House of Lords
Wednesday, 1 December 2010.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Newcastle.
House of Lords: Reform
My Lords, the new appointments since the general election are entirely consistent with the coalition’s programme for government, which set the objective of creating a second Chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties at the last general election. The Government are committed to reform of this House. The cross-party Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform will come forward with a draft Bill early in the new year.
My Lords, I want to make it clear that I mean no disrespect to the many Members who have recently joined this House or are about to do so, but how can the Minister reconcile the Government’s reducing by 50 the number of MPs in the House of Commons with increasing by more than that the number of Members of this House? Is he not breaking the cross-party understanding that the Government should not have an overall majority, especially as this has an adverse effect on the Cross Benches? I have yet to find a single Member of this House who agrees with the Minister—and I have asked quite a few of them. One can look at the faces behind the Minister to see that they are nodding in agreement with me and not with him.
I had better not look behind me then. There is a dilemma which this House has partially created for itself. For as long as I have been involved in these matters, there has been an assumption that incoming Governments will freshen their Benches, partly for reasons of needing to man the government Benches. That is exactly what the Labour Party did, with Mr Blair creating more than 300 Peers during his term of office. The attempts to reform this House over the past 10 years have failed and we are left with a problem of a House that is too large. That is why I hope that the Benches opposite, when they get the opportunity in January, will enthusiastically embrace the reform programme which the Government will put forward.
Does my noble friend agree that the best way to make progress would be if the Labour Party, instead of bringing in ex-MPs who are refuseniks on reform of your Lordships' House, stuck to its manifesto commitments, made not just at the last election but at many other elections, to reform this House comprehensively?
My noble friend makes some valid points, but I think that it is unfair to say that the ex-MPs who come in are against Lords reform. It usually takes them two or three weeks before they become enthusiastic supporters of the House. I see in his place the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, who has taken to the ermine like a duck to water.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has implied that the 300 Peers brought in by Mr Blair were Labour Peers, but can he tell me how many were not and took other Whips in the House? Does he endorse the remarks made yesterday by his noble friend Lord Tyler, who in the context of Lords reform effectively told the Cross Benches that, unless they supported the Government in votes, a 100 per cent elected House rather than an 80 per cent elected House would be proposed? Does he endorse that view?
I do not read that into what my noble friend Lord Tyler said yesterday. I trust the Cross Benches to take decisions on votes in this House as individuals and not as a collective group. I know that they will continue to do that. Even more shaming than any threats real or imagined from my noble friend Lord Tyler are the blatant attempts made by the Labour Party to lure the Cross Benches into elephant traps when trying to delay government business.
My Lords, it is always good to have a contribution from the Cross Benches. No such assurances have been asked for and they would be pretty valueless for the reason I gave earlier. I can see faces on the Benches opposite who I remember in their radical youth wanted to burn this place down, and they are now enthusiastic supporters of no change at all.
Does the noble Lord accept that there is no logical explanation to the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs? We all know the views of the Cabinet and the coalition. I speak as a Conservative, I am still a Conservative and I support—when I can—the coalition, but not on this occasion.
I am well aware of those views. All I will say to all sides of the House is that the other place has come to a settled and consistent view on the need to reform this Chamber. In keeping with our democracy, those views were taken to the electorate. The Conservative Party’s commitment to reform, the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to reform and the slightly dodgy, but still there, commitment of the Labour Party to reform—
A noble Lord: We lost—
My Lords, there is time for only one more question. Noble Lords cannot all stand up at the same time.
This is a question we will come back to many times. There is time for only one more question. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has been trying to get in consistently since the beginning and I suggest that we hear from him. There will be many other opportunities.
Roads: Long and Heavy Vehicles
My Lords, the Government have made it clear that they have no intention of permitting any trials of goods vehicles longer than 18.75 metres or heavier than 44 tonnes. The Government are awaiting the conclusions of research into a small increment in the length of articulated lorries, but this would provide no more loading capacity than is currently possible with a rigid draw-bar combination lorry.
My Lords, many types of lightweight freight are completely inappropriate for rail travel. At a time when all public expenditure is under critical examination, to improve productivity and to reduce costs, does my noble friend agree that it is appropriate to review all our regulatory systems at the same time, so that economic or environmental performance on this particular transport question can be improved wherever possible?
My Lords, before responding to that question, I should first declare an interest as I know Mr Dick Denby, who is a proponent of a longer and heavier vehicle. I have also received engineering advice from his designer on a pro bono basis. Mr Denby has done the country a great service by opening up this issue. As a result, this Government and our predecessor have been looking at a small increase in the length of an articulated vehicle to address precisely the concern of my noble friend: that low-density goods are bulking out, rather than grossing out, our current range of goods vehicles.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that it is the heaviest goods vehicles that directly abstract traffic from rail freight? Will he accept from me that, for years, the road haulage industry has been claiming spuriously that heavier and longer goods vehicles would mean fewer of them? Does he agree that the heaviest goods vehicles have, for over 30 years, failed to pay their true track costs, and does he accept that any acceptance of longer and heavier vehicles will cause even more damage to Britain’s roads, which will be paid for by other taxpayers?
My Lords, most of what the noble Lord says is right. We are looking at an increase in the cubic capacity of an articulated vehicle, but we have absolutely no intention of increasing the gross weight of a goods vehicle, for precisely the reasons that the noble Lord explained.
My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point. The damage to the road goes up in proportion to the fourth power of the axle weight, but we have no intention of altering the permitted axle weights either. However, the type of vehicle we are looking at will require different axle arrangements on the rear of the vehicle.
My Lords, I quite appreciate the Minister approaching this issue with some care, because he will know the anxieties of the general public about the questions over the damage which heavy lorries do to our roads and the pollution that they create. However, is there any reason why he should delay the charging of heavy goods vehicles, given that at present he is all too well aware of the unfairness of foreign lorries coming into this country and using our roads without cost?
Can the Minister assure us that road safety will play a very prominent part in his consideration, because these lorries will not be confined to the motorway network? Will he please tell us, through the Library or however, how many prosecutions have been brought against HGVs—heavy goods vehicles—for contravening the weight restrictions on most of our roads?
My Lords, the noble Lord raises important issues about enforcement. This question is more about the design, construction and use of our vehicles, but he is right that we need to make sure that we enforce regulations on the operation of goods vehicles very carefully indeed.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that it is the policy of this Government to carry as many goods by rail as possible and to transfer goods from road to rail wherever possible? In that context, will the Government continue to support freight transfer depots and other facilities to enable goods to be put on to the railway and carried long distances by rail rather than by road?
My Lords, will the Minister take into account the number of heavy goods vehicles that have jack-knifed during the recent bad weather and caused considerable traffic delays? Does this need to be borne in mind in deciding on the future of these arrangements?
My Lords, one of our motivations for considering a slightly longer articulated trailer rather than using a rigid vehicle towing a draw-bar trailer—precisely the point that the noble and gallant Lord makes—is that we believe that an articulated vehicle will be slightly safer.
IMF and World Bank: Appointment Procedures
My Lords, G20 leaders are committed to open, transparent and merit-based selection processes for the heads and senior leadership of all international financial institutions. The UK supports this commitment as part of a broader package of reforms to increase the institutions’ effectiveness and legitimacy. Further consideration is being given to the processes for search, selection and appointment of heads at the IMF and the World Bank.
I thank the Minister for his Answer and I declare an interest as a former chief economist and senior vice-president of the World Bank.
Does the Minister agree with the assessment that the system of reservation—because that is what it is—of headships of the IMF and the World Bank for Europe and the United States respectively is outdated, unacceptable in the modern world and deeply resented by the Governments and people of developing countries? Does he also agree that past declarations of the importance of open competitions have not prevented the UK Government from participating in the continuation of these stitch-ups? Does he therefore agree that, to make the openness clear, the UK should support non-European and non-US candidates for these positions? There are many outstanding candidates. I am happy to provide him with a list. If the IMF position becomes available first, Europe must take the lead, as a matter of principle, whether or not the US tries to keep its monopoly at the World Bank.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord for the distinguished part that he played as chief economist at the World Bank and I therefore listen very carefully to what he has to say. I can confirm that this longstanding, informal agreement whereby the managing director of the IMF was always a European and the World Bank was always to be headed by a US citizen is well past its sell-by date. As I said, we support open and transparent appointments based on merit and in that context, while it is right and appropriate that good candidates from wherever should come forward, the UK’s position is emphatically that appointments should be made regardless of nationality or, indeed, of gender.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that waiting for the appointment of the head of the World Bank is like waiting for white smoke to emerge from the building? We know that the Americans fund the World Bank more than anyone else, but, in spite of that, is it right that the President of the United States, behind closed doors, should have the right to appoint the head of the World Bank in today’s world? With the IMF, why should it be a European? Why can it not be, as the noble Lord, Lord Stern, said, someone such as our mutual friend, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy head of the Planning Commission in India?
My Lords, I will not repeat my previous answers but I draw attention to part of my first Answer. Processes for search, selection and appointment are being worked up by the IMF and the World Bank. I suggest that any candidates that noble Lords think are appropriate for the appointment should apply in due course.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that European countries occupy eight to nine of the 24 seats in the IMF and the World Bank? Does he not consider that we, as one of those European countries, should presume that it is about time some of these privileges were given up in favour of emerging and developing countries?
My Lords, I said at the outset that the improvements to the processes for appointing the heads of these organisations must be part of wider reform packages for the entire governance of the IMF and the World Bank. Progress is being made on that in the quota shares, the voting arrangements and the governance arrangements. Equally, it is critical that, under the new arrangements, the four BRIC countries are in the top 10 voting and quota share countries, so we will have a much better balance in both voting and representation. It is equally important that the UK remains a top five member and that we retain our board seat.
My Lords, does the Minister accept that these top appointments are intensely political? Therefore, simply having a process that is called “open and transparent” will not guarantee that the best person gets the job. Would it not be sensible, as the noble Lord, Lord Stern, said, for the British Government to make it clear at this stage that they expect the next head of the IMF and the World Bank not to be a European or an American?
My Lords, is the Minister aware that many of the beneficiaries of the World Bank feel that the leadership of both the World Bank and the IMF are out of touch with the complexity of the issues facing the developing world, especially when it comes to land rights?
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate for reminding us of what part of the important role of the World Bank is. Indeed, since we are talking about governance arrangements, it is important that there is a commitment to arriving at a new formula for the World Bank shareholding by 2015 that will properly reflect the development mandate of that organisation.
I am most grateful to my noble friend for giving way. I declare an interest, having served 30 years with the World Bank and being in receipt of a pension from it. I totally agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Stern of Brentford, has said about the necessity of broadening the field of recruitment. Does the Minister agree that the most important aspect is to make sure that the best qualified person gets the job and that it is extremely important that, whatever negotiations are held, the G20 should not go from one stitch-up, which we have now, to another and thereby end up with the lowest common denominator of approval? We should at least find the best people available for both these posts.
Undemocratic and non-transparent are the buzzwords of these institutions today. Will the British Government take the lead from the German finance minister who asked for lower representation for European countries so that the sub-Saharan and developing countries can get more representation and so that we have a big step on the way to democracy for these institutions?
Immigration: Detention of Children
My Lords, there has been progress in the pilot studies that the Government have been conducting. We remain determined to end the detention of children for immigration purposes and intend to make a Statement on the subject before the Christmas Recess. As the House will be aware, the number of children in detention for immigration purposes has fallen dramatically—and is now very low—and takes place only for very short periods. There are no children in detention at present.
Is the Minister aware that the Government kept their promise to end the detention of children in Dungavel in Scotland by shipping them hundreds of miles away to detention in Yarl’s Wood? The Observer reported on Sunday that the replacement for Yarl’s Wood is no better than Yarl’s Wood. How will the Government end what Nick Clegg described as a moral outrage or will this be another pledge he wishes he had not made?
My Lords, the Observer is inaccurate. It is not the case that the accommodation that will be provided will be “no better than Yarl’s Wood”. The picture painted of the current Yarl’s Wood was inaccurate. The Labour Benches opposite will know something about the changes that they made. The accommodation will not be like Yarl’s Wood and will not contain any means of detention.
My Lords, the Government will be aware of the Church’s continuing acute interest in this subject not least because of an open letter to all party leaders that was sent before the general election touching this question. What are Her Majesty’s Government’s plans to keep monitoring the psychological and mental medical impact of detention upon children and families and the impact of some aspects of the whole regime that currently obtains, including the practice of dawn raids, the proposed suggestion of indeterminate dates for expulsion and comparable matters? Will Her Majesty’s Government be prepared to raise and press some of these issues with other European Union countries?
My Lords, the most reverend Primate raises a number of important points. The reason why we are concerned about the mental condition and psychological effect on children and their families of what has hitherto been the practice is the reason why this Government made a commitment to end the detention of children for immigration purposes. We will honour that commitment.
As a result of the number of questions that I have been asked on this subject, I have kept the House aware of the pilots that we are already conducting to alter procedures such that some of the things that have been mentioned will no longer take place. There will not be a need for the “raids” that used to take place. We are endeavouring to bring about a system that ensures that those who are not entitled to be in this country are not able to stay here and that they are not able to abuse the system, but that in its procedures is humane and just.
My Lords, I declare an interest as someone who is involved in the Child M question and has raised the question of children in detention. It seems to me that the treatment of these children as numbers rather than as human beings, and the idea that they are a category that belongs or does not belong in this country, simply denies them their rights as human beings. Can we please take these cases as human beings and think what we would do if these were our children? I feel that Child M is being pulled every which way. The family is breaking up and the future of that child is being destroyed. We talk about future pilots. Here is an example. Please let us do something.
I say to the noble Baroness that these pilots are in progress; they are not future pilots. We are endeavouring to introduce means by which we can encourage families to return on a voluntary basis. I lay stress on the fact that we keep families together as much as we possibly can. It is now a very rare circumstance, such as, possibly, the brutality of parents within a family, that would result in family separation. We try to keep families together. Our aim is to get them to depart voluntarily if they are not entitled to be in the country and, if they do not do so, to make as humane arrangements as we possibly can to remove them, but we do not intend to involve detention in that process.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that in seven months we as a Government have made more progress to end the detention of children for immigration purposes than the Labour Party did in 13 years? Can she arrange a visit to Yarl’s Wood to enable the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble Baroness, myself and others to see the ending of that desperately sad regime?
My Lords, I have already offered the possibility of a visit to Yarl’s Wood, which will, in due course, become a centre for adults only. However, I would be very happy to demonstrate to Members of this House the arrangements that we are piloting and hope to put in operation shortly. As I said, there will be a Statement on this issue before the Christmas Recess.
Clause 1 : Consents required for civil service compensation scheme modifications
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 1, at end insert—
“( ) Section 1 of the Superannuation Act 1972 is amended as follows.
( ) In subsection (3), after “consult” insert “, with a view to reaching agreement,”.
( ) In subsection (3A) after “consult” insert “, with a view to reaching agreement,”.”
My Lords, Amendment 1 stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie of Luton. As my noble friend Lord McKenzie said in Committee, this is a straightforward amendment designed to clarify the purpose of consultation, emphasising that consultation should aim to reach agreement. In Committee, the Minister expressed reservations that this amendment was drawn too widely in respect of the 1972 Act, but recognised that the Government’s aim, like that of the previous Administration, was to seek to reach agreement by consensus where possible. There have been discussions between the Civil Service trade unions and Ministers in this respect and the Government have now submitted Amendments 2 and 4, which are grouped with Amendment 1 and which I take to be an endeavour to offer the reassurance sought in Amendment 1. While I clearly prefer the simplicity of our amendment, I await the Minister’s arguments in support of his amendments with interest. I hope that our thinking is as one, even though our amendments may use different language. I beg to move.
My Lords, it may be helpful if I begin by reminding your Lordships of the main outcome that the Government are seeking to achieve in securing agreement to this Bill, which is to enable necessary reform of the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. Our goal in effecting this reform is to put in place a scheme, following consultation with the Civil Service trade unions, that is affordable, sustainable for the long term and fair not only to civil servants but to other taxpayers. This is not an initiative of this new Government but an issue that we inherited from our predecessors. Indeed, the previous Government negotiated for 18 months with the Civil Service trade unions and had a scheme to propose in February this year, which was then challenged by one of the unions and struck down in a judicial review.
I have described previously the intensive discussions between the Government and the Civil Service unions since my right honourable friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude, announced on 6 July his intention to push through reform of the compensation scheme. Since Grand Committee, which took place three weeks ago, some of the unions have begun to ballot their members on a new scheme based on the agreement reached on 5 October between the Government and the negotiating teams of five of the six Civil Service unions.
The key elements of the new scheme that we propose to introduce include: a standard tariff for compensation payments; an entitlement for a three-month notice period on redundancy, whether voluntary or compulsory; significant protection for lower-paid civil servants; limitations on payments to higher-paid civil servants; and, lastly, the ability to access an unreduced pension for staff who have reached minimum pension age.
The Government listened carefully to points made by those noble Lords who spoke in Grand Committee about the purpose and structure of the Bill, as well as underlying concerns about how reform of the scheme would be achieved. We have brought forward some further amendments, which we believe address these points, as I will explain in due course. I hope that we will be able to use this Report stage to ensure that the Bill meets our goals of supporting a new, affordable, fair and sustainable compensation scheme and of providing that the Civil Service and the Government are not left in limbo over the reform of this scheme.
In speaking to Amendment 2, I will also address Amendment 4, which is simply a consequential drafting amendment, and respond to the points raised by noble Lords opposite on Amendment 1. Indeed, these government amendments are specifically intended to respond to the identical amendment that the Opposition tabled for Grand Committee and to the discussion that followed about the way in which consultation should be carried out.
Amendment 1 would insert into the Bill the words,
“with a view to reaching agreement”,
in references to consultation on schemes under Section 1 of the Superannuation Act 1972. It would in practice render my Amendment 2 unnecessary, as it covers the substance of my amendment and much more besides. That is why the Government have brought forward Amendment 2, to address the specific issue of consultation on the compensation schemes that are covered by this Bill.
The Grand Committee agreed to amendments that I had tabled to deliver the undertaking made in another place to reinforce the requirement for meaningful consultation with the unions before any compensation scheme is imposed. Those amendments inserted what is now Clause 2 of the Bill. The coalition Government firmly believe that a requirement to consult already carries with it the implication that the consultation must be genuine and that proper consideration must be given to the response. However, we were happy to set out in primary legislation our commitment to meaningful consultation, which we have also reiterated in both Houses of Parliament.
It is also the intention of this Government that any consultation that we carry out under the 1972 Act would be begun with a view to reaching agreement. Clause 2 already uses the words,
“with a view to reaching agreement”,
in respect of the report that the Government will in future be required to lay before Parliament about changes to the scheme. The noble Lord opposite pressed me in Grand Committee to make our intention clear in the Bill and to apply the same words expressly to the requirement to consult.
I do not think that there is much between us as to the aim and purpose of these amendments. However, as I explained in Grand Committee, the Government have reservations as to the breadth of the scope of the amendment from the noble Lords opposite. It would take us very much wider than the process of changes to Civil Service compensation, which is the key purpose of the Bill. Amendment 1 would in practice apply also to schemes in relation to pensions and injury benefits, which are subject to different regimes for consultation and agreement and which we have not otherwise considered in this Bill. The Government were therefore not able to accept the amendment in Grand Committee and this has not changed.
Nevertheless, I have reflected carefully on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, in Grand Committee. He said then that it should not be contentious to seek to emphasise that the aim of consultation should be for it to lead to agreement. Indeed, the Government would not wish to contend with that view. I also understand that inserting the wording,
“with a view to reaching agreement”,
explicitly into the requirements for consultation in the 1972 Act is seen by the Civil Service trade unions as an important indicator of the Government’s good faith in continuing to try to find agreement through negotiation. I have, therefore, brought forward Amendment 2, which relates, like the rest of Clause 2, to any cases where changes are proposed that would reduce the value of compensation benefits, in order to address that point. It will not have the effect of restoring the union veto on reform, which Clause 1 will remove, and it will not apply, as Amendment 1 would, to consultations on the much broader range of schemes covered by Section 1 of the 1972 Act. Those extend beyond the main business of the Bill, which we have had the opportunity to discuss in detail. However, it will make it absolutely clear that the Government will now have a duty to consult with a view to reaching agreement where there is any future proposal that would have the effect of reducing the amount of compensation benefits payable to civil servants.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, that I was persuaded by his arguments in Grand Committee but that, for the reasons that I have explained, I still prefer the approach in the Government’s amendments. I hope that noble Lords are persuaded, as I have been, that this amendment rounds out and reinforces the statutory commitments to meaningful consultation on compensation schemes. I also hope that it succeeds in meeting the substance of the genuine concerns raised by noble Lords opposite and that, therefore, they will agree to withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. A number of amendments tabled by the Opposition and indeed a number of speeches made from all sides in Committee were about the confidence that is required to carry forward what is a contentious piece of legislation for those civil servants who will be worse off financially than they would have been under the provisions in the 1972 Act and beyond. However, I take the point made by the noble Lord regarding our endeavours to engender a degree of confidence in respect of the compensation element, which is the issue in this Bill. In the circumstances and with the strength of the reassurances given, I do not feel it necessary to test the opinion of the House and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 1 withdrawn.
Clause 2 : Consultation in relation to civil service compensation scheme modifications
2: Clause 2, page 2, line 22, at end insert—
“( ) After subsection (3C) insert—
“(3D) So far as it relates to a provision of a scheme under the said section 1 which would have the effect of reducing the amount of a compensation benefit, the duty to consult in section 1(3) of this Act is a duty to consult with a view to reaching agreement with the persons consulted.””
Amendment 2 agreed.
