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Lords Chamber

Volume 726: debated on Wednesday 23 March 2011

House of Lords

Wednesday, 23 March 2011.

Prayers—read by the Lord Bishop of Exeter.

Extradition: Gary McKinnon

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent discussions they have had with the Government of the United States about the extradition of Gary McKinnon.

My Lords, we regularly discuss a range of extradition matters with the United States authorities, who are anxious to see a conclusion to Mr McKinnon’s case. However, further consideration has been delayed because my right honourable friend the Home Secretary wishes, before deciding the case, to obtain an up-to-date assessment by medical experts recommended to her by the Chief Medical Officer, and Mr McKinnon has not yet granted medical consent for this to take place.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer, but it tells me little more than I already know. Is it not ironic that a Parliament which has voted against the lengthy detention of criminals should keep a young man suffering from the condition known as Asperger’s syndrome in psychological torture for more than 3,300 days? Is it not time for the Home Office to liaise with those who have expertise in autism? Perhaps the department should go to the National Autistic Society and ask for a list of people with expertise in the area rather than relying on the normal line of, “Let’s see what the Chief Medical Officer says”.

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord wishes to question the expertise of the newly appointed Chief Medical Officer. Negotiations are under way about the choice of an expert or a panel of experts, and we are assured by Mr McKinnon’s solicitors that they will consent to this. That is what we are waiting for. We have to recognise that these are complicated legal issues which have to be dealt with by legal means. Further, perhaps I may remind noble Lords that Mr McKinnon was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in August 2008.

My Lords, when I met Mr McKinnon’s mother last week, she informed me that his state of health is deteriorating all the time. I hope that my noble friend will be concerned to learn that Mr McKinnon spends every day behind closed curtains and does not participate in life as he used to. When the Chief Medical Officer chooses an appropriate psychiatrist or a panel, it is essential that the psychiatrist is someone who specialises in adults with an autistic spectrum disorder. That is because to date, the solicitors who have seen Mr McKinnon at the behest of the Government have not been specialists, and at the end of their investigations have openly admitted that this is not their specialist area.

My Lords, the sole grounds with which the Government are now concerned are Mr McKinnon’s medical condition and whether it would be an abuse of his human rights under the European Convention on Human Rights to extradite him to the United States. Some noble Lords may wish to note that this is a case where the European Convention on Human Rights is at the centre of the issue.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that Gary McKinnon had a history of mental health issues prior to any of these legal issues? Indeed, there is a history of mental illness on both sides of the family going back three generations. It is not just a matter of him having been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome in September 2010.

It was August 2008, my Lords. I have seen all these pieces of evidence which have been circulated widely among us. But this is an extradition case and we have to be concerned with the legal process and the evidence presented to that process. This evidence has now been presented and we are hoping that there can soon be an examination by expert witnesses who can provide the basis on which the Home Secretary and others can take a judgment.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we are all sympathetic to him personally, for he is the victim of a very unfair, unbalanced extradition treaty? If he has any trouble with the American authorities, will he tell them that he has no more confidence that Mr McKinnon would get a fair trial there than some Americans had that IRA suspects would get a fair trial here when the extradition of IRA terrorists was refused by the United States on the basis that they could not get a fair trial in this country?

My Lords, the Extradition Act 2003 and the agreement with the United States were, among other things, to deal with the problem of extraditing IRA suspects from the United States. We have to recognise that extradition is a process in which there has to be mutual trust and respect between the legal authorities in different countries. This was to improve extradition between the United States and Britain and also between Britain and Canada, Australia, New Zealand and a number of other countries. There are, of course, those in Britain who do not think that it is possible to have a fair trial in the United States and there are those in the United States who think that it is impossible to have a fair trial in the United Kingdom. We have, however, to respect each other’s legal procedures within democratic countries governed by the rule of law.

My Lords, are the Government giving any consideration to the fairness of the extradition treaty and will they revisit it?

My Lords, the coalition agreement stated that there would be a review of extradition arrangements and in September 2010 the Government announced that the right honourable Sir Scott Baker would lead a review, which is now well under way. That review panel will visit Brussels about the European arrest warrant and Washington about the extradition treaty with the United States in May, and it will report this summer. That panel will cover the breadth of the Secretary of State’s discretion in an extradition case, the operation of the European arrest warrant, whether the US/UK extradition treaty is unbalanced, and whether requesting states should be required to provide prima facie evidence. This is a very thorough review by three respected barristers.

My Lords, accepting the requirements of the extradition treaty and given that the Home Office already has reports on Gary McKinnon’s case from two of the best known experts on Asperger’s and autism—Professor Jeremy Turk and Professor Declan Murphy, both of the Institute of Psychiatry and both of whom are regularly relied upon by Her Majesty's Government in relation to these conditions—why has it concluded that it needs a further medical report, and why was it originally looking for a non-specialist report rather than specialist reports, which we now understand the Chief Medical Officer is hoping to provide?

My Lords, it is for precisely that reason that the Home Office has asked another department, the Department of Health, and its Chief Medical Officer for their own, more independent opinion.

Video Recordings Act 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will launch a consultation on the current exemptions from regulation under Section 2 of the Video Recordings Act 2010.

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government will launch a consultation paper by the summer. Publication has unfortunately been delayed because of the absence of evidence and statistics on the issue. Time is needed to secure the relevant evidence and statistics in order to make the base of evidence credible.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that helpful reply, but this is unfinished business from last year’s Digital Economy Act. As my noble friend will have seen, the recent parents’ online poll on the Mumsnet website demonstrates conclusively the importance that parents attach to proper classification of some of those products which are currently exempt. I noted that the Minister said “by the summer”, but if the evidence is collected earlier than that, will the Government institute the consultation as soon as possible?

My noble friend Lord Clement-Jones is absolutely right. We have read the results of the Mumsnet survey with interest. It presented an interesting snapshot of views on some of the issues. We hope that people will respond as well to our larger, more detailed consultation in due course. We note that the survey did not reveal the possible criminal sanctions that already exist. Many noble Lords across the House are interested in this subject. I acknowledge that my noble friend has been pressing for legislation to remove exemptions for a long time. If we can get the evidence earlier, we will do so.

My Lords, while I am happy to hear that a consultation will be launched by the summer, is it not rather surprising that it has taken quite so long? It was after all in March 2010 that the Government gave an undertaking, as a result of which some of us withdrew an amendment, to launch a consultation on this issue. Although that was under a previous Government, it is largely a non-party issue and surely it should have happened by now.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that it has taken quite a long time, and it has done so because DCMS officials started work on the paper with no proper evidence base. For any videos and DVDs that might be affected by any change in the current set-up, an assessment is vital for proper and proportionate consideration of options. The noble Lord will be pleased to know that we have been working with a number of industry sources and looking into other sources of information and research to try to obtain the evidence as soon as possible.

My Lords, although we are all obviously sorry that there has been a delay, does the Minister welcome the best practice that is already being followed by those companies which are using the BBFC’s online classification services to protect children and empower parents? Those companies include not only organisations such as Paramount, Universal and Tesco, which perhaps we would expect, but also companies that we have heard rather less of such as Harmony and Darker Enterprises.

The noble Baroness, Lady Howe, has been involved with this matter for quite a long time and participated in the Digital Economy Act. It is important to note that any video that benefits from an exemption, whether it is music, sport, religious or a documentary, loses the exemption if it contains material that is sexual, grossly violent or criminal.

My noble friend Lord Renton raises a good point. The internet is not covered in the Video Recordings Act, which applies only to physical copies of video material available to buy or rent. The Video Recordings Act dates from the early 1980s, before the possibility of the internet as we know it now was even considered. I remember it well because I was on the British Board of Video Classification at that time, from the start and for several years.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in the 25 years since the Video Recordings Act was first passed, the content of video games and other exempt video material has changed beyond recognition? Is she therefore concerned that this means that inappropriate and potentially harmful content in such works is now legally being supplied to children? If so, does she understand the urgency of the matter?

I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Jones. This issue is being researched and there are varied opinions. However, we can all agree that some material is, quite simply, inappropriate for children. The consultation will consider how best to achieve the position where children are not exposed to inappropriate material.

I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s replies but I am a little perplexed as to what further evidence is required. Does she know what that evidence is and how long the wait will be? This concerns not only parents but teachers and society as a whole.

My noble friend is right. It is taking a little time because all these people have to be consulted. The matter was raised in the debate on the Digital Economy Act 2010. All these people need to be consulted in order to get the right answer.

My Lords, for some reason the Digital Economy Act 2010 took out some of the words about a video game and put them back in again in another category. As I understand it, the amendments that were passed then are still not in force. Will the consultation consider how the Digital Economy Act has affected the other Act?

My noble friend Lady Gardner raises a good point. Video games were removed by Pan European Game Information legislation, which brought the standard for video games into the Act. The change to the Video Recordings Act 1984 still remains to be done.

Wales: Organ Donation

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have received from the Welsh Assembly Government concerning possible changes to the law in Wales relating to organ donation.

The Welsh Assembly Government made clear to the Government their intention to proceed with proposals on organ donation in Wales, and the Government worked closely with the Assembly Government to enable the proposed legislative competence order to be put forward to Parliament for pre-legislative scrutiny earlier this year. Following the result of the referendum in Wales on 3 March, the Government have now received notification from the Assembly Government that they have withdrawn the proposed legislative competence order relating to organ donation.

My Lords, I am grateful for that reply. Does the Minister accept that the reason for withdrawing the order was because the Assembly now has full legislative competence in areas dealing with health and that after the elections on 5 May it may well want to pursue this matter within its own competence? If that is the case, can he give an assurance that the Government will not to try to intervene? Given the uncertainties and doubts the Government had about human rights and cross-border issues, can he give an assurance that they will not prevent the Assembly from moving ahead, if it so wishes, to legislate on the question of presumed consent to enable far more organs to be available for those who need them?

My Lords, I understand that the current Welsh Assembly Government withdrew the current legislative competence order on the basis of the change that is about to take place as a result of the referendum. They have indicated that they look forward to the Welsh Assembly Government formed after the elections bringing forward their own legislation. It would not be for this Government to prevent that legislation going forward. However, under Section 112 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 it is a matter for the Counsel General for Wales and the Attorney-General, following the passage of a Bill, to consider whether that Bill should be referred to the Supreme Court on any issue of competence. I exercise a similar responsibility, along with the Attorney-General and the Lord Advocate, in relation to Scotland. These are often complex matters and it would be wrong to hypothesise about a Bill which may not come to pass and when we have not yet seen its final shape or form.

My Lords, as the House might know, there have been uncertainties about cross-border issues. For instance, for years neurology services have been sent from north Wales to Liverpool. Are they now to go to south Wales, when it takes far longer to go there? Furthermore, have we resolved the cross-border situation not only in the UK but also, in our relationship with Europe, the possibilities of cross-country involvement in Europe?

My Lords, as we do not yet have any legislation, the first part of my noble friend’s questions about the provision of services may be premature. I simply observe that practical issues could arise if such legislation were to come to pass, given that the Human Tissue Act 2004 and the equivalent legislation for Scotland means that in England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and at the present time in Wales there is no presumed consent. There has to be active consent. Therefore, if there was a donation from Wales, the question would arise whether that was allowed to be used in other parts of the United Kingdom if there had only been presumed consent.

With regard to Europe, there has been a recent EU directive, to be implemented by August 2012, that requires member states to verify donor or donor family consent. It recognises that different states have different opt-in, opt-out systems of consent. There are no specific plans for a European donor card, but member states are working together to raise the important profile of donation and to encourage more people to support or agree to donation.

My Lords, will the Minister explain what work is currently being undertaken to ensure that where Welsh patients are transferred to ITU beds, that system would be able to continue in the future, and how IT intensive care beds are being increased? A shortage of intensive care beds across both England and Wales is in part responsible for some of the low donation rates, so conflicts may arise when Welsh patients are in English intensive care beds.

