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Public Bodies Bill [HL]

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2011

Committee (6th Day)(Continued)

Amendment 37

Moved by

37: Schedule 1, page 16, line 31, leave out “Football Licensing Authority.”

In moving the amendment, I shall speak to Amendment 91, which is grouped with Amendment 37. Both amendments refer to the future of the Football Licensing Authority.

Those of your Lordships with long memories may recall that the FLA was originally set up under the Football Spectators Act 1989 to oversee the introduction of the compulsory membership scheme so beloved of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, who believed that such a scheme was the right response to the football-related hooliganism of the 1980s. One of the worst examples of such hooliganism had resulted in the Heysel stadium disaster of 1985. However, before the Act could be implemented, almost 100 people lost their lives at Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield at an FA Cup semi-final match and the subsequent inquiry conducted by Lord Justice Taylor reported that the scale of the disaster would have been even worse if a compulsory membership scheme had been in force. Therefore, that provision in the Act was shelved and has not seen the light of day since. Lord Justice Taylor’s principal recommendation in his final report that the grounds of Britain’s professional football clubs should eliminate standing and become all seated was accepted by the Conservative Government of the day and supported by subsequent Labour Administrations. The one variation was to exempt clubs in the lower two divisions of the Football League from the requirement to go all seated.

At this point, I should declare that not only was I at that cup semi-final at Hillsborough on 15 April 1989 but, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, I was deputy chairman of the Football Trust. Our distinguished chairman was the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, whose son sits on the Cross Benches today. The Football Trust was the body charged by the Government to provide the funding from football pool competitions for the transformation of Britain's football grounds. The Football Licensing Authority was given the responsibility for licensing grounds and ensuring spectator safety—principally by implementing the all-seater policy.

Over the past 20 years, not a breath of scandal has been attached to the work of the FLA. The Football Licensing Authority has acquired a worldwide reputation as an authority on stadium safety and is the Government's principal adviser in this area. Mercifully, there has been no repetition of the Hillsborough disaster or the dreadful fire at Bradford City's ground in May 1985. So why is the FLA listed in Schedule 1 as facing abolition?

The DCMS statement does not help us very much, as it suggests that the proposals involve,

“continuing the Football Licensing Authority as a separate body until after 2012 when its expertise and functions will be transferred to another body”.

Bizarrely, included in that announcement was the statement that,

“The Government will support the Sports Grounds Safety Authority Bill 2010-11, a private members’ bill, presented on 30 June 2010 by Jonathan Lord MP. This would rename the Football Licensing Authority the Sports Grounds Safety Authority and allow it to provide advice, on request, about safety at sports grounds to any national or international organisation, person or body (including local authorities and Ministers of the Crown) and to charge for these services in certain circumstances”.

The FLA has been seeking such powers for years, and I was looking forward to giving that Bill my full support once it reached your Lordships' House. That Bill has every prospect of coming here because it has already secured its Second Reading in the other place without opposition and has been committed to a Public Bill Committee.

I must ask the Minister what on earth is going on. How can the Government support a Private Member’s Bill that will extend the scope of an organisation that they list for abolition? To refer vaguely to transferring the FLA's responsibilities after 2012 to “another body” is just not good enough. Cleverer people than me have been racking their brains to think what other body the FLA could be moved into. Bearing in mind that the FLA has licensing and regulatory functions, it is hard to see how those functions could go to a body such as the Local Government Association. Nor would the Health and Safety Executive be appropriate. The FLA deals with spectators and with professional football, whereas the HSE is responsible for the safety of workers and the places where they are employed. The ethos of the HSE is to investigate accidents; that of the FLA is to prevent accidents in the strictly specialist environment of sports stadiums.

The truth is that the Football Licensing Authority enjoys the support and respect of all the authorities and individuals with which it deals. It would be a public relations disaster for the Government to give the impression that football spectator safety somehow did not matter any more. What sort of message would that send, for example, to the Hillsborough victims, whose grievances are now being addressed by the Government's own Hillsborough inquiry panel, chaired by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Liverpool? I hope that the Minister can give us some answers and, better still, accept my amendments. I beg to move.

I support my noble friend and have attached my name to Amendments 37 and 91. Over recent weeks, since we first tabled the amendments, there have been many opportunities for the Government to clarify the situation, but we are as confused as we were. The comments of my noble friend Lord Faulkner summarise very well the dilemma that we face in trying to understand the Government's intentions. My noble friend gave a brief but accurate history of the formation of the Football Licensing Authority. He mentioned in passing the Football Trust, of which he was not only a leading member but fundamental in its establishment. I pay tribute to the work that he did, which was very important.

My noble friend also mentioned the Hillsborough disaster. Many of us who have a serious and long-term interest in football will remember exactly where we were on that day. All of us who have been involved in considering safety issues remember many of the details—the work that went into the Taylor report and the public concern about other disasters as well as Hillsborough—and the great leap forward that everybody in football had to make to come to terms with the improvements necessary to provide spectators with the safety that they deserved. From those unfortunate beginnings, from those disasters, we have made significant progress in this country and, as my noble friend said, become world leaders in football stadium design and football safety generally.

The reputation of the FLA is without doubt—I have heard no one in another place or in general conversation criticise its work—but over the past few weeks we have seen incredible confusion, as my noble friend has pointed out. Originally, there was reassurance from the department to the FLA about its future. There has been the suggestion of extra responsibility through the Private Member’s Bill, which I think received more or less universal acclaim when it was introduced in another place. Nobody dissented to that Bill; indeed, the Government so supported the Bill that they introduced a money resolution to facilitate its passage, which is somewhat unusual. So far, so good for Football Licensing Authority, but then we got this Bill. No one has said that the FLA is not doing a good job—many say that it should have more responsibility—and there have even been plans to make it more efficient, but then we got suggestions of abolition or merger.