3: Clause 2, page 2, line 28, leave out “such information as the Minister considers appropriate” and insert “information”
My Lords, Amendment 3 stands in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie. Clause 2, as amended in Committee, requires the Minister to lay certain information before Parliament regarding the consultation undertaking in respect of the new Civil Service Compensation Scheme prior to the scheme coming into operation, with such information to be limited to information that the Minister considers appropriate. Again, we believe that that undermines confidence, as many people feel that it might be misused to withhold from Parliament information that would be influential in the subsequent discussions and debates that might take place.
We believe that constraining the information in such a way is unnecessary and will certainly not engender the confidence in the consultation process that I think everyone involved wants to see. I do not say that such is the Government’s intention, but unfortunately the wording in its present form to some degree undermines the confidence that we seek to restore. Our amendment seeks to remedy the situation by removing the ministerial discretion to limit the information. I trust that this will not be considered controversial and that the Minister will not feel the need to resist Amendment 3. I beg to move.
My Lords, we had a useful and constructive discussion on this in Grand Committee and I was persuaded by the strength of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, at that time. We took the matter back and discussed it and now wish to accept this opposition amendment.
There was a perfectly good reason for the original wording that the noble Lord now proposes should be removed. It was simply intended to clarify that there might need to be some discretion about what precisely would be included in the published report of the consultation that had been carried out with the Civil Service trade unions. For example, some details might need to be omitted on the grounds that they should be held in confidence, such as a negotiating position set out by a particular union during the consultations that it asked should be treated in confidence.
However, I agree that it is unnecessary to insist on this wording as to what constitutes information. The report will be produced by the Minister for the Civil Service and will, in any event, include only information which he considers appropriate and which does not breach confidences from the negotiations. I agree that this need not be spelt out in the Bill, so I am happy to say that, with what I hope the Opposition will accept as good grace, the Government accept the amendment.
Amendment 3 agreed.
4: Clause 2, page 2, line 36, leave out “amendment made by this section applies” and insert “amendments made by this section apply”
Amendment 4 agreed.
Clause 3 : Limits on value of benefits provided under civil service compensation scheme
5: Clause 3, page 2, line 41, leave out “the following limitations” and insert “agreement reached following consultation and negotiation with the relevant trade unions”
My Lords, I have pleasure in moving this amendment on behalf of my noble friend Lady Turner of Camden, who, as noble Lords will know, was taken ill on Monday. She was unable to attend the House today, but I am pleased to say that she is now at home. I am a lifelong admirer of Lady Turner and I hope that I can do justice to her amendment. I have a guess that this amendment might not be received in the same way as one or two of the previous ones.
These are worrying and uncertain times for civil servants, with their job security, pensions and standard of living under attack. I am sure that many noble Lords have received letters from individual civil servants about the impact of this Bill on their lives. They entered the Civil Service with certain expectations about their job security and pensions. The impact on their morale should not be underestimated, and I am concerned that the public focus on Civil Service pay and pensions is always on the higher paid. I notice that when this was discussed on 10 November, one contribution made out that an annual salary of £40,000 to £50,000 was the norm. I know that Members of this House will realise that that is not the norm. The majority of civil servants earn very modest salaries and even more modest pensions. It is not my intention to hold up the House by quoting the figures, but I know that the Minister will be aware of them.
I acknowledge the reassurance of the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, that negotiations will be genuine. However, the general tenor of the Bill will not reassure civil servants. I believe that it is reasonable to reach agreement with trade unions. There is a long and honourable tradition of this in the joint Civil Service negotiating bodies and I hope that the Bill’s tenor will do nothing to undermine it. It is in that spirit that I move the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lady Turner.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Donaghy for stepping into the breach. She did indeed do justice to our noble friend and colleague Lady Turner. Perhaps we can take this opportunity of sending our best wishes to her for a speedy recovery.
I very much agree with the thrust of the amendment, which pretty much replicates a debate that we had in Grand Committee. The difficulty, in a sense, is that the approach is predicated on Clause 1 not standing part of the Bill, so there is a potential inconsistency between these two provisions. In so far as the cap is concerned, we are very clear that it should go from the Bill in its entirety, which would negate this amendment if it were to be pressed and were successful. However, we agree that there must be consultation with every effort made to end up with a negotiated settlement. My right honourable friend in the other place, Tessa Jowell, made clear that we accept that there would be circumstances in which changes would have to be made that did not rely on agreement. We do not recognise this lightly, nor indeed does the Minister. To that extent we may differ a little on my noble friend’s amendment, but we have some other amendments constructed to achieve in large measure the same thing, which is to get rid of the caps.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for moving the amendment and I join the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, in sending good wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner. However, I fear the amendment as drafted goes too wide, as was implicit in the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie. It might have the effect of reinstating the veto, which it is the purpose of this Bill in large measure to withdraw. I am glad to recognise what was said in another place by Tessa Jowell and the inconsistency of that, as I see it, with the amendment tabled.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in sending our best wishes to the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden. I served on a committee with her when I first became a Member of this House and have been very fond of her ever since. We look forward to having her back with us. She played a useful and constructive role in our Grand Committee discussions.
In Grand Committee we discussed the question of the balance of pay with trade unionists and I remarked at the time that we need to understand how many low-paid civil servants there are and to construct a scheme which is as fair as possible to the lower-paid. As the noble Baroness will know, one of the elements of this scheme is that all those earning under £23,000 who are offered redundancy will be treated as if they were earning £23,000. So built into the compensation scheme are limitations for the small number of civil servants who are paid £150,000 or above and much greater benefits for that large number of civil servants who earn below the medium wage. I hope that this has the sympathy of all Members of the House because it is part of what this scheme is intended to achieve.
Although this amendment seeks to amend Clause 3, to some extent it contradicts Clause 1, as the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, pointed out. The Government are not therefore able to accept it as it is not entirely clear what its implications would be. As I have already made clear, the Government are committed to full consultation with the Civil Service trade unions over the long term. However, the recent history of changes proposed to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme both by the previous Government and by the coalition Government shows that a requirement to reach agreement can lead to stalemate where the Government of the day are unable to implement the changes that are necessary or agreed with the majority of unions.
So in practice the drafting of the amendment may not have the effect that the noble Baroness, Lady Turner of Camden, would want it to achieve. It does not just apply to changes in the compensation scheme but rather to the scheme as a whole. I am sure I do not need to tell noble Lords that the Government would not want this to be the case. Nevertheless, I appreciate the opportunity that the noble Baroness’s amendment provides to emphasise yet again our commitment to meaningful consultation and our determination on the other hand not to allow any union to have a complete veto over changes that may be proposed to the Civil Service Compensation Scheme. This is an important point which we take as seriously as the noble Baroness does and we are determined that it is the lower paid civil servants who will have the most generous benefits, as we have proposed in the current scheme. We have therefore pushed this scheme forward and are puzzled by the resistance of one of the unions to a scheme that seems to us to be better for the lower-paid than the alternatives that that union seems to prefer.
I turn to the drafting of the amendment. On several occasions in Grand Committee I heard the noble Baroness express genuine concern for civil servants who are at risk of redundancy. Many of us, me included, have received many letters from civil servants. There are also a good many low-paid HMRC civil servants where I live in Yorkshire, so I not only receive letters but hear about it from people in the pub. I am therefore entirely sure that it is not the noble Baroness’s intention that the amendment should jeopardise any compensation payments to civil servants in that position. As drafted, however, Amendment 5 does not achieve what she seeks to do—even if the Government were minded to support it, which we are not. Once the Bill receives Royal Assent, it is our intention to lay before Parliament the revised Civil Service Compensation Scheme which, in our view, will be fair to civil servants and affordable for the taxpayer.
I hope that I have provided sufficient clarification about the intention of the coalition Government’s policy and the legislation to deliver it, and that I have explained my concerns about the effect of this amendment. I therefore ask the noble Baroness to withdraw it.
My Lords, I neglected to declare an interest: I am in receipt of a very small Civil Service-related pension as former chair of ACAS. I apologise to the House for not having done that. In the light of the statements made, it does not seem sensible to press the amendment to a vote. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
6: Clause 3, page 2, line 43, leave out subsections (2) to (ii) and insert—
“(2) Where a civil service compensation scheme, or any part of that scheme, is challenged in Court, the provisions of that scheme and any settlement made under that scheme shall remain in place until the Court has made a final determination about the legality of that scheme.”
The purpose of this amendment is to consider alternative options to resolve the problem which the caps are said to be intended to address. We remain firm in our view that the caps are not necessary, are counterproductive and would present their own series of operational complications if they were ever in effect and applied.
As a responsible Opposition we have sought to get to the heart of the issue. Following deliberations in Grand Committee, we received a helpful letter from the Minister, dated 16 November. Based on this communication we understand that the Government’s concern is that, in the event of a challenge on the legality of any new scheme, the courts will reinstate the unaffordable current scheme. In his letter, the Minister notes that once litigation has been started, that alone will put a question mark over which scheme should be regarded as being in force at any one date before all the appeals have been exhausted. The Government are concerned that, in this interim period, the default position as applied by the courts will not be the new scheme which we understand the Minister intends to lay before Parliament in January, but the more expensive current scheme. The Minister states in his letter that it should be Parliament that decides the default position—which, by implication, is to be the caps. The Minister argues that if the challenge is on human rights grounds, the courts would not have the right to set aside limits in primary legislation but would be limited to declarations of incompatibility.
The purpose of our amendment is to address this uncertainty in another and, we hope, less complicated and more effective way. The effect of the amendment would be to state quite clearly in primary legislation what would happen during a period when the scheme was undergoing a legal challenge that had not reached a conclusion. Rather than revert to the caps, the Act would stipulate that the scheme in operation would be the default position until the validity of the new scheme had been determined. Things would eventually come out in the wash when the court process had run its course. We will come to a substantive debate on the caps in the next group of amendments, and we consider that there are compelling reasons to remove the caps in their entirety. We are supported in this position by the recent report by the Joint Committee on Human Rights which cast doubt on the benefit or extent of the certainty that the Government would achieve by relying on this mechanism.
I should make it clear that we do not intend to press this to a vote, nor are we wedded to this precise wording. However, we are firmly of the view that if the Government consider that a fallback in primary legislation is necessary—we do not—it must not be the caps locking in via primary legislation. The scheme most recently introduced, albeit by order, is potentially one way of achieving this. I look forward to the Minister’s reaction to this amendment. Perhaps, when he responds, he will also cover what alternative mechanisms have been considered to address his concern. I beg to move.
I understand that there is a mistake in Amendment 6 as printed in the Marshalled List. Instead of “(2) to (ii)” it should read “(2) to (11)”.
My Lords, I appreciate that we will come on to caps in a later amendment, so it is a little difficult to know whether to respond in detail now or to leave it to later. We discussed this delicate set of issues quite extensively in Grand Committee, and I subsequently set out in a letter, which the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, has mentioned and which has been placed in the House of Lords Library, that I wished to avoid being in the position that followed the High Court’s judgment of May 2010, which resulted in the February 2010 arrangement being squashed and the pre-February scheme being largely revived. I reiterate our strong intention to ensure that the proposed new scheme is legally robust and our consequent view that the scheme would ultimately survive any legal challenge.
Nevertheless, it is open to anyone to seek to challenge the scheme now or in the future, regardless of whether their intention is rational or their arguments are ultimately found to be meaningful by the courts. Such a challenge could result in the scheme being suspended until due legal process has been pursued. The Government take court rulings very seriously; we would always give the most serious consideration to court judgments and would certainly take the necessary steps to take account of any final ruling. As I previously explained, the question that arises is what the default position should be during any period of uncertainty caused by litigation. The Government continue to believe that it is right that Parliament, a democratically accountable body, should decide in an Act of Parliament what the default position should be, and that is the reason for Clause 3 as it is currently drafted.
I do, however, feel certain that a court would have views of its own about an Act of Parliament containing the approach set out in Amendment 6. This seeks, in effect, to oust the court’s power to strike down a scheme, an approach which the courts have often felt to be misconceived and on which the Government would not therefore be confident to rely. I also note that the drafting of the amendment is a little vague, which would not be helpful in conveying to a court a clear meaning of Parliament’s intent. For example, given all the opportunities for appeal or for proceedings to be taken on to the European Court, how could anyone be certain that the “final determination” has been made? Even if the intention and the process could be made sufficiently clear, I am not convinced that a court would always accept that a compensation scheme that is being challenged qualified as a scheme that should remain in place during that challenge.
I emphasise once again, as we did on several occasions in Grand Committee, that the coalition Government hope not to need to use the powers in Clause 3, nor the powers in Clause 4 that support them. What we want is a new, reformed, sustainable, affordable and fair Civil Service Compensation Scheme that can be implemented once this Bill has received Royal Assent and which will mean that we will never need to use the caps in Clause 2. If we are taken to court and therefore need to fall back to a provision that means that the necessary reductions in the Civil Service workforce can be made without disproportionate cost and perverse effects, it is more reasonable to rely on such caps than on a clause that attempts pre-emptively to bind the court.
We shall shortly have the chance to discuss Clause 3 again as drafted, along with the provisions in Clause 4 that provide for the repeal, extension or revival of Clause 3. I do not think it would be right for us to agree to an amendment that might be interpreted by some as seeking to constrain the powers of the courts. So, for the reasons that I have given, I hope that the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his explanation of why the Government are unable to accept this amendment. As I explained when I introduced it, we did not propose to test the opinion of the House, but simply to probe alternatives to the use of the caps as the default position. With respect, the Minister has said why he does not like our formulation, but he has not dealt with the point about what formulations other than the caps have been considered to create the certainty that he seeks and considers is necessary in circumstances where there is a challenge. We do not object to Parliament deciding in an Act of Parliament what that default position should be.
I take the point that the formulation of our amendment could be seen as seeking to oust the power of the courts.
My noble friend suggests otherwise. I am reassured by that intervention, if it is in support of our amendment. Will the Minister and his team reflect further on this matter? It is difficult to conceive that the only default position would be the caps. We will come on to why the caps are so offensive to many and why we think that it is misguided to retain them. If he Minister does not like our alternative formulation, will he enter into discussion to see what alternatives there might be that do not involve the default position being those caps?
We have all had correspondence from people about their fear of the caps and what it may mean to their compensation arrangements. Being able to remove that without wishing to detract from the Government’s position of wanting some protection and a fallback is worthy of further exploration. I simply do not believe that you could have only the caps and no other formulation. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment and, in doing so, I ask the Minister to reflect further on this issue. We would be happy to have discussions with him between now and Third Reading to test the alternatives that might give him the protection he wants without those caps.
Amendment 6 withdrawn.
7: Clause 3, leave out Clause 3
My Lords, in speaking to Amendment 7, I shall speak also to the other amendments in this group. The purpose of this amendment is abundantly clear. It would remove Clause 3. Amendments 9, 10 and 14 are consequential, as the removal of Clause 3 would obviate the necessity of sunset and sunrise clauses, and provisions relating to orders. With the deletion of Clause 3, the caps, which have been at the core of so much dissatisfaction with this Bill and with this process, would go. They remain a continuing source of anxiety and many civil servants who fear redundancy believe that their compensation will be a fraction of what they hitherto considered to be their entitlement.
The caps set out in the Bill are not only punitive—certainly in relation to the current scheme—but they are, in terms of the Government’s own position, redundant. If the caps are a blunt instrument supposedly needed as a basis for discussion and to force agreement with the trade unions, they are no longer necessary, as an agreement is no longer a precondition of introducing a changed compensation scheme. We know that the Government are actively working up the detail of a scheme, which is expected to be introduced shortly after this legislation enters into force. Before the scheme order is laid, Clause 3 will have to be repealed for the scheme to be effective.
The further reason the Minister has advanced for retaining the caps is that they are needed in reserve. We have just touched upon that issue. The Joint Committee on Human Rights, however, has blown the cover on this. Removal of this clause would go some way to addressing the anger that accompanied its inclusion in the Bill and would place the emphasis back on the need for consultation and negotiation. It would remove a genuine source of anxiety for those who expect to be made redundant and who fear that, by one means or another, the caps will define their compensation.
We have been encouraged in our determination to remove these caps by the latest report of the JCHR in HL Paper 64. The committee considers, contrary to the view of the Government, that the Bill in its current form engages Article 1 of Protocol 1 to the European Convention on Human Rights. It was very clear that the legitimate expectation of obtaining effective enjoyment of a property right can and does amount to possessions in this case. Individuals have acted on reliance on their expectation that they will receive certain sums—for example by entering into mortgage commitments—in the belief that, even in redundancy, their commitments could be met. The committee’s view is that the limits on compensation payments set out in Clause 3 of the Bill clearly constitute an interference with that right, but not a deprivation of it. It is the Government’s obligation therefore to seek to justify that there is a sufficiently compelling public interest in doing so, provided the interference is not arbitrary, is proportionate and does not affect the very substance of the right.
In summarising the Government’s justification—basically, affordability and the lack of comparability with other parts of the public and private sectors—the committee considers that the case has not been made for the limits, or caps, imposed in the Bill. The limits in the Bill are, as we know, less generous than those that the Government have said that they are prepared to agree to and, indeed, have agreed to with five trade unions. References to blunt instruments and the Government’s minimum negotiating position, the committee says, are not compatible with the argument that the limits in the Bill are a necessary and proportionate interference with civil servants accrued rights.
Clearly it is too late for the Government to unpick their previous justification for the caps, but there can be no doubt that their retention, revival and potential use damages any case that changes to the CSCS are a justifiable interference with civil servants accrued rights. Far from help the Government’s position, it can be concluded that the preservation of the caps makes it more likely that the Government’s approach will be treated as incompatible with the convention.
We debated a moment ago the supposed fallback protection that the caps provide in the circumstances of a legal challenge. The JCHR was sceptical about this leading to less legal certainty, because the Government would ultimately have to remedy any incompatibility by compensating all those affected. The JCHR’s view is that the route to minimise legal uncertainty is not questionable distinctions between the relative uncertainty of incompatible primary or subordinate legislation, but by providing limits on compensation that are capable of stronger justification.
There are overwhelming reasons why the caps in this clause should go from the Bill. They are more trouble than they are worth to the Government; they do not contribute to the scheme that has been negotiated; they are an impediment to trust and negotiation with trade unions; their continued existence makes defence of incompatibility with the human rights convention more difficult, if not impossible; and they create a range of practical difficulties. Worst of all, they create real distress and uncertainty among our civil servants. It is time to give them up.
I beg to move.
My Lords, the noble Lord opposite has raised a wide range of issues about the Bill. I recognise, again, the concern that a lot of civil servants have about the caps—perhaps on the misunderstanding that these are the only thing on offer. The Government have made it clear—and I will spell this out in answering a later amendment—that it is their intention to be more generous than the minimum caps expressed in the Bill. I remind noble Lords that Clause 3(11) gives the Government power to increase the compensation scheme but not to decrease it.
As noble Lords will recognise, the Bill at various points goes rather deeply into the relationship between Parliament and the courts. To anyone who would like to sink even more deeply into that area, I can recommend the evidence being given by various law professors to the European Scrutiny Committee in another place, where the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and the extent to which it depends on court rulings are being discussed in absorbing but extremely lengthy detail.
Today, the Minister for the Cabinet Office wrote to the chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. That letter will be in the House of Lords Library by the end of today; I hope that it will also be copied to noble Lords opposite. Perhaps it would be helpful if I read out two paragraphs from it. They state:
“I welcome the Committee’s acknowledgement that measures interfering with the peaceful enjoyment of possessions are capable of being justified by a sufficiently compelling public interest provided the interference is not arbitrary, is proportionate and does not affect the very substance of the right … Your report goes on to say that in the context of economic and fiscal policy generally, the European Court of Human Rights allows a considerable degree of latitude to States in deciding what is in the public interest, and that it is reluctant to interfere with that judgment unless it is manifestly without reasonable foundation. You also note that the European Court of Human Rights has generally been deferential to arguments of fiscal necessity although it has carefully preserved a scrutiny role and made clear that even interferences which are justified by fiscal considerations must not be arbitrary or so excessive that they remove the very essence of the right. As both this Government and its predecessor concluded, the current scheme is simply unaffordable for the taxpayer and over-generous when compared with comparable schemes elsewhere”.
I reiterate the point that the caps that Clause 3 sets out on the value of benefits under the Civil Service Compensation Scheme are a fallback. I have just explained that the Government are not persuaded that there is a better way to provide it. There is broad agreement that the compensation scheme must be reformed. Your Lordships will appreciate that, after two years of negotiation, we now need to proceed with a new scheme with some urgency, not only because the economic situation requires it but because civil servants will become even more anxious if the current uncertainty remains for longer.
The retention of Clause 3 means that a failure to implement a new scheme would prevent government departments making the changes to their workforce that they need to make for the future as well as now. The clause guards against a situation in which we would have no choice but to revert to the old scheme, which is, as I have said, unaffordable, unsustainable and out of place.
I appreciate that the other amendments which are grouped with Amendment 7 are consequential on it, since, if Clause 3 were not part of the Bill, much of Clause 4 would also not be needed. None the less, I am well aware that there is also concern about the power in Clause 4 to extend or revive the caps in the Bill, particularly some of those that would be among those deleted by Amendments 9 and 10. As Members who have read their Marshalled Lists will note, I have already put down amendments, which I hope we will have the opportunity to discuss later, which seek to respond to points made in this House and the other place about some of those delegated powers.
The Government are determined to ensure that there is certainty that a new and affordable compensation scheme can be put in place. I very much hope that that is the consensus among all your Lordships. The Government remain convinced that Clause 3 and the provisions that support its variation are the appropriate and proportionate way to secure that certainty. For these reasons and all those that I have previously given, I ask the noble Lord opposite to withdraw Amendment 7. I repeat that I shall say something further on a later amendment about the way in which we hope to provide a more generous compensation scheme.
