Report (1st Day)
Clause 1 : Power to abolish
1: Clause 1, page 1, line 3, leave out “Subject to section 16,”
My Lords, this group of amendments represents a set of minor and technical changes to the Bill. The amendments tidy up the drafting following the addition of new Clause 16 at Committee stage. It may be helpful for me to remind the House that this clause, which was the product of extensive collaboration between the Government and noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Lester of Herne Hill and my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern, imposes restrictions on the use of the powers in the Bill by Ministers.
Amendments 1, 22, 28, 35 and 42 remove the paving references to Clause 16 in Clauses 1 to 5, which are no longer necessary and, as the powers in Clauses 1 to 5 are subject to other restrictions in the Bill, are potentially misleading. Amendments 90A and 90B make minor amendments to Clause 16, making it explicit that the clause applies to the main order-making powers contained in Clauses 1 to 5. As the Government now intend to remove Clause 6 and Schedule 6 from the Bill, our adjustments to Clause 16 do not apply to that clause. Amendment 90C is a drafting amendment, which will place Clause 16 directly after the main order-making powers in the Bill. I beg to move.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Amendment 2 had been retabled as Amendment 69D.
3: Clause 1, page 1, line 6, at end insert “or to another public body whether or not listed in this Act”
My Lords, having described myself towards the end of the previous set of proceedings on this as deferential, docile and indeed passive because I had moved only one amendment—and that was really a motherhood amendment—I thought that I might be a bit more proactively docile in this set of proceedings and so have tabled a few amendments.
This one is singularly docile, because all I wish to know is a bit more about the definition in Clause 1 of “eligible person”, which is a bit obscure to me as a mere reader of English. The question of whether or not a public body is or is not listed in this Bill—and there is a reference to that sort of thing somewhere in all this—has become a matter of growing importance. There has been a certain amount of shrinkage in the number of bodies covered by this policy in the past six months. Starting off at nearly 1,000 in October’s Statement, the figure came down to less than 500—probably rather a lot less—when we saw the Bill. It has now come down by at least another half to something that is not much more than 150. I could make some unfriendly remarks but I will just note that this is a remarkable change over a relatively short period. What effect does it have on “eligible person” and, in particular, does “eligible person” cover public bodies whether or not they are listed in the Bill?
My Lords, it is fortunate that I have an opportunity to respond to my noble friend so quickly. He has drawn a portrait of the Bill that I scarcely recognise. There are a number of bodies that we reflected on and considered in Committee, but we are still on track for the reform of the public bodies sector and we have, I think, the support of the whole House on the general terms in which that project is being undertaken.
My noble friend’s Amendments 3 and 23 are designed to amend Clauses 1 and 2 to make it clear that an order made under those clauses would transfer a function to another body regardless of whether that body was listed in the Bill. My noble friend is right to assert that, in many cases, it may be desirable that functions are transferred to an existing public body from a body that is abolished or merged. However, I can confirm that this is already provided for in the Bill. As Clause 1(3)(b) makes clear, the definition of “eligible person”, to whom a function can be transferred, includes,
“any other person exercising public functions”.
I assure my noble friend that this definition has been drafted to include public bodies both within and outside the scope of the Bill—bodies that, by their very nature, exercise public functions by virtue of statute or royal charter.
Noble Lords will be aware that some public functions are carried out by non-statutory bodies, such as most advisory NDPBs, many of which are Crown bodies and legally part of their parent department. It would be possible to transfer statutory functions to such bodies by two mechanisms. First, the function could be transferred to a Minister under Clause 1(3)(a), provided that such a transfer was permissible within the restrictions set out in the Bill, such as those in Clause 16 concerning the independence of certain functions. Secondly, a function could be abolished in statute but replicated using existing prerogative powers. This is the process envisaged for the Valuation Tribunal Service, for example, the functions of which will be replicated by the Tribunals Service as an executive agency of the Ministry of Justice. In each case, the Government expect that the explanatory document provided with the draft order will provide clarity regarding any changes in the exercise of public functions. In the light of this explanation, I trust that my noble friend will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
Unless the opposition Front Bench wishes to come in, I will give an immediate demonstration of my docility and deference by endorsing entirely my noble friend’s comments about the Valuation Tribunal Service, which belongs in the unified Tribunals Service—anybody who is harbouring hopes of my support for leaving it out of the Bill had better abandon them. Meanwhile, in light of the charming reassurances that my noble friend has given me, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment and claim another little round of brownie points.
Amendment 3 withdrawn.
4: Clause 1, page 1, line 13, at end insert—
“( ) In considering whether to exercise the powers under subsection (1), the Minister must have regard to the aims, objectives or functions of the body where these are specified in legislation.”
My Lords, I wish to degroup Amendment 62 from this group. That will enable us to debate that amendment when we deal with Clause 8, which is where it more appropriately belongs. I regret that I have not had much time to do this; I told officials but it may not have got through to the Minister.
I welcome all of the changes made to the Bill but there remains a major absence of a fundamental element. That is the purpose of the bodies whose existence, structure, functions or funding are to be changed. This amendment is about adding to the matters to be considered when exercising any of the powers in the Bill that,
“the Minister must have regard to the aims, objectives or functions of the body where these are specified in legislation”.
Without such a requirement in the Bill, Ministers will have to consider only either accountability to Ministers or efficiency, effectiveness and economy. These are laudable aims but they miss the fundamental point that these bodies were set up by primary legislation and have statutory duties or powers. As the Bill stands at the moment, as long as consultation takes place, the Minister can do what he will, without having regard to the original purpose and objectives for which the body was created.
I do not maintain that all functions laid down in law, or all bodies, have to continue unchanged for all time. However, I do maintain that if this legislation is to be used as proposed—to alter what has been laid down in law—the Minister should have regard to the functions, duties and powers of each body where statute has defined these. Therefore, I should be grateful if the Minister could indicate whether the Government will be willing to accept this amendment now or when we come to Clause 8. I am absolutely confident that the intention was never to undermine the purpose of any of these organisations, but solely to make them work better for the ends that Parliament has determined. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very glad to support my noble friend in her endeavours in this regard. As the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, suggested, the Opposition have always made clear that we have no objection to the principal aim of this Bill. It is right that public bodies should be reviewed from time to time. The concern has always been about the draconian powers that were given to Ministers, particularly in the draft of the Bill that we debated in Committee. We are very pleased about the removal of Schedule 7 from the Bill, and about the acceptance of the amendment that was moved in Committee on the restriction of ministerial powers in Clause 16. That is a very welcome addition to the safeguards that are contained in the Bill.
We could, however, go a little further, as my noble friend suggests. She makes the very important point that the bodies that we are dealing with, and the responsibilities that they have been given, were determined by Parliament in primary legislation. In using the Bill as is intended—to abolish in some cases and merge in others—it seems right that, as my noble friend’s amendment suggests, Ministers should,
“have regard to the aims, objectives or functions of the body where these are specified in legislation”.
The powers that are given to Ministers are still considerable, albeit that welcome safeguards have been given. My noble friend’s amendment would be very helpful in providing yet another safeguard.
I would never wish to do other than respond constructively to an amendment from the noble Baroness. I thank her for tabling these amendments and for giving us a chance to debate them. As she will know, the Government have indeed tabled their own amendments to Clause 8. They address the problem that her amendments seek to address.
These amendments to Clauses 1 to 6 specifically require a Minister to,
“have regard to the aims, objectives or functions of the body where these are specified in legislation”,
before making orders. I recognise the motivation behind the amendments, because they speak to the very considerations that form part of the decision-making process during a review of public bodies. In considering whether a public body is required, the Government must first consider whether its functions are needed, and then consider whether those functions should be exercised at arm’s length from government. This process lies at the heart of the public bodies review to which the Bill relates.
However, I do not believe that these amendments would add any protection or clarity in practice. In this context, I note that your Lordships’ House has recognised that the Bill has moved on. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, commented on the way in which the Bill moved on a great deal at the Committee stage and since then in the amendments that the Government have tabled, particularly since amendments of this nature were first debated in late November. It seems a long time ago.
For example, the removal of Schedule 7 and Clause 11 has greatly reduced the scope of the Bill and a number of important restrictions on ministerial powers have been introduced. In this new context, these amendments are not necessary. The Government envisage that the purpose of the Bill is to support the improvement of public functions by making changes to public bodies. This is captured in our new amendment to Clause 8, Amendment 60A. In deciding whether to make an order for this purpose, it is not conceivable that a Minister would not have considered the aims, objectives or functions of that body, including whether they remain necessary or whether any improvement could be made in their delivery.
The requirement to lay an explanatory document setting out the rationale and justification for the order will require a Minister clearly to account for his reasoning in this regard, and the capacity of Parliament to select an enhanced scrutiny procedure for the order will give both Houses the opportunity fully to consider the Government’s assessment. Furthermore, the addition of Clause 16 places significant restrictions on the capacity of Ministers with regard to the independent exercise of some public functions.
I hope that this provides significant reassurance to the noble Baroness in relation to some of the bodies to which she referred in Committee. The matters and purpose in the revised Clause 8—the requirement to justify in an explanatory document why an order is being brought forward—and the revised restrictions in Clause 16 represent an effective and comprehensive way to limit ministerial power and require a clear explanation of the reasoning for orders in relation to the existing functions and objectives of a body listed in the schedule. This is done in a way that also protects ministerial discretion on how functions are delivered. The amendments do not add to this. I ask the noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
I thank my noble friend Lord Hunt and also the noble Lord, Lord Newton, for their support. I accept that there has been a lot of movement, particularly on the issues of independence and the limitations on ministerial powers. On the consumer landscape work that is being done, it will be the civil servants who draft the consultation and the responses to that and therefore guidance to them to have regard to functions will be very important. I will return to this matter when we debate Clause 8, which specifies what needs to be considered. In the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 4 withdrawn.
Schedule 1 : Power to abolish: bodies and offices
5: Schedule 1, page 15, leave out lines 5 to 9
My Lords, Amendment 5 relates to the advisory committees on pesticides and hazardous substances. The Minister will remember that we debated these committees in Committee. A number of questions were asked by my noble friends Lord Whitty, Lord Knight and Lord Berkeley, and by me. Since we feel that our questions were not properly answered, we will take this opportunity to press the Minister for further information.
My noble friend Lord Whitty asked why the two bodies had been chosen. He mentioned a number of other bodies that have similar functions. He was not advocating that they should be abolished, but was questioning whether the Government were being consistent. The bodies concerned deal with very sensitive public issues—pesticides and hazardous substances—that raise concerns for us all. They have done a good job in dealing with these issues, and have impressive arrangements for the accountability of their proceedings and the publication of their decisions, including electronically on websites.
My noble friends and I also felt that the issue went beyond the two bodies to wider issues about the role of advisory committees and the role of independent advice to Ministers. All of us who spoke strongly stressed this. The Minister acknowledged that the committees had provided independent, expert and impartial advice to Governments of all political persuasions. As he knows, Ministers are required to consult these bodies in certain circumstances. Will those requirements to consult on such issues remain in the new structures that the Government are proposing? How will the new structures be better than what is already in place, given that it seems that no money is being saved in the process? We are aware of how valuable the work of the committees has been up to now. How will openness, independence and accountability be strengthened by any of the arrangements? We urge the Minister to reply more fully this time to the questions that I have raised, that others may raise and that were raised in Committee. I beg to move.
My Lords, I hope that I can give a reasonable assurance to the noble Baroness when I set out our policy and show how we wish to be consistent in these matters. I hope that I will be able to reassure her that what we are doing is not purely about saving money, although again I remind her that where money can be saved, it should be. I think that even she would accept that point.
The noble Baroness’s amendment would prevent the Government abolishing the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides for Northern Ireland prior to reconstituting them as expert scientific communities. I noted very carefully the points made by the noble Baroness and others. She mentioned her noble friends Lord Whitty, Lord Knight and Lord Berkeley, who debated these matters in Committee. I was able, I hope, to give some reassurance on the key concerns expressed on that occasion. I am happy to do so again and I start off by doing just that.
There is absolutely no government agenda to restrict the flow and independence of impartial scientific advice to Ministers and others on the crucial matter of hazardous substances or pesticides. We want that independent advice, particularly for our negotiations with Europe, because obviously we have EU bodies that deal with these important matters. I am thinking about problems that we are currently having in negotiations with Europe about certain sprays that can be used on bracken, on which Europe seems to have a different view from ours. Bracken seems to present a problem for the United Kingdom but does not seem to bother much of the rest of Europe, where there is no bracken. However, it could have very serious consequences.
We want the proposed successor bodies to operate independently. We want them to continue to be able to put advice directly to Ministers and to be open in how they work and how that work is reported—for example, on their respective websites. However, the most important point that I want to get across is that we also want them to work more effectively. Our proposals for these committees are consistent with the approach that we are taking to all of Defra’s 18 scientific and technical advisory bodies. That is quite a large number of bodies that we are dealing with.
