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House of Commons Administration Estimate

Volume 561: debated on Tuesday 23 April 2013

[Relevant document: The First Report from the Finance and Services Committee, Session 2010-12, Proposed Standing Order on Motions and amendments with implications for the House Administration budget, HC 1768.]

I beg to move,

That the following new Standing Order be made—

‘Motions and amendments with a financial consequence for the House of Commons Administration Estimate.

(1) Motions which would have a direct consequence of additional expenditure under the House of Commons: Administration Estimate estimated to be £50,000 or more shall not be considered by the House unless a memorandum setting out their expected financial consequences has been made available to the House.

(2) The Accounting Officer shall make such a memorandum available to the House within a reasonable time of a motion to which this Order applies being tabled.

(3)(a) This Order shall also apply to amendments to motions which would have the expenditure consequences set out in paragraph (1), but the absence of such a memorandum shall not prevent the House from considering such an amendment.

(b) In his decision as to the selection of such an amendment, the Speaker shall, in addition to such other considerations as may, in his view, be relevant, take into account whether sufficient time has been available for the House to be provided with adequate information regarding the financial consequences.

(4) The Speaker shall decide whether a motion or amendment falls within the terms of this Order.’.

The motion is in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. The Finance and Services Committee’s first report of this Parliament begins:

“In the current Parliament, we have been seeking to ensure that the House Administration’s financial priorities are determined on a coherent basis by Members of this House, so that the House’s spending meets the needs of the House as a whole”.

Enabling hon. Members as a whole to continue to determine that on a coherent basis is at the heart of the motion.

Earlier in this Session, we had an excellent debate on the savings plan and the medium-term financial strategy, which enabled Members to vote on various aspects of our financial proceedings and to take charge of both the budget and the plans of the administration estimate. I welcomed that move, and I believe it was welcomed by many other Members. That goes to reinforcing the concept and the process by which the finances of the House are dealt with on a coherent basis by Members of the House. The motion is based on the simple proposition that, if the House is making a decision with a significant financial impact on its budget, it should have access to the basic information required on the cost and other financial consequences, so that it can make the decision in a coherent way.

For example, in the past we have had Government proposals to set up Select Committees. Each Select Committee has a considerable cost impact—it is in the order of £500,000 a year. When the Government introduce legislation, we expect them to tell us what the financial impact will be. It therefore seems entirely reasonable that the House should know about such financial impacts. Previously, there has perhaps been an expectation that extra costs could always be accommodated regardless, but in these days when we want to ensure that costs are properly considered, it is right that we have the knowledge to make such decisions.

The proposal was made by the Finance and Services Committee. Before we arrived at the current text, it was discussed by the House of Commons Commission, and discussed on a number of occasions by the Procedure Committee and the Leader of the House. The current text is broadly agreed by all in principle. There were a number of doubts about the wording among members of the Procedure Committee, but I hope they have been dealt with in the current text.

Can the hon. Gentleman tell me whether, if this proposal had been in operation two or three years ago, Members of the House would have had any say in the last remaining day switchboard moving to Southampton on 8 May? Anyone phoning the House of Commons, night or day, will be talking to someone based in Southampton, and when I rang in the evening last week—the night switchboard has already moved—the location of Derby Gate was not even known. Would that have been any different? Would we, as Members of Parliament, have had any say?

The hon. Lady has raised this matter tenaciously; indeed, she has raised it with me. The answer is that if the matter were put before the House in a motion, the financial consequence would have to be revealed. If it were not, and was put together by way of the financial plan, the debate such as the one we had last year would have been exactly the place to have raised such a matter. The two things go together, and that is entirely in keeping with allowing Members a say on such things in future.

One potential consequence of the Standing Order would be that, if the accounting officer so wished, he could decline to put the financial details into the House domain and therefore the debate on the motion could not happen. What does the hon. Gentleman understand “a reasonable time frame” to mean—a day, a week, five years?

I am blessed by the fact that I would never have to make the decision; it would be a decision for Mr Speaker and his advisers. As we all know, the Speaker is always right. Therefore, whatever decision he made would be both reasonable and appropriate. It was written deliberately in such a way that the final word is with the Chair for precisely the reason that if something came up where an exception were needed, it could be dealt with. That is very important.

May I confirm that the absence of a financial memorandum would not necessarily mean that a debate would be denied?