We all know how important football is in this country. I am one of those people—some would say, sad people—who spend most Saturdays on either a high or a low depending on the result of the Bolton Wanderers match. Hundreds of thousands of people, myself and many others in this House included, go regularly to football matches. We go today safe in the knowledge that the stadiums that we attend are up to scratch. I have taken my children since they were quite a young age. It is important to people such as me who believe that football is a family sport that we can take our children—and, for many people, grandchildren—to football matches in the knowledge that everything is done to provide the right safety standards.

As my noble friend said, the FLA has world respect. People come to the FLA for advice. Other countries would very much like to have the kind of authority that we have in this country. The Government’s confusion over the past few months has undermined, and is in danger of destabilising, the good work that has been done over many years. This provision in the Bill raises questions about the Government's commitment to football and to sport in general. We saw what happened with the school sports money. Although there was a partial U-turn on that, similar damage has been done.

The FLA is critical to the safety of spectators and participants in sport, exists on a very small budget and is very well thought of. Indeed, the FLA is rather strange in the lack of criticism that it attracts. The FLA has pushed out new grounds, has developed stewarding and has got the co-operation of clubs—even very senior clubs—which have listened to its advice and taken its encouragement. The FLA has not had to be heavy-handed because of the respect in which it is held by all in football.

I hope that the Government tonight will give some thought to clarifying just what is their commitment both to the FLA and to all of us who watch football matches live and who depend on the FLA to ensure the safety of ourselves, our families and those who watch football with us.

I should follow the noble Baroness by admitting that I, too, spend more of my time than is good for me watching football matches. In my case it is nowadays mainly non-league football in the north of England. It is a wonderful thing to do, but not to be discussed here today.

This proposal is one of the most mystifying of the proposals in the various schedules to the Bill. We have discussed a number of them so far and we have quite a few more to go. By and large, they fall into one of two categories. There are those which the Government want to abolish and simply close because they are no use any more or because the Government think their functions should no longer be carried out. That is not the case with this body. There are those where the functions are being transferred to the appropriate government department on the grounds that, in the Government’s view, that provides more democratic accountability for their functions than an arm’s-length body, a non-departmental public body or some other sort of arm’s-length body, as at present. That is not the case with this body because the information we are being given so far makes it absolutely clear that the functions will continue, that no staff will be made redundant and presumably, therefore, there will not be any significant savings.

Certainly, the Government have not provided any information about whether they think savings can be made. That is the second group of bodies—those which the Government want to reorganise because they believe that savings can be made. If sensible savings can be made by reorganising quangos, it is difficult to argue against that if the proposals are otherwise reasonable and sensible. However, that is not the case with this body. The functions are to remain, the staff are to remain and it does not appear that there will be any significant savings, although perhaps the Minister can tell us about that. What, therefore, is the purpose of the change?

Some suggestions have been made that it might be better for it to be part of a larger body with a wider remit, although the Private Member’s Bill being put forward would allow for that to happen anyway, as I understand it. So, why is it being done? That is the fundamental question that has to be asked and that the Ministerhas to answer. He has to provide some information about what new structure, what new system of transfer or merger of powers the Government want to bring about. If the powers are to be transferred to some other body, or merged with those of some other body, which other bodies are we talking about? Again, the information we have been provided with is incredibly vague. In fact, it is completely vague; it simply has not been stated.

It seems that this goes back, yet again, to the basic deficiency of the whole architecture of the Bill. Given the architecture of the Bill at the moment, and the way in which these bodies can be closed down, or merged, or have their powers transferred or whatever it is, simply by ministerial order, subject only to a relatively brief take-it-or-leave-it debate in this House and the procedures in the House of Commons, we have no alternative but to try to probe, in Committee, what is going to happen with each and every one of these bodies. That is why it is taking so much time.

As for this body, the information we have been provided which so far is absolutely and utterly inadequate and, unless proper information is provided by Report, the House would be entirely justified in taking this body out of the Bill.

I intervene briefly to support the amendment of my noble friends Lord Faulkner and Lady Taylor of Bolton, both of whom have long experience in the administration of football. Their introductions were wise and full of knowledge. It is interesting to find myself, yet again, on the same side and making the same arguments as the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, as I have so many times during the proceedings on the Bill. He is absolutely right except in one thing. He said that the information provided by the Government as to the raison d’être for proposing this abolition was vague. It was not vague; it was basically non-existent. That is why we have these amendments at this stage.

I declare an interest as a non-executive director of Carlisle United Football Club. I pay particular attention, in that role, to the safety of the ground and of the crowd. Before I venture down that route, I can say that I discussed this proposal with people at various levels of football administration and they are unanimously bemused and mystified. The Government seem to be saying that they are in favour of the work of the FLA but the FLA should not do it. Yet, on the other hand, it is unclear what is the alternative body so to do, as my noble friends have argued this evening.

On the importance of the directors of football clubs to the safety of supporters, I take a great interest in the safety aspect. I regularly take fans around and explain what we do and what we are required to do to ensure their safety. At virtually every home match I pay a visit to the safety room and discuss with the safety officer and his staff what is happening and ask whether everything is okay. It is interesting that, when I take groups of fans around, the safety officers tell the fans that, if you are going to be taken unwell, the place to do it, if not at hospital, is at a football ground because they are very safe, physically. We have medical and ambulance staff, and we always have paramedics and at least two doctors—one for the crowd, one for the teams. A great deal of attention is paid to the safety of fans. I notice that the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is in his place. I have seen him at the same football ground and I will very happily take him to see the safety work that we do at Carlisle United.

