[Relevant documents: The Fifth Report from the Public Administration Select Committee, Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State, HC 537, and the Government response, Cm 8044.]
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
It seems almost unseemly to move a Second Reading in the wake of the august tributes to the retiring Clerk of the House. It is actually quite appropriate, because many of the tributes to Sir Malcolm, which I heartily endorse, talked about his understanding of and commitment to the powers of this House. Central to those powers is the House’s power and right to hold the Executive to account. That is essentially what the Bill is about. It will enlarge the scope of the state—the public realm—which this House and Parliament can hold to account, and reduce the scope of quangos and non-departmental public bodies and the range of public state entities that are not accountable to a democratic authority. That is long overdue. The Bill will put in place a mechanism that will enable this Government and future Governments to change the landscape of those bodies without the need for separate primary legislation whenever anything is sought to be done.
The public are right to expect a system in which Ministers are accountable for what the Government do and for how taxpayers’ money is spent. For too long, there has been the proliferation of a complex network of public bodies, which has worked against that expectation by blurring the lines of accountability and disguising inefficiency and duplication in the delivery of public services. It is for that reason that last summer the Government conducted an intensive review of public bodies, which was stimulated and led by the Cabinet Office but conducted by the relevant Departments across Whitehall. It was the most comprehensive interrogation of the role of such bodies for decades.
We subjected each body to four tests. The first was existential and asked whether the body needed to exist and whether its functions needed to be carried out.
In conducting the reviews, the Departments will have considered the environmental implications. One example that I am about to refer to would have carried no environmental implications. Obviously, the Departments would have considered the environmental implications in every case. Before any action is taken under the powers in the Bill, there will be an opportunity for further detailed scrutiny.
The first question was whether the functions had to be carried out at all. In some cases, the answer was no. We decided fairly rapidly that the Government probably did not need an independent non-departmental public body to deliberate on the purchase of wine for the Government. That is of course an important function that must be carried out properly, but there does not need to be an NDPB to do it.
One body that is widely thought to be necessary and desirable is a chief coroner to provide leadership to the coronial profession. It would be possible to create that post without creating the kind of elaborate body that the Government are rightly anxious about by designating an existing coroner to have that leadership role with just a small amount of additional support.
We rather agree with what my right hon. Friend says. There is concern that a whole new apparatus and bureaucracy should not be set up, with all the associated costs, which the previous Government’s plans would have entailed. However, we understand the concern that not proceeding with the establishment of a chief coroner would look insensitive, and would perhaps be insensitive in the circumstances. I will say a word later about the detail of our plans in respect of that office.
What has changed from when the Minister was in opposition, when he voted for the chief coroner and his party’s Front-Benchers spoke in favour of it in Committee? The Minister spoke about cost and there is an issue about cost. Why has he not yet published what savings will be made by not having a chief coroner? If, as he recognises, certain functions have to be carried out in the Ministry of Justice, at what cost will those functions be carried out?
It will cost very much less. The set-up costs for the office of the chief coroner, as planned under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, would have been £10.9 million and there would have been running costs of £6.6 million a year. I will tell the hon. Gentleman exactly what has changed. A Government have come to office and inherited the biggest budget deficit in the developed world. We had to take urgent steps to control and eradicate the deficit. As a result of that, he will be glad to know, despite having a budget deficit roughly the same size as that of Greece, we now enjoy interest rates roughly the same as Germany’s.
The Conservative central office spin is wearing a bit thin. Will the Minister break down the costs? The other place was disputing the one-off set-up cost. Included in the so-called £6 million a year is nearly £1 million for contingency, which is 20% of the supposed running costs. Would it not help to justify his arguments if a detailed breakdown was printed, which the Ministry of Justice has signally failed to do and he has not done today?
I will, of course, ensure that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor hears what the hon. Gentleman has said. There will be plenty of opportunities, such as at Question Time once a month, for the hon. Gentleman to ask those questions of Ministers at the Ministry of Justice.
Do I have every single detail about every single body contained in the proposals? No I do not. I can answer in detail on the bodies that are within the responsibility of the Cabinet Office. This is an enabling Bill, which will enable the House of Commons and the House of Lords to scrutinise the detail of the proposals in each case. There will be plenty of opportunity for that to be done in the case of the office of the chief coroner, because the Government will introduce amendments in Committee, where the issue can be explored in great detail. I am confident that all the questions that are springing up can be answered at that stage.
The Minister is trying to evade collective responsibility for the decisions that the Government are taking. He is also ignoring the fact that there was widespread consultation on this matter and that it was supported by the Opposition. It was found that, almost without exception, nobody disagreed with this. This is far and away the cheapest and most effective way of getting consistency into the inquest service. The cost of the inconsistency is both human and monetary. The costs that the Minister talks about need to be offset against the costs of the judicial reviews that are brought regularly against the current system. He knows that this is the most preposterous U-turn. The suggestion that the coronial service should be accountable to this House is also a disgrace. It should be independent. It can therefore only answer to one of its own. That is why the creation of the office of chief coroner is so necessary.
The office of chief coroner will be brought into existence. It will not be set up in the elaborate way and with the extensive additional costs embodied in the proposals of the previous Government. The office will exist. The functions, to the extent that they are needed, will be exercised in a way that is affordable in the current circumstances. If the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I have considerable respect, is really suggesting that we should spend this amount of extra money on this matter, he needs to tell the House what he would cut to enable that to happen.
Surely the concern is not just over the amazingly expensive offices that many quangos like to equip themselves with, but over the amount of pay that they receive. People at the UK Film Council get more than £150,000 a year, the British Waterways chief executive gets £230,000, and a similar amount goes to the chief executive of the Dover Harbour Board, dare I mention it? Surely we should ensure that the cost of each individual is reduced to a sensible amount.
One of the benefits brought about by this Government is to make all that more transparent. We have exposed for scrutiny by the public and the House what those high salaries are, and it is right that we should do so. They may be completely justified in many cases, but they ought to be justified and scrutinised, so I make no apology for introducing that degree of transparency.
While the right hon. Gentleman is talking about salaries, perhaps he will address the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, which protects the incomes of the poorest people in the countryside. Its abolition will mean that those workers lose more than £150 a week in sick pay straight away. How can he defend that?
I justify it on the basis that the Government of the hon. Lady’s party introduced a minimum wage, which was voted through by the House. The Agricultural Wages Board was introduced at a time when there was no national minimum wage. It now exists, and we take the view that an independent body with the AWB’s powers no longer needs to exist.
The point about the Agricultural Wages Board is not just that it pins down a minimum wage for agricultural workers but that there are six scales of pay and other protections for those workers, who have a very weak voice in the labour market. The Minister talks about transparency, but the rural voice will be lost unless transparent decisions are made in the Chamber about each of the bodies involved, including the Rural Advocate, who speaks up on behalf of the most vulnerable in rural communities.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point about the Rural Advocate, it seems to me that rural areas are very well represented in this House. It seems odd that a separate body should be created to be a rural advocate, because it seems to me that it is the duty of Members of Parliament to be the advocate for their constituents. There are many very effective advocates of rural residents and constituents.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs proposes to consult on the AWB in the autumn. It will be part of a wider consultation package on the future of the agricultural wages committees and the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees.
I fear that the Minister is being led down the path of discussing every public body covered in the Bill. Is it not the case that the public bodies identified in the Government’s review form a significant layer of state control, and one from which people can only feel distant? Bringing accountability to bear on that layer is the most important aspect of the Bill for him to focus on.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. These bodies are rarely discussed in the House, and that is part of the problem that we are seeking to deal with. Unless there is a compelling reason why a state function should be carried out by a body that is independent of any democratic accountability, the presumption should be that it is accountable. That is the test that we apply.
I am grateful to the Minister. Between 2007 and 2008, public sector organisations spent about £4 million on hiring political consultants to lobby Government, which is totally unacceptable. What steps are being taken to ensure that it does not happen again?
The guidance has been tightened up considerably. Taxpayers find it quite offensive that a body that is not democratically accountable should use taxpayers’ money, in some cases, to hire lobbyists to lobby Government to give it more taxpayers’ money. We have taken urgent steps to ensure that that does not recur.
I am very grateful. I could not agree more with my right hon. Friend about lobbyists, but does he also accept the danger that many public bodies will start to employ internal lobbyists directly rather than commissioning and contracting them? That would also be a waste of money.
My hon. Friend’s point simply amplifies the case for the presumption that we are instituting in the Bill that there needs to be a really compelling case for a state function being carried out in a way that is not accountable. That is the purpose of the Bill.
My hon. Friend will forgive me, but I really do need to make progress. A great many Members wish to contribute to the debate.
Our first test of a body was the existential test—does its function need to be carried out at all? If, as in most cases, the body’s functions were deemed necessary, we then sought to establish whether the functions should be carried out independently. We had three tests. If a body carries out a highly technical activity, if it is required to be politically impartial or if it needs to be able to act independently to establish or measure facts, it is right for it to remain outside direct ministerial or other democratic accountability. That is clearly the case with bodies such as the new Office for Budget Responsibility, Ofgem and many others.
Any body that does not meet any of those tests will either be brought back into a Department, where it can be held accountable to the House through a Minister, or devolved to local authorities. In both cases there will be democratic accountability. Or in some cases, a body’s functions could be carried out outside the state altogether in the private or voluntary sector. We went through an extensive process to determine the outcome of the review.
The first task was simply to establish how many quangos there were and what they did. It may sound absurd, but it was and remains incredibly difficult to get firm information on that. Many do not publish accounts, there is no central list and there are many different types of quango with different statuses. The official list of non-departmental public bodies contains 679 bodies, excluding those in Northern Ireland, but that does not include non-ministerial departments, Government-owned public corporations or trading funds. Our review covered 901 bodies, and we believe, but cannot be certain, that that is the true extent of the landscape. I stress that departmental executive agencies were not within the review’s scope. They are directly controlled by Ministers, who are accountable to Parliament for what they do.
At the end of that review, I announced our proposals to the House on 14 October last year. They were that 481 of the bodies should be substantially reformed, including 192 abolished entirely and a further 118 merged. Since that announcement we have concluded consideration of a number of other bodies, and I can tell the House that the current total is that 495 bodies will be reformed, including 200 abolished and 120 others merged into 59 successor bodies. We have moved quickly to implement that programme, and I am pleased to tell the House that 45 bodies had been abolished by the end of April this year. Overall, we expect to make administrative savings—I stress that they are administrative—of £2.6 billion from public bodies over the spending review period. That money will be better spent on protecting public sector jobs and on front-line services.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am going to make progress. I have given way a great deal, and I do not want this speech to go on too long. I am sure that is a sentiment that the House will support.
I note that the previous Government’s intention, set out in 2009, was to abolish 120 bodies, saving the conveniently round sum of £500 million. Yet in the six months following that announcement, they did not even manage to abolish half of them—a clear demonstration that, as ever, they had a better knack for the headline than for the hard work of implementing what had been promised.
Where public bodies have been retained, they will be subject to a process of rigorous triennial review, to ensure that they remain fit for purpose, that the need is there, and that the justification for them remaining independent is still valid. Far too often, bodies have been created and left well beyond the time when they are needed, partly because there has been no means to reform or disband them—any such change would have required primary legislation, time for which is, as we know, at a premium in the House.
The Government’s response to the Select Committee on Public Administration report outlined the principles of that review process, and I look forward to giving further details to the House in due course. The review process for individual bodies will be led by the responsible Minister in each case, and co-ordinated and supported by the Cabinet Office.
The House will be aware that the Bill was brought from another place, where it has received substantial scrutiny, resulting in a number of important amendments. I thank noble Lords for their constructive engagement in this process, which has helped the Government to produce an even more coherent and well-structured Bill—it was fairly coherent and well-structured to begin with. I hope that it will command the support of this House and the confidence of the public. I pay particular tribute to my noble Friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach for his skilful stewardship of the Bill in the other place.
The Bill is centred on a series of order-making powers that enable Ministers to make changes to public bodies through secondary legislation, subject to the approval of Parliament. That mechanism creates a coherent and efficient procedure for reform, while properly giving Parliament the ability to scrutinise both the principle and the detail of the proposals.
Will the Minister give way?
Although there is no doubt nothing wrong with dealing with some of those bodies by order, can the right hon. Gentleman not understand the concerns many of us have about the fact that bodies such as the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission can simply be merged by order, when there were hours, days or weeks of debate in the House, including in Committee, to set them up? Is not that a dangerous precedent for the Government to set?
Powers to amend primary legislation by secondary legislation are not unprecedented. An amendment made in the other place, which the Government supported, will mean that either House can require an enhanced affirmative procedure. Such a procedure not only requires consultation before a draft order is laid, but allows a further period for reflection on, and analysis and scrutiny of, the proposal. It is reasonable to have a reasonably accelerated process for the reform of public bodies. Otherwise, we will end up in a position in which we have a wholly incoherent landscape of public bodies. I confess that even at the end of the process that we are currently proposing, that landscape will still be quite muddled, but it will at least have been cleared up to some extent.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on the OFT and Competition Commission, is that not an odd state of affairs? There are reports that one of those bodies will take responsibility for NHS contracts worth more than £70 million, yet today we are discussing the changes to them abstract from Monitor’s responsibilities.
The functions will continue to exist, but there will be a rationalisation of the landscape of the bodies. A single competition authority will be created. A number of the consumer advocate functions will be given to citizens advice bureaux, which will strengthen their role and bring welcome additional funding to them—[Interruption.] I would hope that hon. Members welcomed the enhancement of the role of CABs that the Bill brings about.
The Bill provides an ability to make further changes as need arises in future. Each order-making power is limited in its application to those bodies that are listed in the relevant schedule to the Bill. Clause 1 creates a power for a Minister to abolish a body or office by order. Such an order may either abolish the body’s functions if they are no longer required, or transfer some or all of them to another eligible party, such as a Government Department, a charity or another public body.
In some cases, an order under clause 1 will be motivated by the principle of accountability—that a Minister should be directly accountable for Government actions within their sphere of influence. For that reason, we propose to abolish the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission and to return its functions to the direct control of the Department for Work and Pensions. In other cases, a body will simply be abolished to halt unnecessary expenditure and duplication. For example, clause 1 will also be used to introduce orders to abolish the Valuation Tribunal Service, the functions of which can now be performed by Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service, and which therefore no longer needs to be a separate entity, with its own overhead costs.
The next four clauses of the Bill create a complementary set of powers to merge groups of bodies, to modify constitutional or funding arrangements, or to modify or transfer a body’s functions. The breadth of those powers is a reflection of the breadth of the Government’s reform agenda. We aim to enhance the scope of civil society by the creation of a new waterways charity to replace British Waterways. Our agenda spreads to the modification of regulatory bodies such as Ofcom and the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure that they are fully focused on their vital regulatory functions.
In total, 294 bodies currently appear in the schedules to the Bill, demonstrating the importance of this measure to the reform agenda. Details of our proposals for each of those bodies are available in a document that has been placed in the House Library. I can assure the House that that document will be updated regularly throughout the passage of the Bill, and I hope it forms a valuable basis for debate in Committee.
In addition, the Bill creates specific powers for Welsh Assembly Ministers to take forward a number of changes to public bodies operating in Wales. Those will assist the Welsh Assembly Government as they seek to simplify their public bodies landscape and to deliver further savings, and I hope that those measures also enjoy the support of the House.
As I have indicated, the passage of the Bill through the Lords saw a number of modifications to the mechanisms of the Bill. The modifications tighten the purposes for which those powers can be used and ensure the appropriate balance between speed and scrutiny in the reform process. Those changes mean that the Bill that was introduced in this House strikes a carefully crafted balance. It will enable Ministers to make much-needed reforms to public bodies without recourse to specific primary legislation, an innovation that I believe will support efficient management of public bodies both now and in the future. Yet at the same time, the Bill requires Government to make the case for their proposals to stakeholders and to Parliament, guaranteeing that proper consideration is given to the exercise of important public functions.
I should tell the House that the Government intend to introduce a number of amendments in Committee. In particular, the House will be aware that following the written ministerial statement on 15 June by the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), who has responsibility for business and enterprise, the abolition of the regional development agencies will now be taken forward in primary legislation through the Bill. Abolishing the RDAs in the Bill will ensure that the Government can meet our timetable for the development of a new framework for regional growth, providing clarity and opportunity to businesses across the nation.
