Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee
[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.]
New Clause 1
Delegation of functions by Environment Agency
‘(1) The Environment Agency may make arrangements with a person exercising Welsh environmental functions who is not a cross-border operator for that person to exercise a non-devolved function of the Agency.
(2) The consent of the Secretary of State and the Welsh Ministers is required for arrangements under subsection (1).
(3) The Secretary of State may by order with the consent of the Welsh Ministers make provision about how the function of making arrangements under subsection (1) is to be discharged (including provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements).
(4) An order under subsection (3) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(5) For the purposes of subsection (1) a person is not a cross-border operator merely because functions exercisable in or with respect to England have been delegated to that person.’.—(Mr Hurd.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
Government new clause 2—Delegation of Welsh Environmental Functions.
Government new clause 3—Shared services.
Government new clause 4—Shared services: Forestry Commissioners.
Government amendments 5, 6, 12 to 20, 7, 21 to 25, 8, 9, 26, 27, 10, 28, 11 and 29.
This is a long list of amendments, but I hope we can deal with it quickly, as I sense that the mood of the House is in favour of moving on swiftly to what might well be more contentious issues. First however, it would be wrong of me not to join the Deputy Leader of the House in thanking the members of what was a very good Committee for their work and the spirit in which they undertook it.
This group of Government amendments relates to four aspects of the Bill, and to matters which I hope the House will agree are sensible and uncontentious. New clauses 3 and 4 and amendments 25 to 29 will provide powers to enable certain bodies carrying out public functions—specifically the Environment Agency, Natural England and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, as well as the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Marine Management Organisation and internal drainage boards—to share back-office functions with other bodies. The powers also apply to other bodies carrying out Welsh environmental functions.
New clauses 1 and 2 and amendments 12 and 16 to 20 will provide powers to enable the Environment Agency to delegate non-devolved functions to Welsh environmental bodies. They also incorporate provisions currently in clause 16 relating to delegation of Welsh environmental functions. Amendments 5 and 8 to 11 will extend the definition of “eligible persons” in clause 1(3) to include co-operative and community benefit societies and charitable incorporated organisations. Finally, amendments 6, 7, 13 to 15 and 21 to 24 are minor and technical drafting amendments.
Turning first—and briefly—to the issue of shared services, there is a move across government to reduce the cost of back-office functions such as human resources, IT and payment processing. Freeing up bodies to share back-office services is an important way of rationalising and delivering economies of scale. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has some large non-departmental public bodies, such as the Environment Agency, which could serve as centres for delivering back-office services to other bodies in its network. However, these bodies do not currently have clear legal powers to be able to provide such services. That is because providing these back-office services to others is not always incidental or related to their main or primary purpose. The aim of these amendments is to provide a clear power so that, for example, the Environment Agency could provide back-office services such as accounting services to a body such as Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, or operate contracts for vehicles for the DEFRA network. That would be beneficial in efficiency and economic terms, and there are likely to be many more such examples as sharing of services becomes more common.
I understand why these amendments have been tabled, but it is not a God-given right that the organisations in question will win these contracts. Surely some of the contracts will be sufficiently large to have to be put out under the Official Journal of the European Union—or OJEU—notices.
The hon. Gentleman did not answer my question. The fact of the matter is that these measures will give the powers he describes, but they do not necessarily mean that the organisations in question will be able to circumvent European competition law in respect of contracts they put out to tender.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that everything will be subject to appropriate procurement regulations, but the purpose of these amendments is to make it easier for such bodies to share services.
These amendments will therefore enable the Environment Agency, Natural England, the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, the Marine Management Organisation and internal drainage boards, which are bodies performing public functions, to provide back-office functions to other bodies carrying out public functions. The Bill already provides a similar power for Welsh environmental bodies, so this step will provide parity for these English bodies.
The amendments also carry forward arrangements in clause 16 whereby forestry commissioners may share services with Welsh environmental bodies carrying out functions in Wales. This power does not extend to the Forestry Commission making arrangements with non-Welsh bodies. As this is an enabling power, it will be used only where a body listed wished to use it, and where it would be financially beneficial to share back-office services. Also, it could not be exercised without the consent of the relevant Ministers. This power is in many respects similar to the provision in the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 enabling internal drainage boards to agree that one should provide back-office services to another. In debate, this was warmly welcomed by all parties. As in the case of these amendments, the express purpose was to make the delivery of administrative functions more effective and cheaper. I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will agree that, with public funding under severe constraints, it is sensible to ensure that bodies are able to share services, thus leading to increased efficiency and potential savings in the delivery of back-office functions.
On the delegation of functions, the amendments will correct a technical issue relating to cross-border powers affecting the Environment Agency. The Bill provides for the devolved and non-devolved functions of the Environment Agency, which covers both England and Wales, to be split and for a separate Welsh environmental body to be created. Although the Bill allows Welsh environmental bodies to delegate devolved functions to the Environment Agency, it would not allow the Environment Agency to delegate non-devolved functions to Welsh environmental bodies. That means, in effect, that the Environment Agency would not be able to apply existing flexibilities to delegate to its Welsh counterparts. That could have significant effects in an emergency, such as flooding in the border area, and in specialist areas, such as management of the Dee estuary. We are therefore seeking to correct this gap through these amendments to ensure that the Environment Agency can delegate non-devolved, as well as devolved, functions to the new Welsh environmental body.
We have only recently had sight of these new clauses. The water framework directive, which needs to be in place by 2015, deals with river catchment areas and so rivers such as the Wye and the Severn would have both a Welsh and an English context. Do these new clauses enable these bodies to work better together to achieve the desired outcome?
In large part these measures are designed to make existing flexible arrangements clearer, precisely to make more effective the sort of cross-border work needed in exactly the type of situations to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
As I was saying, the amendments are similar to the current provisions relating to the delegation of Welsh environmental functions in clause 16. The amendments delete those provisions and incorporate them in a slightly revised clause so that the delegation of functions is covered in concurrent clauses.
Amendments 5 and 8 to 11 will extend the definition in clause 1(3) of “eligible persons” to whom the functions of a body or office holder can be transferred under the general order-making powers of the Bill and to whom property can be transferred under clause 24 to include co-operatives, community benefit societies and charitable incorporated organisations. This issue was raised in Committee, not least by my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), at which point I made a commitment to consider how alternative models such as co-operatives and community benefit societies could be supported to deliver public services, where appropriate. It has always been the intent behind this section of the Bill to ensure that the reform of public bodies is effective by enabling the transfer of functions to a range of persons, so I am therefore pleased to be able to introduce these amendments.
In addition to the provision on co-operatives and community benefit societies, there is now an amendment to include charitable incorporated organisations. Although such charities are yet to come into being since being introduced by the Charities Act 2006, work is well under way and we have taken the opportunity to allow future orders made under the Bill to transfer functions to them. I would like to assure the House that, no matter to whom functions are transferred, it is the Minister’s responsibility to ensure that proper accountability mechanisms are in place, especially where the body is in receipt of public funds.
We very much welcome these new clauses, which were amendments that we proposed at the time and the Minister very fairly said that he would take them away and look at them. I wish to raise one issue about charities. Is he able to explain why he is envisaging a particular form of charitable association which is not yet in existence? He has made some brief comments, but they left us puzzled in Committee.
Charities do fall within the scope of the Bill as far as we are concerned. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the 2006 Act allowed for the introduction of a new type of organisation—a charitable incorporated organisation. We just felt it sensible at this stage, for the avoidance of any doubt, to include such organisations in the Bill.
I know that the House wants to move on, but let me first address amendments 6, 7, 13 to 15 and 21 to 24. These minor and technical drafting amendments clarify and improve certain aspects of the Bill, and I shall briefly explain the changes they make. The amendments to clauses 11 and 20 are simply drafting changes that move measures that are relevant to the procedure for making orders, which are currently in clause 32, to clauses 11 and 20 as that is where the other measures on procedure are found.
Amendments to clauses 14 and 15 clarify that where Welsh Ministers have powers to modify the constitutional arrangements of bodies, in so far as changes may be made to the extent to which a body is accountable to Ministers, this refers to accountability to Welsh Ministers. The changes to clauses 21 and 23 remove any potential confusion regarding the restrictions in those measures. If a Minister cannot create a power to make subordinate legislation, it follows that he cannot “authorise the creation of” a criminal offence or any of the other powers under clause 21(1). Therefore the removal of the words
“or authorise the creation of”
does not change the effect of the restrictions on ministerial powers.
I understand that those consultations have been extensive and I do not think there has been any real criticism regarding a lack of consultation with Welsh Ministers. However, I know that there continues to be a spirited debate about S4C and I sincerely hope and believe that we will have adequate time to return to that issue.
The amendment to clause 22 removes what was a restriction on the power to authorise the delegation of functions to an eligible person, as the power to so authorise was removed in the other place. The reference in clause 22(2)(b) is therefore no longer necessary. Finally, the change to clause 27 is simply a drafting change to make reference to each House of Parliament approving a draft statutory instrument rather than a statutory instrument.
First, it must be said that the Opposition have been dismayed at the way in which the Government have introduced a Bill to abolish so many valuable bodies with so many diverse functions. They have all been lumped together in this one Bill, which has been designed to abolish them, and this has afforded very little time for debate. Although we may accept some Government new clauses and amendments to make the outcome of the Bill fit within the devolution settlement and to iron out some anomalies—we understand that those changes are necessary and logical—that does not mean that we are giving unreserved support to the Bill. Far from it. In other words, we would far rather not be starting from here.
We have been confronted with a large number of new clauses and amendments at this very late stage of the Bill. A more appropriate way of dealing with these measures would have been in Committee, having allowed proper time for consultation and debate. Instead, these Government amendments were published only yesterday morning. As the Welsh Assembly is in recess this week, there has been no opportunity for the Opposition to consult Welsh Ministers. Indeed, even if it were not in recess, there would have been an absurdly short period of time for us to consult those Ministers or anyone else who has an interest in these amendments. Let us contrast that approach with the extensive discussions we had in the Committees on the Bills that became the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 and the Flood and Water Management Act 2010 about exactly how functions would apply to Wales.
Let me address the four issues to which the Minister has referred. First, on shared services, we need to remember that this is the Minister who only last October tried to explain to charities that they need not worry about TUPE because it would not apply. We can all appreciate the need for savings and the benefits that sharing staff can bring but I am concerned that the Minister is trying to bamboozle us with this measure. I am worried about his understanding of TUPE and the importance of protecting staff if they have to transfer from one place to another, if their functions are transferred, if their job description is changed or if they find themselves doing something that they were not originally appointed to do. I feel that the Government need to take on board the protection that such people should be afforded.
On the Environment Agency and issues such as flooding, of course we appreciate the need for the most appropriate and efficient way to operate. There is already close co-operation on the ground. If we can remove legal barriers to solving any problem in that respect, that is clearly the correct way forward.
Co-operatives have been mentioned, and of course the Opposition have always championed them.
Finally, the technical amendments are clearly consequential, and we therefore accept them in the context of our opposition to the general thrust of the Bill.
Question put and agreed to.
New clause 1 accordingly read a Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 2
Delegation of Welsh environmental functions
‘(1) A person to whom this section applies may make arrangements with another such person for—
(a) a Welsh environmental function exercised by one to be exercised by the other;
(b) co-operation in relation to the exercise of Welsh environmental functions.
(2) This section applies to—
(a) the Environment Agency,
(b) the Forestry Commissioners, and
(c) a person not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) who exercises a Welsh environmental function.
(3) The Welsh Ministers’ consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1).
(4) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements under subsection (1) is to be discharged (including provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements).
(5) An order under subsection (4) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
(6) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving, or an order under subsection (4) affecting—
(a) the Environment Agency,
(b) the Forestry Commissioners, or
(c) a person not falling within paragraph (a) or (b) who is a cross-border operator.’.—(Mr Hurd.)
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 3
‘(1) A person to whom this section applies may make arrangements with any other person to provide administrative, professional or technical services to that person for purposes relating to the exercise of public functions in or as regards England or Wales.
(2) This section applies to—
(a) the Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew;
(b) the Environment Agency;
(c) the Joint Nature Conservation Committee;
(d) an internal drainage board;
(e) the Marine Management Organisation;
(f) Natural England;
(g) a person not falling within paragraphs (a) to (f) who exercises a Welsh environmental function.
(3) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving a person who exercises a non-devolved function (whether or not the person also exercises a Welsh devolved function).
(4) The Secretary of State may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements in subsection (1) is to be discharged in the case of arrangements made by a person to whom this section applies who exercises a non-devolved function.
(5) An order under subsection (4) requires the consent of the Welsh Ministers if the person referred to in subsection (4) also exercises a Welsh devolved function.
(6) An order under subsection (4) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of either House of Parliament.
(7) The Welsh Ministers’ consent is required for arrangements under subsection (1) involving a person who exercises a Welsh devolved function (whether or not the person also exercises a non-devolved function).
(8) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements in subsection (1) is to be discharged in the case of arrangements made by a person to whom this section applies who exercises a Welsh devolved function.
(9) An order under subsection (8) requires the consent of the Secretary of State if the person referred to in subsection (8) also exercises a non-devolved function.
(10) An order under subsection (8) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
(11) The provision referred to in subsections (4) and (8) includes provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements.
(12) The power to make arrangements under subsection (1) is without prejudice to any other power of a body to which this section applies to provide services to other persons.’.—(Mr Hurd.)
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 4
Shared services: Forestry Commissioners
‘(1) The Forestry Commissioners may make arrangements with a person who exercises a Welsh environmental function (with or without other functions) to provide administrative, professional or technical services to that person for purposes relating to the exercise of public functions in or as regards Wales.
(2) The Welsh Ministers may by order make provision about how the function of making arrangements under this section is to be discharged (including provision about the extent to which a fee may be charged in respect of anything done under the arrangements).
(3) An order under subsection (2) is subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution of the National Assembly for Wales.
(4) The Secretary of State’s consent is required for—
(a) arrangements under this section, or
(b) an order under subsection (2).
(5) The power to make arrangements under this section is without prejudice to any other power of the Forestry Commissioners to provide services to other persons.’.—(Mr Hurd.)
Brought up, read the First and Second time, and added to the Bill.
New Clause 7
‘(1) In section 3 of the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 (power of Agricultural Wages Board to fix wages, holidays and other terms and conditions) the powers and duties of the Agricultural Wages Board are transferred to the Low Pay Commission.
(2) The Low Pay Commission shall establish an advisory board of employer and employee representatives from agricultural and related industries to make recommendations to the commission in fulfilment of its duties under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948.’.—(Andrew George.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 8—Office of Rural Affairs—
‘(1) The duties of the Commission for Rural Communities contained in section 19 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (Representation, advice and monitoring) are to be transferred to a body to be known as the Office of Rural Affairs, which will report to the Secretary of State.’.
New clause 9—Independent Rural Advocate—
‘(1) The Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 is amended as follows.
(2) In section 17 (Commission for Rural Communities) for “Commission for Rural Communities” there is substituted “Rural Advocate”.
(3) Subsection 17(2) is omitted.
(4) In section 18 (Commission’s general purpose) and section 19 (Representation, advice and monitoring) for all references to “Commission for Rural Communities” there is substituted “Rural Advocate”.’.
Amendment 32, in schedule 1, page 21, line 11, leave out
‘Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales’.
Amendment 39, in schedule 1, page 21, line 18, leave out ‘Commission for Rural Communities,’.
It is a pleasure to follow the previous debate, which was rather more truncated than I was expecting. I wish to emphasise the importance of retaining, under new clause 7, the protections provided by the Agricultural Wages Board, as well as addressing the importance of maintaining, under new clauses 8 and 9, an overarching mechanism—indeed, an independent body—that can advocate on behalf of rural areas. The Agricultural Wages Board was established under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, but the heritage of that body goes back to 1924. It is an independent body with a statutory obligation to set minimum wages for agricultural workers in England and Wales and powers to determine other terms and conditions, including holidays and sick pay.
Would it not be simpler to remove the Agricultural Wages Board from the list? Rather than coming up with a new scheme or initiative to transfer powers to the Low Pay Commission under new clause 7, we could leave the Agricultural Wages Board out of the Bill and it could continue to do the excellent work that it has done for many years.
I notice that amendment 32 tabled by the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues proposes to delete the reference to the Agricultural Wages Board from schedule 1. The reason that I proposed a compromise position in new clause 7 is that I agree with the principle underlying the Bill. It is important for Governments continually to review the justification for the existence of non-departmental public bodies and for us to reflect on the amount of public money expended by a wide variety of quangos.