I thank the Minister for what he said in his response, although it does not take us far enough. I look forward to what he has to say on subsequent amendments and look forward to reading a copy of the letter from the Minister for the Cabinet Office.
From what was quoted from that letter, it did not seem to deal with the particular point about the caps being arbitrary and disproportionate. The Government in their own language have talked about them as blunt instruments and have identified them as a minimum and as a starting point for negotiations. The Government themselves have, in agreement with most of the trade unions, developed a scheme which is substantially in excess of what those caps provide. The very existence of those caps, according to the JCHR—and one can see the reasoning—are a threat to the compatibility of the policies with the convention. It does not help the Government’s case at all to retain those caps. On the basis of what the Minister argues, is it not the case that it would take only one person to appeal the new scheme for the Government to consider imposing the caps? They would remain an ever present threat for all of our civil servants while that is under way. That is one of the reasons why they should go from the Bill.
I can see from the Minister’s face that I am unlikely to convince him and to cause him to change his mind immediately. What I need to do is to test the opinion of the House on this matter.
Clause 4 : Final provisions
8: Clause 4, page 4, line 31, at end insert—
“( ) Section 3 comes into force at the end of the period of 1 month beginning with that day.”
Amendment 8 addresses a practical issue concerning the timing for a new scheme, the coming into force of the Bill and the operation of any caps, now that they look likely to remain. It would delay the commencement of Clause 3, which sets the caps, until a month after the Act is passed by Parliament. Indeed, we would be amenable to a later date, should the Government consider that more time is necessary; or to the more flexible option of that clause being subject to a commencement order to be laid by the Minister.
We took from our earlier discussions that the sequence of events would be as follows. On day one, the Act would enter into force. On day two, Section 3 would be repealed by order. On day three, an order outlining the new CSCS would be laid, to be brought into effect immediately. However, from our discussion with the Minister and his officials earlier this week, it appears that there may now be a noticeable gap between the entry into force of the Act and the laying of the scheme order. This may be influenced by the timing of the conclusion and outcome of trade union ballots, which we understand will be on 14 January 2011. We are concerned that this delay will mean that people will be subject to the effects of the caps before the Government get around to repealing them and making an order for the new CSCS.
This produces an intolerable situation, in which those made redundant or agreeing to voluntary separation between entry into force of the Act and the laying of the order for the new scheme would face the limits imposed by the caps. It would be possible to cater for this by inserting a delay for the coming into effect of Clause 3, hence our amendment. We have assumed a delay of one month but the Minister may wish to comment on whether this period is likely to be sufficient. As noted, an alternative way of dealing with this would be for there to be a power to bring the section into being by order so that alignment could be assured, although Clause 4(4) might need to be adjusted if this route were followed.
This practical issue is yet another reason why the caps are more trouble than they are worth and why they should be removed from the Bill, but I acknowledge the vote that we have just had. However, if removal or delayed introduction are not supported, what will happen in this interim period? Will departments be advised not to proceed with any separations until a new scheme or order is made? What advice has been given to date? When we raised this issue with the Minister in our meeting, it was clear that officials had not given total thought to the matter. What reassurance can the Minister now give to civil servants who are expecting redundancy? If Royal Assent is given before the Recess and the new scheme does not come into effect until mid-January, or even later, it will consign potentially thousands of civil servants to a pretty miserable Christmas. How will the Minister ensure that there is a level playing field in operation? Since each department is, I understand, a separate employer, it would remain within the discretion of a department to treat individual employees as it saw fit. In the absence of repealing Clause 3, this would mean that it had to impose the statutory maximum on any redundancy payments. This would be the law. What is to stop departments with hard-pressed budgets being tempted to proceed in the window where the caps drive the compensation limits? Should this happen, what commitments should be given about bringing people up to the level of the new scheme when this is introduced?
These are real practical issues. We do not raise them just to be picky over the wording of the Bill. If the caps are to take effect in the circumstances outlined, they will have a real and detrimental impact on the lives of people subject to the scheme. If the Minister is not able to meet us on the detail of the amendment, I would press him to be very clear on the record about how the Government are to handle these matters. I beg to move.
My Lords, I feel some sympathy with the practical inquiries that have been made. It appears unlikely that there will be no redundancies between the date of the passage of the Bill and the introduction of the new compensation scheme. It is also possible that someone may test the compatibility of the Act with the human rights convention before the new compensation scheme has been introduced. Some reassurance is needed. The Government have given indications that they do not wish there to be a significant lapse of time between the enactment of the Bill and the introduction of the new scheme—which would obviate the problem—but that is not now a certainty. In those circumstances, if the Minister is not able to answer the question today, it would be very helpful if he undertook to answer this after due consideration of the issues raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie.
My Lords, the Opposition wish to cast me—or the Government—as Scrooge, or I believe it is the Grinch that the younger generation talk about. The idea that the Government are looking for the opportunity to dismiss huge numbers of civil servants between 23 December and 10 January is an interesting but an unlikely one—indeed, an unreal one. The Government are still looking to lay the new scheme on the second sitting day following Royal Assent. An order to move the caps would be laid in the first sitting day following Royal Assent, which would have advice issued on the operation of the cap by the Minister to the department. As we have already said, we would be minded to increase the level if no agreement has been reached. As the noble Lord has already remarked, a number of unions are already balloting their members on the scheme that has currently been offered, with the negotiation and participation of several of the unions concerned.
One Government or another have, for two years or more, been negotiating on this scheme. Further delay does not seem desirable. I offered repeated assurances about the Government’s purpose in retaining, and our intentions on using, Clause 3 in the Bill—whether there might be some circumstances in which, for whatever reason, the new scheme could not be implemented. We do not see a justification for any further delay. I am not persuaded that we should accept Amendment 8 or any other proposal to further delay any part of this package. The Government are able to carry through the implementation rapidly. Members will understand that government, as well as Parliament, tends to slow down a little over the Christmas and new year break. If these matters are not completed by the time we rise on 22 December, action will be taken very quickly when we all return on 10 January. It is not an enormous delay and I therefore do not see the necessity of the amendment. I therefore ask him to withdraw it.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his response but it does not altogether deal with the issue that I seek to raise in this amendment. I can see that if the new scheme proceeds very quickly in early to mid-January, there is a limited window within which my concerns might arise. However, as I understand it, there is no certainty that the date will be the middle of January; it could be later. We do not know what will happen with the trade union ballots and whether that may affect the Minister’s view. This is absolutely not about delay because it does not touch on the date for the introduction of the scheme; it is about seeking to align the time at which the caps bite with the scheme, otherwise you would have a period in which the caps drove the compensation scheme, and that is a cause for concern.
I can see that encouragement and guidance might be given but, at the end of the day, departments are their own masters in this matter and in circumstances where departments are faced with very squeezed budgets the measure could give rise to difficulties. If the scheme is laid on 10 January—I think that is what the noble Lord suggested—I accept that there is only a very narrow window. If there were to be a wider gap—I think that this is taking us on to the next amendment—one way the Government might respond would be to increase the caps under Clause 3(11). That would certainly help to ameliorate the issue but not deal with it completely. Perhaps we should await the debate on the next group of amendments, but the Minister might reflect further on this. I hope that he will be as specific as he can on the record—if not today, perhaps at Third Reading—on a not insignificant gap opening up between the date that the caps come into effect, the date that the scheme is laid and comes into effect, and the Government’s response to that. That would be helpful because, as I say, we have identified a genuine concern. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, for recognising that concern. I am happy to leave it at that for now but ask the Minister to reflect further on this to see what reassurance he can give on the record in the event of the gap widening. Subject to that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 8 withdrawn.
Amendments 9 and 10 not moved.
11: Clause 4, page 5, line 1 after “(5)(c)” insert—
“(a) may only be made if, at the same time, the Minister makes an order under section 3(11) of this Act to align the provisions of section 3(2), as far as practicable, with the current terms of the civil service compensation scheme; and(b)”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 11, I shall also speak to Amendment 12. We have been unsuccessful in deleting Clause 3, although we expect it to be repealed at some stage before the new scheme is introduced. The Minister has confirmed that that is the case. Government Amendments 13 and 15, which we will support, mean that Clause 3 can be revived for a period of up to six months, provided that the revival takes place within the three-year period starting when the Act is passed.
Amendment 11 would require that any revival of Clause 3 must be accompanied with an order under Clause 3(11) uprating the caps to a level consistent with the CSCS then in operation—that is, the revised CSCS introduced by order following the coming into force of the Act. It is accepted that a precise alignment may not be possible, hence the “as far as practicable”. I cannot see that the Government should have any difficulty with this unless there is an issue about wording, which could be revisited at Third Reading. It is understood that this would be their intention in any event. I think that the Minister hinted that that was the case in our debate on the earlier amendment, but perhaps he would confirm that. There would be no downside, as the measure would align the caps only with the new scheme; there is no additional financial commitment. It would help to address the concerns raised by the JCHR and provide some comfort to civil servants who believe that, at the end of the day, the caps will determine what they get.
Amendment 12 would reduce the time during which revival can take place from three years to one year. We have heard no detailed explanation of why three years is included in the Bill, so the Minister might take this opportunity to explain that in a bit more detail. He might also take the opportunity to be a bit more specific about the precise circumstances and the process under which any revival might proceed. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for the care with which he has approached this entire Bill. It is a complicated Bill and a complicated scheme; all those in the previous Government and in this Government who have been involved in these negotiations will know how complex it is, particularly when issues of judicial challenge come in. I assure your Lordships, once again, that the Government intend to repeal Clause 3 when the new scheme is ready, in order to enable that scheme—as I have explained, we have agreed that it will be more generous than the minimum reasonable levels set out in the caps—to be laid before Parliament and to take effect. It is not our intention to leave the caps in force for any length of time, since we want to make progress in delivering a reformed compensation scheme for the Civil Service. However, if Clause 3 were not yet in force when the new scheme is ready, as we hope will be the case before the end of the year, we would need to do one of two things. We would either proceed with laying the scheme before Parliament, without having available for several weeks the potential fallback of Clause 3, or we would move that a new scheme be put into place at that point.
I have listened with interest to the noble Lord’s detailed arguments and I thank him for giving me notice of Amendments 11 and 12 earlier this week. I have some sympathy for the reasons behind Amendment 11, but I shall explain that there are reasons why the Government are unable to accept this particular approach. The noble Lord has made it clear that Amendment 11 is aimed at testing the intention behind the power in Clause 4 to revive the caps in Clause 3 and to ensure that they would be reviewed if there were circumstances in which they had to be revived at a later date.
Our view is that there are some significant problems with the drafting of Amendment 11, which we do not think could be resolved. First, the amendment requires the revived caps to be aligned,
“with the current terms of the civil service compensation scheme”.
On the face of it, this might mean maintaining compensation payments as closely as possible with the terms of the proposed new Civil Service Compensation Scheme, which it is intended to put in place as soon as possible after the Bill receives Royal Assent. However, if the new scheme were struck down by challenge in the courts, it seems quite possible that it would not be interpreted as “the current terms”; rather, those terms might need to be interpreted as the terms of the previous, pre-2010, scheme, which would solve nothing, as that is the scheme that both this Government and our predecessor concluded must be reformed.
Even if this were not the case, the wording,
“align ... as far as practicable, with the current terms”,
is not at all clear and might itself be subject to challenge. It would not be as simple as the Government changing the caps to the numbers of months’ service specified in the scheme—for example, replacing 15 months with 21 months. We have made it clear that such an approach would not work, as staff accrue compensation payments differently under the existing and proposed new schemes and so simply changing the number of months stated in the caps would not keep compensation payments within the same cost envelope. We are simply not confident that the words “as far as practicable” would provide sufficient flexibility to set caps that would fully take account of differences in accrual or other issues determining the likely profile of departures.
While for these reasons I have considerable difficulties with the drafting of Amendment 11, that is not the end of the matter. The Government have provided in the Bill a power at Clause 3(11) to increase by order the number of months specified in the caps. I emphasise again that this is a power to increase and not a power to decrease the caps. The powers are there for a reason, which is that, just as the noble Lord has indicated, there might well be very good reasons why the caps should be increased should they need to be imposed following a revival of the provisions in Clause 3. If the Government had no intention of ever increasing the caps, they would not have sought this power.
I hope that the noble Lord will accept that if, following the expected repeal of the caps in Clause 3, it is necessary at some stage in the future to revive the caps, the coalition Government will undertake to review their level. Should there be a genuine problem that could result in the imposition of the caps leading to a general reduction in the value of compensation benefits payable, we will indeed use the power to increase them.
The commitment that I am putting on the record today is this: if we need to use the revival power in Clause 4 to bring back the caps because the new Civil Service Compensation Scheme is set aside, we will, first, undertake to review what the impact of operating the caps would be compared to the new compensation scheme; and, secondly, if there were a significant detriment in practice in operating the caps as they are, we undertake to table an order under Clause 3(11) to increase the caps to such a level that would, as far as is both fair and affordable, reflect what would otherwise apply under the new scheme. I am not sure that I can say any more, as the circumstances that we are talking about might never arise. However, if they do, that is what the Government will do. I very much hope that that provides the reassurance that the noble Lord is looking for to enable him to withdraw Amendment 11.
I cannot accept Amendment 12 either, but for rather different reasons. In Grand Committee, I brought forward government amendments to limit the period within which the powers in Clause 3 could be revived to three years. I believe that that is a reasonable timescale. I am afraid that a one-year limit simply will not do, as a legal challenge could quite possibly still be in progress within that time. Such a challenge might not set aside the new scheme—we might not know until after the end of legal proceedings what the position would be—so we would not necessarily need, at the outset, to revert to the existing, unaffordable scheme. Thus, we would need to apply the caps. Indeed, it is even possible that one would not have emerged within such a short a period as 12 months.
Of course, I understand that the powers to revive primary legislation by order are unusual and should be used sparingly. That is why we introduced the three-year limit. Also, as we shall be discussing under the next group of amendments, that is why we have accepted the arguments made in Grand Committee that we should not be allowed the power to extend beyond three years by order. I believe that that is a considerable concession. For those reasons, I cannot accept any further reductions to the limits that we have set and, therefore, I ask the noble Lord not to move Amendment 12.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for what he has put on the record, which is helpful. Obviously we shall want to read what he has said and reflect on it. I noted that there were references to “significant detriment” and “fair and affordable”, which is not overly precise language. However, I accept the thrust of what he said, which provides some comfort on the issue of revival of the caps. The noble Lord, when a little on the back foot, sought to pick away at the detail of an amendment—I suppose I did that as a Minister—but, if necessary, that could be tidied up at Third Reading. The key thing is that we have something robust on the record. I would like to reflect on this and to read Hansard just to see in the cold light of day how far this goes, but it has been helpful. There is certainly no intention to press these amendments to a vote today. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
Amendment 12 not moved.
13: Clause 4, page 5, line 2, leave out from “passed” to end of line 10
In moving Amendment 13, I shall speak also to Amendment 15. These are government amendments, but I am pleased to say that, unusually, they have the support of a broader coalition with the Front Bench opposite, as I am pleased to see that the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Brett, both have their names to these amendments on the Marshalled List. The Government responded to criticism from the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the unlimited time in which the caps proposed in what is now Clause 3 could be revived by introducing a three-year time limit. The government amendments in Grand Committee were intended to respond to that concern; as I made clear then, the Government accept that there should not be an unlimited power to revive Clause 3. Such a power might then be used many years in the future, in circumstances that we could not predict today and would clearly be unjustified.
However, on reflection, I believe that the amendments that we tabled then may not have had the desired result. In Grand Committee, there was a moment when I recognised that the Government were in a rather weak position, when it was pointed out by noble Lords that, while we had put a time limit on the power to revive the caps in Clause 3, we had not at the same time introduced a power to extend the time limit by a further six months. Had we done that, that power could be used to further extend the power by another six months and another six months, and so on indefinitely. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Drake, commented,
“that does not seem much of a concession”.—[Official Report, 10/11/10; col. GC 58.]
I had to admit that she was probably right. I trust that your Lordships recognise that, when it is clear that the effect of the powers in a Bill do not achieve what the Government had intended to do, we will try to put it right. That is what we are doing in this amendment today.
Accordingly, we have decided that, for clarity, we should dispense completely with any power to extend further beyond three years the time limit on the power to revive the caps in Clause 3. That is what these amendments will achieve. On that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord McKenzie and I have indeed put our names to these amendments. I will avoid wincing a second time at the use of the word “coalition”. It represents, I believe, not so much a coalition but, because we see repentance of sinners, more a congregation. Suffice it to say that I think we have unanimity on this, and I also am moved to support the amendment.
Amendment 13 agreed.
Amendment 14 not moved.
15: Clause 4, page 5, line 20, leave out “or (7)”
Amendment 15 agreed.
Public Bodies Bill [HL]
Committee (3rd Day)
Schedule 1 : Power to Abolish: Bodies and Offices
19: Schedule 1, page 16, line 10, leave out “Agricultural dwelling-house advisory committees.”
My Lords, we resume our rapid canter through the Committee stage of the Bill. Amendment 19 refers to the,
“Agricultural dwelling-house advisory committees”,
in England and seeks to remove them from Schedule 1. I am not arguing that this is exactly what we should do. This is a probing amendment to establish who will carry out the important role of these committees in the relatively small number of cases involving agricultural tenants of tied housing, in which some 30 per cent of agricultural workers live. They are guaranteed security of tenure in their tied housing for fairly obvious reasons: their housing is tied to their job and their job is tied to their housing. That is a relatively unusual situation nowadays; it used to be a lot more common.
These committees were established under the Agricultural Wages Act 1948 and are now established under the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. They are convened locally and hear about 40 to 50 cases each year. Membership is drawn from membership panels that are maintained by the Defra offices in Crewe and Bristol and the meetings are set up on an ad hoc basis according to the business to be conducted. They are not terribly high-powered bodies in the sense of always being in session and always having a lot of business. They have a relatively small amount of business, but it is important. They consist of one member who represents agricultural worker interests and is nominated by the trade union Unite; one member who represents agricultural employer interests and is nominated by the National Farmers’ Union; and one independent member who acts as chairman and is appointed from a panel of persons approved by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
Agricultural workers living in tied cottages generally have security of tenure, but a farmer may apply to the local housing authority to have a protected worker rehoused if he or she needs the cottage for a replacement agricultural worker in the interests of efficient agriculture. In such circumstances the local housing authority, the farmer or the cottage occupier can ask an ADHAC to advise on the applicant’s case to determine whether it is in the interests of efficient agriculture and urgent. In other words, although the committee can be asked to intervene by any of the parties to the dispute and to the attempt to evict the farm worker from his tied accommodation—in other words, the farm worker or the employer—in practice, the usefulness of these committees is to provide advice to the local housing authority, or the local council, on whether it is a reasonable request.
That is the nub of it. I am not arguing that ADHACs should continue in their present form. It may well be that the number of cases that are dealt with each year is relatively small, and that they could be dealt with in some other way. Some other body could be charged with advising the housing authority, and in this respect I am aware of the position when an application is made for planning permission for a house or cottage to be built in an area of the countryside where it would otherwise not be allowed because of planning rules on building new dwellings in open countryside, on greenbelts, or whatever. What tends to happen is that the planning authority, which is part of a unitary local authority or, in two-tier areas, the district, seeks advice on whether the accommodation is sensibly required from the appropriate department of the local authority responsible for farming and agriculture in the area. In two-tier areas that will be the county council, and in single-tier areas it is another department of the same authority.
There is a duty to advise a housing authority on whether it is reasonable to require the local authority to provide accommodation for someone who is otherwise in tied accommodation, so putting that duty on the relevant department of the local authority—whether it is another department of a unitary or the county council in a two-tier area—is a sensible way forward. It could provide the same safeguards and advice, which the housing authority will need anyway, within the wish of the Government to abolish this particular board organisation. There are sensible ways forward, but they require a bit of care and application by the Government not simply to abolish the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees without having first made appropriate arrangements for other bodies to do what they do because it is a very useful and necessary function. You only have to think of the situation in which you are in tied accommodation because you have been a worker on a particular farm, but you have retired, the farmer needs your house or cottage, you need to be rehoused, and the housing authority needs to have specialist advice as to whether it is a reasonable application to take precedence over all other applications for housing in that area. I hope that I can get an answer from the Government that is sympathetic to what I am putting forward. On that basis, I beg to move.
My Lords, I follow in the tone of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who moved this amendment in a very moderate way. He said “necessary” provision. The role of the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees is very limited and focused. Nevertheless, it is critical to the individuals affected. Indeed, over the years the committees have helped greatly to facilitate on the one hand the evils of tied housing and on the other hand the needs of the farmer to get access to his tied house for his necessary employees. So there is a real difficulty there. We are talking about agricultural workers, but the tied cottage also applies to other related employees, such as gamekeepers and gardeners. I am conscious that tied-housing problems remain in urban areas, but the problem is probably not as great in those areas because there is more alternative accommodation in the form of affordable housing, council housing, and so on. In many rural areas the provision of affordable housing is quite low. So the demand is there. This may not be the vehicle to meet the demand, but we need to be reassured that the Government have thought this through and are certain that the new system that they need to put in place will meet the necessary requirement to which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred.
I well remember the Labour Government’s 1976 Act at that time, how it seemed to be a major step forward and how it increased the work of the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees. Over the years the numbers have clearly fallen and the system seems to have worked, but the housing problem in rural areas is deteriorating. Increasingly, there is a demand for people to live in rural areas, a demand for second homes, and a demand for holiday homes as well. Often these are not only the modest cottages that one was used to in the past but increasingly ex-council houses as well. I see the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is here. He is aware that in parts of Cumbria many of these council houses are now used as holiday homes, so the reservoir of affordable housing is decreasing.
