House of Lords
Tuesday, 11 January 2011.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Gloucester.
Introduction: Lord True
Nicholas Edward True, Esquire, CBE, having been created Baron True, of East Sheen in the County of Surrey, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Strathclyde and Lord Howard of Rising, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Baroness Jolly
Judith Anne Jolly, having been created Baroness Jolly, of Congdon’s Shop in the County of Cornwall, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Tyler and Lord Teverson, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Risby
Richard John Grenville Spring, Esquire, having been created Baron Risby, of Haverhill in the County of Suffolk, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Lord Astor of Hever and Lord Mayhew of Twysden, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
My Lords, the provision of third-party access to unlicensed networks will enable customers of those networks to take advantage of the competitive energy market by having the right to choose their energy supplier. As such, where alternative suppliers can offer a more competitive price than the incumbent supplier, customers will be able to make savings on their energy costs.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, but is he aware that in the solution that he has just set out, it will require all the operators—the landlords of these private networks—to upgrade their supplies to grid standards at the cost of many millions? This applies to railways, airports, ports, sports centres—anywhere where there is subcontracted electricity. Does he agree that the Government should look at an alternative, which would be for the landlord to get competitive quotes, and so avoid this enormous cost on British business?
My Lords, this is a complicated issue, and we have been in consultation with all the ports, airports and railways. That has been an extensive consultation. If the noble Lord wishes to meet with officials for further explanation and briefing on the consultation, I will, as always, make my officials available. I agree with him: it would be perfectly acceptable, if private network customers are satisfied with their private network suppliers, to go out to tender to obtain cheaper electricity. The fundamental point, however, is that in these difficult times, it is important that the customer has the cheapest and fairest electricity supply that is available.
My Lords, it is welcome that the proposed changes will help people switch suppliers and potentially save money on their energy bills. Does my noble friend agree that more market competition and greater transparency in wholesale costs and retail prices would assure consumers that they were paying a fair price for their energy?
I totally agree with the noble Baroness, but in fairness, it is the role of Ofgem to ensure that electricity prices remain competitive. We strongly encourage Ofgem to be transparent and to challenge the fairness of prices. As noble Lords know, we are reviewing the role of Ofgem and ensuring that it is carrying out those methods so that we end up with a competitive electricity market in these very difficult times.
My Lords, at Question Time after Question Time we keep hearing Ministers speak about competition and reducing prices. The facts are that prices still keep going up. Electricity has gone up by 9 per cent. How can 9 per cent on people’s bills be justified?
The noble Lord is completely right that electricity bills are going up and have been going up. This is very regrettable, but let us look at the facts. In the past five years, oil prices have gone up by 60 per cent and gas prices by nearly 60 per cent. Electricity prices have also gone up by nearly that much in that time. It is incumbent on us to get a competitive situation in the market and I can assure your Lordships that this Government are trying everything that they can to achieve that.
My Lords, is it not the case that owners of wind farms are to be paid a so-called facilitation fee, apparently to contribute to the costs of their facilities, even when there is no wind and they are not producing any electricity? What sort of a contribution does that make to these competitive policies?
With all due respect, the noble Lord is slightly wrong in his sweeping judgment that there is no wind activity from wind farms. There is of course wind; we live in a windy country. Wind farms are seen to be an appropriate way for this country to generate electricity. However, his broader point is very well made: in order to achieve by 2050 probably twice the amount of electricity that we need now, we have to get on with obtaining it from a portfolio of ventures. That means new nuclear, wind farms, renewables such as anaerobic digesters and biomass, et cetera. We have to have a portfolio of ventures and this Government have set about achieving that.
My Lords, with the announcement today of yet another energy company increasing its charges, I know that the Minister understands how worried people are about paying their bills, particularly as we have seen a spate of very cold weather. The noble Lord will be aware that his own department has forecast that the shift towards greener energy and a greener economy will increase the cost of electricity by 33 per cent and the cost of gas by 18 per cent. We welcome and support the move to greener energy, but what action will the Government take to ensure that the energy companies do not continue to make excessive profits while the costs fall on the consumers?
The noble Baroness raises a very apposite question. As she says, E.ON has today raised its energy prices, which is absolutely regrettable in the current circumstances. We are very concerned about the margin that electricity companies are making in the current environment. As I said earlier, ensuring competitiveness is the role of Ofgem but let us make no mistake: we have to invest £110 billion in the next 10 years to upgrade our very redundant network. Therefore, I am afraid that electricity prices are going to go up because we have done nothing for a very long period.
The whole idea of incentivising people to produce electricity is for the Government to pump-prime alternative electricity uses. Photovoltaic energy is developing into a maturing market. We are reviewing whether it is mature enough and whether some of the benefits that that market has so far received should be reviewed.
Air Passenger Duty
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the potential effects on United Kingdom competitiveness of the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in June 2010 forecasting that air passenger duty revenue would increase from the current rate of £1.9 billion to £3.8 billion per annum by 2015–16.
My Lords, the Office for Budget Responsibility’s November forecast estimates air passenger duty revenue at £3.6 billion in 2015-16. The estimate reflects forecast growth in passenger numbers and the November 2010 rate increases as announced by the previous Government. It also assumes that duty rates are uprated by inflation each year—a standard forecasting convention. However, at the Budget, the Government committed to exploring changes to aviation tax and to consult on any major changes. We are considering evidence from stakeholders, including on the impact on UK competitiveness.
I thank the noble Lord for his answer. However, it does not deal with the great problem that so many countries on the continent of Europe either do not have any duty at all or have a much lower duty than in Britain. Therefore, the competitiveness of our airlines, airports and tourist industry is at a disadvantage. Apropos the last Question and Answer, this is surely one matter on which the Government have a measure of control. It is their duty that has been imposed and is suggested to be higher. I am sure that the Minister will agree with me that the UK tourist industry must be very disappointed with the Answer that has been given, especially when tourists from countries such as India and China—growth economies—are wanted yet are being turned away by this unduly high duty.
My Lords, I do not believe that the tourist industry will be either surprised or disappointed because I have merely restated that we are consulting a wide range of stakeholders and listening to views of the tourist organisations, among others. On UK competitiveness, it is important to see the APD in the wider context. For example, we do not levy the APD on transit or transfer passengers. As the noble Lord, Lord Borrie, points out, other countries are introducing similar taxes—Germany introduced a similar tax on 1 January. In the wider context of competitiveness, the Government are reducing corporation tax very significantly from 28 to 24 per cent over four years from April 2011. If we talk about competitiveness, we should look at it in a much wider context.
Is the Minister not concerned that by raising the airport passenger duty in the way that is proposed he will damage the Government’s objective of making this country one of the major tourist destinations? If a family of four from China travel to this country from their home, they will now pay £300, even though they are travelling economy.
My Lords, it is certainly not the Government’s intention to damage the competitiveness of any sector of the economy, least of all the tourist sector. I should remind noble Lords that the duty increase that came in on 1 November was announced by the previous Government and is something we are looking at. All these factors will be considered but this is not an easy matter; the previous Government reviewed the system at least once since its introduction.
I declare an interest as the president of BALPA. How does this proposed duty improve the environment? I do not think that it will at all, but I want to hear the Minister’s response. Does not this duty impose a serious and further blow to the prospects of our beleaguered airlines, so why insist on this pernicious duty?
My Lords, the Government have not proposed anything yet. The coalition agreement talks about a change from APD to a per plane basis. Clearly, different constructions of the duty have different effects on usage of aircraft and on the environment. However, as I say, the Government have not proposed anything yet. We are in listening mode. The effect on the airlines, environmental effects and competitiveness are all issues that must be considered.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the APD is seen to be particularly unfair on the Caribbean? Will he ensure that as part of the review which the Government are undertaking, particular attention is given to the effect of the APD on the Caribbean, not just on the tourist industry there, which is increasingly important as a proportion of its economic activity, but on the Caribbean diaspora who live in the UK?
I am grateful to my noble friend for drawing attention to the Caribbean. The Caribbean Tourism Organisation has produced a very helpful report as a contribution to the debate. I have met the Heads of Government of the dependent territories in the Caribbean, so I have heard first hand their strength of feeling in respect of this issue. However, under the Chicago Convention we have to have an objective basis for distinguishing between one country and another.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a board member of VisitBritain. I take this opportunity to congratulate the Prime Minister on the very helpful speech that he made last week in which he recognised tourism as an engine of growth in the economy. However, will the Minister prevail on his officials to set up a monitoring committee with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport as APD will prove a significant challenge to the tourism industry at a time of huge opportunity, with everything from a royal wedding to the Olympics? Mitigating measures might well be introduced but only if there is a sufficiently adequate early warning system.
I absolutely hear the point and I am sure that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be pleased that his commitment to the tourist industry has been noted. I say again that the previous Government increased the rates to where they are now, with the burden falling on tourists and all other passengers, but we are looking at the whole construct.
EU: Hungarian Presidency
During the Hungarian presidency, the Government will urge the EU to prioritise its support of growth and jobs, including specific actions to increase trade and competitiveness and to assist the transition to a greener, low-carbon, high-growth European economy and a common European Union energy market. We are also seeking progress on certain international dossiers, including deepening the EU’s relations with strategic partners. Finally, we will focus on ensuring that the EU delivers better value for money.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does the Minister also agree that the beginning of the six-month presidency is a very important moment for Hungary? Is he satisfied that as a result of recent representations, both internally and externally, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will recast the new press law in an appropriate way?
My noble friend is quite right to raise this issue, which has given rise to a certain worry. The appropriate bodies, which include the European Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, are reviewing the proposed legislation to check whether it complies with EU law and international norms. We look forward to hearing their findings. We place great importance on the freedom and independence of the media, obviously, and we hope that the Hungarian Government will soon resolve this issue satisfactorily and that it will not adversely affect the successful operation of the Hungarian EU presidency.
I draw the Minister’s attention to a robust statement, reported in the press this morning, from the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, on behalf of the European Union, strongly criticising continuing Israeli illegal settlement activity in east Jerusalem and the continuing expulsion of Palestinians from east Jerusalem. Can the Minister give us an assurance that one of the Government’s priorities over the next six months will be to continue pressure on Israel not only to stop but to reverse its illegal settlement activity in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem?
Yes, it is certainly one of our priorities and one of the priorities of the European Union. We all share a concern about the illegal settlements and the blockage that they are placing on the prospective progress between Israel and the Palestinians. I totally agree with the sentiments behind the noble Lord’s questions. These are matters that will have a high priority with us.
As for bailout provisions, after 2013 we will be under no obligation to do that sort of thing unless we voluntarily wish to do so or it makes sense from our national interest to do so. Before 2013, it is, of course, a fact that we are bound by decisions of the previous Government and are bound to be involved to some extent.
My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that one of our priorities in the European Union will be to help to encourage and insist on fair treatment for minorities in all EU countries, particularly the Roma people, who suffer massive discrimination in many member countries of the EU?
The noble Baroness is quite right to raise this concern about the Roma. We want to encourage the presidency to focus on practical co-operation between member states. Indeed, we have been working on practical co-operation ourselves with Romania on this issue. The Hungarian presidency is drawing up a framework strategy on Roma inclusion. We have strong and effective legislation ourselves and policies to tackle racial discrimination and to promote race equality, so we would not be in favour of further legislation, but very detailed practical co-operation to meet this particular minority problem is certainly very much at the top of the agenda.
Does my noble friend agree that while Hungary’s internal problems and more authoritarian stance are indeed to be regretted, one of the principal problems facing the eurozone is the financial stability of countries such as Portugal and Belgium? Can he assure the House that we will take an active interest in ensuring that financial stability remains the defining issue that this presidency deals with rather than Mr Orbán’s own political posturing?
Of course, we are a major financial power and we have a major interest in financial stability not merely in our region but at a global level, so these matters are bound to be at the top of the agenda. However, as I stated earlier, our actions will be governed—certainly after 2013—by our voluntary wish to move or not move in the direction of financial support. Before 2013, we are somewhat caught up in the existing mechanisms, but they will be used with the greatest care and discretion.
My Lords, it is the turn of a Cross-Bencher—and independent thinker. As noble Lords are aware, our net contribution to the EU this year will be some £8.3 billion. However, I noted from the Minister’s Answer yesterday to a Written Question that we are also paying about £3 billion to accession countries. Bearing in mind what is happening in Hungary, I would have thought that we could ensure that all those countries that are allowed to join the EU will be democratic at least after they have joined if not before.
I am sure that that is right. One of the core principles of the European Union is a commitment to democratic values, good governance, human rights and the rule of law. That is obviously in the minds of all those considering accession countries, and in the minds of those who govern the accession fund to which I think the noble Lord refers. I have no disagreement with the desire to see democracy spread in the best possible ways throughout the eurozone, and indeed in the wider world.
My Lords, in the third of the priorities that the Minister enunciated a moment ago, he said that he wanted to see more concentration on the relationships with strategic partners. Which strategic partners will this country prioritise in that discussion within the European Union?
We have in mind Russia, China, the United States, India and Brazil. We are developing these strategic partnerships both bilaterally and, where it makes sense and where we can combine effectively, with our EU partners. Those are the strategic partnerships on our priority list.
My Lords, influenza-like illness, or ILI, has increased from 13 to 98 GP consultations per 100,000 people since November. The department does not currently collect data on hospital admissions. As of 6 January, there were 783 patients with ILI in critical care beds in England, and 50 flu- related fatal cases verified by the Health Protection Agency in the UK.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. Last June, I asked him about the 50 per cent cut in the communications budget for the Department of Health. He said that,
“every programme of communication or marketing has to be justified by the evidence that it will do some good”.—[Official Report, 30/6/10; col. 1798.]
We know that pregnant women are particularly vulnerable to the H1N1 strain of influenza, and HPA’s data show that the risk of mortality for pregnant women is sevenfold greater than that for non-pregnant women. Even so, midwives received a letter from Andrew Lansley, dated 16 December, encouraging them to vaccinate pregnant women. Does the Minister think that it is possible that, had the Government acted earlier and had a public campaign, had they not cut their public health communications budget, and had Andrew Lansley sent a letter in October rather than December, the lifes of at least one pregnant woman might have been saved?
My Lords, it is quite difficult to substantiate that suggestion, because the immunisation figures do not bear out the noble Baroness’s argument. The level of vaccine uptake in the over-65s is 70 per cent, which is better than in most countries of Europe. Among the at-risk under-65s, it is 45.5 per cent, which is comparable to the past two years. Therefore, it is not clear that a generalised campaign would have added value.
On the question of pregnant women, the normal procedure is for the Chief Medical Officer to write to all GPs in the summer, setting out all the at-risk groups. She did that in June. We were then alerted in December by the Health Protection Agency to a worryingly high number of pregnant women who had contracted influenza, so we wrote to both the BMA and the Royal College of Midwives to emphasise the desirability of encouraging that group of patients to get vaccinated. We did the right thing, which was to respond to emerging data.
My Lords, is it the case that the highest rate of flu has been among those aged one to four? Have the parents of children in that age group been encouraged to have their children vaccinated over and above others? Also, have the Government changed their policy of publicising the need for the flu jab, which they did during last year’s outbreak?
We did see a higher than expected number of under-fives contracting influenza, so we took urgent advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation in December and asked it to confirm its previous advice that not all under-fives need get vaccinated unless they were in an at-risk group. It confirmed that advice and we have followed it.
There have been 14 deaths from swine flu in Northern Ireland from a population of 1.7 million. How would the Minister respond to the statement from the health protection agency in Northern Ireland, in which Dr Carolyn Harper said:
“Our sense and discussions with colleagues in the UK is that our reporting systems are more complete than in England so therefore we are more likely to capture more deaths here. England concede they have a larger degree of under reporting than we have here so you really cannot compare them”?
Will the Minister advise whether he is satisfied with the validity of the statistics that are available?
I am satisfied with the validity of the statistics. The problem is, of course, that there is always a lag. The statistics that I read out earlier in my main Answer were supplied to us by the Health Protection Agency and regard verified laboratory tested results. We have another method of assessing the number of deaths that is retrospective. After the end of the flu season we can assess whether the number of deaths has been higher than expected. Of course, we are endeavouring to improve our statistical base all the time and no doubt lessons will be learnt from this season, as they are from every season.
My Lords, what is the basis for the differing advice in the United Kingdom about the group of people who should be vaccinated compared with that given in the United States from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which advise that everyone over the age of six months should be vaccinated?
That is precisely why we have an independent Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation: to advise Ministers on these matters. Ministers are bound to take that advice. Indeed, the previous Government determined that they were legally obliged to take the committee’s advice, which is what we have done.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that many pregnant women are particularly nervous about all kinds of vaccination during pregnancy, including the flu vaccination? I know that from first-hand experience. Does he feel that the Government are doing enough to inform pregnant women about the risks or otherwise in that instance? Could more be done?
I am sure, as I have just said, that lessons can always be learnt about what more can be done. As I mentioned, we saw a lower than desirable uptake of the vaccine in the early weeks among pregnant women. I am happy to say that that has now been rectified and a lot more pregnant women are coming forward. However, it emphasises the noble Lord’s central point that perhaps GPs have a special duty at the moment to encourage pregnant women and to reassure them that the vaccine is absolutely safe.
Arrangement of Business
Public Bodies Bill [HL]
Committee (6th Day)
Schedule 1 : Power to abolish: bodies and offices
31: Schedule 1, page 16, line 24, leave out “Courts boards.”