Similarly, we will seek to amend the Bill to modify the Broadcasting Act 1990 to revise the funding arrangements for S4C by removing the retail prices index link, while securing the channel’s independent future status and delivering significant savings.
I can also inform the House that the Government will seek to reintroduce the office of the chief coroner and the Youth Justice Board to the Bill’s schedules, overturning votes in the other place. As I said earlier, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor has listened to the concerns raised in relation to the important functions that those bodies are designed to carry out, and I believe that our revised proposals will gain wide support. We have agreed that the office of the chief coroner should remain on the statute book, and our amendments will propose adding it to schedule 5 to the Bill to enable some of its functions to be transferred to the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor.
The Government will propose a number of more technical amendments to the Bill, including measures to clarify the requirements of the consultation process in clause 10, to ensure that any orders made under the Bill in relation to the funding arrangements of bodies or offices require the consent of the Treasury and to modify the list of taxes subject to variation in their provision as part of a transfer scheme made in connection with an order under the Bill.
The Government are committed to bringing about radical change in the administration of government in the UK—change that responds to the public’s demand to place the principles of transparency, accountability and value for money at the centre of what the state does. Quango reform has been long promised by parties on both sides of the House and is long overdue, but we have now taken the difficult decisions necessary to make it possible and to make it happen. By enabling a comprehensive and overdue reconfiguration of the landscape and by creating a framework to support better management of public bodies in the future, the Bill gives the Government the essential tools with which to turn this commitment into reality. I commend it to the House.
I beg to move,
That this House, while agreeing that there needs to be a constant reassessment of the role, effectiveness and relevance of public bodies, declines to give a second reading to the Public Bodies Bill because it fails to provide a full and comprehensive plan for the reform of public bodies; regrets that Ministers have failed to properly cost reforms and identify savings, have failed to understand the important functions performed by some of the bodies affected by the Bill and therefore to provide for credible successor arrangements, have failed to consult properly on proposed reforms with the public and the bodies themselves, and have failed to undertake a proper impact assessment of each affected body; and considers that the overall effect of these failings has been that the House has been presented with legislative proposals which undermine the credibility of the proper processes of government.
It gives me great pleasure to move the reasoned amendment in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. I have listened closely to what the Minister has said. He was courteous and kind about the treatment of the Bill in another place, but to describe the scrutiny process in the terms he did was an understatement. In fact, the Bill, which in its original form gave him licence to meddle on an unprecedented scale in the affairs of bodies discharging functions on behalf of the public, was not just overhauled, but was mauled by the scrutiny of another place. Lord Woolf said that it was
“a matter of grave concern to the judiciary.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 November 2010; Vol. 722, c. 75.]
The Lords Constitution Committee said that it struck
“at the very heart of our constitutional system”,
and Baroness Royall was not alone in saying that
“this is a bad Bill. It is badly thought out, badly structured, badly executed, bad for the constitution, bad for public bodies and bad for government.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 November 2010; Vol. 722, c. 68.]
I listened closely to what the Minister said were his intentions for the scrutiny of the Bill in the House, and I would like to put him on notice: we will fight with every available argument to ensure proper protection for the Youth Justice Board, which has led to such a dramatic fall in youth crime, and we will fight to honour and see implemented the commitment to the office of the chief coroner. The Minister can deploy a parliamentary majority to vote down the decisions taken in another place, but, as has been indicated already by my right hon. and hon. Friends, as well as other right hon. and hon. Members, he will not be able to defeat the argument in the country over the chief coroner—an argument supported eloquently by the Royal British Legion. I therefore hope that, with humility, he will take heed of the debate and judge it on its merits.
The original Bill, as published by the Tory-led coalition, planned to sell off our forests. I would like to pay the warmest tribute to the campaign so excellently and eloquently led by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), which rightly saw a climbdown by the Government and brought together 600,000 people in a campaign against the sale of our national heritage. The original Bill also left 150 organisations in the organisational limbo of what was then schedule 7 of the Bill—sounds innocuous enough, does it not? But Channel 4 was listed, as were the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Charity Commission, the Criminal Cases Review Commission and the independent Judicial Appointments Commission. All were placed in a schedule that would have left them open to being axed at the stroke of a Minister’s pen.
The process of these reforms has been deeply flawed, and the Government still lack detailed plans for many of the bodies that they are seeking to change, merge or abolish. They have produced a Bill before a plan, rather than a plan before a Bill. Having said that—by way of introduction—of course we support the reform of public bodies and public services. Indeed, before the election, the previous Labour Government had put in place a programme to reform public bodies. That programme must be constant and continuing.
Nevertheless, these organisations carry out an enormous range of important public functions and play an important part in the life of the people of this country, providing support for our universities, our sports culture and the arts, standing up for vulnerable people, holding Governments to account, upholding minimum standards and helping to improve our public services. As the Institute for Government, of which I am a fellow—an unremunerated position—wrote,
“public bodies are now fundamental to the function of Government.”
The needs of the country constantly change and our public bodies must change too, which is why every Government need constantly to reassess their role, effectiveness and relevance. We did that and the Government are doing the same. That is not the issue. When we came to power in 1997, there were almost 1,130 public bodies, and by the time of our 2009 review, we had cut their number to about 750—a reduction of almost one third.
We ought to take into account the reduction of bodies at the Department of Health, link to that the significant reduction in the number of bodies announced by the Haskins review of Natural England and consider the systematic reduction in the number of other bodies, as well as the fact that some were merged and others increased their functions. However, in March 2010, we announced plans to go further and faster and to reduce the overall number of bodies by a further 123.
I do not necessarily accept that that was the largest reduction. However, devolution was one of the most significant policies introduced—and proudly so—by the Labour Government, and of course previously reserved powers were then devolved to the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.
A 20% reduction would have saved £500 million from next year. The Minister jibbed at that, but we viewed the process of altering, closing down and merging public bodies as one that should take place systematically over time. Those £500 million of savings would have been realised by next year.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a lot of what is being proposed is window dressing, in the sense that even closing down bodies such as the Audit Commission will cost some £400 million in pension liabilities and winding up other assets? When we look at some of those organisations in detail, we see that the payback period might not come for, say, 10 years.
My hon. Friend is obviously correct. I intend to make some progress now, but I will come to precisely that point in a little while.
We would have saved £500 million by 2012-13 as a result of planned and properly costed change and reform. We also accepted that there is scope for further reform. We agree that the Railway Heritage Committee should be reformed and that the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts should enter the voluntary sector. We also support the reform of a number of other significant bodies. The problem is not with reform, nor is it with the tests that the Minister has set for that reform, as I will set out in a moment; the problem is with his ill-thought-out and rushed through Bill. There has been confusion about what the Minister’s motives are. First he told us this week that the Bill was about, as he put it, “sound money”; later we were told that it was about underpinning good government. However, whether the issue is money or good government, the Government’s proposals in this Bill are certainly not the answer.
The Government are asking the House to agree to the abolition of important bodies such as those raised by my hon. Friends in interventions—they include Consumer Focus, the Commission for Rural Communities and the Football Licensing Authority—but the right hon. Gentleman cannot yet tell us what he will put in their place. He has also claimed £30 billion in savings when the reality is that the Government will save £1.6 billion—or less, when redundancies have been paid for.
I hope that the right hon. Lady would agree that rather than trading figures for partisan purposes, we need to have a proper audit of what is going on. A moment ago she mentioned the Commission for Rural Communities. As that body is being brought in-house by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—that is probably a sensible thing to do—we do not necessarily know whether that will be counted as a saving or whether the costs will be lost from the overall audit of what quangos cost the country. At the end of the day, however, the important point is the one that I made earlier. We need a rural advocate that is independent of all the partisan debate that we have in this place.
The hon. Gentleman has set out the precise nature of the debate that will need to take place in Committee, because losing the independence and the advocacy role of a number of these significant bodies will harm the proper process of representing interests that often get too little hearing in this House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that what is exposed by the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and the Commission for Rural Communities —as well as the proposals on forests, on which there had to be a U-turn—is an attitude of arrogance towards the countryside and the idea that it is not necessary to listen because the Government think that they know best?
I certainly hope that the Minister will accept my invitation to rethink some of the Government’s proposals and ensure that the Committee stage involves genuine and proper scrutiny of some of the compelling individual cases. I also hope that he will show proper respect and understanding, not for, as it were, the headline description of a clutch of quangos, but for the vital functions that many such bodies perform—as my hon. Friend has so clearly described—in protecting the quality of life for people across the country in a variety of different ways.
If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I am going to make some progress, as there are lots of Back Benchers who want to speak in this debate.
The approach that the Government have taken in this Bill is the opposite of the clear and costed plan that was produced by the last Government. They are abolishing and merging bodies, in some cases without any idea of what their functions are. Again, I hope that a greater understanding of those functions will result from further scrutiny. Even now, more than 10 months after the review of public bodies began, we are still in the dark over what the Government have planned for a number of the bodies in this Bill. A number of consultations have begun, but the Government are not even waiting for the results. Consultation was eventually promised on the regional development agencies, but it has now been withdrawn because it would disrupt the process of disassembling RDAs that is already under way. Today the Secretary of State for Justice has announced a public consultation on all the bodies that affect his Department, but this will report after the Bill has gone through Parliament. Therefore, the Minister here today is effectively asking this House to give its permission fundamentally to change or to abolish those bodies before his colleagues have decided what will be put in their place.
While the Government cut quangos in this Bill, they are adding hundreds of bodies elsewhere. Let us take the national health service. As a result of the Government’s chaotic approach to the NHS, they have tripled the number of statutory bodies in the NHS, which now number 521. There will now be new shadow commissioning groups and authorised commissioning groups, primary care trust clusters, strategic health authority clusters, clinical networks and clinical senates, all of which will be overseen by the NHS commissioning board, which the chief executive of the NHS has described as
“the greatest quango in the sky”.
The question that we now have to ask the Minister is whether, even with the passage of this Bill, he believes that there will be fewer public bodies in 2015 than when he first entered his Department. What is his baseline number and what will be the number of quangos in 2015? I am happy to give way to him if he wishes to speak at the Dispatch Box. Okay, the House will note the absence of an answer to that question. The Government do not even know how much money they are going to save. In an article in The Sun—the Minister’s newspaper of choice for these purposes—in March, he claimed that the Government would save £30 billion in spending on quangos,
“so we can protect jobs and frontline services”.
What he failed to mention was that the majority of those savings were from cuts to the very front-line services that he had pledged to save. Almost £25 billion are from cuts to housing and universities, with almost another £2 billion from our arts, our sports and our museums. Only £2.6 billion of the claimed savings were from actual administration, and even that figure has now come under scrutiny.
In written evidence submitted to the Public Administration Committee, the Minister’s own Department admitted that only £1.6 billion of cumulative administrative savings can be found. Perhaps the Minister would like to explain to the House where the other £1 billion of administrative savings are likely to come from. [Interruption.] Again, the Minister appears not to know where the administrative savings will come from, and this is before the Government have even looked at redundancies, which are a major cost of any organisational transformation. The Local Government Chronicle has estimated that the bill for redundancies at the RDAs alone will cost the Government at least £100 million, yet the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has not even estimated how much they will cost in this financial year. Information gathered from parliamentary answers shows that out of all the Departments affected, only two have so far made estimates of the likely costs of redundancies, neither of which is the Department headed by the Minister. The Minister should take this opportunity to admit to the House that he has no idea what the net savings will be from his reform of public bodies, and no idea of the cost of the redundancies. This deeply flawed Bill is part of a deeply flawed, ill -thought-out programme of reform that could well end up costing more money than it is projected to save.
I want to make it absolutely clear, as I have done before, that these are cumulative administrative savings over the spending review period of £2.6 billion, and that they are net of restructuring costs—[Interruption.] That was made absolutely clear in March, in my response to the Select Committee. The right hon. Lady has lots of suggestions for what should not be done in the Bill; has she any suggestions for what should be done to reform the quango landscape?
Yes, we certainly have. I should like to refer the right hon. Gentleman to the programme of reform that was clearly set out by the previous Government, on which I am sure full information is available in his Department. If not, I am happy to provide it for him. It involved £500 million-worth of savings by 2012-13.
Let me now turn to some of the specific bodies listed in the schedules to the Bill. When the Minister began this process of reform, he said that public bodies would be allowed to remain if they fulfilled one of three criteria—namely, if they performed a technical function, if they dealt with issues that required political impartiality or if they needed to act independently to establish facts. I should like to say to the Minister that those are good, rigorous tests of public bodies.
Let us apply those tests to the Agricultural Wages Board. If the Minister believes that we should preserve bodies that perform an important technical function, surely the board should be removed from the Bill, because it sets the pay of 140,000 people in England. That also covers holiday pay, sick pay and overtime. If the board is abolished, fruit pickers and farm workers will see their wages fall. Workers could lose between £150 and £265 a week in sick pay, because that would no longer be guaranteed. School-age children working at weekends or in summer jobs will also lose out. The Farmers Union of Wales has warned that
“unless there are systems in place to protect payments to agricultural workers, the industry will not attract the highly skilled technicians it needs to thrive.”
I hope that the Minister will recognise that Labour is seeking to help him by today launching our “Back the Apple” campaign, which shows our commitment to fairness in the countryside and our backing for the Agricultural Wages Board. It is a precious asset that helps to ensure the decency of fair wages and to enable people working in the countryside get a fair deal.
I must make some progress; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a chance to speak later.
The Minister’s second criterion for the preservation of bodies was that they should deal with issues that require political impartiality. The Commission for Equality and Human Rights is an example of one such body. It exists to break down inequality and to build opportunity and the type of society in which fairness and a life of dignity and respect are not merely an ideal but a fact. The commission’s inclusion in schedules 3 and 5 to the Bill leaves it open to being rendered ineffective by having its constitution altered, or its functions amended or transferred. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to think again. Only a year ago, the coalition told us that it was going to “tear down” the barriers that people faced as a result of who they were, and that it would stand up for fundamental human freedoms. In defending the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, will he stand up for the fundamental human freedom that it represents?
The third type of body to be preserved under the Minister’s tests are those that need to act independently to establish facts. Consumer Focus is an excellent example. It is the statutory consumer champion, and it has strong legislative powers.
My right hon. Friend might not have been in the Chamber earlier this afternoon when the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change referred to the need for a strong consumer champion in the energy market, especially as there is effectively a cartel of six big energy companies. Given that the functions of Consumer Focus are effectively being transferred to Citizens Advice, does she acknowledge the concern that the work of those two bodies in protecting the consumer involves two very different skill sets?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The combination of the regulatory responsibility of Consumer Focus and the voluntary responsibilities and representation involved in Citizens Advice’s role is wholly inappropriate. I hope that the Minister will think again on that proposal as well.
I want briefly to refer to S4C, which also remains in the Bill. S4C is vital to sustaining the Welsh language’s prominence in Welsh culture and society. We therefore hope that the Minister will agree to the independent review of S4C for which the leaders of all four main parties in Wales have called.
I also want to deal briefly with the office of the chief coroner and the Youth Justice Board. I urge the Minister to stick to the settlement that was concluded in another place in this regard. As has already been mentioned, the introduction of the office of the chief coroner received cross-party support when it was legislated for in 2009. There is a desperate need to improve the coronial system, which fails too many families. Establishing such a system is also a central obligation under the military covenant. I hope that the Minister will heed carefully the words of Chris Simpkins, the director general of the Royal British Legion, who has said that he believes that
“this decision would be a deep betrayal of bereaved Service families. We anxiously await a response that will satisfy us that the interests of Service families will be represented.”
Over the course of the last Parliament, the Youth Justice Board oversaw a 43% reduction in first-time youth offenders, by working with youth offending teams to focus on the causes of crime. In another place, Lord Woolf said:
“this initiative has been wholly salutary. It…gave new hope to all those who were concerned for this area of our justice system. The best test of the innovation is to ask, “Did it work?”…the balance sheet would show a huge improvement”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 March 2011; Vol. 726, c. 961.]
I hope that, during the Bill’s progress through the House, the Minister will consider carefully the power of these arguments from people of the utmost distinction and sincerity.