All Governments have recognised, in a different sense, that servicemen leaving the services should have priority in affordable housing. The decrease in the number of available houses for rent in rural areas plus the increasing demand for the remaining houses lead us to ask the Government whether they have thought this through. I can see their feeling, need and desire to get rid of the statutory bodies and understand it completely, but we must be convinced that the alternatives of the big society and localism, which the Government seem to espouse so much, will apply. I see nothing in the Bill or in what I have read to convince me that this has been thought through, but I remain to be convinced by the Minister later this afternoon.
My Lords, I rather rashly intervene to express my general support for the thrust of the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I declare an indirect interest as my wife is a member of the planning authority in the area in which we live—Braintree in Essex—and I know that some of these problems occasionally land up with that committee. I am not an expert, but I think what the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said about the need for some kind of expert advice in areas where the issue is whether there is an agricultural need is important. I hope that my noble friends on the Front Bench can meet it.
My Lords, I agree with the general thrust of the approach by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I am certainly not arguing for the status quo, although this body has helped to solve a number of acute cases for individual retired farm workers, farmers who desperately need the accommodation to attract further labour and local authorities faced with the housing crunch to which my noble friend Lord Clark referred, so it has been a useful institution. The demand is diminishing, but it is important that we know what will replace this body.
I will make an additional point to the Minister because it goes to the heart of the way in which we are dealing with the Bill. In Schedule 1—and the same will apply to some extent to other schedules—each body has a particular situation to deal with and the Government appear to envisage different consequences of the abolition of those bodies. It is important that this House knows what is in the Government’s mind to replace what has hitherto been an important, if diminishing, function. It is important that we have this in writing, not simply as a reply in the debate. Some of us argued for a Select Committee procedure that would have allowed that to happen away from the Floor of the House, if necessary, and on a different basis of consideration. In this, as in so many other areas, we need to know the total picture. I make a plea to the noble Lords, Lord Henley and Lord Taylor, that as we go through the stages of this Bill, and it looks as though it will be quite a lengthy process, they provide us with that kind of information so that we can have a more rational debate. I make the point on this institution because it is one about which I do not disagree with the Government, but we need to know in all cases what is intended to replace these bodies.
My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, I remember the 1976 Bill coming through Parliament. I was on the Benches that he is sitting on now. I thought it was a bad Bill then, and it has remained a bad Act, in particular with regard to ADHACs. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that this body is necessary. If it had been necessary, it would have been compulsory to have consulted an ADHAC. As it is, it is a purely voluntary agreement that an ADHAC can be used for consultation with the housing authority if necessary. The vast majority of cases are dealt with directly with the local housing association, so “necessary” was not the right word to use in this instance.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said that there are 40 to 50 cases a year. I question that. My information is that the number is almost in single figures now. Sixteen ADHACs have some 10 cases a year in total. That means that half of them are not doing anything at all. It is high time we got rid of them, and I thoroughly support my noble friend in this. Could I just ask him whether, when we come to the follow-up legislation, he will propose to get rid of all 16 ADHACs at once, rather than one by one?
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in having tabled this amendment, which allowed this issue to be aired through this short debate. I know that he had some support from my noble friends who added their names to his amendment, which is symptomatic of a wider concern than if the amendment had simply been tabled in his own name. It shows concern that the issues that the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees have been dealing with are still important to address for the future in whatever way the Government are envisaging. We will be very interested to hear how the Minister responds to this debate.
It seems to me that the scale of the issue is quite important, despite what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, has just said. As I understand it, 30 per cent of agricultural workers live in tied accommodation. Given that there are some 150,000 agricultural workers, we are talking about a considerable number of people who could avail themselves of this service. Obviously, there is some dispute about the figures; I am also aware of the figures cited by my noble friend showing that the advisory committees deal with about 40 to 50 cases each year. The noble Earl has given us different figures. Perhaps the Minister, in his reply, might like to give us the official Defra figures for this process.
Even if the figures are lower than I and my noble friends believe, that does not necessarily mean that all the committees should disappear. There might therefore be an argument for rationalising the structure. I do not know if this is something to which the Government have given consideration. If there are cases—sensitive cases, because they concern people’s accommodation and whether they are going to be able to stay in their homes or be forced to move—being dealt with properly by the committees in a sensitive and efficient way, then it would be very unwise to simply disband the committees without having some very clear assurance as to how these matters will be dealt with in future. Perhaps the Minister can give us some figures showing whether the tempo of consultations and referrals to the committees has increased or decreased in recent years. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, was quite right to stress, as the major point of his argument, the importance of how these issues are going to be dealt with in future and whether there will be people who know of the special circumstances of agriculture and the agricultural industry who will be able to deal with them.
Consultation is also important. I see that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, is in his place. Much to the House’s pleasure, he gave it some assurances about the consultation process to which he was committed while taking forward the provisions in this Bill. It would therefore be interesting to know what consultation has taken place so far on this issue with those likely to be affected and those who are members of the committees at the moment, and to know whether they judge their work likely to decrease or increase. After all, there are quite a number of different and even specialised aspects to agricultural tenancies; for example, the different types of tenancy—protected, statutory or assured. We need to know that there will be people who understand how the system works and will be able to operate it in future. The point has also been made to me that when farm workers come up for retirement but want to stay in their homes, that can be a difficult time. Therefore, we are entitled to ask who will represent and support farmers at that stage of their lives and in those circumstances.
The Minister and, no doubt, noble Lords around the House will have seen the recent Joseph Rowntree report about income standards and conditions in rural areas. It came out last week and makes a number of interesting points, not least that which was referred to by my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere when he talked about the lack of availability of affordable housing in rural areas, which makes the issues that we are looking at important. There are also planning difficulties. It was interesting to hear the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Newton of Braintree, to this debate.
I understand the costs of removing these committees to be in the order of £13,000, which is rather a modest sum. It is strange that on the previous group of amendments, which we considered the other day, many of us had the impression that the bonfire of quangos was largely about saving money and deficit reduction, yet so far the amounts at which we have been looking have been very modest. Therefore, we are right to ask whether these modest reductions in costs will lead to something worth while. It has been somewhat puzzling to see how modest the costs have been in terms of the measures with which we have been dealing.
Finally, I should also like to ask about the situation regarding this area in the devolved territories. Certainly, on the Welsh Assembly Government’s website there is still information about how to apply to agricultural dwelling house committees. It would be good to know from the Minister what consultations he has had with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations and whether they have raised some of the concerns about the way forward which have been raised today.
My Lords, in moving this amendment, my noble friend Lord Greaves said that this was his first amendment during what he described as a rapid canter through Committee on this Bill. I am not much of an equestrian, but “rapid” and “canter” are not the words that I would necessarily give to it at this stage. But I accept that my noble friend was merely putting forward a probing amendment. Therefore, I will try to set out why we think it is right that we are abolishing these committees.
As many noble Lords have said, ADHACs were set up under the Rent (Agriculture) Act 1976. The noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, remembers the Act, as does my noble friend Lord Caithness. Sadly, I was not in the House, so I cannot go back quite that far. But I listened to both of them and they had rather different views. My noble friend made clear that ADHACs were set up to have an advisory role—I was very grateful he stressed that—in the rehousing of agricultural workers. To get on to the whole problem of accommodation in rural areas is stretching the point a bit too far. We are talking only about ADHACs and the advisory role that they had.
The purpose of the Act was to give those who lived in tied houses, such as agricultural workers, former workers and their successors, security of tenure and protection from eviction by their employer. Under the Act, a landlord can make an application to a local housing authority to rehouse a protected tenant on the grounds that the property is required for a new worker; that he is unable to provide suitable alternative accommodation for the existing tenant; and that the housing authority ought, in the interests of efficient agriculture, to provide suitable alternative accommodation. The landlord, the tenant or the local authority may refer such applications to the local ADHAC for advice on the agricultural need and the urgency of the application. However, there is no statutory requirement to consult an ADHAC. Again, I am grateful to my noble friend for stressing that point. Where advice is sought, the housing authority is currently obliged to take that advice into account when considering its housing priorities. But it is only a matter for the housing authority to take that advice into account.
Since the Rent (Agriculture) Act came into force, there have been significant changes to housing legislation, which have enabled farmers to let cottages to farm workers using an assured shorthold tenancy. As a result of these changes and changing employment practices within the farming industry, the use of ADHACs has fallen from what used to be something of the order of 500 cases per year in the 1980s to something fewer than 10 this year. To assist the noble Baroness with those figures, I can tell her that in 2007 there were nine cases, in 2008 there was a dramatic increase to 12, and in 2009 there were a further 12. So far we have had eight this year. As the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, put it, demand for this service is diminishing—and it is diminishing pretty fast.
In the light of this, the Government consider that, as the functions of the ADHACs are largely defunct, it is difficult to justify the retention of 17 different committees. Again, my noble friend referred to 16 different committees; I can assure him that there are 17 different committees covering England and Wales, with the associated administrative burden of recruitment and training of members. I appreciate that the cost is relatively low. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked whether it was just £13,000. That is the figure I have for the direct administrative costs, but there will be other costs to the department in terms of the secretariat needed for 17 different committees in England and Wales.
Furthermore, it should be made clear that the function can be, and indeed is, carried out equally effectively by the local housing authorities on their own account, as my noble friend Lord Greaves seems to suggest. Many local authorities already take decisions on rehousing without the advice of an ADHAC. I can assure the Committee that the abolition of ADHACs will not remove any of the protection afforded to agricultural workers and their successors in tied housing. The only change will be when a local authority receives an application for rehousing a worker in a tied cottage; the local authority will need to determine the agricultural need and urgency of the application on its own account, as it does now in the vast majority of cases. Again, I stress, we have had eight uses of ADHACs in this year. I imagine, as we are already into December, that figure is unlikely to increase by that much.
There is no intention to change the provisions in the 1976 Act which give security of tenure to protected tenants; tenants will not be disadvantaged by the proposed abolition of ADHACs.
The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, asked about devolved Administrations—obviously in this case we are talking only about Wales, because this part covers only Wales. Yes, we will consult the Welsh Administration in the appropriate manner.
Finally, my noble friend Lord Caithness asked whether—or seemed to imply—we would need 17 different orders to abolish these. My understanding is that the power is such that there will be only one. I think that we—the noble Baroness as the opposition spokesman, and I as the Minister dealing with this in the Moses Room—will have to deal with only one rather than 17 different ones; I cannot remember whether the procedure is affirmative or negative. I hope with those reassurances my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to everybody for the constructive and consensual way in which the amendment has been discussed. The question of the number of individual cases per year has been raised. I am sorry if the figures I cited were rather larger than is actually the case. The figures came from what I took to be an official authoritative source on the internet, but perhaps that is a lesson for us all. I will go back and check that source, but that is clearly what it said.
A question of general interest was raised. I deliberately did not call the bodies “quangos”, for the very reasons that noble Lords mentioned; that is, that their scale and cost are small. In many ways, they strike me more as part of the big society than as quangos, but perhaps I should not pursue that very far. Perhaps there are parts of the big society which have performed a useful function in the past and are now redundant.
The Minister responded to my use of the phrase “rapid canter”. It is always a little dangerous to try to use irony in your Lordships' House, not least because Hansard has not yet got round to the use of smileys, which, as many of us know to our cost, are necessary if you are trying to say something ironic because a lot of people will otherwise read it absolutely flatly. I therefore make it quite clear that I was being absolutely ironic in talking about taking a rapid canter through the Bill, but—who knows?—it may be a rapid canter by the time we have finished.
I am very grateful for the Minister’s assurances that the legal protection for people who have tied tenancies will not change in any way. On that basis, and on the basis that I think that we have had the kind of discussion that I would have hoped for to make the position absolutely clear, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 19 withdrawn.
20: Schedule 1, page 16, line 11, leave out “Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales.”
My Lords, this is a much more substantive and important amendment—not that the last one was not important, but this one is much more so. I shall speak also to Amendment 21, which is grouped with and linked to it. Amendment 20 is about the agricultural wages board, whose purpose is to set the scale of agricultural minimum wages and related minimum terms and conditions of employment. It is an independent statutory body established by the Agricultural Wages Act 1948, and it goes back in its lineage as far as 1924, when there were far more agricultural labourers than there are now.
The question posed by the amendment is: are the functions of the AWB still needed, in whole or in part; and if they are still needed, in some way at least, is the best way to carry them out through the continued existence of the AWB or in some other way? There has been pressure for its abolition. The NFU has called for it, although not all farmers who employ agricultural workers would welcome that because it provides them with a clear framework of what they should be paying without having to negotiate. Its abolition was promised in the Conservative manifesto at the last election. It was not in the Liberal Democrat manifesto and was not in the coalition agreement. It is opposed by the relevant trade union, Unite. That information sets the amendment in its political context, but, as we know, the manifestos on which the last election were fought are probably redundant following the formation of the new coalition Government.
Liberal Democrat spokespersons, including my honourable friend Andrew George in the House of Commons, have expressed concern at the abolition and the potential removal of existing protections. The proposal to abolish the body was announced by the Secretary of State, Caroline Spelman, on 22 July, but it was done so, to the best of my knowledge, without any prior consultation. Any consultation would still have to take place.
The agricultural wages board consists of 21 people, comprising eight representatives of the employers, nominated by the NFU; eight representatives of the workers, nominated by Unite; and five independent members, including the chairman, appointed by the Secretary of State and the Welsh Assembly Government. I shall not speak much about the regional agricultural wages committees, which are the subject of the second amendment in the group, but they are linked to the AWB and basically set up by the same legislation.
What does the AWB do? It meets each year to make an Agricultural Wages (England and Wales) Order, which sets the agricultural minimum wage and other terms and conditions from 1 October each year. It may meet again to make amendments during the year.
The agricultural minimum wage must not be lower than the national minimum wage. There are currently six categories determined according to responsibilities and qualifications. It starts with grade 1, which is a few pence above the national minimum wage and is basically for unskilled, temporary and seasonal workers. At the moment it is £5.95 an hour, £232.05 a week. The other five grades are higher than that, as you might expect. Grade 2, for example, is the standard worker grade and it requires some minimum basic qualifications or certain responsibilities such as working with animals or driving a tractor, and that is £6.58 an hour. The grades progress to grade 5, the supervisory grade, at £8.23 an hour and grade 6, the highest, which is the farm management grade. The recipient of this grade may have responsibility for a whole farm and for employing and disciplining staff, so it is not a trivial job. The minimum rate for that is £8.88 an hour at the moment, £346.32 a week. These are not huge salaries and wages by any stretch of the imagination, but they do provide a guarantee for people working within the farm industry.
It is generally recognised that reform and modernisation are needed, and the board itself is keen to change the structure of the arrangements to a degree, and to change the consultation arrangements and procedures. For example, there is clearly a need now for the minimum wage in each category to be stated in annual, rather than in hourly or weekly amounts, and there is clearly a possibility that the whole system could be simplified and that some of the detail could be removed from it. But this still applies to 154,000 workers. It is not something trivial that can be discounted on the grounds that it is no longer needed because there is hardly anybody involved. There are far fewer than there used to be, but nevertheless, there are still 154,000 workers—that is 154,000 families. It is a lot of people.
What will happen if the agricultural wages board is abolished? Will there be a new national system set up? Will there be a bargaining system set up within the industry—an unofficial system, as it were—outside the purview of statutes and government, in which employers and representatives of agricultural workers negotiate? Or to what extent will it be left to individual farmers to negotiate with their own workers or just impose the terms and conditions and wages that they want to impose above the national minimum wage?
It has been said that the national minimum wage now makes the AWB unnecessary, but quite clearly that is an argument that would apply only to the very basic level of grade 1, which only applies to a minority—I think it is about 20 per cent of workers. The cost of the organisation is reported as £195,000, together with servicing costs from Defra itself of £77,000 which totals £272,000. This is not insignificant even nowadays, but again, it is not a huge figure.
Two questions arise. First, if it is abolished, in the absence of protection, what is to stop wages and terms and conditions of employment being squeezed, being forced down due to the pressure that we all know exists on farm gate prices, particularly from supermarkets and from food processors? At the moment, many farmers are adversely affected by market conditions and by their inability to match the monopoly powers of the people that they sell their produce to. However, they cannot compensate for that by reducing the wages that they pay below the AWB rates—the minimum agricultural wage rates. If they were able to do that, it seems highly likely that it would happen in a significant number of cases and wage rates would go down. Unite believes that if that happened, industrial action would be inevitable. I cannot comment on that and have no idea whether it is true. But I believe that if agricultural wages were to fall in the present circumstances, that in itself would be wrong.
The second question is: what is the best way forward? If savings can be made and the system can be streamlined to an extent, I do not think that any of us would disagree with that. I am certainly not going to go to the wall to defend the existence of a particular quango—and I think that this probably is a quango. The AWB as it stands may or may not be the best way of doing it. I am not asking the Government to stand and have an argument today and in future weeks over the existence of a particular body; I am asking them to look for a better way forward without prejudicing existing protection for what is still a relatively vulnerable group of workers. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves. I also declare an interest as a member and previous deputy general-secretary of what is now the union Unite, which, as has been said, is the union that organises agricultural workers.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said in moving this amendment that the agricultural wages council has been with us for a very long time. It came from the original trade board which was introduced at the very beginning of the previous century. When the Bill setting up that board and a number of other councils covering other areas of industry was introduced, it was supported by Members of Parliament from across all of the Benches. The thinking at the time—and this is why I and, I think, the union feel so strongly about this—was to encourage support for the wages councils, particularly the agricultural wages council, and the reasons behind that have not changed. The thinking was that there are certain areas of industry where it is enormously difficult to organise the workforce or protect it in a day-to-day way.
As noble Lords will know, aside from the agricultural wages boards, all other agricultural wages councils were abolished back in the 1980s. The agricultural wages council itself was retained because there was continuing recognition that this is a very difficult area in which to organise the workforce, and also because particular aspects of it need to be protected. The most particular aspect is that in many circumstances the relationship between the worker and the employer is very personal. The relationship often involves just one or two employees and one employer. It is a very close relationship where day-to-day friendship and trust has to be established. How, in those circumstances, can the employee raise for himself or herself the sorts of questions that need to be answered if that employee is to feel secure in his or her employment and endeavour to improve his or her circumstances?
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, has already talked about the various grades available to agricultural workers. Moving along those grades depends on having had access to certain kinds of upskilling and training. How can a worker—knowing, quite often, that circumstances may be quite tricky on the farm; that they may be struggling in economic terms, or in terms of access to manpower—raise his or her own concerns and promote his or her own interests? It is very difficult. That is precisely why the agricultural wages board was retained when the other wages councils were abolished. I can see no reason why we should look at this now and say that things are any different.
I accept that life moves on, that nothing should be set in stone, that we have to look at arrangements that have been with us for many years and consider whether those arrangements are still appropriate. But nothing has changed in the day-to-day experience of those workers that would allow us to say that their protections should be lessened, loosened or removed in any way. The national minimum wage does not compensate and would not cover the circumstance which the agricultural wages council rules cover in terms of protecting that workforce.
With those few words, I support entirely the amendment put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves.
My Lords, may I add a few words as an agricultural employer with a couple of agricultural workers? I must say that the two workers I employ are never loath to come and argue with me about what their wages should be. On the question of the agricultural wages board and the rate set, I am speaking, of course—it may be a difficult adjustment—of the Scottish Agricultural Wages Board and Scottish agricultural wages rates, with which I am familiar. I think one can almost say that practically no workers are paid the minimum that is laid down. It is used as a guide on which increments are added. That is true for full-time workers.
One area where the wages board is useful in our area is in dealing with younger workers, although, of course, everything is now tied back to the minimum wage. The minimum wage can serve as a guideline on what increases are useful or necessary in any given year. The other area—I do not know whether it exists so much in the English agricultural wages board—are the wonders, some of which no longer exist, which were called perks. What was the value of perks such as milk and potatoes? A wonder that still exists up in the north is that the provision of a house with hot and cold running water allows a deduction of £1 a week from the agricultural minimum wage.
Will my noble friend the Minister say whether these areas might need some guidance or a body to direct them? The final one, which is of interest in my area, is a shepherd’s provision of dogs, which has a special rate for it.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his argument and agree with pretty much everything that he said. I caution the coalition Ministers that they will frequently find that propositions that have been put to successive Governments and their Ministers get dusted off and re-presented to new Ministers. Sometimes—I do not wish to impugn the noble Lord—Ministers are credulous enough to accept them, even though their predecessors have rightly looked at and rejected them. To my knowledge, the proposition of abolishing the agricultural wages board has continued for the past 40 years. It has come less from officials in MAFF or Defra than from pressure from the dead hand of the Treasury and the free labour marketeers in what is now BIS. That pressure is evident here. Certainly that pressure was put on Mrs Thatcher’s Ministers, who rightly resisted it. It was put on John Major’s Ministers, who also rightly resisted it. To my certain knowledge, every Secretary of State and junior Minister for Agriculture in the previous Administration was under such pressure and we rightly rejected it.
