House of Lords
Monday, 31 January 2011.
Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Guildford.
Introduction: Baroness King of Bow
Oona Tamsyn King, having been created Baroness King of Bow, of Bow in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets, was introduced and made the solemn affirmation, supported by Lord Alli and Baroness Kinnock of Holyhead, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Baroness Randerson
Jennifer Elizabeth Randerson, having been created Baroness Randerson, of Roath Park in the City of Cardiff, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Walmsley and Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
Introduction: Lord Noon
Gulam Kaderbhoy, Knight, MBE, having been created Baron Noon, of St John’s Wood in the London Borough of Camden, was introduced and took the oath, supported by Baroness Jay of Paddington and Lord Sainsbury of Turville, and signed an undertaking to abide by the Code of Conduct.
My Lords, the department is considering the economic impact of the delays and cancellations at London Heathrow Airport in December. The number of terminal passengers travelling through Heathrow in December 2010 was down by around 10 per cent compared with 2009, mainly due to severe weather disruption. As a result some UK firms might have lost revenue, although there is currently no basis for quantifying this. In some cases firms might have mitigated impacts, for example through video conferencing.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. The Spanish owners of Heathrow borrowed the money to buy it, thus leaving themselves too impoverished to invest in the infrastructure necessary for a reliable service to passengers in difficult weather conditions. This is confirmed by the Financial Times of 21 December. Do the Government think that so many of our key national institutions should be available to anyone, from anywhere, who can borrow the money to buy them?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes an important point about the importance of transport infrastructure to our economy. That is why we are continuing to invest in our infrastructure despite the economic situation. As for the ownership of BAA, there was an agreement with airlines about the level of residence to be provided this winter. However, 16 centimetres of snow in one hour far exceeded the agreed provision. I am not sure that ownership is relevant.
I have to apologise to the House, as last week I said that Heathrow had 24 aircraft stands with snowbound aircraft on them. I should have said that there were 200 such stands.
My Lords, given the economic and social importance of Heathrow, and indeed of Gatwick, after further consideration will my noble friend invite the Government to commission an independent inquiry into the resources and processes at Heathrow and Gatwick for handling snow and ice compared with those at New York and Boston, and then agree to publish the result?
My Lords, I listened with great care to what the noble Lord said today and last week. The Civil Aviation Authority is taking forward work to understand more fully the impact of disruption on passengers to help to inform a decision on whether regulatory change is needed to balance the cost of disruption to passengers and business against the cost of dealing with severe weather.
My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister confirm that Heathrow was actually purchased by the Spanish company under the previous Government, so the supplementary question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Gavron, should really focus on lessons to be learnt rather than on encouraging people to think that we were responsible?
My Lords, is the Minister aware that the last Government also placed 51 per cent of the shares of National Air Traffic Services in the hands of the public through the Government? The Government are contemplating privatising NATS. Would he assure the British public that it will not fall into foreign ownership?
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that a bad situation last year was made infinitely worse by the seeming inability of the airport operator and the airlines to give passengers adequate information that was not contradictory? Have the Government looked at the matter and at who should be giving information?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is quite right; we touched on this last week as well. There are two reviews. One was commissioned by BAA. The other will come from the South East Airports taskforce. No doubt both reviews will consider that very important point and come back with suggestions on how we can avoid the problems in future.
My Lords, last week the noble Lord indicated that these reviews were taking place, but did not indicate the degree of urgency. It is 31 January and there is still plenty of winter to come. When will these reports be published and when will any action based on them be taken?
My Lords, is it not rather ridiculous to try to turn this into an argument about public versus private? The motorway between Glasgow and Edinburgh was closed for two days, yet as far as I know has not been privatised. Is not the real issue whether we will have winters like this on a regular basis, and whether we need to invest in our infrastructure—our roads, our airports and the rest—to prevent our country from looking ridiculous in the eyes of the rest of the world?
I declare an interest as the president of BALPA. Is it not obvious, without any inquiry, that there are serious disadvantages in on-stand de-icing, including leaving parking stands awash with fluid overspray that could lead to serious health and safety risks? Is there not a real lack of de-icing rigs? Will the Government make a statement about that?
My Lords, it is important to understand that there are two areas of responsibility. BAA is responsible for keeping the runways and taxiways clear, but the airlines are responsible for de-icing the aircraft. I asked about the environmental impact of the de-icing fluid, which is a glycol-based chemical. I was advised that the de-icers are intercepted and the effluent is reprocessed.
My Lords, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is leading a review of employment laws to ensure that we maximise flexibility for employers while protecting fairness for employees and provide the competitive environment required for enterprise to thrive. This is a rolling programme over the length of the Parliament, and individual departments are engaging with representatives of employer and employee groups. As part of this, last Thursday we announced a consultation on reforming the employment tribunal system, which followed discussion with a range of stakeholders including the CBI, the TUC and the British Chambers of Commerce. This consultation will last until 20 April 2011.
My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that response, but the Business Secretary last week announced a revision of employment law to make it easier for employers to dismiss people and more difficult for employees to allege unfair dismissal and to refer cases to a tribunal. Indeed, it will be impossible to seek redress unless the employment has lasted for two years or more. In other words, that will apply to a large section of the workforce. This is at a time when many working people are already concerned about employment and their future prospects. What does the Business Secretary think he is doing? Surely he should be doing everything possible to keep people in employment rather than on benefits.
My Lords, we have announced that we are considering increasing from one year to two years’ service the qualifying period before an employee can claim for unfair dismissal. This change, if implemented, would return the law to as it was until 1999. We believe that this is fair to employees and employers. It is fair to employers, because it gives businesses the confidence to take on staff that they may not have employed otherwise, particularly in small and medium-sized companies. It will also encourage employees to have a longer time to prove that they are the right person for the job and a longer time to prove their skills, and we hope that fewer and fewer cases will finish up in the courts. We feel that this is a good move and we hope that the Opposition will help us to develop it through the consultation period, which will last until 20 April.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that someone is trying to set up an all-party micro-business group? Is it not a fact that in order for this economy to recover, lots of little businesses need to be set up and to develop? They, above all, need to have these extra consultations—I speak after 20 years of sitting on an employment tribunal—and to be able more easily to establish themselves and provide the jobs that we all think are so necessary.
I thank my noble friend for that encouraging question. We are hoping to achieve earlier resolutions to workplace disputes so that both parties can resolve their problems in a way that is fair and equitable for both sides without having to go to an employment tribunal. We want to ensure, when parties need to come to an employment tribunal, that the process is as swift, user friendly and effective as possible. We hope very much indeed that we will be able to use ACAS more and more, and we are consulting with it at the moment.
My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that extending from one year to two the period for which one must be in employment in order to claim for unfair dismissal in the industrial employment tribunals would represent a serious reduction in employee rights, which have been developed over the years? As she rightly said, the legislation has been there since 1999, due of course to the efforts of the Labour Government at that time to ensure that where there is inequity between the power of the employee and the power of the employer, fairness should be achieved through the work of the employment tribunals.
My Lords, we really feel that this will be a better way of going forward for both sides. What we are looking for here is flexibility for businesses, especially small and medium-sized businesses, to give them confidence, and fairness for employees. We hope and we know that the so-called “day one rights” will stay in place. The proposals will not affect the existing “day one rights” of people when they start to bring a case for unfair dismissal; for example, when they believe that gender, race or some other form of discrimination has taken place, or where someone is dismissed for exercising their legal rights, such as asking for a written statement or to be paid the national minimum wage. The proposals relate to the areas where we do not wish people to rush first to a tribunal. If the qualifying period is only one year, it means that everything starts to happen too quickly. I know through my business experience people who have come to work with no experience. It takes them a while to get used to the job, and extending the time will make the employer and employees take a better look at each other and see whether they can keep themselves together, rather than rushing to tribunals and not going to ACAS first.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the proportion of employment tribunal claims involving employees who have been working for between one and two years is very small indeed—well under 5 per cent—whereas the impact of the Government’s changes will, at this particularly crucial point, encourage employers across the country, particularly in small and medium-sized enterprises, to take on additional staff?
My Lords, I believe that not to be so. We hope to put in place all sorts of measures to ensure that employers behave as they should. The consultation period should be open to as many people as possible. We hope that many will take the opportunity to help us to ensure that we get this legislation correct.
My Lords, is the Minister really saying that it takes more than a year for an employer to assess whether an employee is suitable in their employment? Does she agree that part of the problem, and the reason why there are so many employment tribunals, is the lack of knowledge and application of current employment laws?
I shall be careful how I answer the noble Lord because, just a little while ago, he was standing where I am standing. I think we are on the right track with this. We have so much evidence that small businesses in particular are not employing people. They are not growing as they should and they are afraid of taking on people and having to go to tribunals. All in all, I think this is the right way to go forward.
Monetary Policy Committee
My Lords, the UK’s monetary policy framework gives operational responsibility for maintaining price stability to the independent Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England. Although the rate of inflation has increased over the past months, the committee’s view is that inflation is likely to fall back to target during 2012, as the impact of temporary factors wanes, but the timing and extent of that decline in inflation are uncertain due to the margin of spare capacity in the economy.
My Lords, in the final quarter of last year, we saw a reduction in GDP of 0.5 per cent, which is the thickening of a trend back towards recession, a trend that the UK alone is experiencing. Economic output is now at the same level as in the first quarter of 2008, and output is running 8 per cent below trend growth rates. Real incomes are being squeezed. The Governor of the Bank of England has forecast that they will be back to the level of 2005. House prices are falling and unemployment is rising. I put it to the Minister—
Members on the other side do not like these economic facts and it is not surprising that they react as they do. I put it to the Minister that the Bank of England is having to take risks on inflation because of the severe cuts in economic activity consequent upon the Government’s reckless fiscal policy.
My Lords, that was a nice long lecture. I think there was a question at the end of it. It is precisely because the Government took resolute and early action to restore the fiscal position to one that pulls us back from the brink of the disaster which the previous Government left us with that the Bank of England can conduct monetary policy on a prudent basis and, as I said in my earlier Answer, all forecasters that I know of are forecasting that inflation is likely to come back towards the target range.
My Lords, I will not fall into the trap of second-guessing the MPC. As I have said, the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England runs monetary policy on an independent basis. That was an establishment of the previous Government to which I pay tribute. I am certainly not going to do anything other than restate the critical importance of the independence of the Monetary Policy Committee. It is up to the committee to decide how to hit the inflation target, which it is doing with the full confidence of the Government.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the principal reason for having an inflation target was to bear down on domestic demand inflation, particularly wage inflation? Would he further agree that at the moment such pressure does not exist—wages are flat—and therefore it would be a mistake to put interest rates up primarily in response to external factors?
My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend because, while again I will resist the temptation to second-guess the Bank of England, it has indeed attributed the recent rise in inflation, which has been significantly to the depreciation of sterling, to the increase in VAT which the last Government put in place and to the rise in energy prices. These are external factors.
My Lords, the noble Lord in his Answer earlier referred to temporary factors accelerating inflation and reducing the living standards of the British people. Is not one of the most important temporary factors that are accelerating inflation through the rest of this year the increase in VAT to 20 per cent?
My Lords, I absolutely did not refer to the reduction in anyone’s living standards. Absolutely at the heart of the Government’s response to the situation that we inherited is the need to get growth back into the economy, and we need fairness as we do it. That is why the Government are taking steps to take almost 900,000 people out of the tax net this April; that is why, under the coalition Government’s plans, 23 million taxpayers will be up to £170 better off next year than they would otherwise be; that is why we are reducing corporation tax from 28 to 24 per cent with other measures to make sure that we get the economy growing again.
My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the Government are nevertheless concerned about inflation? Does he recall the very wise words of the former Prime Minister the late Lord Callaghan, who reminded us in the 1970s that inflation is the father and mother of unemployment?
My Lords, I absolutely agree with my noble friend that the Government are concerned about inflation. It eats into the savings of people who did all the right and prudent things through the last decade. We are concerned and are taking actions to make sure that the hard working and lower-income families in this country are protected in the current difficult economic circumstances.
My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the City correspondents seem to be briefed that the inflation increase is attributable significantly to employment incomes rising? In fact they are not rising because, according to the ONS, the statistics now include, for the first time, three public sector banks, which pay out about £25 billion to people. That has given the impression, incorrectly, that average workers in the public sector are getting an increase.
My Lords, forgive me but I did not quite follow the logic of all of that. All I can say is that, if we are talking about the City, the Treasury’s latest comparison of independent inflation forecasts from City and other commentators in mid-December shows that the City is forecasting inflation to come down to 1.8 per cent in 2012 and then to be steady at 2 per cent thereafter.
Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Act 2010
My Lords, this Government have made no arrangements for temporary exceptions to the Cluster Munitions (Prohibitions) Act 2010. Section 8 of the Act permits the Secretary of State to grant authorisation for visiting forces of states not party to the Convention on Cluster Munitions to possess cluster munitions on or transfer them through UK territory.
I thank my noble friend very much for that Answer and congratulate him on the fact that the UK was able to say that all cluster munitions had been removed from United Kingdom territory well within the deadline of December 2010. May I press just a moment further? Is the Indian Ocean territory of Diego Garcia part of the areas under British control? Will there be a removal of stockpiles from Diego Garcia by the target date of 2013?
I am grateful to my noble friend for the good wishes. The whole House took an active part in seeing this cluster munitions legislation on to the statute book and I think we are all very proud that it has been adhered to very closely. The United States is actually ahead of schedule and has cleared all stockpiles of cluster munitions from all UK territories, including Diego Garcia. There is no problem there. The matter has already been completed. The deadline was 2013, but we are well ahead of schedule on that operation.
My Lords, what progress are the Government making in getting other countries to sign up to the cluster munitions convention and the Dublin convention? Also, are they making progress in working out with industry a voluntary code; and, if not, in making it mandatory to prevent any British companies helping companies outside our jurisdiction to manufacture cluster munitions?
I am so sorry; the noble Lord is quite right. Of course, a number of major countries have not signed, including the US, Russia, India, China and Pakistan. We are in regular touch with them at official level and are raising the matter with them all the time. Frankly, progress is not swift, but we have not relaxed our efforts to push for a complete, global ban on those horrific weapons, and we will continue to work very hard at all levels.
My Lords, the Minister will be well aware of the menace that unexploded cluster munitions present, not least to people going about their ordinary business, trying to farm their land and live life, often in extremely difficult circumstances. Will he join many of us in the House in commending the work of the HALO Trust, which does so much to remove mines and unexploded ordnance and therefore promote not just humanitarian relief but sustainable economic development? Will he ask his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Development why that department, which has to date funded the work of the trust in both Angola and Somaliland, has now decided that those two countries are no longer priorities for mine clearance, when clearly they are?
I will certainly check out what the noble Lord says. My understanding is that considerable funds are still used to promote the excellent and incredibly valuable work of removing those horrible weapons from various areas where they lie around. I will look at the two items raised by the noble Lord and write to him about them.
I thank my noble friend for the Answers that he gave me in December to Written Questions that I put to him on this very issue. Can he absolutely assure your Lordships that there will be no question ever again of cluster munitions being kept in British territories—offshore British territories, within coastal waters, or whatever? It may well benefit your Lordships if the records of the discussions that must have taken place to provide for the exceptions for the United States are placed in the Library so that we can see exactly what happened.
As my noble friend knows, the one exception was made very properly by the previous Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, Mr Miliband, allowing the US a temporary extension of its right to keep cluster munitions while it went through the process of getting rid of them as part of the running down of cluster munitions stores in UK territory and in the United Kingdom. That is the only exception that has ever been made. For the future, we will consider bringing to Parliament and recording any decisions that may be proposed for temporary extension, and we will do that on a case-by-case basis. I have to say that in a number of instances it could be governed and limited by security considerations.
My Lords, do we retain some cluster munitions for the right purposes of training personnel in the detection and destruction of such appalling weapons? Do we export any weapons to foreign Governments for the purposes of training their personnel in detection and destruction of those weapons; and, if so, which countries do we export to for those purposes?
In this country we have destroyed 48 per cent of all cluster munitions weapons and intend to destroy the remaining 52 per cent well within the schedule—by 2013. As for the training and technology associated with their destruction and the necessary designs of equipment to destroy them, that continues. I cannot answer the noble Baroness precisely on whether there are export clients for this technology but if there are this would be a positive area where the more information we have in the rapid destruction of these weapons and the better the training we can press round the world for their destruction, the better off we all are.
Arrangement of Business
My Lords, immediately after proceedings on the first group of amendments later today to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill—Amendments 94 and 94A—my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford will repeat a Statement on the situation in Egypt.
Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [HL]
Schedule 1: Office for Budget Responsibility
1: Schedule 1, page 13, line 38, at end insert—
“( ) The members appointed under paragraph 1(1)(c) constitute a committee of the Office to be known as the Non-executive Committee.”
My Lords, we usefully teased out a number of issues on this Bill in Grand Committee, so I am pleased to be able to come back to the House with a number of amendments, of which this group is the first. Our amendments very much reflect a number of critical points that we discussed in Grand Committee.
Perhaps I should start with Amendment 4, on which Amendments 1 and 2 are essentially consequential. We are talking here about the independence of the OBR. Amendment 4 will formalise the role of the non-executive directors in reporting on the extent to which the OBR’s duty has been performed, in accordance with Clauses 5(1) and 5(2) of the Bill. To ensure the OBR’s credibility, it is important that the OBR is able to operate with the complete discretion provided for at Clause 5(1) and in line with the principles of Clause 5(2). Amendment 4 provides a mechanism for the non-executive directors to report on anything that they believe has prevented the OBR from carrying out its duty with complete discretion and “objectively, transparently and impartially”. Such a report will feature as part of the OBR’s annual report, which is to be laid before Parliament. For example, the non-execs might report on any interference with the preparation and publication of the OBR’s reports or any attempt to control the OBR through manipulating its budget.
Amendment 12 will remove the provision that states that the charter may include guidance on Clauses 5(2) and 5(3). That will address the particular concern raised in Grand Committee that the charter could be used to redefine the commonly used terms “objectively, transparently and impartially”. It is not the Government’s intention to subvert what these terms mean through the charter. The amendment will therefore remove the marker that strongly indicates that the charter will define what these terms mean.
Amendment 13 will change the process for amending the guidance in the charter. Concerns were raised in Committee that such modifications could be done too easily, which would again undermine the independence of the OBR. Amendment 13 requires the Treasury to publish any revisions to the guidance at least 28 days before the modified charter is laid before Parliament for approval in another place. This period of 28 days, which is consistent with the period used in other secondary legislation, will provide further opportunity for scrutiny of and comment on the guidance before it is voted on. If appropriate, the Government could respond to, or make changes in the light of, this scrutiny before the formal version is laid for approval.
