Clause 8

Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 6:30 pm on 1 March 2011.

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Question proposed,That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

Yet again, we step into a further dimension of poor drafting of the Bill. I can see why we would want the Office for Budget Responsibility to publish the reports, lay them before Parliament and send copies to the Treasury, but I am not convinced that a separate clause in the Bill is necessary to make that happen. I feel as though we should have a fourth point: it should be published in hard copy, perhaps on A4 paper, and published in English; perhaps they should use an envelope and the appropriate postage to send it to the Treasury; and perhaps it could be posted in a timely fashion. There is a point at which describing such process-ology in the Bill gives me cause to suspect that at some point the Chancellor was told, “Maybe this is a one or two-clause  Bill with a schedule to create the OBR”, and he hit his fist on the table and insisted, “No”. As a matter of the virility of the Treasury, he needed at least 10 clauses to get into double figures.

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I have to pick the hon. Gentleman up on his point about the Chancellor hitting his fist on the table. I think he is getting him mixed up with his predecessor.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) would not have hit his fist on the table in such a way. I am surprised that the hon. Lady would characterise the Chancellor’s predecessor in that way. I am not sure who she is thinking about.

Perhaps one of the more pertinent points of the clause—if there is a pertinent point—relates to laying the reports before Parliament. It is necessary to establish beyond doubt the independence of the OBR. We could ensure that all parties have receipt of these reports, have notice of them, an opportunity to read them simultaneously and that the Treasury does not receive a report ahead of Opposition parties. Clearly, there are many occasions when royal commissions and other inquiries will give their findings to Ministers many days in advance so that they can cogitate and assess their contents. They usually give Opposition parties an hour or half an hour’s notice before publishing a matter before Parliament. Will the Minister at least assure us that Ministers will receive OBR reports at the same time as Opposition parties? That will mean beyond any shadow of a doubt that it is a non-party, non-biased Office for Budget Responsibility.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

I shall be relatively brief, because my hon. Friend has made many of the pertinent points that I wished to make. I was never a great student when I was at school. I suffered from bad habits. When I had better things to do, such as playing football or computer games in the evening, I would leave my homework to the last minute. When I was in the playground before my homework was due, I went through the exercise of trying to stuff out as far as possible my 500-word essay. I must confess that I think the Chancellor—having gone to Klosters on his break, or perhaps he was on a yacht with Lord Mandelson and Mr Rothschild—did not give the Bill much thought. He sat at the back of the Cabinet room, and just before he was due to hand it in to the civil servants, he came up with two or three clauses to try to pad out what is a fairly sparse document. As the hon. Member for Bury North so ably articulated, less is sometimes better. In this case, it would have been better.

I am slightly surprised by the order in which the distribution of reports is listed. If there had to be an order, I would have suggested “lay before Parliament" first. There is a good debate to be had about whether it should be the Treasury next or the public, but the key thing is that the provision to “lay it before Parliament” should have been first. Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East, could the Minister explain why Parliament was not given sovereignty in terms of the order in which the OBR should present its reports? Is it purely grammatical and stylistic to make it flow downwards and look better or was there some reasoning behind it?

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening The Economic Secretary to the Treasury 6:45, 1 March 2011

I do not think I follow the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Clearly the first thing the office has to do under clause 8(2) is to publish the report. It is hard to lay something before Parliament that has not yet been published. Hopefully the hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that after that it would be laid before Parliament.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

It is my speech and I will give way in a moment. I am baffled. I sat in this room less than a month ago when we debated the military covenant report, which obviously was about a report being published. It did not have a subsection (a) which stated that the report must be published. Surely it is a given. It is an example of bad drafting and civil servants doing their homework at lunchtime just before the afternoon lesson. It is a badly drafted document. It is not necessary to write “publish the report” if that was the intention.

Photo of Stephen Williams Stephen Williams Liberal Democrat, Bristol West

I am sorry about my mistake, Dr McCrea. The hon. Gentleman bobbed up and down so often that I had forgotten whether he was making an intervention or a speech. He is making a good point. Would he be reassured if the intention behind this was that the document would be published but would be laid before Parliament before being disclosed to anyone else, such as the press, which the last Government did frequently?

