§ 5. Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
What the level of underspending in the defence budget is. 
§ The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon)
The latest forecasts are for expenditure to match the total to be sought in the spring supplementary estimates.
§ Mr. Clifton-Brown
Given that the Government have cut £5 billion from the defence budget since 1997, will the Secretary of State guarantee that none of the underspend—amounting to several hundred million pounds—on last year's budget will be returned to the Treasury?
§ Mr. Hoon
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, because I suspect that he was put up to ask that question by his Front-Bench colleagues, who appear not to understand the way in which departmental budgets work in government. In particular, they do not appear to understand that Departments are responsible to Parliament for their spending. If they understood that, the shadow Defence Secretary might not have told the News of the World that the underspend represented some sort of cut, as the hon. Gentleman's question suggests.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman or his Front-Bench colleagues take a little tutorial from the Library on how departmental underspends are dealt with year on year, particularly for defence. Underspends are carried into the next financial year and are spent on defence. If the hon. Gentleman is worried about underspending, I recommend that he ask the House of Commons Library what the underspend was for 1994–95 and 1995–96. He will find that the underspends then were entirely comparable to the amount that he is concerned about today. I should be interested to know whether he asked any questions about that at the time.
§ Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)
My goodness, the Secretary of State goes on for an awfully long time to say absolutely nothing; he will 9 not answer the question. Let us take him back to the accounts. As he knows, he wrote to me on 6 February about the News of the World article, and claimed:There is no question that the total £241 million underspend on the Defence Programme is somehow going to be taken away by the Treasury.The Secretary of State does not even read his accounts; the figure is about £317 million. The accounts state:Actual surplus to be surrendered.So, according to the accounts, that money will be surrendered to the Treasury. The Treasury will decide whether it goes back to the right hon. Gentleman. The Minister for the Armed Forces—sitting next to the right hon. Gentleman on the Treasury Bench—does not even know anyway, but that is to be expected. In the article, the Minister insisted thatunused money would not be given back to the Treasury.We have got used to the Government being unable to tell us the truth about European defence, but for them to be unable even to tell us the truth about the accounts shows a level of incompetence that is breathtaking.
§ Mr. Hoon
What is breathtaking about the hon. Gentleman is the level of his ignorance of the way in which government works. If he understood anything about that—after he was elected to the House of Commons, he supported the then Conservative Government for five years—he would know full well that the underspend is available to the Department to carry over into the next year. He would also know—[Interruption.] This should be a matter of concern for Members of the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman should know that the reason why there is so much anxiety to ensure that Departments stay within departmental totals is that those totals are approved by Parliament. That is why, year on year—[Interruption.]—and, specifically under the previous Conservative Government, there was a series of underspends to ensure that the MOD stayed within the total granted by Parliament. The matter is not simply that the hon. Gentleman fails to understand how government works—I might expect that, because he is unlikely ever to be in government; he does not understand how the House of Commons works either. [Interruption.]
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. When Members on the Opposition Front Bench ask a question, I expect them to allow an answer to be made.