Other safeguards remain in place. The charter is limited to considering the functions conferred on the OBR in the Bill and cannot add or distort them. The charter must also be approved by an affirmative resolution in another place before it comes into force.
Amendment 11 will clarify the drafting of Clause 5(3) to make explicit that the OBR must have regard to government policies relevant to its analysis, including the Government’s economic policies. The amendment preserves the original effect of Clause 5(3), which is to prevent the OBR from examining non-government policies. Otherwise, the OBR could be drawn into political commentary, which might undermine its perceived impartiality and independence. The OBR will continue to be able to analyse non-policy scenarios such as economic or demographic scenarios. I beg to move.
My Lords, this is a rather heterogeneous group of amendments. In fact, the only common theme that I can see running through the amendments is that most of the ideas in them were proposed by the Opposition in Grand Committee. We are delighted that the Government have accepted many of the arguments made by this side concerning important failings in the Bill as originally introduced.
An essential difficulty with the structure of the OBR is that the OBR is to be both outside government and yet of government. The goal of the Bill is to make the OBR independent—a goal that we on this side fully support—yet, as the provider of the official forecast, the OBR is an essential part of policy-making and must be closely involved with the development and costing of government programmes. As the draft charter states,
“The Government will have full and timely access to information and assistance from the OBR”.
A very obvious manifestation of the resultant ambiguities is that the Treasury is planning to retain forecasting skills in order that Ministers may make informed judgments on the impact of various policies. As the noble Lord made clear in Committee, this may lead to the extraordinary situation in which the Treasury could reject the official forecast. Such paradoxes are the inevitable outcome of the peculiar, ambiguous status of the OBR.
Given this peculiar status, it has been the objective of this side of the House to reinforce the independence of the OBR wherever we might. After all, if there is not widespread confidence in that independence, the legislation will have failed. To that end, I am pleased that the Government have—in the form of Amendments 1, 2 and 4—accepted our argument that the non-executive members of the OBR should be given clear roles, including, most importantly, that of guardians of the independence of the OBR and, as we shall see in later amendments to be considered by the House, that of securing third-party monitoring of the OBR’s performance. We are pleased to support Amendments 1, 2 and 4.
There are two other important amendments in this heterogeneous group—I am sure that, listening to the Minister introducing the amendments, noble Lords might have been rather puzzled about why they are in a single group. Following suggestions made by this side and by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, Amendment 11 clarifies the previously obscurantist Clause 5(3). Will the Minister confirm that Clause 5(3) as amended will ensure that the evaluation of the relevant government policies will essentially be part and parcel of all the OBR’s work, including the work outlined and defined in the charter?
Amendment 12 is an acceptance of our argument that it is preposterous that the Treasury should, via the charter, be able to qualify the meaning of the requirement for the OBR to perform its duties “objectively, transparently and impartially”. I am delighted that the amendment will remove that nonsense. Will the Minister make it clear that the remaining requirement—which is, so to speak, all that is left—in Clause 6, which provides that the charter
“may include guidance to the Office about how it should perform its duty under section 4, including (in particular) guidance about … the time at which it is to prepare any forecast, assessment or analysis”,
can now refer only to the time at which the OBR should perform its duties under Clause 4? Do any wider, unspecified powers of direction remain? It would helpful if the Minister could clarify that, since Clause 6 will now have been changed to such an extent that it is not entirely clear what subsection (3) now refers to when it refers back to subsection (1).
Finally, in Amendment 13 the Government have responded to our criticism about the lack of adequate parliamentary scrutiny of the charter by requiring that a draft of any modification be published 28 days before the charter is laid before Parliament to be approved by resolution of the House of Commons. This is an important improvement on what went before, but even so—as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said in Committee—the charter is subject only to vestigial parliamentary scrutiny. The important word in this context is “vestigial”.
That raises an important issue mentioned in the notes distributed with the amendments for the Report stage. Noble Lords will recall that several elements of the charter came in for stiff criticism in Grand Committee, yet the notes that accompany this stage declare that the revised charter will be published only after the Bill has received Royal Assent. That cannot be right. The failure to provide a revised charter deprives Members of another place of the opportunity to relate the charter in the Government’s preferred form to their substantive discussion of the Bill. In effect, this is the Government stifling debate on the charter. Will the Minister give me an assurance that this underhand way of going about things will be rescinded and that the revised charter will be published in good time for its consideration by another place?
These government amendments are welcome because they recognise the discussions held in Committee. The Minister has a gone a long way towards responding to the concerns that were expressed.
I am particularly pleased with Amendment 11 because we spent a lot of time on this issue. Clearly, the original drafting was inadequate. Pride of authorship means that I am unhappy that the words that I suggested in Committee are not being used, but the wording in Amendment 11 will do exactly the same job, so I welcome that.
I also welcome Amendment 13 for the reasons suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. I have some sympathy with his last point. I cannot see why the charter cannot be presented in its final form before the Bill goes through another place. I cannot believe that there will be much to change—the charter is not a very long document—so, for the reasons given by the noble Lord, that would be an improvement on what is currently proposed.
I want to make a final comment on what the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said about the Treasury retaining its own forecasting ability and what would happen if there was a dispute with the OBR. We discussed at some length in Committee why it was essential that the Treasury should retain it own forecasting abilities While it would clearly be a major source of embarrassment if the Treasury disagreed with the OBR forecast, the one good thing about the new system is that, presumably, any such disagreement would be transparent because the Treasury would have to explain that it has disagreed with the OBR and give reasons why, and there would no doubt be a huge row about it. Although that might be uncomfortable for the Government, that will at least expose all the issues that are in dispute. In the interests of transparency, surely that is a good thing.
My Lords, I intervene briefly to express appreciation to my noble friend for the way in which he has kept us in touch during the period between Grand Committee and now with the way in which his thoughts have been developing. Certainly this is a non-controversial Bill, but the House is succeeding in improving it still further and that is a good thing.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, for his amendments. He referred again to the independence of the OBR but, as he knows, I have all along been concerned with both its relevance and independence.
On relevance, there are dozens of truly independent forecasting bodies all over the country, including the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which used to be chaired by the present chairman of the OBR. The issue concerns itself with the expense of a body such as this when we have not only the forecasts of the independent outside bodies but the Treasury forecasts, the Bank of England forecasts and the OBR forecasts, most of which probably will be broadly in line with the current situation.
We will never know—I have tried to find out on many different occasions—the Government’s view on what should happen when they have the forecasts. The Minister has found all kinds of different ways of not answering my questions about what the Government’s policy is and whether they agree with the Bank of England on keeping interest rates at 0.5 per cent, given the growing pressure—wrongly in many quarters—on the need to increase interest rates. He will not say whether he disagrees—I appreciate that he cannot disagree with or say anything different to what the Chancellor has said—but it would be nice if, at some time or another, he could answer the question of what the Government’s policy is, as opposed to accepting the forecasts, which he has done on numerous occasions.
On the question of independence, I am worried by the constant references in the media to “the Government’s in-house forecasting body, the OBR”. This does not lend itself very well to the independence that we would all like to see in the OBR. I am sure Robert Chote will do his best to ensure that it is truly independent but, if it is no more independent than the dozens of existing bodies, why do we need the OBR at all? That is the question I put to the noble Lord while thanking him for the amendments he has brought forward.
My Lords, I add my support for the amendments. It is to the great credit of the Minister that he took away the good discussions we had in Committee and has produced this and the other amendments today.
The noble Lord, Lord Barnett, referred to the OBR being regarded as the Government’s in-house forecasting body. I have never heard it referred to in those terms, although I know that noble Lords on the Benches opposite have tried to make that accusation stick. I believe it is already regarded as a properly independent body under its chairman, Mr Robert Chote, and we should rejoice in that.
I also welcome these amendments. We spent a great deal of time in Grand Committee trying to bring greater clarity to the remit of the OBR and protecting its independence. We also tried to clarify the governance of the OBR and, particularly, the role of its non-executive members. The Government have responded positively to those discussions. The amendments deal very well with the bulk of the issues that were raised, particularly in clarifying those areas of the remit where there was ambiguity and the role of the non-executive members in relation to their oversight of the forecasting process and as the protectors of the external review process. That has been a success.
I fear that there will always be a certain amount of tension between observers when it comes to the relationship between the forecasts of the OBR and the activities that take place within the Treasury. I pointed out at Second Reading that whatever arrangements are put in place for the OBR, you cannot strip the Treasury of its own skill set and the resources it needs to monitor the progress of the economy and to make judgments on whether the economy is following the track that was intended at the time that measures were taken. This is an arrangement that we have to live with. I am sure that as time goes on, we will see much more clearly the way in which those are worked out and how the OBR relates to the internal activities of the Treasury. I hope that noble Lords will not get too exercised about this. That is a natural tension that exists in this type of arrangement and I would be surprised if it cannot be made to work.
My Lords, I am grateful for the general support around the House which this group of amendments seems to command. I am very happy for noble Lords to take credit for the ideas in there, if they wish to do so. Although the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, may not quite understand or want to appreciate why we have grouped these amendments together, they all touch critically on the independence of the OBR.
I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Noakes for pointing out that in the OBR’s short existence—even before it is within a statutory framework—Robert Chote and his colleagues have done a remarkable job through the quality and extent of their work to carve out an unchallenged reputation for quality of thinking and independence. Of course, we need to make sure that the Bill underpins that. In that context, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Burns, who speaks from a position of great authority as a former Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, for pointing out that for all the OBR’s independence, HM Treasury will need to retain a separate capability to monitor and assess the progression of the economy. I thought that his admirable summary was the answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Barnett.
I had a sense of déjà vu, because I thought we were going back to Oral Questions with the first part of the noble Lord’s intervention. We will pass over our regular sparring about the Monetary Policy Committee, but his questions on why the OBR is needed and its independence were partly answered by the noble Lord, Lord Burns. Fundamentally, over the past few years, as the previous Government redefined the cycle, there was not an appropriate degree of transparency around the forecasts, which is why we believe the OBR is necessary. I do not want to dwell on that because we spent a lot of time on that at Second Reading and in Committee.
The job now is to get that independence properly enshrined in the Bill, which takes me to the suggestions from the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. Also, on the comment from my noble friend Lord Newby, I am sorry that the parliamentary draftsmen did not precisely agree with his wording but grateful for confirmation that we got to the same result. On the couple of questions from the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, on Clause 5(3), indeed the OBR now has a clear and explicit duty to consider government policies in its work. That is what the OBR is essentially all about: assessing the impact of government policies and, on the back of that, whether the fiscal mandate will be met. Clause 5(3) is indeed now quite clear on that.
Clause 6(1) is quite explicit that the charter may still give guidance on other topics but there is a particular signal that the charter may give particular guidance on timing. When the noble Lord comes on to press me on the draft charter, I think that we will all agree on how important the transparency of the remit is. The critical point, as I hope noble Lords would agree, is that we published the draft charter early on in our discussions, to enable that to be fully considered in Committee. As my noble friend Lord Newby said, any consequential redrafting of the charter as a result of our discussions will be small.
The essential point is that we issued a draft charter in very good time for discussion now. There is no overwhelming need to issue a new draft, simply because not a lot will have changed. We have been clear on the issues that we have looked at again. While I hear what has been said, I do not want to prejudice how the charter and the Bill might be looked at as they go through the stages in another place, as and when we send the Bill there. I hope that answers the various points that have come up on this group of amendments.
Amendment 1 agreed.
2: Schedule 1, page 14, line 13, leave out “The Budget Responsibility Committee” and insert “A committee established by paragraph 9”
Amendment 2 agreed.
3: Schedule 1, page 14, line 26, at end insert—
“Review by Non-executive Committee12A The Non-executive Committee must keep under review the way in which the Office’s duty under section 4 is performed.”
My Lords, producing high-quality work requires the OBR to have access to all relevant information and expertise. The Bill provides for this through a right of access to information, a Budget Responsibility Committee of experts and a duty to act transparently. In response to the discussion in Grand Committee, these arrangements are intended to be bolstered by the two amendments that we are bringing forward.
Amendment 3 gives the non-executives a duty to keep under review the processes that the OBR uses to assure that it is producing the best possible work. These are likely to be management processes that the non-executives will be well placed to consider. Examples might include: whether the OBR is consulting with a wide and appropriate range of experts, including academics and internationally; whether it is working effectively with the rest of government to produce analysis; and, to make sure that it follows up lessons from internal reviews.
Amendment 5 requires the non-executives committee periodically to commission independent expert reviews of the OBR’s work. In detail, it needs to consider frequency: these reviews could be carried out at times considered appropriate by the non-executives, but “at least” every five years. In scope, the review will consider work published in the relevant period. The non-executives will determine which of the OBR’s reports are to be considered. That could be all the OBR’s work or a particular theme could be focused upon. This flexibility is important to ensure that maximum value is always gained from the reviews. There is then the question of the reviewer. The non-executives would appoint a person or body with the appropriate knowledge or experience to carry out each review. Although we expect the reviews to have minimal costs, there is provision in the Bill for the OBR to make payments to the reviewers—for example, for their expenses. Each review will be published and a copy laid before Parliament. I beg to move.
My Lords, I think that everyone who took part in Grand Committee will feel that these amendments should be dedicated to the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes—who I am afraid is not in her place to hear this—as it was she who, at Second Reading, raised the issue of writing one’s own school report and the necessity of having an independent assessment of the OBR’s performance. Amendments 3 and 5 therefore establish the responsibility of the non-executives to keep under review the activities of the OBR, relative to its main duty. An important component of this monitoring will be the commission of the third-party reviews of the OBR’s performance, as described by the Minister.
We are entirely supportive of the Government’s amendments in this respect, other than in one crucial aspect. Amendment 5 proposes that an assessment by an independent person or body should be carried out,
“at least once in every relevant 5-year period”.
The final part of the amendment, proposed in new sub-paragraph (7), says,
“the period of 5 years beginning with 1 October 2010”.
However, as will be evident from Amendment 6, which I shall be moving, we on this side think that five years is too long a period. First, as a professional economist, I feel that five years is much too long for an organisation to be running before its activities are assessed independently. After all, the OBR will be producing more than one report a year—in fact, there will be three or four reports—so within three years there will be a substantial body of material for an independent assessor to consider. The independent review will also have value for the OBR. It will provide informed third-party input into its techniques and procedures, and postponing that for five years will unnecessarily weaken the expertise that feeds into the OBR’s work. Of course, expert appraisal of the OBR’s activity will also be an important input into parliamentary scrutiny, and I think that in parliamentary terms we should want more regular consideration than is provided by this amendment.
That parliamentary element leads me to the second reason why five years is too long. Setting a five-year appraisal period politicises a process that should be entirely apolitical. If the Government secure the constitutional reforms that they have proposed, five years will be the length of a fixed-term Parliament; hence the OBR review will become part of a five-year political cycle. Indeed, as I emphasised to noble Lords just now with regard to proposed new sub-paragraph (7) in the amendment, the timing has been set carefully so that a review takes place just after the next election. Review of the work of the OBR should be divorced from the political cycle and not linked to it in any way. That is why my Amendment 6 sets the review period at three years. This will achieve the dual objective of allowing timely consideration of the work of the OBR, giving Mr Chote and his colleagues the benefit of that professional input and stimulus, but most important of all, establishing a cycle of review which is divorced from the political cycle. That is a crucial aspect in maintaining independence and cross-party respect for the work of the OBR.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, describes his proposed change from at least five years to at least three years as “crucial”, but his whole argument as set out implies that, on all occasions, the non-executive committee would choose to have this review at the very end of the period during which it is allowed to have the review. I cannot for one moment imagine that that is what it would do. If we are to have confidence in the non-executive committee that is being set up in the Bill, it seems to me that we have to give it quite a lot of discretion about the timing of when it thinks it is appropriate to have a review. That will be governed in part by the extent to which the outcome of the work of the OBR comes under criticism, the extent to which we think there are lessons to be learnt. I am content with the five years not because I think the review should take place every five years, but because I think that the onus should be upon the non-executive members to take the decision about the timing—one should not box them in too much.
By bringing this forward and suggesting that it should be every three years, we are setting a clear timetable as to when those reviews will take place, rather than leaving it in the hands of the committee that is being set up in the Bill to make that decision. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, will reflect on the emphasis that he has given to this five-year period and his interpretation that the committee will always let it run the full length. I would rather show more confidence in the role of the non-executive body and give it discretion as to when is thinks is an appropriate time to have that review in the light of circumstance and events and how the work of the OBR is seen.
My Lords, I support Amendment 6 to Amendment 5. I was not in the House for the beginning of Report, but I add my congratulations to those that I understand were expressed to the Minister on rejecting the advice that Ministers so often receive to resist and instead listening carefully to what was said by all sides in Committee, taking that into consideration and bringing forward a set of very constructive and welcome amendments. That shows the House performing its correct and proper function of revision, being professional and efficient, enhancing the quality of the Government’s intention and not unduly delaying the House in so doing.
I repeat my support for the concept of the Office for Budget Responsibility. I hope that, just as the Minister reminded us during Oral Questions that the previous Government established the Monetary Policy Committee which is now an important part of our financial and economic infrastructure, the OBR will be a similar testament to this Government’s contribution to building a sustainable and effective architecture. However, I support the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Eatwell because it seems to me that the symmetry between the electoral cycle and five years is simply inappropriate for something which should be established to stand well apart from day-to-day politics and the electoral cycle.
It is particularly important that the work of the OBR should be subject to independent review in a shorter period than five years at commencement. It is new, and it is going to be establishing a lot of new ways of working and new formats for reporting that no doubt will evolve over time. It would be unfortunate if we did not have a chance to stand back and look at how it was performing and how its contribution could perhaps be further enhanced before five years had elapsed—before we got to 2016.
There is a strong reason for having these reviews in periods of not more than three years, rather than in periods of not more than five years, as proposed. However, the noble Lord, Lord Burns, is right to remind us, as I am sure the Minister will in his closing speech, that the current draft says that, as it should not be more than five years, it could well be that the committee, the membership of which has not yet been selected or identified, could choose to make the reports earlier. For the purpose of good order and good process and, frankly, to strengthen further the integrity of the OBR and the confidence that it will be able to sustain from the broader public, these reviews should take place more frequently than once every five years. Once every three years would be a better outcome. It is for that reason that I support Amendment 6.
My Lords, I support the government amendments to introduce an external review. The debate in Committee and, to an extent, at Second Reading demonstrated why that was a good idea.
As for whether three years or five makes better sense, I have a lot of sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Burns, said about the benefits of five years. The amendment is very flexible. It does not say that the review will be commenced on 1 October five years hence. It says that at any point a review can be undertaken; as soon as the non-execs were appointed, they could cause a review to be undertaken if they were worried ab initio that the office was not performing well. If they then felt that it carried on causing them concern, they could have another review relatively quickly. The draft gives the non-execs a lot of flexibility.