My main thrust is to try to tease out of the Minister what he has in mind. The FLA has, perhaps, not struck strictly to its remit. It is the Football Licensing Authority. Its job is to co-ordinate and to make sure that standards exercised by the licensing authorities, which tend to be the local authorities, are standardised and up to standard. That applies not just to football grounds. There have been many examples of the Football Licensing Authority assisting other sports with their stadia, almost ex gratia, and, in doing so, it has protected the supporters of other sports.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord. He knows my declarable interest and he also knows the very high regard in which I hold him and the role that he has played at Carlisle for many years. I can tell other Members of your Lordships’ House that he is held in extremely high regard. What I am not entirely clear about from the noble Lord is not the history, which was well rehearsed by the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, or the hugely significant difference that the FLA made 20 years ago and built on, but what he thinks would happen to safety at Carlisle if the FLA were abolished. Surely he is not trying to argue that safety at Carlisle United would diminish as a consequence. In which case, what is the point that he is trying to make for the Committee, not 20 years back but 20 weeks ahead?

The noble Lord is very perceptive. I am just about to deal with those points. I compliment him on the excellent work he did when he was chair of the Football League. It was much appreciated. He was able to bring to that role the discipline and vision that we all respect.

The key point I want to turn to now is what the Government have in mind when the FLA is abolished. At one stage, there was talk that it would be taken in-house by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but I have serious doubts about how viable that would be. The alternative is to look at the safety of sports grounds. I am in favour of that because the point I was making was that the FLA has in the past performed this job which is outside its remit. It would be helpful if all sports grounds were regulated by the same body. I am trying to tease out of the Minister whether that is what the Government are trying to do. If they are, will they give us some ideas about the funding? It is not only about the regulations. One thing the FLA did was to work with City & Guilds to have an NVQ course for people who work in safety in grounds. That is the sort of thing that we ought to be encouraging.

This is not clear. We want some clarity because at the end of the day we do not doubt that the Government have in mind some agency to provide this and to guarantee this standard across the country, but many of us would like to see it right across sports.

My Lords, I am sure we are all grateful to my noble friends Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lady Taylor for allowing us to debate the Football Licensing Authority. My noble friend Lady Taylor described supporting Bolton Wanderers as being a mixture of highs and lows; of course, as a supporter of Birmingham City, I fear it is usually all too low and very few highs.

I want to start by paying tribute to the Football Licensing Authority. There is no doubt that safety issues are very important in our football grounds and that there has been a huge improvement over the years. As the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, said, there has been an improvement in overall safety culture. I believe that the development of stewarding by the clubs themselves has enhanced the development of a secure environment in a non-confrontational way and that we have seen a big improvement in facilities. However, with all the improvements that have taken place, can we say that the problem has gone away in its entirety? I do not think it has. There have been some incidents—I am sorry to say at my own football club in a derby against Aston Villa only a few weeks ago—where there were issues of concern about safety. That suggests to me that we can never be complacent. The answer to the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, is that however much—

While my noble friend is on this point and talking about the future, does he agree with the comments of Paul Thorogood, the chief executive of the Football Foundation, which is responsible for many of the support packages for improvements at smaller clubs, that he would be extremely worried were the FLA to be abolished because that would affect the future safety of the projects with which the foundation is involved?

My noble friend raises a most important point. Even if you take Carlisle United, with the dedication of my noble friend as a director and his concern for safety, surely directors in their responsibilities regarding safety can still take advantage of the advice and presence of a body such as the FLA. I am convinced that the FLA or a similar body has an important role to play in the future.

I see from noble Lords opposite that the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, whom we welcome to our debates on the Bill, is going to give a positive assurance about the future. That would be very welcome. However, I have to say to her that our problem with the Bill, as described by the Public Administration Select Committee only last week, is that the overall reviews by individual government departments were very poorly managed, there was an absence of meaningful consultation, the tests in the reviews were not clearly defined and the Cabinet Office clearly failed to establish a proper procedure for departments to follow. That has left noble Lords in a vacuum regarding the intention of the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred to the mysteries of the Bill, and this is a classic case in point.

The noble Lord then went on to say that the real problem is the architecture of the Bill. I do not think he was in his place when we had our debate on the first group of amendments when we discussed the architecture, but it is perfectly clear that if the Government were to come forward and make it abundantly clear that they are now prepared to make changes to the architecture of the Bill in relation to Schedule 7, in particular, and also on public consultation, on the procedure under which orders would be debated in your Lordships' House for bodies that come under the Bill and other matters that we have discussed, then noble Lords would have much more confidence. At the moment, we have been left in the dark. It is clear that noble Lords do not know about the Government’s intention regarding the FLA. I do not think it is satisfactory that we are here in Committee debating the Bill when there is uncertainty in your Lordships' House and in the sports world as a whole. I am sure that the noble Baroness will be able to give us some comfort that the issues of safety will be taken forward in future, but I hope that she will give some comfort about how the Government intend to deal with the Bill more generally.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner of Worcester, and the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor of Bolton, who put down this amendment for us to discuss, and all the other speakers. This debate gives me the opportunity to clarify, which the noble Baroness asked for, and to clear up many of the misunderstandings and points on this issue.

Amendment 37 removes the Football Licensing Authority from Schedule 1, and Amendment 91 inserts the said body into Schedule 5, allowing its functions to be modified or transferred while retaining the body in its current form. The Government are very clear that the Football Licensing Authority carries out an important role, and we want this to continue. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, said, the Government are supporting a Private Member’s Bill that seeks to reconstitute the Football Licensing Authority as the sports grounds safety authority and will extend the authority’s advisory functions so that it has the power to provide advice about safety at sports grounds to any national or international organisation, person or body.

Our intention is that the authority, as the noble Lord, Lord Clark of Windermere, said, will continue as a separate body, whether in its existing form or as a new sports grounds safety authority until after 2012, when its expertise and functions will be transferred to another body. Doing so would allow the authority to share the back-office functions of a larger organisation. This should lead to greater efficiencies and make it less constrained from broadening out its role. It will therefore be able to make the best use of its expertise and reputation.