In conclusion, let me reaffirm our support for reform, while stating that it needs to be planned, properly costed and undertaken on the basis of clear necessity and an understanding of the context in which these bodies operate. The way in which the Government have conducted this legislation to date has been an affront to decent process. I now call on Members of all parties, having properly considered the important role and function of many of the bodies that so clearly meet the Minister’s test, to rebuild the shaken confidence in this legislation and support our reasoned amendment in the Lobby this evening.
For those of us who have kept an eye on the Public Bodies Bill as it made its turbulent six-month passage through the other place, today’s Second Reading comes as a relief. We now have a Bill substantially different from the one originally proposed—a Bill much improved by the amendments tabled in the other place and supported by Ministers. We now have a Bill whose principles should be acceptable to all Members; a Bill that will shine the light of accountability and transparency on many parts of the extended public sector and that will deliver huge value-for-money savings for the hard-pressed taxpayer.
In the last 10 years, the cost of non-departmental public bodies, like much of our nation’s spending, has spiralled out of control. Despite a steady reduction in the number of quangos since 1979, the cost to the public purse has almost continually increased, with annual Government funding doubling to £39 billion in the years since the turn of the millennium. This Bill will allow huge savings to be made—a cumulative saving of £30 billion over the spending review period, with estimated annual savings of at least £11 billion a year by 2014-15.
As highlighted by the shadow Minister and in the amendment, costs will occur when shedding such excessive waste, but the potential long-term benefits are so great that it is essential for the Government to push ahead and deliver the long-term efficiency and sustainability that this Bill will enable.
I am sure that all Members will join me in welcoming schedule 5, which transfers British Waterways’ network in England and Wales to a new charitable trust. My constituency has a certain claim to the resurgence of our nation’s waterways in the 20th century, for it was in Chester that Tom Rolt, the founding father of the Inland Waterways Association, was born in 1910. It is worth noting that since the middle of the last century, the Inland Waterways Association has itself been calling for a third sector model for running our nation’s waterways.
The proposals from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to create a new waterways charity, initially from the British Waterways Board, but eventually including the Environment Agency navigations in 2014, have been widely welcomed—but it is crucial that we get this right. Half the population lives within five miles of one of our canals and rivers, and 13 million people use them every year. These days, people do not use them only for boating or angling. In Chester, we have cycleways and safe green walkways into the city centre for shoppers and commuters. We have dog walkers and joggers, and canals and waterways are at the centre of economic regeneration in many of our urban areas.
There will still need to be public financial support for our waterways, especially after the inclusion of the Environment Agency navigations that have less commercial opportunities than British Waterways, and DEFRA will need to ensure that this support continues in future. Unlike many of the organisations facing change, British Waterways has welcomed these proposals, stating that
“by moving to a civil society organisation, British Waterways aims to increase the level of public and volunteer participation in the waterways and widen the network’s supporter base”—
a sentiment and a proposal that I am sure we can all support.
Accountability and value for money are central to all areas of public service. That being so, I am heartened by the proposals formally to abolish the regional development agencies. In budgetary terms, my area’s Northwest Regional Development Agency is the largest RDA outside London. In 2008-09, its budget was £421 million, and as of May last year, it employed 481 members of staff. Yet despite its huge budget and complement of staff, private enterprise has suffered proportionately more as a result of the recession in the north-west than in other regions of the UK.
I totally agree, but one problem with the RDA is that it stops at England’s border and has not looked over it. We have reached a situation in which there is almost a wall between Chester and north Wales. I hope that with local enterprise partnerships, we will have more local interaction so that there will be an improvement.
As I was saying, the north-west has suffered disproportionately more as a result of the recession than any other UK region and has seen the largest net decline in private enterprises in the country. Many of the private enterprises that should be powering the region forward have simply shut up shop—not a great success story for our regional development agency, and not something that I have seen splashed across one of its expensively produced glossy magazines, which seem to focus more on what it has spent than on what it has achieved.
Business sometimes needs support, especially at the start-up phase, but the remote, bureaucratic regional development agency model is not the most productive way of providing it. The replacement of RDAs by local enterprise partnerships—local, accountable and business-led organisations—is greatly to be welcomed.
I wholeheartedly welcome the proposals in the Bill. The one area on which I seek reassurance from the Minister relates to the proposed triennial review process of remaining public bodies. The Public Administration Committee made detailed criticisms of the five-yearly review process that existed until 2002. I would welcome an opportunity to examine the new triennial process and the criteria against which public bodies will be evaluated in future. As I have said before, I am enthusiastically supportive of the Bill, which is a continuation of the Government’s relentless approach to localism, accountability, transparency and efficiency. I hope that all right hon. and hon. Members will support the principles that lie at the heart of the Bill.
I wish to speak up for our one Welsh language television channel, S4C. I call for the provisions that affect it to be totally removed from the Bill. How did they come to be included? Was the plan for S4C’s future the result of meticulous thought, planning and consultation? No. It was a backdoor deal between Ministers from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, who declared that they had never actually seen the channel, but had a liking for Fireman Sam, and the BBC, on the eve of the comprehensive spending review. The BBC offered up S4C as a concession—an appetiser in the face of Government threats of much deeper cuts. This deal was the result.
The Government announced that they would slash direct funding by 94% and shoehorn S4C into a so-called “partnership” deal with the BBC, which would pick up some of the shortfall. The BBC has agreed to top up funding to 75% of previous levels until 2015; after that, S4C will have to pitch for funds and the BBC will be free to do what it wants, even though its own funding is guaranteed for much longer.
The Government have had to throw S4C into the Public Bodies Bill to get their plan through because S4C’s funding is currently protected by law. S4C’s status and funding were set in law in recognition of the crucial role that it plays in protecting and promoting a language classified as “vulnerable” by no less august a body than UNESCO—a language that has steadily disappeared from communities over the last 100 years and is now spoken by just over 20% of Welsh people, down from 60% at the dawn of the 20th century.
Welsh does have a future, however. Its use is now rising for the first time in living memory—precisely because of hard-fought initiatives like S4C. The cross-party Welsh Affairs Committee, of which I am a member under the august chairmanship of the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies)—I hope he will be a right hon. Member one day—stated in the plainest possible terms in its recent report that S4C has played a
“key part… in bolstering the everyday use of the Welsh language”,
and concluded that S4C
“brought the Welsh language into many homes where it may not have been heard previously.”
My hon. Friend is making an eloquent case in citing the private deals made by the Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Has she considered the possibility that they took account of the views of News International and the plurality issue?
May I return the hon. Lady to her point about funding? She claimed that S4C had suffered a 94% cut, but if we are to have a sensible debate about this important issue, should we not recognise the reality, which is that it will be subject to cuts of 6% per annum for the next four years? That is much better than what is happening to many other public sector departments, and should be sufficient for it to deliver its objectives. Does the hon. Lady regret the fact that over the last 13 years there has not been adequate scrutiny—
The hon. Gentleman could have made a much better intervention about funding. If the intervention that he made was intended merely to back up his party’s crib sheet, I do not think that that was very sensible. He could have pointed out that yesterday the Department said that it would remove the reference to S4C from schedule 4 and give it a clause of its own, but, unbelievably, no additional funds and no commitment to funding after 2015.
I would love to, but I am conscious that from now on there is no more injury time.
The Select Committee concluded that
“S4C provides value for money.”
This is no sweet little niche cultural project that is propped up out of the kindness of taxpayers’ hearts. The channel is already cutting costs, and has overheads of only 4.5%, compared to 12% at the BBC. It is popular and well watched. According to the Select Committee, its
“share of the viewing audience during peak times”
is holding up “remarkably well”, and viewing figures for key programmes compare favourably with those for their English language equivalents.
On top of all that, the channel supports 2,000 Welsh jobs and contributes £90 million to the Welsh economy. This is not an institution in desperate need of top-down reform. The Bill, however, will impose catastrophic changes that will not even comply with its own aims. Ministers talk the language of sustainability, but they refuse to guarantee S4C’s future beyond 2015. They talk about accountability and transparency, but this move will take S4C’s funding out of direct Government control and hand it over to an arm’s-length body. They talk about maintaining S4C’s independence—where have we heard about the independence of the media before?—but they have announced no change in the law on BBC Trust responsibility for every penny of the licence fee. The whole plan was drawn up on the back of an envelope by people with no knowledge of S4C or the language that it promotes, who wanted to cut costs without worrying about the consequences. S4C deserves better.
I am not saying that we cannot have a debate about improving S4C. Indeed, we appear to have been engaging in such a debate for the best part of the last year, and I think that that is right, as is the independent review. The first step, however, is to remove S4C from the Bill altogether. I will vote for its removal as soon as I get the chance, and I hope that the whole House will join me in doing so.
It is a pleasure to speak on a Bill that is a great improvement on the version originally presented in the House of Lords, although I do not think that the Minister quite conceded that.
Schedule 7, perhaps the most contentious part of the Bill, has gone, and there is much more restriction of Executive power. The Bill has been amended to require a statutory duty to consult on orders, the simple affirmative procedure has been replaced by an enhanced affirmative process whereby representations can be made to the Minister, and the Minister may re-lay an amended order if necessary. All bodies mentioned in the schedules are now subject to a five-year sunset clause, which means that authority to amend them is confined to the current Parliament and future Governments must either renew the legislation or pass their own. Notwithstanding the inevitable criticisms, this is not the same Bill that the House of Lords Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee said
“would grant to Ministers unacceptable discretion to rewrite the statute book, with inadequate parliamentary scrutiny of, and control over, the process.”
Does my hon. Friend recall the Welsh proverb “Mae allwedd arian yn agor pob clo”, which can be translated as “The key of money opens every lock”? It is both a suitable motto for the Murdoch empire and a warning that the money going to the BBC might be used to take over S4C.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that quotation. I concur with the sentiment behind it, and I will say something about S4C in a moment. I also associate myself with the spirited defence of the channel presented by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones).
The Bill still gives rise to concern on a number of grounds. We might expect that from a Bill that abolishes and reforms a significant number of public bodies, all of which will have their defenders—I shall defend two Welsh organisations later in my speech—but it is worth reflecting on the Government’s reasons for proceeding with it. Under Governments of all parties there has been a huge increase in the number of public bodies in the past 30 or 40 years, and the present Government face the need to reduce the deficit. I was relieved to hear the word “accountability” from my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office as frequently as I did.
I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. He talks of accountability. The bereavement and support charity INQUEST says that the Government’s proposals to
“dismantle the office of the Chief Coroner”
“add yet another layer…to the…fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership is absent.”
The charity believes that accountability will be reduced if responsibility is given to the Ministry of Justice.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was present when my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) mentioned the office of the chief coroner. I refer him to my right hon. Friend’s remarks.
I think we should remind ourselves of the consensus that exists. It is clear that setting about getting rid of a number of public bodies created by primary legislation raises significant challenges, and that the only way of making that achievable was to create a streamlined model. However, it is undoubtedly true that the Bill as originally presented was over-zealous. It was entirely unacceptable that the remaining bodies listed in schedule 7 could be added to other schedules by order. That is now rightly not the case, and the Bill is more suitable for the purpose for which it was intended.
I welcome the addition of clause 10, which creates a need to consult the person or office holder to which the proposal relates as well as persons
“representative of interests substantially affected by the proposal”.
That, I believe, needs to be reinforced.
In my constituency in the west of Wales, 60% of residents speak Welsh as a first language. S4C and plurality in Welsh language broadcasting is vital, and concerns remain about the model currently proposed and the impact that it would have on, in particular, S4C's governance and independence. I do not start from a “no change” position. At a time when other broadcasting bodies face significant cuts, S4C cannot—and, for that matter, does not—expect to be treated differently from other broadcasters. It has shown a willingness to discuss a new model with the DCMS and the BBC, but fundamental differences remain between the BBC and S4C.
The two basic concerns relate to long-term funding and guarantees of funding after 2015, which has been partly addressed—I will qualify that later—by yesterday's written statement, and to S4C’s remaining independent. Yesterday's written statement confirmed that an amendment would be introduced that would put in statute the level of funding for S4C that is required for it to meet its statutory remit as a Welsh language broadcaster. I await the text of the amendment, because it must pave the way for a formula set by the Government and not the BBC, providing parity with other broadcasting organisations.
It is also vital for S4C to remain financially and operationally independent, and not to be run by the BBC. The DCMS has made clear that it expects S4C to be independent, and has given a number of undertakings to guarantee that. It would be helpful if the Department also made abundantly clear that the BBC must not have its personnel in S4C's management team, and that S4C must remain in charge. Discussions are taking place to find a suitable model, but it is hard not to conclude that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has put all its eggs in one basket in an attempt to meet the time frame for this Bill, instead of addressing fundamentally the challenges of supporting S4C in an age when digital services have led to an increasingly fragmented market and at a time of reduced public expenditure. This looks rushed, and it would surely be better to carry out a full review of how S4C should be constituted, with the aim of finding a long-term solution, whether that be a model of full funding from Westminster, a partnership model along the lines proposed currently, albeit with a stronger guarantee of independence, or even a channel funded by the Welsh Government in the event of broadcasting being devolved.
All four party leaders in Wales wrote to the Culture Secretary in support of such a review. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs report on S4C stated that this haste was “regrettable”, and the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport said that it found it
“extraordinary that the Government and the BBC, which is fiercely protective of its own independence, should find it acceptable to agree a change in the funding and governance arrangements for another statutorily independent broadcaster, S4C, without the latter having any involvement, say or even knowledge of the deal until it has been done.”
It strikes me that this is the respect agenda in reverse.
It is of great concern that very little consideration seems to have been given to an holistic way forward. On a matter as important as Welsh language broadcasting, that is obviously not good enough, and I would welcome it if the Minister provided an assessment of the current situation regarding negotiations over the future of S4C, and say whether the Government would consider removing the provisions relating to S4C until all the possible alternatives have been pursued. In the other place, a great deal of concern was expressed about Channel 4’s inclusion in the Public Bodies Bill and the uncertainty that created. Channel 4 has now been removed from it, and I believe S4C should also be removed.
Members on the Government Benches have spoken about Citizens Advice and the new functions it would assume from Consumer Focus. Again, in Wales this issue is particularly pressing because the current structure of Citizens Advice does not lend itself to Welsh governance. There is a separate structure in Scotland, which allows for Scottish matters to be looked at differently, but that is not the case in Wales, where policy work is led from London. Consumer Focus Wales wants an amendment led by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to give Assembly Ministers the power to determine the structure they want—a power not to acquire new powers, but to determine a Welsh structure.
I have focused on the concerns that still exist, but I do not want that to detract from what is a necessary measure. The Bill represents a step forward, but there are considerable—
I shall confine my remarks to the proposed emasculation of the office of the chief coroner. In the three years during which I had the honour to serve as both Minister of State for the Armed Forces and then Secretary of State for Defence, a high priority for me and the entire ministerial team was to improve the service we gave to the bereaved of our fallen. We did so not to waste public money, but because it was absolutely necessary and absolutely deserved.
Our proposals were supported by Members on both sides of the House. We created the Defence Inquests Unit to examine, chase and dig out problems within the Ministry of Defence and the individual armed forces themselves, and to make certain that failings were reported to Ministers so that progress could be made. In partnership with the Royal British Legion, we created the defence advisory service, which has just completed its first year of operation and is highly respected by those who, sadly, have to use its services.
During the years I served as a Defence Minister, I read many transcripts and followed many inquests, and I have to say to the Government and the entire House that there are wide variations in both the manner and quality of coronial inquests. From time to time—too often, I am afraid—they let down our armed forces and the bereaved. I would single out for particular praise Mr Masters, the Trowbridge coroner, who was unsurpassable in his dedication and ability. He certainly exposed failings within the MOD with regard to the XV179 Hercules crash, when we lost 10 personnel. We also lost 14 in the XV230 Nimrod crash, and we had to employ the services of Mr Haddon-Cave to get to the bottom of the problems. That was not a waste of money; it was an absolute necessity that that inquiry was carried out.
My right hon. Friend and I had dealings with some of the families of those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. Does he agree that what they want are inquiries that are not only thorough but conducted in a timely fashion, and that they also want the role of the chief coroner to be independent of the Ministry of Justice, not part of it?
Independence is absolutely essential, and if inquests are not carried out in a timely fashion, but instead unnecessary delay is caused, that leads to huge distress. Most important, however, is the quality of the investigation, because when people have lost their loved ones they want to know that lessons are being learned and others will not unnecessarily be subject to the same error that caused their loved one to lose their life.