What we are doing here is a belt-and-braces job. On the assumption that the office is doing a reasonable job, and bearing in mind that it will be subject to a huge amount of external scrutiny—this body is not operating in the closet with no one looking at what it is doing; every time it produces a report, 50 economists mark it—to do that roughly once a Parliament sounds about right.
My Lords, as from time to time I disagree with my noble friend Lord Eatwell, I make it clear that on Amendment 6 I strongly agree with him. It makes sense to separate the review from the political cycle. I will disagree with him at a later stage, but on this I thought that he made a very good point.
I am never surprised at the noble Lord, Lord Burns, speaking as if he is on the Treasury Front Bench. We should not be surprised; he has been doing it all his life. He did a marvellous job in the Treasury, particularly for the five years that I was there.
I thought that my noble friend Lord Eatwell made a good point about the cycle, as did my noble friend Lord Myners, and I hope that on reflection the Minister will accept the amendment. It makes a lot of sense and he might, on this occasion, accept it.
My Lords, I start by welcoming the noble Lord, Lord Myners, back to the Chamber. I am not sure that he had quite got his script co-ordinated with the Front Bench, but I accept his congratulations. I will put aside their slightly backhanded nature. Next time I think he should speak to his Front Bench, which seemed to be taking sole credit for the government amendments that have come forward. Nevertheless, I am grateful to him.
My Lords, the Minister will recognise that, speaking as I do from the Back Benches, I speak independently. I reach my own conclusions and express my own views. My congratulations to the Minister are in no way fettered by what those on my Front Bench might have said.
I heard the noble Lord say that he wanted to add to the congratulations, but there were none before. Anyway, I am grateful to him. Perish the thought that he might have been out of the Chamber briefing the press on his mildly diverting, if somewhat predictable, contribution to Oral Questions, but let us move on. Noble Lords have focused on only one point in responding to this group of amendments, which is whether the backstop date, because I regard it as a backstop date—the noble Lord is obviously distracted by something in the corner of the Chamber. I want to address the point about the five-year backstop dates.
I thought that I heard support from across the Chamber on this point. As I say, the issue is one of a backstop date. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, is seeing chimera where none is to be seen in trying to link the political cycle with this five-year backstop date. We think that it is appropriate to have a date in there to ensure that the independent review happens at some stage, but it is most likely that the non-executive directors will indeed choose to have reviews on some other cycle or whenever they think it is appropriate. I absolutely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, that we have to allow—it is proper to allow this—the non-executive committee the freedom to make up its own mind on this. A shorter period may well be decided on, particularly in the initial period of operation, just as, in the context of the Monetary Policy Committee, a review was carried out a couple of years into the new arrangements. Therefore, we should leave this to the committee’s judgment and not impose a rigid pattern on it.
It might be relevant to consider read-across or precedents from other comparable bodies. However, I have been able to tease out only one comparable read-across involving the Dutch Central Planning Bureau, which has a provision for external reviews every five years and has stuck to that model since 1945. That continues to work for that body.
I believe that it has the review every five years, but I think it would be wrong to have a fixed provision of five years. One of the dangers of having a shorter time such as three years is that it might become a regular feature. What we need here is flexibility but with a sensible and appropriate backstop date. It is also important to remember in this context that these external reviews are far from the only means through which the OBR is being and will be scrutinised. I remind noble Lords that the package of scrutiny goes much wider. First, there is the duty on the OBR to act transparently, which means that all its work is open to ongoing challenge and review—this is proving to be the case already—from any of the well regarded and distinguished think tanks and academics looking at its work. The OBR is required to produce an annual assessment of the accuracy of its fiscal and economic forecasts.
There is also the fact that the OBR intends to establish an advisory panel of experts to support and challenge its work on an ongoing basis, which not only is an important additional element of external challenge and review but brings the OBR into line with the best practice, drawn in this case from the United States’ CBO. I see the noble Lord nodding on that point.
On the basis of the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, and backed up by my noble friend Lord Newby, and considering the other elements of scrutiny that are ongoing and challenged externally, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.
Amendment 3 agreed.
4: Schedule 1, page 15, line 3, at end insert—
“( ) The report must include, in particular, an assessment by the Non-executive Committee of the extent to which the Office’s duty under section 4 has been performed in accordance with section 5(1) and (2).”
Amendment 4 agreed.
5: Schedule 1, page 15, line 12, at end insert—
“External review14A (1) The Non-executive Committee must, at least once in every relevant 4 5-year period, appoint a person or body to review and report on such of the Office’s reports as the Committee determines.(2) In sub-paragraph (1) “the Office’s reports” means the reports which— (a) have been made in pursuance of the Office’s duty under section 4, and(b) have been published since the relevant date.(3) The “relevant date” is—
(a) in the case of the first review carried out under this paragraph, 1 October 2010;(b) in the case of subsequent reviews, the date of the last review carried out under this paragraph.(4) A person or body may be appointed under this paragraph only if the person or body has knowledge or experience likely to be relevant to the performance of the Office’s duty under section 4.
(5) The Office may, with the approval of the Treasury, make payments to the person or body in respect of the performance of the person’s or body’s functions under this paragraph.
(6) The Office must—
(a) publish each report prepared under this paragraph,(b) lay it before Parliament, and(c) send a copy of it to the Treasury.(7) In this paragraph “relevant 5-year period” means—
(a) the period of 5 years beginning with 1 October 2010;(b) each successive period of 5 years.”
Amendment 6 (to Amendment 5)
6: Schedule 1, line 4, leave out “5-year” and insert “3-year”
My Lords, I will not speak to this amendment again except to say that I think that it would be very unfortunate if there were to be a delay of more than about three years to an external assessment of the work of the OBR. While one wants confidence in one’s non-execs, one also wants some framework within which to work, as my noble friend Lord Myners said.
I welcome the news that an advisory group will be established. I think that that is an excellent idea and I am delighted that it is going to happen. It is regrettable that the Government have not accepted this amendment but, in the context, I will not move it.
Amendment 6 not moved.
Amendment 5 agreed.
7: Schedule 1, page 15, line 18, at end insert—
“( ) The budget for the annual operations of the Office of Budget Responsibility shall be published, and be available for scrutiny by the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons.”
My Lords, I first moved this amendment in Grand Committee in which, of course, there are no votes, and the matter was simply left on the table. I regret that the Government have not seen fit to bring forward some proposals whereby the OBR’s budget would be formally exposed to independent scrutiny. My argument then was the same as my argument now. Given that our fundamental objective is to ensure the OBR’s independence to the greatest degree possible, one of the key means of controlling any independent organisation that is limiting its budget relative to its responsibilities must be constrained. In this amendment we have proposed that it be constrained by the requirement to publish the annual budget and make it available for scrutiny and assessment by the Treasury Committee in another place.
When we discussed this in Grand Committee, the Minister made the following points. First, he argued that the Treasury was incentivised to fund the OBR adequately, since the OBR performed important tasks for the Treasury. What worries me is that this argument is indicative of a failure by the Government to understand fully the need to ensure the independence of the OBR. Of course the Treasury is incentivised to fund what it wants done, but it is not incentivised to fund what it does not want done. Truly independent studies by the OBR that ruffle Treasury feathers will not attract enthusiastic funding from the Treasury. Therefore the incentivised argument really does not carry any weight.
Secondly, the Minister argued that the current funding agreement, outlined in a letter from Sir Nicholas Macpherson to Robert Chote, provided adequate funds to the OBR through to 2014, but what about after 2014? The creation of the OBR is not just for the next three or four years. We on this side of the House hope that it will become and remain for many years a valuable instrument in UK economic policy-making—valuable because it is independent—just as the Monetary Policy Committee has become a valuable instrument in UK economic policy-making. To argue simply that things are okay now is a quite inadequate way of providing confidence for the future. Therefore, the second argument does not stack up.
Thirdly, the Minister argued that there were other means of informing the Treasury Committee of another place of the OBR’s budgetary position, for example via the OBR annual report. Once again, he fails to grasp the substance of independence. It is not for the OBR to fight its budgetary corner, which is what it is being asked to do. It is for Parliament to ensure that its independence is protected. That is what we on this side seek to do in this amendment.
Finally, the Minister suggested—extraordinarily—that paragraph 15 to Schedule 1 provided protection for the OBR’s budget, whereas in fact it does exactly theopposite, leaving power with the Treasury to keep the OBR on as tight a budgetary leash as it wishes. Therefore, the arguments deployed in Grand Committee did not answer the case that was made. They were not simply unconvincing but disturbing, in that they betrayed a lack of understanding of, and commitment to, the concept of the independence of the OBR.
I have been working on this issue and my concerns deepened when I investigated what had happened to similar organisations in comparable jurisdictions. In Canada, the incoming Conservative Government established the Parliamentary Budget Office in 2008. Toronto’s Globe and Mail reported that a year later, after the Parliamentary Budget Office had produced two reports that were critical of the Government, the office’s annual budget was frozen despite earlier promises to boost it by a third. This was Canada's Macpherson moment, when the letter and the promise were withdrawn.
In Sweden, the Fiscal Policy Council was set up in 2007, once again by an incoming Conservative Government—there is a pattern here. On 18 November last year, the council wrote an open letter to the Government pointing to the discrepancy between its remit and its resources. What was the reaction? The Swedish Minister of Finance is reported to have reacted negatively to the letter and suggested—you guessed it—that the council's budget should be cut in response. Thus in Canada and Sweden—two jurisdictions for which we have great respect—critical reports have resulted in budgets being frozen or cut.
On 6 December last year, a letter appeared in the Financial Times in support of the independence of the Hungarian Fiscal Council—the Hungarian version of the OBR. One author of that letter was Mr Robert Chote, the chairman of our OBR. As well as making the case for the independence of the Hungarian organisation, Mr Chote and his fellow signatories argued that:
“Developments in Hungary are also of a more general interest for the viability of independent fiscal monitoring. It is easy for a government to be in favour of this in principle. It is more difficult to stand criticism when it is actually delivered”.
How true that is—and how important, therefore, is the amendment before us, the purpose of which is to support the independence and the financial integrity of the OBR.
If the OBR behaved in a manner that did not suit the Government, for example by undertaking extra studies that cast government policies in an unfortunate light, the easiest way to discipline those independent-minded souls would be to cut their budget, forcing them back to their core function and thereby diminishing their independence. Control of the budget is an important means of controlling any organisation, as the Swedish Minister of Finance made clear.
The amendment seeks to provide the OBR with the protection of independent scrutiny of its budget. The budget must be published and made available for scrutiny by the Treasury Committee of another place. The OBR would not have to fight its corner; Parliament would fight its corner for it. This would give the Treasury Committee the opportunity to have its say on whether any inappropriate limitations were being placed on the OBR’s operations by budgetary means. If you like, the amendment provides scope for the Treasury Committee to act as the financial champion and protector of the independence of the OBR.
The Minister should mark the words of Mr Chote in his letter in the Financial Times, and accept the amendment to ensure that the OBR’s budget is protected, even when it speaks unwelcome truth to those in power. I hope the Minister can give me some reassurance that this issue will be taken seriously and will be considered for government amendment at Third Reading. I beg to move.
My Lords, given that I was chairman of the Treasury Committee in another place for something like 14 years, I am naturally rather sympathetic to the amendment. However, it does not seem to do what the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, said it does. It does not enable the Treasury Committee to control the budget, but enables it to ensure that the budget is scrutinised after being published. This is something which my noble friend should readily accept, because it would be very surprising if the annual operations budget were not to be published. I should have thought that that was consistent with the whole argument for transparency which we have heard from the Government throughout the debates on this Bill, and that it should be virtually automatic. It is equally likely that the Treasury Committee would wish to scrutinise the budget, once published. My noble friend might of course argue that it is unnecessary for the amendment to be made, but, if it were, some reassurance would be given to those expressing the kind of view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. It would certainly be right for the budget to be published and for the appropriate body to look at it to be the Treasury Select Committee in another place.
My Lords, I will disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, by agreeing with the amendment, or rather with its spirit, because it is important that the funding of the OBR is as transparent as possible. We need an arrangement that will last. We all know that the Treasury has great power and I accept the argument that the OBR needs the protection of a transparent process. Of course, nothing would in the end prevent the OBR from suffering in respect of its budget if the Government wished that to happen and could get the support of Parliament, but it is important that that process should be transparent. I recognise the argument that it is already evident from the public expenditure process that there is nothing to stop the Treasury Committee being involved, but I support the principle of making a specific provision for the funding of the OBR that should be as transparent as possible.
The detail in the amendment that I am not happy with is the suggestion that the committee should investigate the annual budget. It is important that if you are to have a successful operation such as the OBR, it should know what the prospects for its finances are, stretching beyond one year. Subjecting it to an annual budget process might not do the job. The noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, already referred to Sir Nicholas Macpherson’s existing letter talking about a financing process that stretches some way ahead.
I therefore support the principle of the amendment and hope that it is possible to find a way of expressing its intentions that provides reassurance that a transparent process will be in place and will stretch for somewhat longer than the annual budget round.
The noble Lord, Lord Burns, never disappoints me. I am delighted to see that he agrees with the principle of the amendment. I agree with the principle but I disagree with the amendment. Once again, my noble friend Lord Eatwell ignores this House. He would like to see the scrutiny undertaken just by the Treasury Committee of the House of Commons. I have no objection to that and, indeed, I would be delighted if the Minister accepted it, because the Treasury Select Committee of the House of Commons, under different chairmanships, has usually done a great job and continues to do a very good job now under a Conservative chairman. Why does my noble friend not wish to have this scrutinised, as my noble friend Lord Peston and I proposed in Grand Committee, by the Economic Affairs Committee of the House of Lords? As a former chairman, I am prejudiced and my noble friend Lord Peston was a longer-term chairman of the committee. It has always done an excellent and very independent job in this House.
If the Minister is minded to accept an amendment occasionally, and can ignore the word “resist” in his brief, perhaps he might be willing to add to the amendment the words “the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee should also carry out scrutiny”. We now have a former Chief Secretary to the Treasury chairing the committee and doing an excellent job. On this occasion, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, will accept the amendment as amended by my suggestion. I beg formally not to move.
My Lords, perhaps I may just get my head round the formal non-moving of an amendment that has not been put down. I shall try to give the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, the reassurance that he seeks in this area. The Government support the spirit of the amendment. Transparency and parliamentary scrutiny of the OBR’s budget are absolutely central to safeguarding its independence. I do not think that there is any difference between us on that point.
The next issue is getting a proportional arrangement which achieves the objective. The effect of the proposed amendment has already been achieved. In line with the Treasury Select Committee's recommendation, the annual budget of the OBR will be identified separately in the Treasury's estimate and it will be available for the Treasury Committee to scrutinise in another place. Nevertheless, we have gone further than the Treasury Committee asked for in order to enhance the transparency of the OBR’s budget and critically to protect it from any suggestion of politically motivated cuts. Again, in line with the Treasury Select Committee’s recommendation, the OBR will also be able to submit to the Treasury Select Committee an additional estimates memorandum alongside that of the Treasury in which it can explain for itself the reasons for changes in the available budget for the year ahead. I think that will go beyond what is proposed, in effect, in this amendment because the OBR will be free to explain in full what any changes in the budget mean.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Burns, that if we need to be concerned about anything here it is the multi-year aspects of it, which the proposed amendment does not address. The OBR has already been provided with an agreed and publicly documented multi-year budget, so that an annual budget exercise cannot be used to exert hidden pressure on the OBR. This specific element has been welcomed by the IMF.
I will divert for a moment to address one or two of the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, on some of the international experience in this area. While I am sure that the Toronto Globe and Mail is a fine source of reporting, I think it is relevant to remember that the Canadian Parliamentary Budget Officer is really not in any comparable position to the OBR. Its budget is not separately identified anywhere within the estimates of expenditure presented to the Canadian Parliament. It is a very different office from the one we are looking at. The Parliamentary Budget Officer in Canada was not given an agreed and published multi-year budget. I think we are in very different territory from Canada.
Hungary was mentioned. It is interesting to note that Hungary’s Fiscal Council chairman pointed out—I do not know whether this is correct—in the context of saying it was very, very rare to introduce substantial changes or abolish fiscal councils that the only example he could point to was Venezuela under Hugo Chavez abolishing its fiscal council. So there are one or two examples but they are not comparable examples. It is precisely to guard against any suggestion of such interference that we have put in place the measures that we have.
In trying to give the noble Lord the reassurance he seeks, we have discussed already the responsibility of the OBR’s non-executives. Critical to that is their duty to report on anything that appears to them to constrain the OBR’s discretion. Of course, that would include any attempt to control the OBR through manipulating its budget. To quote the chair of the Treasury Select Committee:
“It is vital that the OBR has the resources it needs. The Committee will monitor this carefully: the terms of reference suggest that the Treasury accepts the importance of transparency and separate disclosure, and we will have the information we need”—
we, the Treasury Select Committee—
“to do our work”.
The package of measures we propose for the OBR in the Bill follows the recommendations of the Select Committee and in the judgment of the Treasury fully reflects that intention. The chair of the OBR has already made clear that he has adequate resources and that he will promptly raise any issues on funding with the Select Committee—a very public forum in which to raise any concerns.
Finally, I will quote Robert Chote at his pre-appointment hearing in front of the Select Committee. He said:
“If you accede to my appointment and I find myself being squeezed in that way, this committee will be hearing about it very promptly. That’s how we make that public and ensure that those sorts of pressures do not go unremarked”.
I suggest that there are a considerable number of safeguards in place. Indeed, we go further than the noble Lord’s amendment because we believe that the multi-year dimension is as important as, if not more important than, the single year dimension to which his amendment refers. In view of the reassurance that I have been able to give him, in particular pointing to the role that we have just now confirmed for the non-executives, I hope that he will withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate, not least because there seems to be a unanimity of purpose around the House. Perhaps I may address a couple of the points that were made. The first is the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Burns, supported by the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, about the word “annual” in my amendment. I think they are absolutely right. It should refer to the budget; the word annual should be taken out, then everything would flow quite nicely. However, the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, still does not quite grasp the idea that the OBR should not have to fight its own corner but should be given parliamentary protection in the budgetary field for the long term, not simply for the period for which Sir Nicholas Macpherson’s letter is relevant. We are looking beyond that provision.
The one element from which I derived some comfort in the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, was the issue of a separate line in the Estimates, which will provide the Treasury Select Committee with the opportunity separately to identify the budget of the OBR. My amendment would require that to be brought for scrutiny, rather than it simply being available, but I am willing to accept that that is a small point.