Where we can amalgamate responsibilities or find ways in which protective regulations, such as those for agricultural workers, can be incorporated in another statutory body rather than abolishing the body altogether, as the Government propose, it is important that we explore that option. That is what I seek to do in new clause 7. The intention and the benefit of my proposal is that the regulations are kept and enforced, but the overhead cost of maintaining an organisation is reduced as a result of that amalgamation.
I was going to remind the House that the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board was in the Conservative party manifesto, not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, and the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board was not in the coalition agreement. The issue should be subject to discussions between the two parties, as well as parliamentary debate and scrutiny.
It has always been my view that one of the great benefits of a coalition is that it puts Parliament on the front foot, whether the Opposition like it or not, and it strengthens Parliament. It means that issues such as this, which cannot be resolved between the two parties through whatever usual channels are now established within the coalition, are subject to quite proper parliamentary scrutiny, and Back-Bench Members of the two parties in the coalition are able to hold those on the coalition Front Bench to account.
Is it not the case that the hon. Gentleman and the Liberal Democrats have not been consulted about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, and that his new clause is an attempt to save face with some of his constituents who will be affected by that? He can give the impression that he has fought for them, when later tonight the Government will abolish the Agricultural Wages Board anyway.
It is up to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues on the very Back Bench of the Labour party to consider the demeanour they wish to adopt in this debate. Given that we share concerns about a relatively small and vulnerable group of about 150,000 isolated rural workers, many of whom are working on the lowest wages possible in that sector, I should have thought that a better demeanour would be to try and build bridges and find ways forward where we can adopt common ground in order to protect those workers, rather than making what I am sorry to say are rather cheap party political points.
As a compromise, does new clause 7 weaken in any way the protections for agricultural workers? If so, is that not completely contrary not only to the Liberal Democrats’ historical position on the Agricultural Wages Board, but to an early-day motion tabled in 1990 when the last attempt was made to abolish the board? Not only the hon. Gentleman but every Liberal Democrat Member was a signatory to that motion, which stressed that we did not want any weakening of the board whatsoever.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his research, but it must be incorrect because I was not in the House in 1990, so it must have been another date. On the question about the potential weakening of the protections available to agricultural workers, of course, if I thought that the new clause in any way significantly weakened the board’s role in protecting agricultural workers and ensuring that they had a decent baseline and a progression, or in any way jeopardised the terms and conditions that have been secured for them over many years, I would accept what the hon. Gentleman says.
I have had discussions with the Low Pay Commission on the issue. All that it will say is that it is up to Parliament to decide what regulations the commission should adopt, but they need to be enforced. Under the present regulations, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs clearly has the ultimate responsibility for enforcing those.
The hon. Gentleman says that he has had discussions with the Low Pay Commission on his proposal. In the interests of transparency, what discussions has he had with the Government on this issue, and will he press the new clause to a vote, or is he simply using up House of Commons time?
I see that the demeanour adopted by those on the Back Benches is being adopted by those on the Front Bench, which is regrettable. It is for others to judge, but my concern on the issue has been sustained over a long time. I requested to see the Low Pay Commission and I have discussed the matter with it. Yes, I have had informal chats with Ministers on this issue, because like any other parliamentarian, I wish to clarify what lies behind the Government’s proposals, so naturally I have had discussions, but not formal discussions, and the hon. Gentleman is at liberty to explore the matter in the same way.
The hon. Gentleman rightly corrected me: it was in 2000, but I was completely accurate in what I was saying. So may I ask him one more time? If the Minister is unable to reassure him that, in whatever compromise new clause is brought forward, not simply will basic pay be protected, but so will holidays and sick pay, overtime and bereavement leave, rent protection and security of tenure in farm cottages, as they are under the Agricultural Wages Board provisions, will he support the Opposition’s amendment, not his new clause?
I agree. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his correction. I was here then and it is for the hon. Gentleman and his party to reflect on why we thought at that stage that the board might have been under threat. I entirely agree with him about the full raft of protections that should be available to agricultural workers. If I thought those protections were being significantly undermined, I would certainly not pursue the new clause in this manner. I emphasise that I do not feel precious about a particular quango; it is the protections I am most concerned about. I hope to hold out an olive branch to Ministers and say to them, “I agree with the principle underlying the Bill, which is to try to rationalise, amalgamate and abolish where that is necessary. Here is an example where we want the protections, but the small quangos that have proliferated can be amalgamated.” I am meeting them halfway and saying, “Let’s keep these protections.”
I represent one of the most urban constituencies, but I was brought up in some of the most rural ones. My hon. Friend’s new clause seems rightly to probe whether there is a sensible way to look after the low-paid in the agricultural industry without the duplication of quangos. That seems an entirely proper thing to do, and I hope that colleagues on the other side of the House have the same objective.
I did not answer the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas), the Opposition spokesman, who asked whether the new clause is intended to be probing or whether I intend to press it to a vote. This is clearly a matter of judgment. My intention is to advance the proposal as a solution that is available to the Government. The Bill is, after all, enabling legislation; it does not actually abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. At some point in the future there will be a framework within which the Government can bring forward a proposal, and we hope that they will genuinely consult upon it and that we will have an opportunity to debate the matter before taking it forward. My intention is to probe the matter. If I receive a deeply unsatisfactory response indicating that the Government have no intention of even considering the retention of any of the protections, or that they intend to drive on as quickly as possible with the abolition of not only the board but the regulations themselves, I will certainly consider pushing the new clause to a vote. I hope that the Minister is listening on that.
The last time the Liberals were in power they established the protection for agricultural workers. It will be a deep and wicked irony if, now that they are back in power, even if sharing it, they played any part in the abolition of that minimum protection. The hon. Gentleman says that his new clause is intended to be probing, but presumably he has probed his own Government. If there is any doubt whatever, I make a plea that he either presses the new clause or supports the Opposition’s amendment so that agricultural workers have that minimum protection.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which follows the theme of others in doubting the sincerity of my purpose, which is obviously a matter for him to judge—[Interruption.] Okay, perhaps he does not doubt the sincerity of my intention, but others sitting around him certainly have. I have a genuine intention to retain the protections, but I am not precious about the board. That is the bottom line for me, as set out in the new clause. That is what I am seeking to achieve, because I believe that agricultural workers will be vulnerable if they lose their protections, that they are very isolated and that they have no muscle in the negotiating framework to enhance and improve appropriately the salary scales and terms and conditions to which I believe they are entitled.
The hon. Gentleman knows that the protections are important, and for the 12,000 agricultural workers in my part of the United Kingdom in Wales, they are exceptionally important. Putting that aside for a moment, will he for once, as I will today, pray in aid the employers? The deputy director of agricultural policy of the Farmers Union of Wales said that the Agricultural Wages Board
“is considered an important means of avoiding potential conflict and lengthy negotiations with individual staff”.
There is a synergy between employers and employees in ensuring protection and crucially—the amendment omits this—retaining the mechanism for employers to negotiate effectively.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. There is a significant argument between his Front-Bench spokesmen and the Minister about whether withdrawal of the protections will increase the amount of negotiation that individual farmers will be obliged to engage in with their employees, instead of allowing them simply to fall back on the helpful framework of agreements that were negotiated over some time, and the orders that are enforced from 1 October every year, which the Agricultural Wages Board provides for the agricultural industry. Some people in the agricultural industry, but perhaps not employers, will accept publicly, and some will accept privately, that those negotiations and the framework that they provide for farmers and other agricultural employers are helpful and reduce the administrative burden when negotiating with their staff. The right hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point.
I return to a broad-brush point on agricultural workers. Last year, the Chancellor of the Exchequer made statements, which I thoroughly endorse, about how to restore the economy. He emphasised that we are all in this together, that those with the broadest shoulders should bear the greatest burden, and that the vulnerable should be protected.
In a moment.
Agricultural workers may have broad shoulders physically, but not in negotiations with their employers, and certainly not when those negotiations involve their salaries. They are among the most vulnerable people in the work force. If the Government adopt for agricultural workers the principle that the Chancellor explained in his statements last year on his approach to restoring the economy and public finances, it is important to look carefully at measures necessary to protect those vulnerable workers.
The hon. Gentleman is making some good proposals, but why should agricultural workers and businesses be treated differently from any other workers and businesses in this country?
The right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) mentioned the Farmers Union of Wales, but the National Farmers Union is clear in its support for the Government’s proposals.
I fully acknowledge that the NFU not only strongly supports the Government’s proposals but perhaps drove those proposals in the first place. Although I share a good and strong platform with the NFU on many issues, we do not agree on this point.
The implication of what my hon. Friend the Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) said is this: if these protections are not available in any other industry, why should they be available to agricultural workers? My answer is that we should not simply adopt a lowest common denominator approach, and that just because these protections do not apply to other industries, that does not mean that, in the interests of equality, agricultural workers should have them removed. Agricultural workers have proper protections, which need to be retained, and it might be appropriate to look at extending those protections—I am not saying that agricultural workers are exceptionally exploited—to other industries where there are isolated workers in a similarly weak position who are possibly exploited.
The hon. Gentleman cited the Chancellor’s saying that we are all in it together. Do the Liberals not get it? This morning, the Governor of the Bank of England repeated what he said before—that we have had the biggest reduction in standards of living in living memory. Are not the Chancellor and his Government cutting the pay of working people as their way of reducing the deficit, and is not this part of the same cuts?
The hon. Gentleman is making a series of good points about the retention of the AWB. However, his hon. Friends have raised the views of farmers. Is he aware of the survey carried out in and around the New Forest by Stuart Harding, who saw 44 farmers at random, 37 of whom were opposed to the abolition of the AWB?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I must admit that I am not fully aware of such surveys. As I said in response to an earlier intervention, the view is not universally held across all agricultural employers, some of whom have privately explained to me that they find that the framework that the AWB provides creates inefficiency in how they negotiate and establish agreements, sometimes admittedly verbal, with their work force.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that many farmers welcome the stability that is given them in their relationships, as they can avoid doing individual farm-by-farm, person-by-person negotiations. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said, that is the view of the Farmers Union of Wales. The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that it is also the view of the Welsh Government. The Minister will be able to confirm later that the Welsh Government have been in correspondence with DEFRA seeking to avoid today’s scenario of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board because they want to retain its functions within Wales.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that important point. We are part of a United Kingdom and, in spite of some hon. Members, a European Union in which the work force can migrate. The protections that an Agricultural Wages Board provides, which may be lost from England and Wales—and, I emphasise, from Cornwall—will not be lost in Scotland and Northern Ireland as a result of the Bill. Those who support the Bill’s measures on behalf of the agricultural sector argue that agricultural workers are highly prized. If the Agricultural Wages Board is withdrawn, there is a risk, certainly in the north of England, that agricultural workers will migrate north of the border, where their pay and conditions might be rather better. That will happen over time. The Minister looks at me in a rather quizzical and critical manner. Although it is true that the pay grades and terms and conditions of agricultural workers will not immediately be withdrawn as a result of the abolition of the board, for new entrants to agriculture the only protection similar to the regulations that will be jettisoned will be the application of the national minimum wage.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been looking at the Minister’s face, and a quizzical look did appear on it when he talked about the importance of the minimum rates to agricultural workers. May I invite him to spike the Minister’s argument if he is going to give us figures showing the number of farm workers who are paid above the minimum rate? Is it not true that in those circumstances, farm employers still use increases in the minimum rate to increase the rates that they pay their workers, even though those rates are above the minimum?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. The initial defence that Ministers gave for their proposal was that it is okay because there is a national minimum wage. The last Conservative Government did not consider such a proposal because there was no national minimum wage, but now that there is, they say that there is no fear because it provides a safety net for agricultural workers.
There are six grades of pay, from grade 1, which is only 2p above the national minimum wage, up to grade 6 which is—I do not have the figure in front of me, but I am sure the Minister will tell me it—about £8.80 an hour. Grade 6 is paid to farm managers and equivalent positions. I do not think that that is a lot to pay a farm manager. It is important to acknowledge that as little as 20% of the agricultural work force are paid at the grade 1 level. Therefore, 80% are paid above the grade 1 level. That helps to emphasise the point that it is vital to retain those grades.
It is not only the grades that are vital, but the conditions on holidays, sick pay, retention to be available on duty, standing pay, payment for the retention of a dog, and tied accommodation. About 30% of agricultural workers have tied accommodation. The regulations that apply to that are important because once somebody is in tied accommodation, they have a rather different relationship with their employer.
The hon. Gentleman is actually making some good points in defence of Labour’s amendment 32, not his new clause per se, because it will be not only new employees who are affected but contracted employees and casual workers renegotiating their contracts. I understand that 32,000 of those workers are in England and Wales. Does he agree with the point that I made earlier that if the view of both the Farmers Union of Wales and the Welsh Government is that the Agricultural Wages Board should be retained in Wales, it is inappropriate under the current devolution settlement to outlaw, abandon and abolish it? The Bill provides the people of Wales with no facility whatever to exercise their democratic legitimacy and retain it, let alone the people of Cornwall; we have not even moved on to devolution for Cornwall yet.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknowledging that the very distinctive region of Cornwall deserves such devolution.
The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly decent point, although I have to say that provided that the Government follow their word about the Bill being the enabling framework for abolitions to be made by order, he and his colleagues in Wales will be able to advance the idea of variable geography with regard to retaining protection for agricultural workers when orders are made. However, that is perhaps a debate for another day.
The hon. Gentleman is being extremely generous with interventions—I appreciate it.
The hon. Gentleman seems to have a lot of faith that the enabling framework in the Bill leaves the Government with an open mind about this matter. He listed a number of matters involved other than the minimum wage, such as other terms of employment and pay and conditions. Unless I am mistaken, I have not heard him mention sick pay so far, but we know from the Commission for Rural Communities, a body that is itself to be abolished under the Bill, that that will take £9 million out of the rural economy.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and perhaps I need to move on to the CRC, because I am aware that I have been very generous in giving way—perhaps too generous, judging by the body language of those on the Government Front Bench. I did mention sick pay, although I am not sure I can confirm the figure that the hon. Gentleman gave, and I noticed the Minister shaking his head at that point. However, the negotiated sick pay agreements for certain agricultural workers are clearly very important. They are certainly more generous than others, and I would not have thought that those workers would want to give them up lightly.
I wish to emphasise a couple of points on new clauses 8 and 9. The first is about the Rural Advocate’s role. The disbursement of grants and the other roles of the CRC could potentially be brought in-house or delivered in other ways. However, it is vital to retain an independent rural voice, and I still believe that the Government need to revisit that point. There are two very good reasons for that. One is that although those of us who represent rural constituencies are of course the rural voice in Parliament, and advocates on behalf of our constituents, we need a non-partisan inquisitor and overseer. We need someone to assess the general trends of what is going on in our rural communities and rural life. The nature of how we engage in our debates in the House is that we tend to react to the political issues of the day rather than necessarily approaching calmly, objectively and rationally a significant issue that might otherwise not be addressed at all.
It is also important to recognise that the Rural Advocate should in future speak up on behalf of the most vulnerable in rural areas, as he has in the past. People on below average wages are the minority in many rural communities, but in some, including in my constituency, they are the majority. Indeed, my constituency has the lowest average wage in the country.
The advocate should also speak up for those who fundamentally depend on the range of public services that are the most vulnerable, including rural bus services, small rural schools, and village shops and post offices, which are closing in many communities in many constituencies.
The Government simply propose to press ahead with the abolition of the Commission for Rural Communities. Hon. Members have addressed the manner in which the Government have approached that, but it is notable that the Rural Advocate has already been abolished. I must chide them on starting to deliver the purpose of the Bill, because the Bill is supposed to be enabling legislation. The Commission for Rural Communities must be retained.
I hope the Minister addresses the need to bridge the fault lines between Departments. Very often, rural matters need to addressed between Departments. Rural transport is a matter for the Department for Transport, and village schools are a matter for the Department for Education, but they should be addressed between Departments. The problem of the Government not taking sufficient account of the impact on rural communities of legislation and regulations needs to be addressed, either by retaining an independent rural voice, or by having a Cabinet sub-committee that is obliged to report to Parliament and produce reports regularly. Will the Minister consider that?
I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Gentleman’s expertise, and as a former rural affairs Minister, I thoroughly believe that the threat to the Agricultural Wages Board and the way in which the Government have dealt with rural issues are a disgrace. However, may I point out that he has now been going on about that for more than 40 minutes, and that it would be nice to fit one or two other major issues, such as the Youth Justice Board, into the limited time available?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that comment. I have been too generous in taking interventions, including his, which has taken a great deal of time.
The Government are aware that people are very unhappy at the loss of the independent rural voice. I hope that my argument gets a warm reception, and that I do not need to press the House to a Division on either of the two new clauses because the Government indicate that they will give ground.