The noble Lord will say that things have changed. He has some justification because two things have changed slightly. First, for most of that period most farmers were in favour of maintaining the wages board. That is no longer entirely true. The upper echelons of the NFU have started voting with the workers rather than the farmers, who have taken a rather more jaundiced view of the wages board, even though it has meant a fairly balanced result for both sides in the long run. Many others, who are not necessarily in the top echelons of the NFU, are still favourably inclined towards the wages board because it saves small farmers a lot of work in trying to establish the appropriate rate for a skill and all the other terms and conditions. They would otherwise have to go through all that themselves. Indeed, some farmers’ organisations are still in favour of the wages board. The Famers’ Union of Wales, for example, is in favour of retaining it and opposes this proposition, as do the Welsh Government. We are talking about a body that covers England and Wales; there are devolution issues here. As far as I am aware, the proposition in Scotland is entirely separate. The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, who I am sure is one of the more benevolent employers north of the border, will find that there are Scottish farmers who still wish to retain the process. It is not true to say that all farmers, as employers, are now opposed to the continuation of the board.
Secondly, although we now have the national minimum wage, it deals only with the absolute minimum, as my noble friend Lady Prosser pointed out. There are differences of only a few pence in that area. The whole structure of skill rates and different time rates and the whole issue of non-wage benefits, which were dealt with by the wages board, are not dealt with by having a minimum wage. The whole grading structure is in peril if this board is abolished.
As the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, said, that is not to argue that the present structure could not be hugely simplified. Indeed, the previous Government looked at bringing forward a legislative reform order that would have reduced the number of committees, simplified the process and, to some degree, made the process for the agricultural minimum wage equivalent to that for the minimum wage. That was a sensible proposal, which would have had to follow the procedure of the Regulatory Reform Act. At the time, some noble Lords were concerned that the Act was moving towards the Henry VIII end of the spectrum. However, compared to this Bill, it was an absolute doddle for those who wished to preserve parliamentary privilege. It is probably more like a Henry III Bill in that Henry III had to compromise with Parliament. I believe that on some of these issues the Government will have to compromise with Parliament. The process that is being proposed in the Bill, as I have said several times, needs to be addressed.
The agricultural labour force of more than 150,000 in England and Wales—and others who use the wages board as an analogy to avoid engaging in separate bargaining with their employees or their unions—is still an important feature. I hope that the noble Lord can answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves: what will replace the board? Is there any role for the Low Pay Commission to look at aspects of this—at the particular rates and situations that apply to agriculture? Is there really any prospect of collective bargaining if it is not underwritten by the law? Under the legislative reform order that we contemplated, it would have been possible to have moved the agricultural wages board to a more bilateral structure but still with the legal underwriting. That would probably have been a sensible move. I was certainly in favour of it. We could have moved towards it.
If we leave this entirely to collective bargaining, as applies in other sectors, there is, as my noble friend Lady Prosser indicated, the difficulty of organising in this area. I do not have to declare an interest since I am not a member of Unite, although I have some family connections to it. These days I am a resident of Dorset, which is still a major focus of agricultural workers. There, the union’s ability to organise is a little better than it was at the time of the Tolpuddle martyrs, but it is not easy. In so far as the wages and conditions of agricultural workers in Dorset have dramatically improved since those days, they owe a lot to the 100-year operation of the agricultural wages board, rather than the benevolence of employers or the state. It is unlikely that it will be easy to move to a normal situation of collective bargaining in this area.
Perhaps this is not so much a West Country issue. The people who are pressing most for this are horticultural employers, who have a very odd workforce structure. The work is hugely seasonal for obvious reasons. Much of the workforce is made up of migrants, many of whom are very vulnerable. Employers tend to try to pay the minimum rate, if not less. In the horticultural sector, a lot of the seasonal workers, many of whom have skills and qualifications in their own countries, will be pushed down to the minimum rate. The only legally binding rate will be the minimum wage. That, I can see, is desirable for the more ruthless employers in the horticultural sector. However, it is not the equivalent of a situation where you are a permanent employee in a major area of agriculture.
The other question is: who will now enforce the minimum wage in agriculture? It is difficult if we are talking about farms with two or three workers or farms where there are many seasonal workers who move on after a couple of weeks. The agricultural wages board had a rather minimal inspectorate attached to it, but who will now do its work? The Revenue imposes and enforces the minimum wage, but it is unlikely to tramp up and down every farm to find out how much every worker is paid. Enforcement is also an issue.
The question to those of us who oppose the dropping of the wages board is: why is agriculture so different from other areas that it requires a continuing minimum standing wage? The fact is that every other wages board was abolished. The wages councils were abolished in the 1980s and 1990s and the average wage in those sectors dropped significantly. If this is a blatant wage-cutting exercise, we should be told. If, however, it is more that we want to develop a skilled, effective and competitive workforce in agriculture, people must recognise that there are several difficulties in this sector beyond those that have already been referred to.
I shall mention some in particular. My noble friend Lady Prosser referred to the rather close relationship that agricultural workers inevitably have with their farmer employer, particularly on small and medium-sized farms where there are only two or three employees. That is fine while it is good. As soon as it breaks down, however, the power relationship between the employer and the individual farm worker is incredibly imbalanced and the worker is incredibly isolated—literally, in geographical terms—because there are no workmates in the same situation.
The other dimension is that the farmer himself or herself is under severe pressure, to a degree that many other small businesses are not. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, made reference to the role of the food chain in pressuring farm costs, particularly in relation to the supermarkets. I am glad that this Government have decided that they will take up with slightly more enthusiasm than the last Government the proposition for an ombudsman who will look at the contractual relationships between the farming industry and other small providers of food and the grocery chain. I very much commend them for that. However, this is moving in the opposite direction. Within a week or two of the legally binding minimum wages disappearing from horticulture and agriculture, the buyer from the supermarkets will say, “You now do not need to pay the wages that you have previously paid. You can lower your costs and your price to us and provide a significantly lower rate”. The cost benefit, therefore, of cutting wages does not go to the farmer. The employees will lose their living standards and the profit from the whole process will go up the chain to the big processors and supermarkets. If that is what the Government want, it is not in the interests of the agricultural sector. Indeed, it is a downward spiral in the agricultural sector and something that they have recognised needs to be counted in other respects.
Another nefarious dimension of the labour conditions in the agricultural labour market relates to the seasonal and migrant workers operating in many parts of agriculture but particularly in horticulture and in the larger-scale vegetable sector. I was grateful to hear on Second Reading the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, ask why the Gangmasters Licensing Authority was in this Bill at all. Speaking as the ex-Minister who brought in that piece of legislation, I am glad that she and others have recognised what a successful operation that is beginning to be. However, it is an uphill struggle because, in this sector, the conditions of the workers are open to the widest exploitation. The Gangmasters Licensing Authority has to check on a number of things. It clearly has to check on health and safety at work and in housing. It checks on the employment and migration status, tax and national insurance of the workers—and rightly so. The abuses in all those areas tend to be cumulative.
Another area—one that is absolutely essential in triggering the Gangmasters Licensing Authority’s interest—is whether the Agricultural Wages Board provisions are being followed. If the legal basis for that disappears entirely, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority’s ability to check whether appropriate wages and conditions are being paid by employers—many of whom will push their situation to the limits if they possibly can—is removed and a whole section of agricultural workers will lose one of their most important protections. These are just some reasons why agriculture, particularly the seasonal dimension of agriculture, drives us to think that a legal minimum ought to be retained.
I seriously ask the Government to reconsider this. I am not against the simplification of the wages board. I am not actually against the abolition of the wages committees. However, a basic minimum level of remuneration in agriculture would potentially avoid pretty substantial abuses, which I am sure that all parties in this House wish to avoid. I ask the Government to think again.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in so far as the Agricultural Wages Board has done a good job in the past, when it was badly needed. However, I cannot follow him in the rest of his arguments, except possibly his last statement, when he said that a legal minimum wage must be retained. Well, it will be retained, because there is the national minimum wage as the base floor. That solves the noble Lord’s last point.
Besides the national minimum wage, there are the working time directives and regulations that have emanated from and will continue to come out of Europe, as we are increasingly bound in our employment laws by Europe. I firmly argue that the days of the Agricultural Wages Board are otiose. It can all but be done by the farmers with the current legislation in place, which gives the workers the security that they certainly did not have when this came in 1948.
Nobody has really mentioned Amendment 21 on the agricultural wages committees. Nobody has sought to defend those—not even the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. It is worth reminding the Committee of the hard work that these committees do. The only thing left to the agricultural wages committee is to appoint the members of the ADHACs. As we discussed in the last amendment, there are only eight applications for ADHACs, while there are 17 ADHACs. So a lot of people are wasting a huge amount of time and money. Perhaps it is the best thing that we get rid of them soon.
I support the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and I do so in the same tone and with the same approach. The real point of these amendments at this stage is to try to ascertain what the Government’s real intentions are. What do they have in mind for the agricultural wages in the years ahead? This House has a high reputation because it is comprised of people who represent, often, the top of their professions—eminent people. As I look around and look across the House, I see so many people who know a great deal about this subject from the other side of the fence from the one that I occupy. I see a number of landowners from my native county of Cumbria. My only locus in speaking for this is that I started my working life under the Agricultural Wages Board and still remember when we used to glean The Westmorland Gazette—I think it was in October—for the advert that would tell us what our wage would be for the following year.
That was 50 years ago. I accept that times have moved on. However, as we heard from my noble friends Lady Prosser and Lord Whitty, there may still be a case for that certainty. My noble friend Lady Prosser made the point very clearly and graphically on the relationship between the small teams—often a farmer and his employee—that work on so many farms. It is difficult because they do work for a team; it is embarrassing and awkward for both sides. That has been the substance that has kept the Agricultural Wages Board going for the 62 years that it has been in existence. There may be a case for that certainty to continue.
The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, quite rightly made the point that 154,000 individuals are covered by the Agricultural Wages Board. However, it is much more significant than that, because the Agricultural Wages Board provides the yardstick and benchmark for many other workers in rural areas. While they might not be encompassed by the Agricultural Wages Board, they are influenced, and their wages determined indirectly by it. Again, we are talking about a great many people.
In the spirit of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, I must say that one thing that has disappointed me most about the Agricultural Wages Board in committee issues has been the lack of consultation. I was amazed to read a letter from Mr Jim Paice, who I know well and respect a great deal. He is a thoughtful and considerate man. In a letter dated 8 September 2010, which was circulated to the members of the Cumbria, Northumbria and Tyne and Wear AWC, he responds to comments about a lack of consultation. The letter states that,
“we do not consider it would be productive to have a consultation on the proposals, although individuals will be welcome to continue to submit their views to Defra”.
That is not written in the same spirit in which Ministers have advanced their case in this House. I ask them to think a little more about this. With more consultation we are more likely to get a better result and a better conclusion. I hope that that negativity will disappear. As I say, I am very surprised that Mr Jim Paice wrote such a letter.
I stress the other main point that has been raised—that the Government argue that there is no longer a need for an Agricultural Wages Board as agricultural workers are protected by the national minimum wage. Of course they are; every worker in this country should be protected by the national minimum wage. However, as has been said repeatedly, that applies only to the basic agricultural wage, which currently is one penny an hour greater than the national minimum wage, so the amount is not great. However, modern agriculture is a highly technical industry involving a great deal of skill and often a great deal of expertise. That is recognised by the agricultural industry and is certainly recognised by the Agricultural Wages Board. While it is true that the national minimum wage would protect a worker on the basic rate, what about the five higher grades? What protection would people on those grades have? Mr Jim Paice states in the letter that,
“on the abolition of AWB, the six different grades of worker will not be retained, as agricultural workers will be covered by the national minimum wage rate, as for all other workers. It will be for individual workers and employers to agree different rates while taking into account experience and qualifications alongside the needs of the business and individual circumstances. Agricultural workers will continue to be protected in the absence of the AWB by bringing them into the framework of the National Minimum Wage”.
Again, I am worried by the tone of the letter. If I am right in my submission that the agricultural industry is a modern, highly technical industry, we need to encourage and reward skills. However, I submit that if we leave this matter to individual negotiations, bearing in mind the points raised by my noble friend Lady Prosser, there will be an erosion of skills in the agricultural industry.
I will not go on for much longer but I am probing the Minister to try to ascertain how the Government foresee the future for agricultural workers and related workers in forestry and other land-based industries. There may be a case for rationalisation but I seek reassurance that the Government have thought this through.
My Lords, I apologise for not being here at the start of the debate on these amendments, to which my name is attached. I will not detain the Committee for long. I declare an interest in that 10 of the happiest years of my life were spent working for Farmers Weekly, during which time I gained a lot of experience of the work of the Agricultural Wages Board. I was provoked to intervene in this debate by the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Caithness. There is a profound misunderstanding that the national minimum wage can take care of the proper pay rates for agricultural workers. As my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere has said, there are six grades of pay. As he pointed out, if it is to be left to those on the five grades above the minimum rate to negotiate with the farmer who employs them, it is not beyond the wit of man to imagine that some farm workers will face pay cuts. This must be the logic of it. The noble Earl shakes his head. If I have this wrong, I will gladly sit down and he can put me right on it, but the minimum wage does what it says on the tin: it sets a minimum wage, but takes no account of the grades above that. As my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere has also said, those grades are there for a purpose. They are accepted by the employers, farmers, who recognise that increased productivity and the higher levels of skills that are needed must be rewarded, which means that there must be different grades for different levels of skills.
Most farm workers—they are a dwindling number—work in groups of two, three and four, working closely with their employer, the farmer. It is only when you get into the poultry packing plants and the vegetable processing plants that you can measure workforces in the dozens and the hundreds, but that is a very different atmosphere in which to negotiate. Are the Government really suggesting that a father and his two sons, who make up the workforce on a mixed farm, will make an appointment with their employer, the farmer, to talk about rates of pay? This is not the real world because there is no equality there. In my submission, the Agricultural Wages Board was put in place in the interests of farmers and the industry as much as in the interests of farm workers because it levelled the playing field. The industry got great value out of the Agricultural Wages Board. The other day I was astounded to hear a former president of the National Famers’ Union, with whom I spent many a happy hour in the old days when I worked for Farmers Weekly, rely on exactly the same argument. He said, “No, Robin, it does not matter because the national minimum wage is there”. I take it that the official view of the National Farmers’ Union is that it now wants to see the destruction of the Agricultural Wages Board. I say simply that it will live to regret that because it could result in immense chaos, let alone unfairness, for the industry. A very heavy price will be paid if the board is abolished.
The last report of the Agricultural Wages Board that I could find in the Library was for 2007-08. It makes the point that the board does not deal just with wages. There have been demands from the workers’ side for an all-industry pension scheme. How will that be dealt with now? What are the unions supposed to do now? To whom do they write? Will they write to the president of the National Farmers’ Union of England, the president of the National Farmers’ Union of Wales and the Farmers’ Union of Wales and the NFU in Scotland? Is this the way that they are meant to proceed? Given the row about tithe cottages, who decides the value of the accommodation provided under the contract of employment to employees who live on the farm as part of their job? The national minimum wage will not take care of that. Who will take care of that? Will this be negotiated farm by farm across the length and breadth of England and Wales? This is a ridiculous way to engage in human relations and will cause immense resentment. I do not believe farmers are bad employers but they are not overgenerous with their money. As the last report of the Agricultural Wages Board notes, this is traditionally a low-pay industry, which is why the Agricultural Wages Board was established.
The Agricultural Wages Board does other things. For example, it has a helpline. Why does it need one? In 2002-03, 4,477 farm workers phoned the helpline because they felt they were not being paid the proper rate of pay; that rose in 2007-08 to 5,006. Who is going to deal with those complaints? Now if I say to my employer, the farmer, “Listen, George, I should be on this rate. This is what you should be paying now, it is what we agreed, and I am not getting it”. Presumably George is going to turn round and say that the world has changed and we have the national minimum wage now. The Agricultural Wages Board was given the same powers as the national minimum wage authority to ensure that the minimum scales of pay were met. These six pay scales are legally enforceable. That is going to disappear. This is a recipe for unfairness and for chaos, and I regret very much indeed that the National Farmers’ Union has put its signature to what the Government are proposing.
I hope the Government will seriously think again about this proposal. The total budget of the board is £481,000 a year to bring some sense and fairness into this industry. If the Government are committed to doing away with the Agricultural Wages Board, I hope they will try to persuade employers to establish a forum where these matters can be discussed sensibly between all those who work in the industry, employers and workers, to avoid the chaos and unfairness that is bound to happen unless that is done.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and as an employer of staff in the West Country—not the county of Dorset, like the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, but next door in the county of Somerset. I had not really intended to get involved in this debate—I thought I would just let it wash on and see what came out—but I think that I should report to your Lordships from the real world of Somerset. If I was to reduce the wages paid on my farm down to the levels set by the Agricultural Wages Board, not the basic wage but the various craftsmen rates, I am fairly certain I would have a strike on my hands.
I rarely pay much attention to the Agricultural Wages Board or what it says. I can see that a guide on an annual percentage rise within the agricultural world is often quite useful. However, I dare say that in the absence of the Agricultural Wages Board there will be other means of arriving at such a benchmark system, and I am sure that the NFU and others will get together and provide us with one, if that is going to be needed.
I, too, wish to support the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and the remarks made by several of my colleagues on these Benches. If this board was abolished in this rather casual way, without any suggestion of what should replace it, it would be regarded by writers in the future as a rather cruel joke, in view of the difficulty this area of the workforce has had to obtain normal collective bargaining resources. Now, fortunately, many workers belong to the union, UNITE, but there was a day when workers who wished to form trade unions in this vulnerable sector of the workforce were met by a very different response by their society.
This particular history does not die in the memories of those who are literate regarding trade union organisation. It is very surprising that the Government come forward with no suggestion of anything to replace this—one of the boards or councils set up in the early parts of this century to protect vulnerable sectors of the workforce that did not have the advantage of even the elements of collective bargaining. The existence of a minimum wage to cover the entire workforce is no argument at all. The Agricultural Wages Board can, and does, make very sensitive interventions, as my colleagues on these Benches have illustrated, with the modernisation of agriculture.
I very much hope that in reply the Minister does not resist the amendment—certainly not without any suggestion of what the Government foresee as the structure and protection of this area of the workforce. A raft of structures has been attached to the Agricultural Wages Board, such as the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees, as we have already discussed. I very much hope that the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, will be supported by this House in the interests not merely of labourers in agriculture but also of employers in the agricultural sector, who, as we have heard, also have an interest in the protection afforded by the Agricultural Wages Board.
My Lords, I too support the amendment. I apologise for not being here at the very start of the debate; I was detained elsewhere in the House.
Let me declare an interest—for 12 years I had the great privilege of leading the union to which agricultural workers belong and which represented them. I was general secretary at the T&G, and I am delighted to see the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, who was my deputy general secretary. Part of our joint and collective responsibility was to pay a special interest to the work of our agricultural membership. We did that because in many instances they had a diffuse working environment, away from the collectiveness of the workplace found in factories, warehouses and even supermarkets. I am sure that the noble Baroness would have made some of the points I might make now, and for that I apologise again.
The noble Baroness and I campaigned, along with the rest of the trade union movement, to have a national minimum wage introduced because it gave certain standards. It also sent a very clear message about how workers should be treated and what sort of economy we want to build in the United Kingdom. If I thought for one minute that the agricultural wages board could have done the job that the national minimum wage is intended to do, we would not have bothered. We are talking about two separate and distinct bodies, with separate and distinct functions. The agricultural wages board is a joint industry body—it represents agricultural workers, sitting face to face with employers, and of course has an element of independence as well. It looks after the interests of young people, it is concerned about safety and it has a duty and responsibility that goes far beyond anything that the Low Pay Commission ever does.
The Low Pay Commission was set up by the Government of the day to deal exclusively with pay—nothing else and nothing more. Therefore, any consideration of abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board, in the vain hope that the tasks, duties, responsibilities and obligations that it performs will be transferred to the Low Pay Commission, displays a level of ignorance which is quite threatening and worrying. The two bodies are different and they carry out different functions.
In fact, the Agricultural Wages Board was preceded by a body called the Fair Wage Resolution. Every so often a resolution would be passed to renew the principles of fair wages—nothing else but wages. However, it failed. Accidents were part and parcel of daily experience. Young children were going into grain silos with some horrific consequences. It was recognised that there needed to be an authoritative body which was not a trading body and not an employers' body, but a body for the industry which recognised and promoted the interests of the industry.
When my union goes to Brussels and meets agricultural workers, we do not say, “What is the rate of pay in other parts of the European Union?”; we do not say, “What is now being looked at for holidays?”; but we talk about the issues of the industry. The Agricultural Wages Board is an advocate for the international industry; the Low Pay Commission is no such thing. It would not just be a backward step but a tragedy for British agriculture to have no voice which represented both sides of the industry and which could speak with an element of independence, nationally and internationally. Therefore, I genuinely ask the Committee and the Government to think again because they will be sending the wrong signals and putting a lot of people in a lot of danger. They are making a tragic mistake. I hope that they pull back from this.
I declare an interest as the owner of a small farm in the north of Scotland, the circumstances of which are very different from the farms mentioned by other owners.
This has been a very important debate, stimulated by my noble friend’s amendment. There has been a remarkable chasm of opinion between those who view the winding up of the Agricultural Wages Board with concern and those who are either indifferent or supportive. The National Farmers’ Union apparently has made its position clear. The one interest which has not been expressed in this debate so far from the point of view of an objective economist is: what will be the impact on rural development of a depression in farm workers’ wages? That seems to be the natural consequence of the removal of this body, at least at the lower end of the scales.
I recognise that in some prosperous parts of the country, agriculture has to compete for skilled activity from people who could find alternative employment relatively easily in the area. Large parts of the south-west may be a good exemplification of that, but in the more sparsely populated areas there is not a superfluity of employment. There are not many alternative jobs available and it seems to me that a consequence of depression in income of those working on farms, whether at the top of the local scale or near the bottom, is likely to result in a further flight from the land. That has to be of concern. I cannot speak with the authority of a rural or agricultural economist, but I very much hope that the Government, in considering this proposition, have taken those considerations into account. If there is any evidence that can be revealed, I hope they will reveal it this afternoon or at a later stage of the Bill.