My Lords, it is difficult to speculate about what might happen, although if there was opt-out legislation in force in Wales, for example, and a person ordinarily resident in Wales was in hospital in England or another part of the United Kingdom, would somebody have to look up not only the donor register for the whole of the United Kingdom but also a possible opt-out register for Wales? There could be practical difficulties. No doubt that matter will be addressed should any legislation come before the National Assembly for Wales.

It is also important to stress the fact that, following on from the independent organ donation task force report in January 2008, considerable efforts are being made to raise the profile of donation and to put in place trained nursing and clinical staff who can take on the important task of talking to relatives. Indeed, since the recommendations of that report were implemented, donations have increased by some 28 per cent.

My Lords, is that not the point? Even with presumed consent, the family will always have to be consulted. Therefore the advantage of presumed consent is often overstated. The key is having campaigns and information available to encourage people to be willing donors in the first place.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. Indeed, there were two reports in 2008 from the organ donation task force. One dealt with the infrastructure arrangements to which I referred, and the other looked at presumed consent. The latter report concluded that the case was not made at the present time to move to a system of presumed consent, but rather emphasised the importance of the infrastructure arrangements and raising the profile. To date I think that has borne some fruit.

Can my noble friend tell me how long the Welsh Assembly has been a Government? Did this follow the referendum that transferred further powers from Westminster to Wales? Are we not witnessing a ratchet of powers being transferred to both Wales and Scotland, which will inevitably lead to them both becoming independent?

My Lords, given that, during the association that I have had as a spokesman in your Lordships' House for the Wales Office, the acronym WAG for Welsh Assembly Government has been one that I am familiar with, it is not something that has happened since the referendum.

My Lords, I realise that this Question concerns Wales and the legislation for presumed consent, but does the Minister or the Government agree that it would be a good thing to have presumed consent in England?

My Lords, as I indicated in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, this matter has been looked at. Under the previous Government, an independent organ donation task force was set up. After doing considerable research and looking at the effects in other countries, it reached the consensus that moving at this time to a system of presumed consent would not be effective and that far more effective would be to take some of the measures that I have already described—namely, improving the infrastructure for donation and for raising the profile of donation. In the three years since that report came out there has been an increase in donations by 28 per cent.

Young People: Custody

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how they will respond to the report by the Office of the Children’s Commissioner on the restraint of young people in custody.

My Lords, we consider this a thought-provoking piece of research that will be fed into our wider-ranging independent review on restraint. I should point out, however, that the authors themselves say that the size of the sample of young people they talked to—89—was not high enough to be statistically significant and therefore not necessarily representative of young people across the secure estate.

I thank my noble friend for his reply. In his review, will he bear in mind the inconsistency of the types of restraint and pain distraction that can be used in different kinds of children’s settings, with an objective of producing consistent standards to the highest international level and compliant with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child? What arrangements are being made to provide independent legal advice to the young people who gave an account to UserVoice, which was published in the report, of treatments that might be unlawful, to ensure that they have the advice that they need to be able to challenge those treatments?

My Lords, on the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, the whole thrust of departmental policy is to try to ensure that in all parts of the secure estate there is consistency of training and application in these matters. We are continuing to take advice on this. On the matter of legal advice, the Youth Justice Board commissioned Voice and Barnardo’s to provide an advocacy service in every part of the secure estate. Secure children’s homes also have advocacy services under contracts held by the relevant local authorities.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Youth Justice Board is a crucial player in this whole difficult area of young people and custody? The Government intend to abolish the YJB and take its functions into the Ministry. The Minister uses the strange but certainly novel argument that it should be abolished not because it has been a failure but because it has been too successful. Is it not time to stop this nonsense and accept that Her Majesty's Government have got this wrong and that the independent Youth Justice Board should be allowed to get on with its vital job?

That is a little wide of the mark, but I am very happy to say that we will return to this matter on Monday next, when I am sure that that question will be in the noble Lord’s opening speech. He can look forward to my response on what the Government’s policy will be.

Could I ask the Minister, in order to put this matter beyond doubt, whether the technique of inflicting pain on young people to make them comply, by hitting them on their nose, has now been banned, and whether the techniques of bending back the thumb and hitting them in the ribs is still being used or whether those have also now been stopped?

The nose technique has certainly been banned. My knowledge of the other two pain techniques that she mentioned is not as in-depth. However, I must emphasise that the whole thrust of advice and development, not only under this Government but over the past two or three years, has been, as I said in my opening remarks, to make sure that there is good training and consistency of staff attitudes in this matter. It is a difficult matter and I understand the concern, but it is a concern that I have detected in the staff and administration of the secure estate as well as around this House. The big problem, as successive Ministers have found, is that we also have a duty of care to staff and other inmates, as well as the desire to secure a safe and secure estate. Dealing with some of the most difficult and complex young people is very difficult, but reliance on administering pain is a very last resort in very difficult circumstances.

My Lords, the Minister referred to the fact that government policy on the Youth Justice Board will be revealed on Monday. Is that because the Government do not have a policy today, or would he care to answer the question from my noble friend Lord Bach?

The Government’s policy is as in the Bill. An amendment on it is to be debated on Monday. This is far off the question before the House. Two old experienced campaigners such as the noble Lord, Lord Bach, and the noble Baroness know full well when they are wandering wide of the mark. I will see them on Monday.

My Lords, this report by the Children’s Commissioner is most powerful in its first-hand descriptions of how restraint techniques in secure settings are actually experienced by children themselves. It makes quite distressing reading. It is followed by the commissioner’s unambiguous recommendation that the use of pain to enforce control and order should be prohibited and that internationally agreed standards, as set out by the UN and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, should be used as a benchmark. Will the Minister please undertake to ensure that there is rigorous, thorough and better training of all staff in the children’s secure estate who deal with these most damaged and difficult children, so that the use of pain during restraint ceases? Will he undertake, with the help and advice of the YJB, to ensure that greater consistency is established across the estate and that more effective and rigorous monitoring is in place throughout?

I fully appreciate and have benefited from my noble friend’s deep knowledge of these affairs. However, as I said earlier, I also have a duty of care to staff and other inmates and the people she refers to as “children” are often 16 or 17 years of age, six foot in height and 14 stone in weight. In such circumstances, keeping a safe and secure estate becomes a real problem. That is the problem that we are wrestling with in the study that we are undertaking.

Hereditary Peers By-election

Announcement

The Clerk of the Parliaments announced the result of the by-election to elect a hereditary Peer in the place of Lord Strabolgi in accordance with Standing Order 10.

Four hundred and fourteen Lords completed valid ballot papers. A paper setting out the complete results is available in the Printed Paper Office. That paper gives the number of votes cast for each candidate. The successful candidate was Viscount Hanworth.

Draft Defamation Bill

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That it is expedient that a joint committee of Lords and Commons be appointed to consider and report on the draft Defamation Bill presented to both Houses on 15 March (Cm 8020) and that the committee should report on the draft Bill by 19 July 2011.

Motion agreed.

Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity

Order of Commitment Discharged

Moved by

That the order of 10 March referring the Code of Recommended Practice to a Grand Committee be discharged.

Motion agreed.

Local Authorities (Mayoral Elections) (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2011

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 2 February be approved.

Relevant documents: 16th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, considered in Grand Committee on 16 March.

Motion agreed.

Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 (Consequential Amendments to the Mobile Homes Act 1983) Order 2011

Mobile Homes Act 1983 (Amendment of Schedule 1 and Consequential Amendments) (England) Order 2011

Mobile Homes Act 1983 (Jurisdiction of Residential Property Tribunals) (England) Order 2011

Motions to Approve

Moved by

That the draft Orders laid before the House on 31 January be approved.

Relevant documents: 15th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, considered in Grand Committee on 2 March.

Motions agreed.

Public Bodies Bill [HL]

Report (1st Day)

Clause 1 : Power to abolish

Amendment 1

Moved by

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.

Amendment 3

Moved by

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.

Amendment 4

Moved by

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 support that. The noble Baroness and I have not conspired on, but discussed, various matters of interest to us both on the Bill. She has a point and I hope that my noble friend will respond constructively.

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

Amendment 5

Moved by

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.

Amendment 6

Moved by

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.

Amendment 7

Moved by

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.

Amendment 8

Moved by

8: Schedule 1, page 15, line 12, at end insert “for areas in England”

Amendment 8 agreed.

Amendment 9

Moved by

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.

Amendment 10

Moved by

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 to inform the House that if this amendment is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment 21 by reason of pre-emption.

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.

Amendment 11

Moved by

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.

Amendment 13

Moved by

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.

To be given all these powers and functions, and to carry them out well, they will need not just extra money but a lot of different training in the different branches of consumer affairs that they will have to deal with.

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

Moved by

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.

Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure

Motion to Present for Royal Assent

Moved by

That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

My Lords, this is the first of three Measures before your Lordships' House this evening. It is the only one that changes existing law. The Care of Cathedrals Measure and the Mission and Pastoral Measure are consolidation Measures.

Earlier this afternoon we heard a reference from the Dispatch Box to the writings of PG Woodhouse. I was minded of that great chronicler of cathedrals and of clergy life, Anthony Trollope, who once wrote that a lawyer,

“can find it consistent with his dignity to turn wrong into right, and right into wrong, to abet a lie, nay to create, disseminate, and with all the play of his wit, give strength to the basest of lies, on behalf of the basest of scoundrels”.

I am sure that that does not apply to any noble and learned Lords in this House. Those who have laboured on these three Measures—lawyers among them—have had quite the opposite intent. The Measures are about clarification, consistency and transparency. It may be convenient for your Lordships if I speak to all three of them now.

The Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure amends the Ecclesiastical Fees Measure 1986. It is concerned with two matters. The first is parochial fees that are payable in connection with the occasional offices of the church, principally weddings and funerals. The second is fees that are payable to the ecclesiastical judges and the church's legal officers—chancellors, diocesan registrars and others—for carrying out their official duties. I will deal first with parochial fees. A quarter of a century's experience has shown that there are aspects of the current legislation that do not well serve either the church or those to whom it offers its parochial ministry—which means, in principle, every person in England. The 1986 Measure contains a definition of “parochial fees” that has proved to be rather obscure. The General Synod's Legal Advisory Commission found it difficult to say with certainty precisely what the current definition covered, particularly in the case of crematorium funerals, which are now very common. The commission advised that the definition should be amended to make it clear which matters were covered by parochial fees.

The Measure before your Lordships' House does that. The duties that give rise to the payment of fees are itemised in a schedule. They include marriages, which have always been the subject of parochial fees. Also itemised are the different types of funeral that take place nowadays, not just those that take place in church. The opportunity has also been taken to include some of the newer occasional offices for which the Church of England service books now make provision, including services of prayer and thanksgiving after civil marriage. This should mean that people who wish to have such a service will know from the statutory table of fees exactly what they will be expected to pay, by contrast with the uncertainties of the current arrangements for these services, with fees varying from place to place.

The Measure provides a power, subject to synodical and parliamentary control, to amend the itemised list by order should that prove necessary in future. A certain amount of flexibility has therefore been built in to the new legislative framework. Parochial fees orders will continue to be made by the Archbishops’ Council, subject to the approval of the General Synod, and will continue to be laid as statutory instruments before both Houses of Parliament under the negative procedure. The existing practice has been for orders to be made annually so that the fees can be adjusted to keep up with inflation. The new Measure provides a useful facility to enable orders to be made for up to five years at a time, with inbuilt increases in the prescribed fees.

Another useful facility provided by the Measure is a power to specify the costs and expenses that are to be included in the statutory fees. Under the existing statutory framework, there is considerable variation between parishes on services that are charged as extras over and above the statutory fees. This can lead to the unsatisfactory situation, for example, where people who are getting married are surprised to be asked for substantial sums for administration, vergers’ fees and so on, in addition to the published statutory fees, a situation which a nationally applicable table of parochial fees was always intended to avoid.