My Lords, in moving Amendment 31 on behalf of my noble friend Lord Bach, I intend also to speak to other amendments in the first group.
The Government have, during the Recess, had a little time to reflect on the Bill. The Minister will know of the evidence given by the Lord Chief Justice to the Constitution Committee, which, as he knows, was highly critical of the Bill. We have also very recently received the report of the Commons Select Committee on Public Administration, chaired by a Conservative MP, Mr Bernard Jenkin, which was also highly critical of the Bill. As the Select Committee report states, the review leading up to the Bill,
“was poorly managed. There was no meaningful consultation, the tests the review used were not clearly defined and the Cabinet Office failed to establish a proper procedure for departments to follow. It is important that the Government learn lessons from these mistakes as it has indicated that future reviews are likely to be run in broadly the same way. To ensure their effectiveness future reviews should not be conducted in a similar way”.
Amen to that. The Select Committee continues:
“The Bill giving the Government the power to bring about these changes was equally badly drafted. It is being significantly re-written by the House of Lords and we intend to issue a further detailed report on the Bill once the Lords have finished their scrutiny”.
It seems that, gradually, the Government are beginning to recognise that there is a need to make substantive changes to the Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, for his recent amendments, most of them made before the Recess, taking out most judicial organisations from Schedule 7. I think that that is a belated recognition of the Bill’s threats to judicial independence. I hope that the noble Lord will be able to do more in the coming weeks. I would like Schedule 7 to be removed in its entirety and the super-affirmative procedure to be used for every order pertaining to an organisation listed in the Bill.
I also hope that the noble Lord, and the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will listen sympathetically to the points made on this group of amendments. All of them, in one way or another, relate to the effective administration of justice. In moving Amendment 31, I shall speak also to my Amendments 32 and 45 and comment on Amendments 40 and 42.
Amendment 31 relates to the courts boards. The boards have not managed or administered the courts themselves but have given advice and made constructive recommendations to foster improvements in the administrative services provided. There is one courts board for each of the local management areas administered by area directors across England and Wales. Each courts board has members drawn from different communities and from a variety of backgrounds. The information from the Ministry of Justice states:
“Courts Boards were established because there was a fear that the voice of Magistrates would be lost within a unified HM Courts Service. These fears have dissipated because other structures—such as the Justices’ Issues Group and the Area Judicial Forums—are in place to ensure that Magistrates’ views are heard. There are also strong local relationships with Magistrates’ Benches Chairs”.
However, I have received a number of letters from chairs of local area courts boards expressing concerns. To summarise them, there are two. The first is that, at a time of a programme of court closures, no local independent review can take place. The chairs of the committees believe that the reduction in the number of local courts creates a greater need for mechanisms to keep in touch with communities and to identify local needs. The point is also made by the chairmen in the letters that I have received that boards can help to advise Her Majesty’s Courts Service on ways in which policies can be implemented at local level so as to help to ensure the most effective use of resources. I would be grateful for the response of the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to the concerns raised by the chairs of those committees.
Turning to Amendment 32, on the Crown Court Rule Committee, perhaps I may also speak to Amendment 42 in the name of my noble friend Lady Hayter concerning the Magistrates’ Courts Rule Committee. On this, the Government have said that following the creation of the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee, which now makes all criminal rules under the Courts Act 2003, the Crown Court Rule Committee has lost the majority of its functions, making it a near-defunct body. I would be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would indicate that the Government are happy with the work of the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee. I ask that because it originally appeared in the list of organisations in Schedule 7, but the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has signalled, in his Amendment 142ZA, the Government’s intention to remove it from Schedule 7. That leaves a question mark in my mind as to the Government’s intention in regard to that committee.
The aim of the abolition of the Magistrates’ Courts Rule Committee is to,
“reflect the fact that the much reduced remit”,
of the committee,
“does not warrant the maintenance of the Committee”.
Can the noble Lord confirm that the Magistrates’ Association was consulted and will he say what its comments were? I know that the Lord Chief Justice has indicated his agreement in principle to the abolition of the committee, but it would have been useful to obtain the views of the Magistrates’ Association—no doubt, the Government have done so.
I shall comment briefly on Amendment 40, which I know that the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, will want to speak to. The argument for the abolition of the inspectorate is that,
“Her Majesty’s Courts Service is established as a single body responsible for the administration of all courts, with its own robust management information systems and audit processes in place”—
the prose of the Ministry of Justice rolls off the tongue. The Government therefore consider that,
“the Inspectorate’s functions relating to the independent inspection of court administration are no longer needed”.
I would be grateful if the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would amplify the thinking of his department on this and, in particular, the rationale for saying that the closure of the inspectorate,
“will allow government to get a better, more consistent grip on regulation and inspection”.
I must say that I think that that is a heroic argument for getting rid of an independent inspectorate. One always has to raise issues and questions about any proposal to abolish an independent inspectorate and the House needs to pay very close attention indeed to that matter.
Amendment 45 concerns the Public Guardian Board, which was set up under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 to scrutinise and review the way in which the Public Guardian discharges his functions and to make recommendations to the Lord Chancellor. I want, first, to pay tribute to the work of the board and its members, particularly Rosie Varley, the chair of the board. I read with interest the annual report of the Public Guardian Board, particularly the chairman’s foreword, where she says that,
“we agree that an advisory board such as ours cannot continue into the future, and we support the proposal in the Public Bodies Bill, currently before Parliament, that we should be one of the bodies that ceases to exist. We hope that robust alternative arrangements for the OPG’s governance will be put in place”.
She goes on to describe the active part that she played in discussions about more streamlined governance arrangements for the OPG. She says that she is clear about the need for effective accountability and challenge within an arm of government. She argues for the OPG to adopt a more businesslike model and to be freed from the judicial constraints of a central government agency. She says that such a transition, in her view, adds to the case for a strong and integrated governance structure to succeed the Public Guardian Board, which has operated until now alongside the internal management processes of the OPG, and I very much welcome the noble Lord’s comments on that. I would also like him to reflect on the Mental Capacity Act and the role of the Public Guardian Board in acting as the independent watchdog for the rollout and effect of legislative change. After the board’s demise, it would be even more important that the Government are alive to the provisions of the Act and its role in promoting active citizenship and protecting the vulnerable.
I shall end by referring to what Mrs Varley said about changes in the NHS. Here, I must declare an interest and refer noble Lords to the register in relation to the National Health Service. As she writes in her foreword,
“the Department of Health is closing its MCA Implementation team, Local Authorities are trimming all but essential services, and Primary Care Trusts are being abolished. The challenge to the Government, in maintaining the momentum and reaping the potential of the MCA in the face of such financial constraint and organisational upheaval, is enormous”.
I would be most grateful if the noble Lord, Lord McNally, would also comment on that. I beg to move.
My Lords, I rise to support Amendment 40, which refers to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration. In doing so, and in wishing to greet the Minister and wish him a happy new year, I say that I have nothing but respect and admiration for the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has conducted what I can only describe as a hospital pass on what I think everyone I have spoken to regards as an extremely bad Bill. Frankly, the Bill needs to be taken back and thought through again because of the sheer amount of time and effort that is going to be taken going over ground that need not be gone over, although I am sure that everyone is respectful of the original intention, which was to look at unnecessary quangos, as they have been called, and other bodies. It seems that, in looking at the unnecessary, a number of the necessary have been swept up, which will require a great deal of time to eliminate or move. Therefore, I speak with interest in the outcome but with concern at the number of good things that are liable to go under the axe for all the wrong reasons unless there is some thinking again.
When I was Chief Inspector of Prisons, I was concerned that the prisons were a part of, not apart from, the criminal justice system. To an outsider coming in, the criminal justice system did not look like a system; it looked like a number of warring tribes competing with one another for ever diminishing resources, which in fact made the whole system less efficient. There were inspectorates of different parts of that system and collectively we came together to decide what we could do to bring to the Government’s attention the fact that, if all these different agencies worked better together, the result would be better.
Six inspectorates came together to discuss that: the Inspectorate of Prisons, the Inspectorate of Probation, the Inspectorate of Constabulary, the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate, the then Magistrates’ Court Service Inspectorate and the then Social Services Inspectorate. We did so because we felt that all of us had something to contribute not just overall when all six of us were involved, but where, as studies showed, two or more might come together in order to produce an outcome. The first report that we produced was a study of casework and information needs within the criminal justice system, which pointed out exactly what each of these six areas needed of the others, what was available, what was not available and what was available with difficulty. When we presented this report to the Ministers, it caused considerable confusion. The report showed the need for joint cross-government working, but the Government were unable to receive it. The strength of that report was that each of those separate inspectorates was able to contribute its expertise to come up with a combined whole, which would not have been possible unless they had all worked together.
In 2003, the Magistrates’ Court Service Inspectorate was overtaken by Her Majesty’s inspector of the courts, which looks at Crown Courts, county courts and magistrates’ courts. Its job is to report on the system that supports the carrying on of their business. At the same time, the Police and Justice Act 2006 requires the courts inspectorate to work with other criminal justice system inspectorates—in the way that I have just outlined and as we were doing ourselves until then—to look at the end-to-end justice process and to improve the experience of all people who use or work within the justice system. That is a very large remit.
The remit of the courts inspectorate covers three types of inspection: area inspections to look at court services within particular areas; thematic inspections to look at particular themes, including examples of good practice, to see how improvements can be made; and joint inspections of the type that I have just outlined. For example, recently, there has been a joint thematic inspection by the Crown Prosecution Service Inspectorate and the inspector of constabulary on victim and witness experiences. That could not have been carried out unless experts were working together and bringing their expertise jointly to the result.
The courts inspectorate recently carried out an inspection of the Coroners Service for Northern Ireland. It provided a very useful report, which of course has great relevance in the context of this Bill if, as I hope, the chief coroner is appointed, as was intended in the previous Bill. In order to make the coroners service work, there has to be someone to ensure that the courts in which that service functions are working.
In addition to that, the Government have announced that 93 magistrates and 49 county courts will be cut. Inevitably, that will have an impact on the delivery of court services throughout the country. An experienced inspectorate will be needed to go around examining the impact of this and to come up with firm recommendations and advice to Ministers as to what may need to be done to ameliorate the problem or to introduce other arrangements.
Clause 8 stipulates the objectives to which the Minister must have regard when making an order under Clause 1. One of the objectives is,
“achieving increased efficiency, effectiveness and economy in the exercise of public functions”.
I put to noble Lords that nothing that I have seen in practice and in the research that has been done has been more efficient, effective and economical than the functioning of this inspectorate. The Cabinet Office, in producing the impact assessment on this Bill—I have spoken about this many times already—says that it is ridiculous to have an impact assessment on a Bill that says that there is no impact on the criminal justice system. Yet here we are in Amendment 40 getting deep into the heart of the criminal justice system, which is being affected.
Why is there no impact assessment? It is because the Cabinet Office is not the right place to produce an assessment of the impact of removing a courts inspectorate on the working of a justice system that is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. The Cabinet Office says:
“It is therefore not possible to provide details of the likely costs and impacts of the Bill, as any costs or impacts arising from its use relate to orders made under its powers rather than to the Bill itself”.
That, I suggest, is a cop out. The Explanatory Notes go on to say:
“When Departments use powers, they will produce full impact assessments of the change or changes they are seeking”.
In that case, why has this House not been given an impact assessment by the Ministry of Justice of the impact of removing this inspectorate and the costs of what it will have to put in its place? If you are going to have a criminal justice system that works properly, you need the courts and, if you need the courts, you need an inspectorate to oversee their functions. I hope very much that the Government will think again about this thoroughly unnecessary proposal. If they do not, I suspect that it will be essential for this House to vote on the issue.
My Lords, it is a while since I first addressed the House with regard to this Bill. I start my present remarks by saying that I acknowledge that the Government have made a significant improvement to the Bill in the action that they have taken. I congratulate the Minister and his team on the attention that they have given, particularly to the bodies associated with the courts that had been in Schedule 7. I feel much more comfortable with the Bill in consequence of the changes that have been made. However, I have to say that this Bill, which is sometimes referred to as achieving a bonfire of quangos, would in my view be further improved if there was to be a bonfire of Schedule 7. I hope that the further consideration of the Bill, which I believe is still continuing, will bring about that result.
I listened with great care to what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said about the provisions that are the subject of his amendments. I do not think that I can usefully add anything to that, apart from saying that when the boards were introduced—I was Lord Chief Justice at the time—arrangements were made for a senior judge, one no less distinguished than the present Lord Chief Justice, to serve on that board to express the views of the judiciary. However, I think that things have moved on since then, so the topic is much more debatable than it would have been some time ago. The arrangements for consultation between the judiciary and the departments with which they are particularly concerned are in general working smoothly, so the boards are no longer as important as they were in the early days of the unified criminal justice system.
On the inspectorate, I would urge that the speech that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, who probably knows more about inspectorates than anybody else in the country, should be listened to with care. The inspectorate for the courts system was not, if my recollection is correct, a proposal about which the judiciary jumped with joy when it was first suggested. It was thought—I would say with good reason—that there could be insuperable problems over the independence of the courts system if an outside inspectorate was to look in at what the courts were doing. All that I can say is that, in practice, the inspectorate has worked remarkably well, as have all the inspectorates, of each of which I am a fan. The inspectorates make a significant contribution to the proper functioning of the administration in the areas in which they operate. I do not think that it was intended to be suggested—and if it was, I would not agree with the suggestion—that the inspectorate should act as a sort of court of appeal. If the inspectorate keeps to administration, it can perform a useful function. That function will still have to be performed even if the inspectorate does not exist and, if the inspectorate is abolished, proper arrangements will need to be made to ensure that that happens.
My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that I was not able to be here to hear his speech. I was upstairs in the Joint Committee on Human Rights, which has authorised me to ask the Minister whether, as we were given to understand, we will receive the human rights memorandum from the Cabinet Office so that our committee can do its job properly. That memorandum has still not been received and we want to finalise our report by next Tuesday. I hope that the Minister can tell us in his reply that what was promised many weeks ago will happen.
My second point in general support of the amendments is that, although it is admirable that some bodies of a judicial nature may be removed from the schedules by other amendments, if Amendment 175 in my name and in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Pannick—a paving amendment for which was approved by the House on the first day in Committee—is accepted by the Government and not sought to be reversed in the other place, the provisions in Amendment 175 will be relevant to our discussions today and hereafter. It is unsatisfactory that we are having this debate without knowing whether Amendment 175 will stand. Importantly, Amendment 175 would apply not only to courts but to any body—whether a court or not—that performs a judicial function and it would deal with the issue of independence raised by the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham.
In a sense, we are putting the cart before the horse because a failure to insert into the Bill the criteria against which all these decisions can be measured means that we are having to proceed piecemeal, body by body, at enormous and appalling length in the Committee process. I respectfully urge the Government to accept these amendments for all the reasons that have been given so far but to deal with the system of the Bill as a whole by indicating at an early stage that Amendment 175 or a similar provision will bind Ministers when they exercise their delegated powers. That is the price that Ministers must pay if they are not to proceed by way of primary legislation. There need to be constitutional limits on the powers exercised by Ministers, as Committees of this House have indicated in the past.
My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot claim, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, not to have taken part recently in proceedings on this Bill, because I have been a persistent defender of my Front Bench, nor do I intend to stop being so today.
However, I want to associate myself in two respects with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. First, I think that the Bill leaves—to put it mildly—a lot to be desired. Secondly, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, is to be congratulated on the way he has dealt with this poisoned chalice. I am glad to see that, if I have read the runes aright, the person speaking to the proposals today will be a Minister from the Ministry of Justice, which is where the proposals originated from and where any blame for them, if blame is justified, should lie.
By way of other brief preliminary, I should say that when I first saw the schedule of headline decisions that was published in early October—this picks up a point made earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Lester—I could find no intellectual coherence at all in the Ministry of Justice’s proposals, which seemed to be piecemeal suggestions with no connection between them whatever. I hope, therefore, that at least we may have some coherent explanation about the pattern of these proposals and decisions for procedure rule committees, justice councils and other bodies, including CAFCASS, that are scattered about, most of which are now to be withdrawn from Schedule 7 by the amendments that have been helpfully tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach.
However—I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has spotted this—unless my eyes have deceived me the Civil Justice Council will potentially remain on the list of bodies in Schedule 7. If I have that wrong, I would be glad to be told. That links with my own frequently expressed concern about the Administrative Justice and Tribunals Council—in which I have declared an historical interest—which has been separated out and put down for the chop in Schedule 1. There is no intellectual coherence at all to the proposals. I would like to hear some coherence this afternoon.
I will make three other points. First, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked some good questions. My answers might not necessarily be the same as his in all cases, but those questions need answering. Secondly, I share almost completely the doubts of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. We are getting rid of too much independent outside inspection or oversight of bodies and are being told, in effect, that the Ministry of Justice can take care of itself and does not want these bodies breathing down its neck. That does not correspond with my views about how government in this kind of society should work or how it works best. Thirdly, I echo the concerns expressed by other noble Lords about the way in which the proposals have been handled. I reiterate what I said at the beginning because, as a House, we need some reassurance that, frankly, the Government know what they are doing.
My Lords, we have to keep it in mind that, at this stage, the Bill seeks to confer powers and does not provide the final decision on any of these matters. I respectfully agree with my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill that Amendment 175 needs to be taken into account in this connection. From the point of view of propriety in this House, one considers the Bill on the basis that Amendment 175 has been accepted. Therefore, from my point of view, we approach the Bill at this stage following a decision by this House that has accepted that amendment—an extremely important amendment—which very much restricts the powers that the Bill provides.
