Official sources have made it crystal clear that there is little or no chance of the major measures needed for many of the essential improvements being added to the agenda before next autumn at the earliest.
And the one existing proposed measure – the Enterprise Bill, which might have provided the opportunity to slip some of the proposals through – is itself in danger of being delayed.
The Department of Trade and Industry measure is urgently needed to reform bankruptcy law, encourage enterprise and crack down on anti-competitive practices and could in theory be expended to cover, at least, the issue of audit independence, the extent of publication of auditors’ reports and audit tendering.
But Home Secretary David Blunkett’s emergency anti-terrorism Crime and Security Act – including powers to target the freezing of terrorist groups’ assets, increased powers of disclosure for Customs and the Inland Revenue and anti-corruption provisions – has thrown the already overcrowded legislative programme into disorder.
And far from accepting new bills, Commons leader Robin Cook is considering truncating the programme in order to complete it on time, with the not-yet introduced DTI Bill a possible candidate for his hit list.
Even if introduced, there is little chance he will find the time for its enlargement.
The problem is antiquated parliamentary procedures – now under revision.
They cause government and public bills to fall unless they complete all their stages – first reading, second reading, committee consideration, report of changes made in committee and third reading in both the Commons and the Lords – by the end of the ‘parliamentary year’.
This usually, but not always, starts around early November and ends around the end of October. Last June’s start was an exception caused by the general election.
The rules also require amendments to bills to fall within the scope of their ‘long title’ – which is amendable itself but is deliberately designed to prevent the inclusion of unplanned additions outside the scope of the original proposals.
Robin Cook is planning to make a statement spelling out his plans next month. Of 23 bills, of which 20 were originally planned in the last Queen’s Speech, only those on human reproductive cloning, EC finance and the anti-terrorism measure – plus the Technical Appropriation and Consolidated Fund Bills – have actually become law.
Few of those in train would be suitable for last-minute amendment, though candidates might include the Employment Bill, now in Commons committee, the Proceeds of Crime Bill (in Commons committee), the Tax Credits Bill (in Commons committee) and the State Pension Credit Bill (in Lords committee), but they are all unlikely vehicles for the reforms required.
The Finance Bill is the better prospect, but that is traditionally restricted to Budget measures, tax levels, new taxes and piecemeal tax law reforms.
The best measure for this Bill would be the Tax Practice Committee – but this could mean persuading chancellor Gordon Brown to scrap the existing tax law rewrite project headed by former Tory chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe.
Although it publishes reports and has produced a bill its work falls far short of the job that many, including leading members of the profession, think is necessary.
There is also a question mark over New Labour’s stomach for radical reform affecting interests which may have contributed to party funds.
The crunch issue though is probably whether auditors and their firms should be allowed to engage in consultancy business, particularly for the companies whose accounts they audit.
Great Grimsby Labour MP Austin Mitchell has long campaigned for this in various guises without success.
The Enterprise Bill would have been an ideal vehicle – since it covers similar areas, like bankruptcy and anti-competitive practices. Many of its provisions could be appropriate for application to the Big Five and some clauses will be close to the issue of reports and accounts and the issue of late payment of bills.
Areas that would have to involve new legislation must include the extension of the powers of the National Audit Office under the Sharman report.
The Treasury has apparently made welcoming noises, but the NAO is an independent body set up by Act and requiring legislation to underpin its scope.
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