There are, of course, always some genuinely optional extras that people will ask for, such as professional music and flowers. It is not proposed that these should be included in the fees that will be prescribed in the parochial fees order. However, it is envisaged that in future fees orders will specify as included in the statutory fee certain costs and expenses that are necessarily incurred in making the church available for the service. As with parochial fees orders generally, the exercise of the power will be subject to the scrutiny of the General Synod and of both Houses of Parliament.

The other main change that the Measure will bring about, while legally significant, is essentially a matter of tidying up. Under the current statutory framework, parochial fees are divided into two categories: fees payable to the incumbent and fees payable to the parochial church council. Under the Measure, fees continue to be payable to parochial church councils but the incumbent’s fee is replaced by a fee payable to the diocesan board of finance. This is not nearly as significant a change as it might seem. In practice, more than 90 per cent of incumbents assign their parochial fees by deed to the diocesan board of finance when they are appointed. They are then paid the full diocesan stipend. The small number of incumbents who do not assign their fees to the diocese in this way nevertheless declare their fee income to the diocese by sending in regular returns. Their stipends are then reduced accordingly. No one currently not assigning fees will be obliged to do so; there is a provision for them to opt out if they so wish.

Possibly contrary to public perception, parochial fees no longer benefit the incumbent directly—it is a long time now since that was the case. In providing for what used to be the incumbent’s fees to be payable to the diocesan board of finance, the Measure simply puts current practice on a proper statutory footing. This change, which reflects the reality of the situation, is in the interests of transparency and will provide legal clarity as to the ownership of the fees.

I now turn to the second aspect—

I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate for giving way. He has not mentioned the position of non-stipendiary priests, who frequently take funerals and marriages and so on. Many parishes, such as my own, have a non-stipendiary in charge of them. Can he clarify the situation? I believe that it was made clear during the Ecclesiastical Committee’s deliberations that they will be paid directly as they are not receiving a stipend.

I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, for raising that important point for clarification. This Measure will aid the process because diocesan boards of finance will now be encouraged to have a policy. That will mean that not only self-supporting ordained ministers but, for example, readers, who in certain rural areas in my diocese take a considerable number of funerals, will have provision made for their remuneration. Therefore, again, this is a useful outcome of tidying up the procedures.

I turn to the second aspect of the Measure—the changes relating to ecclesiastical judges’ and legal officers’ fees. Fees are payable to diocesan chancellors in respect of their judicial work—principally the exercise of the faculty jurisdiction in respect of church buildings and their contents. They are also payable to diocesan registrars for the wide range of legal work that they undertake for the bishop and other officials and bodies in the life of the diocese. These fees are prescribed annually in fees orders that are ultimately laid before both Houses of Parliament as statutory instruments. These fees orders are made by a specially constituted statutory body—the Fees Advisory Commission.

Under existing statutory provisions, the commission is constituted in such a way that half its membership consists of lawyers. The current balance was considered by the commission to be not entirely satisfactory. Following a review of its constitution and functions, two specific changes were proposed, and these are provided for in the Measure that is now before your Lordships’ House.

The first of these changes is the reconstitution of the Fees Advisory Commission so that its membership consists of three elements: the users of the legal services, in the form of a bishop, a Church Commissioner and a chairman of the diocesan board of finance; the providers of legal services, represented by a chancellor, a provincial registrar and a diocesan registrar; and an independent element in the form of persons appointed by the Church of England’s Appointments Committee.

A minor change is also made to the commission’s functions. It will be required to keep itself informed of the duties of the judges and legal officers who receive the fees that the commission prescribes. This is intended to ensure that in arriving at levels of fees, the commission does so on a properly informed basis.

As the material contained in the report of the Ecclesiastical Committee shows, the Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure received detailed and thorough scrutiny during its passage through the Synod, both in committee and at the revision stage in full Synod. It received overwhelming majorities in all three houses of the General Synod at final approval. The Ecclesiastical Committee is of the opinion that the Measure is expedient and I am pleased to commend it to your Lordships’ House.

I shall not need to detain your Lordships long on the other two Measures. As I mentioned, they are both consolidation Measures. They do not change the law; they simply consolidate in single Measures all the enactments relating to particular subjects. Perhaps I might add that this is something that Parliament itself might consider doing with secular legislation.

The Care of Cathedrals Measure consolidates the Care of Cathedrals Measure 1990, which made provision for the care and conservation of cathedrals, and a number of subsequent enactments that either added to its provisions or amended it. The Mission and Pastoral Measure consolidates the Pastoral Measure 1983—itself a consolidation of a number of enactments that were “designed to make better provision for the cure of souls”—together with a long list of subsequent enactments that have amended it in various ways. In fact, consolidation of the Pastoral Measure was first suggested by the chairman of the Ecclesiastical Committee, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd of Berwick, who has asked me to say how sorry he is not to be in his place this evening. If I may respectfully say so, that was a most helpful suggestion and it is one that we have been pleased to adopt. We saw the benefit of doing the same with the care of cathedrals legislation. I therefore also commend these Measures to your Lordships’ House. I beg to move.

My Lords, we are debating three ecclesiastical Measures tonight and I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter for his very clear explanation. The Ecclesiastical Committee has considered these matters and is of the view that they are expedient. It is noticeable that in the General Synod there was unanimous support for the Care of Cathedrals Measure. There was also almost unanimous support for the Mission and Pastoral Measure. In relation to those two Measures, such support is clearly significant. With the Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure, it is noticeable that in Synod the votes in the House of Clergy were 99 for the ayes and 10 for the noes, and, in the House of Laity, 115 for the ayes and nine for the noes, so there was clearly a moderate measure of disagreement. Perhaps the right reverend Prelate would be prepared to comment on the debate and on the reasons why some members of the Synod opposed the Measure.

I have of course taken note that in its 229th report the Ecclesiastical Committee is very clear on these Measures, as was the right reverend Prelate. The committee points out the defects in the current legislation and the recommendation of the Deployment, Remuneration and Conditions of Service Committee. Reading the various papers that have been produced for our debate tonight, it is noticeable that some of the arguments were put forward to the Revision Committee—particularly, first, that the Measure breaches the right in general law of any person to enter into a contract to carry out services and to receive payment, and, secondly, that it possibly breaches human rights. However, the advice received by the Revision Committee looked pretty persuasive to me. As I said, I also noted that many other points were put to the Revision Committee, and they appear to have been considered very carefully. Overall, I am very much persuaded that these Measures should be supported by your Lordships’ House.

I also noted from the deliberation that took place on 30 November that, in an answer to my noble friend Lord Bilston, we were reassured that payments to choirs, bellringers, organists, florists and suchlike are not covered by the statutory fees. My noble friend reminded noble Lords that he led a strike nearly 60 years ago, when he wanted to increase the stipend—I assume this was as a choirboy—from a shilling to two shillings:

“We had a very recalcitrant clergyman who wouldn’t concede that point. I thought it was quite a legitimate increase. So we had to go and sit on the church wall for an hour during the month of March—as you know, the tax issues were very relevant then. I led the choir out to sit on the wall for an hour before the next marriage. We are talking about marriages or funerals. After the hour, the vicar came out and offered us the two shillings and we went back and sang with gusto”.

It is a remarkable read and it pays testament to the thoroughness with which both the Synod and the Ecclesiastical Committee have gone through these matters. I am sure that we should support them.

My Lords, I will speak briefly. I was delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, quoted Lord Bilston. It made me feel very nostalgic for the Ecclesiastical Committee, on which I served for 40 years—probably a record. I also served on the General Synod for 10 years. I am bound to say that not every piece of legislation sent by General Synod to your Lordships’ House and the other place had my warm approval. It is incredibly important, as we have an established church, that both your Lordships’ House and the other place have a proper opportunity to debate the Measures that come before us. I am very glad to see that the noble Lord is nodding so vigorously in assent. I am very proud of the fact that we have an established church. Of course, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter made the point—very gently—in his extremely cogent and clear speech, that every single person in England is entitled to the ministrations and services of the Church of England. That is something which people of all faiths and none frequently have cause to be truly thankful for. It is important, therefore, that we should be debating these things.

I would make two very brief points. The first expands on what I said in my intervention. The Church of England, particularly in rural areas, is becoming increasingly dependent upon the services of non-stipendiary ministers and of lay people. There is something good about that, but there is also something that the church needs to devote very real and constructive attention to; the business of the retirement age of clergy. There are many clergy over the age of 70 who wish to carry on but who are not able to do so. I do not want to embarrass someone by mentioning him by name; I have not had a chance to consult him. But very recently, an extremely popular vicar in a very major Lincolnshire parish—my home county, as distinct from my county by adoption, Staffordshire—did not wish to retire. He was in full and vigorous health—after all there are many in your Lordships’ House, including me, who are over the age of 70 and still play, one hopes, a constructive part in the affairs of the nation. This vicar did not wish to retire. His parishioners were distraught at the thought of his retiring. Yet he had no alternative. It is a pity when we have a rigid retirement age. Of course, if people want to go beforehand, fair enough. But we are increasingly dependent on those who have retired and then give their services, particularly in rural areas. Without them the Church of England would not be able to give the ministration it does to the people of this country. I hope it is something that will be borne in mind in future deliberations of General Synod and of the Archbishops’ Council, et cetera.

The second point I want to make very briefly is on the cathedrals Measure. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter did not really deal in any detail with this. He merely said it was a consolidation Measure, which it truly is—a very good one at that. I warmly commend it. It gives us an opportunity to reflect upon the centrality of the cathedral in every diocese; the fact that our cathedrals—particularly our great medieval cathedrals—are among the greatest, if not the greatest, buildings in this country. Who could imagine Ely without its cathedral; Lincoln or Durham without their cathedrals; Salisbury without its cathedral? Exeter? One could go on.

Chichester, indeed—a good interjection. In the 19th century its spire blew down, as I remember, and that underlines the vulnerability of any great but old and fragile building. The church does shoulder—very willingly, I am glad to say—the burden of sustaining these extremely wonderful buildings, but there is a national responsibility beyond that.

My very first parliamentary exercise was to introduce the Historic Churches Preservation Bill way back in 1971 in the other place. From that we got state aid for churches, and later we got state aid for cathedrals. Without the money that has come more latterly through English Heritage, our cathedrals would have been in a much more parlous state than they are, notwithstanding the dedicated service that those who minister within them give. We ought to register in this brief debate that no country deserves to call itself civilised if it neglects its greatest architectural glories.

It is good that in this consolidation Measure the church is tidying up its own approach, making it more cohesive and coherent—I warmly commend that—but there is also a continuing obligation upon us to ensure that the nation outside the Church of England plays its part in ensuring that these great marvels of ecclesiastical architecture can be enjoyed by future generations.

My Lords, I associate myself with the words of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. We have had many opportunities in different capacities—in the arts and heritage group, once chaired by the noble Lord, through to many other hats that we wear—to see the increased pressure on cathedrals, with York, Canterbury and so on having bits literally falling off. One wag asked why we do not have the tower sponsored by Burger King. More seriously, the Church of England does not want to go in the direction of a state fabric authority as in France. There are very many reasons why France and Britain do not have the same history, but in this connection it might be a marker for the future; the situation is increasingly unstable. With 14 cathedrals knocking simultaneously at the door of every merchant banker in the country, we might ask whether or not it is proper for HMG to be more forthcoming about its public policy assessment of the scenarios for the future. I do not know what toes I am treading on in saying that, but these questions have very wide ramifications.