In connection with reviewing the work of these quangos, as they have been called, the position has to be that, if such a review is to take place on a fairly large scale, there is a need for an all-embracing Bill that provides the powers, with the detailed consideration following at a later stage of whether, and how, it is appropriate to exercise those powers in any particular case. For example, Schedule 1 provides a power to amalgamate or hand over a body’s power, principally to another body.
I go along with the approach to these amendments that the noble Lord from the opposition Front Bench has taken. Having had some responsibility for originally introducing Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Courts Administration, I recall—my recollection is somewhat akin to that of my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf—that the proposal for such an inspectorate was not embraced with wholehearted unanimity by all magistrates or judges. There was a fear that the inspectorate could interfere with the independence of magistrates and the judiciary. Since then, the Lord Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice have taken over complete responsibility for the magistrates’ courts. In those days, the magistrates’ courts were independent and the best that the Lord Chancellor could do was address the Magistrates’ Association annually—usually followed by a fairly difficult question and answer session, of which I have distinct recollections.
Regarding the amendments, we have to bear in mind—as did the opening speech—that these decisions will not be taken by this House today. The only question is whether the power should be conferred in respect of these bodies. I can see arguments there, but I do not believe that the detail of that power is not appropriate for consideration today.
On courts boards and the like, the reorganisation of the administration of the courts has an important bearing. For my part, I do not feel strongly that the courts boards should be retained.
On the Crown Court Rule Committee and the Magistrates’ Courts Rule Committee, I am reminded that my noble and learned friend Lord Woolf examined the civil justice system some years ago because it was important to get coherence between the way in which the county court and the higher court dealt with criminal matters. Tremendous and useful work was done under the chairmanship of my noble and learned friend to produce a coherent system of civil justice. There is a good deal to be said for the view that a coherent system of criminal justice requires the same treatment. As has been said, the body that is central to that is to be deleted from Schedule 7. We have to salute improvement. It is true that we might have started better, but few people in government have started perfectly and never had to improve—experience teaches Ministers as well as others.
The court inspectorate is Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration. When the administration has been remodelled, there is certainly a question whether the administration inspectorate is still required. It is not necessary at this stage to decide that question—that is not what we are doing—but it is wise to leave the matter open for consideration. The criteria in Amendment 175, which have been accepted by the House, are fundamental in that regard because the matters will be considered against a background of considerable protection.
I salute the improvements that have been made in the Bill and I hope that improvement may continue. In the mean time, I think that it would be impossible to carry out an effective review of the quangos except by an over-riding Bill of this kind. Primary legislation for each of these quangos would occupy the whole of the parliamentary session without room for anything else. Most of us agree that there are other things that require doing as well as dealing with quangos.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said that this Bill was a hospital pass. If anyone wants a definition of a hospital pass, it would be to have to reply to a debate on the criminal justice system when the contributions have come from the noble Lords, Lord Hunt, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Lester of Herne Hill and Lord Newton of Braintree, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and, just for good measure, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. It makes you feel plumb inadequate. However, I shall do my best to take the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice for the proposals that these amendments seek to change.
In some ways, to sound a philosophical note on this, I have never seen it as being a weakening of our system when a ministry takes responsibility and says that it will be responsible to Parliament and to the scrutiny of Parliament for what it carries out in its remit. In some ways, in recent years, with proper and due respect to the work of independent inspectorates, we have sometimes got over-reliant on, and have tended to reach for, the independent inspectorate for responsibilities which should be the responsibility to Parliament of the department and Ministers in that department.
In answer to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, we believe that the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee has made an important contribution and have no intention of abolishing it. We have now removed it from Schedule 7. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said, the problem in Committee is that if you make changes you are accused of U-turns and if you do not you are accused of inflexibility. Those are the burdens that we carry.
I shall try to address the issues raised by the group of amendments, which would remove the courts boards, the Crown Court Rule Committee, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration, the Public Guardian Board and the Magistrates' Courts Rule Committee from Schedule 1. We oppose these amendments because it would mean the retention of five arm’s-length bodies whose functions will no longer be required, either because their role has significantly diminished over recent years and is now being performed by other bodies or because alternative ways of performing these functions have been identified.
I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Bach—who is not here today—has tabled these amendments in relation to the courts boards and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration, given that he was the Minister in the Ministry of Justice when the decision to abolish them was originally taken by the last Administration.
For the convenience of the House, I intend to respond to the five amendments in this one speech, because part of the rationale asked for is overlapping. I hope that it is compelling in the reason for the abolition of these boards. The first reason is, in following their review of all arm’s-length bodies, the coalition Government have agreed with the judgment of the previous Administration that the function of certain of these bodies is no longer required. Like the last Administration, we believe that the courts boards and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration should be abolished and that this Bill represents the best mechanism to effect these reforms. The second reason is that the function of some of these bodies has greatly diminished over recent years and is now largely performed by other bodies. The Crown Court Rule Committee and the Magistrates' Courts Rule Committee fall into this category. It was exactly to identify these sorts of near-defunct bodies that the coalition Government’s review of the arm’s-length bodies was conducted. Again, the Bill provides an excellent and timely opportunity to remove such bodies from the statute book. I am pleased to note that the Lord Chief Justice agrees with the Government’s proposals in relation to these two bodies.
The third reason is that although the Government recognise the need to perform particular functions, we believe there are more efficient ways of doing so. The oversight function performed by the Public Guardian Board falls into this category, and I will explain in a moment how the Government propose to develop new governance arrangements to oversee the work of the Public Guardian.
Beyond these three broad reasons, I will outline our reasoning for each of the five bodies covered by the amendments. In the case of the 19 remaining courts boards, this decision was first taken by the previous Administration, and announced in March 2010. Courts boards were established partly because there was a fear that the voice of magistrates would be lost within a unified courts system. These fears have dissipated and there are now other structures in place such as the Justice Issues Group and area judicial forums to ensure that magistrates’ views are heard. There are also strong local relationships with magistrates’ bench chairs. The Magistrates’ Association was not consulted before inclusion, but of course will be available for the consultation which will precede implementation of any of these proposals.
Courts boards only ever performed an advisory function, and the function was significantly diminished over the last five years. As I mentioned, as a result of amalgamations, the number of courts boards has reduced from 42 to 19.
In terms of those functions, I should emphasise that courts boards do not themselves manage or administer the courts, but rather give advice and make recommendations to enable Her Majesty’s Courts Service to improve the service it provides. The Courts Service sought the views of the judiciary. It is the view of the Courts Service and members of the judiciary that courts boards are no longer necessary to assist in the administration of the courts in this way. Not abolishing the courts boards will cost the Ministry of Justice approximately £450,000 a year.
The senior presiding judge himself recognises the difficult decisions needed to be made in the light of the financial pressures which Her Majesty’s Courts Service faces. Although clearly it is a matter for Parliament, the senior presiding judge does not take the view that courts boards constitute an essential part of the business of the courts. He agrees that the savings which will result from that abolition, although relatively minor, could be used to support front-line services.
In terms of maintaining an oversight on the local delivery of court services, it is true that the role of the courts boards is to use their judgment to ensure that the perspective of the local community and of those who use the courts is taken into account. But there are other ways to ensure that the needs of the community are met, such as customer surveys, open days and more effective use of court user meetings. Her Majesty’s Courts Service is committed to building and maintaining links with local communities, and local areas will be encouraged to explore other options to ensure that links between the courts and local communities is not lost, specifically within the wider context of the current proposals to modernise and improve the use of courts.
The previous Administration originally took the decision to abolish the courts boards, and the coalition Government have agreed that their function is no longer required and have introduced this Bill to effect this reform.
The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, referred to Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration, and I will discuss the rationale behind the Government’s decision to abolish that. The context within which the inspectorate operates has changed significantly since its inception in 2005. The inspectorate’s predecessor, Her Majesty’s Magistrates’ Court Service Inspectorate, was set up before the magistrates’ courts were part of a national Courts Service. It was right that an independent body existed to inspect court administration. However, Her Majesty’s Courts Service has since been established as a single body, responsible for the administration of all courts, with its own robust management information systems and internal audit processes. The Courts Service is subject to external scrutiny by the National Audit Office and, by extension, the Public Accounts Committee. I draw the Committee’s attention to the 2009 National Audit Office report on the administration of the Crown Court as an example of this external scrutiny. For these reasons, Her Majesty’s Courts Service will no longer be subject to independent inspection.
In terms of the inspectorate’s other functions, consideration is being given to the option for enabling future joint criminal justice inspections to include inspection of the Courts Service for the purpose of end-to-end inspection: for example, in tracking categories of cases from initial arrest to charge, court appearance, court result and rehabilitation or custody. Similar consideration is being given to the inspection of court custody areas and how the UK may comply fully with requirements under the optional protocol to the UN convention against torture. As noted, the decision to abolish the inspectorate was made in December 2009 by the previous Administration and reaffirmed by this Government as part of our review of arm’s-length bodies. Reform of the court estate has no bearing on this decision.
The Crown Court Rule Committee is the first of two bodies whose functions have now greatly diminished over recent years, and I shall set out the reasons for the Government’s proposal to abolish it. This amendment would lead to the retention of a body which is effectively defunct. The committee was created by the Supreme Court Act 1981. Following the creation, under the Courts Act 2003, of the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee the overwhelming majority of the functions of the Crown Court Rule Committee have been absorbed by the former, making the latter effectively obsolete. The Committee may be concerned that the Government are seeking to abolish the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee. That is not the intention. The Criminal Procedure Rule Committee has effectively replaced the Crown Court Rule Committee and the functions of the latter, if not the body itself, will continue to exist. I note for your Lordships that the Lord Chief Justice has again indicated his agreement, in principle, to the abolition of this committee.
I turn to the Magistrates’ Courts Rule Committee and the amendment tabled on it by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter; it is the second of the bodies whose remits have been circumscribed. Removing the Magistrates’ Courts Rule Committee from Schedule 1 would mean retaining a body with a very limited remit. Moreover, it would be likely to prove very difficult to attract suitable candidates to apply to serve on a body with a much reduced scope. The existing statutory rule-making committees are in a very good position to advise and be consulted by the Lord Chief Justice.
Finally, I turn to the rationale for the proposed abolition of the Public Guardian Board. I share the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt; the role of the Public Guardian is extremely important across a wide range of responsibilities. Therefore, when I saw this proposal I wanted very much to be assured that we were going in the right direction. The Public Guardian Board was set up under the Mental Capacity Act 2005, to scrutinise and review the way in which the Public Guardian discharges his function and to make recommendations to the Lord Chancellor. I stress that the abolition of the Public Guardian Board will not alter the duties or statutory functions of the Public Guardian. On the contrary, the Government are seeking to strengthen the oversight mechanisms to ensure that the important work of the Public Guardian continues to be supported.
Before I outline the reasons behind the decision to abolish the board, I should stress that the Government are committed to the important principles of the Mental Capacity Act 2005, which puts individuals who may lack capacity at the centre of any decision that affects them. However, we need to assess whether it remains the right mechanism to achieve the appropriate level and form of oversight of the work of the Public Guardian. The Public Guardian Board has recognised this and needs to establish more streamlined governance arrangements in the current economic climate. I quote directly from the chair of the board’s foreword that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to:
“Given the current financial constraints and the Government’s obligation to concentrate public expenditure on essential functions, we agree that an advisory board such as ours cannot continue into the future, and we support the proposal in the Public Bodies Bill, currently before Parliament, that we should be one of the bodies that ceases to exist”.
The Government recognise the need to ensure that the vulnerable people who rely on the Public Guardian and his office are properly protected but, having undertaken the assessment outlined above, have decided that this can be covered by other means.
I refer to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, about Amendment 175. I understand that discussions are still going on between the proposers of the amendment and the Bill team. I am told—and much reassured—that there is a meeting between the Bill team and the noble Lord, Lord Lester, tomorrow on this matter. I am reasonably confident that, when Amendment 175 is reached, it will mesh in and give the reassurance that both the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, referred to.
The five amendments before us relate to bodies whose functions the previous Administration agreed are no longer required or are either defunct or near obsolete. On the particular issue of the Public Guardian, the Government are determined to seek alternative arrangements that will ensure that whatever is put in place will include independent non-executive input from individuals who can represent the range of interest in the work of the Public Guardian and his office. I realise that a quite long response gives certain coherence to what is always a difficult decision by a department in terms of meeting—we have never hidden the fact—demands for expenditure cuts. We feel that those that are covered by the Ministry of Justice get the balance right in that we are taking the responsibilities within the department where necessary. We are recognising changes that the previous Administration recognised in the role of some of them.
In the light of that explanation, I hope that the noble Lord will be content to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: Before the Minister sits down, perhaps I may first confirm that there will be discussions tomorrow. We very much hope that the pith and substance of Amendment 175 will be retained, subject to drafting improvements. One hopes that that will lead to a result that we can all agree upon. The one matter that my noble friend the Minister has not dealt with—because it is not his responsibility—is the question that I raised at the beginning about the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Can my noble friend the Minister please nudge my noble friend the other Minister for some kind of assurance for the committee so that we can do our job properly by getting the human rights memorandum this week so that we can deal with it when we meet next Tuesday?
Like the seventh cavalry coming over the hill, my noble friend Lord Taylor nudged me to say that the Government will answer any questions that the JCHR has and will deal with that in correspondence with the committee. The Government consider that the provisions of the Bill are compatible with convention rights but I am sure that the promised exchange of correspondence will clarify that matter.
I am sorry but that answer is not compatible with the general approach of this Government and previous Governments to that committee. The undertaking that has been given in the past is that the Minister’s compatibility statement in every Bill is followed by a proper Explanatory Memorandum to enable the committee to do its job properly. Therefore, it is for the Government first to come forward with their account of why the Bill is considered to be compatible and the committee then comments on that, rather than the other way round. I very much hope that that can be reconsidered because otherwise the committee will have to complain about the fact that it has not had the usual memorandum from the Cabinet Office and therefore cannot do its job properly. That simply wastes public money and time.
My Lords, as the troublemaker, or one of them, it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge that I thought that was a pretty reasonable reply overall. If it were my amendment, I would be minded to withdraw it while reflecting on some of the points that have been made, particularly about inspectorates.
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord McNally, on that quick pass to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, in relation to the memorandum. I can helpfully confirm that it was the practice of the previous Government to submit very lengthy memorandums to the Select Committee, and no doubt the Cabinet Office will be pleased to do so to the committee of the noble Lord, Lord Lester, in due course.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that it is a privilege to take part in a debate in which the noble and learned Lords, Lord Woolf and Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and the noble Lords, Lord Ramsbotham, Lord Lester and Lord Newton, have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Lester, went to the heart of the matter when he talked about the architecture of the Bill. We are going through the schedules, debating each organisation, without knowing the final outcome of the architecture. It would be helpful if, at an early stage, the Government could set out some of their thinking about whether they are prepared to make changes to the architecture.
I have added my name to Amendment 175. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that it is very important. I certainly believe that it is consequential to Amendment 1 and would expect the House to accept it formally when we reach it. However, we have yet to hear whether the Government intend to seek to reverse it in the other place or to make substantial amendments to it. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, made some very promising comments in relation to the meeting that is to take place tomorrow between the noble Lord, Lord Lester, and the officials of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. However, we will have to await the outcome of that. To a certain extent we are still working in the dark with regard to the final architecture. I believe that the architecture would be immeasurably improved, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, has suggested, by removing Schedule 7 altogether. That would commend itself to many noble Lords in all parts of the House. I also believe that the super-affirmative procedure order should be used when it comes to the use of orders in the Bill. In the mean time, it is right to treat each body listed in the Bill on its merits. I was very happy with the response given by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to my Amendments 31, 32 and 42. I shall certainly not seek to press Amendment 31 this afternoon.
I also understand what the noble Lord, Lord McNally, has said about the balance between the contribution of independent bodies and the role of departments and Ministers. There is a balance to be drawn. It is right that Ministers should be held to account for the major decisions that are made, albeit within individual government departments. Equally, I think we all agree that independent bodies have a role to play as well. It is a question of where you draw the line. My own party is not opposed to the abolition of a number of the bodies that are listed in this Bill. We support the general proposition that these kind of bodies need to be reviewed regularly and that no public body has a right to exist for ever. On the other hand, I listened with great interest to the powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, on Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Court Administration. He made a very good case. The noble Lord, Lord McNally, is right; this appeared in a Green Paper in 2009 as a candidate for abolition. None the less, when we come to Amendment 40, the House needs to listen very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said.
On the Public Guardian Board, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for his response and for his commitment to the Mental Capacity Act. He recognised the role that has been undertaken by Mrs Rosie Varley and her committee members. I take it from what he said that his department will wish to ensure that this work, albeit in a different form, will continue in the future.
My Lords, perhaps I may speak briefly to Amendment 40. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Newton, that it would be churlish at this stage to press for a vote. I am enormously grateful for the explanation given by the noble Lord, Lord McNally, which frankly I and many other Members of the House would have welcomed before this stage. If all that information was available, why could it not have been put in the Explanatory Notes and given to us in another form? We are going to have the same sort of debate when other issues, such as the Youth Justice Board, come up for discussion. If alternative plans have already been made it would be enormously helpful to know those in advance so that we can weigh them against the bald statement in the Bill.