I suppose that I should accept being chided by my noble friend Lord Barnett for leaving the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee out of the amendment. I felt that since this was particularly an expenditure matter, it should be handled by the committee in another place. I am willing to stand corrected on that point.
However, I feel that there is general unanimity around the House that this issue is important in sustaining the independence of the OBR. I am grateful for the assurances that the Minister has given. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 7 withdrawn.
Clause 4: Office for Budget Responsibility
8: Clause 4, page 2, line 29, after “it,” insert—
“( ) a comparison of the fiscal and economic forecasts previously prepared by it with the corresponding forecast prepared by the Bank of England together with an analysis of the difference between the two,”
My Lords, I beg to move Amendment 8 in my name, with which it will be convenient to discuss Amendment 9, in the name of the Minister, and Amendment 10, which is my amendment to the Minister’s amendment. In some ways, this grouping is rather too extensive, but several important points are enshrined in the amendments.
I will start with the Minister's amendment, which states:
“Any Report which the Office makes in pursuance of its duty under this section must include … the main assumptions made by the Office, and … the main risks which the Office considered to be relevant”.
We debated both those points at considerable length in Grand Committee, so I certainly welcome the fact that the Minister has tabled the amendment. If we are to be able to appraise the forecasts made by the OBR, it is crucial that we should know on which assumptions they have been made, so I am glad that we shall now be able to do that. Secondly, we should also know the OBR’s assessment of what risks it considered to be relevant—with some indication, I hope, of the probability of this or that risk being realised—so I am strongly in favour of Amendment 9. I believe that the House as a whole will share that view.
I turn to my Amendment 8, which suggests that the OBR should not only assess the accuracy of its reports in a post-mortem assessment, as is already required in the Bill, but make,
“a comparison of the fiscal and economic forecasts previously prepared by it with the corresponding forecast prepared by the Bank of England together with an analysis of the difference between the two”.
I am concerned that there is an increasing schizophrenia—almost—between, on the one hand, the monetary policy side of things that is managed by the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee and, on the other, the fiscal side. It seems that the Bank of England will operate on one set of forecasts, while the Treasury will operate on the basis of the OBR’s forecasts, supplemented by the forecasts to which the noble Lord, Lord Burns, has referred. It is not helpful to have two separate forecasts being made when we are concerned with the overall position of the management of the economy. Therefore, I hope that my noble friend is able to accept my amendment.
In passing, I will express some concern about the Bank of England’s forecasts. If I may divert for a moment, I noticed in the Economist magazine a couple of weeks ago the rather strange statement that the increase in VAT to 20 per cent would, because it will be permanent, be almost entirely passed on. That was a strange thing to say, because the extent to which the increase is passed on should of course depend on the elasticity of demand for the various products that are being taxed. I received a courteous reply from the individual in the Economist who had been responsible for the report. He pointed out that he had relied on a statement made by the Bank of England, which also apparently suggests that the 20 per cent VAT increase will be almost entirely passed on. If that is so, we have an extraordinary number of irrational people selling products in this country. Therefore, I really wonder whether we should rely on the Bank of England’s forecasts as much as we do.
We also had some discussion earlier at Question Time on the position of the Bank of England. That is another matter, although I again express some concern because we always understood from Mr Gordon Brown that the Bank’s sole consideration was to be the rate of inflation, which it was to tackle by use of the interest rate. However, we find that interest rates are not going up at the present time for understandable reasons, which imply that the Bank of England, in making its forecasts and everything else, takes into account a number of factors other than inflation, as Mr Brown said it ought to do. Perhaps my noble friend might indicate in passing whether he thinks that the remit of the Bank of England has changed.
Finally, my amendment to my noble friend’s amendment suggests that there should be
“an assessment of the current output gap and when the Office expects the current economic cycle to end”.
My noble friend previously answered a Written Question from me on what assessment had been made of the movement of the economic cycle, which was an extremely important issue under the previous Government. Mr Brown constantly put great stress on the importance of the economic cycle, but time after time he then changed the date when he thought that the cycle had started and finished. There is a case for having this issue clarified by the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Indeed, the Written Answer from my noble friend referred the matter to the Office for Budget Responsibility, which kindly replied by saying that the OBR had not made any assessment of when the economic cycle had actually begun, although it might do so in future, but it was rather clearer on when the current cycle was likely to finish. The OBR went on to say that it believes that the output gap will steadily decline, as
“we judged that there was an output gap of around 3.25 per cent in the second quarter of 2010. Our forecast assumes that the output gap will narrow by approximately 0.7 percentage points a year from 2013-14”.—[Official Report, 16/12/2010, col. WA 222]
The Office for Budget Responsibility should surely follow this matter very carefully indeed, as that is the whole essence of economic management. Given that we are starting off with excess capacity, it is important in making its forecasts that the OBR assesses to what extent the gap is likely to be closed and, in particular, how quickly it is likely to be closed because of the overall economic situation.
I very much welcome my noble friend’s Amendment 9, but I hope that he may be prepared to accept that, if we do not have a single forecast, there is a case for making a comparison between the forecasts of the Bank of England and those of the OBR and that we should include in the OBR’s appraisal a clear estimate of the position on the economic cycle.
My Lords, I should perhaps speak briefly to Amendment 9 at this stage. I will respond later if other noble Lords speak to Amendments 8 and 10.
On Amendment 9, the risks and assumptions of the OBR in producing its reports are critically necessary for a full understanding of its analysis. Provision to require the OBR to set those out was originally included in the draft charter. However, we recognise that a key purpose of the Bill is to provide appropriate assurances that the good practice already adopted by the OBR will continue. For that reason, Amendment 9 will elevate the provision from the draft charter to the face of the Bill and broaden the requirement to apply to all reports produced under the OBR’s main duty.
On Amendments 8 and 10, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, will have to suffer the possibility of inconsistent forecasts because that is, in a way, embodied in the independence and separation of the Bank of England. The whole point of an independent Bank of England, and the way the Labour Government set up the independent status of the Monetary Policy Committee and the Bank of England, is that it should be allowed to take an independent view. That independent view will be informed by its own research. This can lead not just to forecasting inconsistency but to policy inconsistency, but that is the price we are going to pay if we think this is an appropriate policy mix. The very distinguished late economist Sir James Meade pointed out many times that this separation could lead to serious policy inconsistency, and he was entirely opposed to its, none the less, that is the way we have constructed policy-making in this country, and that separation will bring with it the possibility—indeed, the probability—of some forecast inconsistency. However, we should note that recently the Governor of the Bank of England has been making many statements about fiscal policy, which is not his territory. That is very unfortunate. He seems to have encouraged the Prime Minister to make comments on interest rates, which are not his territory either. If this separation is deemed to be a good thing by our Parliament and policy-makers, I hope that the governor and the Prime Minister will respect it.
The problem I have with Amendment 10, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, is that I do not think the output gap is a precise notion which can be believed if you say it is 2.5 per cent or something like that. In the Budget debate and in the debate on the comprehensive spending review, I argued that it is a statistical construct. It has embedded within it a series of statistical assumptions. It was quite striking that in the first OBR report, the definition of the structural deficit was changed, to the benefit, I might add, of the Government’s arguments. Therefore, I do not want too much credibility to be put on what is a useful indicative statistic. The weight put on it can be taken too far.
I strongly support the Government’s amendments both on transparency of assumptions and consideration of the risks to which the economy might be exposed. The latter issue, with the OBR now being required to talk about the risks to which the economy is exposed, is very important. For example, let us suppose that we had had an OBR of 2006 vintage. That OBR could have expressed concerns about the fiscal risk the economy was subject to by being dependent on such a high proportion of tax revenues coming from just one sector of the economy, that of financial services. It would have had the opportunity to say, in facing that risk, that some diversification of revenue sources might be desirable. Similarly, in defining the sustainability of the public accounts, the OBR should take into account the risk to sustainability generated by the foreign balance and by the savings and spending behaviour of the private sector, and their interactions with the public balances. Providing these insights into the risks of public sector financial management would extend the debate about the public finances in a very useful way and would ensure that the debate is far better informed than it has been in the past. So I would like particularly to add the support of this side for government Amendment 9.
I would like to echo the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, in two respects; first, in his comments on Amendment 9, which I will not repeat, and secondly, in his comments on Amendment 10. I am dubious about the value of giving enhanced status to an assessment of the output gap or when the economic cycle is likely to end for reasons largely already given by the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell. The output gap is not an absolutely firm context and figure that is easily grasped and measured. As we saw with the previous Government, a lot of weight was put on the economic cycle because the golden rule about government expenditure and borrowing depended on it. The problem was that whenever a difficulty arose, lo and behold, the definition of the cycle changed to push the difficulty back. It proved to be a far more elastic concept than we thought, and the old Ricardian economic cycle that depended on grain crops just does not obtain in quite the same way today. So while I am sure that the Office for Budget Responsibility may well wish to opine on these matters, and it will be quite interesting to know what it thinks, it is of secondary importance in setting government policy. Indeed, because of its somewhat nebulous nature, I would not want us to put too much weight on it again.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, for his support for government Amendment 9, but let me say a few things in respect of Amendments 8 and 10 because my noble friend Lord Higgins has raised important issues. I agree with the spirit of the amendments in both cases, and I shall try to do justice to the points he has raised by explaining how I think the matters are or should be dealt with.
Amendment 8 concerns the question of economic and fiscal forecasts. On fiscal forecasts, a comparison is actually not possible because the Bank does not produce such a forecast. Rather, it incorporates the official fiscal forecast now produced by the OBR into its own economic forecasts, which reflects the expertise within the OBR and the information that the office as opposed to the Bank has access to. So that is dealt with because there is no comparison to be made.
Of course a comparison can be made of economic forecasts and, although I would not express it in quite the terms of the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, yes, there may be differences—we cannot get away from that. The important point is that comparisons are made, and this is exactly what the OBR is doing. It set out a comparison in its economic and fiscal outlook, which it published in November 2010, and table 3.8 on page 69 of that document clearly sets out the Bank of England’s economic forecast. The OBR has gone further than that because it has also set out its forecast against other key forecasters such as the IMF, the OECD, the EC and the NIESR. So there are those and other opportunities for the OBR’s forecast to be compared, including in the annual report on forecast accuracy and in the external reviews we discussed earlier. There are provisions in the Bill to support the comparison analysis that is already being made in the OBR’s publications. Therefore, in respect of the economic forecasts, while I agree with its underlying principle, the amendment is not necessary.
Amendment 10 provides for the OBR to report on the output gap and the timing of the cycle. On the output gap, the current fiscal mandate is based on the cyclically adjusted current balance and, therefore, in order to assess the likelihood of meeting the mandate, the OBR has to compute an estimate of the output gap in order to calculate the structural deficit. It has produced a forecast for the output gap in all three of the official forecasts it has produced to date and also much supplementary analysis—eight pages of it in the November report.
There is a provision in the charter concerning what data series the OBR should produce. The draft charter states that the OBR must produce:
“An analysis of the impact of the economic cycle on the key fiscal aggregates, including estimates of the cyclically-adjusted position”.
To fulfil this requirement, the OBR must produce an estimate and forecast for the output gap if the fiscal mandate changes. That is already covered.
On the timing of the economic cycle, the noble Lord, Lord Eatwell, and my noble friend Lord Newby have correctly pointed out that we are now in a different position in regard to the economic cycle and its link to the fiscal rules. Under the previous Administration, the timing of the economic cycle was critical to the fiscal rules. It was a judgment under the control of the Chancellor and the controversy caused by changing the date of the cycle in mid-2000 is a perfect illustration of why the OBR has been established. Under the new fiscal mandate, the timing of the economic cycle no longer fundamentally underpins the fiscal rules. This reflects international best practice, where it is acknowledged that judging the end of the fiscal cycle, possibly several years into the future, is extremely difficult and an insufficient basis on which to design rules.
Nevertheless, and despite this, it will be clear from the OBR’s forecast for the economy what its forecast for the economic cycle is over the next five years. One will be able to tell if the OBR expects the economy to move from recession to growth and vice versa. Should the timing of the economic cycle be of particular interest again, I would expect the OBR to dedicate a large amount of analysis to it.
The provisions which support external scrutiny will ensure that OBR analysis is consistent with international best practice, but at the moment, and in stark contrast to the previous Administration, this is a subsidiary point. While I very much agree with the spirit of the amendment, the OBR is already covering these matters. They are dealt with in the charter and it is not appropriate for legislation to go down to this level of detail. I ask my noble friend to consider withdrawing his amendment.
9: Clause 4, page 2, line 32, at end insert—
“( ) Any report which the Office makes in pursuance of its duty under this section must include an explanation of the factors which the Office took into account when preparing the report, including (in particular)—
(a) the main assumptions made by the Office, and(b) the main risks which the Office considered to be relevant.”
Amendment 10 (to Amendment 9) not moved.
Amendment 9 agreed.
Clause 5 : How main duty is to be performed
11: Clause 5, page 3, line 2, after “Office” insert “—
(a) must have regard to those policies, but(b) ”
Amendment 11 agreed.
Clause 6 : Guidance as to how main duty is to be performed
12: Clause 6, page 3, line 9, leave out from “section” to end of line 10
Amendment 12 agreed.
13: Clause 6, page 3, line 14, at end insert—
“( ) If the Treasury proposes to modify the guidance included in the Charter by virtue of this section, a draft of the modified guidance must be published at least 28 days before the modified Charter is laid before Parliament under section 1(6).”
Amendment 13 agreed.
Clause 15 : Employment etc of former Comptroller and Auditor General
14: Clause 15, page 5, line 36, leave out “such person as may be so specified” and insert “the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and abide by the decisions of the Committee”
My Lords, I do not intend to detain your Lordships for very long because this is exactly the same amendment that we debated in Grand Committee on 9 December. I did not press the amendment or the argument at that time because I was greatly encouraged by the debate, and in particular by the response of the Minister who certainly seemed to be in listening mode on that occasion.
I was a little disappointed to receive a letter from the Minister dated 21 December, listing the amendment that he has tabled this afternoon. I refer to the Government’s Amendment 15. This says that the Public Accounts Commission will have a role in specifying who should be consulted by former Comptrollers and Auditors-General on possible future appointments that they might wish to take up. My amendment says that this advice should be given by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
As I said, I do not wish to detain your Lordships, but I point out that the amendment is based on the 15th report of the Public Accounts Commission. My noble friend Lord McFall was a member of that commission when it reported in March 2008. It referred to the subsequent employment of former Comptrollers and Auditors-General and said that a,
“C&AG should be required under the terms of his or her contract to consult the Advisory Committee on Public Appointments”—
it should have been “on Business Appointments”—
“(currently chaired by Lord Mayhew) before accepting any employment whatever after leaving the post of C&AG and to abide by the decisions of that Committee”.
The advisory committee is now chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Lang of Monkton, and its remit is simple:
“The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is an independent body which provides advice to the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, or other Ministers if requested, on applications from the most senior Crown servants who wish to take up outside appointments within 2 years of leaving Crown service”.
That body has the experience and background to provide the proper advice for any senior civil servant who wishes to take up an appointment after leaving public service. It would in my view be the appropriate body to give advice to former Comptrollers and Auditors-General. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government have not accepted this. Perhaps the Minister might say why it is that the Government now want to involve the Public Accounts Commission—another layer in between the time when a former Comptroller and Auditor-General would have to consult before he can consider taking up some other appointment. It may well be that the Public Accounts Commission will say to that former Comptroller and Auditor-General, “You must seek advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments”. I do not know why we do not go straight to that point in the first place. I had hoped that the Minister would have put that in his amendment. He has not done so and I should be grateful to hear his response.
My Lords, I see the Chamber filling up. This amendment is clearly attracting a lot of interest but, just in case noble Lords have come for some other business, let me deal briefly at this stage with Amendment 15, together with Amendment 14 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig. Having reflected on the points made on this issue in Grand Committee, I agree that clarification is indeed merited on this question of the C&AG taking up future offices or appointments. That is why the Government’s Amendment 15 makes it clear that the Public Accounts Commission would specify the person or body, such as the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, that a former Comptroller and Auditor-General should consult before he or she takes up another office or position having left the office of C&AG. We have come forward with that important clarification.
Amendment 14, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, seeks to name the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments as the body that former C&AGs must consult. However, there is a difficulty in naming a particular body in legislation because names and responsibilities may change over time. The fact that the body recommended in the original report from the Public Accounts Commission is different from that in the amendment makes that very point. While we need to have a degree of clarification which was not in the original Bill, writing in a particular body that exists now but may not exist in time—and was not that recommended only a short time ago by the Public Accounts Commission—means that we need to have the balance of flexibility but the certainty that the Public Accounts Commission will nominate a body up front.
The Treasury has carried out a search to see whether we could find any similar requirement elsewhere in legislation. The only mention at all of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is in relation to the obligation placed on it under the Freedom of Information Act, so there is no equivalent hard-wiring in legislation of its other responsibilities to deal, for example, with appointments for former Ministers. We absolutely share the noble Lord’s desire that former C&AGs should not just listen to but take to heart the advice of the nominated adviser, just as Ministers and civil servants do. Perhaps it is relevant to say that my understanding of the position of the serving C&AG is that he would be willing to consult any independent authority that the commission nominates about any employment that he proposed to take up after leaving office. This was written into the letter of appointment that he signed before taking up office. What was not written into the letter was a requirement for the C&AG to abide by the decision of the independent authority. It was expected that the decision of that authority would be made public and that that would be sufficient to ensure compliance.
In respect of future C&AGs, I think it is fair that they should know which person they needed to consult at the start, before they take on the office. It is expected that the person to be consulted should be specified in the appointment letters of all future C&AGs, which would parallel the arrangements for Ministers and senior civil servants. The terms of the C&AG’s appointment are agreed between the chair of the Public Accounts Committee and the Treasury, on behalf of the Prime Minister, and would have to be signed off by the prospective C&AG before he or she takes up office. I believe that with the government amendment we are bringing forward, along with how I have described that it will work in reality, we have sufficiently covered all the bases intended by the noble Lord’s amendment without getting into a position where we might nominate a body that could be inappropriate in a number of years’ time. On the basis of that explanation, I ask the noble Lord to consider withdrawing his amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister because he is a man of his word: he has sought to clarify the matters that we discussed in Committee. He made a fair point in saying that, if we specify a body in legislation, that body could disappear or change with future legislation. The Public Accounts Commission referred to the Advisory Committee on Public Appointments, but I do not think that it even existed. I think that the commission was mistaken and that it should have referred to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. I suspect that ultimately we will reach the point that I have been arguing for and that it will in fact be the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, although the Minister is going to take us on a bit of a route, going through the Public Accounts Commission, to get there. It is a bit like me travelling to Wales via Scotland but I am sure that we will get there in the end. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
15: Clause 15, page 5, line 36, leave out “may be so specified” and insert “is specified by the Commission”
Amendment 15 agreed.