I rise to speak to amendment 32, which is in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends, and to urge the Government to keep the Agricultural Wages Board. Let me say in passing that it is a sad indictment of the modern Conservative party that it can fill its Benches for a debate on Europe, and yet a debate of such considerable significance to the future of the countryside is better attended by Labour Members.
The hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) has done the House a service by raising the issues in the way that he did. His new clause 7, on the Agricultural Wages Board, is a positive and constructive one, as are his other proposals, but it is not as clear-cut or positive as the proposal in amendment 32 in my name and that of my right hon. and hon. Friends. However, if he decides that he does not receive a good enough response from the Minister, which I fear will be the outcome, I shall urge my right hon. and hon. Friends to support his new clause. Nevertheless, we hope that when we press our amendment, he will join us, given its greater benefit.
The AWB helps to ensure fair wages, so it will come as no surprise that the Conservative party wants it abolished. It is more surprising, however, that Liberal Democrat Ministers are signing up to the proposal. Like many others, rural workers will find it difficult to believe that this proposal is proof of the Deputy Prime Minister’s claim that he is a brake on the Conservative party. The AWB helps to ensure that people working in the countryside, be they apprentices, farm supervisors or small farmers, get a fair deal. Frankly, it is difficult to see how, without the AWB, farm workers will not inevitably be worse off.
Does my hon. Friend think it rather ironic that although the Conservative party claims to be the protector of rural communities, only one Conservative Back Bencher and one Conservative Parliamentary Private Secretary are attending this debate? Is it not clear that that party protects certain parts of the countryside, but not others?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, emphasising the one that I made about how it is surprising that so few Conservative Members are present.
Even Margaret Thatcher decided, in the end, that the AWB was too important to axe. Perhaps it would help the House if I gave two examples of the concerns about abolition that have been put to me. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett) said, had witnesses been invited to give their views on the Bill before the Committee stage, other Members might have had the opportunity to have direct conversations such as those I have had with the following two people. Richard Neville, from near Haywards Heath in Sussex, is on grade 4 of the AWB’s pay scale, reflecting his additional skills and experience—he has a craftsman certificate and a national certificate in agriculture. If the AWB were abolished, however, there would be no guaranteed protection of the extra wages reflecting his skills.
Richard Neville is particularly concerned about what would happen to overtime pay, which is currently paid at time and a half. He has to work one weekend in six and, obviously, considerably longer hours in summer over the harvest period. If he and those like him move jobs, what guarantee can the Minister offer that his new employer would offer him the same level of overtime pay? I would be happy to take an intervention from him, if he wants to get to his feet.
He does not—perhaps a glaring example of what the reality will look like.
My second example is Steve Leniec, from near Wantage in Oxfordshire, who is paid a craftsman’s rates and whose concerns are about the downward pressure on farm workers’ wages, which abolition of the AWB will drive. The House knows that unemployment is high at the moment, and his perfectly reasonable and understandable fear is that wages will slowly drop when the AWB is abolished.
My hon. Friend is talking about wages being gradually eroded, but the wages of the 40,000-plus casual workers, who change jobs more rapidly, will fall very quickly indeed. A large proportion of people working in the countryside will quickly take a pay hit if this body is abolished.
On this occasion, I do not agree with the National Farmers Union. As I have said, we consulted widely in preparing our position on this part of the Bill, and we have reached a very different conclusion on the basis of our conversations with farm workers, with small farmers and with other farm workers’ representative bodies, of which more later.
Might not the National Farmers Union give a different answer if the Government were to address the question of how we can grow more food to feed our population? We have a huge trade deficit, and the answer must surely be to invest more. If we raise our investment in people, we will raise productivity. The push should be not to lower wages but to raise them and to raise productivity.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Indeed, I hope that he will catch your eye later, Madam Deputy Speaker, to enable him to make that point in more detail.
I shall return, if I may, to the concerns expressed by Mr Leniec about the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. He is also worried about the loss of sick pay that he could suffer. He has never needed it to date, but knows of others who have done so. He also shares Mr Neville’s concern about the loss of protection of the right to overtime if he should move to a different employer.
The Agricultural Wages Board continues to provide an unheralded but important service in helping to protect vulnerable people and their families, who are vital to the rural economy, from seeing their terms and conditions progressively worsen. It helps to regulate basic pay and protection for fruit pickers, farm labourers and other farm workers. It deals with wages, holiday pay, sick pay and overtime, as well as bereavement leave, holiday entitlement and rates for night work. It provides a crucial floor beneath which wages in the agricultural economy cannot fall.
Nearly 150,000 agricultural workers in England and Wales depend on the Agricultural Wages Board. Those workers play a part in maintaining the vibrancy of our rural communities. They are the unsung essential staff who support farmers in helping to keep agricultural businesses thriving. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field) has just suggested, they form a vital part of our food production industry, helping to ensure that we and our constituents can all enjoy healthy—and, occasionally, unhealthy—meals.
It is striking that many farmers continue to support the Agricultural Wages Board. Its presence means that they do not have to become employment specialists, and that they can instead concentrate on running their businesses. The deputy director of the Farmers Union of Wales has noted that
“the AWB is considered an important means of avoiding potential conflict and lengthy negotiations with individual staff”.
To my knowledge, agriculture is the only industrial sector in which there have been no large industrial disputes over the past couple of decades. Is not that testimony to the success of the AWB?
The hon. Gentleman is undoubtedly right on this occasion. It is also worth noting that many small farmers also rely on providing their skills to other farmers, at Agricultural Wages Board rates, to ensure the viability of their businesses.
The Government made the important claim in Committee that the board’s abolition would not result in workers becoming worse off, and that minimum wage legislation and the European working time directive would protect their terms and conditions. I put it to the Minister, however, that once the Agricultural Wages board has gone, the 42,000 casual workers in the sector will see a drop in their wages as soon as they finish their next job. That point was also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright). The other 110,000 workers could see their wages and conditions corroded over time.
Is it not spurious for Ministers to claim that farm workers will be protected by the minimum wage? As the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) said, only 20% of farm workers are on the Agricultural Wages Board’s grade 1, which is virtually equivalent to the current minimum wage. The rest earn considerably more than the minimum wage and will not enjoy the same protection as the board offers them now. Is it not true, too, that once the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished the right to overtime pay at current rates will disappear when a worker moves job? Is it not true, too, that once the board is abolished the right to sick pay will be at a substantially lower rate than at present for agricultural workers when they move jobs? Then there are children who do summer jobs or part-time work on the land; they usually live in rural villages themselves and often have aspirations to work on the land for a career once they are old enough to do so. They currently receive £3.05 an hour. They are not covered by the national minimum wage, so—if, indeed, the board is abolished—they will have no wage protection when they do holiday or weekend work.
Poverty in the countryside rarely receives the coverage or attention it should. Indeed, the extra costs of living and working in the countryside do not get the attention they should, so the work of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in highlighting the extra 10% to 20% living costs that those in rural areas typically need to spend on everyday requirements in comparison with those living in urban areas, is surely significant. It should further challenge us to do more to combat low pay and poverty in the countryside and it surely poses the question of how the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board can possibly help in that important task. The board is also an important counterweight to the pressures from the food industry, particularly those from the supermarket chains, for ever lower costs of production to increase profitability.
I read through the comments that the Minister made in Committee. He cited how the Agricultural Wages Board's existence discourages the payment of annual salaries and the confusion with non-agricultural work that can occur. Those may or may not be genuine concerns. If they are—I take the Minister at his word—one would have thought that a reform agenda could explore those issues. Instead, the Government want to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, not thinking through the consequences for rural wages of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. With rural workers already facing a huge squeeze on their finances from higher energy prices, the increase in VAT and an economy that is being badly mismanaged by the Conservatives, the Government now want to risk rural workers’ wages.
We know from a leaked impact assessment on the abolition of the board that the impact of the loss of entitlement to agricultural sick pay compared with the lower-in-value statutory sick pay that will remain will be a
“transfer, a benefit to farmers and a cost to workers.”
The impact assessment estimates that the reduction in earnings for farm workers as a result of that measure alone will be some £9 million—£9 million out of the rural high street in lost earnings by workers. All those villages shops—vulnerable now because of the Government’s mishandling of the economy—are hardly going to be helped by yet another squeeze on the finances of those they want as their consumers.
If there is any doubt that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will damage the pay of rural workers, let us look at what happened in other parts of our economy when their wages councils were abolished. In evidence published as far back as September 1995, three in 10 jobs were paying less than they would have done if wages councils in the relevant sectors had not been abolished. The fall in pay in shops was particularly severe. A follow-up study one year later showed that half of all vacancies were paying below what they would have done if the wage councils had still existed. The situation had got worse. Such evidence explains why the Labour Government not only brought in the minimum wage, but reformed collective bargaining arrangements. It is also why we will tonight oppose the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and why I will seek your leave, Madam Deputy Speaker, to divide the House.
Lastly, I draw attention to amendment 39, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) and other hon. Friends and which deals with the Commission for Rural Communities. The abolition of the CRC will leave rural communities without an independent voice, as the Government scrapped the Rural Advocate post last year. It raises the question of whether the Government are really committed to rural proofing Government policies. Indeed, the abolition of the CRC, along with—crucially—the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, following on from the Government’s attempts to sell off the nation’s forests, is surely proof that the countryside is being let down by the coalition Government parties.
Thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not expect to be called so soon—I expected a Government Member to be called next—but, in the absence of any speakers on the Government Benches, I shall proceed with my speech.
This morning there was a very good lobby of agricultural workers, during which members of Unite, other union workers and MPs gathered outside Parliament to protest against the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board. Amendments 32 and 39, to which my name is attached, are intended to secure a fair deal for 152,000 farm workers in England and Wales, apprentices and farm managers alike. The amendments are intended to protect their basic pay, holidays, sick pay, overtime, bereavement leave, rent, and security of tenure in farm cottages. They are also intended to protect the compact between Government and farm workers that has existed for decades, since the Attlee Government of 1948, and which—here I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George)—has recognised the enduring need to provide reasonable recompense for arduous and dangerous agricultural work, to promote food security, and to contribute to the tackling of rural poverty.
Members should be in no doubt about the fact that if the Government axe the Agricultural Wages Board, there will be severe repercussions. According to the Government’s own figures, £9 million will be removed from the rural economy every year, at a time when the Government are presiding over what is effectively a zero-growth economy. The Minister did his best on the radio today, saying that he did not expect any of those bad things to happen as a result of the board’s abolition. I did not expect Wales to go out of the semi-final of the rugby world cup, and the Government did not expect to see 80-odd of their Back Benchers in open rebellion last night, only 18 months into a new Administration, but, as the old saying goes, farmyard slurry happens.
More than 40,000 casual workers will experience a drop in their wages when their current jobs finish, and the wages of a further 110,000 will be eroded over time. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) has told us what happens when wages councils disappear, and has described the pattern of the effect on wages and salaries over a sustained period. What assessment has the Minister made of the cost to the taxpayer of the additional claim on that taxpayer through payments of child tax credit and other support for farm workers and their families when their wages and entitlements wither on the vine?
The House has a very long memory, and some Members have been here for many years longer than I have, but I do not think that any Member who is present today was present for the original debates on this subject in 1947 and 1948. Nevertheless, there is a strange echo down the years of the debates that took place both here and in the other place. Archer Baldwin, Conservative spokesman for agriculture, argued in defence of a policy of minimalist—not minimum—wage protection, remarking of the previous pitiful agricultural wages:
“The reason for those low wages was the low prices paid to the farmer, and we want to relate prices to wages.”—[Official Report, 22 January 1947; Vol. 432, c. 251.]
He wanted to relate farm gate prices to wages, rather than ensuring the farmer was given a proper price for his produce and was paid a proper living wage.
I remind Liberal Democrat Members who—again—are wondering which way to turn now that their Conservative bedfellows have once more stolen the duvet that, as I remarked earlier, there was a time when they were wholly against the proposal with which we are dealing today. It was the last time there was a review of the Agricultural Wages Board—not a threat to abolish it, just a review. The Government of the day did not proceed with any proposals to abolish, change, or transfer any functions from the board, because they were faced with a powerful combined front of Labour, Liberal Democrat and assorted other Members who opposed any proposal to change it.
I suggest to the hon. Member for St Ives, who has tried his hardest to make a good fist of putting forward an alternative compromise, that there is a danger that notwithstanding what was a very principled stance on that occasion, the Liberal Democrats will tonight go over to the dark side, or at least put one foot in both sides of the bed. Regardless of which side of the bed they are on—strong Liberal or weak Tory—that is what is proposed, in particular by new clause 7 tabled by the hon. Member for St Ives. I respect the hon. Gentleman. He is trying to do the right thing: he is trying not to upset his party’s coalition partners too much, and he is looking for a neat Lib Dem compromise, but it is a compromise. His proposals are a weak and unsatisfying brew compared with our full-strength amendment, which would truly protect the AWB.
I referred earlier to an early-day motion in 2000. In response to a proposed review of the AWB—not a proposal to abolish it—former Lib Dem Members who prided themselves on their strong rural and agricultural credentials stood alongside Labour MPs in mounting an heroically robust defence of the AWB as it stands. Former Lib Dem Members for South East Cornwall, Cheltenham, Brecon and Radnorshire, Montgomeryshire, Truro, St Austell and North Cornwall, and also the current hon. Members for St Ives, for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), for North Devon (Nick Harvey) and for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), were happy, when in opposition, to sign up to an EDM that was glowing in its praise of the AWB and stalwart in its defence. Among other benefits, they noted
“that the Agricultural Wages Board…sets a series of rates of pay to reflect the varying qualifications and experience of farm workers, thus providing a visible career structure for recruits going into agricultural work and is used as a benchmark for other rural employment”.
They also said that they believed
“that any weakening of the Agricultural Wages Board or its abolition would further impoverish the rural working class”.
What has changed? The EDM added that the abolition of the AWB would lead to
“exacerbating social deprivation and the undesirable indicators associated with social exclusion; and therefore calls on the Government at the conclusion of the current review, to retain the Agricultural Wages Board as it is currently constituted.”
I say to the hon. Member for St Ives that he and his colleagues were utterly right then, and they are utterly wrong tonight. I say to him, “Pull the duvet back and show who is in charge. Your rural working class are watching.”
Does my hon. Friend also agree that the hon. Gentleman was correct when he was quoted on 11 November last year in the Farmers Guardian as saying:
“If I thought that by following this policy farm workers would be better paid or have better conditions then I’d support it. But, I think we all know that the opposite is the most likely consequence”?
He was right then, and he is wrong tonight.
I agree with my hon. Friend, and I also agree with the hon. Gentleman, as his peroration was, in fact, an argument in favour of our amendment, not his new clause. I therefore say to him that he should by all means press his new clause to a Division, as if he does so the Government Front-Bench team will have to consider whether it supports him. However, if he is not minded to do so, I urge him to support our amendment, as it will do exactly what he has previously argued is right for poor rural farm workers.
The purpose of my new clause is to achieve the Government objective of saving money by doing away with unnecessary quangos and other NDPBs, while also retaining the protections for agricultural workers. It therefore achieves exactly the same outcome as the hon. Gentleman is claiming to want, while also saving public money.
The hon. Gentleman’s comments highlight the difference between our positions, as I do not think his new clause does anything of the sort. Instead, it weakens and threatens not only pay, but all the other terms and conditions of service that should be protected. His proposal is not an absolute guarantee; rather it is, in effect, a “maybe.” He and his colleagues have to consider tonight whether they are happy with the much more opaque and vague assurances that may come from the Government Front-Bench team.
As I said, the rural working class is watching, and so are people in Wales. The Farmers Union of Wales does not want the functions of the AWB to disappear, noting among its strengths the fact that, operating with few staff,
“the AWB is…an important means of avoiding potential conflict and lengthy negotiations with individual staff.”
As I mentioned, the Minister will doubtless want to confirm today that the Welsh Assembly Government have also indicated their desire to retain the functions of the AWB in Wales and are awaiting a response from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. So may I suggest to him that today is not the day to draw a shroud over the AWB, not least when to do so would be a clear rejection of the legitimate democratic voice of the Welsh people?
Finally, I draw the attention of the Minister and of Conservative Back Benchers—both of them—to the American poet, philosopher and polymath Henry David Thoreau, who asserted:
“Farmers are respectable and interesting to me in proportion as they are poor.”
Farm workers are going to be a whole lot more respectable, a whole lot more interesting and a darn sight poorer if the Government carry out this threat to abolish the AWB.