I listened with great care to noble Lords’ contributions, particularly that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, whose wisdom I respect hugely and whose advice I listen to. In that spirit, it would be sensible to withdraw Amendment 40 with, I hope, discussions to follow with the possibility of resuming it later. I have read the National Audit Office report—I worked for the National Audit Office in other respects. I am not sure that it completely fills the remit, although it fills some of it. Again, this is an issue it would be sensible to look at in detail before necessarily pressing it to a vote.
Amendment 31 withdrawn.
Amendment 32 not moved.
33: Schedule 1, page 16, line 26, leave out “Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board.”
My Lords, I shall also speak to Amendment 34. These two amendments start life as probing amendments. They in effect seek further information about the proposed demise of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee and the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board. For the former, the October 2010 announcement merely recorded that the Government are exploring options for continuing to gain the disability advice that is needed through a more flexible, accountable structure. For the latter, it is proposed that the functions can be carried out between the DWP, external specialist advice and Equality 2025. It seems that in respect of these two particular organisations, the decision has already been taken that they will be terminated. What is to go in their place is as yet unclear.
We are promised consultation on the successor to DPTAC. Perhaps the Minister will advise us on the exploration of the options and on what precisely is so inflexible about the current arrangements. One complaint about the current structure that seems to drive the proposed change is that DPTAC has a degree of independence and takes forward areas of work that reflect its own priorities and not necessarily those of the Government. This seems a particularly perverse reason to close it down. Surely this is a case where independence should be welcomed. DPTAC can rightly claim that much of the improvement over the past 20 years in the mobility of disabled people can be traced to the work that it has undertaken.
The Minister will be aware that DPTAC started life as an informal group and, because of its success, was placed on a statutory basis in 1985 by a Conservative Government. The Transport Act of that year requires the organisation to consider any matter referred to it by Transport Ministers, and to give advice on any issue that is relevant to the transport needs of disabled people.
I am advised that DPTAC also has statutory functions through other legislation. For example, the Equality Act requires the Secretary of State for Transport to consult it before making rail vehicle accessibility regulations. Who will be consulted in future when such regulations are made? Has the Minister given equivalent consideration to other duties that are currently imposed by statute? I thought that we had common cause with the Government in recognising that disabled people were experts in their own lives. How will the Government ensure that their voices are not drowned out by those of transport providers?
The Minister will be aware that DPTAC publishes guidance and statements, carries out research into disabled people's experiences, promotes accessible transport and solutions, and develops training. Who will do this in future and where will the funding come from? I will give one example. The DPTAC Olympic working group has been working closely with the delivery authorities on an accessible transport system for the Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2012. Why is it imperative that this should be changed now? Big strides have been made over the past decade towards more accessible public transport. Rights of access to public transport are in place, along with end dates for the accessibility of all buses, coaches and trains, and a new EU directive on access to air travel for disabled people.
However, the Royal Association for Disability and Rehabilitation contends that a major investment in accessible transport has not yet been matched by a major increase in disabled people's confidence in getting out and about. It states that there remains a huge amount of awareness-raising to be done and some gaps in the regulatory framework to be plugged, for example around taxes. It states that, despite considerable progress, the building blocks are not fully in place to deliver a truly integrated system that guarantees independent, safe mobility. Such a system is vital for ensuring that disabled people have proper access to services and jobs. RADAR acknowledges that DPTAC has greatly influenced progress to date and that there is a great need for its role in future. The loss of an independent voice will need considerable justification by the Minister if we are not to return to this on Report.
The Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board was set up in 1991—again by a Conservative Government. Its statutory role is to give advice on request to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, to advise medical professionals working for the DWP on cases as and when requested, and to produce annual reports. The board draws members from across the health and social care field and must include at least six disabled people. The Government's justification for its demise is that they now have available to them a number of sources of advice, including medical practitioners and experts in the disability field such as Equality 2025. We acknowledge that. They suggest that the board has not been commissioned to provide any advice since November 2008 and that this position is likely to continue. One presumes on this basis that the board is not being consulted on reform of the DLA.
As we know, the Government propose to introduce the replacement to the DLA—the personal independence payment—in 2013-14, and will start with a reassessment of the working age case load. It is proposed that there will be no automatic entitlement to the PIP, and each case will be looked at individually to consider the impact of the impairment or health condition. Key to the benefit will be an objective assessment of individual need, which is being developed in collaboration with a group of independent specialists in health, social care and disability, including disabled people. Does not this description fit the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board? Are you not in danger of removing it from the scene at the very point when its expertise might be brought to bear in aid of government policy?
It is accepted that the Government have sought to involve a wide range of individuals and organisations in the consultation, and that is how it should be, although the Minister might explain why the consultation period is shorter than the recommended 12 weeks and included the Christmas and new year breaks. Although we hold no particular brief for the board—it might perhaps be refreshed rather than terminated—we are entitled to ask the Government what mechanisms they will put in place to ensure that disabled people and experts working in health and social care can monitor the implementation of the new arrangements and provide independent advice to ensure that the descriptors are accurate and relevant, that the process will be fair for disabled people, and that assessments are carried out by appropriately qualified individuals with capable and confident decision-makers—in other words, learning the lessons of the ESA.
Now is not the time for a detailed debate on the proposals to reform the DLA other than to say that we will examine the detail of the final proposals specifically to see that they maintain the principles of a universal benefit that recognises the additional cost of living for someone with a disability and supports those who can work as well as those who cannot, and that disabled people are fully involved in the design of the gateway. We accept that the Government have made clear that they accept their obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to consult disabled people in the design and monitoring of decisions and policies affecting disabled people.
However, the removal of the mobility component of the DLA for people living in residential care has increased apprehension in the disabled community that the thrust of policy has more to do with budget cuts than with the modernisation of support for disabled people. Removing this disability component will have a huge and regressive impact on the independence of thousands of disabled people, with many left unable to afford to leave their homes and denied the independence that most people take for granted.
Appropriate advice from the advisory board on this proposal would have made it abundantly clear up front the damage that it would inflict. Promise of a full consultation after the announcement and before implementation will not do much to allay the fears of some 80,000 people whose lives will be impaired if this proceeds. If the advisory board is to go, what will replace it? How will the independent knowledge and expertise of disabled people and others be systematically brought to bear in shaping and monitoring government policy. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support my noble friend’s amendments and speak as someone with recent experience of the situation. I was disabled for six months and realised in that time how difficult life can be if you do not have mobility. It is often difficult to move outside your own front door, to do your shopping, or to come to this place, which I like to do. You rely entirely on the services available to enable you to go outside your front door. Unless there is a body to see that the facilities you need are available, many disabled people will simply be prisoners in their own homes.
This is an increasing problem, because, as we get older, more of us become disabled. I hope that I am not permanently disabled, but I do not know whether I will be. It is certainly a difficult life. It is no longer possible to pop round to the shops or to post a letter. You are entirely dependent on the support provided by other people. I am fortunate in that I have some very good neighbours and some very good friends, but not everyone is in that situation. There is no doubt that an increasing number of people can find themselves simply unable to move outside their front door.
We need to maintain bodies of the kind that is referred to here to ensure that the facilities that are available are maintained, because a lot of them are provided by local authorities and, as we all know if we have read some of the material issued by the Government, local authorities will have their financial resources cut. Will they be able to maintain some of the excellent services that exist in many places? We want to ensure that the services that we have are available and are improved so that many people are not simply unable to utilise services that ought to be available because the finance is not there. What will be done if those two bodies disappear? They should not disappear. It is evident that they have done a lot of work already to maintain services. We want the services to be improved. Please keep them and ensure that they are available to us.
My Lords, I had not thought of declaring my disability as an interest but, in view of what the noble Baroness has said, perhaps I had better. I certainly sympathise with some of the points that she has made.
However, I had been going to declare two other interests in a speech which I do not think will count on the McNally scorecard, partly because it is not related to his department and partly because it will be as neutral as I can possibly make it. One interest is that I must have been the Minister responsible for disabled people at the time when DPTAC was established—albeit not by what was then the DHSS, or the DSS; I have forgotten which. I was certainly the Minister responsible, as Secretary of State, for creating the disability living allowance in its current form and therefore for establishing the advisory committee. I do not regard either of those points as an argument for me to defend the status quo without regard to what has happened in the intervening period, but it clearly gives me an interest in the matter.
I am bound to express some caution, particularly in respect of the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board, when I am told that one reason why it is thought to be no longer needed is that its function is to give advice only when asked for by the Secretary of State, so that when the Secretary of State decides that he does not want the advice—which may well be because he knows what he is going to get but he does not want it—it should become redundant. There appears to be a certain amount of circularity about that argument, which I hope that my noble friend from the DWP will be able to deal with.
As to DPTAC, I understand that some alternative arrangement is to be made, but no one knows what that will be. I hope that we can be told today but, if not, we are back in the situation of the previous debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, said, all of this would be much easier if the Government came clean and said, “We need something. It isn’t this, but this is what it is”. What we are being told time after time is, “We don’t need this. We know we need something, but we don’t know what it is”. That is very unsatisfactory indeed.
I support the amendments in my name and that of my noble friend Lord McKenzie. There is not much that I want to add to the excellent case made by my noble friend. In some ways, I want to echo the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Newton. These are two advisory bodies affecting disabled people and there are some fairly standard questions about both of them that it would be useful for the Minister to answer. How are the bodies being replaced? How much money, if any, is being saved by their abolition? Given that these are advisory committees made up of people with disability, rather than people who might describe themselves as experts in matters of disability, how will the Minister ensure that the voices of people such as my noble friend Lady Turner, who spoke of her own experience of being disabled, are heard and that people’s experiences of the transport system in relation to the disability living allowance are properly heard by Ministers as they make their decisions?
More specifically, I note that the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee has as its aim that,
“disabled people should have the same access to transport as everybody else”.
On its website, it says:
“We want this to happen by 2020”.
Why not let it run on until 2020, when it thinks that it might have achieved its aim? Why not give it that target and that very clear end date? The chair of the committee, Dai Powell, in response to the announcement by the Government that, under the Bill, DPTAC would be abolished, said:
“I and the Committee consider there is still so much to be done, the transport system is still inaccessible to many people, and we have more work to do with our stakeholders (not least the Olympic Delivery Authority)”.
If the Minister is not willing to be as generous as 2020, would it not be sensible at least to be clear, here and now, that he will not use the powers that he is seeking in the Bill to abolish DPTAC until after the Olympics? Then at least it could continue the good work that it is doing with the ODA to ensure that the Games and the Paralympic Games are successful and accessible for people with disabilities.
Finally, in respect of the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board, clearly the Minister shares our concerns that consultation is important and has been consulting over the changes to disability living allowance to create the new personal independence payment. However, is the normal, statutory consultation process enough? Is he getting consistent expert advice from people with disability, given how regularly problems around DLA are in the news? Within the last month we have had the Public Accounts Committee report on 16 December, which said that the appeals procedure needs improvement. Already this month we have had reports that the new payment may be in breach of people’s human rights. Clearly, as we move from one system to another, there are going to be sticking points and difficulties. It would seem sensible for the Minister to seek advice from the advisory board that he has at his disposal to try to iron out some of those difficulties as we move from one system to another. If, after that, he thinks that he can make a good case for getting rid of the board, perhaps he should seek to do so at that point.
My Lords, I should like to say a few words about these two amendments. In so doing, I declare my interest as a recipient of disability living allowance. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, had very much hoped to be present to speak to these amendments this afternoon but, sadly, she is not well and very much regrets that she cannot be here. However, she has asked me to say that she would like to be associated with my remarks.
The Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board seems already to have disappeared. Its website has been removed and the telephone numbers associated with it are now being answered by other DWP staff. This might be thought to be jumping the gun somewhat. DLA, as we know, helps many thousands of disabled people with the higher cost of living as a disabled person, but, as we have heard, the Government have announced that they wish to make significant changes to the benefit. The June emergency Budget announced plans to cut working-age DLA expenditure and case load by 20 per cent. This would represent well over 360,000 disabled people aged 16 to 64 losing their disability living allowance. The Government opened a formal consultation on this proposal in December, but have indicated that they are considering extending the changes to children and to people over 65, potentially affecting many more thousands of disabled people and their families. However, the consultation is full of inaccuracies. One example is the repeated claim that there is no process to check that awards remain correct, but the DWP can require a review with an independent medical adviser of any DLA award at any time. The Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board would, of course, have been able to advise the department on this issue, had it been asked.
The October spending review also made it clear that the Government want to end mobility payments to disabled people in residential care. This has been particularly controversial. Not enough detail is yet available on this proposal, but the DWP has already had to recalculate its figures on how many disabled people will be affected. Originally, the Government suggested that it would be about 50,000 people, but they now suggest that it will mean 80,000 disabled children, adults and pensioners losing benefit. One might have thought that, in the context of such significant DLA reform, an independent expert advisory body would have been useful to the Government and could have helped to ensure that reform was effective. Instead, it is apparent that the Government made their DLA pledges without expert support or full consideration of the impact. An adequately resourced DLA advisory board properly involved in policy development could have saved the Government some red faces. Axing the body risks undermining the Government’s ability to understand the benefit and provides ammunition to those who suggest that the Government’s plans are unfair. The inaccurate statements and the need to revise figures on the numbers of people affected only add weight to the belief that quango reform has been botched, as the Public Accounts Committee has suggested.
The Minister for Disabled People has now convened, as we have heard, a new expert panel to help to design a different DLA assessment procedure and to facilitate a new stakeholder group on DLA reform more generally. I believe that the work of these groups could have been informed, if not led, by the advisory board, possibly, as has been suggested, in a revised form, and I hope that the Government will reconsider abolition.
On Amendment 34, DPTAC has a strong record of bringing about change in a considered and measured way. Its influence can be seen across all forms of transport, from bus design specifications to guidance for the aviation industry. By recognising the constraints and characteristics of transport industries, it has been able to win over those in that sector who might otherwise have been resistant to change and it has ensured that the transport needs of disabled people are better met. For example, features that we now take for granted on buses today, such as colour-contrasted handrails, bell pushes that can be reached by passengers in wheelchairs, clear information displays and so on, were all introduced as a result of the work of the committee. The DPTAC spec, as it came to be known, was a standard accessibility specification for the bus industry and to this day remains a central part of the Public Service Vehicles Accessibility Regulations.
Of course, one cannot make a case for retaining a body on the basis of past glories alone, but in recent years the Department for Transport has, I am sorry to say, lost its focus on transport and disability issues, as witnessed by the complacent attitude that it has adopted towards the development of so-called shared surface schemes, in which pedestrians are expected to take their life in their hands and mingle indistinguishably with motorised traffic as all pavements and security barriers are dismantled. This has come about as a result of the closure of the specialist unit in the department, which had for 20 years led on these policy issues and provided secretariat support to DPTAC.
The loss of DPTAC would be a further retrograde step. Rather than looking at abolishing the committee, the Government should recognise that DPTAC is a model that should be extended to other departments. It was one of the first bodies representing disabled people to require that at least 50 per cent of its members were themselves disabled. In its press release, the department has indicated that it will put in place measures to ensure that the needs of disabled people continue to be understood and represented. However, as other speakers have said, there is no detail on how that will be achieved. Like others, I very much hope that we may hear a lot more on this from the Minister today.
However, I have to say that what little has leaked out so far is not encouraging. In a recent meeting on a different matter with representatives from the disability sector, the Transport Minister, Norman Baker, indicated that he would be looking to appoint a single disability representative to his bus advisory group. The needs of disabled people—the blind, the deaf and those with mobility difficulties—are so diverse that a single individual cannot possibly represent the interests of disabled people as a whole. If this is the kind of approach that the department has in mind, it is clear that it has learnt nothing and has understood nothing and that the interests of disabled people will not be well served.
DPTAC is not a costly body. Payments for members were introduced only in the past year. The overheads of the committee are relatively modest. They include the salary costs of around four DfT officials, payments to members and out-of-pocket expenses, and some admin costs, such as stationery. The committee staff are located in the DfT. There are no other property overheads. This is not the kind of quango that commands a multimillion pound budget. The financial savings that will be made by abolishing it will not be significant if one contrasts that with the negative impact on the mobility and transport needs of disabled people that the abolition of the committee will have. I hope very much that the Government will think again about its abolition.
My Lords, this group of amendments would remove the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board and the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee from the list of bodies to which the Public Bodies Bill applies. I can see no circumstances in which this would be desirable. Both these bodies were set up for very good reasons but they no longer reflect the world in which they operate.
Let me first turn to the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board. The board was established in 1991 to provide advice to the Secretary of State on matters relating to disability living allowance and attendance allowance. I am delighted to thank members of the board for the advice that they have provided over the years, which has contributed to policy debate in the department. However, as other noble Lords have pointed out, it should be noted that the board has not been asked to provide advice since November 2008 by the present or the previous Administrations.
Medical experts in the department are already providing the department, including disability living allowance decision-makers and departmental medical officers, with medical advice and medical input into policy decisions. When required, the department can obtain expert medical advice in specialist medical fields using “task and finish” groups. Members of Equality 2025, a public body, are well placed to provide personal insight into the effects of policy initiatives.
One of the things that has changed since 1991 is the creation of the Office for Disability Issues. The fact is that it has managed to organise a much wider range of channels from disabled people’s organisations and groups which completely changes the environment in which this advisory body, among others, operates. It is in that context that we should look at this step.