My Lords, I also thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter for so expertly setting out the contents of these three Measures. The Measures referring to the care of cathedrals and the ecclesiastical fees might well be described as tidying-up pieces of legislation, but that in no way should detract from their importance. The way in which these items, which are most timely, have been handled—not only through Synod, which has been extremely thorough and careful over its deliberations, but also, if I may say, through the Ecclesiastical Committee—gives me confidence to commend these three Measures to the House.

I begin by associating myself with the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Laming, about the immense amount of work that has been done to get the Measures tabled, and congratulate the right reverend Prelate on his introduction of them.

The Measures do not deal with the level of fees. They state how they are to be set—there is a great infrastructure for that—but there is a big issue about how we should set the fee. When I raised that question in the Ecclesiastical Committee, the response was that, at the moment, if anyone asked the church to justify the figures in terms of actual costs, it would be hard put to do so. An attempt was to be made to work up a realistic estimate of the cost of providing authorised ministry buildings, and so forth.

If I may say so, that will require the judgment of Solomon. First, the amount of authorised ministry—I declare an interest as a clergy spouse—varies so enormously from case to case. Certainly with funerals, the amount of time that can be taken where there has been a tragic death in the family is phenomenal, and is one of the most important things that the clergy do. That is extremely difficult.

I also hope that, without wanting to ramp the fees up, the committee or sub-committee that looks into it will not just look at the marginal costs. Going back to the point about cathedrals, you cannot have a wedding in a church unless the church has been kept up for the years before the wedding. Simply charging for so many hours of the clergywoman's time plus a bit of heating costs and whatever does not get to the bottom of the real value.

I also had a slightly mischievous thought when the right reverend Prelate was talking about a national table of fees. Some churches are extremely sought after, particularly for weddings. It is not because the population of the parish is particularly devout. It occurred to me that without necessarily adopting the Ryanair approach to pricing for churches, there is a different quality between a wedding conducted in a country church in July and in an inner-city church in January. I wonder whether it might be possible to contemplate seasonal variation.

We might need to have a rebate in the event of rain. Some people get married in a particular kind of church at a particular time of year purely because they are paying for a better facility. In these harsh economic times, the church ought at least to explore that possibility.

Having read the Measures, I was intrigued particularly by Parts 6 and 7 and wanted to question a little further. My prompt for asking this question was a walk on Saturday through my home town of Gateshead. I walked past about six different church buildings with my father. As we were walking, we were estimating the congregations in each of those six different church buildings, which happened to include two Anglican, a Baptist, a Salvation Army and a Methodist church. We estimated that the congregations in the six buildings were in the region of 150 or 200 for all of them.

As this is a consolidation measure, which deals in Part 6 with the use of places of worship, one wonders about underutilisation of church buildings and how that could be addressed. When he comes to respond to this short debate, perhaps the right reverend Prelate can comment on what consideration is given to better use of existing buildings, because there are a lot of opportunities there.

That links with Part 7, which has some excellent language which talks about local ecumenical partnerships working with different denominations in pursuit of, in that quaint phrase, the cure of souls, in the local area. That provision within the mission in Part 7, if replicated in the building regulations in Part 6, could lead to some interesting collaborations which would be for the benefit of communities. There are now many ways in which those buildings could be used. They could be used for schools, going back to their original purpose. Why could not the church building be used for them? They could be used for housing.

Is the noble Lord aware that 40 per cent of all free schools are religious schools? Does he agree that in fact there is considerable concern about the nature of those schools—not, of course, the Church of England schools? I wonder whether he is right to encourage more free schools. I am not sure that that gets the balance right.

Faith schools have an outstanding record. The churches were in education long before the Government ever got into the business. I would like to encourage more. Housing is also a crying need, particularly in rural areas. I was talking to people in the Ministry of Justice last week, who mentioned the 80 per cent of prisoners who come out not having anywhere to stay. That would seem to be very much within the mission—not the mission set out in the Measure, but the mission as originally espoused, which was to look after the prisoners and the homeless, to feed the hungry and to clothe people.

I am simply saying that there seem to be lots of opportunities, particularly in the age of the big society, for those marvellous facilities in the centre of communities to be used much more than they are. I would be grateful to know what consideration has been given to that in the preparation of the Measures.

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in response to the debate. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, asked about the Synod debate and was speculating on the reason why people might have voted against. It is perhaps worth saying that Synod is a large body of 470 members, but we have no Whips. I speculate, but it may well be that a few wish to register regret at what could be seen as the final logical stage in a long process stretching back over many decades. That would not be unknown in your Lordships' House.

In the Ecclesiastical Committee, Peter Bottomley asked:

“Is there a way of indicating gently whether those opposed, not convinced or not agreeing were what you might call modernists, traditionalists or individualists?”.

To which Mr Tim Allen replied:

“From the choice of those three, probably the best answer is individualists”.

I also say to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that when he has a little spare time from the Front Benches over there, he would make a very good shop steward for choristers.

I am very grateful for the reminder of the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that the church is the church of the English people. Our word parish comes from two Greek words, It means “the dwellers alongside”. I relate back to what the noble Lord, Lord Bates, said, about our churches. Some churches may have small congregations but we are not congregational churches, we are parish churches. Already, the provisions of Section 6 are enabling in many churches to be used much more creatively than they have in the past. Certainly, if you go back into the long distant past, they have been used for a whole variety of things—schoolrooms, yes, although I am not going to be tempted into a debate about schools—but other functions as well. Particularly in rural areas, but I could also take you to churches in urban Plymouth, churches are now used seven days a week in the service of the community, which is precisely what the parish church exists to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, reminded me that he has spent four years checking ecclesiastical legislation and declaring it expedient. So when I am in one of my grumpy old man moods, worrying about the pace of change, I now know who to blame.

I am also grateful to the noble Lord for pointing to the centrality of cathedrals in the life of the diocese, and the importance of us shouldering together the responsibility for maintaining these wonderful buildings. I say again that our church buildings are probably better maintained now than they ever have been. It is a huge tribute to those who worship within them, but also to the wider community. My own cathedral church is two-thirds of the way through raising £9 million. Much of that has been raised by the people of the wider community of Devon. We look to the support that we receive from agencies of the state, or associated with the state. I pay tribute to the work of English Heritage. A lot of us are hugely grateful for the continuation, albeit in a more limited way, of the listed places of worship grants scheme, which is a real help to many parish churches. I am grateful for those, and to the noble Lords, Lord Lea and Lord Laming, for making those same points.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for that recognition of the huge amount of work that goes into providing pastoral ministry and how it varies from place to place. It has never been the intention that a parochial fee should be set to realistically cover all those costs—including the dilapidation costs of the building, if you want to call them that. It is intended that it should be fair and affordable, and should not place any of these occasional offices beyond the reach of those who need them. The noble Lord tempts me into some interesting byways, with his suggestions of seasonal variations and perhaps a higher fee for a service taken by a bishop and a lower one for a service taken by a Lord Spiritual. I will not be tempted on that.

The only thing that I have not touched upon is the retirement age of clergy. As someone who could retire this summer, and will be forced to retire in five years’ time, I am quite tempted to respond personally to that. The retirement age is at present prescribed by statute as 70, although bishops have discretion to allow incumbents to remain for up to two years. Indeed, archbishops can exercise discretion in relation to bishops, but only for up to one year. The church will consider that in the future, in the light of the raising of the retirement age generally, but change will require an amending Measure. It may be that your Lordships, having already heard me speak seven times this week, would like to keep the present retirement age enforcement. I commend the Ecclesiastical Fees (Amendment) Measure to the House.

Motion agreed.

Care of Cathedrals Measure

Motion to Present for Royal Assent

Moved by

That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Care of Cathedrals Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

Motion agreed.

Mission and Pastoral Measure

Motion to Present for Royal Assent

Moved by

That this House do direct that, in accordance with the Church of England Assembly (Powers) Act 1919, the Mission and Pastoral Measure be presented to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.

Public Bodies Bill [HL]

Report (1st Day) (Continued)

Amendment 16

Moved by

16: Schedule 1, page 16, line 12, leave out “Regional development agency for the East Midlands.”

My Lords, I am still surprised as to why the Government are seeking to move forward with local enterprise partnerships, leaving nothing at all at the regional level. I have been hoping for some time that there would be a measure of movement on the part of the Government, and I hope to hear about that from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach.

The East Midlands Development Agency, better known as EMDA, was formed in 1999 and for the past 12 years has done a good job providing help and support to the economy of the East Midlands. It works regionally and sub-regionally where that is appropriate, so it is disappointing that the Government are seeking to abolish this RDA. I am not against reform per se, but it seems a bit over the top and creates a system that is unable to meet the needs of businesses and meet the regional challenges to create jobs and support the regional economy.

Noble Lords will be aware that the East Midlands is made up of six counties. It is the third largest and third most rural region in England, and has a population of 4.3 million people. There are well over a quarter of a million businesses in the region, and it is where I worked for many years. It is made up of largely rural counties with principal town and cities. I should say that I have great affection for the East Midlands. Compared with other parts of the United Kingdom, it is a region of relatively low wages and needs a measure of co-ordination and intervention at this level to protect jobs, boost job creation and enable businesses to flourish with the right sort of support. I am aware that other noble Lords who wish to speak in the debate will refer to the RDAs in their own areas, but I think that a recurring theme will be that at the regional level, this is a big mistake. Local enterprise partnerships on their own will not fill the gap. I beg to move.

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 16A tabled in my name and in the names of several of my noble friends. Like my noble friend Lord Kennedy, I am not against reform—I welcome it—but I am against the abolition of the RDAs in a wholesale way. I raised a number of questions on the abolition of the RDAs in our debate at the Committee stage and the Minister was kind enough to write to me with a detailed response. I have to say at the outset that I still have very deep concerns about the abolition of the RDAs, both in terms of the impact on economic growth and the process itself.

I turn first to the Government’s response to the report of the Public Administration Select Committee entitled Smaller Government: Shrinking the Quango State. The response is brimful of bravado, which I would say is misplaced in this context, but I digress. I refer to paragraph 6 of the response, which deals with the £2.6 billion that will flow from savings on public bodies over the spending review period and the estimate of a reduction of at least £11 billion per year by 2014-15. It has been estimated in some quarters that it could cost as much as £1.4 billion to wind down the RDAs and complete existing programmes. Yet in his letter, the Minister tells me that it is not possible at this stage to quantify the costs of RDA closure. I am sure he is correct, but if so, how can the Government state categorically that total savings as a result of this legislation will be at least £2.6 billion during the spending review period? It would be helpful to have a more detailed breakdown of the savings, especially after the extraordinary hyperbole we heard at the beginning of the process—not, I hasten to add, from the Minister.

I turn now to the issue of consultation, which I raised in Committee. I welcome the increased consultation that is now a part of the Bill thus far, although my noble friend Lord Hunt will move further amendments on consultation in due course. But in relation to RDAs, the Minister told me in his letter that:

“We have not so far undertaken a formal consultation on the abolition of the RDAs”.

I hope that as a consequence of this Bill consultation will in future take place at the appropriate time—before announcements are made and legislation is introduced. I note from the Minister’s letter that the Government are obliged to consult before laying any order to abolish the RDAs, assuming that they remain part of the Bill, and that they will meet this requirement. Personally, I think that such a consultation is far too late in the process. I also asked in Committee about the role of government offices. The Minister told me that BIS is working to put in place a new economic development delivery landscape and that this is the role that the network of small BIS local teams will be designed to fulfil. This is reinventing the wheel. In the main, the government offices do an excellent job at the moment. They may well need reforming but reform should not mean abolition; it should mean just some readjustment of the process which we have had thus far.

In relation to assets, I have one further question for the Minister. In his letter he said that the reasons for getting rid of RDA assets include,

“maximising value for money from these assets, ensuring liabilities follow assets, and passing control down to the local level where possible”.

