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Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (Money) (No. 4)

Volume 506: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2010

Queen’s recommendation signified.

I call the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms).

The right hon. Gentleman looks distinctly quizzical. For his enlightenment, let me explain that I was referring to the money motion relating to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. I was advised by those in the know that the right hon. Gentleman would be moving it, but if the Secretary of State for Justice wishes to do so, we look forward to that with interest.

Even Homer nodded, Mr. Speaker.

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), I beg to move,

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, it is expedient to authorise—

(1) the payment out of the Consolidated Fund of sums required by the Electoral Commission to meet—

(a) the charges payable to Regional Counting Officers in connection with a referendum held on the voting system for parliamentary elections, and

(b) sums payable in respect of increases in superannuation contributions required to be paid by local authorities in consequence of fees paid as part of those charges, and

(2) the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenditure incurred by virtue of the Act by the National Archives or any other government department.

The motion, which adds to previous money resolutions, relates to two matters: the establishment of regional counting officers, which will be necessary for the proper administration of the referendum on voting systems to which the House has already agreed; and the provision of funds for the implementation of the Dacre report. Some extra costs will be involved in connection with that as the period within which official records must generally be released will be compressed from 30 years to 20.

I am sorry to disappoint the Secretary of State. If he had moved a money motion merely to deal with the Dacre proposals, I would have had no difficulty accepting it. However, the motion is also intended to facilitate the referendum on the alternative vote system, which we believe will prove both costly and utterly unnecessary, so we intend to oppose it.

I feel a little sorry for the right hon. Member for East Ham (Mr. Timms), who, despite being in the Chamber and despite having put his name to a motion, was clearly entirely unprepared to speak to the motion that he had apparently tabled.

Having heard from the Lord Chancellor, I am a little at a loss to understand why this motion is needed in addition to the money resolution that was agreed before our last discussion on the Bill with regard to the referendum, although not in respect of the National Archives, which is being raised for the first time today. Perhaps the Lord Chancellor will explain why the previous money resolution was incomplete or improper in some way, and why we need this motion to deal with a matter that I thought the House had already determined, by means of a Division, when we last discussed the Bill.

When a Government are as deeply in debt as this Government—when they are building up so much taxpayer debt—it behoves a senior Cabinet Minister at least to extend to the House the courtesy of explaining how much additional money is in question, why the expenditure represents value for money, and what action the Government have taken to try to ensure that the sums spent would be the minimum necessary for their purposes so that they may allay the fears of some Members that they are committing huge sums for any purpose, on any whim or in respect of any press release that takes their fancy during this pre-election period, without proper and due consideration of the state of the public finances.

Of course there is political disagreement across the House about the main purpose: the setting up of a referendum on how voting systems should operate. We think that that is a totally unnecessary device, and most unwelcome. However, leaving aside the issue of principle—which is not the substance of a money motion—I think that we should at least be treated to some reassurance from the Cabinet Minister responsible that he has chosen the least costly way of proceeding, and that should be put in the context of the huge borrowing and huge financial commitments that the Government are building up. I cannot understand how any sensible Member of Parliament could possibly grant the Government their wish when such a low-priority item is uncosted, when there are no sums of money in the motion on the Order Paper, and when no sums of money were mentioned in the Secretary of State’s opening remarks.

I am pleased to respond to this brief debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) asked why the first limb of the money resolution is required, given the fact that a previous one covers the proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote. The answer is that this money resolution provides for regional counting officers. I know that that gives rise to a question of why that was not in the previous money resolution. All I have to say is that it was not, and I think that it is appropriate to ensure that there is modest provision for the regional counting officers to be appointed and paid.

With his characteristic skill, the Secretary of State has failed to enlighten the House as to why that item was omitted from the earlier money resolution.

Because it was a later entry into the consideration—that is the truth of it. The measure is none the less very good and to be recommended.

The regional counting officers would normally be the chief executives of local authorities, so they are already in receipt of very high salaries.

This is about establishing regional counting officers better to co-ordinate the administration of the referendum and the counting of votes.

May I answer directly the questions asked by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)? In the debate on the previous money resolution, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and many other Members referred, properly, to the estimates of the cost of the referendum, which had already been given by me and my ministerial colleagues in answer to parliamentary questions and in other ways. We estimate the cost to be similar to that in a general election, which would be between £80 million and £100 million—we cannot be absolutely certain. In part, the cost will depend on whether the referendum coincides with local elections in 2011, for example, or is a bespoke referendum. The first limb of the proposals would not add very much to the cost overall. Our hope is that, by having regional counting officers in place, we can reduce the totality of the administrative costs by better co-ordination. On any basis, that is a considerable sum of money, but I happen to think that its purpose is very important.

I do not share the view of Conservative Members that there is no purpose in spending this money. It is important to give the British people a clear choice through a referendum about the kind of voting system that they want, without in any way undermining the principle, which is generally agreed across the Chamber and the country, of single-member representation of constituencies. The argument on the merits—I will not go down that route—was made cogently by Labour Members and Liberal Democrat Members in a previous debate. However, we are considering a one-off cost. It is different from continuing expenditure, which we would get, for example, if services in an area were expanded.

I would like to press my simple factual request. How much extra will the money resolution add? Presumably it will mean extra money, because otherwise one would not need additional permission. The House should be told how much extra will be added to the cost.

I will be very happy to write to the right hon. Gentleman about that. The amount is relatively modest, but authority is still required to pay it.

I apologise to the House with regard to the second item because I should have given information about the cost. We estimate that the cost of implementing the Dacre report, as proposed in measures to be considered on Report, from the start date—that will be subject to an order in both Houses beforehand, so it could be 2011, 2012 or later—will be £28 million over five years, or in other words about £5.5 million a year. With that, I hope that the money resolution will be widely endorsed by the House.

Question put.