From my experiences in this area, this is what I would say, with the greatest of respect, to the Government: Ministers cannot advise or train or lead an independent coronial service. It is preposterous for the Government to suggest that the functions of the office of the chief coroner should be rolled into some ministerial committee. They will not con the Royal British Legion in that regard.
In the course of my responsibilities, I met many bereaved families, who went through their bereavement with great dignity and very ably dealt with the problems they faced. None were more impressive than Mr and Mrs Dicketts—Priscilla and Robert. Robert Dicketts spoke in this House a few months ago, and he recognised the improvements that had been made, but he also said:
“However, until there is a Chief Coroner, through whom good practice can be driven through the coronial system, it is likely bereaved Armed Forces families will have to go through a system which is often inconsistent and desperately in need of modernisation.”
Sooner or later, Ministers will listen to the voice of the Royal British Legion and of people such as Robert Dicketts, and they will drop their proposal.
As ever, my right hon. Friend is making a passionate and thoughtful speech. Would he like to comment on what Chris Simpkins, director general of the Royal British Legion, has written in today’s Daily Telegraph in response to comments from the Ministry of Justice about the chief coroner not being justified financially in the current climate? He said:
“This feeble cost argument should fool no one.”
I do not believe the cost argument would bear any scrutiny in any case, because I believe the creation of the office of the chief coroner will save money, not cost money, and that it will save heartache as well as money.
I have to say to Ministers that all their attempts in recent times to muddy the water in this regard and pretend that they have effectively dealt with the objections they have rightly received from those who seek to represent our armed forces and the bereaved will be of no avail and they will sooner or later surrender to the inevitable. They will do it this side of Remembrance day, and for their own sake they will do it sooner rather than later.
I say to the Government: remove this provision from the Bill; accept the setting up of the highly necessary office of the chief coroner; and honour the military covenant. That is what is required from this Government. It is also what both coalition parties agreed. The Deputy Leader of the House is sitting on the Government Front Bench, and he was suggesting earlier that this was not necessary and that the arguments in favour of the establishment of an office of chief coroner were spurious. That is not what he was saying in opposition and it is not what his party was saying in opposition. It is a disgrace that he has crossed the Floor of the House and changed his tone in the manner in which he has. Their own Back Benchers will force both parties to do this sooner or later, and the House of Lords will force them if that does not happen, but I say to them that they must remove this provision from the Bill and allow the establishment of the chief coroner. They will not get away with this.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this important Second Reading debate. The Bill gives the Government of the day the power to set alight a bonfire of the quangos. Over recent decades, I have been involved in a few of these bonfires. I particularly recall one such bonfire in the early 1990s, when I was very much part of “quangoland” and I painfully ended up on top of one of the bonfires. I was heavily singed, but no real harm was done.
Another bonfire of the quangos that I was involved with was carried out by the Welsh Assembly Government a few years ago, when I was a Member of the National Assembly for Wales, and I wish to comment on how that was conducted in order to draw a comparison with the democratic and consultative excellence of the processes being followed here at Westminster. That bonfire represented a major change in the governance of Wales, as it included the abolition of the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board, among other bodies. No discussion took place on this; the First Minister simply addressed the Chamber on the last day before the summer recess and announced abolition, without warning, debate or discussion. The debate about the consequences of that bonfire is not for today, except to say that it highlights the way in which our democratic system works in the UK Parliament.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office put forward his proposals last October. They have since been significantly amended in the upper House by their lordships and they have been further amended by a written statement tabled only yesterday about S4C, prior to their being debated at great length by us in the Chamber today. I suggest that the Bill is far better for its amendment and it demonstrates just how effectively our second revising Chamber functions in its unamended form. I wish to say in passing how much I greatly enjoyed reading and learning from the powerful speeches made by Lord Wigley, Lord Roberts of Conwy and Lord Elystan-Morgan in the other place.
Non-departmental public bodies play an important role in our democratic system and the Bill does not challenge that principle. Its main purpose is to increase accountability and transparency, and to limit the role of public bodies to that which is needed for good governance. My right hon. Friend the Minister considered more than 900 of these public bodies currently in existence and applied the appropriate test of value to them before deciding on their future. It is important to recognise and to say that many of these public bodies are hugely valuable to society, bringing private sector and voluntary sector expertise into the process of government and often facilitating much of what might be referred to as “the big society”. The Bill is about identifying which public bodies bring value to the governance of the UK and which do not.
I particularly wish to refer, as many others have before, to Sianel Pedwar Cymru—S4C—which is one of the bodies mentioned in the Bill. S4C is a unique body that is of great importance to Wales. It is not just a TV channel; it is the cultural backbone of Wales and its success is inextricably linked to the recent success of the Welsh language. The long-term decline of the Welsh language has been halted over recent years, but without S4C that decline would resume. The Welsh language is fundamental to what makes Wales the proud and distinctive nation that it is.
I enjoyed what Lord Elystan-Morgan said about Welsh in the other place so much that I wish to quote from his speech. He said:
“A living language with a living literature is a jewel in the treasury of human culture, and the Welsh language no more and no less than any other living language is such a jewel. It is 1,500 years old and was in existence at least 500 years before the French language came into being. The French language came into being only at the end of the first millennium; up till then it was a patois of Latin. That shows something of the pedigree of the language that we are talking about.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 March 2011; Vol. 725, c. 1628.]
S4C is crucial to the language’s cultural preservation.
I am pleased that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport has recognised the concern expressed in the debate in the upper House, throughout Wales and in the Chamber today, and has removed S4C from schedule 4 to the Bill. That is a very welcome move but, as we realise from today’s debate, there will be much discussion about the future of S4C and that has yet to be settled. We seek to ensure its operational and editorial independence in the long term, along with its long-term financial security. I look forward to taking an active part in the consultation that there will be on the governance arrangements for S4C over the next few months.
This Bill is hugely important, as it will ensure a greater level of accountability and transparency within our democratic system, and I look forward to seeing it passed into law.
I wish to confine my remarks to the issue of the office of chief coroner. Successive reviews and inquiries over many years have highlighted the need for a chief coroner to oversee standards and handle appeals to deal with unsatisfactory decisions. There are currently no performance management procedures and no appraisals of the performance of individual coroners. There is no culture of mandatory continuing professional development, as there is in the medical, legal or accountancy professions; some coroners may choose simply not to undergo further training and development, and no one is there to pull them up about it. There seems to have been, certainly over the past couple of years, almost universal consensus that having the post of chief coroner would bring about real progress in raising standards, and would provide leadership, direction and a degree of accountability. It is disappointing that we do not have that consensus now.
The truth of the matter is that in my part of the world, the Teesside area, we need the coroner to improve and we need a much better service for families. For the best part of a decade, performance measures for the Teesside coroner have been significantly below the average for England and Wales. Eight years ago, the Teesside coroner, Mr Michael Sheffield, had a backlog of about 200 cases, and bereaved families had a wait of about 35 weeks—double the national average at the time—for an inquest to be completed. The then Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, responded to calls from local MPs of the time, such as Dari Taylor, the late and great Ashok Kumar, and Vera Baird, as well as from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough (Sir Stuart Bell), by launching an inquiry. Mr Sheffield claimed at the time that he welcomed an inquiry, stating, somewhat bizarrely:
“I hope that the terms of the inquiry will enable the cause of the backlog of inquests to be inquired into.”
That raises the question: if the coroner himself did not know the reasons for the delays, why did he not know and how could others hold him accountable for that?
In the aftermath of the inquiry, performance measures for the Teesside coroner improved, but over the past few years they have grown steadily worse again. Last year, the average time taken in England and Wales to complete inquests was 27 weeks—just over six months—whereas the equivalent figure for the Teesside coroner’s district was 43 weeks. The coroner’s office took more than 12 months to complete inquests into 76 deaths—a quarter of all the deaths it investigated in 2010—and three quarters of all cases it investigated took more than six months to conclude.
By contrast, the coroner for my Hartlepool constituency —Hartlepool and Teesside have traditionally had separate judicial administrative arrangements, and long may that continue—was able to conclude inquests in a significantly better time scale than the national average. The average time that the Hartlepool coroner took to investigate deaths in 2010 was only 20 weeks, and no investigation took more than 12 months to conclude. The Hartlepool coroner has consistently over-performed in terms of the time taken to conclude inquests. Why is there such a difference? Why is the difference in performance so striking? Why does Hartlepool do so well compared with the national average, whereas the Teesside district lags so far behind?
No, I think it will make them much worse. That sense of accountability, which we do not have at the moment, would arguably be lost for ever.
Is the contrast I just mentioned a question of resources, particularly at a time of local authority cuts? Is it a question of competency? Is it a question of needing additional training? We do not know, because the whole process is opaque and shrouded in mystery. In the modern age, that is not good enough. Why can families in Teesside who have suffered through the death of a loved one not have some help and support and see the efficient and swift conclusion of the inquest? That is the very least that they deserve.
Does my hon. Friend agree that because we will not have a chief coroner who can improve standards, we will get more appeals? The only way to go forward at the moment is a judicial review, so will the cost of dealing with such cases not increase rather than decrease?
I absolutely agree. It will not be value for money for the public purse. There will be additional costs, and one of the virtues of a chief coroner’s office would be to help provide an overview of work allocation. I think the establishment of a chief coroner could provide a more rational and therefore more efficient allocation of work, perhaps through the creation of specialist coroners who could provide specific expertise. We could save money and provide a better service for bereaved families.
It is impossible, or difficult at the very least, for Members of this House to hold coroners to account for their performance. I recently asked a parliamentary question to the Lord Chancellor about the grounds on which an individual holding the post of coroner can be removed from that office, only to be told by the Minister that the only ground for removal was personal misconduct or behaviour, but the Minister could not provide a definitive list of possible offences. The Lord Chancellor can remove a coroner only with the agreement of the Lord Chief Justice. There is simply no transparency in the matter and no criteria by which the House or the public can hold a local coroner to account and determine whether he or she is providing an unsatisfactory service and should be removed. In this day and age—particularly when, as we have heard from the Royal British Legion, servicemen and women are falling for our country—bereaved families in Teesside and elsewhere deserve better. They deserve greater clarity and transparency.
I have written to the Lord Chancellor about the matter of poor time scales in the Teesside district and I am awaiting a response, but let me reiterate in conclusion that families in Teesside deserve to see inquests into the deaths of loved ones concluded with sympathy, professionalism and swiftness. They are not getting that at the moment and are not being provided with an adequate explanation on why and how matters will be improved. The Bill does not help; in fact, it makes things worse.
I am most grateful for the opportunity to speak at this stage in the debate.
The Bill is significant by any standards and represents the Government’s plans to implement their reform of public bodies as a result of the review they carried out in the second half of last year. The Select Committee on Public Administration, which I chair, inquired into the review at the time and published a report last January. Somewhat to my surprise, the report was more controversial than I had anticipated, but I emphasise that it was unanimously agreed by all members of the Committee of all political parties.
We expressed concerns at the time about the way the review was conducted, and we have heard some of them in the Chamber this afternoon. We found that the tests determining whether a public body should be retained or reformed were poorly designed and not applied consistently, and that Ministers had failed to consult adequately about them. The Government have suggested that they intend to hold triennial reviews of non-departmental public bodies and I urge them to reconsider the tests to see how they can be reviewed.
The tests in the Bill are different from the tests applied in the review. I invite the Minister to explain why that is so. As the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General pointed out earlier, there are effectively four tests in the review: the first is existential; the second is whether the body concerned carries out a highly technical activity; the third is whether it is required to be impartial; and the fourth is whether it needs to act independently to establish facts. That is a good stab at the tests required, but funnily enough those are not the tests in the Bill. Clause 8, entitled “Purpose and conditions”, gives four tests: “efficiency”; “effectiveness”, which is a very broad term and is not defined; “economy”, which we presume means value for money; and
“securing appropriate accountability to Ministers”.
Again, I do not know what “appropriate accountability” is, and these are very subjective tests to have in legislation.
Clause 8(2) suggests that any reform of a non-departmental public body should
“not remove any necessary protection”,
whatever that means, and should not
“prevent any person from continuing to exercise any right or freedom”,
which is quite specific and probably an important protection. In our report, we suggested in paragraph 23:
“There should be a single set of tests that covers: whether a function needs to be performed”—
the existential test—
“whether it is appropriate for it to be performed independently by a public body”,
which is surely the impartiality test,
“and how it can be delivered most cost-effectively (value for money).”
I hope that that recommendation might be better reflected in the Bill. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), could address that later.
The Committee also considered the Government’s claim that abolishing bodies and transferring their functions back to Departments would improve accountability, and I submit that the Government are applying a rather narrow test of what constitutes accountability. Of course, Ministers want to retain influence over decisions for which they are ultimately accountable, but our conclusion was that to focus exclusively on that traditional form of ministerial accountability ignores other ways in which bodies are held to account. In particular, we are all aware of how stakeholder groups and civil society play an important role in providing challenge and criticism to public bodies from day to day so long as they have a clearly identifiable focus for that challenge. I do not wish to denigrate civil servants in any way, but a civil servant in a Department is a far more anonymous entity than a named public body. The Committee proposed that converting public bodies into executive agencies could ensure that Ministers remained responsible for clearly identifiable bodies within their departmental responsibilities without losing that public focus.
We also considered a number of other topics that we felt were important to make the reforms a success, including how Departments sponsor their public bodies and how the transition should be managed. The Government’s response was somewhat critical of parts of our analysis, particularly the comments on cost savings, and I was glad to hear ministerial clarification earlier this year of how cost savings will be made. To the Government’s credit, they accepted a number of our recommendations, including the conversion of some public bodies into executive agencies.
This is a controversial Bill, because we do not have an Armed Forces Minister or a Justice Minister at the Dispatch Box to answer all these problems. It is that shortcoming in the Bill that led the other place to make substantial amendments to it. It is much improved and much more acceptable and I shall certainly support it, but we could make improvements to ensure that these controversial changes to bodies that were, after all, brought into being through primary legislation are not simply ticked off by Ministers with a stroke of the pen.
I have particular concerns about two bodies that were taken out of the Bill by the House of Lords but that the Government intend, as the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General has suggested this afternoon, to put back into the Bill in Committee. I remain hopeful that Ministers are still listening and are prepared to change their minds.
The Youth Justice Board has brought leadership and coherence to a system that was deeply fragmented. The creation of youth offending teams has been very impressive, as has the reduction in the number of young people going into custody: a 30% reduction over the lifetime of the board. I would expect the Government to be interested in that if for no other reason than because it represents a saving, in relation to the places that have now been decommissioned, of £38 million a year. If the Youth Justice Board is abolished, that might lead to a saving of a few hundred thousand pounds, but if the Government lose their grip on the youth offending system, and particularly of youth custody, because the board is not in place to grip it, that could produce incredibly high costs in future.
I am also deeply worried about the Government’s intention to dilute the office of the chief coroner. I hope that the House will forgive me for setting out the history so that Members and Ministers can appreciate the depth of betrayal that many individuals, families and organisations are feeling. In 2003, I was given ministerial responsibility for death certification and coroners’ services. One of the first things I did in that role was to receive the report of the independent review of coroner services led by Tom Luce. He found that the system was outdated, inconsistent and unsympathetic to families, and he proposed fundamental reform. A little time later, the then Home Secretary and I received the third report of the Shipman inquiry, which was the product of painstaking work by Dame Janet Smith into the failure of the death certification system to identify and stop the murderous activities of Harold Shipman. Dame Janet concluded that coroners and the coroner service must be independent of Government and that it was simply unacceptable for the coroner service to be administered from within a Government Department. That conclusion is hugely relevant given what the Government now propose.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that quite frequently the Government may be judged as culpable in contributing to a death and that it is therefore bizarre that a member of the Cabinet—the Lord Chancellor—should have some responsibility for the coronial service?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. In December, when this matter was debated in the other place, Lord Lester made the important point that unless there is a properly independent system of investigation of deaths, the Government cannot be confident about satisfying their article 2 obligations on the investigation of deaths. That is particularly relevant in relation to deaths in prison and police custody.