But what happens to the money if the assets are sold? The noble Lord told me what is going to happen vis-à-vis inward investment and UK Trade and Investment, which intends to procure a single national contract to co-ordinate and manage foreign investment propositions on behalf of the UK. That may be very good; I am not in a position to say. But the role that the RDAs played in inward investment as one-stop shops was truly invaluable and I should like reassurance from the Minister that there will be that sort of one-stop-shop process in any new system. That was instrumental in bringing industry and jobs to regions such as the north-west, the West Midlands and many others. The regions must be the motors for economic growth in our country. I am sure that the Minister will remind me that the policy of the Government is to have local economic partnerships, and indeed his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced 11 new LEPs today. But I am still concerned that great swathes of the country will still not be covered, that not enough money will be available to support the LEPs, and that not enough attention will be given to strategic growth.

I refer again to the letter from the Minister. He said:

“We appreciate the work they”—

the RDAs—

“have done, but these are difficult times and we need to be clear that our limited resources have to be used in the most efficient manner. This requires a total reform of the current system”.

We all recognise that not all RDAs are as effective as they might be but that should not require the demolition of the whole system. On all sides of the Chamber there is clear recognition, for example, that the RDA in the north-east does a splendid job and has made a huge contribution to the economy and, consequently, to the fabric of society in the north-east. So why get rid of it? Like my noble friends, I continue to oppose the abolition of RDAs. I believe that innovation, employment, inward investment, new business, training and economic growth will all suffer, notwithstanding the creation of the LEPs and the additional LEPs which were announced today. Our economy and our society will suffer as a result.

My Lords, in Committee I dealt with the historical debate in the Labour movement and the very significant contribution made by my noble friend Lord Prescott and by Bruce Millan as a European Commissioner. I want to concentrate today on the future. I declare an interest in that my daughter-in-law works for Yorkshire First. However, my thoughts and comments are based on conversations with people in the north-west region and within the Northwest Regional Development Agency, which covered my former constituency following the creation of the agency in 1997.

My only interest in this issue is whether the new structures can deliver. I say that in the context of having spent almost 40 years of my life living in a region, or a sub-region, of the United Kingdom where historically there has been heavy unemployment. Delivery has been of primary concern to the Institute of Directors, which supports change but in its recent briefings has questioned whether LEPs have the resources, the focus and expertise to be able to deliver. In one of its most recent briefings, it states on resources that,

“concerns remain that without any central government funding at all, LEPs may quickly become ineffective talking shops. Government will need to allow a small amount of funding as catalysing capital for private sector investment as well as setting out how LEPs will be able to fund the small economic secretariats that will be needed to serve the bodies and their directors … some provision of funds will have to be considered in order to provide: (a) basic administration and secretariat functions … and; (b) economic advice resources, such as economists and infrastructure expertise”.

In other words, it says that, starved of resources, the LEPs will be in difficulty.

On expertise and the ability of the LEPs to focus, the IoD states that,

“there remain notable concerns that the proposals submitted to government by many bidding local authorities already suggest a wide array of duties, from business support and inward investment to skills development and social regeneration. In many cases, the bids submitted resemble mini-RDA submissions, with all the potential for additional cost, loss of focus … Many of the plans submitted to government in the form of LEP proposals looked and felt like wholesale plagiarism of RDA regional plans and activities”.

We need a far narrower focus. How can an organisation in the form of an LEP, with minimal resources, possibly cover a wide-ranging brief which includes transport, planning, infrastructure, housing delivery, development of growth hubs, local business regulation, skills in conjunction with Jobcentre Plus, leverage of funding from the private sector, development of financial entities for renewable energy projects and digital infrastructural projects? Some LEPs are talking in terms of inward investment initiatives, joint exhibition stands overseas and the organisation of European funding. In my view, they simply cannot do all that work with the resources that they have available and without the necessary expertise. They need far greater focus.

What I find really worrying is that the close relationship between larger regional employers and the regional structures is now in jeopardy, yet it is those links which more often than not have been the source of inward investment leads. Experience among agencies in the north shows that most of the foreign investment projects that came to the regions came through regional-partner contacts and not through the centre; that is, Whitehall. Many global players will simply not play ball with some of the more inexperienced LEPs, which they believe will lack the muscle to open the doors necessary to facilitate inward investment.

I accept that some LEPs will seek to be dynamic and ambitious, but a lot will not. Cash-starved LEPs will simply not attract the staff. In some areas of the country, regional policy and strategy will simply wither on the vine. I find it difficult to accept that a few BIS reps, genuinely committed to the regions as they may well be, along with the proposed UKTI-nominated single national contractor, will be able to maintain the contacts that the RDAs have so painstakingly built up over the years. The task requires more than a few well motivated and talented individuals from the centre, subject to Civil Service rotation, if regional strategies are to work, particularly in periods of recession.

The idea that local authority-driven LEPs can provide the levels of service required is questionable. Furthermore, it is my experience that large employers often steer clear of local authorities as they are often seen as too politicised and unprofessional. We learn from history in places such as Cumbria, where I have spent most of my life, that LEPs—and, I suppose, the West Cumbria Development Agency, which had all the characteristics of an embryo LEP—can work and be successful. However, it had the nuclear industry in the background. The problem is that only too often you end up with overlapping provision, inter-authority conflict and jealousies. It is a recipe for turning off the big players in a big way, and we will suffer potentially unless we can sort out that problem.

I find it extraordinary that we are all turning our back on the experience of regions throughout the European Union, which are doing precisely the reverse by developing and maintaining their regional structures as they compete for intra-Community infrastructural funds and inward investment. They will obviously place far more emphasis on regional GDP figures than will be the case in the United Kingdom. Our Government will no doubt concentrate on pushing national GDP as the measure of success so as to appease domestic concerns, thereby avoiding a more realistic focus on possible declines in regional GDP, which is what really matters. This is important because the RDAs have made a considerable contribution to the increase in regional GDP over all these years.

I find myself asking simple questions. Will efforts to secure regional funding from the European Union’s various regional and sectional assistance pots be as vigorously pursued when they may become more dependent on Whitehall initiatives? We again cannot be sure. I note the assurances in the letter of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, but will the centre be as effective in driving the innovation agenda and the links with the universities? What about the handling of green and environmental infrastructural projects such as barrages, environmental parks and large-scale environmental clean-ups? These are often driven at a local level, but it is only with regional intervention that they seem to take off.

For example, in my former constituency there is a beautiful site for a potential large regional project—the RNAD dump at Broughton Moor. There had been some pollution on the site from munitions in storage after the Second World War. I managed to negotiate with Lewis Moonie—now the noble Lord, Lord Moonie—who was then a Defence Minister, for the local authority to take over that site for the sum of £1, which would compensate for the considerable funds that would have to be invested in environmental clean-up. Eleven years later almost nothing has happened.

There have been lots of false starts, and even today proposals for the site are still under consideration. What went wrong? The councils own the site. The Northwest Regional Development Agency had offered millions for its development as long as the councils could firmly establish the future development of the site for housing, leisure or something substantial. The council simply did not have the drive to pull the project together. In my view, if the Northwest Regional Development Agency had owned that site and had been responsible for its development, things would have been very different. With its funding, experience, contacts and drive, we would have been well on the way to a visionary use of one of Cumbria’s most important potential development sites. With the wind-up of the RDAs the writing is on the wall for these types of projects, and that worries me.

What about the future of RDA work in the film and creative industries? I cannot see the LEPs getting their heads around project work in those sectors. Do we have confidence in the arrangements for business advice to SMEs? Do we believe that a national website, along with back-up from cash-starved, local authority-funded LEPs, can deliver business support services on the scale required in a downturn?

On the treatment of assets and liabilities, we were told in Committee that there would not be a fire sale—but will there? In his letter, the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, said:

“RDA asset disposal plans have been developed taking account of the principles set out at high level in the Local Growth White Paper. These include maximising value for money from these assets, ensuring liabilities follow assets, and passing control down to the local level where possible”.

“Maximising value for money” means selling off before assets fall further in value in the market that we are in at the moment. “Passing control down to the local level” means selling off to local authorities where they can afford to purchase. That is what I understand is going on at the moment. Plans are being laid for those purchases where possible.

If we want the measure of the real-world value of assets, we need do no more than look at what is happening in property auctions throughout the United Kingdom and in the property market more generally. What do we find? There are empty shops and offices all over the country. Commercial property is collapsing in value. Commercial rents in much of the country are falling. A lot of property companies are collapsing. A lot of factory leases are being sold off. The buy-to-let market is in difficulty. Repossessions in parts of the country are increasing. Large tracks of land—agricultural, agricultural with hope value, and residential land—are all coming on to the market. Just look in the auction catalogues. We can see what is happening. People are off-loading in a market that is going down. House prices are falling as the market seizes up—a market where we have very low interest rates. What happens when interest rates rise? That is the market in which asset sales are taking place. That should surely worry the Treasury.

We are talking about major assets—buildings, land, head leases, clawback assets, business and technology-related assets and the rest. I can only presume that the assets and liabilities working groups must have had a hell of a time sorting out the complicated business of sharing out assets and liabilities, although I know that the working groups have had great difficulty preparing the databases, identifying the extent of RDA overall assets and liabilities in both tangible and non-tangible form. In the case of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, I understand that it has joint venture projects with partnerships, termination and poor-performance payments based on final portfolio valuations. These must be extremely hard to value. It also has rights to income from the sale of land acquired under grant. These sites are often complicated by title rights, rights to the reclaim of grant clawback. The lawyers are going to have a field day on those issues. There are some Northwest Regional Development Agency-owned sites where the agency funds the revenue costs. What happens if the LEPs, councils or successor bodies simply want rid of the liabilities against the wishes of the local communities?

Then there are the liabilities that arise in respect of CPO activities by the agency, such as the Ancoats development in Manchester and Kingsway in Rochdale. I am not altogether clear on the position, but these could carry substantial liabilities. We need to know how they are going to be sorted out. What about lease liabilities on properties currently leased to the Northwest Regional Development Agency for its own operational activities? Many of these properties do not include break clauses. Perhaps these problems have been sorted out. Again, I do not know what the final position is. What I do know is that the universal view across the north is that everyone wants to keep the assets in the region available for the use of the region. They do not want the ownership partnerships breaking up. They do not want a fire sale of assets in a collapsed market. They do not want the private sector to move in and take vast profits out of assets built up at the taxpayers’ expense. This could easily happen on the back of hope-value assets. They want some form of successor body to be established, if necessary, for the handling of those assets, which for all sorts of reasons in the public interest should not be distributed at an early stage. They want to be assured—this is very important—that the survival of the Welsh and the Scottish development agencies will not place them at an advantage over the regional and national residual arrangements in the English regions for the attraction of inward investment, otherwise we will be placed at a disadvantage. That was the complaint of the English Forum of Regional Development Organisations in the mid-1990s. It cited marketing material in evidence for its accusations.

I keep asking myself, “Why destroy all this structure, which has been so painstakingly created?”. I have learnt over my lifetime that it is very hard to build from scratch, anew. Think of the work that goes into the design of the product and the establishment of the brand name, the quality of the service and the development of a pool of expertise capable of delivering a viable service, in all senses of the phrase. Yet it is so easy to destroy it overnight—to destroy the product and end the service, breaking up the pool of talent and expertise, to put the padlocks and chain on the gate and close it all down and walk away. That is so simple; it is much easier than actually creating an organisation. I hope that that is not what is going to happen here.

Finally, it might be helpful if I remind the House what happened 30 years ago. History will repeat itself on occasions. After the election of the Conservative Government in 1979, the Conservatives went in with calls from their supporters for the closure of the Welsh and Scottish development agencies. Then what happened? The Government took stock and stood back to consider the implications of such vandalism; they consulted and finally relented, and both the WDA and the SDA survived. Rational thought took over from blind prejudice. They realised that the agencies had a real role to play. Let us hope that events over the coming months give the Government, even at this very late stage, cause for thought and that in some way history may repeat itself.