I indicating that we will abolish the FLA as an independent public body only after 2012 will allow us time to make certain that we have an appropriate home for its expert role and functions. Over the next 12 months, we will discuss the options with the FLA potential host organisations and interest groups to make certain that we have an appropriate solution in place in time to meet the commitment to implement reforms after the 2012 Olympics. This proposal would not risk the important strides made over the past 20 years to improve safety at football after the Hillsborough disaster.

I take this opportunity to assure the House that we do not intend to change the law in relation to football ground safety and, as I have made clear, these important functions need to be retained.

My noble friend said that she is planning, on behalf of the Government, to discuss with interested parties what might be the new arrangement. Those of us with experience of government know that there is a difference between discussions and public consultation. I was wondering whether she might be tempted to commit to a public consultation, so that anyone with a view worth expressing and listening to would have the opportunity and no one would feel excluded from the sense of ownership of the new body which the Government are proposing.

I thank my noble friend Lord Mawhinney for that question. As he would know, having been a distinguished government Minister, at this Dispatch Box I am unable to confirm consultation. But I can assure him that there will be further discussions and that that will be looked into.

Leaving aside for a moment the wisdom or otherwise of abolishing the body before what is going to happen to it has been decided, in view of what the Minister has said about the continuation of the functions of the FLA, surely she could accept transferring the FLA from Schedule 1 to the provision in Amendment 91. That would allow proper consideration of what should be happening in a full way and everyone could be consulted. Just transferring the FLA from the first schedule to later in the Bill would accomplish what she is trying to do.

The FLA is not being abolished. I would not like to take any decisions with great rapidity at the Dispatch Box. All decisions on what will happen to it in the future will be discussed at great length. This is a very important matter and the Government would not want to take such a decision without that.

My Lords, I must say that this is a bit of a puzzle because Schedule 1 lists the bodies where power to abolish is being given. My noble friend has suggested that the FLA be moved to Schedule 7. I have a theological difficulty with that because—

Yes, it is Schedule 5; I would like to see Schedule 7 removed from the Bill. It is very difficult to know why the noble Baroness’s department is not using the Bill in the way in which it is constructed. Schedule 5 is headed “Power to modify or transfer functions: bodies and offices”. Why on earth is the FLA not in that schedule?

That part of the Bill will be looked at later, as I have said. With its important functions, it is not being abolished in this Bill. However, as I have set out, the Government’s proposals include the abolition of the FLA as such after 2012 and not now.

My Lords, no date is given as to when bodies are to be abolished. Schedule 1 sets out the bodies where this Bill gives power to abolish. The puzzle is that, because Schedule 5 gives the flexibility to list bodies where at some stage—not at the moment maybe but at some time in the future—you might want to transfer or modify their functions, why on earth is the FLA not in that, given that the Government have clearly designed the Bill to give flexibility for such organisations? The noble Baroness might want to come back on that.

With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I have just said that the FLA will not be abolished until after 2012. We believe that there is a strong rationale for doing so, while acknowledging and seeking to protect the benefits associated with its important public functions. The Government will continue to support the Private Member’s Bill and will work with Parliament to secure what we hope will be an extremely positive outcome. On this basis, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Before the noble Lord tells us whether he is prepared to do that, perhaps I may just pick up on a couple of points. From the statement that the Minister has given, it is very clear that the Government are proposing, in due course after 2012, to merge the FLA with an unspecified body. In those circumstances, it seems to me that its appropriate place in this Bill would be Schedule 2, which gives power to the Minister by order to merge the bodies listed there. Equally, it could be in Schedule 5, as suggested in the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, which would transfer its functions. It would leave a shell organisation that has no function; nevertheless, that would be a sensible place to do it.

I still want to press the Minister on some questions and I have to congratulate her on the way in which she is coping. If I may swap sports, she is batting on a sticky wicket here, which she is doing fairly well and she is not out yet. First, as I have asked previously, can she confirm that the Government do not intend to save money by this proposal and that in no way is there a money-saving aspect? That seems to be what was in the briefing. It would be useful to know that because that would then be put to one side and would not be an issue any more.

Secondly, the Government must have some idea of the existing organisations that are in line to merge with the FLA or are in line to absorb the FLA or its staff and functions within their organisations. Can the Government give us a shortlist—perhaps not today but before Report—of those organisations that they consider might be appropriate to take on the FLA en bloc or just its staff and functions?

I thank my noble friend Lord Greaves for his questions. The savings are not a number one priority in this case. Regarding the Private Member’s Bill, it is going through Parliament at the moment, and the FLA has to be abolished in order to be merged with something else afterwards.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her attempt to answer the debate. I have to say that this bit of the Bill is an indication of the problems the Government have with their whole approach, in that the Cabinet Office decided on a series of death sentences in advance of publishing the Bill, and then decided to put forward the trials and amass the cases in order to prove that those sentences are justified. In the case of this body the DCMS, to its credit, is resisting what the Cabinet Office is doing. It does not believe for a moment that there is any other place which the FLA or, in its new form, the sports grounds safety authority can go to for the reasons I set out in my opening speech. I am pretty sure that at the end of this rather painful period, it will be concluded that the sports grounds safety authority, which is what it will become with the passage of the Private Member’s Bill, will continue as an independent body.

The Minister has said helpfully that the functions of the FLA in its new guise are essential and that there is no intention to weaken football stadium or sports ground safety legislation, which is very welcome. The logic is therefore inexorable in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, explained. The conclusion has to be that the authority will continue in some guise or another.

