Clause 9

Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:00 am on 3 March 2011.

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Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Treasury) 9:00, 3 March 2011

I beg to move amendment 17, in clause 9, page 3, line 32, leave out ‘(at any reasonable time)’.

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

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment 18, in clause 9, page 3, line 33, leave out ‘reasonably’.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Treasury)

It is a pleasure and a surprise to see you here again today, Dr McCrea.

Clause 9 is about the relationship between the Office for Budget Responsibility and the Government, and what information the office can reasonably request to enable it to carry out its job. These are probing amendments designed to find out why the Government feel the need to spell out in legislation the fact that the office has a right of access to such information only at a “reasonable time” and to information that it may “reasonably require”.

In previous debates, we said that we hope that the relationship between the OBR, the Treasury and the Government will be based on mutual understanding, and that there will be a consensual arrangement with a memorandum of understanding spelling out how they are to work together. I therefore hope that the Government do not assume that the OBR would unreasonably expect access to information, or ask for information that it did not reasonably require for the purpose of performing its duty.

The fact that the Bill includes the phrases “at any reasonable time” and “it may reasonably require” suggests that the Government may want to be able to resist requests for information. That obviously raises the suspicion that the OBR may have a struggle to get hold of Government information. Will the Minister explain what should come within the parameters of information that was reasonably requested, and what she believes it would be unreasonable for the office to ask for?

The underlying ethos that the Office for Budget Responsibility is independent and free from Government interference should mean that it is free to make its own judgment as to what is reasonably needed for it to carry out its job. We will be in dangerous territory if the Government try to interpret for the OBR whether it needs information.

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

Good morning, Dr McCrea; it is lovely to see you resuming your chairmanship of the Committee.

I very much agree with the hon. Lady that the OBR should have timely and comprehensive access to the information required to produce its forecasts and analyses. I assure her that the use of “reasonable” in this context is a legal clarification to ensure proportionality. The provision is based on the power of the Comptroller and Auditor General to demand information from public bodies; it does not diminish the OBR’s ability to access information any more than it diminishes the Comptroller and Auditor General’s ability to do so. The provision is consistent with other legislation, including the National Audit Act 1983, which sets out the reasonableness test for the Comptroller and Auditor General.

The hon. Lady asked for some examples. If the OBR made a request at midnight or at 2 o’clock in the morning, and insisted on having the information instantly, that would probably not be reasonable. We want to ensure some sort of proportionality. Behind that legal concept lies the ability for interested parties to define the term widely in their working practices, but in extremis a dispute over interpretation would ultimately need legal resolution, based on precedents elsewhere.

We have tried to add some common sense, in that the provision is rooted in existing law and the existing understanding of what “reasonable” means. We wanted to use the same approach as previous Governments on information rights to other bodies, such as the Comptroller and Auditor General, which also operate in an arena where access is needed to a wide range of data. That needs to be set out in law. I assure the hon. Lady that there is no attempt to fetter the OBR’s access to information. We want to ensure that a common-sense approach is taken.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Treasury)

As the Minister says, this sort of relationship is found between other bodies. Have there been legal challenges relating to disputes over whether information has been unreasonably or reasonably withheld?

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

I am not aware of such cases in relation to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s role, which suggests that the provisions of clause 9 are right. They will operate broadly in the same way as the provisions that cover the Comptroller and Auditor General’s role.

My officials have passed me a note saying that they are not aware of any particular issues on the use of reasonableness. I hope that the provisions in the clause will work as effectively for the OBR as the same approach has in the past for the Comptroller and Auditor General.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the Minister for her response. Although we still have some concerns about how the provision will work in practice as the OBR is an entirely new operation, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 9 ordered to stand part of the Bill.