It seems to me that we are entering a process with great rapidity and perhaps with too little prior consideration of the consequences. We have all spoken from local experience, from personal experience and from different angles of vision, but those matters need to be drawn together if we are looking at a body which has existed since 1948 and which had forerunners going back to the early part of the 20th century. We need to look at this not just in a debate which has lasted for one hour and five minutes, but rather more deliberately. It is not entirely reassuring that the process of the Bill would allow another one and a half hours of debate on an affirmative resolution to decide this ultimately.
We need considerably more evidence about the impact on those parts of the country where income is low and the population is sparse but which play some part in meeting the nation's needs for agricultural production. We do not want to see the land deserted or visited purely for recreational purposes. I hope that we can get some more solid, factual information before the House is asked to reach a conclusion.
Perhaps I might intervene again. Having listened to the various speeches around the House and particularly to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Morris, giving the story of the very essential and important work that the agricultural wages board has done over the years, we need to consider how things have moved on. One element which is very different now is that all employers and all jobs are subject to the Health and Safety Executive. All accidents must be reported to the Health and Safety Executive, so that deals with one element which perhaps the agricultural wages board used to look into.
The other point, which the noble Lord, Lord Corbett of Castle Vale, spoke about, is the difficulty in the grading of agricultural workers. One big difference now is that, in the nature of things, agricultural workers acquire certificates and they come with a grading of their own. If someone applies to you for a job, he can produce certificates of his skills and certain elements. In my part of the world, I do not see a danger of reduced wages because there is a shortage of skilled men and they are now, more or less, in a position to name their price.
My Lords, I reinforce the argument made by my noble friend. I drove a tractor some time ago—1943, I think it was. Whether I was underage I will leave the House to decide. I remember that we were very happy if we got 30 hundredweights an acre. We stooped it, then it was put in a stack, and it was then thrashed by a threshing machine that came around at about this time of the year.
Today, you have a computer-controlled combine harvester that does the whole thing on its own. It is about two and a half times the width of the old cutters that we used to have. I will gamble that there are very few farmers that own one of those combines. There are some in Norfolk, in the grain area of the east of England, but in my part of England—in north Yorkshire—none of the farmers owns their own combine harvester. The contractors own it—and they do the potatoes as well. There are no labourers left in north Yorkshire in agriculture. No such person exists any longer. If there is not a skill, then you cannot employ anybody in agriculture in north Yorkshire—I am not sure about north Scotland.
I contend that—never mind the £8-something—you will not get that combine driven by anyone paid anything less than £10 an hour. The statistics that I would like to understand are the actual wages in agriculture today, because—believe you me—they do not bear much relationship either to the minimum wage or to the wages that were set on 1 October by the board which we are discussing.
My Lords, I, too, support strongly the amendment and pay tribute to the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, introduced this debate. It has been an interesting and powerful debate, and noble Lords from around the House have certainly brought their experience to bear on this issue. We even had the personal experience of my noble friend Lord Clark of Windermere, who, at an earlier stage in his career, was affected by the decisions of the agricultural wages board.
We were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the board, in one form or another, was established a long time ago—in 1924—and has been a tried and tested institution. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, also referred, as I think did the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, to industrial action. Happily there has not been industrial action in the agricultural industry since 1923—significantly, the year immediately before the establishment of the board. However, I support the agricultural wages board not simply because it has been here for a long time. The Minister misquoted me in our last debate when he said that I had said at some point,
“that everything should continue as it is just because it always has existed in the past”.—[Official Report, 29/11/10; col. 1360.]
I can assure him that I have never said anything remotely like that, and I am very often persuaded of the need for all kinds of change. I hope, after what has been said today, particularly by my noble friends and by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, that the Government will think again about the decision to abolish the agricultural wages board. I think they should reconsider it very seriously indeed in the light of this discussion.
A number of noble Lords mentioned consultation, and there certainly has been next to no consultation on this decision. The Minister, in answer to a Written Question from me, said:
“No specific consultation was undertaken prior to the decision to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board”.—[Official Report, 26/10/10; col. WA 245.]
It is my understanding that the Welsh Assembly Government criticised their notification of this as being totally inadequate; they were given one week to respond. Indeed, in an answer to a Question from the former Defra Secretary of State in the other place, Hilary Benn, again the lack of consultation was clearly evident. Given that the agricultural wages board has been a very long-standing feature of our economic and agricultural landscape, to have no consultation is very serious indeed.
Would the noble Baroness agree that the debate has been forceful in indicating that consultation would be advisable and helpful, and that perhaps it would be sensible not to reach a conclusion on this matter in this debate, because evidently there is still a great deal of time left to consider the Bill?
The noble Lord makes an important point. Obviously, how we proceed is up to the author and introducer of the amendment to decide. None the less, given the number of questions that have been raised in this debate on all sides, and given the fact that there has been a very strong feeling in the Chamber that this is an issue about which there should be proper consultation, I am inclined to support the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his comments. I am sure that, in the light of whatever response we get from the Government, we would very much want to return to this in any case, because it is obviously of great concern and interest to many Members in this House and, of course, to many people outside.
The issue of cost has once again been referred to. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in his introductory comments, said that the cost of abolishing the board was very limited. In answer to a Parliamentary Question in the other place by Willie Bain, I understand that the Government said that the costs would be “negligible”; indeed that the,
“changes to include agricultural workers within the scope of national minimum wage legislation”,
“expected to be cost neutral”.—[Official Report, Commons, 25/10/10; col. 14W]
Therefore this has not been brought forward to save a great deal of money, again like some of the measures that we were considering earlier. In many ways it seems to be part of a political agenda—a political decision—which I must say I very much regret. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, himself said that the abolition of the agricultural wages board was part of the Conservative manifesto but was certainly not part of the Liberal Democrat manifesto. It was not part of the coalition agreement, and for that reason I think that it would be very good if it were not part of government policy here and now. I know, having looked at the Liberal Democrat Voice on the internet, that there is a concern generally about the Bill among Liberal Democrats, but also about some of the specific proposals, including this one.
I know that some farmers have come out very much in favour of abolition of the agricultural wages board, including the NFU in England. It is interesting, however, that the National Farmers’ Union in Wales has come out more in support of the retention of the agricultural wages board. Indeed, it and some other farmers have made the very important point that the agricultural wages board actually lifts from individual farmers the burden of negotiation. Quite understandably, this debate has focused on the effects of abolition on agricultural workers, but there is also a negative effect on many farmers who find the operation of the agricultural wages board helpful and valuable in terms of the recruitment and retention of skilled labour. The Government have said in the past, in debates in this House, that they value professionalism in agriculture; yet I fear that, by going down this route, we will undermine agriculture and show it as a low-paid profession where there is not proper protection for workers. We already know that agriculture is a dangerous industry in terms of accidents. We need to tackle that issue, which I think the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, referred to. At the same time we want agriculture to be seen as an industry which is attractive for new employees in the future.
It would be good to hear from the Minister about discussions he has had with individual farmers, and in particular some of the farms in different areas in England which might have a similar farming structure to those in Wales. Many noble Lords have referred to what will happen when the agricultural wages board disappears, if it does, and indeed, how much importance we should attach to the fact that such workers would still be covered by the national minimum wage regulations. It is true that level 1 of the agricultural wages board structure is only 2p an hour more than the national minimum wage but, as my noble friend Lord Corbett of Castle Vale and others have pointed out, we have other levels of remuneration in agriculture. I understand that only 20 per cent of workers are on grade 1, so 80 per cent would lose substantial protection with the abolition of the agricultural wages board.
The whole issue of the agricultural wages board goes much further than the national minimum wage, as my noble friend Lord Morris of Handsworth said, as indeed did my noble friend Lord Whitty earlier in the debate. The national minimum wage provisions do not cover entitlements, many of which are currently covered by the Agricultural Wages Order, such as specific rates of pay for overtime, standby duty and night allowance, entitlement to bereavement leave, and birth and adoption grant. The agricultural wages board has responsibility for a large number of issues, on which it makes various rulings. The board also makes specific ruling for apprentices under the age of 19 during their first year of apprenticeship and considers the position of students on work placements of less than a year. It is important for the Government to address all those issues in giving us some assurance in how they see the way forward in this important area of policy. What safeguards will they put in place to guarantee the provisions that fall outside the national minimum wage regulations?
I listened to what the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said. It is true that there is a framework of regulations and employment provisions in place, including the national minimum wage, the working time directive and various social measures from Europe to which he referred, but that does not give me great encouragement. At least the Conservative part of the coalition strongly opposed those measures in the past, and I am worried that this decision may be part of a wider pattern and attitude towards wage and employment conditions that we will regret.
So far there has been a deafening silence on what would replace the agricultural wages board, and I very much share the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord Wedderburn, when he referred to that. The board exists for a good reason. Indeed, my noble friends Lady Prosser and Lord Morris referred to this. There was a special reason why the agricultural wages board was retained when the other wages councils were abolished. It is very much to do with the fact that the industry involves individuals negotiating with an individual employer. It is not a matter of dealing with a large firm with a large number of employees who may be well organised to negotiate. There are issues relating to agriculture that are unique and which were recognised before, when the decision was made to retain the board. With regard to other councils being abolished, in many ways the precedents are not good because many wage rates in those sectors fell as a result of abolition.
My noble friend Lord Whitty mentioned that the horticultural sector was particularly supportive of the abolition of the agricultural wages board and I am aware of some of the reasons, having had contact with representatives of the horticultural industry. Their concern arises very much from the pressure from supermarkets and the weakness they feel in their negotiations with them. I suggest that the best way of approaching that is to bring in the supermarket ombudsman and use the other measures that have been put forward to strengthen the agricultural industry’s negotiating position with supermarkets. That would be much better than abolishing the agricultural wages board in the way proposed by the Government. In many ways, given some of the issues that have been raised in the agricultural sector by noble Lords today and from outside, it could be said that there is a case for strengthening or even extending the remit of the agricultural wages board rather than abolishing it.
I also want to ask the Minister about relations with devolved institutions. I understand that the intention is to cover England and Wales. Is the agreement of the Welsh Assembly Government necessary to bring about the abolition of the structure in Wales? Given the concerns expressed by both the Welsh Assembly Government and the Welsh National Farmers’ Union, it is an important point that we need to know. In a Written Answer in the other place, the Government said that legislation in the Welsh Assembly would not be necessary, so does that mean that the Government can simply abolish the board without reference to views in Wales on the desirability of its continuation?
The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, mentioned Scotland. I understand that there are no plans to get rid of its agricultural wages board and, indeed, agricultural wages were revised by the board in Scotland just last month. Therefore, there seems to be a commitment to the agricultural wages board in Scotland. It would be good to see England in the lead in some of these issues, rather than falling behind in our support of employees with a good level of wages and a good degree of protection in working conditions.
This House has been repeatedly concerned about the economic well-being of our rural areas. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, not very long ago introduced a debate on the uplands and his concern about living and working conditions there. The report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which I mentioned earlier makes important reading for Ministers as well as Members of this House. Certainly, that report refers to some of the higher costs of living in rural areas and the question of housing, which we dealt with earlier when discussing the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees. The foundation said that single working-age adults needed to earn £2,000 or £3,000 a year more than those in urban areas simply to have the same standard of living. That is a reflection of the higher domestic fuel costs in the countryside and problems of access to transport in many rural areas. The findings of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation seem to suggest that it is important to retain mechanisms that support levels of income in the countryside and not undermine them until some of the wider issues have been addressed.
In conclusion, I feel that this decision is a highly regrettable one if the Government decide to go ahead. It is not being done on grounds of cost but for political reasons. It is unjust, it is unfair, it does not make economic sense and it does not serve agriculture well. I hope that the Minister, in replying, will change tack and respond positively to the powerful concerns which have been expressed so well in this debate.
My Lords, I will start, as is proper, by offering an apology to the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, for possibly misquoting her, as she alleged earlier in her somewhat lengthy speech. I am not sure whether I did, but I will look at the record and, if I have misquoted her, I will offer my sincere apologies for so doing. If I can quote her again, I noted that she made the point towards the end of her speech that there was possibly a case for strengthening the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. I think that the noble Baroness accepts my quotation. I note that as a new commitment by the party opposite from its Front Bench.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, listened to his noble friend’s speech with great attention and I was grateful for his admission that the Government of which he was part had considered the abolition of the agricultural wages board. They decided not to for reasons that I cannot speculate on, but the range of speakers who come from the other side might give some indication as to why they changed their mind on the issue. We have examined the issue again and we have decided to go ahead with abolition. I will try to set out just why we wish to do that.
When the wages board and the committees were established in 1948—in fact, they were established earlier than that, but the parent Act is the 1948 one—farm workers had very little protection available to them from exploitation. The close working relationship between workers and employers, where the former were often dependent on the latter for housing, meant that workers were often at a disadvantage in negotiations on wages. In these circumstances, it was sensible to provide an independent statutory forum where farm workers and employers could come together to agree pay and conditions. Since that time, we have seen tremendous changes in wider employment legislation, both nationally and, as my noble friend Lord Caithness said, at an EU level, which protects and benefits workers in all sectors of the economy, including farm workers. Those changes include the introduction of legislation on the national minimum wage, which has been referred to. That makes it illegal to pay a worker below the current national minimum wage. There are also the working time regulations referred to by others, which, among other provisions, set a statutory minimum entitlement to a minimum wage.
For these reasons and all the changes that we have seen since 1924 and 1948, the agricultural minimum wage framework set out in that 1948 Act is, we believe, anachronistic. As the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, and the noble Lord, Lord Clark, put it, in more or less the same words, life moves on. I accept that life moves on. Life has changed considerably since 1948 and it is no longer necessary to do what the Act does and effectively duplicate and gold-plate wider employment legislation. It adds an unnecessary regulatory burden for businesses in the agricultural and horticultural sectors, many of which are small businesses. It is a particular burden for farm businesses that also operate in sectors outside those covered by the agricultural wages legislation and hence have to cope with dual regimes. Moreover, the agricultural wages legislation effectively prevents the payment of annual salaries and fair piece rates, preventing farm businesses from adopting modern, flexible practices. That can also be disadvantageous to the workers.
I will say a word or two about Amendment 21, which would remove from the Bill the agricultural wages committees. Most of the functions of those committees, as my noble friend Lord Caithness made clear, have lapsed in practice or have been replaced by wider legislation. As my noble friend put it, there are currently 15 committees in England and one in Wales and their only remaining active functions are to appoint members of the agricultural dwelling house advisory committees and to report to the Secretary of State on their proceedings, which are now limited to holding an annual general meeting. I do not think that there is any case for retaining them.
It is for these reasons that we consider that the separate employment regime for agricultural workers is no longer appropriate. I am grateful again for the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who pointed out that he was not going to get away with paying the lower wages that seemed to be suggested by the party opposite. People just would not accept them. The same could be said for the intervention from my noble friend Lord Eccles when he pointed out that the whole industry has changed too much in terms of the sophistication of the skills that are required for many workers to confine themselves to pay rates of the sort that we are talking about. We believe that by abolishing the agricultural wages board—
Apologies if the Minister was moving on to this point, but do the Government have an impact assessment of the effect of the abolition of the legal minimum on wage rates, given that when each of the other wages boards was abolished the rate in that sector fell? Clearly, there are always some who are paid more than the minimum, but have the Government done that calculation? If so, I think that we should know.
I do not think that it is necessary for that work to have been done. As I said, we believe that with the abolition of the board the industry will be able to operate more flexibly, which would lead to more job creation and better opportunities. What the noble Lord and others have been asking us to do is describe what picture, as they put it, we see for the future. I believe that it is one where it is open to the industry to come together to set up its own system. Again, I was grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who said that the NFU ought to be out there seeking to put something together. What I did not hear from the representatives of Unite or Unite’s predecessor, the Transport and General Workers’ Union, was whether they were prepared to come together with the NFU and put something together. I do not see why the NFU, Unite and other industry representatives cannot come together and create their own advisory committee to discuss these matters. We do not think that it is necessarily a matter for the Government.
My Lords, as I made clear, I do not think that it is necessary in this case to carry out an impact assessment. If it was necessary, we would do so. What I am saying is that, after the abolition of the wages board, it is open to the industry to look at its own arrangements. That is why I was grateful for the intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, who said that the NFU could do this, but I do not see why the NFU cannot do it along with Unite and all the other representatives of the industry.
I appreciate that we have now spent an hour and a half discussing these matters. We will no doubt come back to this in due course. My noble friend Lord Maclennan said that there was still much time to discuss these matters. There certainly will be time, because noble Lords opposite wish to make sure that there is. We will discuss these matters further, therefore, but I have not heard anything yet this afternoon that would encourage me to say that there was a case for preserving the agricultural wages board or the agricultural wages committees. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank everybody who has taken part in an excellent and sensibly tempered debate with a huge amount of expertise on an important issue. It is curious that we are having this kind of debate on the Public Bodies Bill, which is not, on the face of it, about agricultural wages or, indeed, about many of the other things that we will debate in the course of its consideration in Committee, except that it is about everything. It is a curious Bill about everything and nothing but, if it leads to debates like this, the Committee will be doing the Government a service as well as the country generally.
I was particularly taken by the range of expertise in the debate. I do not want to reply to everybody, because it would take far too long, but I was slightly amused by what the noble Baroness, Lady Prosser, said in her excellent contribution. It took me back to the great Liberal Governments of a hundred years ago, who had a great deal to do with the introduction of wages councils. However, times have changed and the solutions of a hundred years ago are not necessarily the solutions of today.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is one of a large number of speakers with ministerial experience, particularly in this area, who are distinguished Members of the House. He referred to the possible involvement of the Low Pay Unit as part of the solution to this conundrum. I am aware that such discussions are taking place in some areas. Whether they will come to anything, I do not know, but at least there is some time to pursue them and other discussions in the mean time.
The noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, got me wondering about what I would do if I had my time again. I thought that I would perhaps have liked to have had a more outdoors life. If it were a choice of looking after sheep on a Scottish hillside or looking after the cattle of the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, there would be no real choice: I would spend my life on the noble Duke’s Scottish mountainside and probably enjoy myself more than I have done, although I have enjoyed a great deal, especially being able to stand and make speeches in your Lordships’ House.
The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, raised an important question: do the Government have the facts about agricultural wages at the moment? How many agricultural workers are at the moment on the basic levels of pay set out by the agricultural wages board? I have not seen this information, but it must exist somewhere. How many of them are working for more enlightened employers, such as the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, or perhaps for employers who are exposed to a market that requires that they pay higher wages, or for a combination of both? We need that information before we can get to the bottom of how much the existing protection is required. Unite, among others, is saying that it has evidence of farmers telling their existing workers that if the protection is removed their wages will go down. I do not know whether this is tittle-tattle or hard evidence, but we need evidence to probe and investigate in the mean time.
Some noble Lords have argued that the legislation is not needed because they know of lots of people who are paid more than the level set out or, indeed, who employ people who are paid more than the level set out. I take that with a slight pinch of salt because you could apply that argument to the national minimum wage. Most people in this country are paid more than the national minimum wage, a lot of people are paid a great deal more than the national minimum wage and some people are paid astronomical sums—millions of pounds a year, according to what we read in the newspapers—but just because a lot of bankers are apparently paid these huge salaries is no argument for saying that the national minimum wage is not necessary or is not a good thing, because it protects a lot of other people who need protection. Again, I think that we need the kind of facts that the noble Viscount suggested that we should have. I hope that the Government will find it possible to dig out those facts, circulate them and write to all noble Lords who have taken part in today’s debate.
Having said that and having said what an excellent House of Lords debate this has been, with propositions made, questions asked and debates enjoined, I should add that the other part of the equation that is traditionally necessary in the House of Lords is for the Government to listen to what has been said, think about it and respond to it. I thought that I detected in the Minister some softening and some willingness to continue to take part in the debate. I hope that that is the case. He said that we will discuss these issues again further. I hope that he did not mean that we will have to wait until Report, when we can have a set-piece battle with everybody lining up with their pitchforks or whatever people use nowadays instead of pitchforks. I hope that the discussion will take place in the several weeks that will be available to us before we get to Report.
Let us keep talking and let us have further discussions wherever we can. Let us bring the matter back on Report if we need to, but in the mean time let us hope to find a way through the issues that have been raised today and find some sort of compromise. Let us distinguish between closing down a quango, which the Government are adamant they want to do, perhaps saving quite a bit of the £250,000-plus that it costs to run, and keeping at least some of the functions, which might be carried out by somebody else. Even if that is not possible, let us understand what kind of negotiating system and procedure there might be in future between employers and employees at a national level and what sort of guarantee there might be that that will result in solutions that will stick rather than advice that can be ignored.
There is a great deal to be discussed further. The burden to business is being exaggerated a little, but with reform, modernisation and streamlining of the system it might be possible to reduce quite a few of those burdens without taking away the essential safeguards of the floors that exist to protect a group of people who, as many noble Lords have said, are more vulnerable than many other groups nowadays. The world has changed, so let us change the systems in response to that without taking away what is valuable.
I think that there is a general view around the Committee that we should not divide on this occasion. Indeed, in view of what I have said, it would be totally inappropriate for me to ask for the opinion of the Committee at this stage. I therefore beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 20 withdrawn.
Amendment 21 not moved.
22: Schedule 1, page 16, line 13, leave out “Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal.”