In March 2004, I set out proposals for reform in which the bereaved and their families were to be placed at the heart of the system. Ministers should be reminded of the importance of putting those people at the heart of the system. Under the proposals, a chief coroner was to be appointed with complete judicial independence to lead a streamlined and modernised service, to ensure training and high standards and to carry responsibility for undertaking appeals and presiding over more complex inquests. Eventually, the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 enacted those proposals. I pay tribute to Bridget Prentice—a good friend and very able Minister—who with characteristic energy and determination turned the countless words of the public inquiries, reviews and consultations into legislation, which was passed with the support of all parties in the House, including those that now turn their backs on it.
The need for a chief coroner is even greater now, with inquests becoming ever more complex and high profile. Only recently, we have had the Tomlinson and 7/7 inquests—cases in point. Another change since 2003, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) referred to in his very powerful speech, has been the experience of bereaved families of the servicemen and women killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their experience screams out for a system that is sympathetic, that understands the circumstances they face and that has their confidence.
The Government’s arguments about costs do not hold water and cannot be justified. Ministers should not simply accept the figures in the impact assessment but should challenge them. There is not one Member of this House who does not believe that the set-up and running costs of the office of the chief coroner could not be reduced. It is the business of Ministers to get those costs down, not to hide behind what was in the impact assessment. Of course, they are not counting the costs of failing to implement the reforms that were agreed in the last Parliament, such as the £500,000 or more that is spent every year on judicial reviews—not to mention the costs that will be incurred by transferring some of the functions of the office of the chief coroner to the Lord Chief Justice. Those matters will still need to be overseen by judges, and judges do not come for nothing—they cost money. Those costs still are not being counted.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It really is a shabby case. The Government are relying on old figures, which have not been challenged, and bringing forward proposals that have absolutely no work behind them whatever. My hon. Friend makes an important and powerful point.
In failing to follow through on these reforms, the Government are not considering the human and health costs that will be incurred by our not learning the lessons of unfortunate and tragic deaths—information that could help to prevent deaths in future. Ministers have no proposals to monitor timeliness or to introduce an appeals system. Other hon. Members have made the point about the importance of that issue.
What the Government are doing to the office of the chief coroner is a betrayal. If they proceed with this reform they will be turning their back on six or seven years’ worth of patient consultation and policy development, which led to legislation that was agreed by all parties in the House. They will be turning their back on Tom Luce, Dame Janet Smith, the families of the victims of Harold Shipman and the bereaved families of the service personnel who have lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan. They will be turning their back on many vulnerable people who have had to pick their way through our outdated coronial system. But the Government still have a chance: they have the rest of this evening and Committee proceedings finally to do the right thing and drop these proposals.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. Although, as been said, the Bill is a piece of enabling legislation, it goes to the heart of the Government and their objectives. It will enable Ministers to make the necessary changes to reform public services and bring organisations to democratic accountability, and it paves the way to bring significant savings.
It is ironic that the Bill is being opposed by the Labour party. In his memoirs, Tony Blair made several references to having regretted the delays in reforming public services during the early years of his government. There are several quotes that I could mention, but it is worth highlighting his thoughts about his previous comments that it was not complex institutional structures but outcomes that mattered. He said:
“Unfortunately, as I began to realise when experience started to shape our thinking, it was bunkum….How a service is configured affects outcomes.”
It is also worth noting that much of his frustration related to the time and delay involved in making reforms. This Bill would have met Mr Blair’s calls in hindsight.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman if he wishes.
It is unlikely that Mr Blair and I would agree on the nature of reforms, but this legislation paves the way for Ministers to make necessary changes with appropriate scrutiny—without the delay that Mr Blair talked about—by giving them the mechanisms to do so. I am sure that hon. Members will have a soft spot for one or two of the bodies listed in the schedules, despite wanting to see the reform of such public bodies. We might even be drawn into trying to defend those institutions. Such an approach would be fair if schedule 7 of the original Bill remained and if the amendments made in the other place had not been accepted by Ministers. To give the Government credit, they have sought to listen to concerns and have accepted the threat that schedule 7 posed to lack of scrutiny. However, there must always be a balance between the Government having their way and the opportunity for appropriate scrutiny. The original schedule 7 did not necessarily achieve the equilibrium that we are looking for; I am pleased that it has been removed.
It is hard to believe that the quango state had grown to 901 bodies under the previous Administration. In their desire to manage controversies, a new agency would often be established to show that something was being done. Some might even argue that the agencies were useful bodies to which to retire former colleagues. The case for winding up or reorganising their numbers and purposes is overwhelming.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but the worst culprit for packing quangos was the previous Conservative Government. If he cares to do his homework, he will find that one quango we invented, with which I have had a few run-ins, is the independent Appointments Commission. It took out of politicians’ hands altogether the appointment of people to quango boards.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but it was the previous Conservative Government who cleaned up the appointments process to ensure that there was transparency in selection. I point to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority as one of the worst examples of a Government merely reacting to public concerns without thinking through the consequences in a proper, deliberate way; it has given rise to many complaints from this House, and there is also the issue of the additional costs of that agency.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, and I accept the point about all-party support, but the point is the knee-jerk reaction of the Prime Minister of the day, who took the decision without providing for appropriate scrutiny. The proposal was rushed through the House without the then Opposition having an opportunity to make their case. I need to make progress, because of the time. I want to come on to some of the points made earlier.
A word of caution: merely merging individual bodies with a Government Department is not necessarily the right thing to do. There must be reform and enhancement. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General for talking about the need for reform when he opened the debate. I speak from experience of the so-called bonfire of the quangos in Wales some years ago. For purely political reasons, the Welsh Assembly Government abolished the Welsh Development Agency and the Wales Tourist Board, among many other organisations. That was welcomed by Labour, Plaid Cymru and Liberal Democrat politicians at the time. The claim was that there would be better democratic accountability, but the reality was very different. Simply merging the organisations without reform meant that agency staff became civil servants, and the expertise gained over many years was stifled by the bureaucracy of the civil service. Those events started almost seven years ago to this day, and those very people who were the strongest cheerleaders for the winding up of those bodies are now calling for their re-establishment.
I am certainly not opposed to the lists in the schedules, or to the need for Ministers to reform and reorganise. I strongly agree with the objectives of the legislation, but caution against winding up for winding up’s sake. I would also underline the need to make reform part of the process. There must be a wider reforming agenda to improve services.
In the final couple of minutes available to me, I want to talk about S4C. The hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) made a pretty disingenuous contribution. To talk about a 96% cut to funding certainly is not accurate. S4C will receive a 6% funding cut per annum over the next four years. That is very different from the sort of figures that she talked about. Furthermore, all the demands made by supporters of S4C have been met by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. I shall go through the primary ones in turn. The first was about the importance of long-term funding. I was delighted that in the written ministerial statement published on Monday, the Government said:
“The Government are committed to ensuring that S4C will be funded at a level sufficient to ensure that it can fulfil its statutory remit and we intend to put this expectation on the statute book so that it is a legal requirement.”—[Official Report, 11 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 2-3 WS.]
Certainly, that issue has been resolved.
Secondly, the need for independence, both operational and editorial, has been accepted by the Secretary of State for Wales. Thirdly, on the issue of the arrangements with the BBC, of course the provisions have to be in the Bill to secure the very independence that we have been talking about, and the long-term funding arrangements for which everyone has called. Those who are critical on the subject of S4C, and the strongest champions of the channel, are not equally critical when it comes to Radio Cymru, for which the BBC is also responsible, so there is significant inconsistency in the argument that is made.
Finally, it is ironic that the retail prices index link was part of the fault. Many S4C Authority members have shown arrogance over the past year; they felt that they had the right to do things irrespective of the attitude of viewers, whose numbers have been falling for the past five years or more. It is time to act, and I am delighted that the Government are doing so.
I want to concentrate on the very worrying impact that the Bill will have on S4C, an institution of paramount importance to my country. I regret to say that I have a slightly different opinion from the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns). There is no doubt that the UK Government have dealt with the issue in a haphazard manner. They clearly failed to understand the importance of S4C to Wales. Twenty-four bodies from Welsh civil society have written to the UK Government, asking them to change their plans; thousands of people have protested on the streets; and hon. Members from Wales have had countless pieces of correspondence from concerned constituents.
The position of my party is that S4C should not be included in the Bill at all, and that the arrangements should be dealt with in a future broadcasting Bill, following an independent review. That was the position of all four political parties in the National Assembly for Wales, including the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Even at this late stage, that would be our preferred outcome. However, we are where we are, and I will endeavour to attempt to improve the Bill before us, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Arfon (Hywel Williams) in Committee.
Ministers will be aware that the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs undertook a detailed investigation into S4C. It is right and proper that I pay tribute to the Chair of the Committee, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who managed to produce a report on which there is substantial consensus across all four parties on the Committee. We await the Department’s reply, but I would like to concentrate on the issues that are of critical importance. S4C will face substantial cuts to its budget over the spending review period. If my sums are correct, the Department has managed to reduce its liability by more than 90%.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, but does he not accept that the outcome leaves S4C in a pretty strong position, financially? It will receive a 6% cut over each of the next four years, which is a much lesser cut than those to most spending Departments across Government. Furthermore, independent television producers have welcomed the outcome, saying that the cuts are certainly achievable, within the sums in question.
I am grateful for that intervention, and the hon. Gentleman leads me on to my next point, which is about one of the key recommendations of the Welsh Affairs Committee report. I would like the Government, as part of the Bill—and the future funding formula for S4C, which was announced yesterday—to state clearly that cuts will be comparable to those for other public service broadcasters. That would appease many in Wales.
The Select Committee report also called on the UK Government to safeguard the funding for the channel beyond 2014-15. We argued that without long-term certainty of funding, the channel would not be able to plan its future commissioning strategy. We called for a long-term funding formula enacted in primary legislation. I therefore welcome the written statement yesterday as a positive step forward. The devil will be in the detail, but my colleagues and I look forward to working constructively to build on yesterday’s announcement, which in our view would have to be based on some sort of calculation inflation.
As a party we have major concerns that S4C will mostly be dependent on funding via the licence fee. Our preference would be for a direct funding stream. If the Department is intent on funding S4C via the BBC, the licence fee should be top-sliced. As my right hon. friend Lord Wigley said during the passage of the Bill in the other place:
“He who pays the piper calls the tune.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 28 March 2011; Vol. 726, c. 1005.]
If S4C does not have total control over its own budget, its financial independence will be shot to pieces.
Ministers might be aware that the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union, the National Union of Journalists, the Writers Guild of Great Britain, Equity, the Musicians Union, and Cymdeithas yr laith Gymraeg have all jointly called for the resources available to S4C to be increased by raising a levy on private broadcasters, drawing on best practice in other countries.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the need for funding to be raised from other broadcasters. Does he accept that the Select Committee report indicated that the Welsh Assembly could play a part? The Welsh Assembly claims that it wants the channel to be accountable to it, yet it is not willing to put any money into the pot.
I am grateful for that intervention and I look forward to the day when broadcasting is devolved to the Welsh Government. In light of events of recent weeks, I expected support from across the House for the innovative idea of a levy on private broadcasters to support public service broadcasting in the UK. I hope Ministers are actively pursuing the idea.
That brings me to operational independence. The Committee called for assurances that operationally there would be no role for the BBC in the day-to-day management of S4C. I for one cannot see how anyone can claim that S4C is an independent broadcaster if it has personnel from another channel running its day-to-day affairs. I hope the Department will make a clear statement on the issue as the Bill progresses.
The ability of a public service broadcaster to hold Government to account is essential if it is to retain the confidence of its audience. Therefore we view the inclusion of S4C in schedule 3 as particularly worrying. The schedule enables the Department to make significant changes to the management and organisation of S4C without recourse to primary legislation.
I shall deal briefly with other consequences of the Bill for Wales. Much of the rest of the Bill refers to powers over environmental bodies being devolved to Wales. These bodies are listed in clause 13 as being the Welsh devolved functions of the Countryside Council for Wales, the Environment Agency, the Forestry Commissioners and Welsh flood and coastal committees. I seek clarification of clause 18 and the requirement of consent from UK Ministers. How is this to be operated, and in what situations do Ministers expect this to take place? I am also confused by the reference to the Secretary of State in clause 20(11). Does this mean that any order made by Welsh Ministers will be subject to a veto by the Houses of Parliament? That would clearly go against the result of the referendum in March. We will test these clauses in greater detail in Committee.
Finally, on consumer advocacy in Wales, the Bill proposes that Consumer Focus be abolished and its functions transferred to Citizens Advice in Wales and England. There is broad support for distinct consumer advocacy for Wales. There seems to be strong support among key stakeholders for advice and advocacy in Wales being brought under one body. I am glad that the UK Government have stated that they are open to making different provisions for Wales and Scotland following discussions with the devolved Administrations. I understand that current consumer bodies such as the CAB movement in Wales are adapting their governance structures in light of anticipated changes, and I urge the Department to work closely with Welsh Government Ministers and stakeholders to develop a solution that is client focused and best able to respond to the needs of the Welsh people.
It is more than 50 years since the term “quango” was first coined in the United States, during which time a rising number of such bodies have emerged from Government. As some of them have served their purpose, they lie in the governmental universe like abandoned satellites and pieces of space debris that no one can quite manage to get rid of.
Will my hon. Friend join me in saying that Governments of left and right over the past few years have called for an end to the quango state? One hopes, therefore, that Members in all parts of the House will give their utmost support to the Bill, which will allow us to get rid of some of the space debris that is no longer required.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), who said that such bodies are often set up because Government believe that something ought to be done and to give some plausible deniability to difficult and controversial decisions that the Government do not want to own. It is only right that we should make it easier to get rid of bodies that no longer serve their purpose and that lie in a twilight zone, subject neither to proper democratic accountability nor to the rigours of the market, with consumers having no choice on whether to use them.
Quango chiefs are often paid more than senior civil servants. The chief executive of Partnerships for Schools is paid £215,000 a year for the botched job that was Building Schools for the Future, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council is paid £230,000 a year for administering university places, and the chief executive of the London Probation Trust is paid £240,000 a year. There are other bodies that rely heavily on Government funds but are not actually quangos, and their chief executives and directors general can command even higher salaries. For example, the director-general of the BBC is paid £615,000, the vice chancellor of Birmingham university is paid £390,000 and Network Rail’s chief executive, whose new salary we do not know, was previously paid £1.25 million, even though that relied mainly on income streams that come from the Government.
The point I am making is that we have a huge universe out there, which this Bill seeks to address. We are seeking to reduce the number of bodies and make them more accountable. My speech is about the importance of accountability, which the Bill lays out.
I believe that organisations and people that take real risks and put their homes and businesses on the line deserve real rewards and to make a profit. That is what motivates people in our economy and helps allocate resources. It is the invisible hand that has served this country well over generations. I think that we need more honest profit in this country, as that is what will get us out of the hole we are in. We will not get out of that hole by spending more money on bodies for which the rewards are many, but the risks are few. My complaint about executives in the twilight zone is that they do not risk their own money and instead have a technocratic role. I think that their maximum pay should be that of a senior civil servant, and the most senior civil servant in the Home Office is paid £200,000. Private companies in competitive markets carry out research, investigate their customer loyalty and try to get people to buy their products. They have a real market and real consumers to respond to.
I am pleased to see the Bill go ahead. We are finally seeing the bonfire of the quangos that the previous Prime Minister and those before him talked about. It is of course difficult to make these things happen, so I am pleased that the Government have persisted. I want to talk about two late and lamented quangos that will disappear, the Legal Services Commission and the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency. The Legal Services Commission presides over one of the most expensive legal aid systems in the world, costing £120 million. It was attacked by the National Audit Office for failing to hold lawyers to account and by lawyers for not understanding what they do.
The QCDA presided over some of the worst-quality exams in this country and an incoherent curriculum. Of its eight board members, only one has been a teacher and none has higher education experience. The rest were professional quangocrats who created such abominations as the A-level in the use of mathematics, which was of a far lower standard than the actual mathematics A-level, and the pick and mix of modular qualifications that has been developed in this country. We should compare the QCDA’s approach with what the Department for Education is now doing on the curriculum review: having public discussions, making the decisions publicly accountable and being open to scrutiny and accountable to Back Benchers during Education questions. That is far preferable to those decisions being taken behind closed doors in a quango. Ministers can be lobbied and the finances of the organisations can be scrutinised, and we do not hear this nonsense about commercial confidentiality.