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the debate. He is entirely right. I am seeking to protect the sovereignty of Parliament by ensuring that copies are not doled out to the Press Gallery but are laid in the House of Commons prior to being released anywhere else. Bizarrely, given the structure of the clause, making it available publicly does not seem to have made it into the list of actions that the Government make. If we are to have this totally spurious clause, I hope that the Minister can give me a guarantee that the reports will be made more publicly available. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham East that we should not get into whether it is on the internet, in hard copies and available from HMSO or wherever else. Will the Minister give an undertaking that there will be a publicly available version of the reports?

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

Hon. Members will know that this clause ensures that the OBR publishes each of the reports required under clause 4 and publication will allow every interested party to access the forecasts, analyses and assessments of the OBR. That is the key element of the OBR’s transparency. As we have just heard, it is clearly set out in clause 8 that the OBR must lay its report before Parliament, not the Treasury. In fact the Treasury will be sent a copy of the report. That is a further example of how we have tried to strike the right balance by making sure that although the OBR produces official forecasts that the Treasury uses, it is nevertheless independent of the Treasury and that is why a copy of those reports will be sent to the Treasury.

On the point about timing, for the autumn forecast, the OBR shared its final report with the Treasury in line with how the Office for National Statistics would generally operate in terms of pre-release access. So the Treasury got 24 hours’ notice but that is no different from the way public statistics are often put into the public domain. It is entirely consistent with that overall approach, which I hope will provide some reassurance that there is no special arrangement for this report over other reports that people like the ONS would release.

Photo of Chris Leslie Chris Leslie Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I understand the relationship in terms of market sensitivity for statistical releases and so on, and the need for policy makers to be able to have some advance notice, but that argument does not apply to the Office for Budget Responsibility, whose whole core and being is its independence. Can the Minister see that from the Opposition perspective, which she will probably have in the full career ahead of her, it might be good practice when Parliament receives such documents for Opposition parties, and even Liberal Democrat spokesmen when relevant, to receive them simultaneously with Ministers. There is no justification for not doing that, is there?

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I do not think there is any reason to depart from the normal way in which public statistics are released. The hon. Gentleman was a Minister during the halcyon years when the economy was bubbling away and building up the structural deficit that we are having to sort out. There is no reason, having set up the OBR, to depart from a standard reporting procedure of the ONS. As ever, Government policy must react to OBR forecasts, so our approach is only right.

Photo of Thomas Docherty Thomas Docherty Labour, Dunfermline and West Fife

I draw the Minister’s attention to the rather sheepish-looking hon. Member for Bristol West who, only four or five minutes ago, was under the clear impression that Parliament would receive the information before the Treasury. Even the Minister’s loyal supporters believe that her position is not the right one. Will she not reflect on the fact that the OBR is very different from the ONS. There are no market statistics, and this is another example of her civil servants not having done their homework before turning up here today. Will she reflect carefully on this important issue of parliamentary sovereignty?

Photo of Alec Shelbrooke Alec Shelbrooke Conservative, Elmet and Rothwell

On a point of order, Dr McCrea. Will you advise whether it is in order for civil servants to be constantly criticised when they have no right of reply.

Photo of William McCrea William McCrea Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow DUP Leader of the House of Commons

I think we will just continue the debate. I remember sitting in other debates when hon. Members were in different seats, and civil servants, although they had no right of reply, had to listen to comments being made about them.

Photo of Justine Greening Justine Greening The Economic Secretary to the Treasury

I can be clear. This is a Bill that, having been through the other place, Ministers are now taking through the House of Commons. I think the comments about officials are slightly superfluous in that context.

I simply do not agree with the points made by Opposition Members. There is a long-standing process for releasing a range of sensitive and public material into the public domain. In many respects it has served this country well in enabling Governments to give a response when statistics come into the public domain, and I think that is why the Office for National Statistics has approached its role in  that way. That is why we believe that it is sensible for the OBR also to approach its new role in that way. I appreciate that some hon. Members may not agree, but we must agree to disagree.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 8 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Ordered, That further consideration be now adjourned. —(Mr Goodwill.)

Adjourned till Thursday 3 March at Nine o’clock.

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