My Lords, I very much endorse what my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours said. I remind him that Marx stated that history repeats itself the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. I am not sure whether if it repeats itself in this Bill it will be tragedy or farce. It certainly poses considerable threat to the regions of this country.

On the day that the Chancellor of the Exchequer announces what he describes as a Budget for growth, it is paradoxical that we should be debating the abolition of business-led regional development agencies that have played a significant part in both safeguarding and creating jobs. It is true, as my noble friend Lady Royall reminded us, that in reflecting different regional economies and needs their performance has necessarily been somewhat variable. However, as the BIS Committee pointed out, there was strong support for RDAs and regional structures from the private sector, and especially, and significantly, the Engineering Employers’ Federation, particularly in the West Midlands and the north.

There are significant worries, expressed by the committee, about the loss of local knowledge and the risks of a “disorderly competitive scramble” within regions, as well as serious questions about the disposal of RDA assets which, in its view, are,

“potentially of massive importance to the success or failure of Local Enterprise Partnerships”—

the LEPs, which the Government apparently see as successor bodies to RDAs. Yet these LEPs will have neither power nor resources, nor a role in inward investment, innovation or access to finance, nor the European funds, including in particular the ERDF.

These are arguments of general application, like those over the severely truncated funding reflected in the Regional Growth Fund, just about one-third of which was invested annually via RDAs. However, I want particularly to concentrate on the north-east, the very region singled out by Vince Cable last year, before his halo slipped a little, as the one with the strongest case for retaining a regional agency.

One North East has invested £2.7 billion across the region, from the Tweed to the Tees, over the past 11 years, attracting or helping to create 19,000 companies and creating or saving 160,000 jobs. It has led the way in developing the green economy, from support for Nissan and its electric vehicles, to wind turbine production and offshore wind power and, in the past year, a £60 million investment in a low-carbon initiative in the Tees Valley, and much else besides. It has promoted engineering apprenticeships; established a £125 million fund, Finance for Business North East; and attracted £100 million from the European Investment Bank and £300 million from the ERDF for the period 2007-13. In the past year alone, it attracted 55 foreign and five UK companies to the region, creating 2,000 new jobs and safeguarding 5,000 more. Its record on tourism has been remarkable. Tourism is worth about £4 billion to the regional economy, and the north-east has had the biggest growth in tourism of anywhere in the country outside London. Yet all this is now at risk due to an unusual and unhealthy combination of fragmentation of the agencies and centralisation of some of the functions.

Today the Government have announced the creation of more enterprise zones, despite the doubts expressed about the previous round of such zones by, among others, the Work Foundation; Centre for Cities; again, and significantly, the Engineering Employers’ Federation; and, despite the less-than-glowing experience within the north-east region itself, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool. Too often, as at Canary Wharf, the Metro Centre in Gateshead and other out-of-town developments, zones created in the 1980s produced retail and office developments with little in the way of the manufacturing industry now recognised on all sides as essential to the future prosperity of the nation.

What, one might ask, will be different this time, especially in the absence of strong, strategic bodies with the skill and resources to secure the kind of development and workforce skills so desperately needed? It is interesting to note, too, that today the Chancellor announced the welcome investment of £100 million in four new science facilities—at Cambridge, Norwich, Harwell and Daresbury—but I contrast that with a cut of £8 million which should have gone to the Newcastle Science City development, started by the previous Government, which the RDA had pledged but which it is not now able to provide.

This brings me to the question of assets, which I raised in Committee and which my noble friends Lady Royall and Lord Campbell-Savours referred to. I received no satisfactory answer to those questions—perhaps, in fairness to the Minister, because, as so often proves to be the case, decisions are made these days long before any consideration is given to, let alone any conclusions reached about, their financial consequences. I understand that the North East Economic Partnership—an unofficial grouping, as yet, of local authorities and business leaders in the region—has submitted a bid in relation to the retention of the RDA’s assets for the benefit of the region. However, it seems that there is little likelihood of this bid succeeding, so the assets will not be transferred, thus denying the region a much needed resource.

This week the Newcastle Journal—a newspaper not, in the wonderful phrase of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, a “town hall Pravda”—writes:

“The Journal has been told the message coming out of Government is that the assets will not be passed on. Vince Cable’s Department for Business is currently considering the future of the assets. If they are handed to the Partnership”—

that is, the North East Economic Partnership—

“it will fund their work in trying to bring in major new firms and lobby on behalf of the region in Whitehall. Also up for grabs is £62.5m worth of loan repayments handed out in public funding over the last decade. The North East Economic Partnership has told the Government it is vital this money is kept in the region, so as to be used for further job creation”.

That is the united voice of business and local government of all political colours in the north-east.

I ask the Minister to tell us the current position. What meetings have Ministers held with north-east councils and business leaders about the issue of assets? What criteria will be applied in coming to a decision, and when will such a decision be made? Will he give an assurance that there will not be, in the phrase that has been much used tonight, a fire sale of assets in what is, after all, a languishing market, to be applied to national deficit reduction?

Finally, I turn to the question of the actual decision about abolition. Most of us have taken it as read that since the Government announced the abolition of RDAs last year and included them in the Bill, this was settled government policy. I was therefore surprised to read in the letter to my noble friend Lady Royall—which has already been referred to; and signed, of course, by the Minister—that not only have the Government,

“not so far undertaken a formal consultation on the abolition of the RDAs”,

but that they would,

“consult before laying any order”.

Will he therefore assure the House that such a consultation will take place in every region and, most importantly, on the basis that the Government will be open to persuasion by business, local government and their social partners strictly on the merits of each individual case, such that they will not be in the position of either abolishing all RDAs or none?

We on this side recognise, as I am sure other noble Lords will, that that there are relatively stronger and relatively weaker cases for retention. Will the Minister give us an assurance that each will be considered on its merits on a case-by-case basis, assuming, as I fervently hope to be the case, that the amendment moved by my noble friend is not lost?

My Lords, I support the amendment that my noble friend Lord Beecham has tabled and to which I have put my name. I strongly agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, who showed why many of us have doubts that LEPs would be capable of carrying out the many tasks that regional development agencies have carried out until now. Indeed, if they were able to carry out those tasks then the two would effectively be duplicating each other and causing the picture to be much more confused than it has been.

With regard to the north-east, the Government have said that they have a localism agenda. The simple message therefore has to be: if local people want this, why can they not have it? My noble friend Lady Armstrong of Hill Top described in an earlier debate how the original impetus for the north-east regional development agency had come from within the north-east itself. I pay tribute to a former Member of this House, Lord Burlison, who, along with industry in the region, brought trade unions and industry together in a cohesive way in order to create a development agency before one was officially sanctioned by the Government. That was an important experience which showed what the attitude was in the north-east.

During the course of these debates, various Members have said, “Well, the north-east isn’t so cohesive”. I remember the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, who is in his place, saying that Northumberland was very different from parts of Durham, and I think that the Minister concurred somewhat with that point of view. I was born and brought up in Northumberland; I live there now and have lived in different parts of that county. The history of Northumberland, particularly if you look at places like Blyth, Ashington, Broomhill, Widdrington and so on, is very much akin to areas of Durham. When you look at the north-east, you can see that there is industrial concentration around the rivers and where the population tends to concentrate, and then around the whole of that area in a continuous belt of spectacular countryside you have the Northumberland national park, the Durham dales, Teesdale and the North York moors. The region is very cohesive.

It is true, as others have pointed out, that the north-east did not vote for a regional assembly but, having campaigned in that election, I know that there was certainly no controversy over the regional development agency at that time. Generally there has been wide acceptance of the need for a regional development authority in the north-east. It helps manufacturing vocations in the north-east—its exporting vocation, which the noble Lord, Lord Bates, mentioned in an earlier debate—in such sectors as engineering, the offshore sector and energy, as well as the way in which universities in the north-east have collaborated with industry.

The region is very cohesive economically. My final word to the Government is therefore: be flexible, be generous, consult more widely and be prepared to change course.

I shall speak to Amendment 17A in the absence of my noble friend Lord Liddle. In doing so I declare my interest in the region, having served on the sub-regional body Cheshire and Warrington Economic Alliance, one of five sub-regional bodies under the Northwest Regional Development Agency.

In the run-up to the most recent election, early versions of the Conservative-led Government’s regional policy seemed to suggest that both the north-western and north-eastern development boards would be retained, as there was general recognition of the benefits that each had brought to their regions. That recognition was reinforced by an independent evaluation undertaken by PwC, drawing attention to the strategic coherence brought and the GVA delivered.

It was therefore something of a disappointment when it was announced that all RDAs were to be disbanded. As a public-private partnership, the new Cheshire LEP is taking the coherency of the sub-region forward, but without any resources. It is undertaking some very worthwhile projects, such as with Liverpool University to explore the value of the equine sector in Cheshire West, and in rural housing, through a joint commission set up by rural regeneration and housing teams. That is all very worth while, but it is without the wider coherency of reciprocal support provided from the NWDA, following agreement on priorities across the whole region. The concern is that, without the wider regional strategy brought by the NWDA, policies will fracture into parochialism, with so-called local areas failing to see the bigger picture, to share best practice or to co-ordinate. I refer in this respect to the leadership shown on climate change policies and guidance that is so necessary if we are to meet our future obligations.

I will not repeat the debate in Committee, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has spoken tonight very powerfully. At the moment, there is confusion over the process of change. The decision to abolish the RDAs so quickly has created major challenges for existing destination organisations and, accordingly, rather than focusing on opportunities such as provided by the 2012 Olympics, they have been forced to reorganise. This has lost time and momentum, especially with there being no strategic transition plan in place to guide the move from RDAs to LEPs.

To continue with the 2012 theme, there is a great risk that this opportunity cannot be grasped. For the visitor economy, there is a need to provide the national organisation, visitEngland, with support to fill the current gap, while existing visitor businesses need to engage with new organisations that will emerge, albeit that they will be much reduced in terms of both human and financial resources. Another disappointing consequence of the plan to disband the NWDA concerns the future provision of the EU funding provided through the economic rural development funds. This highlights the vacuum in the present Government’s policy on regions. Instead of providing access to these much-needed rural development funds under Pillar 2 local arrangements at local level, the Conservative-led coalition seems to favour implementing these centrally, in direct contradiction to its localism agenda. The rural economy deserves better.

Finally, there seems to be no thought on what will happen on asset ownership, both physical and intellectual, and how the area can derive maximum benefit from their previous investments. There is still time to reconsider. I support my noble friend’s amendment.

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 18. Like my noble friend Lord Kennedy, I find it quite extraordinary that the Government have decided to abolish RDAs on a day when the growth forecast has been reduced yet again. It is a quite bizarre decision.

I speak from the particular context of the West Midlands, looking at the performance of Advantage West Midlands. The West Midlands is a great place to live, but recently our economy faces many formidable challenges. Advantage West Midlands has done a very good job in the past few years, drawing people together and identifying real projects to invest in. As a result, we can see the regeneration of Longbridge, after the collapse of the manufacturing industry there. We have seen the regeneration of Fort Dunlop, with 140,000 jobs safeguarded, 28,000 helped back into work and 160,000 people helped to get better skills. Over 100,000 businesses were helped to improve their performance. As Sir Roy McNulty, the chair of Advantage West Midlands said at its last AGM, it is clear that its abolition has been based on political reasons rather than on its actual track record.

The CBI said that,

“in the rush to abolish Regional Development Agencies … and elicit bids for Local Enterprise Partnerships … there is a risk of throwing out the baby with the bathwater”.