I am most grateful for the contributions that have been made, including that of the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, whose support for the FLA is greatly appreciated. He asked my noble friend Lord Clark a question about what role the authority has now. The answer is that sports ground safety is not a piece of history. Local authorities are obliged to license sports grounds year by year. New stadiums are built and new sports are going to come under the remit of the FLA as a result of the Private Member’s Bill, which I hope your Lordships will pass in due course, so the role of an independent body is going to be very considerable indeed.

I am tempted by the amount of support that this amendment has received to test the opinion of the Committee, but it would be fairest if I gave the Minister an opportunity to reflect on what has been said, and I hope that we can come back to this on Report, when she may be able to give a rather better explanation about just where she thinks this authority is going in the future. It cannot go to the Health and Safety Executive, and it cannot go to local government, so the Government are going to have to create a new authority to take over this one. That strikes me as barmy. It would be much more sensible if the Government accepted this amendment, and agreed that the authority should go into Schedule 5 and was reconstituted along the terms of the Private Member’s Bill. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 37 withdrawn.

Amendment 38 not moved.

Amendment 39

Moved by

39: Schedule 1, page 17, line 2, leave out “Inland Waterways Advisory Council.”

My Lords, this is something a little different. The purpose of Amendment 39 is to remove the Inland Waterways Advisory Council from Schedule 1. This is not the most controversial proposal in the Bill, but I believe that the 14 members of the IWAC, all of whom are volunteers and unpaid, its part-time chair, John Edmonds, and the two support staff deserve at the very least an expression of public thanks and recognition for what they have achieved since April 2007, when the council was set up as a consequence of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. The same goes for the predecessor body, the Inland Waterways Amenity Advisory Council, which was formed in 1968.

The IWAC does exactly what its title suggests. It gives independent advice to the UK Government, the Scottish Government, navigation authorities and other interested parties on matters appropriate to our inland waterways. If no one wants to listen to that advice, of course that is up to them, but before IWAC disappears it is worth making the point that the next two or three years are going to be absolutely critical for the inland waterways as the British Waterways Board turns itself into a charitable trust. That will represent a huge change in culture as well as in status for the BWB, and I would have thought that it would benefit enormously from being able to call on the Inland Waterways Advisory Council for advice, particularly bearing in mind that there is not a lot of experience in Defra in this area.

My question to the Minister, who on this occasion I think is going to be the noble Lord, Lord Henley, is: how long do the Government expect the IWAC to stay around for? Would he not agree that it makes no sense to get rid of it before the British Waterways Board has completed the process of converting itself into a charity? One only needs to look at the CVs of the IWAC board members to realise how much talent is assembled at its meetings. It has economists, accountants, environmentalists, campaigners, academics and heritage experts—they are all there.

What I feel is so sad about the Government’s approach towards the quangos is that it seems to be based on knowing the price of everything but the value of very little. Most countries would give a great deal to be able to draw on a group of volunteers who are experts, who cost the state virtually nothing and who come together out of a sense of public duty and service. It may not be apparent for some time just how much is being lost as a consequence of this Bill, but we should be in no doubt that we shall as a nation be the poorer because of it. I beg to move.

My Lords, I rise to support my noble friend Lord Faulkner in this amendment. He has outlined the role of and described the people involved in the Inland Waterways Advisory Council extremely well and he will be aware from the briefing that we have all had from Ministers that two secretarial staff are involved in the council. To abolish something because two people are employed there seems quite extraordinary.

The role of the IWAC seems to fit very well with the Government’s plans for localism because canals are a wonderful local amenity. However, there are challenges in maintaining them. We have all read of how volunteer labour is used so often because canals are expensive to maintain and do not produce a lot of revenue. Their transport was rather taken over by the railways about 150 years ago, but they remain a wonderful amenity for leisure purposes and for what they provide to communities. We shall debate this issue again when we talk about the future of the British Waterways Board, but there will be some tension when the BWB becomes a charity. We have not been and we probably will not be told where it will get its funding from and it struggles hard to find funding at the moment. Indeed, there are occasions when I see it turning itself into a property company to the detriment of people trying to use the canals.

I heard about an example of this a couple of years ago in Brentford on the Thames. Some of the BWB people had done a deal with a property company to build some very nice waterside houses at Brentford. To make them even more attractive to the buyers and to make more money, some pontoons were put into the canal so that lots of canal boats could be moored there. The problem was that the pontoons and the boats together were so wide that it was almost impossible to get a canal boat into the canal, which is after all the point of the lock connecting to the River Thames. There are quite strong tides there. Anyone who has driven a canal boat will know they are not like motor cars. They respond to the wind and the tide and they do not steer very well, so you need a bit of space not to hit things. But these people were quite happy to put these pontoons in the river at the entrance to the canal and to allow things to moor, because that would make more money. There were allegations, which I do not want to pursue, that people were making personal gains but, regardless of who got the revenue, it affected navigation.

I do not know how this will work when we have a charity running it. One always believes that charities are good things and that nobody will try to make money or stop the organisation doing what it is supposed to do. That remains to be seen, depending on what this charity is going to be doing. In the mean time, as my noble friend said, surely an independent advisory body is important. The department’s briefing paper says that abolishing this body will improve transparency and effectiveness in policy development by enabling the Government to engage directly with stakeholders. With the greatest respect, that is total rubbish. It will mean one or two officials—the few who are left in the Department for Transport—having to engage directly with the experts all over the country whom my noble friend told us about. That is just not going to happen. It is sad that, for the sake of saving the cost of two secretarial posts, this body is going to be abolished.

I hope that the Minister will at least grant a stay of execution, if that is the right expression, for several years until this charity is established and we can all see how it is going to work and whether the charity needs independent advice costing it virtually nothing. I also hope that the Government will make sure that the canals stay open and operational so that people can enjoy them. They can get as much money as they want from other revenue, be it from developments that do not block the canal, cables laid along the footpath, telecoms or whatever. I hope that there will be a transition period of several years after the charity is established before this body is abolished.