Too many bodies have been making decisions that do not have due regard for electors or consumers. These organisations have little incentive to save money, and they have high rewards where the job is essentially technocratic. We should have a system where no public money is spent without proper accountability and there are no excessive rewards without taking a risk. This Bill is the right step forward in reducing the size of the twilight zone that has been created in British politics. I hope that the Government use this opportunity to bring even more of the space debris out of the twilight zone and into the sunlight.
I rise to return to an issue that has been raised—the role of the chief coroner. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), I congratulate Bridget Prentice, who steered the legislation through when she was the Minister responsible,. She did a fantastic job and deserves credit for it. The chief coroner’s office was going to be created to improve national standards and to monitor compliance with what is, as we have heard, an archaic and shambolic system. It would also have introduced the role of medical examiners, who would be able to scrutinise medical certificates, and ensured, for the first time, a bespoke appeals system to save people the lengthy expense of going through judicial reviews.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East said, it is important to state how we got to this point—it was not by accident. He referred to the Luce review, which reported on death certificates and improvements in the service. He also mentioned the very important Shipman inquiry chaired by Dame Janet Smith. If we agree to what the Government propose in their amendments to take out what the Lords put into the Bill, we will go against Dame Janet Smith’s recommendation, as stated on page 492 of the report:
“The body which is to provide that leadership and support must be seen to be independent of Government. In my view, it would no longer be satisfactory for the coroner service to be administered from within a Government Department.”
However, that is what is being proposed in place of the chief coroner, and that is not acceptable.
The Government have changed their position. Today I looked at the Hansard report of the debate on the Second Reading of the Coroners and Justice Bill in 2009, when the current Attorney-General said:
“We agree that reform of the coroners’ system is long overdue.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 46.]
The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who was then the Member for Hornchurch, said:
“We all welcome the establishment of the chief coroner”
“the modernisation of the coroner’s powers of…investigation”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 111.]
He said that that was well overdue. In his winding-up speech, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham) said:
“Reform is, therefore, long overdue…I welcome the creation of the posts of chief coroner and deputy chief coroner.”—[Official Report, 26 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 117.]
So what has changed since? The Minister, in opening the debate, said that it was all about money. If it is, then the Government need first to identify the costs of setting up and running the chief coroner’s office. They seem to miss the point regarding taking these functions in house when they say that no cost is involved in that process at all. That is clearly not the case. The figures that have been suggested include about £1 million a year as a contingency—for what, we do not know. The only thing that has changed is the fact that the Government are using this argument about cost. If they are going to make the big mistake of deleting the post of chief coroner, they will have to justify every single penny of costs, and the civil servants in the Ministry of Justice will have to justify every single thing they do in terms of costs.
Clearly, we will not get what Dame Janet wanted, and what the Conservative Government and the Liberal Democrats in the previous Parliament wanted, which is an improvement in the coroner service. That is an opportunity missed. We will still be stuck with the system that we have had for many centuries, which is not only not fit for purpose but outdated and bureaucratic. It also leads to delays in the hearing of coroners’ inquests, which is unacceptable.
The Royal British Legion has stated that it does not support this reform and it argues strongly for the role of chief coroner. It is also important to record that the organisation Cardiac Risk in the Young—I chair an all-party group on the issue—is vociferous in arguing that what is needed to improve the coroners service and the inquest service for the families of young people who die of sudden cardiac arrest is the role of the chief coroner.
We need to improve the system and stop the untimely delays for those who die in action serving this country. It is all right for the Government to say that they support the covenant; that needs to be supported in practice by establishing the role of the chief coroner. I agree totally with my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) that the Government will be forced to back down on this issue. I suggest that they do it sooner rather than later.
In closing, although I do not usually agree with Viscount Slim, he summed up the issue well in the Lords last week in the debate on the Armed Forces Bill, when he said that the deletion of the position of chief coroner is
“mean, short-sighted and rather stupid.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 6 July 2011; Vol. 729, c. 299.]
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this important debate.
Two key objectives for the coalition are to tackle irresponsible Government spending and to deliver reform of the public sector. The Bill will help to achieve both those aims.
It is worth saying at the outset that some public bodies do important work and are a necessary response to the complexity of modern government. However, they have become massively overused. When the Government came to office, there were 901 quangos. In 2009, executive quangos alone—those that take decisions and do not just advise—employed 111,000 people at a cost to the taxpayer of £38 billion. Governments of all political persuasions share the blame for adding to this problem, but the previous Government certainly added to it in abundance. Funding for executive quangos leapt by 59% between 1997 and 2008.
It is right that the Government are cracking down on the inflation of the quango state. They are doing so first and foremost through greater transparency in the exercise of public functions and powers. In the current economic climate, in which value for money is even more imperative than usual, transparency and ministerial accountability are especially vital. Government policy is also welcome because abolishing and merging quangos and cutting their programmes will save £30 billion over the spending review period, as Ministers have reiterated yet again today. Given the difficult spending decisions that have inevitably been made elsewhere, it is essential to streamline Government as much as possible. Nowhere is that more important than in the sphere of quangos.
It makes sense to merge bodies with comparable functions, as set out in clause 2. For example, the proposed merger of the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission is designed to deliver more effective regulation. It will also realise annual cost savings of between £3.5 million and £6.8 million. It is right, as Members across the House have done, to look at and question the practical impact of these changes. On that particular merger, will the Minister say any more in his winding-up speech about the institutional separation of powers between the initial investigation and the final enforcement decision? I have spoken to a number of competition lawyers and experts about that, and it is a key feature of the current competition regime. How will it be retained in the combined competition and markets authority?
Most of the savings will come not from mergers, but from cutting waste. Some quangos have been guilty of the most appalling waste of taxpayers’ resources. The right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell) made a spirited defence of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. However, auditors have refused to sign off its accounts for three years running. Last year, it breached Government pay guidelines and spent more than £1 million without due authorisation. It presided over a botched website launch, which eventually saw almost £1 million written off. Members do not need to take my word for that. The National Audit Office damningly concluded that
“there is little general financial understanding or competence in the organisation, and that many managers have limited experience of the effective management of public money.”
I discovered that for myself last week when I was informed through a parliamentary answer that a single agency worker at the commission was paid an astonishing salary of £200,000 last year. How can that possibly be justified? In the light of that, it is right that the commission is listed in schedule 5 to the Bill, allowing its functions to be modified or transferred by the Government, subject of course to the consultation on its future.
Other quangos that are to be scrapped in the Bill should probably never have been created in the first place, and I make no apology for listing as chief among them the eight regional development agencies, a pet project of the last Government that proved an expensive failure. The RDAs were established in 1999 but did little to stimulate growth. Job creation in the five years before their creation was higher than in the five years that followed despite the continued boom economic conditions. They also failed to reduce regional imbalances, which was one of their main aims, as figures from the Office for National Statistics amply demonstrate.
The RDAs made a range of poor spending decisions. Between 2007 and 2009, for example, 62% of all grants went to predominantly public sector organisations, while the trade unions were awarded more than £3 million. That is not a spending pattern that inspires confidence, nor is it one to drive a private sector-driven economic recovery. The RDAs will not be missed by those trying to drive jobs and growth in the private sector, especially as scrapping them will save three quarters of a billion pounds in administration costs alone between now and 2015. It is high time to shed light on quangos’ activities and cut down on waste.
Looking ahead, I also welcome the commitment made by the Minister for the Cabinet Office in his statement in October to triennial reviews of the purpose of the remaining quangos. They will be an important part of ensuring that the number of quangos does not balloon again in future, but that provision for them does not appear in the Bill. I ask the Minister to explain why it will not be made a statutory requirement. Equally, Ministers have previously talked about a role for the Public Administration Committee in vetting any new quangos. It would be interesting to know what the status of that proposal is.
Ultimately and overall, the Bill is a big step in the right direction towards strengthening transparency and accountability while delivering savings for the taxpayer, and it has my full support.
In that great hymn to England, “Jerusalem”, we celebrate our “green and pleasant land”, and our England is indeed a country characterised by a beautiful coast and countryside, from the craggy cliffs of Cornwall through the heart of England to Hadrian’s wall. Although we celebrate it, that beauty historically concealed an ugly reality of rural poverty, of exploitation of farm workers and of an industry—agriculture—that is the most dangerous in Britain. At its most obscene, there is the modern-day slavery practised by ruthless gangmasters.
Labour is a friend of our countryside. That is why we fought to defend our forests and why we amended the Localism Bill to protect our national heritage. We believe in a fair deal for our countryside. That is why we have supported the work of the Rural Advocate. We believe in fairness in the countryside—fair treatment for the backbone of the rural economy, the farm workers and those who work for gangmasters.
For a hundred years agricultural workers fought against exploitation, then in 1948 we saw the establishment of the Agricultural Wages Board. It has set standards in the industry for 60 years and more on pay, sick pay, overtime, bereavement leave, protection for under-16s, apprenticeships and accommodation, and it has evolved to meet the modern methods of agriculture with a system of six grades. They are settled and sensible arrangements, covering 140,000 workers in the countryside and ensuring both fairness and fair competition. It is an historic institution that not even Mrs Thatcher dared to abolish, but now that vital voice is to be silenced. Inevitably, that will be followed by a race to the bottom in the countryside.
A second vital voice is to be silenced. The Rural Advocate, an independent voice for villages, is being abolished by a Government who preach localism but intend to establish in its place a rural communities policy unit based in Whitehall.
There is a third voice that is to be muzzled. Recent disturbing developments and the powers contained in the Bill threaten the future of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. I co-ordinated the coalition of support that brought the GLA into existence—a remarkable all-party coalition, including, from plough to plate, the National Farmers Union and the supermarkets. All in the coalition were determined to work together so that never again would we see another incident such as that in Morecambe bay, where 22 young Chinese cockle pickers died a terrible death in the freezing sands, ringing home to their distraught families to say farewell.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously trying to suggest that that terrible tragedy results from the current Government’s policies, when they were not the Government at the time? Was it not actually the fault of the previous Government’s lax immigration policy, which this Government are doing everything they possibly can to tighten up?
However a person is in a country, they do not deserve to die a death like those young Chinese did.
The GLA has been an outstanding success. Together with the president of the NFU and on behalf of the industry, I appointed its chairman, Paul Whitehouse, a former chief constable, under whom the GLA has tackled some of the worst abuse in the world of work in the countryside. For example, intelligence-led operations with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs recovered millions in unpaid tax, and the GLA worked with the police to put away a gangmaster armed with a gun. With others, the GLA has combated money laundering and tax avoidance, and it now combats human trafficking. Paul Whitehouse and the GLA worked with the good, tackled the bad and made examples of the worst, driving out of business disgraceful rogues, and raising standards across the industry, supported by the Association of Labour Providers and reputable employers, who welcomed at last not just fairness, but fair competition.
The Government have refused to reappoint Paul Whitehouse. A new chair, with no history in enforcement, has been appointed. She says that she is on a steep learning curve and that she will have to learn all about the sector, and she has downplayed the role of enforcement of the law. I fear for the future.
Finally, the abolitions of the Agricultural Wages Board and the Rural Advocate, and the threat to the GLA, are, taken together, an attack on the countryside. Our green and pleasant land should not be scarred by exploitation. For the powerful to strip the vulnerable of protection is shameful. That is why the Opposition will oppose the Bill and stand up both for our countryside and for fair treatment in our countryside.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) mentioned the tragedy of the Morecambe bay cockle pickers and, in his opinion, the disastrous consequences of losing the GLA and other organisations in rural England. However, I do not understand Opposition Members and members of the previous Government. They have spoken a lot about saving money from quangos. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr Byrne) spoke of £500 million, which the shadow Minister, the right hon. Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), confirmed earlier. On the one hand, Opposition Members accept that we need to cut because money is being lost, yet almost every organisation that is mentioned seems to be a front-line service that it would be a disgrace to remove. I find that a difficult contradiction.
I must tell the House—and in fear of Opposition Members’ mirth—that I have not worked in a quango or experienced them on close terms. However, I do know about organisations. Organisations, be they in the private sector, the public sector or the quasi-public sector, have certain things in common. One is that they all started with perfectly good intentions, but they have a habit of growing like Topsy, until they get to the stage when people think, “Well, how can we possibly do without them?” That happens a lot in the private sector, and it has clearly happened in the public sector. Whether we are talking about new management in a business or a new Government running the country and the public sector, the feeling is the same: when times get difficult, measures have to be taken to reduce the number of organisations. It is well known in management, and there is management speak for it—management cuts, rationalisation and so on. There seems to be consensus on that.
The shadow Minister said that every Government needed to reassess the role of these organisations. In her view, it needed to be done “systematically over time”, but I am not sure whether that means two years, five years, 10 years or longer. The fact is that a new Government have entered office, carried out a comprehensive review and decided to proceed in this way predominantly—as far as I can see—on the grounds of accountability and transparency, with the peripheral object of saving money. I do not understand her logic in saying that it can be done over a lengthy period. These organisations are growing up all the time.
The right hon. Lady seemed to agree that measures have to be taken to rationalise the number of bodies. However, I want to move on to the questions of accountability and transparency, which are the main thrust of the debate. There are arguments about whether organisations are better controlled directly—from within Departments—or indirectly. I have experience in Watford of bodies that have been spun off and that are effectively quangos. For example, the Community Housing Trust, which was part of the local council, is now a third-party organisation and quasi-controlled by the council. In that respect, it is much the same as a Government quango. Management teams grow up, outside consultants are used all over the place and very high salaries—in many cases higher than in the private sector—are paid, but I have not seen the accountability. Having a couple of non-executives on a board does not mean accountability and responsibility in the same way that direct control by the Government or—as in the case of my local authority example—a council does.
The idea, once mooted for quangos, that some organisations work better independently—so that Ministers cannot meddle—was admirable, but I have not seen accountability. In fact, I have seen the contrary. I would like to use regional development agencies as an example because I have experience of them from my business life. It seemed to me that not only were they not accountable to, or directly controlled by, the Government—they had an independent board and claimed some sort of independence—but because their funding was controlled by Governments, they could say to their consumers, who effectively were businesses in the area, “You don’t own us. We’re independent of you and funded by the Government.” For the life of me, I cannot see how running an RDA as a quango is an excellent way of running an organisation when compared with direct involvement from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills or with the local enterprise partnerships. The latter are at least community organisations in business terms. I very much support the Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is making some interesting points. However, does he not see the apparent contradiction between his theory of greater state control and bringing everything into the centre on the one hand, and the policies of the big society and handing power down to people on the other?
Yes, I think that the hon. Gentleman has made a valid point. Some organisations are much better off in the voluntary sector and as part of the big society. It is a question of assessing, as the Cabinet Office has done, which organisations are suitable for which sector. My argument is that the quango is neither one thing nor the other. However, I agree with him; he made a valid intervention.
I want briefly to make two simple but related points. Elected Governments—even unelected coalitions—have the right to determine the administrative arrangements they consider best suited to implementing their policies. However, there is such a thing as good governance. As the Public Administration Committee’s original report set out, good governance involves undertaking a proper review of structures, consulting the organisations and individuals involved, clarifying objectives and then having good, clear drafting of the legislation.
The hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) is not in his place, but I think that he hid his light behind a bushel, because last December’s PAC report was one of the most hard-hitting reports that I have ever seen in this House. It referred to the review process as “poorly managed”, and said that “no meaningful consultation” had been undertaken, that the criteria and tests set for the reform were “not clearly defined” and that the Bill was “badly drafted”, so it is no wonder it received a mauling in the House of Lords. In addition, the Committee said—I have never seen this sentence in a Select Committee report before—that the Government had
“failed to recognise the realities of the modern world.”
One element of that was the need for thorough consultation, a point that I want to discuss in relation to the staff.
Whatever the structures of government, whatever they determine those structures should be and whatever reforms to those structures they want to undertake, any Government will need an essential ingredient: well trained, professionally competent and motivated staff. However, in this Bill the staff are barely mentioned or considered, if at all. I chair the PCS trade union group, which involves Members of all parties in this House. The PCS has 30,000 members in non-departmental bodies, many thousands of whom are affected by this Bill. Many of those staff are facing compulsory redundancy, forced relocation, a deleterious impact on their terms and conditions and their pensions, an almost certain increase in their work loads and the end of job security—all in a situation of absolute uncertainty. The most common thing that I have heard from members of staff whom I have met in those bodies is that they are completely in the dark about their futures. There is a complete lack of clarity about what role their organisations and they as individual professionals will be playing, and they are worried about the future of the services that they deliver.