Again, the CBI has singled out transport as a critical issue for improving economic growth. It concluded that LEPs need to find a way to replicate the ability of RDAs at their best to cut across local authority boundaries and to promote a regional level transport agenda. How are LEPs going to do it, given that they cover much smaller areas? For instance, in the West Midlands, is it really sensible to split Birmingham from the Black Country? It is a complete nonsense.

Let us talk about the resources needed for the development of major infrastructure. The number one priority for us is the extension of the runway at Birmingham International Airport. However, the Government’s last-minute decision to change the rules and go only for short-term, quick-win projects for the first £250 million that was available meant that bidding for Birmingham airport expansion was stopped in its tracks. No wonder the Birmingham Post said in a leader on 27 January that the launch of LEPs has been,

“an unmitigated and embarrassing disaster”.

Instead of a region working together, what will we see? We will see arguments and splits between LEPs that are side by side in the same region, when they should be working together.

The Government’s admission that their policy is a nonsense relates to BIS’s decision to recreate regional offices. What better indication could you have that the business department knows that the abolition of RDAs was a very silly decision which anyone concerned for economic development in this country could only oppose? The Government are making a big mistake in abolishing RDAs. Will the Minister respond to my noble friend Lady Quin, who asked why on earth those regions where there was a clear and strong consensus to retain RDAs, are not allowed to keep them going? Why should we be forced to downgrade, disrupt and undermine regional growth simply because there is some kind of doctrinaire political approach that says we cannot live with RDAs?

My Lords, I had the opportunity to make some remarks on this issue at Second Reading. I do not believe that anybody in this House is not in favour of growth or strong regional policy; that is common ground. The point I tried to make at Second Reading was: is the present structure fit for current-day purpose?

I regret that I did not hear the beginning of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, but I heard several of them in what was a very passionate speech. In referring to one case, he commented that councils did not necessarily have drive. However, leadership in any organisation, whether it is an RDA, a council or anything else, will vary from body to body, just as leadership in a school will vary from body to body. I have to say that there are examples of local authorities doing very difficult things. In my own case, I was a member of a local authority that redeveloped the most polluted site in Ireland—a former gas works. It is now a thriving economic area. We developed the waterfront and brownfield sites. Where the right leadership is in place, you can do a lot of things. We were able to tap into ERDF and even ESF to train the local people who will, we hope, get some benefit from the redevelopment, instead of looking through the railings at the parked BMWs. We can do that if the leadership is in place.

I wanted to say one thing to the noble Lord. He said that it was more difficult to create a structure or organisation than to close one down. I have to take the very opposite view. I had the opportunity to create an organisation like an RDA. I had the opportunity to merge bodies together and the opportunity to close them. The easiest thing to do was to create them. It was more difficult to merge them, and the most difficult thing was to close them. That is why we have so many—not only RDAs but public bodies in general. Departments liked to put a body out there that could take the flak and the front fire to protect the department from taking the blame for things. The existence of a body, whatever it might be, and the ability to say, “These people have autonomy to deal with this”, protects the Civil Service from its responsibilities. It is good to be able to put these bodies out there as a sort of barrage to protect the centre from local criticism, because there is always someone else to blame. That is why there are so many of these bodies.

Many of them have done excellent work. As has already been said, some of these RDAs have been good and some have been not so good; that is human nature. It is the human condition. That relates to the leadership they give, their policies and the opportunities that have been taken. However, we have to be mature about the whole issue of public bodies. Everyone admits that we have too many of them. No matter which one you touch, it is inevitable that a group of people will support it.

In many cases, some of the reasons that noble Lords have put forward have been perfectly plausible. However, the real issue, as I pointed out at Second Reading, is the change in Europe, where the resources that used to be available to this country will no longer be available post-2013, because the money is flowing east, as we all know. The economic profile of our economy has changed. We brought to bear solutions through these large battleship bodies with budgets of hundreds of millions of pounds. Those bodies were right at the time, just as the Agricultural Wages Board was right at the time. However, times have moved on. Europe’s policy has changed. We now have to manage within our own resources.

I am not as pessimistic about the role that local authorities can play and what happens regarding the local enterprise partnerships remains to be seen. However, as always, a lot of this will come down to leadership on the ground. It is the same for the military, a company, a school or a business—and it is the same for a local authority or an RDA. We must look at an alternative model, because circumstances have moved on, and in trying to deal with the plethora of public bodies, you could almost come to a complete standstill if you did not make some attempt to bring about change.

There is no doubt that the biggest challenge we face is on growing our economy. We all complain about the lack of warships and aircraft carriers. Where is the money coming from to pay for them, if it is not coming from economic growth and wealth creation? Those are our only sources, other than borrowing—and we know where that got us. There is little alternative but to try an alternative. I take the points made by noble Lords about assets—that is an important issue—but creating bodies is easiest; amalgamating them is the next most difficult; and closing them is the most difficult. That is my experience and this debate proves the point. Every body that you consider has a lobby in support of it. While I acknowledge the great work that a number of these organisations have done—it would be churlish not to say that—the fact is that the mechanisms we have to adopt to improve our economic growth have moved on and different structures and models must be adopted.

My Lords, I crave the indulgence of the House in intervening in a debate in which I have not previously taken part. Just in case it is felt that the argument has been entirely one-sided, I remind your Lordships that in my part of the world on the Barrow-in-Furness peninsula, where I declare an interest in running a small business, the economy is driven by companies such as these, which employ some 100 or 200 people. I do not want to be unkind to the people in these agencies who have done their best, but in my part of the world it would be fair to say that there is no consensus that we want to keep them. Businesses of my size do not feel that the agencies are approachable or are the answer. We want government to get off our backs and leave us alone. I am reminded of my father, who told me: “My boy, if the Government offer you a grant, it is probably not worth taking”.

That might be the view of the noble Lord, but I am afraid that he is not living in the real world. How can he be when he has made a statement like that? Let him look at what has been created by RDAs. I will not speak for very long, because my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours made a very powerful case. However, I believe that we are talking to people who will not listen to the arguments that we are putting. I am pleased that the noble Lord intervened from that side, because he is the first to do so: it has been only us speaking.

The RDAs have done a wonderful job. I have a copy of a letter that was addressed to my noble friend Lady Royall. I was critical when the Minister was winding up last time and said that he was not answering the debate. He has now taken the trouble to try to answer the debate and I thank him for that. It is not always done. Having said that, I do not agree with most of the answers he gave; he will not be surprised about that.

I could go through every paragraph of the letter, but it is too late in the evening. I will refer to one paragraph that deals with the independent evaluation by PricewaterhouseCoopers that demonstrated that every pound spent by RDAs added approximately £4.50 to regional economies. In the case of the north-west, the figure was greater: £5.20. However, no answer is given in the paragraph. It simply states:

“We appreciate the work they have done”.

The issue is not whether we appreciate the work they have done, but who is going to pick up the mantle and do the work in future. There is no answer to the question of where we will get replacement agencies that will secure that kind of growth. As has been said often tonight, we are going back to localism instead of looking at regions as a whole.

The regions did benefit. The noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, said that he had an interest in Barrow-in-Furness. When the floods hit Cumbria, the RDA brought help to local businesses in need within four days. That was not matched by any other body, and it will not be matched by any new bureaucracy that is going to be established.

I will repeat what has been done for the north-west by the Northwest Regional Development Agency: 220,000 jobs have been preserved, 23,000 new businesses have been created and £3.2 billion of private investment has been brought in. These are huge sums. The agency has looked at the region as a whole. If we split it up, we will not get that sort of aid.

I will not go on. I thank the Minister for replying, but ask him to reply also to the debate tonight, because too much is at stake in the regions: too many jobs and too much inward investment. Why should the RDAs be destroyed because of a political decision that I believe is wrong? Not only do I believe that it is wrong, but many other Members of the House believe that, too. More importantly, people and businesses in the regions believe that it is wrong. If the Minister is saying that we can do the job with other organisations, can he tell me what funding will be given to the new bodies? As I understand it, there is no funding, and if there is no funding they will not be able to do the job. Will the Minister reassure me that adequate funds will be made available?

My Lords, I support the case made by my noble friends through their various amendments. In doing so, having spent many years in public life, I reflect that there are certain constant difficulties and challenges. In our previous debate on this issue, I remember the case being made for the establishment of the northern development agency, including the northern part of the north-west and the north-east of England. The one overarching pressure on the NDA was how to challenge what was clearly going to be a devolved nation in Scotland. That was a very powerful problem. Unless you live in a frontier-type economy, you do not really appreciate the rather different problems that might be experienced compared with the rest of the country.

I remember how the development agencies in Scotland in the early 1980s constantly tried to offer inducements to companies in the north of England to relocate in Scotland with grants, which the local authorities—because there was no development agency then—could match. That was one of the prime reasons for the almost universal support for the agency in the north of the country—a point made by my noble friends Lady Quin and Lord Beecham. That problem will still exist. It is eight miles from Carlisle to the border and it is easy to relocate if you get financial inducements. We have to face up to that challenge. Therefore, I park with the Minister the thought that that problem will not go away.

Perhaps I may raise two specific issues. My noble friend Lord Beecham pointed out how important tourism was becoming to the north-east of England. It is just as important in the north-west, especially in Cumbria. Work was initially carried out on how to create more jobs and attract more visitors to Cumbria, and I mention Cumbria and not just the Lake District. As an aside, perhaps I may say how pleased I was that the Government decided to shortlist the Lake District as a possible World Heritage Site—I declare an interest as chairman of the bid—and how important that will be in creating jobs and stimulating the economy. I remind the Minister that Cumbria has more than 40 million visitors a year and that 32,860 full-time jobs are dependent on tourism. It adds £2 billion to the economy.

In order to succeed, you need leadership, and sometimes that involves investment. Of course, since the North-West Development Agency has gone, the funds have dried up for Cumbria Tourism. It has already had to reduce its staff from 45 to 19, so there is a serious problem there. However, it is not only a problem of attracting tourism; it is also a question of trying to compete against the equally attractive tourist resorts just over the border in Scotland. That takes me back to the problem of living in a border economy—things are different compared with other parts of the country.

I conclude by raising the issue of the assets and contractual commitments of the development agency. In a letter to me dated 1 March, Robert Hough, the chair of the Northwest Regional Development Agency, said that he believes:

“Any ongoing contractual commitments beyond March 2012 are likely to be transferred to BIS, other Government Departments or possibly a national residual body”.

I raise a specific point with the Minister that disturbs me greatly. It is why, in a sense, I am opposed to this move that the Government are proposing this evening. One of the problems of the north-west of England is the amount of derelict land. I believe that it has more derelict land than any other region in the country—all the disused coal spoil heaps and the industrial bases. The Northwest Regional Development Agency’s economic appraisal came up with the conclusion—surprise, surprise—that the way forward was to green these areas, to enhance their environment, to make them more attractive to inward investment, and to improve the health and the lives of the people who live there.

As a result, the Northwest Regional Development Agency entered into partnerships with the Forestry Commission, the Wildlife Trusts and local authorities. As a result, there has been a huge greening in the north-west of England in the old industrial areas. I repeat what I said before, but it just gives me so much pleasure to say it. Over recent years we have planted over a million trees in Wigan, over a million trees in Moseley, over a million trees in Ellesmere Port, 2 million trees in Vale Royal, and 2 million trees in Warrington. This is a mammoth undertaking that has revolutionised the environment and will do so increasingly in that part of Lancashire. It will also make it more attractive potentially for inward investment.

This was done through partnership, commitment and investment by the Forestry Commission, and through long-term leases with various charities and local authorities. As a result, the Northwest Regional Development Agency has an ongoing commitment to the year 2029 of roughly £6.6 million. Who will pay that money? Who will accept the liability? How will the funds be paid to the main recipient, the Forestry Commission? I seek assurances from the Minister on that issue because it is very important as we go forward, and it exemplifies my point that this proposal has not been thought through, the ends have not been tied up, and, certainly, I cannot support the Government tonight.