My Lords, the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal organises compensation in connection with the nationalisation of the aerospace and shipbuilding industries. It hears appeals on valuations with a right of appeal ultimately to the Supreme Court. There is also provision for judicial review of the original compensation offer. The tribunal continues in existence but was described by the Council on Tribunals in 2006 as “rarely convened/moribund”. On 1 November 2007, the tribunal came under the supervision of the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council, whose future also now appears somewhat less than secure. When he responds, will the Minister indicate the annual cost of the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal, how many members there are of the tribunal and how many times, if any, it has met in each of the past three years? Will the Minister also indicate the list of duties and responsibilities of the arbitration tribunal and state which duties and responsibilities the Government consider no longer need to be undertaken at all and why, and which duties and responsibilities, if any, will continue to be undertaken, and to whom or to which body they will be transferred? Presumably, the Government must have come to some conclusions on these issues. Having taken into account which duties and responsibilities will be transferred elsewhere, and the cost of continuing to carry out any remaining duties and responsibilities, could the Minister say what the net saving will be from abolishing the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal? I beg to move.
We seem to concentrate only on whether something saves money, but the public are not interested only in saving money. They believe they are over-governed, that there is too much regulation and too much interference in their lives, and that there are too many bodies carrying out functions which most likely could be carried out better somewhere else. They want to see the system simplified, and I believe that this House should remember, when they are discussing these matters, that it is not only a matter of money; it is also a matter of making life less complicated.
My Lords, I am pleased to move on to this series of amendments, and I will first turn to the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal. This was set up under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977 and related to the nationalised industries in aircraft manufacture and shipbuilding. These nationalised industries no longer exist and the tribunal is redundant. Similarly, the purpose of abolishing British Shipbuilders as a corporation is to simplify the administration of the funding and handling of British Shipbuilders’ residual liabilities. These liabilities will be transferred directly to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which will provide a long-term solution to managing these liabilities.
The Government are committed to making compensation payments to former employees of British Shipbuilders, and I can give an indicative figure of the level of those compensation payments. They come to about £7 million a year. I hope that helps. The tribunal itself does not cost anything, as there are no standing costs and it does not have any employees. The compensation payments for former employees cover such injuries as mesothelioma, which were the result of their employment with British Shipbuilders. The payments are in line with the obligations that British Shipbuilding had to its employees.
British Shipbuilders Corporation was set up under the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Act 1977. The corporation has no active trading operations and exists solely to meet its residual liabilities—litigation, insurance claims and other contractual matters— relating to its former employees. British Shipbuilders is effectively a shell company. In light of my assurances, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
I am not entirely sure whether the Minister was also replying to Amendment 24 as well as Amendment 22. Amendment 22 is about the Aircraft and Shipbuilding Industries Arbitration Tribunal, which is the one that hears appeals over valuation in relation to the nationalisation of the aerospace and shipbuilding industries. As far as I understood it, we were dealing with Amendment 22 separately. It seemed to me—though I am obviously prepared to stand corrected—as though some of the comments that the Minister made related to Amendment 24, which is about British Shipbuilders and any subsidiary of that company. I did raise a number of points—
I did speak to Amendment 24 because my speaking notes represented a grouping which is not current, and I apologise to the noble Lord. Perhaps he will confine himself to my response in respect of the tribunal, because that is what he was speaking to. I apologise.
I was not entirely clear about what the Minister said. He did say that it was moribund, so do I take it that the answer to my question as to how many times it met in each of the past three years is that it has not met at all? Is it the case that, despite the comments made by the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, no costs are being incurred by this body, because it is moribund and it has not met?
Amendment 22 withdrawn.
House resumed. Committee to begin again not before 8.40 pm.
National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) (Amendment) Order 2010
Motion to Approve
My Lords, this draft order makes a number of modest policy and technical changes to the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007. The 2007 order makes provision for the conduct of elections to the National Assembly for Wales and was made under the powers in the Government of Wales Acts 1998 and 2006. It also comprehensively reflects changes made to electoral law since the previous order in 2003 and, in particular, by the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
While this draft order only numbers some 10 pages, the 2007 order runs to some 273 pages in total, so I do not intend to speak in any great detail about its contents. I do intend, however, to outline the main changes that will be made to it by the amending order before the House this evening.
Article 3 amends the definitions of Assembly constituency, Assembly electoral region and elector in the 2007 order to ensure that they are consistent with the Government of Wales Act 2006. The relevant provisions in the Government of Wales Act 2006 did not commence until after the 2007 order was made. The definition of elector also reflects changes to the Representation of the People Act 1983, which were made by the Electoral Administration Act 2006. This includes references to anonymous voters.
Article 4 makes amendments relating to registration appeals, where decisions on appeals about entries in the register in respect of postal votes are determined before the election. These decisions will now take effect and the register altered. The article also clarifies the relevant provisions under which an appeal can be made and a notice of alteration issued. Article 5 makes an important change to the 2007 order, under which the election agent for a candidate who stands in an Assembly regional election must have an office in that region.
A number of political parties raised concerns about this requirement during the 2007 elections, as a political party might wish to appoint only one election agent to represent all the regional candidates for that party in an Assembly election. The previous provision, which required the election agent to have an office in the region, prevented them from doing so. Following a recommendation by the Electoral Commission, made after the 2007 Assembly election, this requirement is being relaxed so that an agent’s office must be located within Wales.
Articles 6 and 7 make minor changes to the 2007 order that reflect changes made by the Legal Services Act 2007. If a legal professional is found guilty of a corrupt practice during an election campaign, an election court must inform bodies capable of exercising regulatory functions over the legal profession. Article 6 expands the definition of these bodies. Article 7 amends the relevant part of the 2007 order which expands the definition of who the Director of Public Prosecutions may send as his representative to attend election courts.
Articles 8 and 9 amend references in Schedules 1 and 3 of the 2007 order respectively which we subsequently found to be incorrect. Article 10 makes perhaps the most substantive change to the 2007 order by changing the design of the constituency and regional ballot papers. In October 2009, the Electoral Commission published its guidance on designing voter materials, Making Your Mark. This guidance highlights best practice when designing voter materials, such as ballot papers, to ensure that they are as accessible and intelligible as possible for voters. It is clearly in the interests of democracy that every eligible elector is able to participate in elections and that the voting process is as clear and simple as it can be. In designing the new ballot papers, we have worked closely with the Electoral Commission to ensure that we adhere to the spirit and the letter of the guidance. Apart from the design, the key change is the removal of the names of those on the party list from the regional ballot paper. Noble Lords will wish to know that this also occurs in Scotland.
Noble Lords will know that the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill before this House provides for the referendum on the alternative vote system for electing Members to the other place to be combined with the elections to the National Assembly on 5 May next year. The provisions within this draft order are not affected by the combination provisions.
The Government and the Welsh Assembly Government are committed to working together to ensure that the polls next May are a success. Jenny Watson, chair of the Electoral Commission and chief counting officer for the alternative vote referendum, who will have the lead role in the combined polls, said last month that the commission believed that,
“enough progress has been made … to allow the National Assembly elections and referendum on 5 May to run smoothly”.
In conclusion, in preparing this order, the Wales Office has worked closely with electoral administrators, including the regional returning officer for Wales, the Electoral Commission, the Welsh Assembly Government and the four major political parties in Wales. I commend the order to the House.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for bringing this order before us today. Although this is not a milestone on the devolution road which we travelled last week, it is nevertheless an important order, although largely technical in nature. As the Minister has said, it corrects drafting errors in previous legislation and its provisions update the National Assembly for Wales (Representation of the People) Order 2007, bringing the 2010 order in line with changes to electoral law effected under either the Government of Wales Act 2006 or the Electoral Administration Act 2006.
Article 3 updates the definitions in the 2007 order to ensure that they are consistent with those in the Government of Wales Act 2006. It also updates the definition of elector as set out in the current definition in the Representation of the People Act 1983. We agree with this tidying-up amendment. We welcome the change proposed in Article 5 of the 2010 order that amends Article 39(2)(b), which stipulates that the office of an election agent for a regional election should be within that region. This amendment is in keeping with suggestions made by the Electoral Commission to allow election agents for the regional elections to have their office anywhere in Wales and not solely within the region. This practical amendment makes sense: in most cases the campaign for the regional list candidates would be run centrally, usually from the political party's headquarters in Wales.
We are content that the amendments in Articles 6 and 7 reflect changes made by the Legal Services Act 2007, which expands the description of bodies regulating the legal profession that must be considered by election courts and describes the duty of the Director of Public Prosecutions. These are reasonable and appropriate amendments and we would support them.
We are content with the changes to Schedule 10 described at Article 10 of the amended order relating to the format of the ballot papers for the Assembly constituency elections and for the regional elections. The changes improve the ballot paper, making them easier to understand, and correct omissions on one of the forms and one of the poll cards used in the elections. They are rational and evidence-based.
I believe that this format for the ballot papers is much easier and clearer for the voters. In the case of regional list ballot papers, electors are asked to vote for a political party rather than for a named political party candidate, unless of course the candidate is an independent. Will the Minister confirm that a full list of candidates will be on display at the polling station?
We agree with the order before us. They are sensible and practical amendments to the elections laws for the Welsh Assembly elections on 5 May next year. Agreeing to them tonight means that they will be in place in time for those elections. I am pleased to say that we support these amendments.
My Lords, there are two good reasons why one should welcome this order. The first is that the House is not experiencing any problem as far as seating is concerned. The second is that, for once in the history of Wales, we have a development that seems to be applauded generally and totally by everyone. That is almost unique in a land of such fissiparous divisions as my own land and nation of Wales. The Electoral Commission and all those bodies responsible for these amendments are to be commended on the way in which they have conducted themselves. They have consulted fully and have managed to achieve a rapport among all bodies. All that is involved in the order are amendments that are consequential on legislation that this House and the other place have passed over the past four years.
Having said that, perhaps I may, with the indulgence of the House, take one minute to mention other matters. No one can speak of elections in Wales without being aware of the vulturous presence of legislation that will in a few months affect Wales greatly. I refer specifically to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which will deprive Wales of one-quarter of its constituencies. That is an immense proportion. Reducing the number of constituencies of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland by 50 will mean a reduction of one-thirteenth. If my mathematics is anywhere near right, that is about 7.8 per cent of the totality. In Wales, it will be 25 per cent.
Many people may say, “Well, come off it, you have managed to have this advantage for many decades. Has not the time come when you should surrender this advantage?”. That exact point was put to the right honourable Kenneth Clarke as Home Secretary when he was conducting the parliamentary commissions Bill through the House of Commons in 1992. He said, “I am not having it. Wales is a land, a nation. There is a constitutional arrangement here, which I respect and am determined to uphold”. Wales is no less a land, a nation, now than it was in 1992.
If the House wishes to have a sleepless and nightmarish experience over the next few hours, one need only contemplate the possibilities of what will happen not in May 2011 but in May 2015—assuming that Parliament will by then have passed an Act making the life of Parliament a solid five years, no more and no less. It will mean that the elections to the Welsh Assembly will coincide exactly with the elections to Westminster, and people will be in constituency A of the House of Commons but constituency B of the Welsh Assembly. It is, as I say, a wholly terrifying and nightmarish consideration. But that is not strictly relevant to this issue.
My Lords, I appreciate the words of both the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, both of whom I consider as colleagues and as friends. However, looking at this order, I am not quite as appreciative of it as others who have spoken. There is some concern that the order distances us from local areas and local people. It is true that you can have one agent for the whole of Wales, but it means that the Wales campaign is centralised, not localised—or it can be. The noble Baroness, Lady Gale, knows more about this than I do. So you could have a central campaign that does not reflect local interests.
There was a time when I was a young candidate and every ward had its own committee room on election day and every constituency had its central committee room—its swyddfa ganolog. Then there is the region. Yes, you can get on in the region, but remember that Welsh regions, like Scottish regions, are quite massive sometimes; they can stretch for many miles. The agent is far away, even at a regional level, from the local activity. We could possibly accept this, but some may remember when we had not one agent for Wales, but we had subagents covering so many areas of a constituency. To have an office located anywhere in Wales could present difficulties in the organisation of election days and electoral officers. It needs to be very well thought out.
The region-less ballot paper—the new one that has been presented to us—is far less cluttered than previously because, as has been stated, no candidate’s name is printed. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, suggested that Scotland has the same kind of ballot paper. Is this the first time in the United Kingdom that we have had a ballot paper with just the party’s name but no candidates? Is this a step in the right direction? I can understand why, because many parties—my own included, I am sure—have in the past nominated, say, 12 candidates for each region. Let us say that you have six or seven different parties contesting and most of them give you a dozen candidates. Wow, that ballot paper will be very cluttered. But to go further in a different direction and simply say Conservative, Labour, Plaid Cymru, Liberal Democrats, Greens, without giving any indication of who is the lead candidate, would cut away the personal link. It makes the regional candidates second-class Assembly Members, because they have not been elected as individuals, even though, as the noble Baroness mentioned, you can have a list of them in the polling station. When I go into a polling station—and I am allowed to vote at some elections, including the Welsh Assembly election—I do not look at the posters, I just look at the ballot paper I vote on.
I would ask—and other people are thinking this way—that we do not put 12 names for each party, but that we print the four top names selected by each party on the ballot paper of a regional list. At least we would have a personal involvement. People will have some idea about who they are going to return, not just someone who they have never heard of and whose name is totally strange to them. I speak to the Minister as a very dear friend of mine. I hope it is not too late to amend this order. I suggest we have four names—it might be three, it might be five—so that we keep that personal link with the regional list members as well as with the constituency members.
What you are doing also is that you are increasing the authority of a party and making it far superior to the individual candidate. Is this a danger? I think it is a dangerous step—a very dangerous step. We do not have to take that step—it is not too late—because we can amend it to include the lead names for each party.
I am more than happy with the constituency ballot paper. It is clear and the sort of ballot paper that we are more or less used to. Mind you, there is one great sadness. You are asked to put an X in one of the boxes. I hope the time comes when we do not ask for Xs but for 1, 2,3, and 4 and we have a proportional system.
My Lords, in so far as that particular specimen ballot paper is concerned, has the noble Lord noticed that all the names used were Anglo-Saxon ones—there was not a Jones, an Evans, a Morgan or a Williams? It may very well be that this was done, as lawyers would say, ex abundanti cautela—out of an abundance of caution; I must say it struck me as rather strange that there was not a single Welsh name among them.
I of course defer in this to the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan; he not only has one name on the ballot paper, he has two. I am reduced to the very inferior status of a Roberts, but, as a Roberts, I say, yes, I welcome the constituency ballot paper. Then I ask the Minister to look again at the absence of names on the regional ballot paper. I think that we may have to accept the one agent for the whole of Wales, although I still remember the ward committee rooms with great affection.
The National Assembly for Wales is a real success. It is striking out on its own trajectory. It is barely 10 years old, but it has done so much and has grown in stature. To cut the number of parliamentary constituencies in Wales by 25 per cent is something of a folly. No doubt we can return to this matter another time, but it cannot be right.
I acknowledge the erudite introduction by the Minister, and I also thank my noble friend Lady Gale for her observations from the Dispatch Box. If anybody knows about elections in Wales, it is my noble friend, for she has a magnificent record of general election campaigning in Wales. The statistics indicate that hers were always the best results for the Labour Party throughout Britain. My noble friend is very surefooted in the matters delineated in the order. Yes, it is a tidying-up measure and not controversial. I support it. Surely it will be passed.
It is good to see the parity given to both languages in this order. The Government cannot be too careful on matters concerning language in Wales. Language is now at the forefront of consideration in public life in Wales, and I think that it will remain so. I am glad that the order has comprehended that.
The schedule helpfully presents Form CK, Form CK1 and Form CL. In the Explanatory Memorandum is a splendidly deadpan sentence under the heading, “Territorial Extent and Application”. It states:
“The Order extends to the whole of the United Kingdom but applies only in relation to the election to the National Assembly for Wales”.
I think Sir Humphrey lives; it is a delicious catch-all. Constitutional change always fetches up example after example of such glorious lines as that. What fun the civil servants must have had; how enjoyable the draftsmen must have found it. Sir Humphrey lives and, without a doubt, devolved government presents for all of us here in your Lordships' House a perpetual learning curve.
In the schedule, the mock constituency ballot paper and the mock regional ballot paper are very helpful. There is an interesting coincidence where Sarah Gale is concerned. I am looking again at surnames—there is no relation of course. I very much agree with my noble friend that there are no genuine Welsh names, and I would not be the first in this debate to point that out. It cannot be right. My noble friend was right in his mischievous and humorous way to tell us of that fact.
In the 1997 Parliament in another place, the then Madam Speaker appointed me as the chairman of a new committee, the Political Parties Committee. The committee was to settle upon the description of a political party’s name—the words describing the party. It was also to settle upon the logo that that party could adopt. It is interesting now to see the ballot papers proposed. All the political parties in Great Britain, and some that one never knew existed, came forward with their logo and their self-descriptions. I had been on the Intelligence and Security Committee, appointed by the Prime Minister, for some 11 years, but I learnt more about the Communist Party of Great Britain from its description of itself than I ever did from being a member of that committee.
My Lords, perhaps I may make a short intervention in support of my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno on the issue of the regional ballot paper. It will give me the opportunity also to answer one of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, about the coincidence of elections. It is incidental to the order, but I cannot resist the opportunity of answering that point.
There is a long and noble tradition in our electoral system of people being able to vote for people. If I have to look at the wall of a polling station to find out who will be elected if I put my vote against a party’s name, it is not quite the same as having the name there on the ballot paper. I understand the point about numbers, but only four people can be elected from the regional lists for any constituency in Wales. If the top four names for each of the parties are given, people will be able to say, “If I am voting for this party, I am voting for these four people in this order”. It will be quite clearly laid out on the ballot paper. I therefore ask my noble friend the Minister to consider this matter and see whether it chimes with political parties and the Electoral Commission for the elections next year.
On the coincidence of elections, we now have four elections in Wales: a European election, a National Assembly election, local council elections and elections for the other place. After the Bill passes, as we assume it will, there will be two five-year terms, for the European elections and the elections to the other place, and two four-year terms, for local authority and National Assembly elections. The National Assembly has previously moved elections for local government so that they do not coincide. The one, obvious way out of this difficulty whereby elections might clash on any number of occasions in the future—just as local elections and National Assembly elections would have clashed in the past—is to make all elections have five-year terms. We have two elections with fixed terms, European and Westminster; it seems that we should do the same for National Assembly and local elections.
These are personal views. I am testing them on this House so that people might consider them as a way out of the confusion created by having two sets of elections occurring at different intervals. Those of your Lordships who are good at mathematics will know that, if you have two fives and two fours, the fives and the fours will eventually clash. If it is logical to have fixed-term Parliaments for Europe and for the other place, it might be logical also for the National Assembly and local councils. If the logic is that fixed terms give you more time to make your programme of government work, that logic can be applied also to the National Assembly and local government.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lords who have contributed to this debate. I am grateful for the general welcome that has been given to the order. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, rehearsed his speech for the debate that we will undoubtedly have during the passage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. I rather suspect that it will fall to me to answer that part of the Bill. At least I am well prepared by knowing from where the attack will come, and I can expect it also from the noble Lord, Lord Jones.
There will undoubtedly be an opportunity to consider the coincidence of elections when we come to debate the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill—I hear the point made by my noble friend Lord German. The noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, and the House will perhaps be reassured to hear that the Government are aware of the concerns that have been expressed in some quarters about the coincidence of polling dates in 2015. They are consulting the Welsh Assembly Government, all political parties represented in the Assembly and representatives of the Assembly itself on options for moving the date of elections to the devolved legislature—a similar consultation is taking place also in Scotland and Northern Ireland. We will decide whether further legislation is needed in the light of the consultation.
The two issues of concern to my noble friend Lord Roberts of Llandudno related to the location of the agent’s office and the names on the ballot paper, which my noble friend Lord German mentioned as well. The relaxation of the rules for agents is only for the regional election. The order states that the office must be “in Wales”. It could be in the respective regions, given that they are all in Wales. Only if political parties choose to have one agent for every regional election will it now be possible for an office not to be in every region. That arose during the 2007 election and has been taken forward. No party has objected to the change. I remind my noble friend that this rule applies to the agent’s office and not to the candidate’s offices. Candidates will still have offices in the respective Assembly constituencies. I hope that that gives some reassurance to my noble friend, who I know will engage in the electoral battles with the same gusto as I have seen from him over many years.
It shows just how much attention I pay that I had thought that names had been on the regional list for the previous Scottish elections; I am told that they were not, that that already is the case in Scotland. Such was my enthusiasm to vote for Scottish Liberal Democrats, I did not pause to notice whether the names were there or not. The names of the candidates will be displayed in the polling stations. My noble friend asked whether it would be possible to amend or reduce the number of names to four. That could happen only with the agreement of all the political parties that would be putting up more than four candidates; and although that agreement has been sought, it has not been forthcoming. It could be done by primary legislation, but clearly there will not be an opportunity for primary legislation between now and the elections.
The Government did give careful thought, and did consult the main political parties in Wales, before deciding which was the appropriate way to go forward. In the regional elections voters cast their votes predominantly on the basis of party affiliation rather than individual candidates, although independents can of course stand; and we believe that the change will help ensure that ballot papers do not become unduly unwieldy if all the names are on them. I am advised that representatives of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Labour Party agreed the proposal, while the Welsh Liberal Democrats did not object. No comments were received from the Welsh Conservative Party, although it was circulated with it. The change is strongly supported by the Electoral Commission and by the representatives of the Association of Electoral Administrators in Wales, including the regional returning officer for Wales.
After every election there is a wash-up by the Electoral Commission. No doubt in May next year, this may be something that the respective political parties may wish to reflect on with the Electoral Commission in the light of that experience.