I think that the noble Baroness will be aware of the Written Ministerial Statement which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State gave on 26 January in another place, and which I believe I will have been repeated as a Written Ministerial Statement in this House, on developments relating to the Science Advisory Council, which provides advice to Defra. The new arrangements announced by the Secretary of State will maintain and enhance the independence and quality of the science and scientific advice underpinning policy. The Science Advisory Council and the Defra Chief Scientific Adviser—I pay tribute to all the work that he has done for us—along with the chief scientific officers in all the departments and the Government’s own Chief Scientific Adviser working together will provide oversight of all the Government’s and all Defra’s scientific committees, as well as challenge and scrutinise their work. We believe that this will yield a greater and more co-ordinated level of evidence assurance to meet Defra’s needs. All Defra’s scientific expert bodies, including the three committees covered by the amendment, will, we believe, benefit from that approach.
I turn to one or two specific questions asked by the noble Baroness. She asked how those scientific communities could work better than their predecessors. I assure her that there was a consultation at the end of last year on the government code of practice for scientific advisory committees, and the new arrangements for expert scientific committees will be aligned with the evolution of that code. Moreover, within Defra we are putting in place enhanced arrangements for our Chief Scientific Adviser to have oversight of, and offer support to, all Defra expert scientific committees with assistance from our Science Advisory Council. They will report through our chief scientific officer to Ministers. As I said, that was announced in another place by my right honourable friend on 26 January.
As I said, some 18 bodies were identified in the Defra scientific advisory landscape. After further analysis, the likely position is that six of those will be deemed to be scientific and advisory: the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances, the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, the Air Quality Expert Group, the National Standing Committee on Farm Animal Genetic Resources, and the pesticides committee and the Veterinary Residues Committee. Three will be retained as NDPBs: the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, the Science Advisory Council at Defra and the Veterinary Products Committee. Others will be transferred elsewhere, and others which are no longer necessary will be abolished. Some will be retained but are no longer deemed to be science or advisory—for example, the Advisory Committee on Packaging, which relates to waste.
Obviously, we are taking a different approach with different committees. That, I hope, will explain to the noble Baroness why we are dealing with these three committees in this manner. I hope, with those assurances, which I appreciate I am repeating from our previous debate on these matters, that the noble Baroness will feel able to accept that we as Ministers, we as the Government and we as a department will still have the appropriate and necessary advice. I therefore hope that she will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for replying to this amendment and giving us more information than was given last time. I do not think that it was just a question of repeating what we heard earlier—indeed, he himself referred to the Written Statement that occurred after our first debates on this subject way back at the end of November. He has given us more of an idea of his and his department’s overall approach to advisory committees. We were very concerned that it just seemed to be a case of chopping here and there without a coherent framework. I would, however, have liked more assurances about openness and public availability of advice and documentation, in the way that the advisory committees have operated up until now.
I hope that our debates on this subject will be noted in another place in case there are issues about the system which the Government are proposing that Members in the other place might like to explore in some detail. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 5 withdrawn.
6: Schedule 1, page 15, line 10, at end insert “for areas in England”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendments 8, 11, 14 and 15. Amendments 6, 8, 11 and 15 will remove from Ministers of the Crown the power to abolish certain environmental bodies separately constituted for areas in Wales: the Welsh Agricultural Dwelling House Advisory Committee; the Agricultural Wages Committee, the Environmental Protection Advisory Committee, established under Section 12 of the Environment Act 1995; and the regional and local fisheries advisory committees established under Section 13 of the Environment Act 1995.
The Government have tabled a separate amendment, Amendment 80, which we will come to later, to give the Welsh Ministers the powers to abolish the equivalent Welsh committees. Amendment 80 is part of a package of amendments following in-depth discussions with the Welsh Assembly Government to provide specific order-making powers to the Welsh Ministers. Further details of the order-making powers being afforded to the Welsh Ministers to abolish these named bodies will be outlined in the context of this package.
These amendments are consistent with the policy intention to give the Welsh Ministers the power to make decisions in relation to public bodies and offices in Wales where they fall within the policy areas which the Welsh Ministers and the National Assembly for Wales are responsible. This is also consistent with the aim of the Bill to provide the Welsh Ministers with relevant powers to ensure that they can put in place the most appropriate arrangements to deliver their environmental duties and policy objectives in Wales.
The fourth amendment in the group, which was originally to be debated later but has now been grouped, Amendment 14, is to insert the Plant Varieties and Seeds Tribunal, or PVST, into Schedule 1. I am happy to set out the reasons behind that. The PVST was set up in 1964 under the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act. Its function is to hear appeals against decisions relating to plant breeders’ rights, national listing of seed varieties and forest reproductive material.
The body has not sat since the mid-1980s—it might be another of the dead parrots that we discussed earlier. That is largely because other dispute resolution measures exist in legislation which have proved effective. For example, there is provision for persons affected by a decision to list a variety to make written and oral submissions to the Secretary of State. If this does not resolve a dispute, an appeal may be made to the tribunal. Similar provisions exist elsewhere in legislation covering early resolution of other disputes within the PVST’s remit.
Matters covered on appeal are likely to be very technical and could include, for instance, proposals to add a genetically modified variety to the national list, thus permitting marketing of its seed in the United Kingdom. The tribunal therefore has an important function as the final arbiter in cases of dispute, and we propose to retain those functions to ensure that rights of appeal are not lost.
Although we propose to retain the functions of the body, the Government's policy is to centralise the administration of tribunals and to reduce the number of individual tribunals. For that reason, we propose to transfer the remit and function of the PVST to the First-tier Tribunal of the Ministry of Justice's Tribunals Service. This means that the PVST would be abolished as a separate body but a specialist tribunal would still be convened as necessary to deal with appeals. Hence, we seek to include it in Schedule 1. The PVST was originally included in Schedule 7, which we all remember, because when the Bill was drafted there was some question about the appropriate legislative means to effect change. It is now clear that the alternative legislative vehicle of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 cannot be used to transfer the functions of the body because of its United Kingdom jurisdiction and it being within devolved legislative competence. Devolved Administrations have consented to this transfer and abolition. I beg to move.
Amendment 6 agreed.
7: Schedule 1, page 15, line 11, leave out “Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales.”
My Lords, Amendment 7 stands in my name and in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, and my noble friend Lord Whitty. I would very much have liked the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, to have been present to move the amendment himself. I know that he has been unwell; we send him our continuing good wishes and hope that he will soon again be playing his full part, as he typically does in our proceedings.
I say from the outset that I am proud to be a member of the Unite union, which now represents agricultural workers. I joined what was then the Transport and General Workers’ Union on my first day in my first job at Transport House some 40 years ago. At that time, the Agricultural Workers’ Union was separate.
When we last debated the proposed abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board in Committee, some powerful speeches were made, not least by the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, in introducing his amendment, and by some of his noble friends, including the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, who is in his place today. Memorable speeches were made by many of my noble friends. Those speeches were not just powerful but knowledgeable and drew on a great deal of background about the work of the Agricultural Wages Board during its existence, which, as we know, goes back a long way. It has had a successful history both in carrying out its detailed work and in promoting a harmonious way of doing business between farmers and farm workers in the countryside.
I hope that the Minister was impressed by the powerful speeches in Committee. He was going to reflect on the comments that were made, although his initial response was that he was not persuaded that the Government’s decision to abolish the board should be reversed. I hope that he has had time in the intervening period to reflect again on that point of view. Certainly, much was made in Committee of the lack of consultation in the Government reaching their decision. This was echoed in England and in Wales, which would also be affected by what the Government propose.
A great deal was said in Committee by the Government and their supporters to the effect that, now that we have a minimum wage, and given that the lowest grade of agricultural worker wage was, I think, 2p above that minimum wage—
It was 3p above—so this protection was not necessary. However, as many of my noble friends and other noble Lords pointed out at that time, the Agricultural Wages Board deals with many levels of remuneration. There are five other levels above the minimum wage. The fact that we have a minimum wage would not deal with that situation at all. In a way, the Government’s whole argument about the minimum wage was a red herring. There was an irony, however, in that the minimum wage and other social legislation that the Government prayed in aid for the vote in Committee were all very much opposed by the Conservative Government prior to 1997. Therefore, that did not comfort those of us who wanted to see proper protection for agricultural workers.
Many noble Lords pointed out that agriculture was in many ways unique. Indeed, that uniqueness was recognised in the fact that, when the other wages boards were abolished, the Agricultural Wages Board was allowed to continue. It was very much a reflection of the fact that agricultural workers may be employed individually or as part of a pair on a farm where they might be quite isolated from other workers in the same industry. A body that they can turn to which represents all agricultural workers is therefore a precious asset that helps to value the work of agricultural workers around the country.
It was also effectively pointed out by a number of noble Lords that many farmers also value the Agricultural Wages Board. Although the National Farmers’ Union in England has officially been in favour of abolishing the board, the NFU in Wales has taken the opposite view. In Scotland, too, there is support for the Agricultural Wages Board and how it operates. I also know that some farmers in England value the assistance that the board can give and feel that it helps them in what is sometimes an otherwise difficult and embarrassing negotiation with an individual worker on their farm. I do not know how widely the Minister has spoken to farmers about this; given the lack of consultation, I imagine very little. However, there is more support among farmers than is generally recognised. That is reinforced by the views from Scotland and Wales.
Concern was expressed, which I repeat today, about the abolition of the board having the effect of driving wages down, particularly in the grades above minimum wage. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, asked about this in our earlier debate. Concern was raised by a number of Members about pressure from supermarkets on our farming industry, which is already very strong. It might also have a knock-on effect in driving agricultural wages down. Many Members felt that the best way to deal with that was to go ahead with the introduction of a grocery adjudicator or grocery ombudsman. I know that a number of noble Lords have been pressing for that in recent Questions and debates. We are a little concerned that there is something of a go-slow on this appointment because it would help in terms of the relationship with the supermarkets and would be a much more effective way forward than abolishing the Agricultural Wages Board.
My noble friend Lord Whitty asked whether the Government would do an impact assessment of the effect of the abolition of the legal minimum on wage rates, given that when each of the other wages boards was abolished, rates in the relevant sectors fell. The Minister dismissed that idea, saying that it was not necessary, but I wonder whether he will rethink his policy of not doing any assessment of this kind.
I do not think it would be good for the rural economy if wages went down. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation has already pointed out how workers in the countryside need to earn more than those living in urban areas simply to have the same standard of living. The recommendations made in the Rowntree report are important to the debate today. Indeed, in the earlier debate my noble friend Lord Clark mentioned that the Agricultural Wages Board provides a benchmark and yardstick for many other workers in rural areas, so again the knock-on effect ought to be taken very much into account. If the Government succeed in their policy, perhaps the Minister will tell us who is going to monitor what is happening to agricultural wages and whether the Government have any plans to review the policy if, in the light of events, the consequences seem to be harmful to farm workers.
I mentioned that Scotland will retain the Agricultural Wages Board, but I am concerned about the position in Wales. Since our last debate I have looked up the debates that took place in the Welsh Assembly way back in October. The Minister there complained that no proper consultation with the Assembly had taken place, which rather contrasts with what the Minister said a few moments ago about far less controversial bodies having been discussed in depth with Members of the Welsh Assembly. In the exchange that took place in the Assembly on 6 October last, the Minister there said that it was clear that Defra did not intend to devolve any budget to the Assembly, and therefore if it had to reinstate the Agricultural Wages Board only in Wales, it would require considerable work and a funding allocation. I am puzzled about the timing because that debate took place last October and yet the proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board is in the legislation before us today. I should like the Minister to comment on why the Welsh Assembly, under pressure from Defra, felt it had to act so quickly when in fact sanction for the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board will be given only when this Bill completes its passage through both Houses.
If the situation in Wales is unsatisfactory, it is also unsatisfactory in England. The lack of consultation is something that has to be deplored. Indeed, I believe that the Minister would have managed to get some changes through if he had embarked on such a consultation in England because I think that there was some appetite for simplification of the way the board works, as well as some reform and modernisation while adhering to the belief that the wages board overall does valuable work.
Some changes to be made by this Bill are very welcome, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, briefly referred to that a few moments ago. It is therefore sad that on this issue the Government have so far remained stubborn and obdurate. They will not save much money and it does seem to be part of a political agenda—of paying off an old score. For all these reasons, I cannot stress how strongly I hope that the Government will announce a change of heart today. I beg to move.
My Lords, I apologise for the fact that, for health reasons, I could not unfortunately participate in Committee. I also send my best wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who certainly is a great fighter on behalf of these matters. We do not always agree, and on this occasion I do not agree with this amendment. I know there were powerful contributions in Committee and, had I been here, I would have raised one or two points.
As the noble Baroness has just said, the introduction of the minimum wage has altered the way we look at things. The Agricultural Wages Board came in many years ago and fulfilled a very necessary function, but nowadays many agricultural workers are paid well above the minimum wage because what farmers are looking for these days are skilled workers, not just people to do menial jobs, as they used to. The wages that people were paid in those days reflected that. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, will remember, as a former Minister, the various difficulties that one has to go through to qualify for many of the jobs that one has to do on a farm. Clearly farmers are not looking for the same skills as before, so I do not support her amendment, but there are a couple of points that I would be grateful if she would pick up from me. She mentioned that the National Farmers’ Union is, on the whole, in favour of the board. It will have explained its reasons and she will know those very clearly. I do not agree with her that the abolition of this board will drive wages down for the reason that I have already indicated: the needs of agriculture in today’s modern world.