My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to talk about the RDAs; I played some part in their creation a number of years ago. I must apologise to the Committee because I am not as briefed as perhaps I should have been. I was in the Council of Europe today and I realised that the debate was on this afternoon. We need to understand what was inherited when the Regional Development Agencies were created. People have so easily forgotten. We were talking about 3 million unemployed, about massive disinvestment in public services, and about a growing disparity and growing inequalities between the north and south in jobs, education and investment. If anything was to be done about this, we felt that we had to do more than simply leave it to the market. What was the solution? The noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, was the Chancellor in charge of a great deal of the economy at that time and the results that we were left with were quite disastrous, frankly. I will not repeat them, or go into detail, but it was totally unacceptable to us. We came to power doing something about employment.

The employment was not just in the north and south, although the disparities had grown. I recall, when I produced my alternative regional strategy, going to the northern region and saying that we were going to have a regional development agency for every part of the UK. It was suggested to me that as a northern politician I should just think of the north and not the south. It was a very complicated meeting, but I pointed out that with a million unemployed in the south, we could not be indifferent to that, whatever the growth rates and differentials between each of the regions. We needed to develop the expertise, the partnership and the public and private sector, and set a body up that could take a regional analysis to do something about it. This was welcomed by business. In fact, business today still has very warm words to say about the RDAs, particularly when compared with the organisations that the Government now propose to set up if they abolish the RDAs—and they are on the way to doing so.

It was important that business chaired every one of the RDAs. We thought that it was very important to have business chairmen who got the co-operation of the local authorities and the various bodies and developed, as their first priority, a regional strategy for the assets of a region to see how they could best develop them to the advantage of the region, and not to compete, as was often the case in regional policy before. Governments, including Labour Governments, went round offering bags of gold to industry to move the motor car industry from A to B. That was basically the strategy. In some cases, that brought jobs, but it did not deal with the most important thing: to develop the assets of the region and the economy.

If you look at the record, the judgment of the Audit Commission, parliamentary groups and businesses themselves looking impartially at each of the regions has been that the RDAs did a good job. They helped to reduce unemployment. A lot of the 2 million jobs that we produced at the time were public sector jobs, let us be honest. I do not think that a public sector job is wrong. When so many thousand jobs went in the north-east, it was stated that they were state jobs, as if something was wrong with someone who was employed as a public servant, whether they were in a hospital, a school, another public service or even just emptying bins, for God's sake. They were in a job and were an essential part of economic development. Yes, a lot of them were in public service, but that began to have its effect in the economy. It lifted demand. It had a consumer effect. It gave more confidence. The development agencies over that period were a success. You can always ask how much that cost. You might ask yourself how much it saved when mass unemployment gives you a heck of a cost, never mind what you might feel the excessive administrative cost is of what is called a quango. They were bodies that did their job. That was important.

What worries me now is what the strategy is. A noble Lord said that we should look at what happened in Scotland and Wales. I remember arguing about this in the other place. They said, “We are going to abolish the Scottish and Welsh development agencies”, and they did not. As soon as they came to power they realised their success and the demand from the local and regional area to keep their RDAs. Admittedly, the Government recognised that at the time and refused to abolish them. Why did they not abolish them? Because they were doing a good job. Why did we think the RDAs were needed in the English regions? Because they had done a good job in Scotland and in Wales. They had improved their economies while ours had gone down and down, and it seemed that a significant feature of that was the regional development agencies, so we wanted them in all our regions. Even if the growth in the south-east was always higher than in the north-east, there was still a need to develop the regional assets. Regional development bodies can do that, and they did.

The only time there was any move to make some change was after the Toxteth riots in 1981. The noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, was sent up with a busload of bankers to look at what they could do in Liverpool. One result was that they developed these garden centres—I cannot remember their name.

Garden centres, garden festivals, you can pick the word you want. I think that the one in Liverpool collapsed after its show and still nothing has been built on that ground. We have to develop in a more effective way, although to be fair to the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, I agreed with him that the development at Canary Wharf was significant. Transforming the docks into new industrial developments and commercial centres has been a success. That was intervention.

I recall, when we came to power in 1997, meeting Mr Walker—I am not sure whether he was a Lord or not—who was in charge of English Partnerships. He said, “We are not a body of intervention”. I said, “Well, we are on different tracks then”. He said, “I am telling you that we won’t do that”. I had to say to him, “Obviously you have not read the papers. We are now the Government. It is going to be a body of intervention”. English Partnerships did an excellent job, including in the coalfield communities that had been destroyed by the previous Government. It set up an active intervention partnership, public and private, in the coalfield communities. The Audit Commission reports show that it did an excellent job. More people are now employed in coalfield areas than when there were the previous jobs.

By the way, most coalfield areas are rural areas. Enterprise centres are now being talked about. That was all done before. I notice from the list here that very few of them are in rural areas; they are in the cities. Fine, but there is a lot of high unemployment in rural areas as well, and those enterprise zones are designed to help urban development. You do not get a balanced development. You might help the cities in a marginal way, but what you want from regional development agencies is balanced development. Only the RDAs can do that. They are also important for bringing in money from Europe. Before the RDAs in Britain, most of Europe did not bother. The recognition was of the county authorities. The county authorities were not big enough to deal with the actual decisions that had to be taken. You needed a body that was recognised at the regional level, because we were the only country in Europe that did not have a regional body. You needed to co-ordinate those resources, to bring the strengths together and to make it important.

Now it is basically proposed to abolish them. Frankly, I agree with our amendment. I am not against reform. RDAs came out of reform; we did not like what was there, we changed it, and that has been effective. Apparently, being successful is now a real problem; we abolish you. What worries me most of all is that they are being replaced with the old structures that we had before and that failed before. The Government seem to believe that it is just the market. I heard the Chancellor today talking about “growth, growth, growth”. The trouble is that he is not achieving it. We are creating the same kinds of problems that we had before. We do not maximise growth, but unemployment. That is what will come out of this.

A number of noble Lords have said in these debates that, looking at what will happen to some of these areas with RDAs, we are already beginning to witness confusion coming about due to the setting up of local enterprise partnerships. I have got them in my area. I notice the enterprise zones in these areas, and now there is talk about partnerships. Problems are already beginning to develop.

I finish on this point, because I have already seen it in Hull. Hull is an area of high unemployment. That reduced under Labour, but it is still an area of high unemployment. We now have a problem that was brought to my attention about a week ago, with a company in my former constituency that produces modular bathrooms. It has been highly successful. It is manufacturing. It employs hundreds of people. It wants to expand on an existing, empty, two-acre industrial estate where the road has been half done but not completed. The company said, “We could take on a hundred more people manufacturing in Hull, helping growth, if someone would let us expand and buy or lease that empty land and build the road to make the connection”. Well, that seems obvious. They gave me a ring, I spoke to them, and the local MP is of course involved in this. When I inquired of the regional development agency that owns the land, “Why aren’t you helping this company to expand?”, it said, “Sorry, all our assets are now being transferred to BIS”. Then they said that the local authorities cannot agree between themselves whether there should be one local body, which might be a trust, representing the north or one representing the south. Businessmen are disagreeing with what the council is coming up with. It causes delay. This company is being held up because of the problems in organised infrastructure that we are now inheriting.

I hope that the Minister will look at this. I am sure that he wants to see jobs. Certainly, the Chancellor says that he wants to see growth. Well, he could make a decision tomorrow that will bring that about, not all that waffle we have heard in the Commons today. I am sure that there are many other examples from around the country, but I would not have to come to Parliament for that. RDAs did that all the time. They made those decisions, created the jobs and co-ordinated the public and private investment. That is what the RDAs did. We had 10 years of them showing their success. Now the Government are coming along with these silly ideas to abolish them. The result will not be that waffle, it will be more on the dole and less growth. We will be back in the circumstances that we inherited many years ago, which led us to set up the RDAs.

My Lords, there might be a change of tone with my contribution to this debate. This is a serious matter and I approach the topic with humility, but with a determination to demonstrate the reasons for the Government’s decision. It is a political decision; we make no apology for that. It is a political response to the economic situation in which this country finds itself. I hope that noble Lords will give me the opportunity to explain the origins of that decision and what the Government intend to do to maintain a programme of growth announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in circumstances in which the vast sums of money that were available to sustain the regional development agency structure are no longer available.

I am not at all surprised at the passion that has been vented this evening. I am a provincial myself. I come from the east Midlands and I am very proud of my background. I have to say that I rather share the experience of my noble friend Lord Cavendish when it comes to the impact of the regional development agency for the east Midlands in my part of the world, but perhaps that is because I live in a relatively remote rural area and our problems are not at the top of the agenda. We have learnt to rely on our own resources probably a good deal more than other communities can afford to do.

I agree with noble Lords that the RDAs did some good work in their time, but as I listened to the debate I have become more and more convinced that we are right to try to bring forward a new approach to this enormously challenging problem. Where I differ is on whether a regional approach is an appropriate one in the circumstances in which we find ourselves in 2011. The noble Lord, Lord Empey, speaking from his experience in Northern Ireland, pointed out the degree to which, during their time, the RDAs had access to highly significant budgets. When money is abundant it is easy to find supporters, even if the projects you fund are not necessarily the most appropriate for the growth of particular places.

However, even before the last election there were signs that the situation was unsustainable. The funding to which the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, referred is no longer available. The previous Government found that they had to reduce RDA budgets several times, including by more than £300 million in the 2010-11 financial year. When the present Government came to power, it was clear that the reductions in spending would need to continue. In our earlier debate, noble Lords criticised the regional growth fund for providing less money than the RDAs had at their peak. The fact is that spending at that level is no longer sustainable. We cannot return to a position where the eight RDAs outside London had a combined budget of nearly £2 billion a year, as they did in 2006-07, whether or not the bodies continue to exist.

It would have been perfectly possible to have continued with the existing structure. This would have meant retaining bodies in each region with a wide range of responsibilities, but with seriously diminished resources. Since we are committed to the effective delivery of economic growth throughout the country, we considered that that would be irresponsible. Put bluntly, we need to ensure that we get more bang for our buck than we were getting from the RDAs. In our earlier debate, noble Lords referred to estimates made by PricewaterhouseCoopers that every pound spent by an RDA added £4.50 to the regional economy. I do not wish to cast those figures in doubt, but the same report showed that more than half of those benefits came from less than 20 per cent of RDA total spending. There was a long tail of projects that delivered little or no value to the regional economy. Nor was it clear whether the benefits of investment were spread equally throughout the region or were strongly localised. Finally, the fact remains that the gap in growth rates between the regions and the rest of the country, to which the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, rightly drew attention at the time when he took initiatives on RDAs, remained stubbornly wide for all the regions and all that money. Inequality in growth rates has not been reduced by the RDAs.

In proposing changes to the delivery of local economic development, we have two guiding principles. The first is partnership. Although the RDAs have broadly representative boards, these were selected in Whitehall. The boards of local enterprise partnerships are chosen locally and directly involve local authorities and businesses with a stake in a specific area. The second is appropriate geography. As in our previous discussion, I refer to the south Midlands, where joint work on economic development was hampered by the borders of three different artificial regions. I live on the border between the east Midlands and the eastern region and it creates real practical difficulties.

My Lords, the Minister refers to the problem of borders but how are the Government dealing with the problem of borders by splitting Birmingham from the Black Country? It is sheer madness in terms of getting support across a region for the major infrastructure projects that are so desperately needed.

I think the noble Lord is under a misapprehension. The difficulty with RDAs was that they had clearly defined, strict borders. The great thing about LEPs is that they are partnerships and they are flexible enough to be able to work together when they need to. That is our answer to the question of the north-east. There are opportunities for LEPs to work together across boundaries. That is their huge advantage over the strictly geographically delineated boundaries that existed between RDAs and the difficulty of getting joint projects go