I turn now to a specific point raised by the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, about the reform of the DLA and the involvement of experts in that reform. We have a group of independent specialists in health, social care and disability, as well as disabled people. The group includes individuals from a range of professions such as occupational therapy, psychiatry, physiotherapy, social work, general practice, community psychiatric nursing, and representatives from RADAR and Equality 2025. We are pulling in from widespread channels a huge variety of relevant expertise.
A question was raised by the noble Lords, Lord McKenzie and Lord Knight, about the length of the consultation period. We did consult widely with disability organisations, letting them know our thinking well in advance of the publication of the consultation, and we will continue to work with and involve them in the overall process going forward.
Let me finish my remarks on this particular board. This is a classic example of a body that was set up for a very good reason, but which has now outlived its useful life. Things have moved on since 1991 and the Public Bodies Bill will allow the Government to reflect those changes by abolishing this body.
This is not a change being made with any view to making savings because I think that this board does not cost anything at all. I believe the services of the board members are given on a pro bono basis, for which we have been very grateful. Neither of these are money-saving measures since in money terms these bodies are rather inexpensive sources of advice, but the point is whether they are a relevant and necessary function in a changed environment.
Let me turn to the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. The Government’s approach to disability and transport has moved forward significantly since 1985 when the committee was established and the important issues of disability equality are now a core element of departmental policy and delivery. At a practical level, although there is still more to be done about the kind of improvements that still need to be made—no one would disagree with the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady Turner, and the noble Lord, Lord Low—nevertheless it is the case that access to all modes of transport has been transformed over the past two and a half decades. Rather than seeking access for disabled people as a specialist topic, transport operators across the sector are now expected to incorporate their needs into the mainstream of transport planning and delivery. All public bodies have a statutory duty under the Equality Act 2010 to take equalities issues into account in their decision-making. Against this background, and while recognising the valuable work that the committee has done for the department in areas such as accessibility and mobility policy, there is scope to reform the way in which disability advice is delivered to increase flexibility and accountability to the taxpayer.
The question was raised by a number of noble Lords about what or whether anything replaces the DPTAC advice. We intend to commence a consultation in the near future on successor arrangements to DPTAC in order to ensure that we continue to get the advice that we need, thus improving accountability and flexibility and, therefore, value for the taxpayer. It is worth noting that the policy divisions within the Department for Transport increasingly seek advice from specific modal groups. For example, in aviation the department tends to use sources of information closer to the aviation sector—airlines, airports, the CAA, and so forth. The question of timing was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Knight, particularly in relation to the Olympics. DPTAC continues to exist until such time as it is abolished by order and this is unlikely to occur before 2012. Therefore, the Olympic work will carry on as routine.
The noble Baroness, Lady Turner, raised the point about whether local authorities would continue to perform their duties in this respect. No local authority should ignore the needs of disabled travellers. Local authorities are subject to clear equalities duties and, as such, should be actively promoting equality for disabled people. All transport operators within local authority areas are subject to provisions under the Equality Act 2010.
Let me pick up one or two other points. First, moving back to DLA and the mobility component, local authority contracts with care homes oblige those care homes to make sure that their clients or inhabitants have access to doctors, dentists and other local services and to help residents pursue their independence. That is part of the confusion of obligations that we are trying to disentangle and will do so under the DLA reform that we are undertaking.
Secondly, to pick up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Low, on the replacement of DLA with PIP, or personal independence payment, about 14,000 people on DLA have never had their claims looked at since getting the benefit in the period from 1992 to the present day and around 20 per cent of people on DLA have not had any contact with DWP in 10 years. The reduction in the forecast working age expenditure, which we are looking at in the DLA reform, effectively brings expenditure in 2014-15 back down to what it was in 2009-10. We are talking about a cut in a projection, not an absolute cut.
I close with our reason to abolish DPTAC. The Secretary of State for Transport and his department will continue to ensure that transport policies promote equality. We will also, as I said, be taking forward a consultative process on successor arrangements to the committee in the coming months. As part of that process, the Department for Transport will of course publish the full impact assessment. Given that, I ask the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, not to press the amendment.
Before the noble Lord responds, I do not want to make too much trouble, but I must say that I did not find that terribly persuasive. I can well understand that the Secretary of State did not wish to seek the advice of the Disability Living Allowance Advisory Board on the proposals that have just been put forward because he would have got a major flea in his ear. I do not want to enter into that argument, which is not for today, but there is serious concern of the kind that various noble Lords have alluded to in the debate and that would have been reflected. The easiest way of not having that reflected is to say that you do not need the body that gives you that type of advice. Having been a Minister myself, I have to say that I have an unduly cynical view of what the real motivation may be, but it is very unreasonable of me to say that.
On DPTAC and the two bodies taken together, if I hear the Minister right, he is a very self-sacrificial man. He is saying that these bodies cost nothing, do no harm and we are going to have to spend money to get advice somewhere else, presumably also at nil cost. I am bound to say that if I were one of his ministerial colleagues, certainly in the Government in which I served, I would have said, “Why do you want to stir up all this trouble? Why put off all these people who have been giving their services pro bono in order to spend time and trouble consulting about how to replace their efforts? It does not make sense”. I rest my case.
I ought to respond to that, especially to the creator of the board. The core point is that these advisory bodies are rather narrowly focused and we are now looking at a much wider set of obligations and a much wider capacity. We have the Office for Disability Issues, which was never thought of in the 1990s. That provides a whole range of channels into the community that did not exist. We are talking about moving from a narrowly focused piece of advice to a much wider set of interchanges with the disabled community. My noble friend was right. This has not been done for monetary reasons, but to reflect the world that we live in and to get advice on the broadest possible scale in the right way when we need it.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke in this short but well informed debate. I am doubly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Newton. I said when I introduced these amendments that I did not propose to press them today and I do not, but he has given me special food for thought when we come to Report. Like the noble Lord, Lord Newton, I was not totally convinced by the Minister's response although as ever he did a sterling job trying to hold the government line.
To summarise the contributions of all noble Lords other than the Minister, I say that they recognised the importance of hearing the voices of disabled people in these situations and not just a lone voice—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Low. We need to hear about the full range of issues that disabled people face. We heard about the importance of an independent voice, as the noble Lord, Lord Newton, said—not just speaking when you are spoken to and asked a question. There needs to be an independent means for people to input. I agree with that point about not just responding when you are asked a question.
Each noble Lord who spoke did so from a particular standpoint. My noble friend Lady Turner spoke of her own challenges with mobility in recent times. She raised the issue of local authorities and the Minister reminded us of the equality duties imposed on local authorities. We have to recognise that the financial constraints currently imposed on local authorities are draconian—the worst they have faced for decades. That provides them with challenges.
I was not aware that the noble Lord, Lord Newton, was the creator of the DLA and DPTAC that we are discussing today. To date, before his Government’s measures, they have stood the test of time. We are not opposed to a recasting of DLA. I mentioned in my presentation the sort of issues we look to come out of the review. My noble friend Lord Knight of Weymouth raised some important issues. On the timing, I am delighted that DPTAC will at least outlast the 2012 Olympic Games. That is to be welcomed.
The other general theme on which all noble Lords focused was that of knowing, if you are going to get rid of something, what is going in its place. We had one veil lifted this afternoon in relation to the advisory board and the engagement on the recasting of DLA, although the noble Lord, Lord Low, rightly pointed out some of the problems with the consultation. If the input the Government are now getting is, as they argue, so important, valuable and different that it displaces the advisory board and DPTAC, how have they ended up with this huge challenge around the mobility component of DLA and the need to revisit and revise the numbers? There is an inconsistency in the Minister’s argument.
Prompted by the question on cost of my noble friend Lord Knight, the noble Lord, Lord Newton, said that if something costs nothing then we do not need to spend money on putting something in its place. We can get advice for free so why change it? I acknowledge the role of the ODI and the new engagement that it has brought to the whole issue of dealing with disabled people and their challenges. However, that in itself is not a reason for doing away with these bodies, particularly DPTAC. I was not aware of the issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Low, about the Department for Transport having just one person along to their bus advisory board. How can that one person possibly represent the full range of issues faced by disabled people needing to access public transport and buses in particular?
There are some issues there that the Government need to be clearer on if we are not to take forward at least one of these amendments on Report. For the time being, I beg leave to withdraw Amendment 33 but we need to look at the record of this debate and think seriously about what we will do on Report.
Amendment 33 withdrawn.
Amendments 34 to 36 not moved.
36A: Schedule 1, page 16, line 30, at end insert—
“Food Standards Agency.”
I realise that putting down an amendment to add something to this hotchpotch Bill may seem perverse in the extreme but assure the Committee that there is method in my madness. This is a probing amendment, designed to achieve what we seem to have signally failed to achieve so far with this Bill: that is, to gain some understanding of the rationale, the explanation or the philosophy that lies behind (the arm’s-length institutions that are included in the Bill and those that are not). I use the Food Standards Agency as an example of a body that is not in the Bill but about which reform is being proposed.
The Food Standards Agency, is, as it says on its website,
“an independent Government department set up by an Act of Parliament in 2000 to protect the public's health and consumer interests in relation to food”.
What has already been announced is that some of its functions will be taken away and given to Defra, and nutrition and dietary health will be moved back to the Department of Health. That is a very retrograde step in the view of many people concerned with diet and health. I think we can safely say that the Food Standards Agency was specifically formed after the BSE food scandals to try to re-establish public confidence in food advice by creating an arm’s-length body and an independent organisation. If the Government wish to change that fundamentally, they have to have some justification for addressing those issues specifically. Even if they wish to make the FSA a leaner and more cost-effective body, as they have done and to which the FSA has responded very well, cost-cutting is not the point here. It would seem that the FSA can be changed and its powers taken away without recourse to Parliament, without consultation and without this Bill.
Why is the FSA not included in this Bill? I was tempted to table an amendment for all the non-departmental government bodies that are not included in this Bill just to try to make sense of the Bill, and I have not ruled out that idea. For example, we will address later the other health bodies that are included in this Bill: the HFEA and the HTA. They were created with a similar motivation to that behind the Food Standards Agency—the need to have an arm’s-length body independent of government that could be trusted by the public to give good advice.
So far, the passage of this Bill has resembled a familiar song that we may all know, “The Hokey Cokey”. You put Channel 4 or Ofcom in the Bill, then you take them out of the Bill—or you think about it—and maybe shake them all about a bit. In the case of the recent government amendments on the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee, and a host of the other judicial-sounding bodies, they are out, but why? Perhaps we should rename this Bill the Hokey Cokey Bill.
Since tabling this amendment, the Public Administration Select Committee in another place has very obligingly published, Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State. I had intended to use the Treasury’s admirable publication, Reforming Arm's Length Bodies, and the Institute for Government’s document, Read Before Burning, as a theme for this discussion, because both contain a sensible description of the different kinds of arm’s-length bodies, what they do and how they might be reviewed and reformed. However, I think that they have been overtaken by the admirable report from the committee under Mr Bernard Jenkin MP about the dog’s breakfast that is not just this Bill but the whole process of reforming arm’s-length bodies.
To go back to basics, the coalition agreement merely said:
“We will reduce the number and cost of quangos”.
I have to say that my own Government’s policy was along the same lines. The Reforming Arm's Length Bodies document outlined how to do this in an orderly fashion over a period of time and save money in the course of doing that. So the Government started a cost-reduction exercise. Shortly after the election, they undertook to review public bodies sponsored by departments, including executive agencies. The stated aim of the review was primarily to increase the accountability of government. To achieve this, the review attempted to indentify functions that could be transferred from public bodies to central departments. The Government argued that Ministers could then be directly responsible for those activities and could be held to account by Parliament for the discharge of those activities. Indeed, Francis Maude, the Minister in the Cabinet Office—I particularly like this bit—said:
“I have led an intensive review into public bodies, subjecting each to four tests. The first test was existential and asked, does the body need to exist and do its functions need to be carried out at all?”.—[Official Report, Commons, 14/10/10; col. 505.]
I think that existential is a really good word to use in the process of these discussions. Those tests were whether,
“a precise technical operation needs to be performed to fulfil a ministerial mandate”.
The second area was,
“where it may be right to delegate power to an independent body … when there is a need for politically impartial decisions”.
The third area was,
“where there is likely to be a need for independent action … when facts need to be transparently determined”.
The fourth area, of course, was the existential test.
Added to that, we have another test, which appeared slightly late in the day: transparency. According to the report:
“The Ministry of Justice has retained bodies on the grounds of ‘transparency’”,
so we know now that we have at least four or five tests that the Government have said need to be applied to arm’s-length bodies.
The report goes on to say:
“It is also unclear whether all three of the tests the Government set were necessary in determining whether a function should remain at arm's length from Government”.
The report adds that the Institute for Government,
“during its research for its report, Read Before Burning, conducted its own evaluation of public bodies and the level of independence they need to discharge their functions properly. Their evidence states that: The key issue for deciding to put a function at arm's length is the degree of independence from day-to-day ministerial intervention needed to enable the body to command public confidence that it can perform its function in the public interest”.
That test applies completely to the FSA, and indeed to several bodies that are included in this Bill. We therefore have the importance of the independence test.
The additional test that is brought to bear is that of value for money. As well as the four or five tests that I have already outlined, the Select Committee says that the Government,
“are silent on a range of other issues, such as the implication of changes on the wider public policy framework, value for money, or current performance of organisations”.
The report concludes:
“The Government did not consult properly on these proposals. When undertaking such a fundamental review of the machinery of government it is desirable and sensible to do so”.
Our own Merits Committee did, as I recall, agree with that.
The report goes on to say that the Government do not apply the tests consistently and have declined, in some cases,
“to provide an explanation for why it intends to retain a body”.
It seems to me that asking for an explanation of why the Food Standards Agency is not included in this Bill is exactly the point of this Select Committee report. The Government have been inconsistent about what is in the Bill, what is out of the Bill, and what tests should be applied to the bodies that they intend to keep and to reform. The conclusion of this very critical report says:
“We are not convinced that the Government has applied its tests consistently. Neither can we find any evidence to suggest that it took any steps to ensure a uniform approach was taken. We recommend that the Cabinet Office publish details on how the tests have been applied to all public bodies that are still under review, so we can ensure that in future these tests are applied consistently.
The lack of consultation and inconsistent application of the tests, which are themselves confusing”—
I would agree with that—
“have led us to conclude that there was no coherent and consistent process for reviewing public bodies”.
I return to the Food Standards Agency, which I would not wish to include in this Bill. Whether or not I proceed to add a whole host of other bodies into the Bill in a desperate attempt to understand the rationale is dependent on the Minister’s explanation. I would really appreciate him addressing the very important issues that are raised in this report—and this is the first opportunity we have had to say this. I would like an explanation of the broader implications that this report has for the Bill. Obviously, it involves not just the Food Standards Agency but many, many bodies.
Finally, we on these Benches are not opposed to modernising arm’s-length bodies. Indeed, in March last year we published a document about the reform of arm’s-length bodies that said that we intended to reduce their number by 123 and to save money by doing so. However, we intended to do it in an orderly fashion with consistent and consistently applied criteria. This Government have not done that, and we need an explanation of what they intend to do next. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Thornton for raising three very substantive matters with this amendment: first, what is to happen to the FSA; secondly, the process by which the Government have undertaken this review; and, thirdly—coming back to the debate on the first group of amendments—the architecture of the Bill.
I was the Department of Health Minister who, with the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, as the Defra Minister, took through the legislation that created the Food Standards Agency. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, and I are singing off the same hymn sheet here. I remind the noble Lord that the reason for this was that there was a great deal of public distrust, it would be fair to say, arising out of the BSE issue along with some concern about the advice that the relevant government departments had been giving to the public. Therefore, the decision was taken to create an independent agency sponsored not by Defra but by the Department of Health.
Overall, that agency has worked very well indeed. I pay particular tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and to Mr Geoffrey Podger, the first chair and chief executive of the FSA—and, indeed, to their successors—for doing what I think has been an outstanding job. It has certainly advanced the credibility of the advice that that body gives to the public and, importantly, has also enhanced the credibility of the British food industry. I therefore have some reservations about the changes that are now being proposed to the FSA. I understand that there will be a transfer of some of its responsibilities to the Department of Health. I must declare my interests in relation to the health service and to public health as they are recorded in the Register. The FSA has a tremendous reputation and, in the Government’s place, I would hesitate before making substantive changes.
However, the second point raised by my noble friend relates to the rationale for the Government’s approach both to those bodies that are contained in the Bill and those that are not. It is still not clear to many noble Lords what the rationale is. This is a good opportunity for the Minister, who, as noble Lords have already remarked, has been very helpful to the House, to explain some more about the rationale for the bodies contained in the Bill and those that are not, even where those that are not are actually to have substantive changes made to them.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, will be a little tired of having Select Committee reports quoted back to him because it would be fair to say that all of the Select Committees that have so far looked at the Bill and at the review undertaken by the Government have been not exactly complimentary. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has to answer the central charge of the Public Administration Select Committee, chaired by Mr Bernard Jenkin, which said:
“This review was poorly managed … no meaningful consultation, the tests the review used were not clearly defined and the Cabinet Office failed to establish a proper procedure for departments to follow”.
Apart from rejecting the Select Committee’s report out of hand, the Government have been rather silent in responding so far. We are entitled to some comment on the review process itself.
