Government Spending (Website) Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:11 pm on 26th January 2007.

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Photo of Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Lord Evans of Temple Guiting Government Whip, Government Whip 4:11 pm, 26th January 2007

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, for placing the Bill before the House so that a select group of your Lordships may consider this very important issue.

The Government view the provision of public spending information that is clear, concise, timely and accurate as extremely important. I agree with all the points that the noble Baroness made at the beginning of her speech. Our view is reflected in the fact that one of the Treasury's formal objectives, as set out on its public website, is to,

"achieve world-class standards of financial management in government".

The noble Baroness asked for confirmation that value for money is still a core value of the Treasury, and I confirm that it is.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, asked what the objections are to the Bill. The Bill may appear to imply that the Treasury does not currently make up-to-date and comprehensive government expenditure information freely available. On the contrary, the Treasury's public website, which had well over a million hits last year, already contains a great deal of information about public spending. This includes: copies of the central government supply estimates for a five-year period, which contain detailed departmental spending plans for a particular financial year; and copies of public expenditure statistical analyses going back to 1999.

Each publication contains detailed spending information covering a number of outturn years, as well as spending plans for future years. Data are broken down in a variety of ways, and include departmental groups, central and local government, and public corporations by country, region, and function. They also include copies of the Budget and Pre-Budget Reports going back to 1998; detailed information about Treasury spending controls, including past and forthcoming spending reviews that set budgetary limits on spending by government departments; and the public sector finances databank, which is updated monthly and contains runs of data for various aspects of expenditure and finance.

This list is by no means exhaustive but, I hope, gives a flavour of the large amount of public expenditure information that is already made available on the Treasury's public website. This is in addition to the expenditure information available on other government department websites, such as departmental reports. Such reports also provide information on public service agreements to show not only how much we spend but, just as importantly, what we are achieving with those resources.

Crucially, work is already under way in the Treasury to further expand the quantity of expenditure information on the public website, as well as to restructure the information to make it easier to navigate and search. This means that the public website will, additionally, hold detailed background and guidance material related to public spending issues. The Treasury's aim is to have this enhanced website material in place on its public website later this year.

This Bill's requirement—the creation of a new website specifically for spending data—would be contrary to the recommendations arising from the review of public services by Sir David Varney, Service Transformation: A Better Service for Citizens and Businesses, A Better Deal for The Taxpayer, which was published on 6 December 2006. This review, which is available on the HMT's public website, recommends,

"a freeze on the development of new websites providing citizen or business e-services created by departments, agencies and non-departmental public bodies, unless authorised by the Ministerial Committee on Public Services and Public Expenditure Sub-Committee on Electronic Service Delivery".

It also recommends that,

"by 2011, almost all citizen and business e-services migrate to Directgov and and all e-transactions are provided through these two primary websites. This means that all departments should then have one corporate website, utilising shared infrastructure, and all other sites will be closed".

The Varney review was referred to in the main Pre-Budget Report document, also published on 6 December, which again is available on the Treasury's public website. It stated:

"The Government strongly welcomes this report and will take forward its recommendations as a comprehensive service transformation programme".

While I would argue that the reasons that I have given thus far are sufficient to justify this House expressing reservations about this Bill, I feel that I should also refer to one of the Bill's specific provisions. Section 1(4) requires that,

"information about expenditure by government departments or executive agencies must be available on the website within 30 days of the date on which the expenditure was incurred".

Although the Treasury seeks monthly expenditure information from all government departments and already makes some information available on its public website, as I have mentioned, such information is inevitably very provisional and could not be regularly produced at a detailed level without a significant impact on resources. It is therefore simply not cost-effective to do this. Most public spending data currently made available relate to full financial years, whether outturn or plans. Audited resource accounts for government departments provide the most comprehensive and accurate information on actual expenditure outturn. The Government have made strides to speed up provision of such information, and faster closing of resource accounts now requires that they are presented to Parliament before the Summer Recess. What is most important is that detailed, accurate and independently audited information about public spending is made available as soon as it is reasonable to do so.

Before I conclude, may I deal with three points? The first point was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on the improvement in public services. As the noble Lord knows, departments agree public service agreements with HM Treasury to show the main aims for which the resources are used. These targets are published by all departments. Secondly, I can confirm that the role of the Treasury includes ensuring value for money for public spending, a point that I have made before. The Treasury agrees service targets with all departments. Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, mentioned the American Bill. That Bill applies to all spending over $25,000 but it applies only to federal awards, mainly grants and contractual payments. As we know, a great deal of American spending is at state level.

In conclusion, I would urge noble Lords to consider the points that I have made and to conclude that detailed government spending information is already made freely and publicly available and that setting up additional government websites would be contrary to work currently underway to improve the provision of public information and service delivery through government websites.