My Lords, I support this amendment and have little to add to what the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Berkeley, have stated. The inland waterways of this country are one of its glories and, in the present age, the public resort to and benefit from the inland waterways can only increase. We as a Parliament have for too long done things which were well intentioned but which, in the event, proved to be counterproductive. One of the great problems of the present age is that the public are so confused about different bodies, particularly in the voluntary sphere, that a great deal of the good will and potential effect of a body such as the Inland Waterways Advisory Council can be inadvertently lost by chopping and changing. As all Members of the House will know, the inland waterways are covered by a wonderfully diverse mix of mainly charities—I am patron of the charity that looks after the River Stour, for example, but there are hundreds of them. To have a competent, known, well regarded advisory body taking a valuable overview and bringing together the often conflicting demands and interests of the individual charities with their different responsibilities seems indispensable. If that is right, then for mercy’s sake let us leave this body alone and not at some future date have to resurrect it with a loss of public identity and continuity in the mean time.

My Lords, I will pick up from where the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has just left off. I have a past interest as a Waterways Minister, which is a fantastic job. I cannot remember if it is part of the portfolio of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, but if not, that is regrettable, because it provides a welcome relief from most of the rest of what one has to do. I also have a present interest as a member of the board of the Environment Agency. British Waterways is the dominant organisation for canals and the Environment Agency is the dominant organisation for rivers. An amendment recently tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, points the way that the Government are thinking of going in handing over British Waterways to a trust in the third sector and transferring the Environment Agency’s navigation and waterways responsibilities to that body.

I am, broadly speaking, subject to a few caveats, in favour of that sense of direction. Eighty to 90 per cent of British Waterways will probably be covered by that new organisation, which will make it a very dominant organisation. All the small navigation authorities to which the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, referred, supported by volunteers, charities and local efforts for relatively small stretches of canal and river, look to this body for technical advice and for a forum where they can sit and be treated equally with the representatives of British Waterways and the Environment Agency. They will be the people who will most miss out as a result of the abolition of this body. British Waterways, including the Environment Agency’s navigation aspects, will take care of itself, and the charitable status, I hope, will ensure that it does a good job for the public and the environment. However, the smaller navigation authorities need this body and we should seek to retain it for them, certainly for a significant period beyond any transformation of the status of British Waterways, as my noble friend Lord Berkeley suggested.

My Lords, I compliment the speakers this evening on giving their thoughts on the Inland Waterways Advisory Council. I suggest that this body has been included in this part of the Bill to add some weight, but the timing has not been properly considered. In rural areas, the inland waterways are a thriving enterprise for a lot of people. Volunteers undertake restoration and development work, which offers enjoyment to many people along the waterways, reconstructing our industrial heritage and providing diversification opportunities in rural areas. I tease the Minister when I say that we are not looking at a dead parrot. This situation is working extremely well. I ask him to consider the thoughts of all the noble Lords who have spoken tonight, to clarify some of the background as to why British Waterways is one of only nine bodies in the Public Bodies Bill being made into a charity, to expand the Government’s thoughts on why they think that British Waterways is best suited to charitable status and to say how, given its activities, it is likely to be able to raise the funds necessary to continue to provide all these excellent opportunities in development and restoration in rural areas for our wonderful waterways.

My Lords, we will come to the final point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, when we get to Amendment 86. I offer my congratulations to the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner of Worcester and Lord Berkeley, on avoiding the whole wider question of the British Waterways Board, which we will deal with at that point.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, asked whether this was part of my brief. I can confirm by shaking my head that it is not part of my brief within the department. I will certainly discuss the matter with my honourable friend Mr Benyon. He might be prepared to take on dangerous dogs and in return I could have waterways. I could spend the weeks and months ahead cruising the waterways and avoiding this House until my noble friend the Chief Whip brings me back to reality. I make that point because it is important to remember, as other noble Lords have pointed out, the importance of the waterways and canals to all of us. Again, as I implied in my remark to the noble Lords, Lord Faulkner and Lord Berkeley, that is a wider question, which we will come to when we get to Amendment 86, which I do not suppose we will reach tonight.

We are debating not the British Waterways Board but the Inland Waterways Advisory Council. I want to make it clear that, after careful consideration, the department, the Government and Ministers have decided that they no longer need a statutory arm’s-length body to help to develop policy for the inland waterways. Although the Inland Waterways Advisory Council has provided very useful input, policy development is rightly the role of government departments and Ministers working closely with delivery bodies and stakeholder representatives, including such bodies as the Association of Inland Navigation Authorities, as mentioned by my noble friend Lord Phillips and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. We will continue to develop closer working relationships with all waterways interests. That will enable Ministers to benefit from more direct and tailored input into policy development.

Our proposal to move the British Waterways Board into civil society in April 2012 will also mean that, for the future, the Government will no longer need an organisation to provide advice on policy development. The Government and navigation authorities need to engage with stakeholders directly in the design, implementation and management of the new structure. The Government’s decision has been discussed with the chairman of the Inland Waterways Advisory Council and individual members of that authority have been notified.

That decision does not indicate that we will place any less emphasis on the importance of inland waterways. Indeed, the department will be more directly involved as it seeks to place inland waterways on a more sustainable footing through our work towards moving the British Waterways Board from being a public corporation, as has been mentioned, to a new charity in civil society. As I said, we will discuss that when we come to Amendment 86. For that reason, we do not think it necessary to continue to have the Inland Waterways Advisory Council. Noble Lords asked in simple terms how long it would stay around. We will consider precisely how long we need to keep the body in place when we have the results of the consultation on the British Waterways Board, which will be under way fairly soon.