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Committee (15th Day)
My Lords, from time to time I keep the House informed about progress on this Bill, and this is one of those occasions. As we start this, the 15th, day in Committee on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, I am delighted to be able to inform the Committee that there is now agreement among the usual channels on a timetable for completing Committee. As a result of a series of productive discussions, the usual channels agree that Committee should be completed by the end of business on Wednesday this week. This is within the time that has already been scheduled and indicated on the Order Paper. I am sure that all noble Lords who have followed proceedings on the Bill, and perhaps a few who have not, will welcome a return to the effective functioning of the usual channels on the Bill, and I sincerely hope that this means that there is no longer any need for me to ask the Committee collectively to come to a resolution on how proceedings on the Bill should be regulated.
During Committee so far, the Government have held meaningful discussions with the Opposition and with a number of other Members of the House, in addition to debate on the Bill in the Chamber. As a result, the Government will bring forward a package of concessions on Report, and I am sure that the whole House will welcome that. Therefore, we are in the welcome position of having agreement to complete Committee by the end of Wednesday this week. Equally, I am sure I have no need to remind the Committee that we need to return this Bill to the other place by the end of Monday, 14 February—that is, two weeks today—if the referendum is to be held on 5 May. From the soundings that I have taken, I feel confident that the majority of Members from all parts of the Chamber share this aim.
My Lords, I am obliged to the Leader of the House. As he has said, we have agreed through the usual channels that Committee on the Bill should be completed at the close of business this Wednesday. This is the product of good discussions on the substance of the Bill over the weekend and today. Focusing only on the key issues on Report and employing the economy and focus which your Lordships will expect on Report and at Third Reading, the timetable will depend on further agreement between the parties on substantive issues. The Cross-Benchers have played a critical part in getting us to the good point that we have reached, and we now commit ourselves to work hard to try to reach the necessary further agreement.
My Lords, on behalf of a number of us who have been here for long hours into the night, I congratulate and thank those who have been involved in these discussions, not least the Convenor of the Cross-Benchers. I hope that this spirit of compromise will extend into the planning of Report, on which we might otherwise find ourselves in a repetition. I remind the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, that he and his colleagues endorsed the working group of Labour Peers, chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, which recommended that a reasonable time limit be set for all Bills to complete their passage in the Lords. I also remind the noble and learned Lord that in endorsing that recommendation, in a speech to the Labour Party conference on 29 September 2004, he said very wisely:
“The Second Chamber should have the powers to revise, to amend, to scrutinise, but not finally to frustrate the programme of a legitimately-elected government”.
Clause 12 : Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation
94: Clause 12, page 13, leave out lines 17 to 23 and insert—
“(2) A Boundary Commission may cause a local inquiry to be held for the purposes of a report under this Act where, on publication of a recommendation of a Boundary Commission for the alteration of any constituency, the Commission receive any representation objecting to the proposed recommendation from an interested authority or from a body of electors numbering one thousand or more.
(3) In subsection (2) above, “elector” means a parliamentary elector for any constituencies affected by the recommendation.””
My Lords, I note that there is an amendment to my amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, Convenor of the Cross-Bench Peers, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lords, Lord Pannick and Lord Williamson of Horton. I think that the Committee wants to debate that amendment. To facilitate this, I wish to move my amendment formally so we can move on and have the debate that we all want to have.
Amendment 94A (to Amendment 94)
94A: Clause 12, line 7, leave out from “one” to end and insert—
“hundred or more.(3) A Boundary Commission is not obliged to cause a local inquiry to be held under subsection (2). They may only do so if—
(a) the objection raises substantive issues that might benefit from further comment or representation from other interested parties or individuals; and(b) any counter proposals it makes are prima facie within the stipulations of the Rules for the distribution of seats contained in Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act.(4) A local inquiry held under subsection (2) must be completed within six months of the close of the consultation period referred to in subsection (1) above.
(5) Once a local inquiry has been held under the terms of subsection (2) above in any given locality, no further inquiries shall be held in that locality under the terms of this Act into the same objection.
(6) In subsection (2) above, “interested authority” and “elector” respectively mean, in relation to any recommendation, a local authority whose area is wholly or partly comprised in the constituencies affected by the recommendation, and a parliamentary elector for any of those constituencies.””
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, very much indeed. Before I talk briefly about the amendment, it is unusual for a Cross-Bencher to intervene at this late stage in a Bill, particularly one that has become so politicised. As noble Lords know, Cross-Benchers are independent and not politically aligned. We are very mindful of that and I do not want to lead us in any way on one side or another. However, as many of your Lordships will know, something of an impasse had been reached towards the end of last week and I was encouraged by one or two people to see whether there was any useful role that we might play. I did so in great humility and, given that there seems to be very welcome movement, it is our wish to sink back into the background and again fulfil our role as occasional experts rather than being in the political fray. I say that with some feeling and certainly with some meaning.
The other thing that has moved me and a number of Cross-Benchers to see whether we could do something useful was the shadow, or the threat, of anything approaching a closure Motion in this House, which would have been historic. It has never happened before, and as many noble Lords have said it would undoubtedly impair the role that we play in revising and scrutinising legislation. Many of us felt that it was important to try to avert this threat. That is why I am here.
Last week, Amendment 93, moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, was discussed in the Chamber. The amendment seeks to reinstate the right to public inquiry on boundary changes, with many limitations, as set out in the 1986 Act. The outright ban in Clause 12 was felt to be unreasonable and possibly even not sustainable. Nevertheless, there was also a very general acknowledgement that a long drawn-out inquiry would necessarily delay the boundary changes that the Bill seeks to enact. The initial discussion on this amendment took place late on the evening of 26 January, and consequently was not brought to a vote. There is a feeling that if it had, it might have had wide support.
Amendment 94, tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, makes it clear that there would be a reinstated right to oral public inquiry only if the Boundary Commission itself thought it necessary, and that the commission would undertake to limit any inquiries in order to ensure that any changes would be finalised by 31 October 2013, thus not affecting the proposed boundary changes for the election in 2015.
The question of oral public inquiry remains pivotal. On it hung the negotiation between the two sides of the House and the further progress of the Bill. Amendment 94A, in my name and those of distinguished noble Lords from the Cross Benches, builds on the original amendment moved by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, and on that moved today by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, in that it caps the time allowed for such public consultation to six months by disallowing a second local inquiry. This makes clear the commitment to complete any inquiries well in time for boundary changes to be undertaken.
I understand that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, agreed to take Amendment 93A away and come back on Report, an offer that was greatly welcomed by all sides of the House. We are still at such a delicate juncture in trying to move forward on the Bill. My own feeling—my instinct, even—is that we need further clarification at this stage from the Minister on whether the Government can accept oral public inquiry in the Bill.
In doing so, I am trying again to underline the need to obviate the shadow of any kind of closure Motion. Additionally, although the amendment points to a rocky path ahead, that is nevertheless a pathway down which perhaps we could all go if there is the political will to do so. I believe that this is what we all actually want. I beg to move.
My Lords, it is not necessary for me to say anything but a few words more than what the Convenor of the Cross Benches has already said. I agree with everything that she said. Perhaps I could add something about judicial review, a subject with which, in a previous incarnation, I have had a certain amount to deal.
It is important to note that the amendment as drafted would reduce judicial review to its proper place in the context that we are discussing. The courts should rarely, if ever, become involved in the activities of this House. That is an approach that the courts always wish to adhere to, although sometimes it is impossible because the law as it is developed requires them to consider applications for judicial review. However, the amendment makes clear that the Boundary Commission is not obliged to cause a local inquiry to be held but gives it a circumscribed power to require a local inquiry. With the amendment worded in that way, I suggest to the House that it would be very unlikely that judicial review would be a problem in future.
If the Boundary Commission did not require a local inquiry, I cannot conceive that its decision could be reviewed. If there is a local inquiry, again I cannot conceive of circumstances in which it would be possible for there to be judicial review, because, under the clear language of the amendment, the situation into which the Boundary Commission could seek a local inquiry is obviously the sort of issue on which it should properly require the help of such an inquiry.
My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 94A. I agree with everything that has been said by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf. I thank the Minister and Mr Mark Harper in the other place for the courtesy they have shown in spending time with me discussing possible amendments to crucial aspects of the Bill. I take the view—I know that I am not the only noble Lord who does so—that the Government are certainly entitled to get their business through this House. However, the Bill would benefit considerably from improvements to Part 2. I am delighted to hear from the Leader of the House that concessions will be brought forward. The Clause 11 formula of a 5 per cent band either way for an electoral quota is simply too rigid to allow for proper consideration of geographical considerations and local ties. It is wrong in principle for Clause 12(2), which we are now debating, to abolish the power of the Boundary Commission to hold a public inquiry.
The Boundary Commission process, including public inquiries, has served this country very well. It has maintained public confidence by a transparent process which has avoided even the suspicion of gerrymandering which blights so many other democratic countries. The Boundary Commission needs to retain some form of discretion to call for an inquiry, at least in those cases where it considers that it is necessary, with appropriate safeguards. I am sure that improvements can be made to the statutory scheme to promote efficiency and reduce delays but there really is no case for abolition. I very much hope, and expect, that the Minister will tell the Committee that this is one of those matters on which the Government intend to bring forward concessions.
My Lords, we welcome the amendment spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. The amendment to reinstate public inquiries into Boundary Commission proposals provides your Lordships’ House with an opportunity to start edging back from the precipice. It builds on an amendment moved by the opposition Front Bench which your Lordships debated last Wednesday. Although the Cross-Bench amendment that we are debating is more restrictive than ours, we willingly support it in the interests of breaking the deadlock on Part 2. It is a sensible and practical proposal for which we are grateful.
Clause 12 will, if enacted, abolish completely—indeed, it would go further than that and ban—the right to hold a local public inquiry into the recommendation of a Boundary Commission. The Government have chosen to put in the place of a public inquiry an extended consultation period by written submission of eight weeks. It is our submission that this is not an adequate replacement. Part of the function of a local inquiry is to provide people with a fair hearing and an explanation of why a proposal has been turned down. That is essential to the legitimacy of the process and we believe that it improves the decision-making process as well. Perhaps one of the most telling facts is that in every single case where the Boundary Commission was proposing significant changes, such as an increase or a decrease in the number of constituencies in a particular locality, its initial proposals were in every case amended following a public inquiry, so public inquiries are at their most valuable when the recommendations under consideration are the most dramatic. That fact is particularly salient in the context of this Bill which provides for a boundary review based on a reduction of 50 constituencies and the new set of rules dominated by a rigid electoral parity rule.
As the heads of the four Boundary Commissions have made clear, those factors mean it is inevitable that the next review will result in considerable changes to the electoral landscape, so considerable in fact that the Bill states in Rule 9(2), in Clause 11, that the Boundary Commissions are not permitted to take into account Rule 5(1)(d),
“inconveniences attendant on such changes”,
when conducting the forthcoming review.
They can take account of inconvenience in future reviews, but not in this first one.
As we debated in your Lordships’ House last week—I recommend that your Lordships read Hansard to see the relevant quotes—even psephologists who are sceptical about the value of public inquiries have said that on this occasion, in this context, they should be retained. Indeed, they have made the point that, while political parties have tended to be the major participants in inquiries, the scale of change that will be brought about by the next review is likely to provoke a much greater level of involvement by individuals and groups of local people. That is one of the reasons why we on this side of the House have not been willing to drop this matter.
I accept that there is a case for amending the current provisions in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986 so that boundary commissions have some discretion about whether to go ahead with an inquiry, even where the basic threshold is met. However, the amendment proposed by the Cross Benches addresses that issue. The amendment that we moved last week provided that element of discretion. The variation on our amendment, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has tweaked the drafting on that point and made the position clear. We are grateful for that.
There is also the point about judicial review, made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, in the dead of night last week, which he makes again today. I will not repeat what he said, because he said it a lot better than I ever could. His intervention on Wednesday was a powerful one and I very much hope that the Government will listen to it.
The Cross-Bench amendment keeps our initial six-month limit on a local inquiry but states that no secondary inquiry should be allowed. Given that these are very rare in practice, we have no objection to that change in the proposal.
I hope that the Minister, in responding to this debate, will be able unequivocally to accept this amendment. It has nothing to do with partisan advantage. It is a practical proposal concerned with the legitimacy of the process for drawing constituency boundaries. Helpfully and constructively, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, confirmed last week:
“It is not a fundamental principle of the Bill that there should be no oral inquiries.”.—[Official Report, 26/1/11; col. 1070.]
We have high hopes that the noble and learned Lord will enable us to progress in this matter by broadly accepting the proposal in the Cross-Bench amendment. I support the amendment.
My Lords, in the spirit of the Chamber, I want to make two simple and quick points. I make a comment about the thought of a local inquiry not only from the experience of twice having my constituency rejigged through the process, but also from my experience as the chairman of our party a number of years ago.
Local inquiries can occasionally develop a life of their own. I wonder about the six-month limit because I can fairly easily foresee a legal argument arising out of a consultation that had not been satisfactorily concluded in this six-month period. I say to my noble friends on the Front Bench that I have some concern about the concept of a public inquiry in this context. Having said that, I add something that they may not welcome quite so much. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, when he said that the Boundary Commission needed some “discretion”—I use his word. I hope—indeed, I think the whole House hopes—that the Government will find it possible to meet the spirit reflected in what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has said and what I am saying in sympathy with what has already been said: that whether it is a local inquiry or not—and I have concerns about the concept of a local inquiry—there needs to be some element of discretion for the Boundary Commission.
My Lords, I will raise one point. The Leader of the House made a very welcome statement. The amendment that we are discussing is in the spirit of the statement. However, I do not see or hear anything about the conventions on Report. As the Leader of the House will be aware—although I stand to be corrected—the rule of thumb is that Report shall be allocated half the number of days of Committee. That is the convention of the House. This is what this side and that side have insisted upon in opposition. My simple question is: has there been any discussion or agreement on the number of days allocated to Report?
My Lords, perhaps it would help if I replied to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, who has enormous experience of this from being opposition Chief Whip for some time some years ago. The answer is that we have not yet agreed the number of days on Report. However, as I pointed out in my statement, we will need to complete Third Reading on the evening of 14 February in order to get the Bill back to another place in time for Royal Assent. Various conclusions can be reached from that.
As far as concerns conventions, almost from day one the Bill has been a scenario of broken agreements and conventions. I very much hope that we can all agree that it would be sensible to move forward on the basis of how the House traditionally handles Report, within the rules. I am hopeful that we will be able to deliver the Bill on time.
My Lords, I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, for the way in which he introduced his amendment, which facilitated the debate on the very important amendment tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the Convener of the Cross Benches. I thank the noble Baroness for her amendment and for the helpful spirit in which she moved it, and all noble Lords for the general tenor of the Committee debate. As was indicated in some contributions, we have already had debates on the shape of the consultation process, most notably last Wednesday evening, when opposition Amendment 93 was debated. It was similar to Amendment 94 in a number of respects, but not identical in one crucial respect. My colleagues and I have listened with care to the arguments and strong opinions of both sides, expressed last week, today and, it is fair to say, in a number of other debates in Committee when the issue of public inquiries was raised.
I thank the noble Baroness for the valuable contribution that she is making, not only with this amendment but in the process of discussion and negotiation on the Bill. I hope that she knows that I am as keen as she is to find a satisfactory resolution to these matters. A week ago, she made clear during a short debate the desire of the Cross Benches that both Government and Opposition should engage in discussions in order that progress could be made on the Bill “with dignity and resolve”—I think those were her words. We welcome that sentiment. As we have made clear, the Government are open to considering reasonable improvements to the Bill provided that they do not compromise its fundamental principles. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, quoted me saying last week that there was no objection in principle to the idea of oral hearings.
The Bill establishes a consultation process that the Government consider is already an improvement on the process set out in the Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986. That Act allows one month for written representations followed by a local inquiry if objections are received from an interested local authority or from 100 or more electors. A further month for written representations follows where a commission revises its recommendations, with the discretion to hold a second public inquiry. The Bill extends the period for written representations from one month to 12 weeks, with a second period of 12 weeks where recommendations are revised.
However, as has been pointed out, the Bill as it stands removes the facility for local inquiries. Having considered the detail of the amendment, and recognising and acknowledging the spirit in which it was moved, our concern about its detail is that it effectively could reintroduce the current system of local inquiries, which, as my noble friend Lord Mawhinney indicated, has not always been the best means of conducting these matters. At least one inquiry in the previous general review lasted for 12 days, and a number of inquiries lasted for 10 days. I indicated last week why we did not wish to go down that particular road of public inquiries. However, we heard the points made that they could nevertheless be important safety valves. It was the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe, who said last week that an inquiry can be an opportunity for people to have their say. That is certainly something that we very much recognise.
Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, I do not wish again to go over all the arguments made last week, including some of the academic arguments for and against the public inquiry system. However, I said last Wednesday that we had listened carefully to the concern of those who argue that there should be some oral element to the boundary review process. We have listened to the concerns of those who consider that this will be the first such review under the new arrangements—one of the points made by the noble and learned Lord in response to my reply last week—and in the review at which the Commons will first assume its new size, there ought to be some means by which the commission’s proposals can be presented publicly and debated in a public forum. The noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, encouraged me to go further than I did last week. I can assure not just her but the Committee that considerable discussion, consultation and consideration has been undertaken since last week.
I am in a position to say that the Government propose a public hearing process, enabling an opportunity for the public and the parties to express their view, and provide sensible discretion for the Boundary Commissions to ensure that the timetable for completion of the review by October 2013 is met. This obviously would be put in the Bill. This process can be carried out in a modern and efficient manner to meet the timetable.
I think and I hope that my reply is very much in the spirit of the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza. Perhaps I should remind the Committee that together with this—because it was very late last Wednesday—the Government have already said that we will, in addition, provide for an initial counter-representation stage. Nothing I have said today detracts from the concession we made to the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, last week, whereby all written representations received during the period allowed for representations to be made on the commission’s initial proposals will be published, and there will follow four weeks for comments on the representations. Indeed, we would wish the public hearings to which I referred kick in upon publication of the initial Boundary Commission proposals. The proposal in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, emanated from recommendations from the British Academy report on the Bill, and we believe that it will provide scrutiny for the arguments put forward by others.
These two changes—a public hearing stage, aimed at improving public understanding and letting the public have their say in the process, and a counter-representation period—represent substantial changes to the proposals that were initially in the Bill. I hope that the House will agree that the Government have been willing to show considerable flexibility and a willingness to accommodate reasonable concerns, reasonably expressed. We remain very happy to discuss the detail of how these proposals will operate—obviously with the noble Baroness who has proposed her amendment and with the official Opposition. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, and the noble Baroness will, in the light of what I have said, feel able not to press their amendments.