I rise to speak to amendments 32 and 39, and I do so as a rural trade unionist and a rural Labour MP. The AWB is not a quango; it involves the Secretary of State, independents, workers in the industry and employers meeting to negotiate pay, and terms and conditions. Its destruction undoes the rightful and valuable recognition of skilled labour in the food manufacturing sector. Its destruction only creates a disincentive to young workers to enter the industry by reducing skilled labour to the level of the national minimum wage. That is a general wage for general work and it should not be used as a general means for conducting pay negotiations across a whole industry.
The scrapping of the AWB will have significant consequences for the rent relationships of workers at their place of work. Furthermore, it will undermine overtime pay arrangements, as the national minimum wage carries no overtime rates. Without the AWB, agricultural workers will have no mechanism to pursue collective bargaining to improve their pay and terms and conditions, and thus pursue their aspirations and improve their lot, not only for themselves, but for their families and their communities—they can only just about afford to live in those. If the AWB is scrapped, they will no longer be able to pursue those things.
The destruction of the AWB is only one part of this Government’s attack on the countryside. If it were not for the national minimum wage, the AWB’s removal would definitely take industrial relations in the fields of our nation back to an appalling condition not seen since the time of the Tolpuddle martyrs. For many on the Government Benches, “The Hired Man” is not merely a fictional account based on our social history of more than 100 years ago, but an economic vision for the future, exploiting the worker in the field. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats cannot claim to be the parties of rural communities when the only part of rural society they want to talk to is the affluent one. The AWB provides a proper and efficient means for workers and employers to resolve human resources and industrial matters quickly. Its destruction only disfranchises workers—they will not have the right to negotiate a day’s pay—and complicates matters of negotiation. The move is divisive and will undoubtedly divide rural communities between employer and employee.
The destruction of the AWB has a cynical kernel at its heart. It implies that because of record levels of unemployment employers can drive down terms, conditions and pay on the assumption that people will simply be grateful for a job. In that sense, it is intended precisely to let the rural rich exploit the very rural working class who provide the food we eat and feed our families with.
I am getting a little concerned for the health of the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) because when he speaks as he did tonight and as he did in the health debate, he seems to be in a certain amount of pain—perhaps the fence he has been sitting on in all these debates is causing pain to his nether regions. Clearly he is trying tonight to give the impression to his rural constituents that he is supporting them, while giving succour to the abolition of the AWB. He has to make a clear decision about whether or not he supports this move. His new clauses are seriously flawed, as was shown by some of his arguments. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) that the hon. Gentleman made a better argument for the AWB’s retention than he did for his new clauses.
I have a problem with the new clauses. The hon. Gentleman said that he had had discussions with the Low Pay Commission, but subsection (1) of new clause 7 would require some form of legislation to amend the LPC’s remit. This is not simply a matter of transferring functions to the LPC, because we would be changing its role and nature greatly. Subsection (2) simply bemuses me. It states:
“The Low Pay Commission shall establish an advisory board of employer and employee representatives from agricultural and related industries to make recommendations to the commission in fulfilment of its duties under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948.”
That sounds very much to me like a description of the AWB. Why do we need to move things to the LPC, given that subsection (2) basically retains the function? If there is a need for the AWB to protect rural workers, we should leave it as it is.
The hon. Gentleman said that he wanted to take this approach to save money. I believe that the AWB costs £272,000 a year, which is less than half what the new special advisers appointed by the Deputy Prime Minister cost—we will keep an eye on the Tory Ministers throughout the coalition Government. So we are paying a small price to protect rural workers and rural communities. If the hon. Gentleman really wants to support rural workers in his constituency and the rest of the country, he should support our amendments 32 and 39. They make clear the need for, and importance of, the AWB, not only for workers, but for rural economies.
I am delighted that my hon. Friend has talked about agricultural workers, because this is not solely an urban/rural issue. Many people who live in towns such as Telford, which I represent, go out of the town to work in rural areas. So this is not just about sustaining the rural economy; it is also about urban areas.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point; places such as Telford are surrounded by large rural areas. It is ironic that Conservative Members keep telling us that they are the champions, supporters and voice of the countryside, given that a second Conservative Member has only just arrived for this very important debate. That tells me loud and clear that they will protect certain parts of rural communities but not others—the most vulnerable. May I say, as a former trade union official, that it would be the first time in history if something like the abolition of the AWB led to an increase in the wages of rural workers? It is therefore vital that the AWB is retained.
If the hon. Member for St Ives wants to prove to his constituents that he really cares about their needs, all he needs to do is vote for amendments 32 and 39 and encourage the rest of his party to do so. I assure him that at the next general election the Labour party in his constituency and in other Liberal Democrat rural constituencies will remind constituents of exactly what the Liberal Democrats did. As with a lot of things that this coalition is doing to attack working people in this country, this could not be done without the support of the Liberal Democrats.
I will speak briefly, as I am conscious of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael). I do not represent a rural constituency, but a city-centre constituency which, as the House of Commons Library tells me, has approximately zero agricultural workers living in it. It seems to me that this is about fairness. As many speakers have pointed out, the Agricultural Wages Board covers not only workers’ wages but grading arrangements, skills and qualifications, overtime, training costs, apprenticeships, allowances and grants, holidays, sick pay, leave and housing. It is inconceivable that, if the board were abolished, there would not be downward pressure on the terms, wages and conditions of agricultural workers.
I want to address one more issue about the industry more broadly. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr Field), when he was in his place, talked about the need for security of supply and how the industry needs to expand. I am very worried that if the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished, it will lead to destabilisation in the industry. It can be no coincidence that there has not been a major industrial dispute in this sector of the economy since 1923. I am told that the industry needs 60,000 entrants. According to some research, because of the machinery and the nature of the work, the industry has the highest death and injury rate per capita. For reasons of security of food supply, we need people to move into the industry and I am deeply concerned that, if the Government get their way this evening, the changes will act as a major disincentive to people entering it.
I said I would be brief, so I shall finish on this point. We have not had an industrial dispute in this sector since 1923, but if we did have one as a result of the Government getting their way tonight it would be a very sad day indeed.
The Agricultural Wages Board sets standard rates of pay for 12,000 agricultural workers in Wales and similar workers in England, with six grades ranging from £6.10 an hour to £9.14 an hour to reflect the different types of work involved. As farming is so dependent on maximising effort when the season and weather are right, the board also gives guidance on unsocial hours, night working and dog allowances to mention just a few matters, as well as setting the rate of pay at £3.05 an hour for under-16s, who are not covered by the national minimum wage.
Many farms in Wales are family businesses with just two or three employees, or perhaps only one. Discussions about pay and conditions can be very tricky and, quite honestly, embarrassing, so standard guidance from the Agricultural Wages Board helps farmers and the 12,000 farm workers in Wales. That is the view of the Farmers Union of Wales, which has made that absolutely clear. Many of the inquiries that it receives can be answered by the board and the reason for that is not that it is just an information line but that it sets the wage levels.
In some instances, in family farm situations where there are just one or two employees, conflict can arise over wages even if there is good will on both sides, and reference to the board can avoid a lot of confusion and conflict. In other instances, there are huge temptations for employers to allow wages to be eroded by inflation, and without the Agricultural Wages Board it would be all too easy for employers to drive down wages. In the case of the many seasonal workers, that could happen very quickly indeed after the board’s abolition. In many rural areas, there are few other job opportunities and the driving down of agricultural wages would significantly increase rural poverty. Indeed, we have heard that some £9 million will be taken out of the rural economy. Furthermore, it will lead to an exodus from the countryside, and we know that there is already a skills shortage. If we are to feed the nation in future we should be encouraging decent wage levels and encouraging young people to take up agricultural jobs.
Without the Agricultural Wages Board to set those additional grades above the national minimum wage to reflect the skills and physical effort involved in farm work, there will be a race to the bottom. This is part of the Government’s determined agenda to drive down wages, increase poverty and take away any opportunity for ordinary people to have any redress against exploitation. Let us be clear: this is not about cutting red tape. It is about driving down wages and taking money out of the rural economy. That is why I shall support Opposition amendments 32 and 39.
As I represent one of the largest Labour rural constituencies, I have to ask the House what is wrong with this Government—with these Liberals and Tories—who are taking every opportunity to decimate rural communities in my constituency and across the country? We know the inevitable consequences of removing and abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board: reductions in wages. That means there will be less money to spend on postage stamps, but of course they have an answer to that because the number of post offices closing and the threat to the universal postal system are part of their policy.
There will be less money in the pockets of rural workers to spend in pubs but they cannot find any pubs in rural communities because of the inaction of this Government. There will also be less money to spend in rural shops. But the biggest crime of this Government to date is the fact that across the country we have seen the decimation of independent retailers, especially in rural areas. That is within 18 months. Therefore, this is part of a particular policy and approach. We know the Government’s approach to the countryside: concrete it all over and put every village together by building houses that people do not want and sticking more wind farms in. That is their policy for the rural community. Indeed, that is their only policy other than this one—give us loads of concrete but take away the spending power of people living in the rural community.
There is a reason for that approach, which one might think would be unpopular. Indeed, it is tremendously unpopular in my area as I am sure it is elsewhere in the country—it is a vote loser. The Liberals have lost all their votes already but it is a vote loser for the Tories so why are they doing it? They are doing it because this is the only economic plan they have. This is part of that plan and needs to be seen as part of it. They cannot create growth, so their economic plan is to cut real wages and real standards of living. As the Governor of the Bank of England said to the Treasury Committee today, there has been the biggest cut in living memory in standards of living in this country since this Government have been in, with working people across the country having less money in their pockets. The biggest cut since before the 1930s—that is what they have brought us.
What did Government Front Benchers say when they were going on about Europe yesterday? They said, “We want to meddle in Europe; we want to repatriate some powers”, meaning the paid holidays and agency workers directives. Those very things sit alongside the Agricultural Wages Board. This is part of the same process and ideology, because this is ideology-driven. It is economic nonsense. In my constituency, it is economic nonsense to reduce the real pay of people who do not have a great amount of discretionary spend anyway. I am talking about the poorest people in my community, and I have an ex-mining community. Poverty and pockets of poverty are greater in rural communities than in any mining community in my area. The real spending power of those people will be reduced and that will have a catastrophic effect on the rural community overall. That is what these people in government are doing through a deliberate economic policy. Shame on them for doing that and shame on this lot of Liberals for backing it. I recommend to the House supporting the Opposition’s sensible amendment.
We have had a number of speeches on these new clauses and amendments which I shall try to address. I have to say that for the hon. Member for Harrow West (Mr Thomas) to say that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board is a major issue in the countryside demonstrates a serious lack of understanding about the issues that face the countryside. For the Opposition to talk about rural poverty after 13 years in office in which rural poverty got worse and worse year by year, with nearly everything they did being an attack on rural communities, smacks of hypocrisy.
I am one of those, and I suspect there are others in the House, who has at some stage had their wages set by the Agricultural Wages Board. I am not quite going back to 1948, but getting close to then. However, I recognise that the world has changed. Back in 1948, there were tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, more farm workers. Most of them were horsemen, because horses were the main force of traction in those days. The world has moved on. Farm workers are not the forelock-tugging yokels that many Opposition Members seem to think.
I do not think that I was doing that, but is the Minister really telling the House that, if the Agricultural Wages Board is abolished, farmers—I understand that he was a farmer before he was a Minister—will drive up wages, rather than driving them down?
The market is what will affect wages. That is the reality of how wages are set in every other—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Harrow West and the hon. Gentleman told us everything that happened after the abolition of the other wages councils and boards. I would take much more seriously all the remarks that we have heard from Opposition Members if they had recreated a single wages council or board in their 13 years in office. They did not do that, and that is why—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says, “The minimum wage.” Yes, we support the minimum wage, and we have got it now.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman because I respect his integrity and his contribution on these issues in the past, although I did not agree with everything that he said.
As the hon. Members for St Ives (Andrew George) and for North Durham (Mr Jones) said, new clause 7 would transfer the Agricultural Wages Board’s powers to the Low Pay Commission and establish an advisory board of employees and employers to advise the commission. Clearly, amendment 32 would strike the whole issue from the Bill. Both provisions would continue the separate minimum wage regime for agricultural workers, although the mechanism would be different.
All workers will have exactly the same entitlements as they currently have. Other hon. Members have made the point—I was going to make it later, but I emphasise it now, because there are a lot of myths about—that the Bill will not affect anyone in their current employment. They will be protected by their current terms and contract of employment, whether in relation to rates or conditions of pay.
I will give way, but I will make a little progress first.
I need to emphasise that this is not some secretive plot, as some people would suggest—[Interruption]—or even an open one. Let us not be pedantic. It is not some plot to drive down wages or conditions for agricultural workers; quite the reverse. For many years, there has been widespread employment protection for workers in other sectors of the economy through the national minimum wage regime and working time regulations. Agriculture remains the only sector with a separate employment regime. The terms and conditions and the way that it operates are outdated and gold-plate the provisions of the national minimum wage legislation and working time regulations. There is, therefore, a heavy regulatory burden on employers, and we believe that it is hampering the industry from creating jobs and damaging long-term prosperity and sustainability.
The regime that we seek to abolish dates back to the bygone era that I referred to. It does not relate to today’s widespread legal protections. It no longer reflects modern employment practices. As has been mentioned, it discourages the payment of annual salaries, which is difficult for workers because they have no control over their own financial planning. By contrast, the national minimum wage legislation provides for the payment of annual salaries. I emphasise that all our evidence shows that the vast majority of agricultural workers are paid above the level dictated by their Agricultural Wages Board grades.
Anyone in a post at the moment is protected by their contract of employment. Anyone who changes jobs—and whose contract therefore is no longer valid—will have to negotiate, just like in any other sector of the economy, and the hon. Gentleman was part of the Government who did not change that system.
The Minister is being generous in giving way, but may I probe him again on my previous question, because he did not address those who change contracts? Can he confirm that most people are entitled to statutory sick pay of £81.60? Under AWB grade 1, the figure is £153.30. Under grade 2, it is £274.86. If we abolish the AWB and people go on to new contracts on those terms—I can pull out other examples—they will have substantially diminished terms and conditions. That is the reality that the Minister is painting for us.
The hon. Gentleman does not seem to grasp that, if someone decides to change their job in the future, they will obviously want to take into account what terms and conditions the alternative is offering them. I will not dispute his figures, because they are the ones laid down at the moment, but anyone changing jobs will want to consider the options available to them.
I was referring to the wages order, not the wages themselves. The Agricultural Wages Board structure is gold-plated. As other hon. Members have mentioned, the reality is that a lot of agricultural wages order measures go way beyond what is laid down in statute for any other walk of life or sector of employment.
I very much respect the Minister’s judgment. He argues that the Agricultural Wages Board represents a bygone age, but does he accept that the Conservatives supported the establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which provides necessary additional regulation to protect agricultural workers. If he is predicting, as a result of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, that wages and terms and conditions will not go down, can he tell the House this evening that he will confidently predict that they will either at least remain the same or, indeed, be more enhanced than they might otherwise be? [Interruption.]
For once, I agree with whoever is shouting from a sedentary position. Of course no Minister can guarantee such things and it would be crazy for anybody to do that, but it is our firm belief that the overall employment situation in agriculture and in the fresh food sector will be enhanced by the abolition of the wages board.
The amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives to transfer the powers and duties of the Agricultural Wages Board to the Low Pay Commission would mean the continuation of a dual regime, with consequent duplication of effort for employers. A transfer of the wages board functions to the Low Pay Commission would mean that there was still a separate employment regime for agricultural workers. There would be no removal of the regulatory burden on businesses and we would not achieve the simplification of legislation that we believe is necessary.
Moreover, if the Low Pay Commission were to be given powers to set an agricultural minimum wage rate, it would be difficult to argue why the commission should not extend those powers to set rates in other sectors—in other words, to return to the position before 1993. As it is, the Low Pay Commission does not have any statutory powers to set a minimum wage in any sector. It is an advisory body which makes recommendations to Government. The establishment of another advisory body to advise the Low Pay Commission, which the new clause would create, would introduce more bureaucracy, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid.
If the Agricultural Wages Board and agricultural minimum wage regime were abolished, the Low Pay Commission would be asked to consider evidence in the agricultural sector, as it does in other sectors. That evidence would be taken into account when the commission made its recommendations to Government on the rates for the national minimum wage. The national minimum wage rate would thus reflect the situation for agricultural workers. I have emphasised the point about retention of existing contractual rights.
