the Department to account. That is what Parliament is about.

Parliament is very weak in its scrutiny role, although it is good as a kind of general debating society for issues of massive public importance. It is also very weak in scrutinising the estimates of Government Departments and what they actually spend. I recently visited the United States Congress, whose role is far more developed in relation to line-by-line scrutiny of Government Departments. We might not achieve that in this debate, but at least we will start to make progress towards what we want, which is that a Department should be able to be specifically ordered by Parliament to set out its goals, priorities and targets, and to reveal whether it has achieved them. That should be written down in an annual report, and the Secretary of State should be brought back to Parliament and held to account.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone 12:45 pm, 16th June 2006

In his excellent remarks, my hon. Friend might care to note that the report by Hugh Bayley, "The Other Side of the Coin", deals specifically with the role of DFID in this context. Under my hon. Friend's proposal, a resolution could be approved by Parliament; it could also be disapproved. That is where the problem lies. The report states:

"DFID must not turn a blind eye to corruption".

I have no doubt that we shall continue this discussion, but that is what is stated in this report, which was produced by a Labour Member of Parliament, the Chairman of a very distinguished group whose importance the Minister has acknowledged.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I was going to deal with corruption, but I do not think that I need to do so now, because it is a matter that we want to bring out in the debates that we are proposing.

I want to ask why, despite increases in the overall amount of aid and debt relief given by the international community, aid is allocated inconsistently and not always to the countries most in need. For example, in 2002, less than half the EU's aid budget was directed towards low-income countries, according to the House of Commons Select Committee. We also know that, for political reasons—and for reasons of promoting commerce rather than eradicating poverty—too much aid, particularly from the EU, goes to middle-income countries that should have a lower priority than the least developed ones.

The former Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, once said:

"Anyone who knows anything about development knows that the EU is the worst agency in the world, the most inefficient, the least poverty-focused, the slowest, flinging money around for political gestures rather than promoting real development."

So, as part of the debate that takes place on the back of the annual report, let us have more discussion about the effectiveness of UK bilateral aid, compared with the ineffectiveness of so much multilateral aid.

Let us also have a discussion about how aid is used. For instance, Zimbabwe receives food parcels from the United Nations, yet Mugabe has repeatedly used food aid as a weapon by withholding it from those who do not support his Government. Let us also have a debate on the fact that India, Russia and China all get UK bilateral aid for "assistance in developing infrastructure". Those countries might be developing, but they are hardly suffering extreme hardship. All those issues could be debated under the provisions in new clause 6, and the Secretary of State could be held to account on the Floor of the House.

Let us also consider sanctions, and what should happen after the report has been published. If we had a debate on the report, and we determined that mistakes had been made—as undoubtedly they would have been; this happens even in the best-run Departments—what sanctions should be imposed on the Department? That is what this House is all about: scrutiny and criticism. For instance, we could scrutinise in detail all the methods used by the Department and discuss what new methods or actions could be introduced to improve the situation. All those things could form part of the annual debate.

We could also discuss which countries receive the most aid, and why. After all, the annual report will deal with only 20 countries. Are they the right countries? Should we be focusing our attention on them? We could discuss how, and in what form, aid is given, and whether it is used effectively by the country receiving it. We could also ask whether a particular millennium goal should be prioritised, and, if so, why, and what might be the best way to tackle corruption—a point raised by my hon. Friend Mr. Cash.

The other reason why we need an annual debate is that things change and are driven by events—tsunamis, hurricanes and so on. We need to examine how the Department responded in terms not just of a dry academic exercise or of meeting bureaucratic targets, but of what it did on the ground. One of the Public Accounts Committee's most interesting recent reports was on the effectiveness of DFID and the Foreign Office in dealing with the after-effects of the Asian tsunami.

Let us also debate, on the back of the report, how the Department has performed in the past year. Such a debate would allow us to examine how the Secretary of State and Ministers have performed. Have they performed badly? Have they made errors? Should they be held to account, and how? How Ministers perform in the House is a key element. Ministers rise and fall not just according to how they pass pieces of paper around their Department or how efficiently they run their Department—the permanent secretary can do that—but according to how they perform in this House. As part of our scrutiny, we want to know how our Ministers, on whose work we place great importance, respond to criticism on the Floor of the House, in an annual debate on their annual report.