My Lords, I very much thank the Minister for his words and for the spirit in which he expressed them. Before I perhaps comment on the detail, I also thank all noble Lords who supported my amendment. One of the major features was the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, when he said that there should undoubtedly be in the Bill some discretion for the Boundary Commission to do what it has to do, because it has a long history of doing some quite useful work.
What the Minister said about ensuring that there will be public hearings for political parties and the public is extremely important and very welcome. Indeed, that was what my amendment was aimed at. The facility and opportunity to express views is something that we should always cherish, and any opportunity to do so should be supported in any way possible.
I am particularly glad that the Minister feels that it is important that this process should kick in right at the start when the initial report is published by the Boundary Commission. That is also welcome. The words from the Minister, taking into account the long hours of discussion and negotiations—pleasant as many of them have been on all sides of the House— suggest that the Government have gone very far in meeting our requirements. I thank Members for their support and I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 94A (to Amendment 94) withdrawn.
Amendment 94 withdrawn.
My Lords, with permission, I shall now repeat as a Statement the Answer given by the Minister for Europe to an Urgent Question in the other place this afternoon. The Statement is as follows.
“With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the situation in Egypt. First, may I apologise on behalf of the Secretary of State for his absence today? The House may be aware that he is attending a Foreign Affairs Council meeting today in Brussels, where this issue is at the top of the agenda.
While the calls for political reform have been peaceful, general unrest has become increasingly dangerous, with elements of violence leading to lawlessness in some areas of major cities such as Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. Severe restrictions on freedom of expression, including closure of both internet access and mobile phone services, have only fuelled the anger of demonstrators. We have called on the Egyptian authorities to lift those restrictions urgently.
I am sure that the House will join me in expressing our deepest sympathies to all those affected by the unrest in Egypt, including the families and friends of those who have been killed and injured. Casualty figures remain unclear, but it is estimated that at least 100 people have died. On Saturday, the army took over responsibility for security in Cairo, and its role has so far been welcomed by protestors. Our aim throughout these events has been to ensure the safety of British nationals in Egypt and to support Egypt in making a stable transition to a more open, democratic society.
I turn first to consular issues. There are estimated to be 20,000 British tourists in Egypt, the majority of whom are in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where, according to our latest information, the situation remains calm. We estimate that there are a further 10,000 British nationals in the rest of Egypt.
On Friday 28 January we changed our travel advice to advise against “all but essential travel” to the cities of Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and Luxor, due to the severity of demonstrations there. On Saturday 29 January, we heightened our travel advice further to recommend that those without a pressing need to be in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez leave by commercial means where it was safe to do so. Those in Luxor are advised to stay indoors wherever possible. A daily curfew remains in place throughout Egypt from 3 pm to 8 am.
Cairo airport is open but has been operating under considerable difficulties. The situation was particularly difficult yesterday, but our ambassador in Cairo reports that it has eased a little today. Flights are operating but are subject to delays or cancellation. The majority of British nationals have been able to leave Cairo airport today. We estimate that around 50 British nationals will remain at the airport overnight, to depart on scheduled flights tomorrow. The situation also appears to be improving in Alexandria, with road access to the airport now secure. We have staff at Cairo airport working around the clock to provide assistance to any British nationals who require it. We also have staff in Alexandria, Luxor and Sharm el-Sheikh, who are providing very regular updates about the situation on the ground in these parts of Egypt and staying in close touch with tour operators and British companies on the ground.
Additional staff reinforcements from London and the region have been sent to Egypt to help embassy staff to maintain essential services in these difficult circumstances. A 24-hour hotline is available for British nationals to call if they need assistance or advice. I am sure that the House will join me in recognising the hard work and dedication shown by all our staff, both in Egypt and in London, in responding quickly and professionally to the unfolding events.
I turn to the political situation in Egypt. The United Kingdom has major interests at stake in Egypt, which has played an important role as a regional leader, including in the Middle East peace process. We are also the biggest foreign investor, with a cumulative investment of more than £13 billion. The scale of these protests is unprecedented in Egypt over the past 30 years. We have called on President Mubarak to avoid at all costs the use of violence against unarmed civilians and we have called on the demonstrators to exercise their rights peacefully.
In response to the growing protests, President Mubarak announced on 28 January that he had asked the Government to resign. On 29 January, he appointed the head of the Egyptian intelligence services, Omar Suleiman, as his vice-president and Ahmed Shafiq, most recently Minister for Civil Aviation, as Prime Minister. Further Cabinet appointments have been made today. However, demonstrations have continued and are now focused on a demand for President Mubarak to resign.
It is not for us to decide who governs Egypt. However, we believe that the pathway to stability in Egypt is through political change that reflects the wishes of the Egyptian people. This should include an orderly transition to a more democratic system, including through holding free and fair elections and the introduction of measures to safeguard human rights. This kind of reform is essential to show to people in Egypt that their concerns and their aspirations are being listened to.
We continue to urge President Mubarak to appoint a broad-based Government who include opposition figures and to embark on an urgent programme of peaceful political reform. We are also working with our international partners to ensure that these messages are given consistently and that technical and financial support for reform is available. The Prime Minister has spoken to President Mubarak and President Obama. The Foreign Secretary has spoken to Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and EU High Representative Baroness Ashton over the weekend. He will also be discussing the situation in Egypt with EU colleagues at the Foreign Affairs Council meeting today.
The situation in Egypt is still very uncertain. We are putting in place contingency plans to ensure that we are prepared for all eventualities”.
My Lords, that concludes the Statement.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement to the House today. I declare an interest as chairman of the British Egyptian Society and a member of the British Egyptian Business Council.
The Statement makes it clear that the unrest that we have witnessed in Egypt has developed very rapidly over the past few days, particularly in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, as the Minister mentioned. The casualty figures, at more than 100 dead and many more injured, are very high. They seem to be a high proportion of those who were demonstrating. The numbers have been estimated variously as 10,000 at the beginning of the demonstrations and 20,000 most recently and, given those numbers, the casualty figures seem very high. I wish to associate these Benches with the expression of sympathy given by the noble Lord to all those who have been affected, in particular the families and friends of those who have been killed or injured.
Can the Minister tell the House whether there were fewer deaths after the army was brought in to replace the police? From the reports that we have all read and certainly from the Statement that the Minister has made, it seems that the army was more acceptable on the streets as a regulating force and that possibly it did not use some of the lethal force that the riot police seem to have deployed originally. Can the Minister confirm that there were many more people demonstrating yesterday than had been the case the day before and that, as a result, the curfew hours have now been extended? I think he mentioned the time of three o’clock in the afternoon, but originally it was four o’clock. I wondered whether that was as a result of those increasing numbers on the street.
I hope that the Minister will be able to convey the good wishes and the thanks of the whole House to our embassy staff in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, particularly the consular staff who have been working so hard. On that point, the FCO’s business plan has a commitment to deliver a smaller consular staff in future. Is the Minister satisfied that our embassy has sufficient consular staff to undertake the very heavy burden that has fallen on them, given the large number of British people currently holidaying in or visiting Egypt? He mentioned a number who have been deployed in recent days. Is that the rapid reaction force from the Foreign Office and can he tell us how many consular staff are on the ground in Egypt at present? I trust that the travel advice which he was kind enough to detail will be updated regularly and that we shall be able to see that on the FCO website.
On the Egyptian Government’s reaction to demonstrators, can the Minister tell us whether the UK Government or the EU has reacted to the reported use of low-flying F16s by the Egyptian air force? Have they asked about why those aircraft were deployed? Clearly, the street demonstrations today and tomorrow will give us a clearer insight into what is going on, but that seemed to be a quite extraordinary use of F16s.
I have two more specific questions. First, can the Minister tell the House anything about what is happening to the financial markets in relation to what is going on in Egypt? There has been some reporting on that. I make it clear that I do not ask that because of the great British investment in Egypt—as the Minister said, some £13 billion—but because of the impact that further financial pressure will have on the Egyptian Government’s ability to look after its own people. Secondly, can he say anything about the widespread reports of looting, not particularly from houses but—as we have heard from Professor Zahi Hawass, who today I believe has been appointed as a government Minister—from museums? Egypt’s artefacts are a glory not only to Egypt but to the whole world and it is important that we keep track of what is happening in that regard.
Many of your Lordships will be very concerned about what will happen over the next few days in Egypt and in the wider region. Egypt has a huge and growing population and, as has been discussed at the UN and elsewhere, for the past 10 years there has been a desperate and growing shortage of jobs in the area, particularly for the fast growing youthful population. Unemployment and rising commodity prices over the past few months have been a real problem throughout the whole region.
I visited Jordan last weekend and Libya the weekend before and the impact of both unemployment and rising prices is evident, particularly in those countries where there are few natural resources to combat them, especially where there is a rising problem of debt and no ability to subsidise prices. In some areas there has been very heavy subsidising of essential commodities. Money has been put into the system to try to create more jobs and in some countries there have been direct subsidies into citizens’ bank accounts in order to keep these problems under control. However, these safety valves simply are not available where there are energy shortages and job shortages as there are in Egypt. Do the Government recognise that this is not just an Egyptian problem, but a regional one? We have seen what has happened in Tunisia and we have seen the unrest, albeit in a more limited version, in Libya, Jordan and Lebanon and elsewhere.
I think all human beings want a say in how they are governed—at least the overwhelming majority do. They want better functioning institutions; they want to see the growth of civil society and non-governmental organisations. However, the Minister may recall, as I do, the ill fated American initiative on this issue—which was spearheaded by President Bush and I think Vice-President Cheney—which tried to impose a view of Arab reform in the Middle East. That was rejected completely by the countries of the Middle East at the time and I hope the British Government will do everything they can to resist that sort of imposition. I have no reason to think they will be looking for that sort of imposition. It is enormously important that the solutions to these problems are found within the countries themselves. We have to recognise that there is an inevitable dilemma between the benefits of stability and security on the one hand and the benefits of freedom on the other.
The Egyptians did begin a reform programme. There were a number of constitutional amendments, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware. There was a move towards facilitating opposition parties and indeed the setting up of a human rights commission in Egypt. This is not nearly enough and we have to look forward to what can be achieved by the new Government to whom the noble Lord has referred, including, most importantly, free and fair elections and a programme of peaceful political reform. We wish that not only for peace and justice in the Middle East’s most populous state but for the wider Middle East and, in particular, the Middle East peace process. We should not forget that Egypt has been a real force for moderation and engagement in the Middle East peace process when other states in the region perhaps have taken a rather less constructive attitude.
In supporting the main thrust of the Statement which the Minister has repeated, can I ask him to assure the House that we will be kept up to date? Tomorrow there is a call for 1 million people to turn out on to the streets of the Egyptian cities we have been discussing. That will be a crucial day. I trust that the Minister will do everything he can to make sure that the House is kept informed of developments.
I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her comments. Of course she knows the region very well and I am particularly grateful for her expressions of good will on behalf of all of us to the consular staff who are carrying out their duties, often in very challenging and even very dangerous conditions. Those good wishes mean a lot and I am very glad to ensure that they are conveyed to those concerned. The rapid reaction force of staff, to which she referred, is involved in the process. She asked whether we are satisfied that in normal times, if one can use that phrase, we have the right kind of consular support for the substantial number of British tourists and for the still relatively small but growing trade, industrial and investment links with Egypt. The answer is yes, we do. We have examined the staffing very carefully and think it is the right amount, but we are in a highly abnormal situation and we must obviously reinforce the consular numbers as quickly and as effectively as we can. I am not sure of the precise number of consular staff now in Egypt but, as I mentioned earlier, 20 more have been added over the past few days.
I will deal now with the noble Baroness’s other points, which seem to me extremely apposite. I agree that the number of deaths seems high but we are dealing not just with what is going on in Cairo—an enormous city of, I think, about 20 million people, so twice the size of London—but with the many other areas and towns across the whole of this country of 80 million people as well. It is regrettable but not totally surprising that when real violence and anger break out on the streets the deaths are high. She asked whether there were signs that the army has been doing better in its relations with the demonstrators than the police, whose first wave of response was violent and insensitive. It seems it is. Again, there are variations across the country but there are all sorts of anecdotes indicating that the army personnel and the crowds are in some sort of rapport on occasions. That is a very healthy development, which one hopes provides the foundations for an orderly transition to some degree of stability.
The noble Baroness is right about the curfew. It was extended yesterday by another hour from 3 pm to 4 pm. She also asked about the low flying aircraft. I am afraid we are talking about internal decisions of the existing or recently renewed Egyptian Government regarding how they dispose of their security forces. I cannot add anything to that as to why those they chose to fly the aircraft or what the psychological impression was intended to be. On the whole, I am not sure it was terribly helpful in terms of reassurance because hands pointed skywards and said that they were American aircraft and so on, so it probably did not help the general atmosphere.
Regarding financial markets, the Egyptian stock exchange I think is closed again today; it may have opened for a short while. It was closed yesterday, obviously, and the ratings of stocks and shares are sharply down. The crude oil price in the region has hit $100 a barrel and seems to be moving upwards—that affects us all, as we well know when we go to the garage petrol pump. The region has 66 per cent of the world’s oil reserves—not so much in Egypt, although it does have oil and gas.
The noble Baroness asked about looting, and again I do not have details, but we have seen evidence of quite widespread looting and she asked particularly about how this might endanger the antiquities and museums which contain some of the most precious items, familiar to us all, marking the ancient glories of Egypt. Our understanding is that the Egyptian Government are well aware of their responsibilities and have posted special guards round the museums. As this is an internal matter, I cannot guarantee that is going to be totally effective. There were some demonstrations rather close to the museums, but there are guards round them and people are aware, and we have offered some reminders of the importance of preserving these precious objects at a time of violence on the streets.
The noble Baroness made some extremely penetrating and wise remarks about the causes of this remarkable transition that seems to going on first in Tunis and now in Egypt, and there have been riots in other countries in the region as well and protests on the streets. Many causes have been analysed by all sorts of experts on these occasions. These are countries with a very large youthful population who are very short of jobs. Youth unemployment is always a danger. It is an era in which protest becomes e-enabled, with the ability to mobilise through the internet vast organisations of protest with the click of a button. With mobile phones and the support of an endless cascade of television media the whole speed at which protests can spring up, as has happened in Egypt, is vastly accelerated. Add to that a toxic mixture of rising food prices, rising fuel prices and the longing which is always there—and is one we salute—for liberty and greater freedom, particularly of press and media expression, and you have the kind of mixture which simply requires a match to light it, and up it goes. That is what has happened.
I give a firm assurance to the noble Baroness and your Lordships that I and my colleagues will seek to keep the House fully informed as the situation unfolds but, for the moment, speculation as to how it will unfold is difficult. One wants to be optimistic and see moderate, balanced regimes emerge, aware of their international and regional responsibilities. That is possible, but it is also possible that the whole event could take a much darker turn.
My Lords, can my noble friend reassure the House about the transportation of British nationals? I assume that his figure of 10,000 includes dual nationals. Can other European carriers bring out British nationals, should British carriers be unable to accommodate the number who might need airlifting out of Cairo?
On a broader point, the United Kingdom does not have a good history in the Middle East. This situation, grave as it is, provides us with an opportunity to be on the right side of history. Does my noble friend agree that comments by senior British statesmen in the Middle East that stability is perhaps to be traded for pluralism and democracy are unhelpful, and that, although stability is deeply important in that volatile part of the world, pluralism is equally so? It does not behove our Government to take a position whereby we do not seek to uphold the wishes of the people and instead somehow trade off a peace process that is going nowhere with a desire for a false state of stability?
I know what my noble friend is getting at, but I think that that is a false polarity. Something that I have learnt—in particular, in my dealings with the Commonwealth, which does not really come into this issue—is that democracy, the rule of law and good governance are the foundations of stability, investment, jobs and trade expansion. Where those things are not adhered to, or at least there is no trend towards them, problems arise that lead to challenges—not in every country; we can think of exceptions to that generalisation, but that is the scene. I do not think that the pattern of differentiation hinted at in my noble friend's remarks is entirely justified.
The certain and central truth is in my noble friend’s other observation that the UK has a long history in the area, not all of it bad. I am always interested in the way in which many countries with which we might have had bad relations in the past are extremely pro this country—I am thinking of countries slightly further to the east in the Gulf—and are constantly asking for stronger renewed links with the United Kingdom. Some of them have recently been saying to me, “Where is the United Kingdom? Please will you come back?”, so not all the history has been bad, although some of it has been very awkward indeed. The history of our relations with Egypt has had its good moments and its terrible moments over the past century, and certainly for the past 40 or 50 years, as we all vividly remember.
As to the practical matter of routes to the airport and getting nationals out, we are watching that carefully. If it were necessary to think in terms of special charters and so on, we would move immediately, but so far we are finding that the commercial airlines, including British and some non-British airlines, have capacity. The airport is operating again today better than it was and, most importantly, the routes to Cairo airport are clear and properly guarded in a way that it was feared they were not the day before yesterday and yesterday. The situation can change at any time, but at the moment it looks a little better. I hope that that is helpful to my noble friend.
My Lords, we should all devoutly hope that there will be a peaceful transition to democracy, notwithstanding the demographic explosion in Egypt, which leads to the lack of jobs and the water shortage, but there is another option. The spectre of the Iranian revolution still haunts the Middle East. The Minister will recall that at that time our embassy was rather dazzled by the Peacock Throne and that the revolution went downhill from Mr Bakhtiar, a liberal democrat, to end with the mullahs and Ayatollah Khomeini. How serious is the danger of such a decline? We must recognise not only how Egypt, the most populous Arab country, would be affected but, because of the linkage of the Muslim Brotherhood and other less moderate forces to the rejectionist forces in the Middle East, the blow that would result to the Middle East peace process.
Of course, the dangers are there. Revolutions and massive street protests can take unpredictable paths. I think that the analogy with the Peacock Throne and the fall of the Shah is not strong. There has been deep recognition for some time that the pattern of rule in Egypt and the far from fair and free elections conducted last year were paving stones on the route to trouble and that, although one cannot always assess the exact moment of conflagration, there were dangers. I said earlier that the power of electronic media, including the internet, in mobilising people and protests at lightning speed should not be underestimated. Some people have mentioned the machinery of Twitter, Facebook and all those other things. They can convey and gather information and organise people at fantastic speed.
The dangers were seen. Now the task, not for any individual country but for all responsible states men and women around the world, is to see that the pattern unfurls in a moderate way and that the more extreme elements—the younger hotheads in the militant Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadists, and so on—do not hold sway. My view is that there are many sensible, wise and talented people in Egypt and a strong middle class who, although they might be frustrated by past events, have a strong enough voice to give us some hope that moderation will prevail.