My noble friend Lady Thornton referred to the Bill as being the “Hokey Cokey Bill”. I think it is more Gilbertian myself. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor has a little list. In fact it is a very big list that is gradually becoming smaller. I note that the Jonathan Miller production of “The Mikado” is back at the Coliseum yet again. The noble Lord might take care and reflect by going to see it.
It brings us back to the architecture of the Bill. In an earlier debate the noble Lord, Lord Lester, raised the question of Amendment 175, which is consequential on the paving Amendment 1 that the House passed. That is a very important amendment because it sets very clearly the restrictions on ministerial powers to be used in the Act. If, as a result of the discussions that I know that his officials are having with noble Lord, Lord Lester, tomorrow and other discussions, the Government were able to accept the principle of Amendment 175, while making it clear that they do not intend to reverse this in the other place, then we would make more progress.
There are other substantive issues in relation to the architecture. I have already mentioned the use of the supra-affirmative procedure and the deletion of Schedule 7. Some reassurance that public consultation will take place when it is proposed to deal with any of the bodies in this order would go some considerable way to reassuring noble Lords. In the absence of the House understanding what changes the Government are prepared to make to the architecture, we go inevitably through these bodies one by one and, in a sense, in a vacuum—a point made earlier by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. We are due a Committee day next week when, no doubt, we will hear when further Committee days are to take place. I hope that in a fairly short time the Government will be able to make a little clearer their sense of where they are on the Bill and whether they are prepared to make the kind of changes to its construct that would reassure noble Lords considerably.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, for tabling this amendment. I know that she has done so with good intentions but we have enough on our plate without adding an extra dish to the menu. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, for his recommendation to see “The Mikado”. I saw it when it was previously on at the Coliseum. In fact, I have tickets. Should time allow, I hope to see it in revival.
As your Lordships are aware, the Public Bodies Bill exists to take forward the review of public bodies undertaken across the Government in 2010 to enable changes to be made. I acknowledge the report of the Select Committee produced by another place and no doubt we will be replying to that report in due course. However tempting it might be, I do not want to use this debate as an opportunity for expanding on arguments that the Government will bring forward in their discussions with that committee. We are negotiating with the opposition Front Bench and the Select Committees of your Lordships’ House to try to improve the Bill. It is interesting that, as the noble Baroness said, there is a determination across the House to ensure that we have a public bodies sector that is fit for purpose.
Perhaps I may address the changes that have occurred within the Food Standards Agency in the context of the recent history of the department. The previous Government announced in their public health White Paper, published shortly before the election, that they would bring dietary health and nutrition away from the FSA into the Department of Health. That is the background against which, under the new Government on 20 July 2010, the Department of Health announced its decision to retain the Food Standards Agency as an independent regulator, while transferring some of its functions to the Department of Health and Defra. I shall shortly put those into the context of the size of the organisation. These changes are non-statutory in nature and do not therefore require the use of the Public Bodies Bill, or any another legislative vehicle, to bring them into effect.
The proposed changes to the role of the FSA are designed to contribute to the Government’s objectives to improve efficiency and are paramount to the key priority of improving the health of the nation by creating a public health service. To achieve this coherence, some policy-based functions are to be brought in-house to give a more co-ordinated approach on health and food issues. These changes affect approximately 5 per cent of the 2,000 staff employed by the Food Standards Agency. About 25 labelling policy posts will move to Defra and 85 nutrition policy posts will move to the Department of Health. These proposed changes reflect the Department of Health’s desire to bring together all the policy levers to enable it to deliver a coherent public health strategy. This will allow the FSA to focus on its key core remit of food safety underpinned by scientific expertise. It has been mentioned that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in establishing the Food Standards Agency, provided a foundation of science which has greatly benefited that organisation. The proposed changes will enable government food policy to be communicated and delivered in a coherent and consistent manner. The Department of Health, Defra and the FSA—we must not forget that the Food Standards Agency is classified as a government department—will work together to ensure that this structure protects consumer interests, reinforces efforts to improve the public’s health and supports a competitive food industry.
I acknowledge that the last thing the noble Baroness seeks is the extinction of the Food Standards Agency. On the basis of the assurances I have given, I hope that she will feel able to withdraw the amendment.
I thank the Minister for that Answer. I assure him that we are in agreement about not adding the FSA to the Bill. I will read his remarks and consider how we might usefully take forward the process of injecting coherence into this modernisation. However, I shall not do so now. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 36A withdrawn.
My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat in the form of a Statement the response given by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in another place. The Statement is as follows:
“Mr Speaker, we inherited from the previous Government a failed system of banking regulation and a situation where billions of pounds had been provided to bail out bankers with nothing demanded in return. It was a something-for-nothing deal that rightly left the British people seething with anger. Let me explain what we are doing to change this.
First, we are replacing the disastrous tripartite system for regulating banks established in 1997. Instead, our plan is to put the Bank of England clearly in charge. Secondly, we have created the Independent Commission on Banking to review the structure of the banking sector and address the issue of banks that are too big to fail—an issue that the previous Government’s failure to address brought this country’s economy to its knees. The commission will report this autumn. Thirdly, we have introduced a permanent levy on the banks in the face of opposition from the previous Government. This new banking tax started coming into effect last week and once fully operational will raise £2.5 billion each and every year—£8.8 billion over this Parliament. We are looking at the IMF’s proposed financial activities tax and we will work with international partners to secure agreement. Fourthly, we have demanded that the banks sign up to the code of practice on taxation. The previous Government created the code in a flourish of press releases, but we discovered that only four out of Britain’s 15 main banks had actually signed up to it. This coalition Government have made sure that every one of those 15 banks signs up. We are legislating in this year’s Finance Bill for tough anti-avoidance measures directed at some of the practices in the financial services sector that no one had previously attempted to stop.
Specifically on remuneration and bonuses, on 1 January this year we introduced the most stringent code of practice of any financial centre in the world. There will be for the first time a strict limit on the amount of bonus payable in upfront cash. There will be a requirement that 50 per cent of bonuses are paid in shares or other non-cash instruments, which bank employees will not be allowed to sell on for an appropriate period. Guaranteed bonuses will become the exception and not the rule. Crucially, the new bonus code has been significantly extended. It will cover payments and bonuses at 2,500 firms, while the code that we inherited covered pay and bonuses at only 25 individual financial firms.
When it comes to the Royal Bank of Scotland, I am having to deal with the thoroughly inadequate contract negotiated by the previous Cabinet, which this House is probably not aware puts no constraints at all on RBS’s bonuses this year. Indeed, it explicitly encourages it to pay bonuses in line with market rules. But despite this we have made it clear that RBS will have a smaller bonus pool than last year and should be a back-marker in the industry, instead of the front-runner that it once was.
In the coming weeks all the banks will be announcing their pay and bonuses for this year. I can confirm that we are now in discussion with the banks to see whether we can reach a new settlement where the banks pay smaller bonuses than they would otherwise have done, are more transparent about those that they do pay, make a greater contribution to local communities and the regional economy, treat customers fairly and, above all, lend materially and verifiably more than they were planning to the businesses of Britain, especially the small businesses, so that they can grow and create jobs this year. That is what a new settlement with the banks looks like—one where they lend to the British economy, contribute to the British Exchequer and provide jobs for the British people, where they are responsible on pay and bonuses and where Britain can be the world centre of a properly regulated and internationally competitive financial services industry. If the banks cannot commit to that, I have made it clear to them that nothing is off the table. I will keep Parliament informed of our discussions and, if the Opposition who created this banking mess have a better idea, let us hear it”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for repeating as a Statement the Chancellor’s reply to an Urgent Question asked by my right honourable friend Alan Johnson in another place, although it is notable that the Chancellor’s Answer had very little to do with the Question asked, which was about the Government’s view on the level of bonuses to be paid in the current round.
Is the noble Lord aware that the Government’s cut in taxation of the banks and the Chancellor’s rather obvious evasion of the substance of the Urgent Question will be received in the country with a mixture of despair and indignation, but not with any surprise? There will be despair because it was the reckless behaviour of the banks and others in the financial sector that imposed economic hardship, even misery, on millions of British people, particularly the most vulnerable. Does he agree with the Financial Services Authority that the bonus policies of the banks encouraged that reckless behaviour? Would he agree that the payment of large bonuses at this time is morally indefensible? Of course, there are lots of things in economic life that are morally indefensible, but the payment of large bonuses now is not just immoral but also against the national economic interest. That is why despair will be laced with indignation.
I believe that no one in Britain objects to the view that those who work hard and take risks with their own money deserve substantial rewards, but would the noble Lord agree that the profitability of the banks over the past year is due less to hard work and more to the financial support provided by the Government and to the low interest rate policies and other policies of the Bank of England? Is it not the case that the banks were reckless with our money, then we bailed them out and then they hoovered up the funds to pay themselves bonuses? Would the Minister agree with me that socially responsible banks will be using their profits to rebuild their balance sheets, strengthening their underlying finances, rather than frittering away our money in excessive bonuses?
Turning to the question of the taxation of bonuses, will the Minister tell the House whether the Government are considering following the practice in the United States, where remuneration in excess of $1 million is not allowable as an expense against corporation tax? The Chancellor asked for ideas and there is one. Members of the House will be aware that in the United States there is not a single non-dom, so will the Minister tell the House his estimate of the proportion of bonuses paid here to residents claiming non-dom status? What proportion of bonuses to non-doms is paid via non-UK jurisdictions? More generally, is the Minister able to tell the House what proportion of gross value added is paid in tax by the financial sector as compared to other major sectors of the economy?
Of course, once issues of taxation are raised, the bankers seek to hold the British people to ransom by claiming that they will simply leave these shores rather than pay their fair share. Will the Minister tell the House what proposals Her Majesty’s Government have made to the G7, the G20 or the European Union for a concerted international policy on financial sector remuneration?
The truly distressing factor about this Statement is that there is really nothing surprising in the Chancellor’s reply, other than his flagrant disregard of the heartfelt and legitimate concerns of the British people.
My Lords, I am disappointed in the response and the questions that we have just heard. My right honourable friend the Chancellor has made it clear that he is concentrating on what is really important: the big picture issue of getting rid of the former system of financial regulation, which was proven to have failed in the crisis. We are making fundamental changes to that. As I explained in repeating the Statement, there are ongoing discussions about what really matters, which is about treating customers fairly, making sure that lending is materially and verifiably more than the banks would otherwise be planning to lend and, in that context, ensuring that the banks pay smaller bonuses than they otherwise would have done. It is precisely the switch from bonuses towards lending, which the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, is asking for, that we are concentrating on now.
In answer to the noble Lord’s questions about taxation, far from introducing any cut in tax on banks, we have introduced a permanent levy rather than a one-year levy—a levy that raises in each individual year more than the previous Government’s one-off bonus tax did. Even the previous Chancellor, Alistair Darling, admitted that that bonus tax failed to change bankers’ behaviour, whereas the bank levy that this Government have introduced reflects the relative risk in different banks’ balance sheets.
I am grateful to the noble Lord for rising to the challenge about the allowability of bankers’ bonuses or total remuneration against tax. It is an interesting suggestion. We look at the total package in the round and I am always grateful for interesting new ideas.
In respect of taxation of non-domiciled individuals, whether they are bankers or others, I remind the noble Lord that it was my right honourable friend who, when in opposition, first raised the question of non-domiciled individuals making a proper contribution to tax in this country. We have taken the lead on that.
The overall priority must be to make sure that the banks pay a fair share, as we believe they now will. At the same time, we recognise the need to keep a vibrant banking sector in this country and to keep the UK as a centre of global banking, with banks continuing to lend to all businesses, particularly the small and medium-sized businesses in this country. We will continue to work with our European partners to urge agreement, particularly on a disclosure regime by banding of remuneration. We will continue to work with our partners on consideration of a financial activities tax. The critical thing, as my right honourable friend set out today, is that the Government are working in a thoroughly practical, hands-on way to deliver results and, in particular, will continue to work with the banks to make sure that lending to the businesses of this country supports the recovery that this economy is on track for.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for the Statement. I do not know whether he has read it lately, but I have here an excellent document, The Coalition: Our Programme for Government, in which Nick Clegg and David Cameron promised,
“radical plans to reform our broken banking system”.
Item 1 said on banking:
“We will bring forward detailed proposals for robust action to tackle unacceptable bonuses in the financial sector … We want the banking system to serve business, not the other way round”.
There is not much sign in the briefing that has been coming from No. 10 and the Treasury that they are very aware of those commitments. Can the Minister assure us that he will draw those commitments to the attention of the people in the Treasury who are working on these schemes, because frankly the messages that are coming out are not right when we are trying to do a serious negotiation with the banks to improve their behaviour?
Specifically on the Royal Bank of Scotland, what possible justification is there for Mr Hester, who is one of the highest-paid public sector workers in the country, to get any bonus at all when his bank has missed its legally binding mortgage and business lending targets by a mile?
My Lords, I am always grateful to my noble friend Lord Oakeshott for reminding us of what is in the coalition agreement, which is always at the heart of what we do. I am sure that my colleagues in the Treasury will need absolutely no reminder of what the coalition agreement says in this area, because it is precisely because we are guided by the coalition agreement that we now have a package that, as I have explained, means that 2,500 banks as opposed to 25 are caught by the code. For all their talk, the previous Government had not actually brought in any new remuneration code. We now have one in place. We are continuing, as I said, to urge our European partners to work with us on a common set of banding disclosures. The current discussions are precisely to make sure that bonuses are lower than they would otherwise have been and that lending is higher.
In respect of the Royal Bank of Scotland, as I said in the Statement, we found ourselves having inherited a most extraordinary agreement negotiated by the previous Government that put absolutely no restrictions on RBS’s payments and bonuses this year. We want to see RBS now not as a front-runner, which seemed to be where it was encouraged to be under the previous Government’s agreement, but as a back-marker when it comes to its bonus payments for this year.
Does the noble Lord recall the words of Nick Clegg, who asked whether it did not make one angry that the banks were being allowed to ride roughshod over our economy and were still handing out bonuses by the bucketload? Is the Minister satisfied that that situation should continue and that he should issue sanctimonious and tired Statements to the House? Does he not feel ashamed of what is happening?
My Lords, I am sorry if I will become tediously repetitive, but if the questions cover points that I thought I had made clearly, I will have to make them again. We are taking far more practical and effective action than the previous Government did. We have extended very considerably the scope and form of the disclosures on bonuses that must be made. As to the quantum, I repeat to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, that discussions led by my right honourable friend the Chancellor are ongoing, with the intention of making sure that bonuses are lower than otherwise they would have been and that lending to British businesses is materially and verifiably higher than it would have been. That is what we want in the context also of a vibrant and healthy banking system, which is good not only for this country but for the UK's global competitiveness.
My Lords, will my noble friend tell us whether bankers in New York and Frankfurt are being offered the same type of bonuses as bankers in London? Will he further tell us whether the American and German Governments take the same attitude to bonuses as this one?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Ryder for enabling me to remind noble Lords that other Governments are increasingly following the lead of the UK and introducing variations on the measures that we have introduced for the taxation of banks. Since the announcement of our bank levy, Germany, France and other countries have followed with similar constructs. It is critical that we make sure that, while the UK regime is the toughest interpretation among global financial centres of what has been agreed internationally, we seek to work within the framework laid down by the Financial Stability Board and endorsed by G20 Ministers. Whether it is in relation to the US, other European countries or global financial centres, we will continue to work energetically with our partners to secure, as far as is possible, common standards in this area.
My Lords, in 2009 the Prime Minister said that no bonuses of more than £2,000 should be paid to bankers while banks were in receipt of government support. The coalition agreement talked about robust action and detailed programmes to handle unacceptable bonuses. On that we have heard nothing at all. When we proposed disclosures about remuneration under the Walker report, this was supported by both the Conservative and Liberal parties. The Government have done nothing to implement the Walker recommendations.
The Minister asked for ideas. I will give him four. First, shareholders should be given a clear fiduciary responsibility, for which they can be held accountable under law, to take appropriate action to oversee the companies in which they have invested their clients’ money. Secondly, banks should not be able to offset the past losses against current corporation tax liabilities while they are in receipt of central government support, which most of our major banks still are through the special liquidity scheme and the credit guarantee scheme, as a consequence of which very few will pay any corporation tax for the foreseeable future.
Thirdly, there should be a charge for the capital that banks effectively enjoy through the state guarantee. The Bank of England has estimated that this is worth £100 billion. A fair charge for that would be of the order of £12 billion to £15 billion—the annual charge for risk for capital, which the Minister will understand—rather than the derisory £2.5 billion pounds which ultimately, but not initially, will be raised under the Government's bank levy proposal. That is a considerably smaller amount than was raised under the bank payroll tax.
Finally, if the Minister finds the RBS employment agreement with Mr Hester unacceptable, he can terminate it and replace it with a new one. Will he do so, because the people of this country will not accept a situation in which in excess of 5,000 people working in British banking will receive total remuneration in excess of £1 million per annum? This is totally unacceptable and we are entitled to a decent answer from the Minister to these questions on bonuses, rather than the blather that we have heard about other matters.