The current evidence shows that for permanent workers aged over 21, well over half were paid well above the hourly minimum wage for the relevant grades in both 2009 and 2010. As in all other industries, agricultural workers with the right qualifications and aptitudes would continue to be able to command a premium. Lower skilled workers who were paid at or around the grade 1 agricultural minimum wage rate would be protected by the national minimum wage requirements. As has been mentioned, the lowest agricultural wage rate is just 2p per hour above the national minimum wage.
The Government would encourage industry representatives to work together to provide benchmarks for agricultural wage rates. As Members know, a non-statutory approach to wage setting works in many other industries, such as the construction sector, and although there are differences between the sectors, there is no reason why a similar approach should not work in agriculture.
I have discussed the matter with the National Farmers Union and urged it to introduce advisory levels of pay annually, in conjunction with the revisions to the minimum wage and annual levels of premium. The current premiums paid for grades above grade 1 are certain percentages above the basic grade. There is no reason why any employer who wants to employ somebody who they classify as a craftsman, a foreman or whatever grade they wish, cannot continue to use the minimum wage as the base for adding whatever premium they consider appropriate. The annual uprating of the minimum wage would be the opportunity for annual changes to agricultural wages.
In Committee and again tonight, there was considerable debate about the position of the Agricultural Wages Board in Wales. I accept that the Welsh Government take a different view. We are continuing to engage with them on the arrangements that should apply to agricultural workers in Wales.
Finally, the future of the board will be subject to public consultation, as required by the provisions of the Bill. We hope to consult before the end of the year. That will ensure that the consultation is widely advertised to meet the requirements of the Bill. Equally important and relevant to points that have been made tonight, an impact assessment and equality impact assessment will be published as part of the consultation.
That brings me to the issue of £9 million being taken out of the economy, which the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said—well, it was broadcast this morning, but I suspect that, like me, she did not actually say it this morning—was per year. The figure of £9 million was one of a number of possible scenarios, but I will not take it back. It did originate from DEFRA, but it was not an official impact assessment. I do not dispute its origin, but the figure was £9 million over 10 years—less than £1 million a year.
The hon. Gentleman is mixing his figures. Nobody is disputing £270,000-odd as the annual cost of running the board. That is not the reason for abolishing it. The purpose of abolition, as we have tried to say, is to release the industry and free it up to increase employment opportunities.
I have seen a DEFRA impact assessment, which says that the cumulative impact of holiday pay and reductions in sick pay is £90 million over 10 years, which is where the £9 million a year net present value comes from. I am happy to send the Minister that document if he has not seen it yet.
I am happy to debate that matter with the hon. Lady outside. [Interruption.] I do not have the document to hand and I am not in a position to dispute the point. I certainly do not wish to be responsible for misleading the House.
On the second part of this group of amendments about the loss of an independent voice for rural communities, the Government have clearly stated that they are firmly of the view that democratically accountable Ministers should take responsibility for policy functions. A single centre of rural expertise, the rural communities policy unit operating within DEFRA, has already been able to engage more effectively since it was started earlier this year. It is already established.
In response to two points made by my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives, I should say that the commission has not been legally disbanded. That is part of the proposal in the Bill. The rural advocate’s post to which he referred is not a statutory post. It did not require any legislative change.
The work programme of the rural communities policy unit will shortly be published on the DEFRA website and the unit will be using a range of methods to provide public updates about progress and impact. I emphasise that we believe it is DEFRA Ministers who are primarily responsible for ensuring that rural issues are championed within the whole of Government. There are many rural commentators and independent organisations who already advocate strongly, work to us and see us regularly, and all of us are Ministers with strong rural backgrounds. It is our job to be accountable to Parliament for the way that we fulfil our role as rural champions. We will publish various documents and policy proposals over the coming weeks and months to demonstrate clearly that we understand the real needs of rural communities.
I am pleased to say that the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee has indicated that it will wish to scrutinise the work of the rural communities policy unit. The Government welcome that as further evidence of the importance that many in this House and in the other place attach to the interests of rural communities.
The House will have heard the hon. Lady’s apology.
If new clauses 8 and 9 were agreed to, we would create two new statutory bodies, an office of rural affairs and a rural advocate, both of which would be responsible for exercising the advocacy, advice and watchdog functions currently undertaken by the CRC. Instead of moving towards a single source of rural expertise, we would be funding two new organisations to gather evidence of rural impacts and to seek to bring about changes in policy, which would be a muddled arrangement, and, if anything, replicate and extend the duplication of functions that we seek to address.
We have had a long debate. I am conscious that other Members want to move on to other issues. There are other things that I could say about rural communities, but suffice it to say that we have a Government and a Department that passionately care about rural communities, and in that light I ask my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives to withdraw the new clause.
I am conscious that we have still to debate the Youth Justice Board and S4C, so I will not detain the House unnecessarily. However, I should like to respond to the Minister’s comments on the new clauses and his comments on the Commission for Rural Communities. New clauses 8 and 9 were mutually exclusive, so they would not both have to be agreed to. I appreciate that they may not be sufficiently technically adequate to achieve my objective, but the Minister must accept the need for some independent, out-of-Government advocate, and I hope that some overarching brief to maintain the rural perspective is a debate that we can still have, as the Minister acknowledges that the issue requires affirmative resolution following this enabling legislation.
I will not respond to all the Minister’s remarks on new clause 7, which dominated the debate, but he predicted that it would not drive down wages and conditions, and I respect his judgment. That is obviously a brave prediction, but when I asked whether he could predict that it would at least protect and result in the exceptional enhancement of agricultural workers’ wages and conditions, he could not provide that reassurance. I am pleased that in the past Conservatives supported the very necessary legislation to establish the Gangmasters Licensing Authority. The Minister said that this reflected a bygone age, but the bygone age is one before gangs and gangworkers were brought in and exploited in the manner in which they have been. That issue has been addressed, but agricultural workers are still very much present. After the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board, should that proceed, it is predicted that we still need to attract another 60,000 agricultural workers over the next 10 years, which will be a challenge indeed.
I accept that new clause 7 is technically deficient, but I still believe that the Government should reflect on the proposal to bring responsibility for the enforcement of the regulations under another body such as the Low Pay Commission. Given that we are not making the decision today to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board, we have had a good debate and there are other matters for consideration, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
New Clause 11
Youth Justice Board powers and responsibilities in relation to Wales
‘A joint committee shall be established to oversee the exercise of powers and responsibilities relating to youth justice jointly between the Youth Justice Board and Ministers of the National Assembly for Wales.’.—(Alun Michael.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 12—Youth Justice in Wales—
‘A joint committee shall be established to oversee the exercise of powers and responsibilities relating to youth justice jointly between the Secretary of State, or any body to which the duties of the Youth Justice Board have been transferred under an order made under section 1, and Ministers of the National Assembly for Wales.’.
Amendment 33, page 22, line 17, schedule 1, leave out
‘Youth Justice Board for England and Wales.’.
I am very pleased to be able to defend the Youth Justice Board, which was established by the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, for which I had responsibility as deputy Home Secretary. The Act is widely respected as a practical and effective piece of legislation, which also established the youth offending teams, the local crime and disorder reduction partnerships and antisocial behaviour orders, changes that have all been effective in cutting crime and reducing reoffending.
The success of the youth offending teams is due in large part to the insight, independence, creativity, leadership and clear focus on cutting youth crime that the Youth Justice Board has provided, and which a Government Department cannot provide. The facts of that success are clear. Around 90,000 young people under 18 were brought into the youth justice system for the first time in 2000, and there were about 50,000 first-time entrants in 2010, a reduction of 45%. Reoffending by young people was reduced by 27% between 2000 and 2009, the latest year for which figures are available. The number of young people under 18 held in custody is down by more than 25%. In August 2000, 2,968 young people under 18 were in custody, and in August 2011, 2,106 were in custody. The Audit Commission has confirmed that the system works well.
In 2010, the incoming Justice Ministers, including the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), pledged to use the justice reinvestment report of the Justice Committee as their textbook for their time in office, but to do away with the Youth Justice Board signals that they have abandoned that promise. A wide range of organisations is appalled by the proposal to do away with the Youth Justice Board, but I will mention just two.
The Association of Chief Police Officers said:
“The recent disorder in London and indeed other areas of the country have shown that crime committed by young people should be carefully and seriously considered. The performance of the youth justice system under the leadership of the YJB has been considerable.”
It went on to warn that we would lose some of the successful joint initiatives that have been developed between the police and the Youth Justice Board. Finally, it makes the damning comment:
“There has been no evidence put forward to date that demonstrates the proposed transfer of the YJB’s functions to the Ministry of Justice will deliver better results.”
The fact is that it will not.
The Magistrates Association, speaking of the Youth Justice Board, said that
“the Magistrates Association from first-hand experience would say that it has a vital and continuing role to play in the justice system. Its very raison d’etre for magistrates is that it provides continuity of policy, strategy and implementation in a way that a general approach through the wider Ministry of Justice cannot deliver.”
It warns that
“the coherence that is now one of the successes of the system will be compromised and seriously damaged.”
By implication, the Government know that the Youth Justice Board has been a success, because they are not abolishing its role, but nationalising it. I did not know that Ministers were quite so left-wing or old-fashioned in their approach. I can only assume that No. 10 is demanding a tick in the box for abolishing a quango and does not care about the damage that will be done.
Over time, if the Youth Justice Board is taken into the Department for Justice, the Department will lose the expertise that has been drawn together within the board. If those who work in the board wanted to be civil servants, they would have applied to join the civil service. I hope that that attrition will be slow, but it will be inevitable. Government Departments are not good at running things, and the strength of the board is its focus on cutting youth crime, the independence and respect that it has earned and its capacity for working in partnership with others, which is why new clauses 11 and 12 are important. That point about partnership is demonstrated by the two organisations that I quoted and many others.
The right hon. Gentleman has a very good record both in the work that he did as a Minister and in the work that he did on the Justice Committee on this matter, but I think he would acknowledge that it would be wrong to ascribe to the board, for all its good work, the achievements that are really those of youth offending teams at local level, where partnership really matters.
The point I made, and the point that is made by the Magistrates Association and by chief police officers, is that success at the local level depended on the coherence, independence and energy of the Youth Justice Board in supporting their work. All of them value the Youth Justice Board and all of them say that a Department cannot do it. From my experience in government I am convinced that a Department, working internally, cannot effectively replace the work of the Youth Justice Board.
New clauses 11 and 12 would protect the partnership approach between the Youth Justice Board and the Welsh Assembly. I pay particular tribute to the Minister responsible in the Welsh Assembly Government, Carl Sargeant, for his engagement in this issue and to the First Minister, Carwyn Jones, for his commitment to the cause of cutting crime, particularly youth crime. Criminal justice is not a devolved matter, but the devolution of children’s services, education and health policy means that a significant part of the delivery of local youth justice services is subject to Welsh Government oversight, and the Youth Justice Board has specific objectives in Wales to take account of this.
The Youth Justice Board has worked closely with the Welsh Government and other delivery partners in Wales to improve the youth justice system, and that partnership working must not be underestimated. It works. The inclusion of a board member for Wales on the Youth Justice Board has been critical in navigating the different arrangements that exist in Wales for youth justice. The board member has lead responsibility for Wales and enabled the Youth Justice Board to work effectively in Wales and develop key stakeholder relationships.
I pay particular tribute to my good friend Professor Howard Williamson—we worked together when I was a youth worker—for the massive contribution he made to enabling that partnership to work. I could illustrate that in detail at some length and wish I had time to do so, because there is a tremendous amount of important material that I would like to expand on, particularly how ensuring that placements in England have worked for young people who are returned to Welsh communities. Essentially, it is the partnership that has worked, and it is the partnership that would be put at risk unless Ministers accept, preferably, that the Youth Justice Board should be allowed to continue and, in particular, that there is a need for partnership arrangements to continue.
New clause 11 would put the current committee arrangements between the Youth Justice Board and the Welsh Assembly Government on a statutory basis, which implies the board’s continuation. The alternative, as set out in new clause 12, would be to create a partnership, through a joint committee, between the Ministry of Justice, or any other organisation to which the Government transferred the powers, and the Welsh Assembly Government.
When the Home Affairs Committee recently took evidence in Wales, we heard from an individual who was working in the Assembly as a result of a joint appointment by the Assembly and the Youth Justice Board. It is that joint working that has built up the confidence that is needed. The Youth Justice Board has developed a model that works, and it should be the model for other Government agencies and Departments, many of which still do not understand how to get the best out of the complementary roles they share with the Welsh Assembly.
I urge Ministers to accept the new clause and not include the Youth Justice Board within the ambit of the Bill. I urge them, in any event, to accept that the partnership arrangements between the Government, or their agency, and Wales should be put on a statutory basis and to understand and support the importance of partnership, because it has been effective in reducing youth crime and we need it to continue.
The Justice Committee has taken a close interest in this matter, as it did when the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) was a member; he contributed extensively to our work on it. We have been considering it lately but are yet to take a formal view on whether the Youth Justice Board needs to survive. However, we have explored thoroughly what needs to happen if it is abolished. The Youth Justice Board has done a lot of good work, not least in leading a reduction in the use of custody for young people. That led to the closure of a youth offenders institution in my constituency, but the places have of course been taken as a result of the prison system’s other requirements.
I want to make three points about what is essential in this field, whether the Youth Justice Board survives or not. First, the crucial element is that youth offending teams work at local level. The Youth Justice Board has given the initial leadership to develop youth offending teams, following initiatives taken by the right hon. Gentleman when he was a Minister. The ability of all relevant agencies at local level, including the police, social services, local authorities and housing authorities, to work together is crucial.
Secondly, we must retain a degree of difference from how the National Offender Management Service has operated. The Committee has been pretty critical of NOMS—its life must surely be limited as a result of how the Ministry of Justice is organising things, but that is a matter for another day. What is quite clear is that the youth justice functions must not be subsumed into NOMS, which has not succeeded in carrying out any of the key objectives it was set on bringing together decisions about custody, and its alternatives, and the management of offenders when they leave custody. The Committee received assurances from the Minister that there will be an entirely separate division of roles and that no youth justice functions will be subsumed into NOMS.
Thirdly, the Youth Justice Board, as an autonomous, arm’s length body, is in a position to share its views and advice publicly, and that is a crucial feature that we must not lose. It is of course accountable to Ministers as its chair, as she pointed out herself, is appointed by Ministers. If the board was not pursuing the Minister’s objectives, its membership might not necessarily last very long, but its ability to advise independently is important. We pressed the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt) on that matter, and he showed an unusual and commendable willingness to recognise the value of making the advice that would be given by the advisory board that will be created publicly available and bringing it before Parliament, and the Committee could, for example, question the advisory board on its work. What we must not have are assertions that that advice is for Ministers and, therefore, must be kept in confidence. That would not be an acceptable situation. I do not think that that is what the Minister envisages, but he must realise that that is what will happen if we do not build in such protections from the start. The civil service machine closes in around advice to Ministers, and we cannot have that.
There are perfectly good arguments for saying that we should continue to have an arm’s length Youth Justice Board. It is possible to carry out the functions of the Youth Justice Board effectively under different arrangements, but there are certain essentials, three of which I have sought to identify: the local role of youth offending teams; the importance of not allowing the role to be sucked into NOMS; and the importance of knowing what kind of independent advice Ministers are given. Those are the things the Justice Committee cares about, and I want to be satisfied that the Minister cares about them too.
I want to say a few words, following what my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has said and on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), who might join us later but is unable to be here at the moment. He has engaged with the Minister, as I have, and I thank the Minister for his engagement with colleagues on this matter, which is much appreciated.
I have always thought that the decision to create the Youth Justice Board was a good one, a view vindicated by its reputation and record. It has done a good job. The right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael) made the point, which I agree with, that it has clearly helped bring down offending and reoffending rates among young people and produced more successful ways of dealing with youth offending, both strategically at a national level and at the level of youth offending teams, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed referred. I have a few questions for the Minister. My honest position is that I am nervous about the proposal, because I do not want to lose a good thing, but I know that the Minister sees that it has many good elements and I hope that he can reassure us.
We know from a parliamentary answer that there have been 70 responses to the consultation, but we have not heard what the balance is between those who support the Government and those who oppose them. We do know that many of the key voices—the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth quoted some of them—to whom we should listen think that the Youth Justice Board is a good thing and ought to stay. If chief police officers and the Magistrates Association want the arrangement to stay, we should be very careful before proceeding down a road that changes it. Will the Minister share with us slightly more explicitly the answers to the consultation?
I would be grateful if the Minister responded to my right hon. Friend and put it on the record. It is imperative that the ability to plan, manage, organise, give advice on policy and take policy decisions on youth justice is retained separately—obviously linked with other parts of the criminal justice system, but separately. The way to deal with youngsters coming into the criminal justice system is entirely different from dealing with adults or old lags who reoffend.