I ask the Minister to get his crystal ball out on what might be one of the more certain and important consequences of what is happening in Egypt. Exactly a year ago, I was with the Foreign Minister of Egypt and a party of parliamentarians from 15 European countries. We were en route to Gaza and could get in only via Egypt. It strikes me in particular that Egypt's alliance with Israel in effect to keep the lid on Gaza cannot possibly prevail in the aftermath of what is happening. Whatever Government come in, they seem almost certain to want to review that rather loveless alliance. Is the Foreign Office having due regard to the possible consequences of what seems to me to be almost inevitable? I think, for example, of the border between Gaza and Egypt. As the Minister will know, the Egyptians built the wall along that border only a year or two back, and it has been tunnelled under relentlessly.
One would hope that whatever the immediate consequences in that dimension, there might be the prospect—one hopes and prays—of a balance of voices within Israel itself shifting more to that part of Israeli opinion, political and non-political, that desperately wants to break out of the box that Israeli policy is currently in. That is in the hope that in due time—I realise that these are hugely complicated matters and that it takes all sides to tango—one could move away from the continued colonisation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and into a positive mode that could in the end see a general resolution of this ghastly combination of factors. I ask the Minister whether the Foreign Office is alive to all this—I am sure it is—and whether it will be able to exert some constructive influence and pressure to reach a positive outcome.
I thank my noble friend. Foreign Office Ministers, particularly junior ones, have to be quite careful when it comes to taking out a crystal ball and making bold forecasts, because this is a particularly fluid situation. My noble friend has done a pretty good job himself in raising certain crystal-ball issues, and these are very much in my mind and that of my noble and honourable friends and their advisers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He is absolutely right that we now have to look at implications and try to be one step ahead of the unfolding scene. Gaza and the Israel-Palestine situation, oil and energy supplies throughout the region, and the now increasingly unfashionable pattern of nepotism—which seemed to cause so much anger in Tunis and was clearly a feature in the riots in Cairo, and which was a feature in other contexts as well—all need to be looked at, together with the position of other countries all around the region.
Even in Lebanon we have a fragile situation, with a new Prime Minister who will we hope command sufficient support all round to achieve a delicate balance there. There are issues of potential turbulence in many other regions as well. This means not only that we are already in a new international landscape but that we now, as a result of what has been happening for the last few weeks, have to have a further reassessment. I can therefore assure my noble friend that every effort will be made to peer into the future—it sometimes seems very dark indeed—and to make proper provision for the interests of this country in a new and changing world.
I thank the Minister for his Statement and join others in expressing sympathy for British citizens caught up in unrest and our admiration for the consular staff, both in Egypt and sent from London, who are helping.
I understand the pressure on the Foreign Office budget at the moment, including the consular budget, but will the Minister say whether the Foreign Office is considering developing the concept of rapid reaction forces to provide greater flexibility in the management of consular staff and increasing the chances of having the right number of people available in the alas increasing number of emergencies for which British citizens will quite rightly expect and deserve support from our consular services?
I am sure this is in the mind of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, about which the noble Lord knows a great deal. He probably knows a great deal more than I do; he has spent more time there than I have. This is an age that requires agility, adaptability and rapid deployment as never before in handling international affairs, securing stability and peace, and protecting and promoting our interests, so this kind of design will be increasingly required alongside the stable institutions of Whitehall and the hierarchies of government that have prevailed in the past. We have to have some new thoughts on how to deal with the instant conflagrations and instant fires that can spring up in this globalised total communication, totally informational world.
Will the Minister confirm that it is not always helpful to talk about countries in the region of North Africa and the Middle East as if they were the same, and agree that in Egypt there are some very active opposition parties—not just Mohammed El Baradei’s group and the Muslim Brotherhood but other parties who have MPs, some of whom have links with United Kingdom political parties. There is a vibrant civil society, and there are some free media, and we have in Dominic Asquith, as we had with Derek Plumbly, and their staff, people who know this situation very well. I found this out when I visited on a number of occasions with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to try to promote democracy in Egypt. Will he agree that our top priority must now be to do everything that we can through all the international organisations of which we are members to make sure that there are free and fair elections for the President and the Parliament?
I agree, and I regard those as extremely helpful and constructive comments. They underlie a point that is often worth making: that international affairs is not just about Governments to Governments but a vast substructure of informal, non-governmental, voluntary and professional links that make up the whole fabric of relations between two countries. What the noble Lord has said reinforces that very strongly.
What is the current state of health of General Suleiman, who had been invited to become Prime Minister in Egypt? Did he accept, and more generally will the Foreign Office be revising and reviewing its whole approach to the Middle East and to North Africa, bearing in mind what the Minister has already said about transition from one kind of regime to another?
I cannot add much on General Suleiman. He is known to a number of people in this country and to a number of people working in and for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I cannot comment on the precise circumstances in which he came to be appointed, as they are internal to the Egyptian Government. That is the position, and I am sorry if I have not been helpful on that.
As to revising our approach, revision of approach has become the pattern of the age. We are in an era of constant evolution in our institutions and our arrangements, driven by the global information revolution and the globalisation of events and processes, so new approaches are having to be considered at all times in this transformed international landscape, and we will do our best, in close dialogue with the experts and think tanks and international experts and partners, to make sense of this fast-changing jigsaw world.
My Lords, the Statement says that the Government are urging,
“President Mubarak to appoint a broad-based Government who include opposition figures”.
Is this not part of the problem? The massive movement of people on the ground who are demonstrating in Egypt see Mubarak as the problem, and for the Government to be calling on him to be doing anything at this time is not helpful. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, has said, what is really needed is a strong cross-coalition Opposition that will include different parties that have been kept down and kept weak by Mubarak over the last three decades. They will inevitably include the Muslim Brotherhood in a minority. An alternative is needed, which people can look to, that can step forward and help that transition.
I follow Twitter, and there are hundreds and hundreds of voices on it saying, “We do not want Mubarak. He is the problem; he is the one who has repressed everyone”. The present generation of young people who have seen high unemployment and have no hope for the future see him as the problem. Is it wise of the Government to be calling on Mubarak to take a lead in a transitional time? I wonder about that and the fact that we keep hearing about the Muslim Brotherhood when it is in fact a minority. It does not enjoy widespread support but inevitably has some support and will be part of any coalition in any transitional period.
One should not overestimate the powers of the outside world nor underestimate the fact that the future of this nation and its pattern of government will be determined internally by the people of Egypt. We have to take the situation as it is and, at the moment, the leadership and the power remain in the hands of Mr Mubarak. It is perfectly true, as my noble friend says, that tens of thousands of people are calling for his removal, but others are equally determined that he should not be removed. We will have to see how this works out. In the mean time, it seems reasonable to suggest to those who are in the Government of Egypt, with its new personnel, that the right path is the one to which the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, rightly referred. They must press towards democracy if they want the stability and better life for the people of Egypt that many in the streets are shouting for.
Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill
Committee (15th Day) (Continued)
Amendments 95 to 99 not moved.
Amendment 99ZZZA had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Amendments 99ZZZB to 99ZZZD not moved.
Amendment 99ZZZE and 99ZZZF had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Amendment 99ZZZG not moved.
Amendment 99ZZZH and 99ZZZJ had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Amendment 99ZZZK not moved.
Amendment 99ZZA had been withdrawn from the Marshalled List.
Amendments 99ZA to 99C not moved.
Clause 12: Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation
Debate on whether Clause 12 should stand part of the Bill.
My Lords, Clause 12 is headed “Boundary Commission proposals: publicity and consultation”. I am interested in a number of questions in relation to whether there will be a change in the notification process as a result of Clause 12. The new Section 5 that Clause 12 inserts into the 1986 Act provides:
“Where a Boundary Commission have provisionally determined to make recommendations affecting any constituency, they shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in the constituency … (a) of the effect of the proposed recommendations and … (b) that representations with respect to the proposed recommendations may be made to the Commission during a specified period of 12 weeks”.
First, can the noble and learned Lord give us some indication of what timetable the Government envisage for the first boundary review under the Bill, which has to conclude by 1 October 2013? When do they envisage that those provisional reviews will be published? Do they envisage that there will be one review for each country or region, or will the review apply to the whole United Kingdom—perhaps excluding Northern Ireland—all at once? I am particularly keen to know how the resources of those who may have to respond to those issues will have to be deployed.
Secondly, how do the Government envisage that there will be notification to the public of their right to make representations? This might be apparent if I thought about it more, but what is the effect of subsection (3) of the new Section 5? Will its effect be that, where there are new proposals, new Sections 5(1)(a) and 5(1)(b) will apply again with exactly the same time limits? If the Boundary Commission makes a provisional proposal that is then changed for whatever reason, will it be necessary to advertise the proposal in precisely the same way and will the commission need to advertise again that representations can be made?
Separately, do the Government envisage that the boundary commissions will each issue guidance on what they will do to comply with the new Section 5? If the boundary commissions will issue guidance, will that be in draft form so that this House can see it before the conclusion of Report so that we get some idea about how the new Section 5 will operate?
My Lords, I am particularly pleased that we are making such great progress on the Bill. It is very encouraging to have had that earlier response from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, to the amendment moved by the Cross-Benchers. It was particularly encouraging that the noble and learned Lord responded and took the initiative, because earlier today I was reading a blog—strangely enough—belonging to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in which there appears a comment by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who wrote:
“There has been a potential (and sensible) deal available on this Bill for at least the past two weeks and the failure to clinch it is (in my view) mainly on the government side. The irony is that the deal has substantial Liberal Democrat support”.
I am glad that the deal has been clinched, and I am glad that it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who came here to do the clinching, as it were.
On Clause 12, although almost everyone in this debate has talked about “the Boundary Commission”, I remind the House—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, does not need reminding—that there is more than one such commission in the United Kingdom. Although England and Wales might have a combined boundary commission—I am advised that they have separate commissions, but that means that my argument applies a fortiori—there is otherwise a different boundary commission in each of the four countries of the United Kingdom.
On this matter, and on other matters, how are the Government going to achieve a measure of consistency in the work carried out in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England in relation to, for example, appeals? Following the passage of this Bill, will guidance be issued to the boundary commissions that says, “This is what we expect you to do”, so that the Government take the lead, or will the Government perhaps say to the chairs of the four commissions, “You should get together and work out a modus operandi for your areas”?
Obviously, local hearings are the important issue that we have been dealing with recently, but there are a number of other issues on which it would be invidious if one decision was made in Scotland and different action was taken in England. It could be that in entirely similar circumstances, an oral hearing was held in Scotland but not in England, or vice versa. It would be helpful if the Minister in his reply could put this into a United Kingdom context and talk about the collaboration and co-operation that he envisages among the boundary commissions.
My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, for their contributions and questions. I was just a bit wary when the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, mentioned me coming here for the clinching, particularly for an amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, but I understood the spirit in which he made his remark.
I shall pick up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. He was absolutely right to remind the Committee that in fact there are four Boundary Commissions responsible for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England. One of the issues that we will want to address in preparing the amendment which I indicated in the earlier debate is that of consistency. The important point is consistency, but it need not necessarily be one of exactness, which raises issues of how much should be set out in the Bill and what should be left to the guidance of the Boundary Commissions themselves. That is something we want to work through with them.
The noble and learned Lord asked whether the Boundary Commissions would provide guidance on how they will carry out the review. Prima facie this is a matter for the commissions, but the practice in the past has been for them to do so. It is my understanding that the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England confirmed for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place that they intend to do so again for this review. However, the question of draft guidance is a matter for the Boundary Commissions. I do not think that it has been produced in the past, but if the noble and learned Lord has information to the contrary, I would be interested to hear it. Moreover, I am not aware of any being ready to be published at the moment. In fairness to the Boundary Commissions, it would be difficult for them to produce draft guidance given that we are still at the stage where changes are being made. Indeed, as I indicated in my responses to the amendment moved last week by the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, and that moved by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, on how long it would take to put these matters online, and indeed the matter that was debated earlier today regarding public hearings, it might be rather difficult for the Boundary Commissions to produce draft guidance ahead of the Report stage when your Lordships are still debating what the actual shape of the consultation will be.
I was asked when the initial recommendations would be published. That is entirely a matter for the commissions. I was also asked by the noble and learned Lord whether the commissions have to advertise in the same way for the initial and the revised recommendations. My information is that, yes, they would have to do that. I shall give a little more clarification on a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. It is certainly not the Government’s intention to issue guidance on how the commissions should interpret the legislation, but I understand that the commissions work together on issues that are of common interest and common practice. While not issuing them with guidance on how to do that, we would certainly give them every encouragement to work together. It is also my understanding that each Boundary Commission will produce a report, and certainly I do not think it is intended that there would be one UK report. What I could not be certain about is whether there would be separate reports produced at different intervals for each of the regions of England. I really do not know whether that has happened in the past. But, again, it is certainly not my understanding or anticipation that there would be one mega-UK report. There will be reports from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and, I assume, England, but I do not know whether the Boundary Commission for England would wish to break up its report into separate regions. At the moment, I am not in a position to say.
The way it is done at the moment is that Boundary Commission reports are issued within England or Scotland covering a particular part, usually a county, because there are limits on being able to cross particular boundaries. You have to decide within a particular area which constituency will go where. We know that that is not going to be the position here, so while I understand completely that there will not be a UK-wide report, I am keen to try to ascertain the extent to which the countries of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will, as a matter of practice, be divided up between areas of, say, the eastern region, the East Midlands and the West Midlands. That is significant in terms of how resources are dealt with by political parties in looking at the particular issue, even though it may well be that the Boundary Commissions have not resolved how to do that at the moment. I would ask, therefore, whether they will produce guidance indicating how they are going to do it or does one just have to wait until a particular report covering, for example, the north-east or the south-west of England is produced so that resources can be put to dealing with the area at that particular point? That is what I was interested in.
The noble and learned Lord took my questions as relating to inquiries, but my question was really about the timing of the guidance. I have with me a document from the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England covering the procedure at local inquiries. Of course the commission could not possibly have that ready yet because only this afternoon did we find that there are now going to be local inquiries. Having raised the matter, is it envisaged that further guidance relating to the whole consultation process, part of which will be in writing, will be issued? However, I am much more focused on the order of batting and the timing.
The answer I gave was not intended to be specific to the issue of public hearings, but rather was meant to be illustrative of where there obviously will be changes from what is set out in the Bill at the moment as a result of amendments to be brought forward at the Report stage in response to the amendment from the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, about counter-representations. That is why I wanted to make the point that we cannot really expect the Boundary Commissions to produce draft guidance when they do not know what they are actually going to be asked to deliver. Clearly, we will have to examine what the issues of public hearings and counterproposals mean in terms of timing in the coming weeks. However, as I just indicated, it has been the practice in the past that, as the secretary to the Boundary Commission for England confirmed for the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the other place, the commissions again intend to issue guidance. The point I sought to make was that I did not think that they had issued draft guidance in the past, and I certainly would not anticipate any draft guidance before next week or whenever we debate the Bill on Report.
I am also advised that the Boundary Commission for England published its recommendations on a county basis, which coincides with what the noble and learned Lord said. It is certainly a matter for the Boundary Commission itself to determine how it will report. It could use regions, and I understand that it would be consistent with the powers in the Bill for it to do so. But I envisage that this matter will become much clearer when the Boundary Commissions get the Act of Parliament, as we hope, and they can respond. I have no doubt whatever that we will hear what the respective Boundary Commissions propose in terms of bringing forward reports.
The target size is 76,000, with the 5 per cent leeway making a ceiling of something like 79,500 per constituency. What will happen when a ripple effect is caused by the five-yearly review of constituencies which are all on the maximum and there is no slack in the system to take up? Surely the Boundary Commission will have to report on huge areas because of the ripple effect on each constituency which has already met the 76,000 plus 5 per cent limit. Will the Government take into account this ripple effect on Boundary Commission decisions when finally they make their statement on the commission?
My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says. Whether it would work out like that is a matter of conjecture. However, it underlines the fact that these matters are probably better left to the Boundary Commissions. They should determine how they issue their reports and deal with these points, rather than Ministers or the legislation being prescriptive in that sense. It should be permissive rather than prescriptive.
My Lords, I respect the noble and learned Lord’s refusal to contemplate laying down the law to the Boundary Commissions on exactly how they should conduct their publicity and consultation. However, it might be helpful to them—it would certainly be helpful to the House—if the noble and learned Lord could be prevailed upon, either now or on Report, to think out aloud, to an extent, on this and to indicate in general terms his expectations as to what would constitute satisfactory publicity and consultation.
We live in an age in which there is greatly increased scope for publicity and consultation through new technologies. For example, the use of social networking would be available to the Boundary Commissions if they were intent on communicating with the generality of electors. I hope that they would be. This would be consistent with the principle upon which the Government have agreed that, after all, it would be proper to allow public inquiries to be held. The key principle is that the constitution belongs to the people—not to the Government and certainly not to the boundary commissioners—and we are all the servants of the people. However, it is through the drawing of boundaries and the subsequent election of Members to the House of Commons that the people of this country give their democratic authorisation to the political class, to Members of Parliament, to form a Government and to take decisions on their behalf; and it is through the drawing of constituency boundaries and the holding of further elections that Governments are called to account.
This is such a fundamental feature of our constitution that we have taken the view as a House—and the Government have agreed—that the public should have their say not only through written representations but in oral submissions, either uttered by themselves or their representatives, at public inquiries. However, if that process is fully to engage the citizens of this country and be fruitful, it follows that there has to be effective communication between the boundary commissioners and the people.
We cannot overemphasise the importance of the spirit in which this is done. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to say that he expects the publicity and consultation to be much more than perfunctory; that he expects it to be full-hearted and thorough. There might be a temptation for the Boundary Commissions to make the process relatively abbreviated—not least because they are being asked to proceed on a more rapid timetable than in the past. It will be a genuine challenge for them to transact all the processes involved in redrawing the boundaries in the timescale that the Government have permitted. It should be possible, but it would more difficult to do it to the timescale set by the Government in the Bill if they are to be as thorough and as generous in their publicity and consultation as we hope they will be. It is important that the Government state that they expect a thorough and genuine consultation.
Only if we have that will there be sufficient transparency to enable citizens to have confidence that the boundary commissioners have taken all the relevant considerations into account and have come to a fair and balanced view of them—in particular, that they have balanced the considerations in rule 5 of the new Schedule 2 to the 1986 Act set out in Clause 11. Citizens will need to be confident that those factors—special geographical considerations, local authority boundaries and local ties—have been genuinely and fully taken into account. There will inevitably be scepticism about that because of the difficulty of reconciling a proper weighting of those considerations with the imperative—on which, I fear, the Government still insist—that there has to be the rigid quota of 76,000 electors per constituency, with only a small leeway of 5 per cent either side, a point to which my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours drew attention.