Such a debate would allow the Chamber to assess whether the original key goals concerning international development and eradicating extreme poverty are being met. If they are not, a change of approach might be needed. We could examine whether progress has been poor in certain areas. Surely such a debate would be an opportunity not just to scrutinise a Secretary of State but for us to put forward our views, which might be different from his, about our priorities and how his Department could perform better.

I think that I have summarised the key points. For the life of me, I cannot see why anyone who loves Parliament should want to oppose the new clause. I am proud to put it forward, and I say sincerely to the promoter of the Bill that were he able to accept the new clause, it would be a fitting memorial to a much-loved former colleague.

Photo of Mark Simmonds Mark Simmonds Shadow Minister (International Development)

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh who is a fellow Lincolnshire Member of Parliament and a highly distinguished Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.

This matter was debated in Committee, and the additional point was made that because of the—correctly—increasing budget of DFID, half an hour was perhaps not long enough for DFID questions, especially given that Foreign Office questions are allocated one hour. I also note that there has been a subtle change in the Bill since the Committee stage—initially, it stated that the report would go to "either House", which was questioned, but it has now been changed to "each House". That is welcome.

The point also needs to be made that debates in Westminster Hall on Select Committee reports seem to be subject to significant delay, and we need to ensure that when this report comes to the House, that is not the case.

My final point is that other Departments have annual debates. A Welsh debate takes place, on St. David's day, I think—perhaps the Minister will clarify that—and there are also annual fisheries and defence debates. In relation to this important report, the Opposition see no reason why there should not be an annual DFID debate on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Gareth Thomas Gareth Thomas The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Party Chair, Co-operative Party

I pay tribute to Mr. Leigh for his work on the Public Accounts Committee. I therefore hesitate to tell him that I will urge the House to reject new clause 6. He was generous about the officials who work in the Department. I thank him for that; I agree that our staff do an excellent job.

Having given the hon. Gentleman the news—not, I suspect, unexpected—that the Government will not support new clause 6, let me make it clear to him that that is not because we fear scrutiny. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I welcome the considerable scrutiny of the Department's work that already exists. A number of Select Committees as well as the departmental Committee and the hon. Gentleman's Committee have been scrutinising other aspects of our work. Many other Departments contribute to the international development effectiveness effort, and they are all open to scrutiny through questions sessions.

The hon. Gentleman's purpose was clearly to secure some form of annual debate. He will understand that I am not in a position to comment on that request, but the many representations made on Second Reading and subsequently, repeated today by the hon. Gentleman and Mark Simmonds, will have been heard by other Members, who reflect on these matters.

Let me gently say to the hon. Member for Gainsborough that no other departmental annual reports are required to undergo the process suggested in new clause 6. On that basis, and given the considerable scrutiny that already takes place, I urge the House to resist the new clause.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I am very disappointed by what the Minister has said, but it is not entirely unexpected. I hesitate to say this, but I think that unless the report is dealt with on the Floor of the House it could prove to be an empty vessel. I am surprised that those who support the Bill—and apparently everyone in the House does—are not more enthusiastic about what I have suggested.

I worded the new clause carefully. The debate would have to be held here, rather than in Westminster Hall or a Committee, which is another tribute to my late right hon. Friend Eric Forth. This is where the people hold the Government to account. The Minister says that all Departments produce annual reports, but I suspect that the real reason for his opposition to my new clause is his belief that it would open the floodgates to others who want debates on annual reports. Presumably there were discussions through the usual channels. There was probably a degree of nervousness about the possibility of more scrutiny and more debate on the Floor of the House.

Photo of Bill Cash Bill Cash Conservative, Stone

I agree with my hon. Friend. Given that we are dealing with the question of helping people in the third world, about which many of us are passionately concerned, the apparent reluctance to be put to the test strikes me as extraordinary. Perhaps, if the Government are determined not to support the new clause, we shall end up using an Opposition day to ensure that the annual report is debated.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee

I am sure that we could do that, but how much better it would be if the debate took place automatically. Of course I appreciate that other Departments produce annual reports, but this is a specific annual report. The Bill specifies key goals and targets. Let us not just have the Government's version; let us bring the Minister to the Dispatch Box and hold him to account. I am very disappointed by the Minister's response, and I am afraid that I will press the new clause to a vote.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 8, Noes 93.

Division number 262

See full list of votes (From The Public Whip)

Question accordingly negatived.