Importantly, I would like the Minister to put on the record the fact that there will be absolute freedom for the successor body, if there is one as an advisory council, to speak when it wants to speak, to be able to say what it wants to say, and therefore to contribute to the public debate, as well as to the private debate. Will the Minister make it clear that if functions are to be transferred—I understand the Government’s argument about reducing the number of quangos—a Minister, for the moment presumably the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr Blunt), would be accountable to Parliament specifically for youth justice issues, and would see that as a separate component within the realm of the prison service and justice issues as a whole.
Some of us remain to be persuaded that this is the right way to go, because of the good record of the Youth Justice Board, and some of us are troubled that we might lose those good things if it were to go, but we are open to persuasion if clear assurances are given and the questions asked by my right hon. Friend, the right hon. Gentleman and me are answered adequately.
The Youth Justice Board has played a central role in reducing the number of criminal offences committed by young people since its creation, but the Government’s proposal to transfer its functions to the Ministry of Justice threatens to roll back the progress of the past decade. As we have heard, the YJB has pioneered the creation of a distinct youth justice system, separate from the adult estate, recognising that the factors that lead young people to commit crime are complex, and can be addressed only through specifically targeted crime prevention and rehabilitation strategies.
As we have heard, during the last Parliament the Youth Justice Broad oversaw a 43% reduction in the number of first-time youth offenders by working with youth offending teams to focus on the causes of crime. We have also heard, but it is worth repeating, that there has been a 34% reduction in offences committed by young people and a 15% reduction in the number of young people in custody, down from 2,830 per annum to 2,418 per annum by May 2010.
I am sorry that time will not allow me to make a speech about this matter. I had the privilege of holding the youth justice portfolio for the Opposition for the past year before handing it over to my hon. Friend. That allowed me to see, while going round the country, the best practice in youth offending institutions, foundation training companies and youth offending teams. Without exception, they all praised the Youth Justice Board as the organisation that gives coherence, example and structure to what is happening. They cannot understand why the Government are abolishing a body that is proving to be such a success.
My hon. Friend mentioned the reduction in the number of young people in custody. I am sure that he is aware that that reduction has led to savings of some £38 million a year. Is he not amazed that a Government who are seeking to save money in public expenditure are prepared to take such a risk?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend. The whole case for cost savings does not stack up in the slightest.
The Secretary of State has argued that bringing the Youth Justice Board into the Ministry of Justice will improve ministerial accountability, and thereby secure better outcomes for young people. That is nonsense, and was dreamed up to try to justify the ill-considered, back-of-a-fag-packet dumping of a mishmash of organisations associated with the Ministry of Justice into what amounts to a public relations Bill.
Let us consider ministerial accountability. Board members of the YJB are already appointed by the Secretary of State, and may be removed by the Secretary of State. The board provides a body of experts, who are accountable to Ministers, so where the lack of accountability comes in, heaven only knows. It also provides uniformity, bringing together local authorities, the prison service and the police.
The Youth Justice Board has a host of dedicated, experienced and specialist board members, but with the best will in the world, they will just be replaced by civil servants with limited knowledge of and less expertise in youth justice. Internalising the YJB in the Ministry of Justice will not replace the expertise. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service tend to follow the Youth Justice Board, not the other way around. Moreover, the YJB is widely respected for its expertise and independence, which have allowed it to build up important relationships with senior people across the youth justice sector. That will be lost if the Justice Secretary goes ahead with transferring the Youth Justice Board’s functions to the Ministry of Justice. Responsibility for placing children in the secure estate will be moved to the Ministry of Justice, but what will happen to youth justice research, performance monitoring, consultation with YOTs and the dissemination of good practice backed by solid evidence? At best, they will be reduced; at worst, they will be completely negated.
If nothing that I or anybody else have said so far convinces the Minster, surely the riots during the summer highlighted why an independent body for youth justice is required. When young people, many of them in their early teens, were attending courts around the clock, it was the Youth Justice Board that worked with them in their journey through the criminal justice system. The Government’s policy was, rightly, to make sure that those guilty of offences were brought to justice, but the same Department cannot be expected to support those young people while pursuing the Government’s justice policy. If the Minister was not aware of the contribution made by the Youth Justice Board, that is further evidence of how seamlessly the YJB works with the Ministry, because it was one of the organisations briefing him.
The Government argue that abolishing the Youth Justice Board will improve accountability and efficiency, but elsewhere the Government are squandering money on, for example, elected police commissioners and creating the biggest ever quango for the NHS. Ever since the Minister had a whip-round in his Department to rustle up some bodies to satisfy his Cabinet Office colleagues, the Justice Secretary has continued to make the case that the Youth Justice Board must be abolished to save costs.
The Government estimate savings of £6 million by 2014-15 but, as we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins), they have not undertaken a cost-benefit analysis of the YJB or the social impact of its abolition. They have not calculated the cost arising from the possibility of an increase in reoffending among young people. Perhaps the Minister will comment on the fact that in the past year the Ministry of Justice spent almost £8 million on furnishings. That is incredible. It is worth noting that the Youth Justice Board has cut its administration costs by 26% since 2008-09. It clearly understands how to be properly cost effective.
Cutting the Youth Justice Board will not save much money. Instead of saving the big sums that the Government have dreamt up, it is more likely that the real savings, if any, will amount to no more than a few hundred thousand pounds over a number of years. Instead of saving money, it threatens to undermine a youth justice system that is working, increasing costs over the longer term through higher criminality and the attendant costs to individuals and the state.
The Justice Secretary’s proposal to abolish the Youth Justice Board is opposed by a range of charities and organisations, including the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Directors of Children’s Services, the Prison Reform Trust and the Children’s Society. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Magistrates Association have written to the Minister urging him to retain the Youth Justice Board as an arm’s length body.
During the riots, the police gold command and the National Offender Management Service commended the Youth Justice Board on its fantastic performance.
The organisation Catch 22 said:
“any reorganisation of the functions of the Youth Justice Board will result in a decreased focus on young people in the criminal justice system”.
In its report of February 2010, the Public Accounts Committee noted:
“In recent years, the Youth Justice Board has been effective in leading reform within the youth justice system and diverting resources to the offenders most at risk of committing future crimes. Since 2000, the number of young people entering the youth justice system, the number held in custody and the amount of reoffending committed by young people, have all fallen. Youth custody, which is expensive relative to other ways of dealing with young offenders, has fallen during a period when the number of adults in custody has continued to rise. This is a particularly noteworthy achievement.”
That says it all.
If the Secretary of State and the Minister do not think again and remove the Youth Justice Board from the Bill, they will be turning back the clock in handing the responsibility for youth justice back to a Government Department even though, as we saw just over a decade ago, that was a wholly unsuitable way to oversee youth justice. I urge the Justice Secretary not to waste the progress made over the past decade in reducing the number of young offenders. I urge him to reconsider, in association with his Cabinet colleagues, and to remove the Youth Justice Board from the Bill by agreeing to amendment 33.
It is a pleasure to reply to this debate, not least to the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Alun Michael), given his role in establishing the Youth Justice Board in the first place, and to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), who is Chairman of the Justice Committee.
The right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth made what he thought was a gibe in saying that I was not abolishing the Youth Justice Board but nationalising it and that he was surprised by how left-wing I was. He thereby gave the game away on the central weakness of the arguments made against the Government’s intentions.
To some degree, there is a significant element of truth in the right hon. Gentleman’s words, because this issue was first addressed in the context of looking at all arm’s length bodies given that ministerial accountability had been significantly diluted by the proliferation of such bodies. In that sense, it is appropriate that this area is brought back within the ambit of direct ministerial accountability. The longer I have held these responsibilities as the Minister responsible for youth justice, the more confident I have become that that is the proper thing to do. We are not changing the delivery of youth justice on the ground and all the achievements of the Youth Justice Board but protecting them. In my prepared remarks, I will elaborate on exactly how we are going to do that. I hope that I will be able to bring comfort to the right hon. Gentleman and to the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), who sought the same assurance.
The right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth concluded his remarks by talking about the importance of partnership. The youth offending teams are indeed an exemplar of partnership working at the local level, and that will remain unaffected by the changes that the Government intend. The Chairman of the Select Committee commented on the importance of the ability of local agencies to work together, and none of that will be changed by the Government’s taking the Youth Justice Board within the ambit of the Ministry of Justice. I can give him the assurance that he sought about NOMS, which will sit within the central Youth Justice Division as a separate body on youth justice. I will attend to the detail of that shortly. I was properly subjected to questioning about the role of advice that will come to Ministers. I will have more to say about that in the substantive part of my remarks, and I hope that that will give comfort to my right hon. Friends on the Liberal Benches.
The new clause would remove the Youth Justice Board from the list of organisations that may be abolished by order made under clause 1. The two amendments in relation to Wales would set up a joint committee to oversee the exercise of the powers and responsibilities of the Youth Justice Board. That joint committee would be a committee of the Youth Justice Board, if it is not abolished, and Welsh Ministers. If the Youth Justice Board is abolished, the joint committee will be a committee of the Welsh Ministers and the body to which the Youth Justice Board’s powers have been transferred. Under our proposals, this would effectively mean a joint committee of Welsh Ministers and the Ministry of Justice.
The amendment to remove the Youth Justice Board from the Bill is the same as the amendment originally moved by noble Lords. Subsequently, the Government successfully reintroduced the Youth Justice Board to schedule 1 during the Committee stage in this House, having further addressed the most substantive issues raised in the other place and by other interested parties. The Government remain convinced that the national governance of youth justice, but not its front-line delivery, should be done differently. This reform is consistent with our principles of localism, our drive to reduce the number and cost of public bodies, and our commitment to clarifying lines of accountability.
The Youth Justice Board forms one part of the youth justice system, the aim of which is to prevent offending and reoffending by children and young people under the age of 18. I want to emphasise again that the delivery of youth justice by youth offending teams on the front line will not be affected and that a distinct, secure estate for young people will remain in place. I am happy to pay tribute to the achievements of the Youth Justice Board, which was established at arm’s length from Government to provide strategic leadership and coherence to the then youth justice system. This was, in part, a response to the 1996 Audit Commission report, “Misspent youth”, which found that there was no integrated youth justice system and that what did exist at the time was inefficient and expensive. The Youth Justice Board’s arm’s length status gave it freedom to establish the current system.
A decade on, we are in a completely different place, nationally and locally. A coherent and effective youth justice system has now been established, and it is the Government’s view that direct accountability should now be returned to Ministers. I am also clear that Ministers should determine the standards required in youth custody. Each year, £300 million of taxpayers’ money is spent on the provision of secure accommodation for under-18s. It cannot be right that unelected individuals in a non-departmental public body are responsible for such a sum.
That is why the Justice Secretary, in his written ministerial statement of 23 June, set out his intention to carry out the core functions of the Youth Justice Board within a newly created Youth Justice Division. The division will continue the Government’s focus on meeting the needs of children and young people in the justice system, overseeing the delivery of youth justice services, identifying and disseminating effective practice, and commissioning a distinct secure estate and placing young people within it. The division will form a dedicated part of the Ministry of Justice separate from the National Offender Management Service. It will ensure that the commissioning of the youth justice secure estate and the placement of young people within the estate is driven by people whose responsibility is for and whose focus is on the needs of young people. Its structure will also ensure that youth justice work in the community remains closely linked to work with young offenders in custody. That is at the heart of our ambitions for a rehabilitation revolution.
The new Youth Justice Division will be a powerful impetus behind future improvement, with the policy leverage within Government to effect change. At a time when Departments have a wide range of priorities and scarce resources, it is Ministers, led by the Justice Secretary and me, as the Minister with responsibility for youth justice, who are best placed to lead the youth justice system.
I am encouraged by what the Minister has said so far. Will the head of the new division proposed by the Government have direct access and direct accountability to the Secretary of State and the appropriate Minister rather than always being subject to having everything cleared by the permanent secretary in the Department?
The Justice Secretary has announced that John Drew, the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board, has agreed to lead the transition to the new Youth Justice Division structure and to continue to lead it beyond that. That will ensure continuity in senior management. As regards his reporting responsibilities, he will report to the director general of justice policy within the Department, but, as now, I will continue to have bilateral meetings with officials of his seniority in any event. Of course, he will occupy a special place by virtue of leading the Youth Justice Division within the Department. There are further safeguards that I will come to, and I hope they will give my right hon. Friend some comfort.
We appreciate that the Youth Justice Board successfully brought together staff from a number of backgrounds, including those with direct experience of youth justice, social and health services, and police and probation officers. I and the Department will not abandon that expertise and experience, nor will we fail to replenish it. That is wholly consistent with the Government’s policy that the civil service remains open to recruits of high quality from outside its immediate ranks.
I have instituted arrangements within the Department during this transitional period for the chief executive of the Youth Justice Board to come and see me regularly on a bilateral basis. That did not exist when I became the Minister with responsibility for youth justice, when accountability was through the chairman of the board. I think that we now have a much more satisfactory working practice—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) says that he does not really believe that. Well, I do believe it on the evidence of what has happened over the past 18 months. I will elaborate on that later in my remarks and tell him and the House why I have come to that conclusion.
The Justice Secretary recognises the need to strengthen the Ministry’s focus on youth justice by establishing a ministerial advisory group on youth justice. The group will provide timely advice to Ministers about delivery and the front line. That advice will inform the development of youth justice policy in the longer term. It will include advice on effective practice and what will work best to achieve the objectives that Ministers have set. The ministerial advisory group will be my key forum for providing external, expert oversight of operational youth justice practice to the Ministry of Justice. I will chair it as the Minister responsible for youth justice. It must consist of members who have expertise in the effective operation of the youth justice system; otherwise it will not be able to do the job that I need it to do and it will not have credibility with the informed youth justice lobby, which properly follows these matters with due care.
Finally, Dame Sue Street, a non-executive director at the Ministry of Justice, will take an active interest in youth justice within the Ministry. She has experience and knowledge of youth justice. Indeed, she undertook a review of the Youth Justice Board, but her remit did not include asking whether the Youth Justice Board should continue. Of course, as a non-executive member of the Ministry of Justice board, she will have a direct route to the permanent secretary and the Secretary of State. She is happy to take on those responsibilities as part of her role at the Department.
I want my hon. Friend to make it quite clear that he is not stepping back from his welcome indication that it will be possible for the advice that is given to Ministers by the advisory group to be probed by Parliament, and that its members will be able to come before the Justice Committee and tell us what their advice was.
I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. It would be quixotic to say now that it is advice to Ministers and that it will not be discoverable. The effectiveness of the group will depend first on the credibility of its members’ experience and expertise and, secondly, on whether its members are prepared to speak freely and openly on these issues. I anticipate that individuals, whether or not they are members of my advisory group, will be available to his Select Committee so that it, like me, is informed of their views.
I believe that the Minister is utterly sincere in his commitment to the rehabilitation revolution and to his responsibilities. However, what he describes sounds to me far more complicated than the coherent system that has developed over the past decade. If the number of children and young people going into custody began to increase, what would he say to the official in his Department that is different from what he would say to the chair of the Youth Justice Board?
As the right hon. Gentleman has identified, we are entering a period when that may well happen. I will come to that point in the course of my remarks.
This reform will not impact on the delivery of front-line youth justice by youth offending teams. We need to be clear that the front-line delivery of youth justice is completely separate from the national leadership and oversight provided by the Youth Justice Board. Under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, the delivery of youth justice in the community is led by local authority youth offending teams. They are accountable to the chief executive of the local authority and are well embedded in local structures. Young people will continue to be placed separately from adult offenders in a dedicated secure estate that is driven by their needs.
It has been argued that the recent riots prove that the Youth Justice Board is now needed more than ever. I am afraid that I cannot agree. In my recent appearance before the Justice Committee, I set out the limitations of the current governance arrangements in the operational scenario that we faced in dealing with the disturbances. The operational integration of measures to address under-18s was delayed by 24 hours or so in the Government’s initial collective response to the riots precisely because of the more remote relationship that I have with the Youth Justice Board compared with the National Offender Management Service. That would not have occurred if youth justice had been administered as we propose.
I am conscious that part of my role is to ensure that other Departments and local authorities play their part in the delivery of youth justice. That is most acute in terms of resources, because the Department for Education and the Home Office currently provide funding to the Youth Justice Board. I am concerned that as the responsible Minister, I am not engaged as early as I should be in ensuring that there is proper financing for youth offending teams on the ground. It should be my responsibility to ensure that budget settlements from other Departments and local authorities are cleared and that youth justice is getting a proper shout from inside the Government. That can be better done by a Minister than by an arm’s length body.