According to the Foresight report that came out in January, which I have had the pleasure of reading, the thrust in the future is to produce more food to feed the world. Therefore, we need to raise the profile of agriculture for those coming into the industry and those who are already there, and we need to pay them well. Those whom I have been in contact with are well aware that we normally pay above the minimum wage. For the benefit of newer Members, I remind the House of my family’s farming interests, although sadly, for various reasons, we do not employ anyone ourselves now but have contracts with our neighbouring farmer. There were certainly low wages and long hours in the past, and the long hours continue, but during the winter in the quieter season workers are quite rightly paid for when they are not so busy. The agricultural working week, if you look at it over a year, is very different from the working week of someone who works in an office from nine until five.
The noble Baroness said that the abolition of the board would not save much money. If her Government had dealt with the problem, we might not have to save money now, but that is another point. How much has the board cost over the past 10 years, for example? I hope she has that sort of response for me. She expressed her concerns about the relationship between those employing people on the farm and the workers themselves. Nowadays that relationship is much closer than it was in the old days, for the various reasons I have given. I hope that she will be able to fill in the gaps because I missed the detailed discussions in Committee, and that, once she has heard the Minister’s and other noble Lords’ responses, she will think again about the amendment.
My Lords, we are not going to get consistency throughout the United Kingdom on this because in Northern Ireland we have already decided to abolish our Agricultural Wages Board. The reason for that in no way challenges the arguments put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. A variety of things have collided here—not only the activities of the Low Pay Commission but the problems in the industry arising in different areas: for instance, the activities of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and the fact that many part-time workers were being brought in, a number of whom we felt were being exploited. As Employment Minister, I was charged with bringing in special measures. We found that the best way of dealing with this was within the framework of national law, with particular emphasis on the Low Pay Commission. We found that many part-time workers, even if they were not indigenous, as many of them were not, were undoubtedly being abused in the contracts to which they were being asked to work, even being forced to pay for temporary accommodation, the cost of which was deducted from their wages by some unscrupulous agents. We introduced a law to prevent that.
The profile of the industry where I come from is different, because many more farmers today are part time. As the noble Baroness has just stipulated, very few people can employ workers in the same way as in the past. Given the difference in profile—the fact that farms tend to be either part time or much larger and much more sophisticated organisations—we feel that, although the agricultural wages boards as originally envisaged had a good and valid purpose, time has moved on and the profile of the sector today is radically different. The bodies have a very proud track record and we all strongly support what they have done, but, as with so many of the other bodies that we will discuss later today and on other occasions, time has moved on. We feel, and felt, that other measures that would bring the sector more into the mainstream of employment generally would make more sense in today’s world, because fewer people are employed in the sector and there are fewer farms, which have a totally different profile from the profile of those that were previously envisaged. However strongly the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, might feel about their amendment, I can say only that, in our circumstances, we looked at it and came to the conclusion that the time had come to move on.
My Lords, perhaps I may chip in as a mere layman, and a former MP for a constituency that looked as though it was rural, just to support the previous two speeches. In passing, I may say that I really would not want to accept the noble Baroness’s description of my Front-Bench colleagues as stubborn, obdurate and wanting to settle old scores in relation to the amendment. That might turn out to be true in relation to others, but I am not sure that I would regard it as such in relation to this amendment.
As I said, I was a Member of Parliament in an area that looked as though it was rural. It had a lot of farmers 36 years ago—I was elected in 1974. Even then, although the numbers would have been down, a lot of people worked on farms. By the time I left, very few people worked on farms, certainly in eastern England, where it is heavily arable and a lot of people do not have or want animals. What one had were vast, Rolls-Royce-type pieces of equipment that needed highly skilled, trained people, as my noble friend pointed out, to operate them. Frankly, in a part of the country such as that, with modern farming—it is probably different in some other parts of the country—this whole thing has an antique feel about it compared with the circumstances in which the boards were set up. So I have some sympathy with my noble friends.
My Lords, I intervene briefly in opposition to the three previous speakers and in support of my noble friend’s amendment. I, too, send my good wishes to the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, who intended to initiate this debate.
We had a long and interesting debate on this issue on 1 December, and I was struck by how it divided the House in a way that I had not seen previously. I saw coming from the Benches opposite the perspective of the owners of farms and the employers of farm workers. I make no observation except to say that that is a statement of fact. I do not for one moment suggest that noble Members opposite were not considerate, not kind and not informed—they were and they are—but they see things from a different perspective than do farm employees.
The Agricultural Wages Board represents roughly 150,000 people. When I heard the argument that agricultural workers are quite well paid—we have heard it touched upon today—I was not so sure that any of the 150,000 people who were affected by it would agree with that statement. That makes my point about the difference in perspective when looking at these issues. I emphasise that this is not only about those 150,000 people; the Agricultural Wages Board lays down a benchmark for many other rural and agriculturally related activities, and as we move into the contracting business in agriculture, which is inevitable, it is even more important.
The argument used for the creation of the Agricultural Wages Board was that there was no method of collective negotiations to achieve what was considered to be a fair wage, and so the state had to intervene to determine what that fair wage was. I still believe—it came out in our previous debate—that, in the absence of collective bargaining, the relationship between one employer and two or three employees can be very difficult; it can be embarrassing for both sides in many cases. The Agricultural Wages Board assisted in that respect.
The Government have been very active. Mr Paice wrote to Mr David Hill, the chair of the Agricultural Wages Committee for Cumbria, Northumbria and Tyne and Wear on 22 July and made the point, on which we can all agree, that it is a key government priority to support British farming. He said that he wanted to ensure that the agricultural industry can adopt flexible and modern agricultural practices. I agree with that as well—I hope we all do. However, I worry that the price we might have to pay for this is a reduction in the wages of agricultural employees.
I accept the argument that the Agricultural Wages Board and the industry employ very skilled personnel. The noble Lord, Lord Newton, has made that very clear and was very perceptive. As a result, various grades are covered by the board, and only a small minority are at the very basic level. I understand that. Therefore I was even more concerned to read another letter from Mr Jim Paice, the Minister in the other place, to Mr David Hill, dated 8 September, in which he says:
“the six different grades of worker”,
under the Agricultural Wages Board,
“will not be retained”.
They are going to abolish the various grades of skill that are now covered and recognised under the board. It is on that that I base my submission that, in a relative sense, wages will fall back and that the rewards that are currently given for skill, which is vital to that modern agricultural industry, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has said, to produce more food depends upon the use of machinery and the skill of the workforce to use that.
It is imperative that we recognise those skills. I happen to believe that the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and Mr Jim Paice’s proposal to abolish the grading of skills will actually lead to a less efficient agricultural industry, which is not what I want and, I hope, not what the other side wants. I feel very strongly that this will be seen in the countryside as another attempt by this Government to make life more difficult for people who work in the countryside.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Clark, induces me to get to my feet, if only to correct him. He made that lovely, sweeping statement that all those on this side of the House are landowners and farmers, particularly those who spoke on 1 December. If I may correct him, I am not a landowner and I am not a farmer. I was a land agent. I acted for farmers, I acted for landowners, I acted for tenants and I acted for farm workers. Therefore I have no interest to declare and I do not fall into the category in which he sought to portray me.
We are all extremely grateful to see my noble friend Lady Byford back in her place and active again. She adds a great deal of common sense and a huge amount of knowledge to our debates on farming and the environment. I thought what she said was very soundly based, as indeed was what the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said in Committee. I listened with care to what the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said. I found nothing new from what she said in Committee, although she did praise the strength of the arguments for those supporting her amendments in Committee. I would only praise the strength of the arguments against.
My Lords, I apologise to noble Lords that, because the House has made such good progress today, I was not present at the beginning of the debate. However, as my name is attached to the amendment, perhaps I may touch on two issues, neither of which has been mentioned since I have been in the Chamber. If either has already been mentioned, I apologise.
The first point follows on from what my noble friend Lord Clark has just said. The structure that the Agricultural Wages Board sets does recognise skills throughout this sector. The fact that many workers in many parts of the country are paid more than the legal minimum does not take away the need to have that structure. The requirements of agriculture are becoming more and more sophisticated at one end, but less and less sophisticated at another. At the higher end, those skills need to be rewarded. The structure provided by the AWB allowed individual farmers and farm enterprises to base their actual wages on a similar structure.
The noble Lord, Lord Henley, will know by now that every farmer you meet will tell you that every cost saving that he makes is immediately recouped by the supermarkets. One of my fears in this is that, once it is known that there is a reduction in the legal minimum, which sets a floor above which voluntary payments by employers stretch to quite high levels for some workers, the supermarkets and the big processors will say, “Your labour costs need to go down by the same degree as the legal minimum goes down”—that is, in proportion to the difference between the wages board minimum and the statutory minimum wage. For the total bill, that is an enormous amount of money and therefore a saving to the supermarkets. I know that the Government intend to address other pressures that the supermarkets put on the agricultural sector, but this will be one more excuse for them to lean on farmers to reduce their prices and therefore to reduce their wages. If the noble Lord wishes to start that process, there will be real dangers, and the skilled force will begin to disappear.
At the other end of the labour force, a lot of agricultural labour, and particularly seasonal labour, depends on migrant labour and is operated by a set of gangmasters. There is nothing wrong with labour providers, provided that they obey the rules. But one of the main ways in which the exploitation by some gangmasters of the workforce is identified is that they are not meeting the legal minimum set out in the Agricultural Wages Board regulations. Once that is seen—and it is a relatively simple thing to establish—all sorts of other abuses over conditions of health and safety, immigration status and tax and national insurance become apparent. As a result, the Gangmasters Licensing Authority has been able to clean up a lot of that end. It has been a very important way in which the authority can do so. If we remove that clear legal minimum, I fear that it is one less lever for us to clean up the supply of labour in what has been, in some parts, a very exploited sector.
There are all sorts of reasons why, historically, there is an attachment on this side of the House and in the Labour movement as a whole to the Agricultural Wages Board. I am a Dorset man myself these days, so I come from a great Tolpuddle tradition, but I am not simply relying on history. I am relying on the effect that the removal of this one remaining legal-minimum, sector-specific wage will have on the quality and quantity of the workforce in agriculture and how it is treated. In the end, if that happens it will be to the detriment of agriculture as well.
My Lords, I had not intended to speak in this part of the debate, and I apologise to the House that I have not spoken about this in Committee, but I take up and endorse a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I declare an interest as co-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Human Trafficking. One group that is potentially trafficked and has been trafficked in the past comprises agricultural and horticultural workers. I was extremely glad to hear the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, speak about the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, which remains in great danger of being abolished, although Schedule 7, where it appeared, is no longer part of the Bill. I would be very much more concerned about the loss of that authority, which has a specific requirement to look after those exploited in the fields and the horticultural industry, than I am about the loss of the Agricultural Wages Board, which does not specifically deal with that migrant group, part of which is capable of being trafficked.
My Lords, I rise to oppose the amendment. The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, says that her amendment has some support in the agricultural industry and that the Agricultural Wages Board’s pronouncements are a good benchmark that the agricultural industry and others use. Both those statements are true; it is frightfully easy for farmers and others to give no thought to what they pay their workers and staff. They just follow the van, as it were. However, as I said in Committee, on our farm and on many others we do think about what we pay our workers and we pay more than what the Agricultural Wages Board sets down. As has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, farm staff are in charge of really expensive equipment. They are very skilled; they have computers, sat-nav and all sorts of things. Sometimes this equipment costs £200,000 per piece and that is why we pay more—it is a really skilled job.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said that supermarkets will drive down wages. I disagree—in the audit that supermarkets put farmers through, they are very keen on environmental behaviour and other things, but also on behaviour towards the workforce. They insist on very high standards of facilities and I very much doubt that they would want to force farmers to pay less, because, if it got out to the public, they would not be so popular. In my experience, anything that the supermarkets can do to impose extra costs on their producers, they seem to go along with; but that is perhaps another point and why I spoke in the adjudicator debate.
The noble Baroness, Lady Quin, is probably right that the industry needs a benchmark, but I do not believe that there is any need to make this a statutory benchmark. A very good alternative would be a voluntary get-together of the NFU and the unions which farmers who do not wish to settle their own wage agreements can use as a benchmark. I think that that kind of voluntary situation would deal with a lot of the worries that are coming from this side of the House.
My Lords, allow me to intervene at this stage. I add to the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, as to how much, as always, we miss my noble friend Lord Greaves, who is, unfortunately, unable to be here. I listened very carefully to what she said; I am still not persuaded and I will set out why. I will start with a very small apology. When she said that 2p was the difference from the minimum wage, I interrupted her from a sedentary position to say that it was 3p. She was correct—it was 2p. So, mea culpa, I was wrong. But I am not sure that 1p makes that much difference.
I think it worth saying at this point, in relation to the points made by the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, and the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, about the protection of vulnerable workers, that the Gangmasters Licensing Authority will continue to be there. Its job is to protect those vulnerable people and it does not appear in the Bill at all. It exists and there is no plan to change that. We intend to abolish the board and to remove outdated—my noble friend Lord Newton correctly described them as antique, worse than outdated—and unnecessary regulatory burdens from farm businesses so that they can focus their time on farming in order to develop a thriving, sustainable and prosperous industry.