Given the difficulty that there will be in reconciling and balancing these various factors, it is all the more important that there is effective communication with our citizens so that they have confidence in this process. I hope that the noble and learned Lord will be able to indicate now, in general terms, that that is the spirit and the practice that he would expect from the Boundary Commissions. Perhaps when we come to this issue again on Report and have the benefit of seeing the Government’s amendment and their redrafting of Clause 12, this consideration and requirement will be clearly incorporated into it.
I support what my noble friend Lord Howarth has said. Following on from what the Minister said on the briefing about the Boundary Commissions working together, as he knows only too well I am strongly in favour of devolution—as he is—and, where appropriate, different solutions north and south of the border. I am also not too keen on Governments giving directives—particularly this Government, but that is another story.
However, given that we are talking about elections in the United Kingdom, some degree of consistency and guidance is important. Earlier today I read the words of Bruce Millan, one of the greatest Secretaries of State for Scotland, who many noble Lords will recall with great affection. When he was shadow Secretary of State in a debate in the other place—this may seem a long time ago but it is still relevant today—he said:
“On Tuesday I drew attention to the fact that there were differences in approach between the English, Scottish and Welsh Boundary Commissions—for example, with regard to overall numbers. The Scottish commission uniquely among the three started with a pre-determined total and worked from that. Subsequently that total had to be adjusted. I thought that it was wrong in principle that the commission should start with a predetermined total. That approach is not compatible with what happened in England and Wales. It is worrying that there are different approaches to the interpretation of the same rules in the three countries. This is another argument for looking again at the rules.
There were differences in approach by the three commissions to rule 6—the geographical consideration rule. There were also differences in approach in practical terms as to what the commissions did about movements of population after the enumeration date. It is not clear that any commission is entitled to take into account any change in population beyond the enumeration date. The English commission believes that it is not empowered to take any movement of population into account. That has given rise to considerable dissatisfaction south of the border, because England’s enumeration date was 1976. There have been tremendous movements in population since then. The Scottish commission took a more relaxed view. Whether it was entitled to do so is a matter of considerable argument. That should be looked at”.—[Official Report, Commons, 3/3/83; col. 428.]
That points to some of the problems that can arise if there is not close co-operation between the four Boundary Commissions under what I think is the general benevolent guidance of the Government. I know that the Minister cannot give an instant answer, but I hope that he will take this away and look at it to see whether some more guidance should be given, particularly if the rigid figure of 600 is going to be adhered to. I imagine that that is going to make it very difficult for the Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish Boundary Commissions to work in similar ways. They are working necessarily to different totals within different geographical areas, and some guidance from the Minister might be appropriate. I am not expecting an instant answer, but it is worth while having a look at it.
My Lords, perhaps I may first respond to the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. I hope he would not expect the Government to give directions to the Boundary Commissions, and I indicate that the Bill provides that the Boundary Commissions,
“shall take such steps as they see fit to inform people in the constituency—
(a) of the effect of the proposed recommendations and”—
to ensure that—
“a copy of the recommendations is open to inspection at a specified place within the constituency”—
that is unless, of course, no change is recommended for the constituency—
“(b) that representations with respect to the proposed recommendations may be made to the Commission during a specified period of 12 weeks”.
The provisions of this Bill are a bit different from those of the past. The 1986 legislation made a stipulation with regard to newspaper advertisements, and that is not in this Bill. We are leaving that to the discretion of the Boundary Commission. When I was replying to an amendment moved on Wednesday by the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy of Southwark, who was talking about online advertising, I indicated that again it was a matter for the Boundary Commissions. However, as there had been use of online advertising for the purposes of the Boundary Commissions’ work during the last general review, I have every confidence that it will be done again. I am sure there is no way in which the Boundary Commission is going to have a perfunctory regard in ensuring that the proposals are widely publicised. All parts of the House—it should be a matter not just for Government but for Parliament—should be confident that the commissions will continue to adhere to the highest standards that they have shown in the past, irrespective of seeking representations that will strengthen their recommendations. There is a high level of expectation there, and I do not think there has ever been any suggestion that the Boundary Commissions have not lived up to that.
With regard to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes—
There will be a difference in the way that the Boundary Commission operates in future, because it is going to have to reduce the number of constituencies from 650 to 600, if that provision stays in the Bill, and it is also going to have to make the quota of 76,000 a paramount consideration. Those two factors are going to constrain it in new ways. I am sure, as the noble and learned Lord suggests, it will wish to be thorough in its consultation, but the question of what it may see fit by way of publicity and consultation, given the pressures it is going to be under, and the pressures of time as well, will depend to an extent on the standard and expectation that the Government express. That is why I hope we shall hear from the noble and learned Lord a sentiment very vigorously expressed, that he would expect no less of the Boundary Commission than the utmost thoroughness of engagement to ensure that every one of our citizens is aware of the proposals that would affect their constituencies and genuinely have the opportunity to make their representation should they wish to make them.
It is not just a matter of Ministers expecting it because Parliament would expect a degree of engagement. I am in little doubt that good publicity will be given to the issue, because I the political parties have a role to play, as we have acknowledged. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Kennedy, when he proposed that representations should be published online within 24 hours, we would want carefully to consider that before Report. I raised a number of practical issues, but acknowledged that we are living in an age when online communication is probably the norm rather than the exception.
The noble and learned Lord says he is going to frame an amendment—effectively, to produce a new clause to replace Clause 12. Will he consider including wording that really indicates unambiguously the demanding expectation that the Government and Parliament will have for the Boundary Commissioners in this regard?
I am not sure that legislation is the proper place to express exhortation, but I have no doubt that the four Boundary Commissions will be looking at the debates in your Lordships’ House, as indeed in the other place. They will have heard the reasonable expectations with regard to publicity of their recommendations.
I will say to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that perhaps it was a matter of controversy in some of our earlier debates, but one of the reasons why, for example, the British Academy report welcomed some of the features of the Bill with regard to the rules was the clear hierarchy we have laid down and which has not previously been the case. Therefore, I hope that the concern expressed by the former Secretary of State, Bruce Millan, will not arise in this particular case.
For completeness, I say to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, that, as I indicated earlier, it is the case, as stated in new subsection (3) proposed in Clause 12 (1):
“Where a Boundary Commission revise any proposed recommendations after publicising them”,
subsection (1), which contains the publicity part, would apply to the revised proposals, but it does not apply to any proposals that are revised for a second time. I give this for completeness.
I am sorry to come back on a question I asked earlier, but it is quite important. May I give the Minister a scenario with which many constituency organisations across the country may well be confronted? Imagine six Conservative seats in a county all on the margin of 79,800. In other words, they have taken up the 5 per cent slack above 76,000, making a total of 79,800. When the review takes place, they will all have to change. The date when that information is made public is very important because the constituencies in the county next door will want to know exactly what is happening on the boundaries for those six constituencies. Whatever decision is taken with regard to those six will affect the adjacent county where there equally might be Members of Parliament of the same party who are arguing over seats.
Is there a timetable which will be made available to deal with what would happen in those circumstances where all constituencies are on the 5 per cent-plus margin, at 79,800, and where automatically they have to start crossing boundaries to sort out the new quota?
My Lords, as I understood that question following on from the previous intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, we are now looking to the second review which we are looking towards publishing in October 2018. The answer does not vary, inasmuch as it will be a matter for the Boundary Commission to take into account the likelihood of any ramifications of its decisions at that point and the extent to which it publishes, either county by county or region by region. This is not a matter which, with the best will in the world, we could stipulate in legislation. We must leave that to the good sense and discretion of the Boundary Commissions.
I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for answering the questions. I was trying to get at two strands. The first, as I think everyone agrees, including the secretaries of the Boundary Commissions, is that it is going to be a testing timetable to deliver the first review by 31 October 2013. I agree with the noble and learned Lord that it is for the Boundary Commissions to determine how they will do that, including when they will make their announcements of provisional proposals; how they will divide up the four countries; and the method by which they will announce how representations will be made. When legislation is going through Parliament, it is not unreasonable or unusual in this House to ask that the body concerned, without in any way infringing its discretion, sets out its broad proposals. That helps us then determine the validity or otherwise of a timetable, particularly a timetable such as this. I ask the noble and learned Lord—
While it is one thing is to express an opinion in the House, does the noble and learned Lord agree that having exhortation in the Bill implies that it is somehow necessary to encourage the Boundary Commissions to operate in a particular way? That implies a degree of a lack of trust in the work that they do. I wonder whether he would take this opportunity to reject the suggestion from his noble friend Lord Howarth that to express that sort of exhortation in the actual Bill is not helpful in this case. I accept what the noble Lord says about expressions of support and encouragement for a due process in the discussion that is taking place in the Committee, but to put it into the Bill itself seems to me to be a retrograde step.
Before my noble and learned friend answers the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, perhaps I could clarify that while I have asked the Minister to express on behalf of the Government their expectation of a high standard of publicity and consultation, it would certainly not be my view that we should resort to exhortation in the language of the Bill but rather that we should state a requirement in the language of the Bill.
If I might interrupt this momentary and rather fascinating debate about statutory drafting, my experience of Bills passed before 1997, and post-1997, is that legislators sometimes resorted to exhortatory language in Bills when they thought it was appropriate. I do not feel able to give the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, the comfort that he seeks because, for reasons that I cannot adequately explain to the Committee, that was often the way that deals were done on legislation, so one cannot be quite categoric about that.
My point, if I might revert to it, was: without in any way interfering with the discretion of the Boundary Commissions, if we were able to get some indication about how it would be done that would be helpful to show that it can be done and, just as importantly, it would help the other groups—in particular, the political parties—to prepare their resources for what everybody agrees to be a quite testing process. Secondly and separately, resources provided by the state for this are important to get the requisite high standards and to ensure that consultation will be proper. When we return to this on Report, it would also be of value if there were some indication of how the resources have been worked out and how we are to be satisfied that those resources are adequate. However, I will not stand in the way of Clause 12 standing part at this stage.
That last point is a very fair point. If there are to be public inquiries as well, I am sure that the resources of the Boundary Commissions will have to be increased because that would extend the timescale and, indeed, the work of the activities. On the general questions raised on the nature of the boundary inquiries by noble Lords opposite who had previously served in the House of Commons, very little advice needs to be given to the Boundary Commissions, quite frankly, because in the past—I have been involved in two boundary inquiries myself because my seats were affected—they worked completely honourably, openly and fairly.
The commissions first published a great deal of advice and ask for comments from everybody and then they considered those comments. Overwhelmingly, the comments made at that stage were made by the local political parties. It is quite rare for communities to form a view at that stage. I know that noble Lords opposite have made great play about this provision—that it is disrupting the natures of old communities. When it came to the actual inquiries which I went to there was, first, lots of advertising: it was on the radio and in the local newspapers. I suppose they could now use e-mail and all the rest of it. When the two inquiries which I attended actually took place, no representatives from the local communities turned up at all although there were substantial changes.
The people who turned up at those inquiries were the local Conservative representatives, the local Labour representatives and the local Liberal representatives. It became an absolute haggle: “We’ll move that ward out but have that village back, please”. In that haggling the Labour representatives usually won, in my experience. They are very good at haggling on that basis. However, do not believe for a moment that an outraged community is going to turn up in droves at these inquiries.
No, I will not give way to the noble Lord: I think we have heard enough from him and that he should contain himself.
I feel that that is in fact the reality of the situation which we will be faced with, but the argument that I have seen on the Boundary Commission is, in practical terms, that it works very well indeed. It publishes all its findings and the way in which is going to work. It has a procedure for inquiries which has stood the test of time. We should leave the commissioners to it.
Clause 12 agreed.
100: After Clause 12, insert the following new Clause—
“Assistant Commissioners’ report
(1) The Commission shall appoint Assistant Commissioners to report on and make recommendations emerging from the written representations submitted for each separate area that provisional recommendations have been published for.
(2) The report of each Assistant Commissioner shall be published by the Commission along with copies of all the representations received, before the Commission either publishes its revised recommendation for the area or confirms its provisional recommendations.”
My Lords, first, I apologise for the fact that I arrived back in the Chamber seconds too late to move Amendment 99ZA. I do not think that anything catastrophic has been lost thereby, because Amendments 99ZA and 99A were in effect accepted by the Minister. We will see the drafting on Report. If I might be permitted to say it, Amendments 99B and 99C are purely technical and if the Minister or his officials would correspond with me about their substance, we might avoid having to return to the subject on Report.
Amendment 100, however, has fine breeding because it is another from the stable of the British Academy, whose thoroughbreds have been praised throughout these debates. It relates to the discussion that we have just had because it is perfectly clear that the commissions have a big task on their hands to complete the work before them by 2013. In particular, the English commission faces a tough task. It would be very regrettable if there was any slippage in the timetable, because it leaves only 18 months for parties to choose their candidates and for those candidates to bed themselves in. That is even without the possibility, which must still exist even under the Government’s fixed-term Parliament legislation, of an earlier general election. It really is crucial that the Boundary Commissions do not get behind with the task.
The Government have been comforting throughout on the question of the resources that will be made available to the Boundary Commissions. That is important, but the British Academy study argues that an additional weapon in the commissions’ armoury would be the appointment of assistant commissioners. This amendment, as I understand it, in effect repeats the provision of the 1986 Act in that regard by providing for the appointment of assistant commissioners. That may, it occurs to me, also have a part to play when the Government bring forward their detailed proposals for implementing the spirit of the amendment spoken to earlier today by the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, in providing for oral hearings in some form or another. I hope that this modest, technical proposal—it is of course not saying that the commissions have to appoint assistant commissioners—sourced as it is from the true experts of the British Academy study, will find favour with the Minister. I beg to move.
My Lords, I want to make a couple of brief points in support of this proposed new clause. I think there is general agreement in the Committee that the engagement of the public in this process is desirable. There has been a great deal of discussion about what format that could take, but that principle is generally accepted by everybody and this proposed new clause goes to the heart of that agreement.
When the previous Government looked at a whole range of methods of engaging the public in policy formation—of which this would be a part—we came to the very clear view that fundamental to all forms of consultation was the need for the public to know what had happened to their contributions to the debate. That was crucial for the credibility of the process and it avoided cynicism creeping in about what had happened. I think that this new clause is entirely consistent with that principle. I understand that it might be thought unnecessary to put such a provision into the Bill, but it might also be thought to be a sound principle that could be relied upon and about which the Boundary Commission could be relied upon to make a judgment. Putting it into the Bill in the way that my noble friend proposes with this new clause would signify the importance of such feedback, and I very much hope that the Minister will look favourably on it. I do not think that it fundamentally compromises the Government’s objectives in the Bill and it could play an important part in building public support for the process.
Finally, I notice that my noble friend has used the generic term “published”. I do not think that any amendment to the clause is needed but, if the Minister is prepared to look at the proposal favourably, as I hope he will, I should be grateful if he could make it clear that all forms of publication should be used. Obviously, the web should be deployed but we should also bear it in mind that, even today and despite the best efforts of the previous Government, large sections of the population are excluded from the web. Therefore, I should be grateful if the Minister could make it clear that he would expect the Boundary Commission to use all forms of publication.
It seems to me that what is proposed in this amendment is the more important if one takes the view, as I do—but contrary, I think, to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Baker—that there will be extensive public interest in, at any rate, certain proposals for boundary changes. In recent days and weeks, the people of Cornwall and the Isle of Wight have given us to understand in no uncertain terms that they have very strong views about how constituencies should be drawn in their parts of the world. Given the radical and wholesale changes that the provisions of the legislation will entail, I think that we should be prepared for considerable strength of feeling and for vigorously expressed representations not just on the part of the political parties but, certainly in controversial cases, on the part of many members of the public. It is, as my noble friend Lord Wills suggested, important that people have feedback and that they should know that their representations have been listened to, gathered up and presented for careful consideration by the boundary commissioners through the activity of assistant commissioners, as my noble friend Lord Lipsey has proposed.
My Lords, this is quite an important amendment because it relates to what happened earlier this afternoon. My noble friend Lord Lipsey is proposing that an assistant commissioner should look at all the written representations relating to a particular provisional recommendation and publish the effect of those written representations. That is important because it means that the representations are being considered and the public as a whole can see them all in context. It also seems to be of relevance in determining whether a public inquiry is appropriate. If a proper analysis is carried out, which is what an assistant commissioner will do if the proposal of my noble friend Lord Lipsey is adopted, it will be easier to see whether a public inquiry is appropriate or helpful. The effect of the amendment in the names of the noble Baroness, Lady D’Souza, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, and the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, is that, even if the technical requirements are satisfied, there will be a public inquiry only where it is helpful—that is, the Boundary Commission will have the discretion to say no if a public inquiry will not help in any way.
Therefore, I respectfully suggest that the proposal of my noble friend Lord Lipsey will be of value, first, in ensuring that written representations are properly considered and that that is apparent; secondly, in properly analysing what issues there may be in relation to a particular provisional recommendation; and, thirdly, in deciding whether, in exercising its discretion to have a public inquiry, there are sufficient issues for the Boundary Commission to bite on to be sure that such an inquiry will be useful. I respectfully suggest that the noble and learned Lord considers this amendment in the context of the public inquiry amendment and comes back on Report to tell us what conclusions he has reached.
My Lords, perhaps I may preface my remarks by taking up the point that the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, made about the earlier amendments. I shall certainly try to ensure that he has a response on that. I think that they are very much tied up with the amendment which we debated last Wednesday and to which we have already indicated there will be a government response with an appropriate amendment on Report.
The new clause proposed in Amendment 100 requires two things from the Boundary Commission as it consults the public on any proposed changes to constituency boundaries: it must publish all the representations that it receives on provisional recommendations relating to an area, as well as publish a formal response written by assistant commissioners which is very much focused on those written representations.
It has usually been the commissioners’ practice to appoint assistant commissioners to manage the process of local inquiries, and the noble Lord seeks to apply this practice to the consultations under the provisions of the Bill. As I indicated earlier in the Committee’s deliberations, and as I think has been touched upon by a number of contributors to this debate, the Government propose a public hearing process enabling an opportunity for the public and parties to express their views. We need to consider how best to achieve that so as to ensure that the timetable for completion of the Boundary Commission’s reviews by October 2013 is met. It is fair to say that in order to do so we will need to consider all the existing provisions concerning consultation in the round, and I hope that that gives some reassurance. The Government have committed to further action on how consultation is undertaken by the commissions not only in terms of public hearings but in terms of counter-proposal provisions as well. On that basis, I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.