I am encouraged by the Minister’s commitment and by his clear belief that his model will work. May I ask him to give one more undertaking? Will he or his Department come back to the House in about a year if the change goes ahead to ensure that the advisory group, which I now understand he proposes to chair, is sufficiently independent, that Parliament and people outside can be sure that it will speak out when it needs to and that its voice can, if necessary, be different from the conclusions that Ministers reach having heard its advice?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s advice. It is a fair point and one that was laboured, quite properly, by the Justice Committee. The advisory group would not achieve the purpose that I have for it if it was not sufficiently independent. Rather than give my right hon. Friend the guarantee that I will come back here, I point out that my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed and his Select Committee are ideally placed to ensure, in the detailed scrutiny that they will properly give these matters, that the advisers have credibility in the youth justice field and that a range of views is presented to me.
The group will serve no purpose if it consists of people who entirely agree with what the Ministry of Justice is doing. They will not be there to act as a cheer group for the execution of policy. This is an important area in which we need to be continually challenged so that we get it right. I expect the advisory group to challenge us continually to help us to get it right.
We will never be perfect, because we are operating in a financially very constrained time owing to the simply dreadful economic inheritance that we received. [Interruption.] Well, Opposition Members may get bored with this, but as the Minister responsible for youth justice, prisons and probation, I would much rather have inherited merely a flat budget. Sadly I have not, and we have to deal with that. We have to be innovative and clever about how we respond to those circumstances to deliver the rehabilitation of offenders in this much more challenging environment.
As the responsible Minister, I want to make it clear to all hon. Members that youth justice is critical to the Ministry of Justice and a visible part of the Department’s business plan. We already have three key youth justice indicators, which are the number of young people coming into the youth justice system, the number of young people reoffending and the number of young people being sentenced to custody. The Ministry, and I as the youth justice Minister, will continue to be held to account by the public and Parliament for our performance against those measures.
I should add that from my own day-to-day experience and information drawn from youth offending teams, I fully understand just how difficult it will be simply to hold performance at current levels in this economic environment and the associated social environment in the short to medium term, before our wider social justice agenda begins to make itself felt in the long term. To some extent, keeping the Youth Justice Board would provide me with a helpful sandbag from the direct parliamentary fire of ministerial accountability for performance measures. Difficult though it may be to improve on the current performance that we inherit from the YJB, those measures will be used to inform our youth pathfinder and payment-by-results initiatives. That work is vital to the Ministry of Justice.
There is no question that the focus on youth justice will be lost or that it will become a junior partner to the work of the National Offender Management Service. In addition, we have put in place mechanisms to ensure a proper policy focus on youth justice. Senior officials have established the cross-departmental youth crime and justice board, which supports the strategic agenda. Regular inter-ministerial meetings ensure ministerial representation from the Ministry of Justice, the Department for Education, the Home Office and the Department of Health, to support cross-Government work on the matter.
I turn briefly to the amendments on Wales tabled by the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth. The criminal justice system, of which the youth justice system is an element, is not a transferred matter. It is the Secretary of State for Justice who is ultimately responsible for youth justice in England and Wales, and the Ministry of Justice that is responsible for the secure estate and courts. The Government have no plans to change that. It would be unfair to imply to Welsh Ministers that they have a liability for outcomes when they do not have statutory responsibility for the administration of youth justice.
The proposal to establish a joint committee between the YJB or the Ministry of Justice and Ministers in the National Assembly for Wales is also likely to create further confusion throughout the youth justice system about who is ultimately accountable. Unless the wider statutory environment were to change, making that piecemeal statutory change would not be helpful. It would further complicate what is already a complex picture.
The Government recognise the differences between England and Wales in areas such as education, health and social care, which are essential to improving the life chances of children who have offended, and we will always take into account the views of Welsh colleagues. The need to reduce reoffending and offending among children and young people is shared. Current arrangements offer the advantages of scale that come with an England and Wales resource, as well as the opportunity to learn from each other and share effective practice while retaining the ability to tailor the delivery of youth justice to Wales. That is why we will ensure that there remains significant join-up between England and Wales in our youth justice priorities.
Youth justice is an extremely important issue and these points have to be put properly on the record. I am slightly surprised at the hon. Lady’s intervention, because she makes it at precisely the moment at which I am trying to deal with issues that I believe are of some importance to her, as a Welsh Member, as well as to the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth, who is sitting right behind her.
The Youth Justice Board currently has a team based in Wales, which works closely with the Welsh Assembly, and we will continue to have a Welsh-based team under our proposals to bring the functions of the Youth Justice Board into the Ministry of Justice.
The Government have listened and responded to the concerns of all interested parties. A full public consultation has just concluded, and we will carefully consider the responses before laying draft orders before Parliament. My right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark asked about the balance of the responses to the consultation. There were, I think, 2,800 responses to the public bodies consultation, of which 68 were about the Youth Justice Board. It will not surprise him to learn that the balance of the responses was not supportive of the Government’s proposal—that is not a remotely surprising pattern when it is proposed to change something. However, before we lay the draft orders, there will be an opportunity to see the detail of them.
The youth justice system needs clear and visible leadership from me, as the responsible Minister, supported by a governance structure that retains a dedicated focus on youth justice. That is what we will provide as part of our proposals to abolish the YJB. I believe that is the best way to help us reduce offending and reoffending by young people, and I ask the right hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth to withdraw the new clause.
The Minister has been seduced by office into bad decisions, but in the best interests of securing a vote on the retention of the Youth Justice Board, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the clause.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
Power to abolish
Amendment made: 5, page 1, line 13, at end insert—
‘() a co-operative society,
() a community benefit society,
() a charitable incorporated organisation, or’.—(Mr Blunt.)
Power to abolish: bodies and offices
Amendment proposed: 32, page 21, line 11, leave out
‘Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales’.—(Mr Gareth Thomas.)
The House proceeded to a Division.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, this day)
The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time. (Standing Order No. 83E).
Amendment proposed: 33, page 22, line 17, leave out
‘Youth Justice Board for England and Wales.’.—(Robert Flello.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
(Dover) (Con): Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. May I say, on behalf of the people of Dover, how very welcome that is? Not everything in this House is political and partisan; some matters touch and concern our constituencies and affect us as constituency MPs.
I beg to move amendment 2, page 24, in schedule 5, leave out lines 9 and 10.
In the past few days, many Members will have received e-mails from their constituents about the important issue of the chief coroner’s office. I want to begin by thanking colleagues from across the House for their kind expressions of support for the amendment, and on the broader question of the necessity of change in the coronial system. I tabled the amendment with the full support of the Royal British Legion, Inquest and the British Medical Association, and I have recently found out that Liberty also supports it, which might divide opinion on this side of the House. All those organisations want to see a chief coroner appointed as soon as possible, and my amendment would achieve exactly what the British Legion and others are asking for. Put simply, leaving out lines 9 and 10 would ensure that the chief coroner—a post agreed on a cross-party basis—is left out of the Bill.
Before I elaborate on why I consider this such an important issue, let me explain what I think the issue we are debating today is not about. It is not about costs, certainly not about the untested costs that have been put about by the Ministry of Justice. It is not about bureaucracy and it is certainly not about seeking to delay urgent reform to the coroner system, the need for which is agreed on all sides. The crucial issue in leaving the chief coroner out of the Bill is the independent leadership needed in the coroner system to drive long overdue reform. It is also about respect for the families of those who have had to go through the system.
In less than a month’s time, our nation will pause and reflect on the bravery of our armed forces. Getting to grips with the failings in the coronial system is an opportunity for us all to reflect and pause together as parliamentary representatives to support the bereaved families of our service personnel.
I wholeheartedly support the hon. Gentleman’s amendment and congratulate him on tabling it. Does he agree that this is part of an evolving military covenant issue whereby we ensure that we fulfil our duty as parliamentarians to the people who serve our country in the most difficult circumstances at the front line and those who support them?
I do, and I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. We all want to honour the military covenant; there is no doubt about that across the House. We might sometimes disagree about how best to achieve that, but I think sorting out our coronial system is key to it, and appointing a chief coroner, as agreed on a cross-party basis previously, certainly honours the covenant.
Some polling has been undertaken on this issue, so I can inform the House what the public appear to think about this important matter. Recent polling conducted by ComRes tells us that eight out of 10 people believe the way we treat bereaved armed forces families says a lot about our values as a nation. A further 85% say that families deserve as much support as we can possibly give through the system, while three quarters agree that Britain owes a great debt to the families of those who sacrifice their lives in the service of the country. Furthermore, more than three quarters say we must support the families of deceased armed forces personnel in order to honour the memory of those who have given their lives. That is something that I am sure is shared on all sides.
I am not quite sure what that means. Does my hon. Friend mean to say that independent coroners do not currently support the families or does he think that the imposition of a chief coroner will make it better for them? I am quite taken by the idea that we already have independent coroners who talk on behalf of the families and say some things we do not like. I am concerned that a chief coroner might put orders down that people have to obey. I like the independence of coroners.
I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for that intervention, as it demonstrates why the Government’s position does exactly the opposite to what he wants. By placing this in the hands of Ministers, which is what the Government propose, rather than in the hands of a chief coroner, we risk losing independence completely. As to going through the coronial system, sadly, some people have gone through it and have been treated appallingly. I shall provide some examples later. My hon. Friend’s intervention rather supports my arguments.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his amendment. He rightly emphasises its significance for military personnel and their families, but does he agree that it goes much wider than that? As to the need for a coronial system that is fully independent of the Government and their Departments, I refer him to the report of Dame Janet Smith on the Shipman victims. She came precisely to the same conclusion as him—that we need a coronial system that is fully independent.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman, who has pre-empted part of my speech, which the House will be pleased to know I no longer need to elaborate, so I can somewhat reduce my speaking time. That point was made previously and he is quite right to highlight it.
I want to talk about three key issues: independent leadership, training in oversight and the issue of appeals. Before I do, however, I want to deal with costs. As I said, the Ministry of Justice costings of £11 million for start-up and £6.6 million recurrent for the chief coroner are, in the view of many, inflated. Before I give two examples to prove my point, it is worth considering what the public told ComRes about what they think of costs for an issue like this one. I am second to none in arguing that we need to drive down the costs of government, but there is always a balance to be struck.
According to the ComRes poll, more than two thirds of the public believe that appointing a chief coroner is a matter of principle, not a question of costs. We would all agree that ensuring the most appropriate support to families going through the system must always come ahead of costs. There are two examples from the costings put about by the Ministry of Justice previously in 2008. One is that the IT system will cost £3.8 million, while the second is that £564,000 will be used on a public launch and other publications for this position. I know that the Royal British Legion would be particularly keen to have this discussion. In its alternative to the Government’s proposals, it stated:
“The Royal British Legion and INQUEST would share the Government’s concerns about costings if they were as high as the Ministry of Justice figures suggest”.
The answer is to challenge those costings in a way that the coalition Government have sadly not been able to do since they came to power and to look seriously at the alternative costings put forward by the Royal British Legion and Inquest. It is a bit difficult because I have not had access to all the necessary budget lines. Those organisations have proposed a slower roll-out so the costs can be challenged and spread across the Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman is putting his case well. On that point about costings, does he know that the Royal British Legion, Inquest, CRY and a whole host of other organisations, along with Members, have repeatedly tried—whether through parliamentary questions, freedom of information or whatever—to get the information from the Ministry of Justice, yet at every opportunity, it clams up and refuses to give the detailed figures?
I do not want to get into too much of a political spat, particularly when I am speaking from the Government Benches, but those organisations have repeatedly made the point that they have been unable to gain access to all the information. Perhaps they did not do so before the general election either. Perhaps it is a systemic problem, but having access to that information is important, particularly if so much emphasis is going to be placed on costs, as appears to be the case.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree that the families are most important. The families need to have confidence in the system, and they indicated that their confidence would lie with the chief coroner rather than the independent coroner. Does he feel that that is what we should really be doing and that the families know best?
It is always easy to concentrate on the emotive issues in debates like this, and it can be very powerful, but I also believe there are less emotive reasons for pursing this policy. I would not suggest for a moment than anybody does not want to support families; it is a question of how we drive the reform forward. It is a bit like the discussion last night, when the Conservative party was united but had different tactics.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that it would be possible to have a chief coroner who could provide professional leadership by the designation of an existing coroner without going into the very large costs involved in the original proposal and without involving the chief coroner in running an appeals system, which might more appropriately remain a matter for reference under law to the courts?
My right hon. Friend makes a point that I was coming to. We have not identified where the savings could be in this system. Many would contend that the costs of adjourned and delayed hearings and of expensive judicial reviews could be taken out of the system by the chief coroner. My concern is that far too much emphasis has been placed on costs.
I said that I was going to talk about three particular issues. The first is independent leadership, which I think we all agree lies at the heart of the chief coroner’s appointment and is the reason for his status as linchpin of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Parliament accepted back then that if real reform was to be achieved, there must be an independent judicial leader with responsibility for spearheading that reform. Independence is key.
I was a member of the Committee that considered the Coroners and Justice Bill, and I remember that it was supported by not only the Government of the day, but the Front Bench of the hon. Gentleman’s party and the Liberal Democrats. One of the key points made by the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman was that the person concerned would be independent of Government.
The hon. Gentleman has pre-empted another stage of my speech. Although I was not here at the time, perhaps mercifully, I know that the matter was dealt with on a cross-party basis.
The right hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Paul Goggins) referred to Lady Justice Smith’s report, and I want to refer to five issues that were raised in it. It found that the current system had offered inconsistent levels of service—which I think addresses the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart)—and that families and friends were insufficiently involved in coroners’ investigations. It found an absence of quality controls and independent safeguards—once again, we see the word “independent”—a lack of consistency, leadership or training, and, in some instances, an absence of medical knowledge. The report also stated that the
“coronial jurisdiction should be re-formed on modern judicial lines, as a national jurisdiction, small in size but comparable to other jurisdictions in having a Chief Coroner'”.
Although it could be claimed that that report said all that needs to be said about independent leadership, the desperate need to address the issue was perhaps put as well as it could have been by the Lord Chancellor in a written ministerial statement on 14 June:
“As the functions to be transferred are limited, and the Office of Chief Coroner not filled, neither the judge nor any other individual will be responsible for the leadership, culture or behaviour of coroners.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2011; Vol. 728, c. 62WS.]
That cannot be right. The Lord Chancellor’s statement implicitly acknowledged the need for judicial, and thus independent, leadership to address the culture of coroners, while simultaneously refusing to address it.
The hon. Gentleman is tempting me down a path on which I should probably not embark, but I repeat that, in my view, the emphasis has been on cost. I agree with the Bill that there should be a burning of the quangos. Having spent 10 years as a local councillor, I know how overburdened the country has become, and I would support any measure that would save money. There is a debate to be had about costs, and I think that that is the debate we should be having, rather than a debate about whether the position exists at all.
The statement made by the Lord Chancellor back in June failed to recognise that the chief coroner’s office was a single senior judicial post with statutory powers. The Government’s proposals will dismantle the office and transfer some, but not—by any stretch of the imagination—all those powers to other judicial and political figures, which risks creating another fragmented structure where lines of accountability are opaque and clear leadership absent.
The second issue that I want to raise is monitoring and training. That was one of the most important functions of the chief coroner under the Coroners and Justice Act, which gave him the job of both monitoring investigations of service deaths and ensuring that coroners who conducted such inquests were suitably trained.
I too was a member of the Committee considering the Coroners and Justice Bill, and I support the hon. Gentleman’s amendment. Another issue that should be considered is the inconsistency in the recording of verdicts, especially narrative verdicts, which has been creeping in increasingly. In some coronial systems, coroners are recording up to 59% deaths as “other”, which means that we are unclear about how those people died. Nationally, the average is 14%. That has a particular impact in cases of suicide. We must look ahead, because we know that we shall have a huge mental health problem when our troops come back from the front.
One of the most important tasks of the chief coroner would have been supplying an annual report to Parliament, which would have enabled issues such as that to be debated here and, indeed, in another place.
Let me return to monitoring and training. The Lord Chancellor’s written ministerial statement made it clear that the provision for ensuring that coroners were suitably trained and the monitoring of investigations would not now be transferred or implemented. Crucially, although the Government claim that their proposals will allow training to happen, the statement removes the requirement for training, and instead puts it under section 37 of the Act, which simply states that training regulations on training “may” be issued.
It also concerns me that the monitoring of service inquests is currently completed by the defence inquest unit. In the context of transparency and accountability, I understand why many would see a conflict of interests. The DIU is part of the Ministry of Defence, which in the case of the deaths of service personnel is also the employer, and it will therefore be an interested party in relation to such investigations.