I can confirm that. Redundancies are taking place, and there is near chaos in some organisations, not only because of jobs being lost and redundancies being forced on people, but in the organisation of the services that they deliver. A number of staff are worried about the impact that the proposals will have on the users of their services. I refer in particular to those who manage the independent living fund and the 300 workers involved with the Youth Justice Board, whose jobs are likely to go. Morale is understandably at rock bottom in those services, so the important thing is consultation. However, I see that consultation with staff unions is not even listed in the Bill.
Also, there is an agreement stemming from the last Government—an agreement that I thought this Government had signed up to—on TUPE. The Cabinet Office statement of protocols adopted by the last Government and inherited by this Government, which I thought this Government had also signed up to, states that where TUPE does not apply—for example, in the transfer of staff into the public sector, which includes most of the bodies in this Bill—an explicit reference should be added to the Bill. That is the agreement that was signed up to, but all that this Bill contains is a reference in clause 24 to transferring people on conditions similar to TUPE. The legal advice provided to the union is blindingly obvious: conditions that are similar to TUPE are not TUPE. Therefore, a whole range of conditions of service and protections that staff now enjoy will be put at risk. I believe that this is an act of bad faith on the part of the Government. The least that they could do now is add TUPE to the Bill. It was included by the last Government in the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009, and by this Government in the Localism Bill. In that way, staff gained some security for their futures.
Let me conclude. There is a view in many of those bodies that there is near chaos when it comes to what the future will hold for the staff and what the implications for delivering the service will be.
Assuming for a moment that the employment side of the Bill was altered as the hon. Gentleman suggests—actually, it will probably not be—would he then be satisfied with the new arrangements, or would he prefer the existing bodies to perform their functions as they are?
The hon. Gentleman might not have heard me say earlier—I might not have made myself clear enough—that when a new Government are elected, they are perfectly entitled to introduce the administrative arrangements that they think appropriate for the implementation of their policies. There will be debate in the Chamber about the rights and wrongs of those administrative arrangements. As we have heard today, there are sharp differences of opinion between Members on either side of the House on the Youth Justice Board, the coroners service and the Commission for Equality and Human Rights.
There should, however, be one common feature across all parties, and that relates to the protection of the staff. They should not suffer as a result of the changing whims of Governments or of the changing directions of political parties’ policies. They should at least be afforded the opportunity of full consultation and of the legal protections that have been provided in the past, specifically through TUPE. I very much regret that there is no commitment to TUPE in the Bill. The commitment in clause 24 to something similar to TUPE will not give the staff the security that they need. Any Government, of whatever political hue, should have respect for the civil servants who serve them. On that basis, I urge the Government to think again about this issue.
The Cabinet Office Statement of Practice on Staff Transfers in the Public Sector—COSOP—principles were signed up to by the previous Government, and by this one, and they have been referred to at length in some of our debates. They are now being broken by the Bill. That has been interpreted by the trade unions as an act of bad faith, which is contributing to the present poor industrial relations climate in the public services. This is a critical issue. I welcome the opportunity for the PCS parliamentary group to meet Ministers to discuss how we can amend the legislation in Committee, so that when it comes back to the House on Report, we can debate the real principles behind the Bill, rather than being encumbered by this attack on the staff.
I rise to speak about a couple of the bodies concerned with rural communities that were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey), who is no longer in his place. It was interesting to hear Conservative Members expressing disdain for his view that Labour had made a valuable contribution to rural communities under the last Government. That goes to the heart of why I want to talk about these bodies. It is perhaps inevitable, as Labour Members tend to represent the more urban seats and Conservative Members the more rural ones, that a certain reputation in that regard is picked up. I fear, however, that this Government will run down the huge amount of good will felt towards them in rural communities if they ignore the question of the Agricultural Wages Board and the Commission for Rural Communities. Taken together, those are very important organisations.
I have some sympathy for the Government’s position in wanting to change the constitutional arrangements of certain bodies, but the Minister himself said earlier that it is difficult to maintain an overview of every single body that a Bill of this size deals with. I hope that the Government will be willing to listen on this particular point, because rural communities run the risk of getting a very raw deal.
As I understand it, agricultural workers are protected by the same rules as everyone else. The minimum wage, which the Labour Government brought in and which, I must confess, has proved very successful, would protect agricultural workers just as it would any other kind of worker. Can the hon. Gentleman think of any reason why one group of workers should be treated differently from the others in this regard?
The hon. Gentleman has asked a straightforward and honest question. I shall go into this in more detail a little later, but one reason would be that agricultural workers are more likely to find themselves in a changeable labour market. The Agricultural Wages Board takes into account six bands for agricultural workers, and only 20% of the people who receive funding from their employer that is moderated by the board receive a level around about the minimum wage. Essentially, we could end up bringing the other 80% down to that level in a wage race to the bottom. Let me explain why it is important to take the special character of rural communities into account.
I have heard this terminology of a “race to the bottom” used twice by Labour Members. Was not the decision of the previous Labour Government to allow unfettered immigration from eastern Europe another case of contributing to a race to the bottom when it came to wages in the agricultural sector?
We need a framework in which all workers are treated on an equal level. The hon. Gentleman makes an astute point—that in a market without any regulation, people will work for the smallest amount of money. If we had more time, I could discuss the issue at greater length, but the hon. Gentleman’s point deserves more scrutiny.
The Commission for Rural Communities has been an independent advocate since the time of Lloyd George—surely a reason why Conservative Members suggest that it is well beyond its time—but we should bear in mind the important point that the cost of living can be 10% or 20% greater in rural communities than in urban areas. If I were a Minister on the Government Front Bench and I wanted to get on with implementing my programmes—something would have to have happened for that to be the case—I would probably not want a very strong independent voice for rural communities. I think that that is a shame, because when we release people to become strong advocates for their own communities, it serves us all well.
The Rural Advocate appointed by Tony Blair in 2000, Lord Cameron of Dillington, said:
“All too often—in fact, almost always—urban civil servants ignore or are unaware of difficulties of delivery in the countryside…It would be a tragedy if the countryside were to lose that independent voice.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 March 2011; Vol. 726, c. 767-8.]
I think he put it very well. It is easy for us here in Westminster to ignore some of the major problems that rural communities face—in housing, broadband and public transport, for example. How do people in the countryside, especially the young, get to work? Those are real issues. I believe that the Commission for Rural Communities continues to have a valuable voice to articulate—independently of Government but to the Government. I also believe that the changes advocated in the Bill will not strengthen that independent rural voice, which, as I said before, has been around for about 100 years.
The hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) anticipated some of my points. The Agricultural Wages Board is key to ensuring that the additional cost of living that rural communities face can be met by showing a greater responsibility to those who work in the countryside. The board was put in place after world war two. That might be used as an argument to get rid of it, but it is really a poor argument for dismissing the present board. It represents a partnership among the industry, the unions, landowners and all interested parties in the countryside. Those groups come together and a deal has to be hammered out on the different wage bands, just as we have to hammer out deals in this place.
When the Agricultural Wages Board came into being in the late 1940s, lots of other industries were similarly regulated with their own boards. Most of those have gone—not just as a result of Conservative Governments but by general consensus. I do not understand why the Agricultural Wages Board is different.
I appreciate the point, but additional costs of living and the ability for different groups of workers to be exploited within that industry are relevant. I believe that those require us not to weaken the regulations, but to keep them in place.
Let me offer two further specific points about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. Without the AWB, each individual business will have to negotiate its own individual terms and conditions. Far from reducing red tape for farmers, we will increase it. Many of them just want to get on and farm; many just want to run their business; many are not experts in the area of human resources or employment law.
Secondly, without the AWB, I believe we will see a dramatic decrease in wages across the industry. As I said before, only about 20% of those regulated by the AWB receive round about the minimum wage; there are six bands above it. The industry needs a sense of career progression and a credible ladder of opportunity in order to attract more people into it to strengthen food security. The Minister will obviously say that the minimum wage remains a safeguard. That is true, but I believe that there will be a race to the bottom without the AWB. The Bill will restrict the amount that can be charged for accommodation, an area in which people may be exploited. It will also affect agricultural sick pay, which is very important to manual labourers.
I sympathise with the Government’s wish to make reforms, which is their right. They will present more proposals, and they have already made amendments to the Bill, such as the removal of the clauses relating to forests. However, they risk making a serious impact on rural communities that are already suffering. For that reason, I ask them not to poison the well from which they draw much of their support, and to reconsider their position.
I will be brief, but I want to say a little about S4C. As the House may know, the Welsh Assembly is responsible for most of the quangos in Wales, but S4C is one Welsh organisation that will be affected by the Bill.
I well understand the strength of feeling about the Bill. I am possibly the only Member present this evening whose office has been vandalised as a result of it. Members of the Welsh Language Society decided to take direct action because of their fears for the future of S4C. However, I want to record the fact that, along with the other members of the Welsh Affairs Committee, I am fully committed to its future. Our report demonstrated strong cross-party agreement that, notwithstanding concerns about some elements of the Bill, the funding settlement could offer it a way forward.
Let me explain why I think the Bill is important. Several Members have referred to accountability. One of the problems that we experience with quangos such as S4C is a distinct lack of accountability. After all, they receive a huge amount of taxpayer funding. Last August, for example, the chief executive of S4C was dismissed without notice. At the time she was earning about £160,000 a year: £160,000 a year of taxpayers’ money, and a salary that most people would consider extremely high in a Welsh context. As yet, we have not been told why she lost her position. We need to ensure that such organisations are accountable to, and respond to, the taxpayer.
As I have said, I believe that the funding arrangements that the Government are introducing offer S4C a way forward. The funding is being reduced from £100 million to about £83 million a year, which, miraculously, was described by the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) as a reduction of 94%. Members may wish to try to explain how a reduction from £100 million to £83 million equates to a 94% reduction, but I am at a loss.
I believe that the link between S4C and the BBC presents S4C with a future. Indeed, the BBC’s experience and its ability to provide base funding for the channel, coupled with the skills and expertise of the independent television sector in Wales, give it the chance of a prosperous future. I am confident that, despite all the concerns that have been raised about the changes proposed in the Bill, there is good will in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and in Government generally, and a real possibility of building a new and more accountable S4C that will serve the people of Wales well.
I want to speak about just one of the Government’s proposals: the suggestion that the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee may be abolished. As I am sure the House knows, the consultation on the committee’s future has not been completed. In fact, it will not end until 21 July. I hope that the Government will confirm that, although the Minister has said he is minded to abolish the committee, a genuine consultation process is taking place. I hope it will also be confirmed that if that process reveals a negative view of the Government’s proposal, they will reconsider it.
I make the case for this committee to be retained because for some time I have been interested in how we can make public transport as accessible as possible to people with disabilities. As it happens, one of my constituents, Alan Rees, is the secretary of the Scottish Accessible Transport Alliance. He has campaigned on this issue for many years and has provided me with some powerful arguments against the closure of the committee, which I hope the Minister will ensure are considered by his Department and his colleagues in the Department for Transport. Mr Rees has said that the continuation of the committee
“in its present form is vitally important. It is a statutory body made up of disabled people forming a majority. It has been behind most of the recent improvements in transport access and mobility for disabled people but there is still much to do. Its loss or reduction in status and influence would be a savage blow.”
It is a cross-border body, although some transport matters in Scotland are devolved. Issues to do with international travel, travel between Scotland and England, long-distance rail and many aspects of road travel, and many other issues are still reserved matters. The committee therefore plays an important role. That is why there is a lot of concern about its proposed closure.
Over the years, the committee has produced many reports and recommendations, and, importantly, they have resulted in action. In that regard, I would refer to the committee’s work on low-floor buses, its advice to taxi drivers, its promotion of disability awareness training for transport staff and, perhaps most importantly, its efforts to ensure that the consumer view—the view of the disabled traveller—is ascertained and then taken into account by Government at all levels and, indeed, by transport operators.
That serves to highlight two crucial aspects of the current committee. First, it has a right to be consulted; its views must be listened to. Secondly, it is a voice for disabled people themselves. As I have said, there is a majority of disabled people on the committee, which gives it authority and credibility, and an understanding of the issues, and I believe the Government, and specifically the Department for Transport, have drawn great benefit from that. If the committee is abolished, there is a great risk that the voice of disabled people on transport issues will be weakened. I therefore hope that the Government will think again about their proposals to wind up the committee, and give proper consideration to the findings of the consultation process when that is completed.
If the Government decide to go ahead and abolish the committee, I hope that the alternative arrangements they set up will not result in there being just an occasional meeting with stakeholders, which is one suggestion, or arrangements that lead to the employment of highly paid consultants to take on the work of volunteers on the committee. I also hope they give disabled people and their organisations a genuine voice, as they are entitled to be consulted on major transport issues and issues of concern to the disabled traveller.
I hope that the Government will give those assurances and, above all, I hope they will confirm that they are open to the consultation process producing different recommendations. I trust that there will be a recognition on both sides of the House that the Government should take on board these interests and concerns, and that if they are going to abolish this committee, they need to come up with a genuine and acceptable alternative.
This has been an interesting debate, but at certain times Members walking into the Chamber might have wondered whether they had accidentally walked into a discussion on Welsh affairs, because so much of the debate focused on S4C—a mystery to me, as an MP representing a Yorkshire constituency, until I was allocated to this Bill. I can assure the House that by the time we reach Committee stage, I will be as expert as everybody else. However, the real reason for the contributions from so many Welsh Members might be a certain boundary review that will be taking place in Wales in due course, but perhaps that is idle speculation.
The sub-debate about S4C was ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones). Other contributions were made by the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies), for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). They all made interesting speeches, although it seemed to me that some of the points made by Government Members were hardly supportive of the Government’s position on S4C. The Opposition can assure the House that this matter will be explored in great detail in Committee.
Many other matters were raised, often with great authority, including the Government proposal to transform the chief coroner post. Very significant contributions were made on that matter by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). There is a significant problem with the Government’s proposals, which suggest that the coronial service, in part at least, should be made responsible to the Lord Chancellor, who, as we know, is a member of the Government. From time to time, a death that has been examined by a coroner may have been caused, in part at least, by the Government’s actions—we can all think of examples where a Government failure contributed to the death of a fallen hero in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and so on. If the coroner has to report to the Lord Chancellor, would that not immediately raise questions about the independence of the coronial service in investigating the deaths? Deaths at war are as tragic as any other, and they obviously involve people who were fighting for our country. Those people are entitled to an independent coronial service, and I do not believe that the Government’s proposals give us that independence.
Powerful points were also made strongly on behalf of rural communities by my hon. Friends the Members for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). They discussed not only the beauty of our rural countryside, but the need for fairness. The Government are proposing to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales, and that retrograde step, again, needs to be debated very carefully in Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East also spoke about youth justice, on the basis of his great experience, and the House listened carefully to the point he made.
What was striking about the debate was the fact that few Government Members were wholly in favour of the Bill and that they did not make the case for the Bill in the terms used by the Minister for the Cabinet Office. He made a case on the basis of democratic accountability—I shall address that in a moment—but his right hon. and hon. Friends largely chose to make an argument on financial grounds. They said that we should simply be taking an axe and making financial cuts to the service, irrespective of whether the service being provided is good or bad. For example, the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) referred to the financial imperative to cut services. We accept that there is a degree of financial imperative, particularly in relation to waste, where that is identified. However, I do not believe that the argument made by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) that we should abolish any quango where even a small amount of waste has been established necessarily provides the correct answer. Notably, the Minister for the Cabinet Office did not make that case.
The hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) gave an extraordinary motive for cutting quangos, basing her argument on inequality of pay. Those of us on the left, who have long argued for greater equality, welcome her as a recruit, but her case was that we should abolish quangos on the basis of the size of the chief executive’s salary, and that is a bizarre argument. The hon. Member for Watford (Richard Harrington) was the star of the show. He began his speech by saying that he had no experience whatsoever of any quango, ever. He felt that that gave him the basis for making a speech to say that quangos should immediately be reformed, abolished and so on.