I do not understand. Did my noble friend say that after the British Waterways Board is made an independent charity the Government would not need to have a policy in relation to inland waterways? If I have that wrong and the Government will still need a policy in relation to inland waterways—and it seems to me that they will—I still do not see what is wrong with this body as the conduit for that.

The Government will always need to have a policy on these and a great deal of other matters, but policy should be a matter for the department, Ministers and the Government and not for a body such as this. Therefore, we do not see that it is necessary in the future. I cannot give a precise time as to when this body will disappear. That will be part of the wider consultation on the British Waterways Board and what we propose to create there. That, as I said, is something that we will discuss on a later amendment. With that explanation of our intentions, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Faulkner, will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that the members of the IWAC will have been heartened by his opening comments about the useful input that they have provided to waterways policy. He could have been a little more fulsome, but at least the remarks were made. They will appreciate that. The Minister has not been able to answer the question of how long this organisation will be around, which is unsatisfactory. I understand that that is due to a process of consultation. This is one of those areas where it would have been better if the consultation had happened before the Bill rather than the other way round, but that is true of so much of this part of the Bill.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, made the most telling point. It does not seem sensible to abolish a body such as the IWAC and then to find in two or three years’ time that you have to reinvent it because that role is still needed under the new status of the British Waterways Board. We shall have to wait and see. I shall read carefully what the Minister said. There were some words of comfort, although his comments were not totally satisfactory. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 39 withdrawn.

Amendment 40 not moved.

Amendment 41

Moved by

41: Schedule 1, page 17, line 4, leave out “Library Advisory Council for England.”

My Lords, Amendment 41 is intended to be a probing amendment. The Advisory Council on Libraries developed the policy document that formed the basis of current public library provision. Public libraries are one of our national treasures and in all the countries that I have visited, including the most developed, I have never seen public provision to match them. Nobody would say that advice to the Government on how best to provide this unique service can be done only through a structure such as that of the ACL, but advice there must be or the provision will wither. Even the best educated policy officials do not have the skills and experience of professional librarians—nor perhaps the needs of many library users.

It may be that noble Lords opposite do not themselves use public libraries much, but many of us do. More than 320 million visits are made to our public libraries every year, and that would include visits by primary school children who may have little other opportunity to experience the enjoyment of choosing and reading books. Many writers testify to the resources of the public library that started them on their careers. Over the weekend, the rising young pianist Paul Lewis was interviewed. From the age of eight, he made visits to the local public library to borrow albums of the music that he discovered. He was the son of an unemployed Liverpool docker. What use the public library was to him.

At my library, I see scores and scores of students using the library’s resources as well as elderly people who may not be able to buy as many books as they want to read. It is no surprise that library use plays a part in driving up literacy rates and in raising and changing skills levels at all ages, as the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, said in Questions on 2 December 2010, at Hansard col. 1574. Public libraries help small business start-ups, promote healthier lifestyles and engage people in local democracy. They also help to bridge the digital divide by providing facilities and support to help the reluctant and fearful take the first steps towards digital skills. They are an essential player in the Government-sponsored Race Online 2012 campaign.

Libraries themselves do not necessarily have to be housed in separate buildings—as most of them are in their current form—but housed they must be, with enough room for their stock and for people to study it. What is government policy on public library development and where is the Government’s expert advice to come from? The Arts Council has many responsibilities, a severely truncated budget and little expertise in libraries. In the absence of specific policy for this truly magnificent national resource, the Advisory Council on Libraries should stay. I beg to move.

I rise to support the noble Baroness on her interesting probing amendment. Over the years, I have spoken several times about libraries, particularly during the previous Conservative Administration when there was some concern that local authorities were not supporting libraries as they needed to be supported to react to changes in demand, new technologies and so on. Libraries are as useful as they ever were. The demands placed on them may be different, but with an ageing society even those who are now young may turn to books when they get old.

I have a bad habit of reading a book and keeping one eye on the television to see whether there is anything on the breakfast programme that might be interesting. This morning, I caught an interview with a man who has just written a book about having been unjustly imprisoned for some time. He was asked by the interviewer how he dealt with spending so much time in solitary confinement in the United States. Without hesitation he said, “By books”. Books are more than just information. There are people who say that books will not exist long after you are dead because books will be replaced by new electronic technologies, which have already had quite an impact. Such people are missing the point about books and particularly their usefulness to those who are poor, deprived or lonely—whom we find, I am afraid, in increasing numbers.

Local authorities often do not have the budgets to pay too much attention to the demand for libraries. I do not know—and in her interesting speech the noble Baroness did not mention—what the Advisory Council on Libraries does, but I take her point. When libraries in London, for example, decide whether to order new books, have more talking books or invite people to discussions and that kind of thing, what kind of advice do they get from the advisory council? I take her point that advice of some kind is obviously needed. Taking an overall view, as one would expect of a council of that kind, and seeing the changes in population, their needs and the budgets available, the advisory council may be able to spot things that make libraries better places.

When I have visited libraries in America, I have been impressed that there is almost always a cafeteria, which brightens them up. There are always bright colours and the impression of innovation, which goes apace with changes in the population. I support the concerns of the noble Baroness and am interested to hear how the Government view libraries and whether they agree with the idea—with which I disagree—that libraries have a limited lifespan. Do they agree that books are not only information but also therapeutic things to handle, whether they be history, biography or fiction? A lot of people ignore the fact that a book is paper that has wonderful print on it; there is the quality of the cover and all kinds of things. Particularly for people living through a stage in their life when they are lonely, depressed and poor, a book is a wonderful thing.

If the Advisory Council on Libraries is allowed to continue, it may be about to have its finest hour. I suspect that my local authority, Suffolk County Council, will be the same as many councils in having to shed a great many of its libraries on to charitable bodies that have yet to be formed. If ever there was to be a time when the advisory council came into its own with knobs on, it is surely in this important transition. Could the Minister say a little about that?