It is my understanding that a financial memorandum would be expected, and there are a number of occasions where it could be short and simple. If a circumstance arose in which a financial memorandum could not be prepared, it would be in the hands of Mr Speaker to make a decision. That is my understanding. If I have got that wrong, and there is a small percentage chance that that is the case, I will certainly come back to the hon. Gentleman.

The effect of the Standing Order would be to require the accounting officer to provide a memorandum for any expenditure of more than £50,000 to the administration estimate. An example of such a motion, as I mentioned earlier, would be a proposal to establish a Select Committee. The Standing Order would also require a memorandum to be provided in respect of an amendment to a motion, if it would have a similar financial impact. As less notice might be given of an amendment, the absence of a memorandum would not necessarily prevent it from being debated, but the Speaker might take that factor into account in his selection of amendments. I therefore suggest, in partially addressing my previous answer, that there would nearly always be time for a motion, but the Chair may take a view where amendments are tabled. That is the most likely consequence.

This is a very small, but important change. It follows the principle that our decisions should be coherent and based on facts, so that we can make a measured judgment, and in the hands of the Members of this House. On that basis, I commend the motion to the House.

It is a pleasure to be back at the Dispatch Box so quickly. I welcome the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath) to his place. He probably regrets deeply having moved on to DEFRA and not having an opportunity to respond to this exciting and important debate.

The Opposition believe in fully informed decision making, and I say that not just because my deputy Chief Whip is sitting next to me. We see this as a sensible and pragmatic move forward. It is obviously correct that Members be given as much information as possible about the financial consequences of House decisions.

I congratulate the Chairman of the Procedure Committee on his persuasive powers in getting this tabled for debate today. It has cross-party support and has been signed by my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), the shadow Leader of the House. I would like to ask a couple of questions of the Deputy Leader of the House and the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), who represents the Commission. We have just had a good short debate about the Banking Commission. In the spirit of informing the House, perhaps it would be appropriate for the Deputy Leader of the House to give an estimate of how much the Banking Commission has cost so far and of what it will run to in the next Session. If he does not have it to hand, I am sure he can write to me.

The Deputy Leader of the House will also be aware that this is the first of many Committee reports that will require the House’s attention. By my count, there are currently five more Procedure Committee reports, including on such things as e-petitions and how we elect the Speaker and Deputy Speakers. Will he give us some indication of when they will be taken? I hope he will not say “soon”. I hope for something slightly more substantive than that.

Finally, I have a quick question for the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. The House will have seen yesterday that the Procedure Committee published a commendable report on the debating of e-petitions. It has estimated that the cost of making Westminster Hall available on Monday between 4.30 pm and 7.30 pm for the debating of e-petitions that get 100,000 signatures would be between £11,000 and £100,000, depending on the number of e-petitions. Given that the lowest estimate would fall below the £50,000 threshold, will he clarify whether he intends all such motions brought before the House to come with cost estimates?

I rise to speak in support of the motion before the House. It has been on the Order Paper for some considerable time, and it is good that the House now has the opportunity to consider it.

The motion arises out of the work of the Finance and Services Committee. The reasoning behind it and the process undertaken in coming to this solution have been expertly outlined by its Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso). I am grateful to him and the rest of the Committee, which conducts important work on behalf of the House, for their constructive approach in seeking the agreement of the House of Commons Commission and working collaboratively with the Procedure Committee in reaching this solution.

As right hon. and hon. Members will see from the Order Paper, both the Leader of the House and the shadow Leader of the House have signified their support for the motion by adding their names to it. The proposed Standing Order addresses the issue that at any time the House can pass a motion that adds costs to the administration budget. As the Finance and Services Committee recognised in its report, that is not a creditable way for the finances of a major public body to be run. The proposed Standing Order will not prevent the House either from debating the motions it wants to debate or from making the decisions it wants to make, but it will ensure that decisions are made on the basis of access to basic information about the financial consequences of those decisions. The House has rightly set itself the target of reducing the administration estimate, so it is a matter of good governance that the attached Standing Order be approved to support the House in that aim.

The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) asked me a couple of questions. First, I can assure him that at an appropriate point the full costs of the Banking Commission will be confirmed, but I am not in a position to do that now. Secondly, he has rightly pointed out that there are other matters relating to the work of the Procedure Committee that could usefully be discussed—under Remaining Orders, for instance—and to which he has put his name. He will be pleased to hear, therefore, that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has discussed with the Procedure Committee’s Chair the priority placed on the different motions. I hope that the House will get the chance to resolve these issues—I will not say “soon”—without undue delay. I am happy to support the motion on the Order Paper.

Question put and agreed to.