The Government rested their case on the need for greater democratic accountability, and we agree that the quango state should be tackled on those grounds. However, they would be well advised to listen carefully to the case made by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), who chairs the Public Administration Committee. He pointed out that in a modern society accountability takes many forms. I have just discussed the coronial service and it may be that rather than the coroners being made accountable to the Lord Chancellor, as the Government would have it, they should be accountable to the relatives of the dead. In that sense, I agree entirely with the point made by the Public Administration Committee.
Considering that it dealt with such important bodies, the process the Government entered into was incredibly rushed. There was little or no consultation in advance with the interested parties, with the bodies themselves or even with Parliament. The reform of these bodies through proper legislative processes is clearly one thing that the Government are entitled to do, but instead, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), they are already proceeding effectively to abolish or at least to weaken through underhand administrative methods those very organisations that the Bill is intended to reform, even before it has gone through Parliament. The Equality and Human Rights Commission, for example, has already had its budget cut by 68%, yet it still exists in law. The staff numbers have been cut by 66%. Only one in three staff remain in the EHRC yet it still has statutory duties imposed on it by Parliament until this Bill becomes law. That is no way for a Government to proceed. It completely ignores the need for parliamentary assent and is once again reflective of a Government who are unwilling to listen or consult.
What we have here is a Government who are simply not listening, so much so that that they are not allowing witnesses to appear before the Public Bill Committee as part of the Bill’s scrutiny. We were told that this would be a listening Government. Why then will they not allow witnesses to appear before the Public Bill Committee when the Bill goes upstairs? The Government do not want to hear the voices of the Royal British Legion, who will defend the rights of fallen heroes to a proper inquest. They do not want to hear the voices of low paid workers in the agricultural industry who will be affected by the changes to the Agricultural Wages Board. They will not allow the voices of witnesses from the disabled community, mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), to be heard on the EHRC or the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, which is to be abolished. We will therefore oppose what we regard as a gross misuse of Government authority in seeking to prevent witnesses appearing before the Committee. I therefore urge the House to reject the programme motion, which does that.
On top of all those things, the Bill fundamentally alters ministerial powers to control quangos. It will concentrate far more authority in the hands of the relevant Ministers, who could merge bodies, transfer bodies or even abolish them without proper reference to Parliament and without listening to witness statements. The costings on which the Bill relies are also riddled with incompetence. The Minister for the Cabinet Office has made outlandish claims in The Sun newspaper that are totally unfounded. We have tabled freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions that show that rather than the £30 billion he claimed, the actual savings will be a fraction of that: £2.6 billion at most. When we considered individual Departments, we found the Government’s claim was often twice as high as the savings that they will make. Our research, for example, demonstrated that although the Government claimed that they would save £18 million from the Department for Work and Pensions, they will save less than £500,000.
Finally, the proposals will have a human cost both to the millions of people who receive services from the quangos and to thousands of employees, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington referred. Let me ask the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, a straightforward question, which I would like him to answer in his reply. What will happen to those whose jobs may be transferred into the private sector, the voluntary sector and elsewhere in the public service? What will happen to their rights? Does he envisage that their rights under TUPE will be properly protected, as they ought to be?
Hon. Members’ contributions today have revealed that the Government have not considered staff, have not listened to the users of services, have not produced proper costings and certainly have not listened to the millions of vulnerable people who will be affected by the Government’s actions if this Bill is passed. The Government do not realise that when they are taking decisions, they need to see the big picture—on which we can agree: that quangos should be reduced—but equally the detail. Government is about making decisions but it is also about listening and the Government simply do not have the humility to listen, the patience to debate or the ability to implement the detail properly. We will be voting for the reasoned amendment and fighting the Bill line by line in Committee, and we reserve the right to vote against the Bill on Third Reading unless there are substantial improvements to it.
This has been a short debate on a Bill that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) rightly described as being very significant. It is significant in its potential impact on a large number of organisations, many of which perform significant functions and employ a large number of people. My fellow Hillingdon MP, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell), was quite right to remind the House of the impact of the changes on human beings. Let me reassure him that I am extremely happy to meet him and the PCS group to clarify any confusion that might exist in relation to TUPE. I give that undertaking in good faith.
The debate was interesting in that it launched the Labour party’s campaign to “Back the Apple”—this from the party that introduced the cider tax! The irony has been lost on them. More seriously, it is clear that there are still profound concerns about some of the proposals on the table and that there is more need than ever for Ministers’ continued engagement regarding the Bill during its progress through Committee, should it get its Second Reading, and through the consultation processes that will have to flow in anticipation of the orders that will in turn flow from the Bill. Many arguments will be made, won and lost in that process. That is quite clear from the debate.
In the time available I will try to address some of the specific concerns that have been raised, but it is important to register that no one in the debate has, as far as I could tell, argued for the status quo. The case for reform appears to have been won, although, having listened to Opposition Front Benchers I am not entirely convinced. The truth is that when they were in power they were a lot better at moving quangos around than at abolishing them. Frankly, at the end of the Opposition spokesman’s remarks, I was no clearer about what on earth they would do if they were in power. There continues to be a complete fog about that. It is all very well talking about the case for reform, but sometimes one has to get up and do something.
The case for reform was made extremely powerfully by my hon. Friends the Members for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab) and for Watford (Richard Harrington). The case was made particularly eloquently by my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley), who talked about the need to shine a light of accountability and transparency, with which I entirely agreed. My observation from my constituency is that people are deeply frustrated by how complex and expensive government has become. They would like it to be simplified and for it to be easier to find out who is in charge. They would like us to bear down with much greater discipline on waste and cost inflation, not least on salary inflation. That point was well made by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South West Norfolk.
Given the cluttered and confused landscape that is quangoland, it would have been quite irresponsible for a new Government not to have embarked on a review of public bodies. We believe very strongly that by substantially reducing the number of bodies, returning functions to central Government where appropriate, and establishing a legislative framework for the outcomes of future reviews, the Bill takes a major step towards a simpler, more accountable approach to Government. The Bill will support the delivery of administrative savings from public bodies, as part of the Government’s commitment to delivering the effective, value-for-money systems that taxpayers rightly expect. Those principles should enjoy widespread support across the House, and I am very disappointed by the position of the Opposition in that respect.
There was consensus across the House that the Bill had been improved by the deliberations in the other place; I am happy to confirm that that is our view, too. There were questions, not least from my hon. Friends the Members for Harwich and North Essex, for City of Chester, and for Esher and Walton, about the triennial review, which is an important part of the new process that we are setting up. I assure them all that further detail will be forthcoming on how that review will work.
There was very little controversy, as far as I could tell, about the structure of the Bill, now that it has passed through the other place. Where there were concerns, they tended to focus explicitly on the ideas for particular bodies. I should like to focus on those that are clearly more controversial. I start with the office of chief coroner. We heard powerful speeches from the right hon. Members for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth), and for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), and from the hon. Members for Hartlepool (Mr Wright), and for North Durham (Mr Jones). I pay particular tribute to the speeches of the right hon. Members for Coventry North East, and for Wythenshawe and Sale East, because they had the benefit of drawing on direct ministerial experience, some of which was clearly very powerful and difficult.
The hon. Gentleman was not bad, either. There are clearly arguments to be made, and won or lost. The Government clearly have to listen very hard, but the point that I would make to Members who have understandable concerns about the proposal is that there is no argument about the need for reform. As the hon. Member for Hartlepool said, we all recognise that a much better service is required for families. There is a problem around variation in quality; he made that point well. Nor is there any argument about the need for the functions of the chief coroner; the proposal is that they be transferred, not abolished. The question is: can we have reform without the person—or without the person right now, because the Government are retaining some flexibility on that point? The concern is about whether the reforms can be delivered without incurring what, on the face of it, are significant set-up and running costs—costs that were effectively ratified by the previous Government, because they commissioned the impact assessment.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General told us when he opened the debate that the reason behind the decision on the chief coroner’s office was money. Is the Parliamentary Secretary comfortable going against one of the main recommendations made by Dame Janet Smith in the Shipman report—that the coroner’s office be independent of Government?
Cost is a significant factor in the circumstances that we face, and we should not underestimate its importance as a consideration for the Ministry of Justice. It is committed to reform; the question is: how can those reforms be delivered in the most cost-effective way? It is clear, as I said, that the arguments will have to be made through the processes that lie before us.
There are processes that are to be performed, and if consistency is to be applied, there will be costs. Either the processes will be undertaken by an independent person who is part of the coronial system or, under the monstrous proposal from the Government, somehow Ministers will do them under a coronial system. It cannot be done that way.
It is obviously the responsibility of the Government to consider all the costs, but the right hon. Gentleman is ignoring the role of the Lord Chief Justice. I come back to the point that the Government recognise, as we all do, the need for reform; the question is how those reforms can be delivered in the most cost-effective way. That is the debate that will roll through Committee and beyond. Clearly, feelings run high on the issue in this House and the other place.
My hon. Friend is making an emollient and helpful speech, but the real question is not how these issues will be dealt with during the passage of the Bill, but how they will be properly debated and adjudicated on by Parliament after the Bill is on the statute book. Will he give the House a general undertaking that these contentious issues concerning bodies that were established by primary legislation will be the subject of proper and reasonable consultation and debate when the orders come before Parliament, and that there will be an opportunity for Parliament to exercise the influence it would have exercised had we been confronted with primary legislation?
My hon. Friend’s question goes to the heart of the debate about how the Bill is structured. He understands that if this enabling Bill is enacted, it will be the responsibility of Ministers to come to this place with orders, having consulted where that remains appropriate, and make their case, with appropriate safeguards in terms of scrutiny and the capacity of the House to require the enhanced affirmative procedure. There was no serious discussion of this during the debate, but, with reference to the safeguarding procedures, I think we are in a much better place than when we started and when his Committee examined the Bill.
On the point about process, because some aspects of the Bill are more contentious than others and the Government have moved from the affirmative procedure to the enhanced affirmative procedure, there may well be the opportunity on some issues to move to the super-affirmative procedure, which allows room for further amendment.
That has been considered and rejected. The enhanced affirmative procedure is considered to be adequate and proportionate. That seemed to be accepted by the other place.
I shall move on in order to give proper space for the other most contentious issue, which concerns S4C. Again, we heard powerful speeches from the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), who is in her place, the hon. Members for Ceredigion (Mr Williams) and for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards), and from my hon. Friends the Members for Vale of Glamorgan (Alun Cairns), for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) and for Aberconwy (Guto Bebb). My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire expressed the deep passions that the proposal has aroused. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy that his office had been vandalised or attacked as a response to the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire described S4C as the cultural backbone of Wales—a powerful phrase. The debate is about how we sustain S4C as an independent service that retains its own brand identity.
The one issue that still concerns us is the arrangements for future governance. We seek an assurance that there will be genuine consultation and opportunity for the people of Wales to have an input into that consultation. We are looking to the Minister to give us a commitment on that.
I am happy to give my hon. Friend the reassurance that the Department is extremely sensitive to concerns. As he knows, the funding settlement reduces S4C’s funding by the same amount as the DCMS’s, at about 25% over the comprehensive spending review period. We consider that fair. I do not think there is an argument about the unsustainability of the current funding arrangements for S4C. The proposed amendment described in the written ministerial statement—it was reassuring that many colleagues took great comfort from the statement—makes it clear that S4C will be funded for the long term to deliver its vital statutory functions. Everything we are proposing is about how we protect S4C, not undermine it.
Let me touch on the Agricultural Wages Board. The hon. Members for Luton South (Gavin Shuker) and for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) were eloquent on the subject. The Agricultural Wages Board was set up to represent agricultural workers and ensure that they are paid appropriately. That is an example of a body that is no longer needed, as pay for all workers is protected by the national minimum wage, so there is no longer a need for separate representation for agricultural workers, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Richard Harrington).
I lead on DEFRA matters for the Liberal Democrats and hope that the Minister understands that I oppose the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. Rural workers are exceptionally isolated and in an exceptional position that I think justifies exceptional protections.
Farmers in my constituency certainly want less regulation, rather than more, which will enable them to be more productive and export more crops, and surely the minimum wage is effective cover for protecting workers. We need to ensure greater exports from Britain, which we will not achieve through further regulation.
My hon. Friend is right that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is not about driving down wages and conditions for agricultural workers, but about removing regulatory burdens on farm businesses and allowing them to focus on the business of farming.
I will not, with great respect, because I have given way a great deal and have limited time in which to draw my remarks to a close.
I would like to return to the core issue of why we believe the Bill is needed and deserves a Second Reading: the benefits it will deliver for good government in this country. My right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office announced the results of a radical review programme, as a result of which we proposed that almost 500 bodies should be reformed, and in many instances those reforms are already complete or in progress. However, a large number of those bodies have a statutory basis, so legislation is required to turn the Government’s proposals into reality. In some cases departmental Bills provide an appropriate vehicle for the changes, but where that is not the case the Public Bodies Bill represents a sensible legislative solution. It gives the Government the necessary powers to take forward these much-needed reforms without Departments having to wait for primary legislation, preventing unnecessary delay where the case for change is clear.
The Bill achieves that by giving Ministers a series of powers, outlined in clauses 1 to 5, to make changes to public bodies through secondary legislation, subject to a number of safeguards, the completion of a consultation process and the approval of Parliament. I emphasise that those powers are strictly limited in scope. The powers to make orders apply only to the bodies and offices listed in the corresponding schedule to the Bill, to which bodies can be added only through primary legislation, meaning that Parliament will remain the ultimate arbiter over when the use of those powers is appropriate.
Following a review by the other place, important changes have been made to the Bill. Specifically, we have arrived at mechanisms to include a number of proportionate restrictions on the use of the powers set out in the Bill. On independence, we have introduced provision in clause 7 to prevent the Bill from being used in a way that prevents important public functions, such as those of a judicial nature, from being amended in a way that stops them being exercised independently of Ministers. On consultation, we have required that Ministers consult on their proposals before laying a draft order before Parliament. The Bill now provides the option of selecting an enhanced scrutiny procedure for any draft order, giving Parliament and its Committees 60 days to consider a proposal and make representations to Ministers. Clause 12 sunsets the contents of the schedules after five years.
In summary, the reforms we have proposed and that have been debated again today will produce a leaner and more effective system of public bodies centred on the principle of ministerial accountability. We have listened intently to the comments and concerns expressed during the debate and recognise that there are areas where the Government can helpfully produce further clarity and assurance, and the Deputy Leader of the House and I look forward to continuing to engage with hon. Members in Committee and elsewhere.
However, I reiterate my hope that the House can come together in support of the belief that ministerial accountability for public functions and the use of public money should be at the heart of how we conduct ourselves. The Government believe that the proposals embodied in the Bill and in our plans for a regular comprehensive review of all public bodies will set a new standard for the management and review of public bodies, and on that basis I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 62(2)), That the Bill be now read a Second Time.
Question agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.
Public Bodies Bill [Lords] (Programme)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith, (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),
That the following provisions shall apply to the Public Bodies Bill [Lords]:
1. The Bill shall be committed to a Public Bill Committee.
Proceedings in Public Bill Committee
2. Proceedings in the Public Bill Committee shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion on Thursday 13 October 2011.
3. The Public Bill Committee shall have leave to sit twice on the first day on which it meets.
Consideration and Third Reading
4. Proceedings on Consideration shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour before the moment of interruption on the day on which those proceedings are commenced.
5. Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the moment of interruption on that day.
6. Standing Order No. 83B (Programming committees) shall not apply to proceedings on Consideration and Third Reading.
7. Any other proceedings on the Bill (including any proceedings on consideration of any message from the Lords) may be programmed.—(Stephen Crabb.)
PUBLIC BODIES BILL [LORDS] (MONEY)
Queen’s recommendation signified.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Public Bodies Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of—
(a) any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown in consequence of the Act or an order under the Act; and
(b) any increase attributable to such an order in the sums which under any other Act are payable out of money so provided.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)
Question agreed to.
PUBLIC BODIES BILL [LORDS] (WAYS AND MEANS)
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 52(1)(a)),
That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Public Bodies Bill [Lords], it is expedient to authorise the making of provision under the Act in relation to income tax, corporation tax, capital gains tax, stamp duty, stamp duty reserve tax or stamp duty land tax in connection with a transfer of property, rights or liabilities by a scheme under the Act.—(Miss Chloe Smith.)
Question agreed to.