I ask all noble Lords to listen very carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, had to say, particularly about the way in which farmers themselves make decisions about what they pay their employees. These employees are using large machinery which very often costs a great deal of money, and these employers are not going to employ people without the appropriate skills. They will pay them the appropriate amount of money if they want to look after that machinery. Similarly, I commend the noble Lord for what he said about supermarkets, including the deals and quality assurances that they want. These assurances often involve the environmental and employment practices of farms and so on.
As noble Lords will know, the board has itself been keen to modernise the agricultural wages legislation; for example, to allow farmers and workers to agree payment of annual salaries. This will be far easier to achieve outside the current restrictions of a statutory framework. Once abolished, these functions of the board will cease to exist and agricultural workers within England and Wales will be protected by the National Minimum Wage Act and by wider employment legislation, as are workers in all other sectors of the economy.
My noble friend Lady Byford asked how much it would save, and how much it had cost over the past 10 years. All I can say is that the cost of the board last year was some £200,000, but that is without taking into account the cost to the department. However, this is not purely about saving money. We think that the board has outlived its term and therefore ought to go. Importantly, one should also remember that workers will retain contractual rights that exist at the time when the board is abolished until such time as the contract is varied by agreement between the employer and the worker or until any contract comes to an end.
My noble friend and others raised the matter of devolution, as did the noble Lord, Lord Empey, who objected to the amendment. I was grateful for what he had to say about the position in Northern Ireland. The position there is different, as is the position in Scotland. That is quite right; it is the point of devolution. We have to accept that there will be different arrangements in different parts of the country. There is nothing wrong with that and we should positively welcome it.
With regard to the position in Wales, I can give my noble friend an assurance that Ministers in the Welsh Assembly Government have been consulted on the proposal to abolish the board and have agreed to its abolition. Welsh Ministers will be able to bring forward a separate order in due course abolishing the Agricultural Wages Committee in Wales, and we will be liaising with them to deal with those matters.
The Low Pay Commission was asked to take into account the circumstances of agricultural workers when making its annual recommendations to the Government on the national minimum wage rate. Responsibility for the enforcement of the national minimum wage in the agricultural sector will transfer to the commission. As for the funding to the commission and HMRC for this additional work, Defra will be making a resource transfer that will be broadly comparable with the annual budget of the board. That is why I stress that this is not being done to save money.
I can also give an assurance that, in the absence of the wages board, workers and employers will need to agree terms and conditions for employment according to individual circumstances, a point that was emphasised by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron. Obviously the Government strongly encourage industry representatives—the noble Baroness mentioned Unite, of which she has been a member for many years—to work together to provide the benchmarks for agricultural wage rates. This will be particularly beneficial to small businesses. A non-statutory approach to wage-setting works in industries such as the construction sector, and while there are differences between sectors there is no reason why a similar approach should not work in agriculture.
The noble Lords, Lord Whitty and Lord Clark of Windermere, talked about the different grades. The vast majority of full-time permanent workers fall into either grades 2 or 4 within the current agricultural wages order banding. That suggests that they have skills that are desirable in a competitive market, and the figures bear that out. Last year nearly three-quarters of agricultural workers over 21 were paid at or above the minimum wage for their grade, and of those almost half were paid more than 10p above the hourly minimum wage for their grade. That provides firm evidence that the market, not the wages board, is generally delivering higher wages and that minimum rates do not act as a floor. Lower-skilled workers who are paid at or around the grade 1 agricultural minimum rate will, as I said, be protected by the national minimum wage requirements.
I shall make one or two comments about the supermarket problem, as put forward by a number of noble Lords on the Benches opposite. First, I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, which they ought to bear in mind. Secondly, I again remind the House that we have plans to bring forward the groceries code adjudicator. I was teased by the noble Baroness; she said that there seemed to be a go-slow by the Government on this. That is not the case at all. We have made it clear right from the start, or from very recently, that there will be a groceries code adjudicator. He will have certain powers in terms of naming and shaming, and we will be bringing forward draft legislation to deal with that in due course. I hope that the noble Baroness will accept that that is the case.
The noble Baroness also made allegations about a lack of consultation. I can assure her that the new procedures for the Public Bodies Bill which were agreed in Committee require Ministers to consult on a proposal to make an order. This may be done before, or after, the Bill comes into force. Accordingly, we will consult on the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board and hope to issue such a consultation this autumn. A quality impact assessment will be published as part of that consultation exercise. I apologise to the noble Baroness if, on a previous occasion in Committee, I possibly misspoke on this subject. The impact assessment will be informed by independent research that we have already commissioned on the impact of the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board on wage rates. With those assurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I welcome that we have been able to have this debate. I had originally expected to sum up just before the Minister replied, so I was slightly thrown when I was suddenly called to introduce the amendment that I had happily co-signed.
I do not apologise to the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, for repeating some of my earlier remarks. We had a very thorough debate in Committee, and the arguments have not substantially changed since then, but the point of the debate was to hope that the Minister would have changed his mind by the time that he came to the Dispatch Box to answer the points. I very much welcome the return of the noble Baroness, Lady Byford. It has always been good to work with her in the past. I endorse the tributes that were paid to her. Although there are far fewer farm workers these days—I accept the statistics that she and the noble Lord, Lord Newton, gave—154,000 people will be affected by the proposals. That is not a negligible number of people.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Empey, and the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, not for supporting the amendment but for showing their concern about those who have been exploited in the past, and about the dangers of exploitation in the future too. I very much agree with the comments made by my noble friends Lord Clark and Lord Whitty.
The Minister has responded, and I welcome some of the things he said, such as his comments on the impact assessment and consultation in the future. None the less, the Government’s overall decision to abolish the board is one that we on these Benches still strongly disagree with. There is far too much reliance on the minimum wage legislation. As my noble friends pointed out, there are other grades that recognise skills within the agricultural industry, and the precedents are not good when wages boards have been abolished in the past. For all those reasons, I do not wish to withdraw the amendment, but would like to test the opinion of the House.
8: Schedule 1, page 15, line 12, at end insert “for areas in England”
Amendment 8 agreed.
9: Schedule 1, page 15, line 18, leave out “Commission for Rural Communities.”
My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Norwich and the Bishop of Exeter for adding their names to the amendment. I will be brief, because I know that noble Lords want to cover a lot of business this evening, including some Divisions. I am grateful also to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, for the letter that I received a couple of hours ago, which sets out some of the detail on these issues. That will also allow us to speed things along.
It is clear from the Minister’s letter that already 12 members of staff have moved over from the Commission for Rural Communities to the rural communities policy unit that is being set up in the department. Whether or not that move anticipates Parliament in respect of the passage of the Bill through both Houses, it is clear that the Government's mind is made up on the future of the commission. I will not unduly frustrate the Government and Parliament by holding out for the commission, even though I was the Minister who created it in the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. However, I will speak up for an independent rural voice appointed by, and with the authority of, the Prime Minister, that will report on what is going on in rural England and will do so without fear, favour or special interest, on the basis of having travelled the length and breadth of rural England to understand what is going on on the ground: a voice that will be able at times to tell the Government what they do not want to hear.
I am relatively confident that the Minister will respond by saying that there are plenty of other independent rural voices—I think that that is what he said in Committee—and that there is a very fine Rural Affairs Minister in the form of Richard Benyon MP, and I do not necessarily disagree with that. He will say that they will do the job and that in any event the coalition represents swathes of rural England and so MPs can also represent that voice. However, I guarantee your Lordships that, should a party with a much more urban basis of representation return to government, the Minister’s party would clamour for an independent rural voice to tell the Government what they did not want to hear about the effects of their policies on rural England.
As I said, I am sure that Richard Benyon is doing a good job. However, I had his job as Rural Affairs Minister and I have to say to the House that it would be very hard for anyone in that job, as a member of the Government, to go out publicly and tell even “Farming Today”, at that ungodly hour of the morning, that the Government had got it wrong. It simply does not work like that. Ministers cannot go out publicly and say, on the record, that the Government have got it wrong.
I have no doubt that the Rural Affairs Minister is holding bilateral meetings around Whitehall, as did I and my successors. However effective those meetings were, they were not quite as effective as when the rural advocate, who is also the chairman of the Commission for Rural Communities, came to see me about the work that he did travelling around the country and looking at what was going on on the ground. That is another aspect of what the rural affairs Minister cannot do. That Minister is tied to whipped votes and has to go to the Commons of an evening, doing his bit as part of the government payroll. He is not able to get out and about and to understand what is going on as effectively as the current rural advocate, Dr Stuart Burgesss, who has done a fantastic job, or his predecessors or anyone else who acts as an independent rural voice. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Countryside Alliance, the National Farmers’ Union, the National Trust and the Rural Shops Alliance are all perfectly fine parts of our civil society. They are doing a fine job, speaking up for their interests in rural England, but in many ways they are specific vested interests, so nor do I see them providing the independence that we want in a rural voice.
I put it to the Minister that I shall be happy to give ground to him on his wish to abolish the Commission for Rural Communities if he can continue to give this country what it has had since the days of Lloyd George—that is, an independent rural voice that speaks, by appointment, with the authority of the Prime Minister in telling us what is really happening and telling us the truth regardless of fear or favour from the Government. I beg to move.
My Lords, I am very pleased to support the amendment. Like the noble Lord, Lord Knight, I do so with a strong sense of déjà vu, as I made my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House on the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill. I recall speaking then about the real need from the perspective of a rural diocese such as mine, which covers the whole of Devon, for a body that could effectively hold the Government to account on the nature of rural policy and the delivery of that policy. No Minister, no matter how good, can do that for himself. At that time, people in my diocese were talking about the need for an independent body and not one that would be a creature of Defra. Therefore, I spoke about looking forward to a robust Commission for Rural Communities, with commissioners drawn from rural communities, from the voluntary sector and from academic institutions which had their fingers on the pulse of rural England. Such a partnership would be most effective in highlighting issues as they emerged in rural areas and advocate the policies needed to address them. Therefore, it was about a rural voice and rural advocacy springing out of a rural partnership.
I do not think that we have been disappointed. Rural England has benefited in many ways from the existence of the commission and its work. It has shown itself to have a robust independence; truly independent membership; and a good track record of evidence-based advocacy, especially on behalf of the most remote and sparsely populated rural areas of our land.
Alongside the work of the commission has also been that of the role of its chairman as rural advocate, which has been highly effective in ensuring that the findings of the commission, and the chairman’s own findings and views, have reached the ears of officials and Ministers. There is evidence that this has influenced policy accordingly. From the perspective of the countryside, his office has become increasingly valued in speaking up for rural people and communities, especially those experiencing disadvantage, and ensuring that policies take account of rural needs and rural circumstances. It was always envisaged that his role as rural advocate was to be at the forefront of public debate on rural issues and to have a really close working relationship with the range of different communities in the countryside, so that he might better represent the views and experiences of life in rural England.
There can be no doubt that the present advocate, Dr Stuart Burgess, has effectively carried out these responsibilities with imagination, tireless energy, drive, passion and focus. With the two parties currently forming coalition government having had a strong track record on rural advocacy when in opposition—I point particularly to the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, who, on some occasions when I have spoken on rural issues, has given me the thumbs-up from the Benches opposite—many of us were looking forward with high expectations of a heightened ministerial awareness of, and response to, the needs of rural Britain. However, within the current climate of cutbacks and of retrenchment of public services—I of course recognise the huge challenges that are facing the Government in this respect—there is a great risk that the voice, the partnership voice, of rural communities will now be lost. With so many issues impacting on the sustainability of rural communities, there is arguably a greater need than ever for this independent rural champion.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Knight, I do not hold a brief for the continuation of the commission, particularly in its present form, but it is about independence—robust independence—and about partnership. The sums involved here are not vast. For around £250,000 per annum we could ensure that this voice is not lost and that we will continue to receive that evidence-based dimension—detached from Government—that will ensure better informed debate about the future for rural communities. I am afraid that a rural communities policy unit, internal to Defra, simply will not do the same.
My Lords, I should have declared before speaking to the last amendment that I have an interest as a farmer and landowner. I also declare for this amendment that I am an ex-chair of the Countryside Agency and an ex-rural advocate. I am not sure that being an “ex” anything is a declarable interest but it probably helps if everybody knows where I am coming from.
The Commission for Rural Communities has been a surprising success in providing the evidence, speaking up on behalf of the countryside and challenging the Government to look differently at the problems of rural communities—in particular, the still unrecognised issues of rural deprivation, which continue to come very low on every Government’s priorities. The CRC has had successes with the commissioning of research which, because the results are uncomfortable for the Government of the day, would almost certainly have never been commissioned by an ordinary civil servant within Defra. The results are uncomfortable for the Government of the day because usually they throw down the gauntlet saying, “This is the situation, what are you going to do about it?”.
It is not only Defra which gets challenged. There was a report by the CRC on the depth and impact of fuel poverty in rural England. Of course, that challenges the Department for Transport. Insight into maternity services in rural England challenges the Department of Health. Reports on financial inclusion, rural social housing and village schools challenge the Treasury, the DCLG and the Department for Education respectively, and so on.
