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Government Expenditure (Scrutiny)

Volume 124: debated on Monday 7 December 1987

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To ask the Lord Privy Seal if he has any plans to bring forward proposals to enhance the scrutiny of Government expenditure by the House through departmental Select Committees and the Committee of Public Accounts; and if he will make a statement.

I am sure that the Leader of the House is not aware that tonight the Government will try to sneak through public expenditure to the tune of £47 billion on the Vote on Accounts, and over £1 billion on the Winter Supplementary Estimates, without a vote, debate or reference to the Select Committees. Now that he is aware of that, will he ensure that this vast amount of public expenditure is at least debated by the House prior to the Consolidated Fund Bill?

I do not know about sneaking anything through. We are putting matters on the Order Paper in the proper fashion. It was not possible this year to have them debated by the Select Committees. For reasons which the hon. Gentleman knows, it was not possible to set up the Committees any earlier than was done.

Does my right hon. Friend think that it is time for a scrutiny of the expenditure by Select Committees, especially with regard to staff and travel? Does he believe that the House should now look again at the role of Select Committees and decide whether they are worth the money?

I agree that there are two points of view about Select Committees. Select Committees were established to provide expert and detailed scrutiny of departmental operations, complementing that of the PAC. They have discharged that role in a way in which the House would find difficult given other competing claims on its time. It is not necessary for their reports to be debated for them to have a significant effect on Departments and publicly.

Is the Leader of the House aware that because the Select Committees were not set up in time at the beginning of the parliamentary Session a lot of money has been saved for the taxpayer in respect of all the trips that have not been enjoyed by hon. Members on both sides of the House—excluding a few of us who do not believe in this sloppy consensus system of Select Committees and who are aware that it does not produce any fruits for the taxpayer? Will he bear in mind that that money should be saved for the taxpayer? Does he agree that that money could be very usefully employed if it was sent to a country such as Ethiopia, where it could help to fill the starving bellies of the kids out there?

I thought that the hon. Gentleman was going to suggest that the money might be used to offset the surcharge that the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) sought to impose on me a minute ago. I recognise that, because the Select Committees were set up later than some people had hoped, money was saved. I do not put that forward as a valid argument. I believe that on the whole Select Committees do a good job for the House.