With regard to the sample names that have been mentioned, I had noted—the noble Lord, Lord Jones, beat me to it—that the candidate on the constituency ballot paper representing the farmers of Wales was Sarah Gale. I am not sure of the Welsh origin, if there is any Welsh origin, of the name which the noble Baroness is no doubt proud—
Even more damning, I suspect. I rather suspect that the names were put there to be neutral. I only conclude on this point by noting that in the regional ballot paper, where there is one independent named, he goes under the name of Xavier Alfonso. I may be wrong, but it does not sound like the name of a boy from the valleys to me.
In conclusion, the noble Lord, Lord Elystan-Morgan, said that this was perhaps a unique moment given that all sides were applauding a particular order; and the noble Baroness, Lady Gale, commended the order for its evidence base, for being practical and for being sensible. I think there is general agreement. I have no doubt that when the time comes, the respective parties will engage in electoral combat with great passion, but no matter which party we belong to—or none—it is in all our interests that these elections are conducted effectively and efficiently, and I believe that with this order, we put in place the machinery for doing so. I commend the order to the House.
Public Bodies Bill [HL]
Committee (3rd Day) (Continued)
23: Schedule 1, page 16, line 13, at end insert—
My Lords, my amendment would add the Audit Commission to Schedule 1. I move it not because I wish to abolish the Audit Commission—quite the reverse—but because I wish to probe the thinking of the Government on why it has been excluded from the Bill while other bodies have been included in Schedule 1.
The utterances of Conservative Ministers in the coalition have been extremely critical of the Audit Commission and there has been a steady trickle of briefing against it from within the CLG so I, in my naivety, had rather assumed that Mr Eric Pickles would have been rather keen to rid himself of this body at the earliest legislative opportunity. Perhaps, let us hope, he has had a damascene conversion against abolition but more probably, as I suspect from my own intelligence, it is proving a bit more difficult than he thought to dismember the Audit Commission. That sort of impetuosity is typical of the way in which much of this Bill has been produced: decide first and think about what the reasons were afterwards.
I should acknowledge that, over the years, my path has crossed several times with the Audit Commission, so I could be said to have an interest to declare. In 1986, the commission produced an excellent report on community care which, to their credit, the Conservative Government acted upon. I was very involved with the reforms that followed that commission report, and again, 10 years later in 1996, when the commission produced a withering critique on the state of the youth justice system under the Conservatives that in its turn led to the establishment of the Youth Justice Board in 1999—an issue that we will debate later under an amendment in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. Then, when I was a Health Minister, the commission helped to sort out some arcane, unworkable NHS accounting rules and provided much technical help on NHS reform, certainly to me. The fact that this commission has been capable for many decades of speaking truth to power has been a continuing feature of its work, but it seems to be a quality that has been little valued by some senior Ministers in the coalition Government. The way that this Bill has been produced rather confirms that.
I will not spend a lot of time today explaining why abolition of the Audit Commission is a thoroughly bad decision and will do much damage to good governance and efficiency in the public sector. There will be plenty of time to do that when, as I suspect, the Government eventually find a way to swing the legislative axe next year. However, I shall mention one issue that affects many public bodies but which, it is clear, has not been adequately thought about before the Government decided to abolish the Audit Commission—how to ensure that all local public bodies have an audit system based on clear principles of independence. We will not go into that tonight but I want to register that point.
There is no doubt that the Audit Commission has curbed the fees of the big accountancy firms for auditing public bodies and that its removal is likely to unleash significant increases in public expenditure thereafter. This is the kind of thing that we would expect to have spelt out in any impact assessment on legislation on the Audit Commission. However, if one looks at this Bill, one actually sees what I can only describe as contempt for Parliament, with the publication of an impact assessment that has no costs and benefits assessment in it about these bodies in Schedule 1. There is nothing there to tell us what the benefits and costs are of doing the things that the Government want done through Schedule 1. That is one reason why many of us are so concerned about the Bill.
Some of us would say that the impact assessment produced for the Bill is a scandal and is contemptuous of Parliament. That is one reason why the Minister is going to find, as we plod our way through Schedule 1, that we continue on body after body to ask for information—the same thing was asked earlier today—about the costs of deleting and abolishing these bodies and what the benefits are. If the Government had done it properly in the Bill’s impact assessment, they would be making faster progress. I do not want to carry on too far in that vein, but I remember some of the speeches that Mr Francis Maude made before the election about this; getting rid of quangos was all about saving money. I want to ask why, in an exercise that started off being about saving public money, we do not have any figures about the costs and benefits of getting rid of these bodies.
I now turn to the main reason for this amendment. I am afraid that I have a lot of questions for the Minister and let me assure him that they are not rhetorical. Do the Government still intend to abolish the Audit Commission, or have they had a change of heart? If so, how do they propose to do it, given that the commission is not in Schedule 7, so cannot be brought within the scope of the Bill? If the Government are going to use bespoke primary legislation to deal with changes to the Audit Commission, as seems to be the case, why are they not applying the same approach to some of the bodies in Schedule 1? For example, why is there not specific primary legislation amending the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 to make the changes to the Youth Justice Board that they seek? Why are bodies such as the Youth Justice Board being treated differently from the Audit Commission when their functions and membership were all set out in primary legislation after due consideration by Parliament? There is not a scrap of difference between some of the bodies in Schedule 1 and the Audit Commission in that regard.
Can the Minister give the House any coherent explanation of why the Government are picking and choosing between different bodies on the legislative way they make changes to them? If so, what is that explanation? If the Government cannot give those kinds of explanations, why should this House not, as part of its constitutional duty, continue to debate every body in Schedule 1 one by one, to find out what was behind the Government’s thinking and how they propose to change functions and to alter and amend the nature of the affected bodies?
I draw attention, without being too vainglorious, to the fact that as a Health Minister I abolished 20 arm’s-length bodies. However, if you go back over the records, you will see that we plodded our way through, organisation by organisation, bringing primary legislation to both Houses of Parliament, setting out the arguments as to why it was important to make changes and what were the legislative requirements for making those changes. People had a chance to put their views and we had some tussles in this House and in the other place about some of those changes. The Government are not giving Parliament the opportunity to do that on many of the important bodies which they have decided are for the chop in Schedule 1.
I would like answers to the questions I have posed. I understand that the Minister may not be able to answer them all today, but I would like answers well before Report as to why the Government are picking and choosing how they deal with particular bodies. I do not think that it will be too taxing for the Government to answer my questions. We have heard that the Government carefully scrutinised the 900 or so bodies that have been looked at since May before coming to the conclusions that they have reached. As an old Whitehall hand, I am sure that tucked away in the cupboards and computers of Whitehall are umpteen files—in digital or another form—that set out the careful analysis that has no doubt gone into the decisions reflected in Schedule 1. There will have been detailed cost-benefit analyses of each of these bodies before they were put in Schedule 1. No doubt great care was taken with the accounting officers in those departments to make sure that there would be no minutes of their reservations. I look forward to seeing the Minister’s arguments for why they have taken a different approach for the Audit Commission from their approach to many of the bodies in Schedule 1.
I spent some time picking over the disparity between what the Government are doing with the Audit Commission and their approach to the bodies in the Bill. This is because I have grave concerns about giving Secretaries of State—who, historically, may not be all that long in their jobs—powers to sweep away bodies about which they get a bee in their bonnet. All of us who have been Ministers get a bee in our bonnet from time to time about people who may be thwarting us or giving us uncomfortable messages. It does not mean that we reach for the axe or turn the screws on particular bodies to vent our spleen. We are getting nervous messages from many of these bodies about this approach, which makes me think that we need to hold the Government much more to account over the Bill than they might wish.
That is why Schedule 7 is so dangerous. It is a list of 150 bodies over which any number of Secretaries of State can work themselves up into a lather and behave—if I may say so—probably in an extremely British way but, nevertheless, in a way that exerts pressure on the thinking and behaviour of those bodies. We need a more measured approach and we need the Government to come cleaner than they have about the arguments for and against dealing with the bodies in the way they propose in Schedule 1. I beg to move.
My Lords, I have not the good fortune to have been in this House for very long. I have had two sessions here. One, in 1999, was rather short, but I have been here from 2004 until today. I do not know a great deal about the procedure of this House, but that sounded extraordinarily like a Second Reading speech. Perhaps I am mistaken, but that is how it sounded to me.
I will briefly offer a little comfort about impact assessments. This is, admittedly, a framework Bill, and there is a long list of bodies in Schedules 1 to 6. Whenever a Secretary of State wishes to put down an order to abolish, to change funding or to merge, he will have to produce an affirmative instrument. Affirmative instruments are subject to 12 weeks’ consultation and the provision of an impact assessment, unless there is a very good reason why there should not be an impact assessment. The idea that there will never be any impact assessments for this House to look at is not right.
How will this House look at them? There is a committee called the Merits Committee, on which I was fortunate enough to serve for four years. That committee, as your Lordships know, looks carefully at every instrument. If it thinks that it is right to draw something to the attention of this House, it does so. If it thinks that the policy in the instrument is inconsistent with the Government’s declared policy, it says so. Then that affirmative instrument is debated.
It has been said—and we shall come back to this—that there should be some enhanced procedure, allowing Parliament to debate the thing in more detail because, it is said, Parliament does not usually turn down affirmative instruments. Nevertheless, we have that power. I believe, if the noble Lord, Lord Warner, will forgive me, that to reiterate that there is no impact assessment is to misunderstand the way in which the Bill has been put together. If you believe that this Bill should not have been put together as it was and that we should do whatever will be done only by primary legislation, what you are saying is that we will do only half a dozen bodies a year, because that is about all we would ever get the parliamentary time for.
The noble Viscount may wish to interpret this as a Second Reading speech, but I thought that I was asking a very serious question about why some of these bodies are in Schedule 1 when they are fundamentally not that much different from the Audit Commission, which is not in Schedule 1. I am trying to understand the Government’s criteria for including some bodies but not others in this Bill. That is the whole purpose of my speech. I say to him, with the greatest respect, that debating the detail of an order some many months after the passing of this Bill will be too late. Those of us who have experience of chairing and being a member of staff of some of these public bodies would say to him that, once you have signed the death warrant—that is what the Bill is—you have no hope of retaining a great deal of talent in some of these bodies. That melts away. It is a perfectly rational, human response to a death warrant being signed on the organisation that you work for. It is a bit late in the day, when we get to the order, to start having the debate about whether it was a good idea in the first place.
This has been a very interesting short debate. I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Warner for allowing us to debate the Audit Commission and some of the matters that arise from consideration of it as far as the Bill is concerned. My noble friend has a distinguished record as a quango basher. He led the arm’s-length body review in the Department of Health, which I succeeded him on. That reinforces the view that we, on this side, are not at all opposed to the principle of looking at each of these organisations where it is quite clear that they ought not to continue or that their functions can be done in another way. We have no problem with that. We do have a problem, however, with the architecture of the Bill. There is the general principle of the Henry VIII clauses, a huge and unprecedented power given to Ministers. I have no doubt whatsoever that, if we as a party had brought this Bill before your Lordships’ House in the last Parliament, we would have had no possibility whatsoever of having it passed.
The second point is this. The noble Viscount is right to suggest that, when affirmative orders come before your Lordships’ House, consultation has to take place and impact assessments have to be published. However, we are right, at this stage, to scrutinise those bodies that are under threat in this Bill.
Also, as a distinguished member of the Merits Committee, the noble Viscount may well have observed the correspondence between the committee and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—the Leader of the House—on the question of the use of the conventions as regards secondary legislation. The Cunningham joint select committee report, which was approved by this House, made it clear that there were circumstances in which it was quite appropriate for the House to seek to defeat secondary legislation. My judgment is that that would apply to this Bill, because the kind of skeletal Bill that the Cunningham committee described is exactly what we are debating today.
The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, seeks to reinterpret the convention as regards secondary legislation. Essentially, he does not accept that there is a convention that this House can seek to defeat secondary legislation in the circumstances described by the Merits Committee. That increases our nervousness about whether the scrutiny available to the House of Lords will be sufficient to meet the needs of this Bill. We would have had greater comfort if the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, who is leading this Bill through with his usual inestimable charm, had clearly indicated that the Government would not proceed with Clause 11 and Schedule 7 and would agree to use the super-affirmative procedure. If he had acknowledged that at an early stage, the passage of this Bill would be an awful lot easier. I suspect that that will be the end point of our debates in your Lordships’ House. He will know that there is profound unease about this Bill all round the House. We will continually come back to the point about the architecture.
My noble friend asked important questions about the Audit Commission. First, it is very difficult to know why the Audit Commission is being abolished. Of course, some of its activities may be open to question and questions may be asked about whether it needs the resources that it has, though most of them come from the fees that it levies rather than from central government. My understanding is that the quality of the commission’s work is acknowledged in local government and in the health service and that there is generally felt to have been an improvement in the efficiency of local government and of the NHS as a result of the commission’s activities.
My second question concerns the cost of the commission’s abolition. I should like the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, to hazard a guess at what he thinks the cost of abolition will be. A few weeks ago, we were told by the noble Baroness, Lady Hanham, that the estimate was about £50 million. However, she was not able to be more precise than that. Far from the huge savings that we were promised, it is becoming apparent that in the next spending review period there will be a huge upfront cost as a result of this Bill. I remind noble Lords that an announcement was made from Downing Street at the time of the Queen’s Speech that suggested that £1 billion would be saved. Since then, however, the Government have been rather coy about this; in fact, there is a whiff of suspicion that costs will be greater than savings in the next spending review period. As we all know, the impact assessment is silent on all these matters.
It would be good to know what is expected to replace the commission. I have no doubt that private sector firms will be able to take over individual audit work, but I wonder whether the Minister agrees with the ACCA and CIPFA that there may be more conflicts of interest if all this work goes to the private sector. As my noble friend has said, there is a real fear that the independent voice of the Audit Commission, which was able to criticise government, will be lost.
My other concern relates to the work that the Audit Commission has done in relation to comparative performance and national comparators. Over the years, it has produced invaluable reports on National Health Service finance and related issues and comparative performance studies that have enabled the boards of NHS bodies to compare themselves with similar organisations, which I know board members have found invaluable. It is worth noting that its payment-by-results benchmarker was a winner in the excellence in the use of healthcare information management section of last year’s E-Health Insider Awards. Therefore, there is every indication that the Audit Commission produces quality work.
There is a further question that we are very puzzled about: why is the Audit Commission not in the list of bodies to be abolished? Our assumption is that the Government consider that it should be abolished by primary legislation. However, it is very difficult to establish the criteria under which some bodies are to be dealt with in this Bill while others are to be dealt with in primary legislation. The same is true of a number of health bodies that we know will be abolished under forthcoming health legislation. Again, I should be grateful to the noble Lord if he could explain a little more about the criteria that determine in which Bill these bodies will be dealt with.
Before the Minister replies, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, a question? Earlier in his speech, he waxed lyrically in his normal way about the problem of whether the House of Lords can reasonably reject affirmative orders. As the noble Lord knows, many of us in this part of the House very much agree with him that the ordinary affirmative procedure is not acceptable for this legislation. Indeed, the enhanced super-affirmative procedure being put forward by the Government is still not adequate. Something rather special is needed, given the proposal to close down by ministerial order so many organisations that have been set up by primary legislation. There is a great deal of common ground on this issue around the House.
I wanted to pick up the point that the noble Lord has made several times about the approach that my noble colleague the Leader of the House is taking to affirmative orders, possibly taking a different approach from the view that was taken by the Cunningham committee. Does the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, accept that, as ordinary affirmative orders have to be put to the House after discussion, nobody in this House—not even the Leader of the House—can prevent this House from rejecting an affirmative order if that is what it wants? If there is a division of opinion when the voices are called for, there will be a Division and, if more people vote in the Not Contents Lobby than in the Contents Lobby, the order is rejected. That cannot be prevented by anybody.
My Lords, I am sure that that is right. I remind the noble Lord that the Companion recalls the vote taken by your Lordships’ House some years ago that reaffirms its right to defeat secondary legislation. I am sure that that is the position. However, it is important to note the views of the Leader because it is worrying that he should seek to undermine the consensus that I thought we held about the Cunningham convention.
We had this debate the other evening. If the noble Lord remembers, I corrected what I said from “convention” to “custom”. I think that that more closely fits what happens in this matter. It is for the House to decide how it deals with statutory instruments. It is not a matter of convention; it is purely a matter of custom. If the noble Lord is seeking to develop this argument, which may be connected to this amendment—I understand that it is certainly connected to the purpose of the Bill—I think that it would be important for him to bear that in mind.
Whether it is a custom or a convention makes very little difference to the people working in these organisations. As far as they are concerned, if Schedule 1 goes through, they are for the chop. That is the end of those organisations. People will make their own dispositions. They are not going to sit around waiting for the customs and conventions—or whatever we want to call them—of this House to decide whether this House will or will not defeat an order many months later. Does the noble Lord accept that there is a problem of handling for many of the organisations in Schedule 1?
Perhaps I may come in first and respond to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, before he responds to my noble friend. In my remarks I made no criticism whatsoever of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. He is quite right that he made the point about custom, but I was referring to the correspondence between the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and the Merits Committee, which has been published in, I think, two reports of the Merits Committee.
Finally, having raised concerns about this Bill, we have been informed that we should be comforted by the fact that each order would be an affirmative order. I do not think that that is sufficient, nor do I think that the amendment that the noble Lord has tabled in relation to enhancing that is sufficient.
The problem is that at the moment we do not find the Government willing to hear the voices around this Chamber or to understand that at some point they will have to make some movement, as it is pretty plain that this Bill will not get through your Lordships’ House in its present form. Therefore, it would be in everyone’s interest for the Government to show willing and to sit down and listen to some of the genuine concerns that are held in the House to see whether we can find a constructive way through. The debate on the Audit Commission allows us to put those matters on the table.
I thank the noble Lord for that contribution to our discussion on this amendment. The amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Warner, if not a probing amendment, is a teasing amendment. It is a new parliamentary device to tease the Government into enunciating their philosophy behind the Bill. Noble Lords would agree that some of the speeches have resembled Second Reading speeches and have gone over ground that we have discussed before. So that all noble Lords are aware of this, I reaffirm that I am listening and that I am conveying the mood of the House.
Why I must resist the amendment to include the Audit Commission in Schedule 1, which I have no hesitation in doing, and why I forgive him for not producing an impact assessment on his proposal to include it in the schedule is because the noble Lord knows very well that the time for consultation and impact assessments comes later on in the proceedings. It is not part of this legislation to produce those documents for individual bodies.
The Government actually produced an impact assessment and that impact assessment is totally silent on the subject of costs and benefits of the proposals, even in any kind of outline form. Is the Minister saying that the Government can bring a Bill to this House seeking to abolish a very large number of bodies and not produce any numbers whatever about the costs and benefits? Is that his position?
Indeed, it is. The process that is built into the Bill allows for impact assessments to be presented at the time of change. The Bill does not propose change; it facilitates change. I tease the noble Lord. He is proposing to include a body in Schedule 1 but, quite rightly, he has not come up with an impact assessment because he is not in any position to provide that; nor would I be in a position to provide that. The time to do that is when the department makes a decision to act under the Bill. I know this is a tease on the noble Lord’s part, but it is very important to use the opportunity of this debate to get that message across.
If the Minister looks back to the period between 2004 and 2007 or 2008, he will see that the previous Government came forward with primary legislation for changes to bodies set up by Parliament with an impact assessment which set out the cost of those changes so that Parliament could see the money implications of changes to legislation that it was being asked to make. In effect, the Minister seems to be asking for a constitutional change: to come to Parliament to take primary legislation to abolish bodies which have been set up by Parliament without giving any idea of what the costs and benefits of that decision are. That is what he seems to be saying.
I am trying to use the opportunity of this debate to reassure the noble Lord about the process that will exist following the passage of the Bill, that no action can be taken without proper consultation and impact assessments. Noble Lords know that. I have said this many times. However, I have listened to what has been said about the need for information. I appreciate that the Committee and the House would like more information on proposed changes, and I take that matter on board.
I am sorry to delay the noble Lord once more. However, in that information, if we are to take real decisions about whether important bodies such as the Agricultural Wages Board, which we were discussing earlier, are to remain in existence, then the information that the noble Lord is very kindly going to provide us with must include an impact assessment on, for example, the costs. Otherwise, we cannot come to a clear and rational decision.
Indeed, I reassure the noble Baroness that any instrument produced under the Bill to enact any of the powers within it will contain that information. That is the position. This is not primary legislation to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board or the Audit Commission. That is not what the Bill is about; it is intended to empower the executive with the ability to bring forward secondary legislation in order to facilitate change. It is at that stage that the legislation occurs. It is very important to get that message over.
We have produced an impact assessment for the Bill. It talks about changes to particular bodies made under the orders of the Bill, and they will be produced in accordance with its existing rules and guidance on impact assessments at the appropriate time. Perhaps I may continue by addressing the amendment. After all, the noble Lord has proposed that we should include the Audit Commission in Schedule 1, and I wish to tell the Committee why I think that suggestion needs to be resisted and why there may well be a better way of dealing with the policy change which the coalition has announced in order to deal with it.
The Government intend, where appropriate, to use the power in the Public Bodies Bill to make changes to public bodies. However, the changes regarding the Audit Commission require power changes to legislation which is outside the scope of the Public Bodies Bill. Therefore we are setting up an alternative legislative vehicle. I will explain the background to that. On 13 August, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government announced plans to disband the Audit Commission and refocus audits on helping local people to hold local bodies to account for local spending, as well as on saving the taxpayer some £50 million a year. This figure reinforces the one given by my noble friend Lady Hanham.
The commission’s responsibility for overseeing and delivering local audits will stop, its research activities will end and its in-house audit practice will be moved to the private sector. We are considering a range of options for doing this. Councils will be free to appoint their own independent external auditors f