In terms of fulfilling the Government’s tests of a permissible public body, I maintain that the CRC's activities definitely require political impartiality and need it to act independently to establish the facts. I accept that the economics of the day may preclude the existence of the CRC in its current form, which is why it is being abolished, but I do not believe that the Government’s proposed successor arrangements, based on a rural communities policy unit in Defra, will result in a rural champion, even under Mr Richard Benyon MP, who has already been mentioned and whom I know and respect. Such a body could not give the independence of thought and vigorous championing of all the rural injustices needed after decades of general government inertia by all parties.
Along with others, the real question I want to ask is perhaps more important than the existence of the CRC. I regret that I have not seen the letter referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Knight. How will rural-proofing be carried out in future? The rural-proofing role of the Commission for Rural Communities and the rural advocate was an important part of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, which has already been referred to. In fact, it was the essence of the rural communities part of that Act. Rural-proofing is about getting the really important big-spending departments to consider how they equitably deliver their services in the countryside, especially to the remote countryside, in the same way as they deliver to the towns.
That involves everything from health, jobseeker advice, sports facilities, education and training, and justice to business advice. I always remember that when I was rural advocate, the DTI produced a manufacturing paper. I said, “Have you rural-proofed this paper?”, and it said, “What’s manufacturing got to do with the countryside?”. I said, “Actually, there are more manufacturing industries in the countryside than there are in the towns”. The DTI seemed oblivious to that. How do businesses access training and business advice? Can we ensure that they have access to fast broadband? For that matter, under the current Postal Services Bill, how can they post parcels at their local post offices, which are getting fewer and fewer?
All too often—in fact, almost always—urban civil servants ignore or are unaware of the difficulties of delivery in the countryside. How does someone get to hospital? That question often never crosses their mind. How does someone get to court? I have frequently joked that the best way to get to court on many occasions is to steal a car. How does someone get to training or to a job? The Department for Work and Pensions is totally unaware of the fact that if it put money into Wheels to Work to help young, first-time employees get to a job, it would save itself a lot of money, but it does not support Wheels to Work schemes because it does not really understand.
My question is: who will rural-proof those departments? Who will be bold, critical and outspoken on behalf of the countryside? Certainly not departmental civil servants—the words bold, critical and outspoken do not really feature in their career path. How does the Minister envisage rural-proofing happening in future? Perhaps it could be through a Committee of this House. Believe me, you need to have expertise and you need to be bloody-minded to be a rural advocate, and I should have thought that both those characteristics can easily be found in your Lordships' House.
I recognise that there are Ministers in the current Government who understand those issues, but, as the noble Lord, Lord Knight, said: is that good enough? What about future Governments? Are the current Government betraying the countryside in the long run? All the departments and their civil servants matter; all the Ministers and their staff within all the departments need to be continuously and publicly exposed to those issues. That just will not happen without a politically independent rural advocate of some description.
I beg the Government to have a rethink, not necessarily about the CRC but about the vital role of an independent rural advocate who can ensure that all parts of government, and not just this Government but the next one, hear and understand the voice of the countryside in all their doings. As your Lordships can probably gather, I feel pretty strongly about this. It would be a tragedy if the countryside were to lose that independent voice.
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with all three speeches that have just been made. I declare various interests. I am a farmer in Suffolk, but I have some background experience myself because I was for 12 years on the Countryside Commission under the brilliant chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Barber of Tewkesbury. I was for eight years on the Rural Development Commission, chaired by Lord Shuttleworth and then the noble Lord, Lord Vinson. They had different, important, functions. They were then amalgamated, which may have been doubtful. Both bodies gave independent advice to Ministers. Of course, the Countryside Agency, of which the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, was a distinguished chairman, fulfilled that role.
All that is left now, apart from the body that we are talking about, is Natural England, which has made the awful mistake of becoming a bit of a pressure group itself instead of being an objective adviser to government. As I tried to explain to your Lordships at Second Reading, there is a crucial difference between a pressure group and an advisory group to government. The advisory group is meant to give objective advice, particularly advice on the views of pressure groups. Pressure groups have a totally legitimate role. The CPRE was mentioned, and I was for five years its chairman; it was and is a very effective pressure group.
There is a real danger of a lack of rural interest and understanding. This was very noticeable under the previous Government. This Government are more naturally attuned, in many ways, to the countryside and rural matters. In that respect, the coalition is a particularly happy combination because Tories and Liberals have traditionally had a closer relationship to rural areas than has the Labour Party; it is just an historical fact. That is not meant to be a criticism of the Labour Party, it is just a comment on the historical evolution of our political system. It is important that this dimension should continue in one way or another. We have ACRE, which is a body arranged by counties. I was for some years the president of Suffolk ACRE. In fact, I am now the president of the Suffolk Preservation Society, which is a county branch of the CPRE.
I hope that the Minister will be able to answer some of the points that have been made and questions that have been asked. It is an important aspect of this country, and I would hate to feel that we were dependent on civil servants, many of whom are neither sympathetic to, nor have much understanding of, the issues which need to be dealt with.
I have no interests to declare. I have never chaired a rural agency. I now understand why: the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford held most of those appointments. However, I speak as a Member of the Labour Benches and somebody with a strong association with a rural area, namely the county of Cornwall. I am disappointed that the Government are proposing to abolish the CRC, which has done a fine job in ensuring that rural matters receive appropriate attention and consideration from all parts of government. I witnessed that myself, as a junior Minister in the previous Government.
The move to urbanisation is a global phenomenon. We must address the weakening of the rural voice. We may talk about the national experience, but the issues confronting people living in rural areas are very different from those affecting metro-centred urban areas.
The Government and the leadership of oppositions tend largely to be populated by people whose relevant experience is much closer to that of the urban environment than the rural one. Moreover, quite frankly, the Minister must know that the savings to be made by doing this are minimal. I cannot believe that this proposal received any close consideration by the Government. It was simply another name added to a long list in which the macho challenge was to make that list as long as possible. I cannot credibly believe that a rural unit within Defra can possibly replicate the need which is currently being met by the CRC. We know that the civil servants working in this area recognise that they work primarily for the Government and Ministers. As the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, said, they will not show a robustness of view or a willingness to be outspoken and to challenge their senior colleagues or the Ministers in their department.
Why on earth are the Government doing this? Why on earth are a Government who, so the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, tells us, speak for the rural community allowing this to happen? Further, I am deeply disappointed that the six Members of Parliament in the other place from Cornwall—three Conservatives and three Liberal Democrats—have been completely silent on this issue. I know that the people of Cornwall will be saddened if the CRC is abolished and will not be convinced that the Government proposals can possibly represent an appropriate response to address the silencing of rural communities.
My Lords, I have been trying hard to be good, but I am afraid I have now been tempted by some compelling arguments on the point about independence. I would observe in passing that my noble friend Lord Marlesford has left out one of his jobs. The last time I looked him up, I saw that he was the chairman of Marlesford Parish Council, so he really does know the grass roots in a village in Suffolk. But that is, as it were, by the way.
I want to distance myself in one respect from what the noble Lord, Lord Myners, has just said, much though I admire him from contacts of old, but I do think it is nonsense to suggest that most of the Ministers in the present Administration are primarily from and knowledgeable about urban rather than rural backgrounds. It simply is not true. I thought that I should put that on the record.
The noble Lord, Lord Knight of Weymouth, introduced his amendment in a moderate but compelling way. He said that he was not really seeking to defend the status quo, but to ensure that there was an independent voice, which links with some other arguments that will arise later in the Bill. There is force in his argument about the notion that what is provided by an independent body can be substituted for by a unit in a department. In my view, that is complete and utter rubbish. Whatever else, I think we need an injection of independence in this, and that is the positive point, if I may put it that way, that I hope my noble friend may be able to respond to.
My Lords, I rise briefly to support the amendment of my noble friend and the right reverend Prelates and to say that I am struck by the powerful contributions that have been made in this short debate. They have been strongly in favour of the idea of an independent champion for the countryside and for the continuation in some way or other of the kind of work that the CRC has been engaged in recently. I was glad that it tempted the noble Lord, Lord Newton, to ignore his previous vow of good conduct and join in the debate, thus adding his very useful voice to those of other speakers.
My noble friend Lord Knight and the right reverend Prelates spoke from personal knowledge about the creation of the CRC and of the good reasons behind it. Certainly in its brief existence, if that is what it proves to be, it has done a lot of valuable work and has highlighted a number of important issues. It has addressed rural issues throughout the whole country. My noble friend Lord Myners mentioned Cornwall and I would mention the commission’s concerns about the future of the upland areas in my part of Northumberland. Indeed, the work of the CRC has been widely supported in this House in the various debates that we have held in relation to its reports—in particular, the report on the upland areas and the report on the future of rural communities generally.
I add my personal note of thanks to the CRC. I chair the Franco-British Council and not long ago we had a Franco-British conference on agriculture which, despite our well trailed differences on the CAP, turned out to be a harmonious occasion thanks to our common belief in the importance of the future of rural areas and in measures that are vital for the prosperity of those areas. In that conference the CRC and Dr Stuart Burgess in particular played a very valuable role for which I would like to thank him. All speakers have referred to the importance of having an independent champion so I hope the Government will give us details of how they expect that important function to be carried forward and how that independent role can be safeguarded. I hope, too, that the Government will pick up on the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, about rural-proofing. Those issues are also extremely important.
Ministers come and go, as has been pointed out. I do not altogether accept what the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, was saying about Labour versus Conservative in terms of agricultural knowledge and expertise. When I was a Minister in the agricultural department, partly because of the very big Labour victory in 1997, many Labour MPs represented rural constituencies and knocked at my door very effectively at that time. Some Ministers come into departments with a great deal of knowledge about their subject and some do not. Continuing to offer valuable independent and impartial advice is vital. I do not accept all the comments that were made about civil servants, many of whom, in my experience, can be bold and imaginative, and I welcome that. But I applaud the idea of continuing with a rural advocate that is going to be effective for the future and I look forward to hearing from the Minister how that is going to be safeguarded.
My Lords, the noble Baroness refers to Ministers coming and going. One of my noble friends quoted from PG Wodehouse a day or two ago. I remind the House of the remark: “She was a good cook, as good cooks go, and as good cooks go, she went”. I hope I will not be in that position, but I note that my noble friend Lord Marlesford, as my noble friend Lord Newton said, has served in a rural capacity as chairman of the Marlesford Parish Council. I never rose to those dizzy heights but, like many other noble Lords, I have served as a parish councillor and I imagine there is a great deal of expertise in this House, just as there is in all departments in government. I will return to that point later. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Knight, for mentioning the fact that I wrote to him. I wrote to all those who spoke in the debate that we had in Committee. I signed the letter off two days ago, so I apologise to the noble Lord for the fact that he received it only today and to other noble Lords who have not received it. I will certainly make it available to other noble Lords if it assists them in further discussions on this matter.
I join others in paying tribute to Dr Burgess. The Prime Minister has written to Dr Burgess as chair of the commission to confirm that the role of the Rural Advocate would not continue and to thank him for everything that he has done and for everything the commission has done and its considerable efforts in this role to date. The Government have concluded that no individual needs to be so designated in the future as they have very strong rural credentials of their own, which I will come to in due course, up to and including the Prime Minister himself and all my colleagues on the ministerial team in Defra. Again, I remind noble Lords what Defra stands for: Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It was created by the party opposite specifically to be able to focus not just on the environment and farming but on rural affairs. A great many of us have close links with rural communities and considerable experience of rural affairs.
I shall say in due course a word or two about how we intend to make sure that we champion these rural issues, but I can give an assurance, which I think the noble Lord, Lord Knight, wanted, that if the change proves not be as effective as we believe it will be, we will always be willing to revisit these matters. This is a Government who listen; that was the point behind the letter that my right honourable friend sent. We do not believe that there is a shortage of independent voices outside government who are willing to act as advocates for rural people. My noble friend Lord Marlesford referred to the CPRE, of which he was a former distinguished chairman. My own late father was a chairman of the CPRE, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, who is not in her place, has also worked for the CPRE. I use the CPRE as just one example. It is not as though there is a shortage of people both in this House and elsewhere who can speak up for rural matters and make sure that voices outside government can be heard on this issue.
I again emphasise that the name of our department is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In our role as rural champions, and in the ministerial team, there is one particular Minister, my honourable friend Richard Benyon—the noble Lord, Lord Knight, referred to him—who will work closely with colleagues across all other departments. One should not think of this as a matter just for civil servants; it goes beyond that. It is a matter for Ministers in Defra and for Ministers pursuing these matters across departments. Coming back into government, I have found that there is much greater talk between, and much less of what we might refer to the “silo-isation” of, departments, particularly in this new coalition Government. It will be for my honourable friend to make sure that these matters are properly taken into account in making policy across government and that policy is appropriately rural-proofed.
As a result of that, an expanded rural policies unit within the department will support my honourable friend and all other Defra Ministers in their role as rural champions. The unit, which will be the centre for all expertise, will support and co-ordinate across government activity that is of critical importance to rural communities. The unit will represent a significant increase in capacity within government, having come from the CRC. It is now almost fully staffed, with 12 members of the new team having come from the CRC. It is currently developing its work programme and improving effective links with organisations representing rural interests. It has substantially expanded evidence, statistics and intelligence capacity to enable whoever happens to be in government to build and maintain a strong rural evidence base. That evidence will inform the unit's priorities and be used to influence policy across government, ensuring that rural concerns and potential solutions are heard by decision-makers. The unit will operate transparently and will publish all its evidence. It will work to build on the relationships with stakeholders that the department currently enjoys.