My Lords, I am not going to stand here and listen to the ridiculous tirade from the noble Lord, Lord Myners. If he had all these brilliant ideas, why did he not implement a single one of them when he was in office? It ill behoves him to come here with this litany of ideas, which may or may not be good but are given to me not in the spirit of co-operation but as a lecture telling me what we are not doing. I could repeat—but it would bore noble Lords interminably—the Statement of my right honourable friend, which gave a great list of things that we are doing and have done. The Government of the noble Lord, Lord Myners, left only 25 banks with any sort of disclosure requirements. We have extended that figure to 2,500. His Government managed to get a paltry four banks signed up to the much lauded taxation agreement. We now have the top 15 banks signed up. I could go on. It is no good the noble Lord giving me a lecture about what we should do. He had years to deal with the matter and completely failed. We are getting on in a very practical way to make sure that the banking industry and regulatory system is fixed.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Government are absolutely right to get rid of the failed tripartite agreement that caused many of the problems that we now face? Does he agree that we are making some progress in reducing cash payments, deferred bonuses and so on? However, I have some difficulty with his argument that bonuses are all right so long as the banks lend more. That seems to be a non sequitur, except in the sense that if we agree to the bonuses, the banks may lend more. However, they ought to be doing that anyway. The two issues are not connected except in the sense of, “We will be soft on you if you do what we want”. That is not the right approach.
As far as concerns RBS and the other banks that have been bailed out by the Government, I understand my noble friend's point about the agreement made by the previous Government. However, given the extent of participation in those banks, ought there not to be clear representation on behalf of taxpayers and the Government on the boards of the banks so that those directors could take appropriate action—because at the end of the day it is the board that decides these matters—with regard to bonuses?
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Higgins for recognising the progress that we are making on reform of the regulatory structures, and in relation to bonuses. We are absolutely not going soft on the banks, which is why, as we speak, discussions are ongoing to make sure that bonuses this year are lower than otherwise they would have been, and, in parallel with that, that banks will lend in a verifiable way more than they would have lent. We are not back-pedalling on any of this and are continuing to work actively with the banks.
As far as concerns the management of RBS and Lloyds, the basic construct put in place by the previous Government ensured that the banks would be managed on an arm’s-length basis without the Government directing their day-to-day operations. That is the broad principle to which we are sticking. Nevertheless, it is important that the Government, as a significant shareholder in RBS and Lloyds, make their views very clear on all matters including bonuses.
My Lords, it would help if we had some honesty in dealing with some of these issues. The Statement says that the previous Government’s failure to address them brought this country’s economy to its knees. Presumably the previous Labour Government were responsible for the banking failure in the USA, Portugal, Greece, Ireland, Spain and other parts of the world. This is a worldwide problem that is not solely related to the previous Government.
To come back to the Statement, the Chancellor said, and the Minister concluded with it, that, “if the Opposition that created this banking mess has a better idea, let us hear it”. My noble friend Lord Myners asked four questions and we await answers to them.
My Lords, all I can say is that I will listen to any ideas. I did not hear the question at the end of the four ideas put forward but I am willing to listen to all ideas from noble Lords on a whole range of topics. I am always listening but I am puzzled that when the noble Lord had so much time in government to put those ideas into operation he did not think that they were so good at the time.
At the Treasury Select Committee this morning Bob Diamond is reported to have said that Barclays is in the position that it is not too big to fail. Does the Minister agree with that statement and, if so, does that mean that if any big bank in distress comes to the Government in future the taxpayer will not be on the hook?
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McFall of Alcluith, for reminding us that there are other challenges as well as bankers’ bonuses to be resolved. The too-big-to-fail one is absolutely at the heart of strands of ongoing work. I did not have the opportunity to listen to the whole of what Mr Diamond said to the Treasury Select Committee but I certainly believe that whether it is in the work of the Independent Commission on Banking or in the discussions that are going on in international fora, the question of how to resolve bank failures is one to which we need to continue to give considerable priority. We are reminded that the question of the structure of banking is multifaceted and we should not focus exclusively on one aspect of it.
My Lords, clearly it depends on the level of profits they make as to how much they will benefit from the reduction in the rate of corporation tax. We look at the total package of taxation on banks, as we do for the rest of industry. We believe that by introducing in particular the levy on banks, they will be paying a fair share to the Exchequer. We need to take account of the remuneration taxes, continue to consider the costs and benefits and talk to our partners about a financial activity tax, but we must take the whole of the taxation burden on the banks in the round.
My Lords, does my noble friend not think it strange that the party opposite seeks to evade any responsibility for the situation in which we now find ourselves? Having created the situation in which the taxpayer has ended up as a very large shareholder in a number of UK banks, is it not now most important that those banks return to profitability so that the share price and the performance of the banks will enable the taxpayer to earn a profit on the investment? To do that, do the banks not need to be properly staffed and remunerated? Will not our proposal enable us to do something to mitigate the disastrous economic incompetence of the previous Government?
I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Hodgson and agree with his analysis. We need a successful and vibrant banking system in this country. We need healthy banks across the system, but it is particularly important for the taxpayer that the health of RBS and Lloyds is restored so that they can get a decent return in due course from its interest in those banks.
Indeed, bonuses based on a number of forms can be remunerative. It is now a fundamental part of the package agreed by G20 Ministers, incorporated in the European capital requirements directive in force from 1 January in the UK, that a significant part of bonuses now has to be paid in a non-cash form and cannot be cashed in for a considerable period. Absolutely, that needs to be part of the structure.
My Lords, the Independent this morning has some devastating quotes in recent months from the Prime Minister, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Business Secretary that can only be taken by ordinary people to mean that large, multimillion pound bonuses would be stopped by the Government. That is the only reasonable interpretation to put on them. Would it be sensible, if senior members of this Government cannot deliver such things, for them not to give the impression that they are going to do so? That is simply a propaganda own goal. Would the Minister also comment on the view from a former Business Secretary that the rich have suffered enough?
My Lords, I am conscious of the time. All I can say is that my right honourable friend the Chancellor has made it completely clear what we are doing today, which is a considerable package of things, one element of which is to talk actively to the banks with the aim of ensuring that the bonuses they will pay this year will be lower than they would otherwise have paid.
Public Bodies Bill [HL]
Committee (6th Day)(Continued)
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.
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.
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.
UK Border Agency: Visas and Passports
Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I originally tabled this Question for Short Debate more than a year ago when a number of horror stories were drawn to my attention about the then relatively new regional visa application process. Before doing so, however, and in the light of the information that I had been given from a number of sources, I tabled a Question for Written Answer to find out how many complaints have been received about the work of the UK Border Agency in administering the new process, to which I received a breezy reply from the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, saying that no complaints had been received. Given the number of cases that I had heard about, the volume of correspondence in the press at the time—in particular in the Independent—and the reaction of ambassadors and high commissioners posted here who were clearly at the receiving end of a lot of requests for help, I was surprised at the Minister’s reply, to put it mildly.
Perhaps I may illustrate this by quoting a couple of examples that were drawn to my attention. One was the case of a nun and her companion from the Dominican Republic, who wished to attend the celebrations to mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the foundress of her order. With the guarantee of full hospitality throughout the short visit and payment of air fares also guaranteed, there seemed no reason why these two exemplary Catholic women should not be able to experience this once in a lifetime event. However, the original application was rejected, as was the subsequent appeal, without reasons being given and in spite of a considerable campaign mounted on their behalf.
Another example is that of a most distinguished retired diplomat. Indeed, he was a former deputy Foreign Minister for his country, who is married and currently living in London. He returned home to visit his sick relative and was told that he would require a visa to return to the UK and to his wife. He did eventually get the visa, but the process took months and it was very traumatic for him and for his family.
I can also quote the case of an elderly English woman living in Chile who needed to renew her passport. She discovered that she had to send it off to Washington, which alarmed her greatly and delayed the whole process.
These examples relate to Latin America, but there are many more that I could refer to, relating to other parts of the world as well. The problem common to all these cases was not just that visitors from some countries found they needed visas where perhaps they had not previously been required, but that they could not go to the British embassy in their home country in order to process the application. I discovered that the new regional system set up in, I believe, April 2008, meant that anybody from anywhere in the Americas, from Patagonia, through south and central America, Mexico and the USA, all had to make their applications to the UK borders centre in New York, online and in perfect English. This seems to be carrying centralisation to extraordinary lengths.
I am aware that the business of applying for a visa wherever you are—and whoever you are—can be tedious, time-consuming and irritating, but the UK Border Agency, on the evidence I have seen, appears to be making the process unnecessarily difficult, protracted, bureaucratic and unfriendly. I am also aware that the Parliamentary Ombudsman, in a report out almost a year ago, stated that the UK Border Agency provides “very poor customer service” and has repeatedly failed to read and reply to letters, keep proper records, keep case files together and notify applicants of decisions.
That report related mainly to asylum applications, for which the considerations may well be different. But do we really want other potential visitors to our country, who simply need to make a short visit, to visit relatives, to attend a conference or perform in a music or poetry festival, to have to go through such a bureaucratic and unfriendly system, which must make them feel unwelcome?
It seems perverse, too, that on the one hand, our education establishments are encouraged to recruit overseas fee-paying students and then the full rigours and costs of the visa application system are applied. This has certainly been mentioned to me frequently by people concerned about the subject and the need for our education establishments to be able to finance themselves independently. The same goes for the entry of people who wish to establish businesses and so on.
It seems to me that although it may be undeserved, there is undoubtedly a widespread feeling that the whole system of visa applications is a nightmare and a daunting process. This perception may exist because the new, centralised system was introduced without any explanation or, as far as I am aware, consultation. For most people, the border agency is an anonymous, faceless body. Applying for a visa used to be a personal, face-to-face transaction and that has now become a long-distance paper transaction—or rather a long-distance online transaction. Obviously, for those who are not computer literate, who tend to be older people, this creates particular problems.
The time has come to ask the Government to review the work of the UK Border Agency, to find out whether the regionally-centred system is working according to plan—whatever the original plan may have been—and to make sure that complaints are followed up and that there is a clearly understood system of complaints. It may even be necessary to devise a system whereby short-term applications—because most of the grievances I have heard about have tended to be for short-term visits—are separated from long-term applications and treated more sympathetically and sensitively, and certainly differently.
With 2012 and the Olympics drawing ever closer, we really must get this right. I thank all those taking part in this short debate, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us some reassurance.
My Lords, the noble Baroness’s interest in all matters Latin American is well known. Today, with remarkable timing, she has asked us to consider the work of the UKBA at the very moment when the Home Affairs Committee in another place has published a report on the subject this morning, echoing some of the criticisms the noble Baroness has made.
This is also the first time we have looked at Latin America—I think—since the Foreign Secretary delivered the Canning Lecture outlining a policy of greater engagement with the region, halting the decline of Britain’s diplomatic presence there and giving it much enhanced ministerial attention. He said that at present, we are lagging behind Germany, France and Italy in our exports to Latin America and that was partly due to the transition from authoritarianism to democracy which had deterred investment and close political relations. He went on to say that now that most of the countries in the region were stable democracies, we would support ambitious free-trade agreements with the sub-regions of Latin America. In addition, we would broker a strategic alliance between Latin America and Europe on climate change, and work closely with our partners in the region on tackling drugs and violence, supporting sustainable development and addressing energy security.
These are indeed ambitious goals, and no doubt UKBA and UK Visas have a walk-on part to play in making it as easy as possible to travel between Britain and Latin America. There was a review of the services provided by UKBA, starting three years ago, with the announcement of the visa waiver tests in 2007. It was decided that Bolivia and Venezuela posed a sufficiently high level of risk to justify a requirement that short-term visitors from those countries would be required to obtain visas. In the case of Venezuela, there was an exemption for travellers using the new biometric machine-readable passports, because our main concern related to the ease with which old style Venezuelan passports could be forged or fraudulently obtained. Apparently there was some resentment in Bolivia about the way that it had been singled out by the visa waiver tests. Has our embassy posted an explanation for the requirement on its website, and is there an opportunity to revisit the decision to require visas if the values that go into the visa waiver tests alter as time passes?
As the Foreign Secretary pointed out, we have closed our embassies in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and Paraguay over the past decade. A citizen of one of those countries wanting to come here for business, marriage, studies or medical treatment has to apply to a visa section of a British embassy in some other specified country, which must be something of a deterrent. A citizen of Paraguay, for example, must fly to Buenos Aires twice: first to have his digital photograph and fingerprints taken, and then to collect the document he has submitted in support of his application including his passport. At least, that was the impression that I got from the website, and I hope the Minister will correct me if that is not right.
Passports, however, are issued by the Identity and Passport Office, an executive arm of the Home Office. I can well believe that when a British traveller’s passport is lost or stolen, it does cause enormous problems. The IPO website deals only with passports lost or stolen in the UK. When I rang the IPO this afternoon to ask what the traveller should do if his passport is stolen, for example, in Asuncion, it was suggested that the traveller should telephone the FCO.
It cannot be said that the issuing of visas and passports would come high up on the agenda in the Foreign Secretary’s programme for enhancing our relations with Latin America. It did not figure in the Canning Lecture and there is no mention of it on the FCO’s website; nor does it come up in discussions with leading politicians in the region.
I had several meetings at the end of last year with people from Peru and Colombia where the main subject was the EU free-trade agreement with those two countries and its possible side effects. NGOs were concerned that the agreement would facilitate even more investment by EU-based companies in mineral extraction and oil and gas development without adequate consultation, particularly where the interests of indigenous people were concerned. There was no complaint about the procedures for issuing visas, which of course theoretically are the same in Latin America as in the rest of the world. There is, I saw, a variation between the visa centres in the time it took them to process applications, but at a quick glance the average processing time is no slower in Latin America than in the rest of the world.
The biometric information that has to be submitted with an application—10-digit fingerprints and a digital photograph—has to be generated at a specified visa centre, which may be in another country. If you live in Paraguay, for instance, where the embassy was closed in April 2005, you have to travel to Buenos Aires to apply there in person and collect your passport from the embassy in Buenos Aires when it has finished processing the application. It seems that an applicant from Asuncion would have to make two trips to Buenos Aires on top of the £220 application fee. I wonder whether it would be possible to come to an arrangement with France or Germany, for example, for their embassies to collect biometric information on our behalf.
My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, whose knowledge of Latin America and ear to the ground on all things Latin American have such benefits for this House. It is useful that she has secured this debate today to allow the Minister to update us on what has happened in the intervening year and to give us a flavour of a change of attitude, perhaps, with the change in government. Before I continue, I declare an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Bolivia and the chair of the All-Party Group on Street Children—the reason for the latter will become apparent shortly.
As we have heard, there were particular problems with the process when it changed over but the problem now—as I have heard it mentioned by people from both South America and central America—is perhaps less with the process than with the attitude. Indeed, that is reflected by the large community that we have living in London, whose members feel strongly that they are still not recognised in the UK as an ethnic group, a point that they have made time and again. They should be recognised as one, but there is no provision on the census form to ask whether people are Hispanic. Considering their numbers, I think that that would be a reasonable thing to do. The fact that they are not really recognised as a group has, I believe, a knock-on effect in their feeling about applying for visas.
My noble friend Lord Avebury mentioned that the Bolivians felt singled out. It was perhaps unfortunate that, even under a Labour Government, the two most left-wing Governments in Latin America—those of Bolivia and Venezuela—failed to get the visa waiver through. The noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, raised this issue in the House some eight months ago and was told of the various reasons for it. Have those criteria since changed and, indeed, would those people wishing to come and visit their relatives here for a short time, for example, be able to do so and to benefit from the visa waiver? We benefit from the many people who have come here. Perhaps they came here as economic migrants but they now work in some of the most invisible jobs in London, in cleaning in particular. Living as I do in Kennington when I am here, I often catch a bus home towards Elephant and Castle and meet them in the evening. We need to recognise that they, too, need their families to be able to visit without too much difficulty.
We heard today that the UKBA has lost thousands of asylum seekers through the system, which highlights again the question that the Government are at some stage going to have to address: amnesty for long-term residents. These people, who have been here for a long time, are working. Their children are probably in schools and their lives are made extremely difficult because they can have no legal status. We lose out as a country from the fact that they cannot pay taxes because they cannot officially exist. That is a problem—and all the more of a problem in these times of austerity.
Before closing, as we have the Minister from the Home Office replying to this debate, I want to mention the issue of Britons going the other way to Latin America. That is why I declared an interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Street Children. It has been brought to our attention by a number of NGOs working in the area that the problem of sex tourism, where people from the EU are going to Latin America, is growing and that it is children whom those people are preying on. That is a big issue, so we should not think just of people coming from South America as the risk to the UK, which is what the reply from the noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, to the Question from the noble Baroness, Lady Gibson, suggested. We pose a threat to them as well.
My Lords, like other noble Lords I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on her splendid introduction. Nobody knows more about Latin America than she does and it is good to hear from her at all times. I want to follow up on one of her horror stories. A couple of years ago, the then Peruvian ambassador had difficulty getting his daughter back into this country because she was over 18. She was still resident at home in this country, because in Latin America people frequently stay on at home past 18 until they get married, so she was coming back. He had considerable difficulty getting her in and some of us had to try to intervene on his behalf to get that sorted out. It seemed fairly ridiculous. That is another example of a horror story of dealing with the UK Border Agency.
I am also happy to follow the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. He is not, unfortunately, my noble friend but he is a very long-time friend. We are the same age and have had all sorts of dealings together for many years. He mentioned Paraguay; I was fortunate to be the leader of the last parliamentary delegation there, so I feel that what he said was relevant and important. The Paraguayans are very welcome here but have considerable difficulty, as the noble Lord pointed out, in getting that sorted out. They have to go down to Buenos Aires as the nearest place, even though there is an extremely efficient honorary consul in Asuncion, who was extremely helpful on the visit that we made, so I am totally sympathetic.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, did, I have to declare a multiplicity of interests. I am not only chairman of the All-Party Group on Central America but vice-chairman of just about every other Latin America-related group, as it happens—including the one shared by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, the All-Party Group on Latin America. That group encompasses them all, in a way, although there are separate subgroups that are equally important. Latin America is such an important area of the world that we need to concentrate on it.