It is with a degree of trepidation that I rise to speak on issues of libraries, particularly with my noble friend Lord Evans of Temple Guiting sitting on the Front Bench. He is of course far more knowledgeable than I am and has been engaged in this subject for a long time. I put the Opposition’s position on this in relation to local government, where it has a big impact.

Like so many things we have discussed under Clause 1, there is here the potential demise of something without any clear indication of what will go in its place. This is especially bad for libraries given their vulnerability at the moment, and we know that local government has been subject to huge cuts. We can argue the macroeconomics of that but, even within the Government’s framework, the front-end loading and the degree of cuts focused on local government are profound and give huge challenges.

To my regret, I do not use libraries much these days because of Front-Bench duties. A lot of the Minister’s time will be eaten up by quite turgid policy documents and we miss the chance of reading that we might previously have had. Yet my local council, Luton, is striving hard to preserve library services. My mother-in-law, who is 91, thrives on the mobile service. You can see her light up when they come with the delivery of, I think, eight books at a time. She is surrounded by books; they are an important part of her life. If that were at risk it would be a problem.

The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said that this organisation should have its finest hour at a time when libraries across the country are more vulnerable than they have been for many years. I was surprised by the extent to which there is still library provision in the UK. I think there are more library branches in the UK than branches of McDonalds or Boots. Apparently, 10 times more people visit libraries than go to football league matches. That is really encouraging and something we should cherish. It is not just about reading. There are something like 300 million visits to public libraries each year. Those visits play a significant role in driving up literacy rates, increasing the number of people adopting healthier lifestyles, raising skills levels of all ages, providing diversionary activity to reduce crime, building bridges in the community to aid cohesion, reduce radicalisation and improve integration, engaging people in local democracy and getting more people to vote.

We fear that the coalition cuts to libraries mean that an estimated 6,000 people—a quarter of librarians according to the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals—will lose their jobs in upcoming years. That would prove an incredible indictment of what this Government is about. Plans to replace professional librarians with volunteers may protect some libraries but will inevitably jeopardise the quality of services. The effects of the cuts being faced are expected to be felt across the country, with North Yorkshire reducing 42 libraries to 18 over four years, Leeds axing 20 small libraries, and Cornwall, Brent, Lewisham, Hammersmith and Fulham, Richmond, Barnsley and Warrington also planning closures.

I ask the Minister whether the Government believe that untrained volunteers are any substitute for the services of professional librarians. What assessment have they made of the impact of library closures and reduced library services on efforts to improve adult literacy? How will the Government ensure that library closures and cuts to library services will not adversely affect those people who do not have access to the internet—the very poorest in our society? It is a route to that technology for many. Do the Government still believe that libraries are a vital lifeline for families with children, as well as elderly and vulnerable people? Have they assessed the likely impact of cuts to library services on those members of our communities?

I am conscious that we have conflated the cuts that local authorities face and the challenges that that brings with particular references to the Library Advisory Council, but losing the council at this time has very severe implications. I ask the Minister to comment on what would replace it, and what role that replacement would take in encouraging working with local government, given the challenges faced with the cuts that are being imposed.

My Lords, I agree totally with the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and all noble Lords who have spoken on the importance of libraries. They are our national treasures. Everybody has expressed very clearly the great importance of libraries and how we cherish them in every possible way. On a personal note, one of my proudest moments as chairman of King’s College, London, was establishing the Maughan library in the old Public Record Office in Chancery Lane. Libraries have always been an integral part of my life.

This amendment, however, seeks to maintain the Advisory Council on Libraries as an advisory NDPB. The ACL is a statutory body which is no longer sufficiently flexible to be relevant to current structures, and whose functions are duplicated elsewhere. Local authorities have a statutory duty under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964 to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” library service. The Secretary of State has a statutory oversight and promotion of improvement role in respect of such local library services and a statutory duty to intervene when a library authority fails, or is suspected of failing, to provide that service.

It is important to make certain that the Secretary of State has sufficient support to fulfil his legal duties. However, the current system involves a degree of duplication. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council provides information to Ministers about the 151 library authorities in England. Officials within the DCMS provide advice. The Advisory Council on Libraries also provides Ministers with information and advice. Abolishing the Advisory Council on Libraries will not save a lot of money, as ACL members give their time freely and it employs no staff. But neither will it compromise the Secretary of State’s ability to fulfil his legal duties. Officials will work with relevant bodies in the absence of the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council to ensure that appropriate intelligence about the library sector is captured, and that mechanisms are in place to communicate it to the DCMS. Officials will continue to advise the Secretary of State on the use of his statutory powers in the absence of the Advisory Council on Libraries.

Knowledge of the sector is an essential criteria for recruitment to the ACL, but members cannot know about, or advise on, all issues. People involved with relevant expertise and knowledge will be brought together as required to supplement the skills and expertise available in the DCMS and its NDPBs. This flexible approach to the provision of information and advice has proven effective already in enabling the Secretary of State to exercise his statutory duty and will be adopted as an alternative to an established advisory council. By drawing together experts as and when needed, rather than convening a formal group with limited membership and which meets only three times a year, the quality and depth of the information and advice needed to support the Secretary of State in policy development and oversight will be improved.

I hope that has clarified the point on the advisory council and ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.

My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke and to the Minister for her detailed explanation. I thought that the point from the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, about the timeliness for continuity of advice for libraries was particularly telling. Although I shall read carefully the detail of what the Minister said, the problem of funding for the museums, libraries and archives and their transfer to the Arts Council provides real resource problems for exactly that continuity of policy development.

I know that a number of other Lords who support this amendment cannot be here tonight, so I shall certainly withdraw the amendment for the time being but I cannot promise not to return to the subject at report.

Amendment 41 withdrawn.

Amendment 42 not moved.

House resumed.