I hope with those assurances—
I thank the Minister for giving way. I do not think that he has answered the really important point that was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Marlesford, about the difference between a body that exists to give independent advice and advocacy and many pressure groups. He has pointed to the existence of many pressure groups, but does he recognise that to take us down this route will leave us for the first time in more than 100 years, since the time of Lloyd George, with no body to give that independent advice and advocacy to government and no body that does not exist simply as one pressure group among many?
I do not accept that point. There are outside bodies that can offer advice to the Government and we will listen to that advice. We will listen to Parliament and to the various committees in the other place and in this House that will offer independent advice and make their points, just as pressure groups will offer advice and make their arguments. However, within government, we believe that this can be done more effectively within the department, with the appropriate Ministers and their teams responding to those matters. With that in mind, we believe that there are sufficient safeguards.
If one took the right reverend Prelate’s point to its logical conclusion, one would need an independent body to discuss almost every issue. It is right that these should be matters for the Government. There is appropriate expertise among Ministers and appropriate knowledge and interest. That is why I have set out the position of my honourable friend Mr Benyon in another place and why we have brought some of the staff from the CRC within the department. We believe that will be sufficient to meet the task.
However, as I made clear to the noble Lord, Lord Knight—this was his concern—if an independent advocate was needed again, we would of course be prepared to look at that issue if the change proved not to be as effective as we believe it will be. I think the noble Lord was looking at the individual advocate rather than the CRC as whole. That is what is behind this debate and why I am trying to give him that assurance. I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, we have had a useful debate that, with the exception of the last speaker—the Minister—achieved unanimity. He spoke a great deal about the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and that the clue is in the name, but if you take “rural affairs” from the title the department becomes “Def”—and there were times when the Minister was not listening to what the debate was saying about an independent and impartial voice for rural England.
I am not seeking to frustrate the clear determination of the Government to get rid of the Commission for Rural Communities, much as I regret that decision and do not support it, and I do not want to test the opinion of the House now. Those of us who have spoken in the debate will look carefully at the Minister’s words and the reassurances that he has attempted to give. No doubt we will discuss among ourselves how we wish to pursue the cause of an independent and impartial voice for rural England in the future. If he wants to engage with us, we would welcome that in trying to further the reassurances he has given us. Then perhaps we will be able to have the independent and impartial voice that Members of your Lordships’ House wish to see continued.
Amendment 9 withdrawn.
10: Schedule 1, page 15, line 25, leave out “Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee.”
My Lords, I shall speak also to Amendment 21. In Committee I pointed out the valuable function that the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee performed in focusing attention on the transport needs of disabled people. I do not want to go over that ground again today but, given the fact that DPTAC was performing a valuable function, the noble Lord, Lord Newton, and I were concerned that we should have a better idea of the successor arrangements that the Government proposed to put in place to ensure that the distinctive extra dimension that DPTAC brings to policy-making and implementation is retained.
I am pleased to say that constructive discussions have taken place since Committee and I am most grateful to the Minister, the Bill team, officials from the Department for Transport and the noble Lord, Lord Newton, for the time and effort that they have been willing to put into these discussions.
Amendment 21 seeks to reflect the understanding which I think we reached at the end of those discussions: namely, that an order abolishing DPTAC would not be made until robust successor arrangements were in place on which the Government had consulted relevant stakeholders, organisations for disabled people, their families and carers; furthermore, that there should be a report to Parliament setting out the successor arrangements and the consultations that had taken place on them, and indicating that they have broad support. If the Minister can confirm that that is also his understanding of the discussions that we had, we might be able to go forward on that basis. I beg to move.
I have my name to these amendments and I regret that, due to illness, I was unable to speak in Committee in support of the retention of DPTAC.
DPTAC has been held in huge respect for very good reason over the past 20 years. It has brought together all those who need to be involved in order to make sure that the needs of disabled people are met by the transport sector. The committee includes not only disabled people covering the wide range of impairment types but, most importantly, experts covering the transport field—for example, people who are expert in the bus industry, trains and so on—people who the industry will listen to in finding solutions to access problems. As a result, DPTAC has worked co-operatively with the industry to sort out how to make the access policy work. It is hard to see how a replacement body would be able to achieve better results.
DPTAC has performed an indispensible role in drawing attention to the transport needs of disabled people and in ensuring that our profile is raised both externally with the transport industries and internally with the Department for Transport. Without it, it would have been all too easy for these issues to go by the board. Indeed, with the closure of the mobility unit within the department, there is evidence that the department has lost its focus on disability issues. Without DPTAC there will be no one to fight for disabled people, whose interests are all too tempting to overlook when budgets are tight and there is no one to fight our corner.
In his reply in Committee, the Minister sounded somewhat complacent about the transport sector incorporating the needs of disabled people into the mainstream of transport planning and delivery. I agree that all modes of transport have been transformed in the past two and a half decades, but a great deal still remains to be done. There are very few accessible buses in many parts of the country, disabled people still cannot use half the tubes in London, timetables are still inaccessible to people with learning disabilities, and the taxi situation desperately needs sorting out. There is still an essential need for DPTAC’s focus and technical expertise. Moreover, the provision now made by mainstream providers must be monitored to ensure that they provide the access that they claim exists.
The Minister argued that DPTAC needed to be replaced,
“to increase flexibility and accountability to the taxpayer”.—[Official Report, 11/1/11; col. 1320.]
It seems strange that an expert committee, which gave its advice for free for over 20 years, might not be seen as very good value to the taxpayer. However, that aside, I agree that there might now be an argument that DPTAC’s technical expertise could be augmented by more of a focus on the behavioural side of transport issues—for example, the problems with unco-operative bus drivers; the behaviour of other passengers, especially those who refuse to remove their buggies from the wheelchair space; and especially the need to give disabled people the confidence that it is safe to use public transport and that they will be able to reach their destination—so that we use the accessible transport that has been provided.
While DPTAC might have lacked visionary strategic leadership in the recent past, candidates are available to take the chair who would give the committee the vibrant leadership required to meet all the Government’s aspirations for greater flexibility. DPTAC has been a model of good practice. It is a model that should be extended across the public service, not abolished. If the Minister is intent on doing so, finding an alternative arrangement that will better it will be a very tall order indeed.
My Lords, I also have my name to this amendment, and I endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins. Disabled people as yet do not have equal opportunities to use transport. It is a complex issue. For disabled people it is incredibly hard to be spontaneous. If you wish to travel by train, you have to book 24 or 48 hours in advance. You have to check that the toilets on the trains are accessible. I know too many people who, like me, find it incredibly difficult to navigate around the UK. Travelling from London to the north-east of England, you sometimes have to be put off at York to use facilities. It is incredibly difficult for disabled people to do many things that many non-disabled people take for granted.
It is important to have an organisation such as DPTAC because in 492 days and 525 days—just 70 and 75 Wednesdays—we will have the Olympics and Paralympic Games in the UK. There is no doubt that the Games will be wonderful but, as a country, we will be assessed on so much more than the athletics achievements at Games times; we will be assessed on how we move people around the city. I declare an interest in that I sit on a number of LOCOG committees looking at athlete engagement and diversity. I am also a board member of Transport for London. During Games time we will have more disabled people in London than ever before at any one time. There will be significant numbers of disabled tourists and large numbers of disabled volunteers, who have been actively encouraged by LOCOG.
In addition, we will have 4,500 disabled athletes for the Paralympic Games who, I accept, will be using dedicated Games transport much of the time. That in itself will require considerable stakeholder consultation and work. However, those athletes will be using other modes both inside and outside London around Games time to get to pre-Games training camps and to return later. The expectation in the UK is that we will have an incredibly accessible country. For me, it is essential that we have a body such as DPTAC that can influence pre-Games. We can also learn from the experience of moving significant numbers of disabled people around so that after the Games we have a truly meaningful legacy for disabled people for transport.
My Lords, my name is not on this amendment. I might have kept my head down had the noble Lord, Lord Low, not blown my cover by indicating that I had been conspiring with him over this matter in the period since we last discussed it. I ought to declare an interest in that I have my own problems these days. However, what is prompting me to intervene is that I have had a long experience of these difficulties through connections with many voluntary organisations for disabled people, and not least as Minister for disabled people, albeit a long while ago, between about 1982 and 1986. That kind of experience leaves you with an abiding sense of the range of difficulties and—although we have made huge progress—the extent to which things still need to be done.
I do not have quite the same problems as the noble Baronesses, Lady Wilkins and Lady Grey-Thompson, because I am still able to get about to a significant extent. As far as the railways are concerned, I pay tribute to the almost unfailing courtesy of the staff at railway stations, who in many cases do not wait to be asked but come and say, “Do you need some help?”. However, if you want to know where the limitations still are, let me tell you that Ipswich station in Suffolk, where I have been twice today—the county town of a sizeable though not macro county—has no means of getting someone like me or the two noble Baronesses from one platform to the other, except what you might call a man with the red flag to see you across the line when there are no trains about. I have missed connections as a result. It is true that they are building lifts at the moment, but they are two months late.
What should have been available today is not going to be available for another couple of months. That is a two-month delay in six. Network Rail does not appear to think that this is a matter of any great consequence, from what they are reported to have said to one of the Suffolk MPs. There are plenty of problems that need to be tackled, and I have some experience and knowledge of them. I certainly do not think that they can be dismissed, and they vary enormously from one form of disability to another. That is the other key point with which I think the noble Lord, Lord Low, would agree. The sorts of things that someone like me requires are one thing, but if you are wheelchair-bound it is another thing. If you are deaf, blind or suffering from one of a variety of other conditions, another set of things are required. It is crucial that whatever arrangements are put in place should reflect and represent that diversity with real knowledge of the differences between various forms of disability. That is one of the key things here. I hope my noble friend will be able to respond constructively once again so that I can applaud him and stop being a nuisance.
My Lords, I speak because of my work with veterans. I remind the Minister, if he needs reminding, that a veteran can be an old fellow like me or he can be a young man of 18 or 19 with no legs. There are many people who use wheelchairs, who are blind or who are otherwise incapacitated. Having listened to what has been said, I wonder if the Government have really thought this problem through. I have to say that, until I hear the noble Lord speak, I support the noble Lord, Lord Low, and the others very much in what has been said so far. I am not sure that the Government have really gripped this problem.
My Lords, I support of each of these amendments, so effectively moved by the noble Lord, Lord Low, and spoken to by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, my noble friend Lady Wilkins, the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and the noble Lord, Lord Newton. I was very interested to hear his role in the conspiracy.
The Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee has played a vital role in advising government and industry on accessible transport systems. Its focus on ensuring that disabled people have the same access to transport as anyone else has been key to many improvements over the past 25 years. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Freud, acknowledged in Committee, despite considerable improvements in access to all modes of transport over that period, there is still much to do. We heard some of this just this afternoon. My noble friend Lady Wilkins talked about those with learning disabilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, said that it is difficult for disabled people to be spontaneous and spoke with great authority about the high expectations in the UK in relation to the Olympics.
We know that RADAR has pressed the point that major investment in accessible transport has not yet been matched by a major increase in confidence among disabled people in getting out and about. A huge amount of awareness-raising remains to be done because we have not yet delivered a truly integrated system that guarantees independence and safe mobility. Of course, this is essential if disabled people are to have proper access to services and jobs.
We were told in Committee that issues around disability and transport had moved on, as it were, since DPTAC was put on a statutory basis, and these matters were embedded in the core approach of the Department for Transport. That is as it should be, but it is not a reason to abandon DPTAC; in fact, it would seem to be an acknowledgement of its success and its relevance. It has its statutory functions and is a statutory consultee when rail vehicle accessibility regulations are to be introduced. The Minister might tell us what, if DPTAC is to go, will replace those arrangements. DPTAC has not just been passive, sitting back and waiting to be consulted; its strength is that it has been proactive and an independent voice, mirroring the debate that took place under the last amendment.
The Minister has a high hurdle to overcome if he is to convince us of the merits of his case. We have agreed that disabled people are the experts in their own lives and it is their voices that we should be listening to this afternoon. DPTAC has been a success; it has knowledge, experience, commitment and a track record, so why try to fix what is not broken? Cynics may say that Ministers have to meet their quota of quangos to be dealt with. If the Government are determined to destroy DPTAC, we must know before they do so, as the noble Lord, Lord Low, made clear when speaking to Amendment 21, what is to replace it, the process by which that judgment is to be made and, in particular, how disabled people and their families and carers have been engaged. We should know their views on what is proposed.
The Government would be wise to draw back from removing DPTAC, and I urge them to do so. If they do not, and the noble Lord, Lord Low, is minded to test the opinion of the House, he will have our support.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston, for introducing this amendment and for the discussions that we had between Committee and this item coming up at Report. They were very useful and focused the Government’s mind on the importance of disability. All Members of the House will, I think, share the view that while much has been achieved in making the world a better one for people with disabilities, so much more remains to be done. I hope in responding to this debate that I can convey how the Government intend to approach this task and give an example of how the process of abolishing DPTAC is an opportunity for the Government to focus in future on tackling the task of the world of the disabled.