I was responsible for the establishment of the DIU in an attempt to improve the service that we gave to coroners and thence the service that they could give to service personnel. However, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: there is a fundamental conflict of interests, given that the Ministry of Defence is attempting to assist an independent coronial service to such a degree. That separation of powers, coupled with the need to improve service and timeliness for bereaved service families, goes to the heart of the need for a chief coroner.
The right hon. Gentleman has much more expertise in this area than I do. His powerful comments will have been heard, and I think that they prove exactly why we want the chief coroner in post to ensure that there is monitoring and that it is completely independent of Government.
I have already mentioned the chief coroner’s parliamentary oversight through the annual report, so I will not dwell on that. Instead, let me turn to the issue of appeals. I do not deny that a key aspect of the chief coroner’s functions—hearing appeals—is a bone of contention both in the House and outside. My personal instinct was to be somewhat sceptical, which is why I examined the appeals system in a bit more detail.
I certainly would not advocate the removal of the chief coroner from the Bill if I did not also believe that a chief coroner—as Parliament agreed when it passed the legislation—would reduce the need for so many bereaved people to engage in expensive litigation, as they must at present, through judicial review. I do not think that anyone wants a system in which people’s experience of the system is extended through protracted appeals. However, it cannot be right that at present the only avenue of appeal that is open to the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice, and who want to challenge the decisions of coroners and their conduct at an inquest, is a complex and expensive judicial review system, or persuading the Attorney-General to exercise his power of fiat. Surely it would be much more cost-effective and efficient for a High Court judge as chief coroner to resolve some legal issue currently resolved in the administrative court. The alternative proposed by the Royal British Legion is to trial this. Therefore, it is accepted that there is a debate to be had about appeals. Adopting the joint RBL and Inquest proposal for an appeals trial is sensible.
Although my knowledge of the subject is limited, I have explained as best I can the most compelling arguments for leaving the chief coroner out of the Bill. I think this is the right way to proceed, and the ComRes poll to which I referred earlier illustrates that I am in good company. One of its findings is that 60% of the public believe a chief coroner should be appointed immediately—although polls must always be taken in the context in which they are asked, and all of us who are involved in politics know how they work. The theme running through the ComRes poll is that people want more support for bereaved families and a system that is independent of Government, and they want that quickly. I think all Members support that.
I readily concede that those who have been through the system are far better advocates of this case than me. In the last few days, we will all have received an e-mail from Gareth Turkington, the brother of Lieutenant Neal Turkington, who served in the Royal Gurkhas and who, sadly, died in Afghanistan. Gareth’s e-mailed letter to MPs contained some powerful phrases about the current system. He says:
“It was one of the most harrowing experiences of our lives…We as a family sought a full, independent, impartial inquest—precisely the function of the coroner—to establish how the event had happened and the circumstances of how Neal was killed. What we witnessed instead was a lack of rigorous investigation and a denial of any form of accountability or responsibility for duty of care towards Neal’s safety.”
Such situations do not only arise in respect of service deaths, as other people have similar experiences of the system. Sue Ainsworth, a lead midwife at the University Hospital of North Tees, also gave evidence on this issue. Her 21-year-old son died from sudden cardiac arrest. Her testimony is powerful. She states that the inquest took eight months and she found the system in many respects to be lacking in any empathy for the situation she had faced. She concludes:
“The coroner’s conduct was unacceptable. When I refused to be quiet at the Inquest and persisted in asking questions, it was then hurriedly concluded with the pathologist and the coroner abruptly leaving the room.”
If that is a manifestation of respect in the system, I would not like to know what disrespect is.
Sadly, such experiences are not isolated incidents. Many coroners fulfil their role perfectly well, but others do not. Although people can point to good and bad practice in the current system, the fact that there is bad practice suggests to me, taking a common sense point of view, that there has to be somebody at the top, such as a chief coroner—or perhaps someone holding a less expensive position—who is independent of Ministers and who can drive this reform, and who ensures there is accountability back to Parliament. That is why, at present, I intend to press this amendment to a Division.
I would like to begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) on his excellent contribution and on tabling his amendment, which we will support. He articulated succinctly and powerfully why the Government are wrong on this issue and must think again. He made it clear that this is not about party politics; rather, it is a matter of national concern. We share that view.
The last time this Bill was debated in the Chamber, the Minister for the Cabinet Office and Paymaster General said he was confident that the Government’s proposals to transfer certain statutory functions from the role of chief coroner would “gain widespread support”. He could not have been more wrong. I am not aware of a single organisation that has accepted the wisdom of the Government’s approach; instead, all remain highly critical. In fact, the Government have managed to manoeuvre themselves into a situation where they are pitched against the Royal British Legion, INQUEST, Cruse Bereavement Care, Victim Support, Action against Medical Accidents, Cardiac Risk in the Young, the Child Bereavement Charity, Disaster Action, Support after Murder and Manslaughter, Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, The Compassionate Friends, RoadPeace and Brake, the road safety charity. It is a remarkable achievement for any Government to find themselves opposed on such an issue by so many organisations that do so much good work for so many people in this country.
My hon. Friend adds to the list, and a written answer from the Ministry of Justice to my hon. Friend states that it is calculated that at least 95% of responses to the Department’s consultation on the Bill support the RBL call not to abolish the position of chief coroner.
It is widely acknowledged that there are currently great variations in both the manner and quality of coronial inquests. It is clear that reform is long overdue. The creation of the post of chief coroner was at the heart of the new reforms introduced under the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, and that was the result of three years of review and consultation and proposed on the basis of cross-party support.
There is also inconsistency in the willingness of coroners to collaborate with academic research, which can be vital, such as in demonstrating health changes, in particular in relation to suicide, which is an area on which I focus. Some coroners are more than happy to open their records, so we can get an accurate picture of what some of the narrative verdicts actually mean. Others will not allow access to their records, and research is therefore skewed so we do not get an accurate picture of deaths in this country.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. Before the recent legislation, review after review of the coroner system recommended that a chief coroner was the only way to bring about the required changes. In 2003, the Luce review, a fundamental review into death certification and investigation, found that the coroner system was outdated, inconsistent and unsympathetic to families. One of its headline recommendations was for the establishment of a chief coroner position to handle appeals and oversee standards. That review was followed by Dame Janet Smith’s third report of the Shipman inquiry, which again proposed that leadership for coroners should come from an independent chief coroner.
I am slightly worried. I like the idea of having independent coroners, and I do not like the idea of instruction coming down to them; I like the idea of these coroners possibly saying something that we might not find acceptable. That is why I am slightly worried about the idea of a chief coroner imposing, or suggesting, rules downwards. I would like to make sure that that does not happen.
The hon. Gentleman knows that I have the utmost respect for him and especially for the distinguished service he gave to this country. I have to say to him that independence is at the heart of the proposal for the chief coroner. Introducing national leadership under the chief coroner’s post was rightly seen as a vital step towards tackling the problems of unacceptable delays, a lack of accountability and inconsistent standards across the country. The move would meet the interests of bereaved families and the wider public in terms of quality, effectiveness of investigations and ensuring that knowledge is applied to prevent avoidable death and injury in the future.
The hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) has a point, but it is not the poor coroners, of whom there are many, who say uncomfortable things and whose findings make Departments such as the Ministry of Defence very uncomfortable. It is the good coroners who do that. I am talking about people such as Mr Masters, the Trowbridge coroner, who does that very effectively. There is no consistency at the moment, as there is good and bad practice; there are two extremes of the spectrum. That is why we need a chief coroner to spread best practice throughout the system for the benefit of not only bereaved families, but government.
My right hon. Friend, who was an extremely good Secretary of State for Defence and did so much work to drive through improvements in this area, is of course right, which is why the reforms were universally welcomed by charities and professionals. It was on the basis of a political consensus on both sides of the House that it was determined that a chief coroner was needed. At the time, the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), who is now a Minister in the Home Office, said:
“We all welcome the establishment of the chief coroner”.—[Official Report, 26 January 2009; Vol. 487, c. 111.]
The Government now want to go against those recommendations at a time when, if anything, inquests are becoming more complex. The Lord Chancellor has acknowledged the limited nature of the Government’s proposals, making it clear that no
“individual will be responsible for the leadership, culture or behaviour of coroners.”—[Official Report, 14 June 2011; Vol. 529, c. 66WS.]
That is precisely why we need a chief coroner in the first place.
The Government cite the costs of setting up and running the office of the chief coroner as the main reason for scrapping the role but, as has been said, the credibility of their own figures has been questioned on numerous occasions by third parties since the initial impact assessment was made some three years ago. The Government have not properly factored in the costs of failing to implement the reform, such as the £500,000 spent every year on judicial reviews or the costs associated with transferring some of the functions from the office of the chief coroner to the Lord Chief Justice. Most significantly, given that the current system is failing to learn from previous fatalities, the costs of repeated and expensive investigations and inquests into similar deaths are not included in the cost assessment.
I am aware that other hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall conclude. On Saturday, I had the great privilege of launching the poppy appeal in Barnsley with the Hoyland and District branch of the Royal British Legion, of which I am a proud member. I did the launch with members of the public, local councillors, volunteers and a number of veterans who have served this country in the armed forces with such distinction, and I pay tribute to their service and sacrifice. The director general of the Royal British Legion, Mr Chris Simpkins, has said that axing the chief coroner would be
“a betrayal of bereaved Service families”.
He is absolutely right, and I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) would want to listen to the words of the Royal British Legion. In case he missed the point, I repeat that Mr Simpkins said that this would be
“a betrayal of bereaved Service families”.
Honouring that commitment to create the office of chief coroner is the first test of the Government’s commitment to the military covenant—that bond between our nation and our armed forces. Failing in their duty to meet that test would make a mockery of the Government’s assurances of greater support for the military and their families. As hon. Members have mentioned, this is also about speaking up for those other organisations that represent families who have suffered bereavement in different circumstances.
I tend to agree with the general argument that the hon. Gentleman is making but I am not certain that I agree with some of the hyperbole about sticking up for our armed forces families, which every single Member of the House does whichever side of this argument they may be on. I am not sure that is a sound argument. Does he agree with his right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Defence? His point is that people like Mr Masters in Wiltshire and, indeed, the Oxfordshire coroner are great experts in military inquests and that that has been fine while the bodies have been coming back through Lyneham and/or Brize Norton but that if we are to spread out the inquests across England and the rest of Britain as we hope to do, we need to make sure that that degree of expertise is enjoyed by all the coroners across the area. That is why we need better training and a chief coroner.
The hon. Gentleman is right and he makes a powerful case for our argument. It is the inconsistency of standards that we are concerned about. There are good coroners but, if we are honest, looking back at recent cases there are many examples of where the system has not worked, and that simply is not acceptable. That is why the Opposition will stand firm behind the armed forces and their families, behind the Royal British Legion and behind other bereaved families who have been let down time and again in the past by the coroner system.
Before this debate, I received a message from the Royal British Legion that said:
“Here’s hoping MPs of all parties will do the right thing by bereaved families, especially bereaved Armed Forces families, at this poignant time”—[Interruption.]
Those are the words of the Royal British Legion. We will do the right thing and the Government should too.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) for initiating this important debate and I thank the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Michael Dugher) for his contribution. I thank also stakeholders, particularly the noble Baroness Finlay, the Royal British Legion, INQUEST and Cardiac Risk in the Young for their passion for and commitment to reform. I have met them all on numerous occasions and our discussions have helped to shape the Government’s thinking on our proposals for reform of the coroner system. I have to say that our discussions have not been just of the yes/no variety described by the hon. Gentleman.
We are all aware of the importance of the issue and the outcome of this debate has the potential to affect thousands of people who come into contact with the coroner system, often in exceptionally difficult circumstances. Honouring the memory of those who give their lives for their country is very close to the heart of this Government, as it is to all hon. Members I am sure, but I point out to my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole that our reforms go further, as they concern all coroners, not just military inquests.
Hon. Members will be well aware of the Government’s position on this. Urgent reform is needed to drive up standards across the piece and to learn lessons from the inquest process. This must be achieved through consistent training for coroners, by tackling the cause of delays in the inquest process, by setting a framework of standards that the bereaved have the right to expect from the coroner system and by removing barriers to hearing inquests at the most convenient location for bereaved families.
After the disgraceful comments of the Minister’s colleague, who said, “These people are a disgrace,” this Minister said that he had had many discussions with the Royal British Legion, INQUEST and the like. Will he comment on the observations of those organisations that following those meetings they discovered that what had been said to one group about one organisation differed from what that organisation had actually said? There has much sleight of hand.
I would disagree with that. I had meetings with them together as well as separately. It is true that they opposed our proposals on one hand, but they were also in discussions with us in order to make our proposals work better. I was very grateful for their input and I can tell hon. Members that what has come about has been based partly on the changes they suggested.
The Coroners and Justice Act 2009 enables us to do all the things I have outlined. I accept that the Act, as originally drafted, envisaged that some functions would be carried out by a chief coroner, but that is not the only way of implementing the reforms. Indeed, the transfer of functions to the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor will ensure that they are taken forward quickly, effectively and without the cost associated with establishing the office of chief coroner. I assure hon. Members that the independence of the judiciary is every bit as secure in the hands of the Lord Chief Justice as it would have been in the hands of the chief coroner. Debates in this House and the other place, as well as my own stakeholder engagement, have clearly shown that there are widely held misconceptions about the extent of the chief coroner’s powers. In practice, the chief coroner’s powers to direct coroners would have been limited and any leadership would have been provided entirely through influence and persuasion.
Is the Minister not aware from his meetings with the various groups that have been mentioned that the current Government’s engagement with them on the issue has given them absolutely no confidence in the idea that some of these responsibilities would rest with the Lord Chancellor and some of his Ministers in future?
I have not come away with that impression when I have met those organisations.
Let me set out plainly that the chief coroner would not have had any enforcement powers to ensure authorities comply with actions to prevent future deaths that coroners may have reported to them. The chief coroner would not have had the power to investigate complaints about the conduct of coroners or, indeed, to direct a coroner on how to conduct an investigation. Complaints, quite rightly, will continue to lie with the Office for Judicial Complaints. The chief coroner would not, as some have suggested, have been responsible for managing or appraising individual coroners. On administrative issues, the chief coroner would not have been answerable to Parliament, as the Minister will be under our proposed ministerial board.
The hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) said that, without a chief coroner, inconsistencies in the reporting of suicide verdicts and the increasing use of narrative verdicts would continue. The chief coroner would have had no remit to direct coroners in how they use narrative verdicts. Coroners are independent judicial office holders. Only coroners can decide on the appropriate form of verdict.
I served on the Committee that considered the Coroners and Justice Bill, and one of the things that I discussed throughout was the role of the chief coroner. One of my concerns was the totally fragmented nature of the system. I was given an absolute assurance in Committee that the chief coroner would have the capacity to oversee and call in verdicts and to ensure not only consistency but investigation, where there were suicide clusters in particular.
The hon. Lady is very involved with coroners. We have had several meetings on coroners. She is dedicated to coronial reform—I respect her for that—but I am afraid that what she thought was the position arising from the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 is not right. Such inconsistencies and misconceptions are rife, which is why I feel that it is so important to address them now.
Let me move on, otherwise I shall not get through.
Under the proposals announced to Parliament on 14 June, we can deliver a significant package of reform to the coroner system. Transferring the majority of the chief coroner’s functions to either the Lord Chief Justice or Lord Chancellor will allow us to implement the vast majority of the reforms envisaged under part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Those powers include allowing the Lord Chancellor to make regulations about the way in which the coroner system is expected to operate in relation to bereaved relatives; allowing the Lord Chancellor to make regulations about the practice and procedure in coroner investigations, such as the disclosure of information to bereaved relatives and minimum standards for post mortem examinations; allowing the Lord Chief Justice to make rules to regulate practice and procedure at inquests; allowing the Lord Chief Justice to make rules in relation to the training of coroners, including specialist training, for instance, relating to military inquests; allowing the Lord Chancellor to amend coroner areas; and allowing the transfer of military cases to and from Scotland.
I found it somewhat sad to hear some hon. Members suggest that we are letting down service families. If we were leaving the office in the 2009 Act alone and not implementing the changes, I would agree with them. However, we are providing real and significant changes to the system that will directly improve the experience and treatment of service personnel families who come into contact with the coroner system.
The Government are making a huge mistake. The sooner the Minister realises that the better. He has been very evasive about the costings and has refused absolutely to interrogate the figures that he seems to have been given by his officials. Will he now explain what estimate he has made of the additional costs that will be incurred by transferring statutory functions from the chief coroner to the Lord Chief Justice?