It is interesting to look at this subject because the number of countries in Latin America from which we require visas is quite small. It includes Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, plus the three island republics: the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola, divided as that is between the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Apart from that, people from all the other countries, including the whole of the Cono Sur—Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay—and Brazil, as well as Panama and Mexico in central America, have no visa requirements to come here. It seems rather strange that these particular countries have been singled out for this sort of treatment. One wonders why.
I told the Minister that I was not going to ask her any awkward questions, but this seems to be a matter of some principle that we might like to have enunciated. How are the criteria that bring about these various and rather curious ad hoc distinctions between important countries in Latin America identified? It is an important part of the world, as has been pointed out. The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has announced in the other place that the Government are making a new and special drive in relation to it. It is unfortunately correct that during the 12 years of the Labour Government the interest in Latin America heavily depreciated and declined, but one hoped—and it seems to have been the case—that when the coalition came into existence, with William Hague as Foreign Secretary, there would be a new and important drive. This seems to be part of it.
I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on her effort in bringing this subject to our attention. I very much look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for giving us the opportunity to debate this important subject. I have always received courteous and helpful responses from the UK Border Agency whenever I have had reason to contact its officials, either in country or in Whitehall. My most recent experience was of a difficult case that peaked over Christmas and New Year. Throughout that most difficult period, with constant telephone calls from me and my staff, we received nothing but helpfulness, for which I thank the agency.
The UK border officials discharge an exceptionally taxing task effectively and well, despite the considerable pressures that the agency and its staff are under constantly. They deal with one of the most basic human needs and desires: the freedom to move. With people in difficulty and trouble, there will always be an enormously emotional, as well as an effectively practical, exchange with the staff. The many people whom I have invited over the years from central and South America, the Middle East, central and eastern Europe and other places have never commented adversely on their treatment, even most recently, from the UK Border Agency. On the other hand, the policy is something that gives rise to considerable, consistent and powerful objections from all quarters.
The hub-and-spoke policy creates a routine that I and my visitors have experienced. It needs profound review and total overhaul. Noble Lords have spoken of many instances, but there are hundreds more available. I give just one. About a year ago, I invited 12 Iraqi high tribunal judges to visit me in Westminster so that they could see our own new supreme constitutional court and meet high-level judges both here and throughout the country. Some of those judges had already spent many months here on many occasions and were familiar with the United Kingdom, because we had been offering them training. The hub-and-spoke policy meant that those judges had to travel from Baghdad to Beirut and to stay there for more than 10 days awaiting visas. This is the most extraordinary process that any of us have ever experienced.
I can give your Lordships many more instances from different parts of the world, impacting not just on high-level judges but on businesses, industry, tourists and visitors. I do not wish to take up noble Lords’ time, but surely implementing this policy must be deeply frustrating for UK Border Agency staff. I believe that the policy gives an insurmountable barrier to visitors on grossly unfair grounds. Who can afford to travel to the hub of the spoke system and stay there for many days awaiting a visa that they may or may not get? It is simply not a possibility. At the spoke end, staff of the British embassies become deeply and greatly frustrated because they face the frustration of those who apply, are told to travel, cannot travel and have to go away. Yet the British embassy staff are those who, at all times and in common with the UK Border Agency, are putting forward the best of Britain—the best face of the Untied Kingdom—and presenting us in our most positive light.
The hub-and-spoke policy, I therefore suggest, gives a shockingly false picture of our traditional welcome to visitors and guests to the United Kingdom. I suggest that this policy has failed lamentably and that the Government should review it as an urgent preoccupation and priority. After all, has the Foreign Secretary not declared that economic movement, investment, trade and business should be at the heart of foreign policy? Yet if businessmen cannot visit the United Kingdom without this extraordinary formulaic lunacy, how on earth is that foreign policy to be achieved? We believe powerfully—do we not?—in democracy and the rule of law, yet we put up these barriers in a policy that all who have discussed it with me at official, political or personal level have declared to be an utter disaster. I beg the minister to change it.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, for securing this debate on an issue that, as the noble Baroness said, has previously been the source of concern to Members of your Lordships’ House. Operating in some 135 countries, the UK Border Agency provides a front-line border control before people ever reach the UK. As we know, that is an important role, since over 75 per cent of the world’s population require a visa to come to the UK and all businesspeople, workers and students staying longer than six months need a visa regardless of their nationality.
The UK Border Agency international group visa services directorate handles the overseas visa service and, as I understand it, at the start of 2009 managed over 150 visa application centres in British missions. Of these, 73 were spoke posts, from which some or all of the applications are transferred to a hub post, where the decision is made. In addition, there are large numbers of visa application centres run by the border agency’s commercial partners and by the Department of Homeland Security in the United States.
In 2006, the independent monitor for entry clearance refusals, whose role was to oversee and review the visa clearance system, reported on the inconsistencies and lack of fairness faced by people when applying for visas. The report was made following visits to different parts of the world, including Latin America. Some three years later, in 2009, the independent monitor reported on what she described as an organisation under pressure and identified a number of issues for the UK Border Agency international group to address, including what one would have thought were fairly basic points, such as ensuring that all the evidence is taken into account when reaching a decision and ensuring adequate data capture.
A report by the Home Affairs Committee in the other place in early 2009 indicated that the independent monitor had said that refusals of UK visa applications were taking too long and were unintelligible. She also expressed concerns to the committee that UKBA staff were predisposed to approving entry to the UK because of the increased workload caused by visa refusals. We have heard examples this evening from your Lordships of apparently complex and time-consuming procedures for application that appear to at least some of those having to go through those procedures to be far from user-friendly and lacking in easy contact with a human being who can give information or guidance about the application. This, of course, is not some new or recent development, as the reports from the independent monitor make clear.
From the point of view of the Government of the day, over recent years there has been a desire to tighten up border controls and to have procedures and processes in place that are consistent and fair but achieve that objective. Overseas, all visa applications are checked against security, criminal and immigration watch lists and the e-Borders system allows the agency to vet passengers bound for the UK before they arrive.
While its focus is on protecting the UK by ensuring that harmful and illicit goods and people do not reach this country, the UK Border Agency—this has been said in the debate—also has an important role in facilitating the smooth passage of legitimate travel and trade, which benefit the UK economy. In 2009-10 the agency processed nearly 2.5 million visa applications, of which just over 2 million resulted in a visa being issued. The independent monitor identified in her final published report—her role has now been taken over by the independent chief inspector—that in just under 85 per cent of 906 cases sampled the refusal notices were reasonable and provided correct information.
In his annual report for 2009-10, the independent chief inspector states that he is now also reporting in his capacity as the independent monitor for entry clearance refusals and highlights four major recurring concerns, including the need for the UK Border Agency to make good-quality decisions, the need for agency staff to maintain and have reliable access to accurate case information and the need to treat people fairly and consistently. The independent chief inspector also states in his report that during his inspections he repeatedly found examples of agency staff not following the agency’s own standards and guidance.
The UK Border Agency has as one of its objectives the implementation of fast and fair decisions, but the concerns being raised in the debate this evening, which seem to have been shared at least in part by the independent monitor and now by the independent chief inspector, are whether speed, consistency and fairness have been achieved to the extent that they should and whether the procedures and processes in place are always geared to taking account of the fact that there are very different categories of people making applications who are seeking to spend widely differing periods of time in the UK.
I am sure that when she responds the Minister will want to address the points that have been raised this evening, including the extent to which the recommendations and issues for action identified by the independent monitor, and the independent chief inspector now that he has taken over the role, have or have not been implemented and the progress that has been made. No doubt the Minister will also wish to say where the Government are with their review of the student visa system in the light of the criticisms of the student visa provisions.
More than 2,600 UK Border Agency staff are directly involved in the overseas visa operation, of whom around 350 work in London. Visa sections around the world employ just under 700 UK-based staff who go overseas on short-term postings and just over 1,600 locally engaged staff. Following the recent comprehensive review, the UK Border Agency is facing cuts of about 20 per cent and is expecting to take that percentage out of the front line as well as making cuts in support services. There were 1,700 job cuts last year and a further 5,000 are anticipated by the UK Border Agency over the period of the spending review. Obviously, the UK Border Agency employs many more staff than those directly involved in the overseas visa operation, which is the principal focus of the debate this evening, but will there be any job cuts among staff involved in the overseas visa operation and, if so, how many? Will the Minister give an assurance that, whatever job cuts are made by the agency, there will be no adverse impact on the quality of service and decision-making in the overseas visa operation, particularly in the light of the concerns already expressed about the current situation—this has been going on for some time—by the independent monitor and the independent chief inspector?
My Lords, I join other Members of the House in congratulating my noble friend on introducing the subject of Latin America in the context of visas. That gives me the opportunity to say something about the Government’s attitude to the relationship between this country and Latin America.
The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, referred to the Foreign Secretary’s recent speech at Canning House. If noble Lords have not had a chance to read it, I should inform them that it took place on 9 November. He said, in terms, that we will halt the decline in Britain’s diplomatic presence in Latin America; Britain’s retreat from the region is over and it is now time for an advance to begin; we will seek intensified and equal partnerships with countries in Latin America; and we will give much increased ministerial attention to them. I can testify to the fact, as I have been present at such meetings, that there is indeed a plan for a series of visits on different subjects to countries of the region. The Foreign Secretary’s speech spells out in greater detail what that concept of an intensified relationship should mean in practice. I hope that the House welcomes that as a starting point as it signifies a determination on the part of the Government to develop a close relationship with, and make a greater impact on, an increasingly important part of the globe with great prospects ahead of it. I am sure that in the end that redounds to the security and prosperity of this country.
I am sure that noble Lords will say that our ability to travel backwards and forwards should contribute to that and that therefore travel should be made as easy as possible. The answer to my own rhetorical question is, “Of course and indeed; that must be the objective”. The current hub-and-spoke system was introduced by our predecessor. I note the strictures of the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, on the system. Some cases that have been cited by noble Lords undoubtedly took place on our predecessor’s watch. That apart, we need to try to make this system as friendly and efficient as possible for both parties; that is, for the authorities in this country and those who wish to visit here. The Government are conscious of this and so is the UKBA as an agency of government.
The noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, quite rightly said that there are only nine countries which are visa countries for the purposes of short-stay visits. There is a wider visa regime—this is quite normal—for longer-stay visits. For short-stay visits, only nine of the 20 or so sovereign republics in South America require a visa. The Government were asked what the rationale was for the distinction between those countries that are required to apply for a visa and those that are not. The basic reason is the reliability of their documents. There must be doubt about the authenticity of the application in those countries where the documents being provided to support the application are of doubtful reliability. This is the main reason why in some countries we have to insist on a visa, although, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, noted in the case of Venezuela, if people are able to supply biometric detail they would be exempt. Over time one hopes that the reliability of the documents can be improved and that the number of countries where we demand a visa for a short stay can be reduced.
The aim must be a fast and fair process. I will spell out what we are trying to do to achieve that. As noble Lords clearly understand, the hub-and-spoke system has been operating since 2007. In Latin America, there are two hub countries: Columbia and Brazil. In Brazil, it is not in the capital; it is in Rio. The reason for this is that those two countries generate a sufficient number of applications to justify having a hub on the ground. Apart from that, it is a spoke system.
It is indeed the case that individuals have to apply online. There is no alternative, but I will come to some of the services that are allied to that in a moment. I understand the reservations that noble Lords have about the obligation to apply online and in English. All I can say is that, in the end, this will turn out to be advantageous to those making applications in a country where the internal distances are very great. I shall spell out why I think that is the case. Not everybody lives in Buenos Aires in Argentina; they may live in Patagonia, and so on. One has to be both realistic about the costs that we are expected to bear as the supplier of visas, but also about the relevant efficiencies for both sides of introducing modern technology into the system. I understand that the elderly are not always able to cope with a computer, but usually there is a young relative who can help them. So I do not think that we will depart from the notion that the application should be made online.
Once the application has been made online, there is then the question of the provision of biometric data. A number of noble Lords have said that this requires a journey. In the case of Asuncion, where unfortunately for some time now we have not had a mission, it would require a visit to Buenos Aires, which is the nearest point. One of the improvements that the Government are introducing to countries where this problem arises is the so-called mobile clinic, where people are available on the ground. This requires a suitcase-full of kit in order to be able to take people’s biometrics. Increasingly we want to introduce mobile facilities, most particularly in those places where otherwise a long journey, possibly even to another country, might be required. I am not saying that that is going to be the case everywhere immediately, but the aim is certainly to make the system itself self-contained and more efficient.
Another complaint, not in fact mentioned this evening but which I understand to be the case, is that while the online system is painless for both parties if all goes smoothly and there are no hitches in the application, if there is something anomalous in an application it might result in a rejection. One of the other things that we are trying to do—and a lot of these services are now supplied by commercial partners of the Government—is to improve this with the use of the telephone, and not to require payment for that; that is to say that I can ring up and discuss this application with those processing it for me. I hope that, over time, this will reduce the number of rejections that take place for reasons that the applicant feels they need to appeal against. Of course, there are rules about the basis on which appeals can take place. Again, I come back to the point that we are trying to make the system efficient but also flexible and friendly.
In trying to improve the system that people are using, we must also have regard to the efficiency of the operation in New York, which is the processing centre for the Americas. I do not have to say that that situation will not change. A number of noble Lords asked whether we would nevertheless review the system. Within its terms, we shall do just that. The independent inspector will shortly review the operations of the New York hub and the relationship between that hub and its spokes. The review is within striking distance. If there are systemic problems with how the system is operating, I hope that this will be the opportunity for change and improvement to take place. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, that notice is taken of what the independent inspectors say and do in relation to the operations of the UK Border Agency.
Apart from the regular review, if it becomes obvious that there is a problem with the system—and it is very important that we learn of the various issues that noble Lords become aware of—we would try to see if it was a systemic problem or something that was in need of correction. I assure noble Lords that under this Government the system will try not to be deaf but will respond to complaints about the inadequacies of the system if clearly there is something that we can do about them.
I hope that I have covered most of the points raised by noble Lords. I will give one statistic that I hope demonstrates that the system is both capable of improvement and is improving. In 2009, when some of these examples of slow procedure took place, it took up to 25 days to process applications from Latin America. By July and August last year—12 months later—the average time had fallen to nine days. I hope that noble Lords will accept that that is a significant improvement.
The agency is looking at one further thing that over time will improve the system. I cannot promise that it will happen immediately, but it is being trialled. Instead of the individual having to lodge their passport or travel document with British authorities while the process takes place, which I accept can be inconvenient and may inhibit their travel plans, we aim to move over time towards a situation in which there can be a remote printout of the visa at the spoke, which will mean that the document does not have to travel backwards and forwards. That will be a material change which depends to some extent on the technological capability of the spoke, which is also something that, costs allowing, we intend to try to rectify.
I am not able, I fear, to answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Rosser, about staffing, but I shall write to him. I do not believe that in the case of the area we are talking about there will be moves of a kind that will decrease efficiency. I hope that I have answered the material points that have been raised.
My noble friend Lady Nicholson asked about Baghdad, which is outside the scope of this debate. It is fair to say that the circumstances reigning in Baghdad are exceptional. They are not typical of the system and the safety of our staff has to be taken into account. That lies in the background, among other things, for the arrangements that may prevail there, although I am not intimate with them. That is not typical of the hub-and-spoke system, or indeed of the conditions in Latin America.
Public Bodies Bill [HL]
Committee (6th Day) (continued)
43: Schedule 1, page 17, line 7, leave out “National Consumer Council (“Consumer Focus”).”
My Lords, although I now have no involvement with Consumer Focus, I was on the National Consumer Council—something that I gather I share with the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox—before its merger with Energywatch and Postwatch. The merger in 2008 that created Consumer Focus, under the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Act 2007, was the result of extensive parliamentary debate. The merger was carefully designed—including here in this House—and was implemented with good planning as well as wholehearted and widespread support. The merger has created a highly successful independent champion for all consumers across England, Wales and Scotland and for postal services consumers in Northern Ireland. Consumer Focus has specific responsibilities for energy and postal services users—and, from next year, for water users in Scotland—and is admired around the world as the leading voice for consumers.
I have a number of fears about the Government’s intention to abolish Consumer Focus and to pass its work to Citizens Advice. My concerns centre partly on the very different roles of Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice and partly on the duties that Parliament gave to Consumer Focus. I also have concerns about the impact on devolution, on consumer affairs and on accountability as well as on the capacity of Citizens Advice. There is also a fundamental concern about the undermining of consumer protection. Consumer Focus is not an advice or complaint-handling body but a policy and advocacy voice across the whole of consumer affairs with a record in industry-wide investigations and achievements. I have real concern about how Consumer Focus’s work on behalf of consumers—the least represented group in our economy compared with unions or business—will be maintained.
Let me start by taking the example of a current consumer topic—this may sound an unusual issue—which is the volume by which bread and beer may be sold. Over the Christmas Recess, David Willetts, the Minister in the other House, started his new year by suggesting the abolition of the regulations that provide the 400-gram rule for the sale of bread and that require beer to be sold in pints and wine to be sold in specified measures. I emphasise that the National Consumer Council and Consumer Focus have never been pro regulatio