It was really very useful to have the contributions from all noble Lords from around the House on this issue. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilkins, said that there needed to be a new focus not only on the physical world but on the behavioural world in which disabled people had to live. While disabled people make use of the facilities that may be there, operatives and members of the public may not be aware of the necessity for behaviour also to adapt to others’ disabilities. I am grateful for the involvement of my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree, because I think in the Ipswich model he shows that there is so much still to be done—albeit the lifts are there. There is a huge task in making the world of the disabled less disadvantaged than it is for others, as the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, pointed out when she graphically drew the attention of the House to the contrast between the world of the able-bodied and the challenges facing those with a wide range of disabilities.
I had not really thought about mentioning Ipswich until I got up, but it is not just disabled people who are affected. I once stood on one side of Ipswich station with a lady with a baby in a pushchair who could not use the stairs and a woman with a suitcase nearly as big as she was who could not use the stairs, either. I do not think that the other two wanted to go to London, but I did—and I stood and watched the London train come in and I stood and watched the London train go out. This is just not sensible in this day and age. It is not just disabled people who are affected.
Well, I think that Members of the House would acknowledge that and would acknowledge from their direct experience of their own family and friends how difficult sometimes the physical world can be.
I acknowledge the contribution made by the noble Viscount, Lord Slim, and the role of veterans. They are individuals to whom we owe such a great deal and who find themselves, through their sacrifice, in the world of the disabled. Often the fittest and most robust of individuals find themselves having to cope with the world of the disabled and the contrast of that world.
I want to demonstrate that the Government's approach to disability has moved forward substantially since 1985, when the DPTAC was established, and the important issues of disability equality are now a core element of departmental policy and delivery. This covers all departments, but particularly the Department for Transport. At a practical level, although there is much more that still can be done, access to all modes of travel has been transformed over the past two and a half decades. That is not to say that it was very poor before. Rather than seeking access for disabled people as a specialist topic, transport operators across the sector are now expected to incorporate their needs into the mainstream of their transport planning and delivery. Against this background, and while recognising the valuable work that the committee has done for the department in areas such as accessibility and mobility policy, there is scope to reform the way in which disability advice is delivered.
The Department for Transport intends to issue a discussion document before the summer to inform its proposals in this regard. This will enable the Government to take the concerns of stakeholders into account in the development of successor arrangements. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Low, and other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, are concerned to ensure that the details of successor arrangements, supported by relevant stakeholders, are in place before an order to abolish DPTAC is laid before Parliament, and I was grateful for the opportunity to meet with the noble Lord, Lord Low, and my noble friend Lord Newton of Braintree prior to Report to discuss their concerns. I am delighted that this proposed amendment gives the Government the chance to put on record the fact that the Department for Transport does not intend to bring forward an order to abolish DPTAC until, following a substantial consultation process with a wide range of stakeholders, the department has a clear proposition as to the successor arrangements that will be put in place.
I can further assure noble Lords that, under Clause 10, the explanatory document laid with any draft order will need to set out how a Minister considers that the considerations in Clause 8(2) have been met. These considerations, alongside existing legislation such as the Equality Act 2010, will require Ministers to consider equalities issues when bringing forward an order under the Bill. Until those successor arrangements are established and firm proposals are in place, there is no question of abolishing DPTAC. Given this, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken, in all cases with a great deal more eloquence than I did myself—and also with greater transparency, because most noble Lords who spoke declared an interest, and I did not do so myself. I shall waste no more time and declare my interest as a disabled person.
I thank the Minister for his response. I am not completely persuaded by the mainstreaming argument. I have always thought—indeed, I have always found—that when everyone is given a responsibility, it can all too easily turn out to be the case that nobody has a responsibility. I do not have a problem with everybody having a responsibility, but—especially if the responsibility is a specialised one, requiring specialist expertise—it is usually essential that there is someone around, some specialist with specialist expertise, to keep them up to the mark.
I think that, having listened to the debate, the Minister can be in no doubt about the strength of feeling from all parts of the House that robust arrangements need to be put in place to replace DPTAC. The Government, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord McKenzie, have a high hurdle to clear if your Lordships are to be satisfied that it would ever be appropriate to abolish DPTAC. However, from what the Minister has said, it is clear that the Government have it in mind to put in place successor arrangements to provide the specialised advice which is needed in this case. We still do not know what those arrangements are, but the Minister has made it clear that the Government intend to publish proposals and consult on them and that an order to abolish DPTAC will not be brought forward without a document explaining how the safeguards in Clause 8(2), as well as other equalities considerations, have been met.
I hope that I can also take it from the Minister’s remarks that the Government would not wish to bring forward proposals for successor arrangements until they were sure that they had the support of relevant stakeholders. In the circumstance that there will be no order to abolish DPTAC and that there will be a full opportunity for consultation—indeed, that there will be opportunity for your Lordships to scrutinise the Government’s proposals and how adequately they fulfil the function presently carried out by DPTAC—and given the Minister’s assurances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 10 withdrawn.
11: Schedule 1, page 15, line 27, at end insert “other than the one established pursuant to subsection (6) of that section (Wales)”
Amendment 11 agreed.
Amendment 12 not moved.
13: Schedule 1, page 16, line 6, leave out “National Consumer Council (“Consumer Focus”).”
My Lords, the effect of these two amendments would be to move Consumer Focus—the National Consumer Council, as it is probably better known to the House—from Schedule 1, in other words the list to be abolished, to Schedule 5, whereby its functions would be transferred elsewhere. It is clear from everything that the Government have said that they do not wish to abolish the role, functions and duties of Consumer Focus, nor, indeed, to lose its expertise and specialist market understanding. The plans as set out are to merge all these functions and duties under two independent charities, Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, with perhaps some, I gather, going to the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland.
The intended transfer of such functions therefore stands quite appropriately, as the Government envisage it, within the powers of Clause 5, which is the power to transfer functions. I see no reason for it to be within the powers of the Minister under Clause 1, which is the power to abolish. Indeed, given that Consumer Focus was set up by an Act of Parliament, with the full support of this House, as late as 2007, with its role, remit, powers and responsibilities well debated and agreed at that time, it would seem the most extraordinary use of the Clause 1 powers to abolish it without primary legislation. It is not, in the words of an earlier debate, a dead duck or anything like it.
That is not what had been planned, in so far as we have been told. Its statutory work on behalf of consumers, young people, old people and those in rural areas—the vulnerable throughout the United Kingdom—is projected to continue. Consumer Focus’s powers to seek market information and to represent users’ interests in the setting of prices, the taking up of complaints and of super-complaints on behalf of all consumers—all these, we understand, are destined to remain and simply to be transferred to Citizens Advice.
Your Lordships are well aware of the superb record of the National Consumer Council—the Minister was, of course, a prior chair—and, more recently, of Consumer Focus. We are all aware of the savings in energy bills that it has made for millions of consumers. We also know of its work in establishing ombudsman schemes and in improving markets to work better for consumers. It has statutory powers to demand information from across all sectors of the economy, particularly in relation to energy and postal services. It has a statutory duty to have a particular regard to the needs of the disabled, the elderly, the poor and vulnerable workers and to represent consumers across all four nations by having a presence there. All of these will, we assume, be retained. So unless there is more that we do not know of, surely it is much more appropriate for Consumer Focus to belong in Schedule 5, not in Schedule 1. On that basis, I beg to move the amendment.
My Lords, in the course of many debates on the Bill, the question has repeatedly been raised, “If such-and-such a body is abolished, what is going to replace it? Who will do the tasks that the abolished body has performed?”. That is a very significant question in regard to this amendment, appropriately put forward by my noble friend Lady Hayter, because although the Government have thrown out a few of what I might call titbits of information—that Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland will give a certain amount of advice and will be better resourced than they are at the moment, struggling though the Government are for resources on all sorts of matters—the Government have also indicated that, so far as enforcement of the law is concerned, where retailers or others have contravened legislation, the trading standards officers employed by local authorities are to do the job of helping the consumer.
Even if one accepts that to a degree and ignores the consumer work of the Office of Fair Trading—as noble Lords know, I have declared an interest as a past head, or director-general, of that body—there is still the huge problem that the National Consumer Council has over the years produced a great deal of research, many studies and publications which have informed the Government, informed the Office of Fair Trading and informed the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as it now is. What is the substitute for that going to be if the National Consumer Council is abolished?
This week I noticed, because I got a large envelope in my post, that in the closely related field of competition policy the Government have worked out what is going to happen—in, at the moment, 100-plus pages of information. At the moment it is a Green Paper, next it will be a White Paper and then there will be legislation. There is a great deal of detail on matters that we might come to shortly on Report. We are to have a merger of the Office of Fair Trading and the Competition Commission. They are to constitute a competition and markets authority, and a whole lot of the Government’s Green Paper is taken up with how that is to be governed, what the governance is, how it is to work, various matters relating to antitrust merger policy and so on.
That is the sort of consultation detail—admittedly, the Government have not yet had the results of that consultation—that we in this House and the other place should have been given before the Public Bodies Bill was put forward listing whole hosts of bodies to be abolished without any explanation about any of them, except for a few titbits, as I have called them, of responses in this House and elsewhere by government Ministers about their reasons. We in this House are still very uncertain, even at the Report stage of the Bill, about why some of these bodies are to be abolished or merged or to have their functions transferred according to various schedules. Thank goodness that the Government have given way on Schedule 7 and withdrawn it; at least we do not have that huge pending tray of bodies that could possibly be abolished. Still, there is great uncertainty and, if she does not mind my saying so, I am sure that my noble friend Lady Hayter will agree that although the Government have said some things about this, they still have to do a lot of homework on what is to replace the work of the National Consumer Council.
The work of that body has been splendid. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, was a distinguished chairman. Another distinguished former chairman, the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, is sitting in her place. I am glad to say that the chairmen of the National Consumer Council, while always eminent and excellent people, were not necessarily Conservatives; Lord Young of Dartington, my noble friend Lord Whitty and others have been chairmen as well. A combination of political expertise and experience has been brought to bear on a body that has given advice over the years since it was set up in 1975, which is quite a long period now. Many Governments have benefited from that body. What is to replace it? Have the Government given a complete answer to that? I would be very glad if the Minister could say a little more on this amendment.
My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Borrie has hinted, I declare a recent interest as a former chair of Consumer Focus. The noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, is one of my predecessors, as is the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes, who is here as well. This might seem to be a slightly esoteric debate, but it is not. Consumer Focus, the National Consumer Council and the other bodies that preceded Consumer Focus have done decades of work on behalf of consumers. They have influenced Governments, regulators, business behaviour and behaviour in the public sector. It is important that that role is preserved along with that level of expertise.
My noble friend Lady Hayter’s amendments seem to go with the grain of where the latest indication of government policy suggests that the department and the Government want to be. I say that with some doubt in my voice because, as my noble friend Lord Borrie has indicated, the Government’s exact strategy in this area has to a great extent been obscure, and I fear that the Minister’s department has been buffeted by powers around Whitehall that might be greater than she and her colleagues are able to exert. Originally her department came out with a sensible discussion on all the statutorily based consumer bodies and their relationships with regulators and industries, and decided to have a landscape review. Its original intention was to bring some of those bodies together and rationalise the landscape because there were too many such bodies with conflicting, or at least overlapping, duties, and what was being achieved in one sector was not being reflected effectively in another. I applauded that approach.
It is also clearly the Government’s view that the main part of Consumer Focus’s activity should be carried out not by a quango but in the third sector. Some on these Benches would probably raise an eyebrow at that; I know that my noble friend Lord Borrie did not agree with me. In principle, though, I have no objection to the consumer interest being protected by a powerful and properly resourced third-sector body, its role recognised in statute. In some ways, that makes an enormous amount of sense.
We are not at that point, however; we are at the point where the research, policy, advice and educational functions of Consumer Focus are in limbo. We know that the Government’s intention is to transfer them to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland. However, the Government have not indicated which functions or powers will be transferred. Some of those powers are very effective, as my noble friend Lady Hayter has said—for example, the statutory power to require information. To date, the Government have not said explicitly that they are going to transfer all those powers to Citizens Advice. Likewise, Citizens Advice has not said that it wishes to accept or exert those powers. As noble Lords will know, the central function of Citizens Advice is also dependent on significant resources from the Minister’s department, and those resources have been cut. Citizens Advice has to assess whether it can effectively carry out those extra functions, and we do not yet have an answer to that.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said that government Amendment 94 makes it explicit that functions transferred to a charity—I believe I am right in saying that, apart from British Waterways where the charity does not yet exist, this is the major area where the Government’s intention is to transfer current statutory functions exerted by a non-departmental public body to a charity—are subject to the agreement of the charity. In a sense that is obvious and right but it raises a question: where the Government intend to transfer these important functions on behalf of all consumers in all sectors to a charity, if the charity refused or felt unable to take on those activities, what would then happen to those activities?
I am going quite a long way with the Government on this. It is not necessarily where I or the Consumer Focus board started from, but we accept some general strategy from the Government to bring some of these things together and place them in the third sector. There will be transfers. There will be a transfer of our functions to Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, although they will be subject to the uncertainties that I have mentioned. Those uncertainties are made more difficult by the fact that the department originally indicated that a draft of the consultation document on this change would be before the public by this stage but we have yet to see such a draft. That uncertainty is only part of it, though. There will also have to be powers of transfer to the Consumer Council for Northern Ireland for our postal functions. In Scotland and Wales, as the Minister may be aware, parties in the devolved Administrations are saying that they want to retain something like Consumer Focus Scotland and Consumer Focus Wales.
There will therefore be multiple transfers. The Government have always said that they do not intend to lose these functions. It is therefore wrong that Consumer Focus should be in Schedule 1. Logically, according to the Government’s own presentation of their strategy, it should be in Schedule 5. I have not heard Ministers or anyone in this House suggesting that any of the powers, functions or duties of Consumer Focus should be lost entirely. Therefore, they should be transferred. If the Government attempt to transfer to an organisation that cannot accept that transfer, and if they have exerted the powers under Schedule 1, the powers, duties, activities, expertise and potential to do effective work on behalf of consumers are lost until we return to a new piece of primary legislation which inevitably some Government at some point will have to introduce.
These two amendments—the switch from the abolition of Consumer Focus to a transfer of its functions—are in line with what we have been told is the Government’s position and what we are told are the powers that the Government will need. It is counterproductive to the Government’s own objective to retain it where it is.
My Lords, like many Members of your Lordships’ House, I am an unqualified admirer of the work of citizens advice bureaux. I have quite a long personal association with it. I helped to found a branch of the CAB in a neighbouring borough in Wallsend on Tyneside in the early 1970s. From time to time, as a practising solicitor, I used to attend advice sessions in the bureau and have worked closely with a bureau in Newcastle for many years.
The proposal that is embodied in the Bill, however, is effectively the transfer of a strategic function currently carried out at national level by the national consumer body——as we have heard—to the CAB. This does not seem to be a sensible procedure so far as the bureau is concerned, particularly in present circumstances. At the moment, people up and down the country are facing extreme difficulties as a result of the financial situation in which local authorities find themselves. In Newcastle’s case, for example, the grant to the CAB has been reduced by 20 per cent. At the same time, although there is apparently a temporary reprieve in government support for financial advice, there is a real problem about maintaining nine debt advisers, who are currently unemployed—indeed, they were placed on notice until a reprieve was given and the £25 million national funding was extended for another year. There is, however, still considerable doubt about this. Equally, we are in the middle of a recession at the moment. Unemployment is rising. Problems of all kinds flow from that and present themselves at the bureau.
My final consideration is that we are likely to see significant changes in the legal aid and advice system, which again will throw greater pressure on local bureaux. It is in dealing with people’s individual difficulties and complaints that the work of the bureau is at its best and where it will need, I suspect, to be concentrated very significantly over the next few years against the very difficult background. The bureau is almost a franchise, in the sense that there is a national body but each bureau is independent. I frankly do not see how bureaux such as those in the north-east and elsewhere, facing the difficulties that they are, will be able to contribute significantly to the much more strategic consumer representational role that is envisaged under the transfer of responsibilities that will flow from the measures in the Bill. I urge that the matter be reviewed again. There is a great danger of undue responsibility being passed to an organisation that will simply not be capable of delivering but which will continue to provide a service to the very many people who require it now and will continue to require it in the future.
It is frankly the wrong choice for the bureau to have accepted to undertake the Government’s offer to do the kind of work that they would like the bureau to do nationally. It is a diversion from its real responsibility. For that reason alone—quite apart from the very cogent arguments advanced by my noble friends and shared in different parts of the House—I am very reluctant to see the Bill go through in its proposed form.
My Lords, we support the amendment of my noble friend Lady Hayter. I thank all the other noble Lords—noble friends in particular—who have spoken on this topic. I declare an interest. I was, like many noble Lords in the Chamber today, involved at some point with the National Consumer Council. I was also a member of the advisory committee and served briefly under the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. I enjoyed the experience very much. I also declare an interest as the chair of the Foundation for Credit Counselling, which has a relationship with the citizens advice bureau in the area of debt management and advice, to which my noble friend Lord Beecham referred.
At the end of the excellent debate on 11 January, the Minister said that she would reflect on the debate. Anyone reading the debate would have realised that its quality and the extensive references that were made from all round the House to the work of the NCC and Consumer Focus and to the worries that people had about the transfer had borne in on the Minister. I have read her words and took from them that she would not only reflect very hard on what she had heard during that debate but that she would talk to the responsible Minister in the other place, who, she assured us, would also be following the debate very closely. We are owed the outcome of those discussions and debates and I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say when she responds.
In this debate, we have again been reminded that the points that seem to come from the discussion around the Bill as it affects consumer areas is that this is about a transfer of functions and not about an abolition of those functions, which must continue. A good society requires proper concern for all consumers—vulnerable as well as ordinary. There are a vast range of statutory and other functions that need to be carried out. The thinking that needs to go into that appears to be only partially developed. We talk about a loss of capacity across the piece because the current functions will not necessarily continue.
The loss of advocacy that has been referred to is not just for ordinary consumers but for the vulnerable, as has the loss of accountability both to Parliament and to the wider society that is in statute in the current provisions but might not continue to be as we move towards a solution that involves charities. We will lose the ability perhaps to gain access to information held in private companies and corporations. This will be a serious loss to Citizens Advice should it take up these responsibilities, as it will not have those powers. However, if it does have these powers, it will be a very strange body indeed, with its ability to interrogate and hold to account those who have customarily been outside its remit.
These and other points seem to suggest—in the words of others who spoke earlier in this debate—that there is quite a high hurdle for the Government to overcome to convince us and the public more generally that what they are doing is in the best interests of the consumers they seek to serve. Although we accept, as my noble friend Lord Whitty admitted, that rationalisation was necessary in what was becoming a very cluttered landscape, the Bill does not provide the solution. We wish to hear how the Government think it does. As was evidenced in the contributions to this debate and in Committee, the loss of the NCC or Consumer Focus will be felt right across the piece.
As my noble friend Lord Borrie reminded us, and my noble friend Lord Whitty echoed, we still do not really know what will happen. Where is the consultation document that was promised in the spring? Spring, as those of you who have been able to go outside today, has arrived. Indeed it almost feels like early summer, yet we still do not have that piece of paper. We need to have an engaged consultative process because we need to know where these functions are going. This is important. It is difficult to see what is happening. The document, when we see it, should give us some information, at the very least, about where the money will go that will support the functions that we have been talking about this evening. What will happen to the staff? How will we be assured that we will still have appropriate functions available to us? It is not really appropriate to act first and consult later but, as someone said, better late than never. It seems to me that an unanswerable case has been put forward this evening for a change in the way in which the consumer function will be dealt with. I look forward to hearing from the Minster.
My Lords, the debate today has reiterated the concerns about the proposals for reform expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, and other noble Lords in Committee in January. As then, I am grateful for their contributions. The Government will consult fully on these proposals and will pay close attention to the responses received, as well as to the points made today. I had hoped that the consultation would be issued before the restrictions placed on such publications by the forthcoming elections in Scotland and Wales on 5 May. That has unfortunately not been possible. Therefore, publication will now be after those elections have occurred, for which I am sorry, as I know are other noble Lords here today.
The Government firmly believe that the functions of Consumer Focus will be better carried out by the Citizens Advice service, comprising Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland. If these functions are transferred, there will be no need for the current Consumer Focus organisation to continue to exist. That is why it is in Schedule 1 to the Bill. The Citizens Advice service is widely recognised and trusted by the public. Its unique selling point is that it has local representation through the citizens advice bureaux in communities throughout the country. It offers a presence on the high street where people can call in to get advice and information. It can cater for those who need personal contact—people who may not be comfortable with an online or telephone service. It can also assist vulnerable consumers face-to-face, identify their problems and help with solutions. While Consumer Focus currently assists around 7,000 customers directly, the Citizens Advice service advises and supports millions of individuals every year.
The alternative that the noble Baroness raises through her second amendment—to include Consumer Focus in Schedule 5 to the Bill—would keep it in existence but create a power to amend or transfer some of its functions. As she has made clear today, her amendments question the Government’s overall intent for the future role of the Citizens Advice service in research and advocacy on behalf of consumers. Therefore, I will say a little more about this.
Questions have been raised, in particular, about the capacity of the Citizens Advice service to engage at a national level with industry sector regulators and government and international bodies. On 5 March, Consumer Focus published a paper entitled Regulated Industries and the Consumer, which sets out its view of these responsibilities and the skills and capabilities needed to address them effectively. The Government take this issue very seriously. The Citizens Advice service already has a strong track record in policy advocacy. For example, Citizens Advice has launched several super-complaints, which have resulted in substantial improvements for consumers, notably about doorstep selling cooling-off rights and the payment protection insurance market. However, we do not claim that the Citizens Advice service currently has all the capabilities it needs to discharge such responsibilities and I do not believe that the leaders of those organisations would either.
It is important here that I make the point that I am talking about the national umbrella organisations Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland, not the individual, locally organised bureaux, which are independent of these national organisations. Under our proposals, funding would follow functions. This will allow the Citizens Advice service to acquire the extra skills and capabilities that it will need. This will be particularly to develop further capability in research and to increase the depth of its engagement with sectoral regulators and international consumer policy organisations.
A key issue will be to develop an effective operational model. Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland have unparalleled intelligence about consumer detriment from the front line of advice-giving. Their evidence base will expand further when they establish a successor to the national Consumer Direct helpline. They will need to bring together this evidence with the national research capability that Consumer Focus currently has, as well as its contacts with sectoral regulators and international consumer organisations. I am pleased that the respective chief executives of the three organisations are actively working together to make sure that a robust and credible operational model is established. There is still considerable time left to work through the detail. Completing the transition to the new arrangements will take until 2013, so we are not hurrying.
On other aspects of our proposals, I do not wish to take up your Lordships’ time by repeating what I said in Committee. However, I reiterate that the Government intend to provide sufficient funding for the Citizens Advice service to take on the consumer functions of the Office of Fair Trading, Consumer Focus and possibly other sectoral consumer bodies. Citizens Advice and Citizens Advice Scotland will be accountable to Parliament through this public funding, and to their trustees as independent charities.
Indeed, and that is why the consultation has been in-depth, why it is continuing now and why the chief executives of the organisations are coming together to make sure that this changes over and happens well. These and other issues, such as whether and how statutory powers are transferred to the Citizens Advice service and what delivery models might be appropriate in Scotland and Wales, will be formally consulted on after the elections in May.
The intention of the Government in making these proposals is to provide the best possible service for consumers, to be their champion at a national and international level, and to provide information and advice in ways that suit them best. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
I first thank my noble friends Lord Borrie, Lord Whitty, Lord Beecham and Lord Stevenson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Oppenheim-Barnes. As a former chair and Consumer Minister, she well understands the work of the organisation, as was indicated. I bow to her judgment. I agree strongly with my noble friend Lord Borrie that the whole move is still unsatisfactory. However, the point of this amendment is to help, rather than take on the whole of that issue. It is meant to help the Government by moving the NCC to Schedule 5, thereby increasing the flexibility that is open to them as they review the consumer environment.
As her own department is now finding out, and as my noble friend Lord Beecham has said, the CABs are already overwhelmed. My noble friend Lord Hunt said that in Birmingham all five are at risk, and there is to be a 20 per cent cut in Newcastle. All their energies will be put into what they do well at the moment. Advising individuals is simply not the same job as providing cross-market advice on how markets work for consumers. Someone yesterday said to me, “I like Citizens Advice. They are just like our local post office”. As the Minister said, Citizens Advice is indeed trusted, local and it knows you. However, combining it with Consumer Focus is rather like putting the post office together with a merchant bank such as Goldman Sachs. Just because they both do the same thing—handle money—you do not merge them. Just because Consumer Focus and Citizens Advice are interested in consumers, you do not merge them.
However, that is not in the proposal in front of us. I had expected the review of the consumer landscape to be revealed. I am grateful for the information, although not the content, which we will not now receive until after 5 May. However, the Government, in advance of announcing their consultation, already wanted to put Consumer Focus into the abolition bucket. That undermines and misunderstands the work of Consumer Focus, which is about consumer input into consumer policy. As my noble friend Lord Whitty said, we risk the loss of the statutory powers if Citizens Advice is unable to take on those powers, and if Consumer Focus remains in Schedule 1. That is a big risk. As my noble friend Lord Stevenson said, we risk losing advocacy and representation.
The role of Citizens Advice is face-to-face. It is about individual consumers. It is not about national policy or taking on British Airways, Virgin, internet providers or big national organisations that can also treat consumers poorly. Although I welcome the reference to international and European consumer policy, that is quite different from representing individuals in need—over money, housing or family problems.
We are talking about a transfer of functions that were laid down in the 2007 Act. I fear that the Government want to abolish those functions; otherwise, why are they putting Consumer Focus in the abolition bucket? I have heard the words of the Minister, but there is an overwhelming case for not abolishing Consumer Focus, but for putting it into Schedule 5, under which some functions could be transferred if the review shows that that is the best way forward. I should like to test the opinion of the House.
Amendments 14 and 15
14: Schedule 1, page 16, line 7, at end insert—
“Plant Varieties and Seeds Tribunal.”
15: Schedule 1, page 16, line 11, at end insert “other than the one established pursuant to subsection (5) of that section (Wales)”
Amendments 14 and 15 agreed.
Consideration on Report adjourned until not before 8.25 pm.